Do Avatars Dream of Electric Sheep?

C James Fagan takes a turn as the Public Avatar, and lets us in on an odd, but liberating, experience… 

People are often sending me emails about this or that; often they invite me to get in involved in some art project (you know who you are). More often than not, and in the name of Art, I surrender myself to the whims of an artist.

As it was with Martin Bricelj Baraga’s Public Avatar project, which forms part of FACT’s Robot and Avatars exhibition (co-curated with body>data>space). The exhibition grapples with the augmentation of the physical world through various technologies. In particular, the Public Avatar explores the interaction between people and the internet, the difference between our internet and real life personas, if you will.

What is a public avatar?

Well that’s me, physically anyway.  For during my allotted avatar time, my actions will not be my own, but the instructions of the users of Public Avatar. What have I let myself in for?

Test – 14-3-12

My first time as an avatar comes when I am briefed by the artist and his team  who test my suitability for the role. In the lobby of FACT I am strapped into the avatar-suit. Or avatar waistcoat, a military style vest which holds all the tech gubbins making this project possible. It has a reassuringly chunky feel, like an approximation of a future from the late 80’s.

This being a test run, my main task will be to hand out flyers and generally get used to being an avatar. All set up, I walk out into the sparsely populated streets of Liverpool, where I am instructed to find more people, introduce myself as Public Avatar, and give them flyers. The main reaction to this is indifference, the general reflex to anyone handing out flyers.

I do cheat a little. I see two people I know having a meal so I interrupt them, but this allows me to approach other people in the space. My confidence as Public Avatar grows during my search for people and I’m prompted to ask whether ‘they like robots’. When I do, I get a sense of control, by crashing into other peoples conversations I get to be, if for a few fleeting seconds, the sole focus of their world.

It is disappointing to discover that nearly all the people dislike robots. Or is it me they dislike? After this brief introduction to the world of avatarism, I am feeling reasonably confident that when we go-live, all will go well.

Prototype 16-3-12

Today is the first full appearance of the Public Avatar in Liverpool. Only I shall not be on the streets today, I will be at avatar control in FACT. With a mixture of disappointment and relief I watch the other avatar get prepped while I take up my position as admin at the Public Avatar website. This role will be as agitator, prompting on-line users, spurring them on to take the strings of our meat puppet.

Initially take up is slow; we at Avatar command having to step in to get the ball moving. We send him into Bold Street, getting the avatar to hug bollards, sing songs. Soon the other users get involved and have him clucking like a chicken, attempting to tell people he loves them. One user seems to be fixated on pooing … not going to happen!

On this side of the screen I begin to feel a little mischievous, cruel even; especially when I ask the avatar to follow a traffic warden requesting that he be given a ticket for being ‘too sexy’. When I read the instructions coming in, and my own instructions, I feel a strange sense of empowerment. Maybe this is how those people who ‘troll’ feel; a slight power rush. I do feel guilty, though that might just be my awareness that I am next.

Production Model 17-3-12

My time as a Public Avatar is drawing near; as I walk through the crowds of people gathered in Liverpool to shop, celebrating St Patrick’s Day, I realise this is my audience. I wonder how they’ll react; I fear a negative/aggressive reaction. Time will tell.

I find myself at FACT, awaiting the arrival of the rest of the team; part of me hopes they won’t turn up. They do of course, and soon they are readying me for my Public Avatar experience. This is it. I am outside FACT, and one of my early instructions is to find a bar to shout out ‘I AM PUBLIC AVATAR’, and sing to a girl along similar lines. The reaction isn’t great; the woman flees fearing I am a suicide bomber.

I quickly leave.

Carrying on down Bold Street, I am instructed to look inside peoples bags. Most people ignore me but some allow me a peak. Commands come thick and fast now; I find myself dancing in the street singing little songs to myself, or to anyone who’ll listen. Some laugh at the silly man, most pass on by.

I carry on, freed from inhibition by the incoming instructions, though some doubts come to mind as I am directed towards the Bluecoat, a place which I frequent often. I hope I won’t be instructed to do something untoward. Luckily find myself reciting poetry and trying to get a free breakfast.

Afterwards I find myself dancing, again, clucking like a chicken (a reoccurring theme) and barking like a dog. Some people stare, some people ask why, one person joins in and barks along. Often I find reactions to be of cheerful bemusement. At one point I find myself in a crowded pub, where the drinkers are cheerful and responsive to my interventions.

An unexpected highlight comes when I am instructed to go to the top of the St Johns Beacon (pictured), a Liverpool landmark I have never previously experienced. So if I get one thing out of this experience, it is this!

After confusing the staff of the Adelphi, I am heading towards Liverpool One where I pick up followers; two young boys curious as to what a Public Avatar is briefly follow me. Soon an instruction to return to FACT comes through; my time as a Public Avatar is drawing to a close. There is time, however, for one more song and dance routine; but my final command to pinch the bottom of an attendant cannot be executed, they have already left.

My time as Public Avatar is over, I am back in the real world, under my own steam and back to obeying ‘normal’ societal rules. The adornments which have for the last two hours acted like a shield for me to act out of character are taken off.

Afterwards, while thinking about my experience, I see it as an exaggeration of how people have begun to use social media sites to affect their behaviour. Of course, they would not do some of the extreme things I have undertaken, but don’t people go to Twitter or Facebook to ask: where to go, where to eat, should they do this?

Mainly I think how enjoyable it was to be able to break the normal conventions of not interacting with strangers, being free to approach new people. This was one of the underlying reasons for undertaking this project, to become someone else for two hours. Oddly, being a Public Avatar is something I would recommend; you get to see how the world interacts and how you operate within the world. Though I would suggest trying it on a smaller scale, perhaps a cheery smile or a wave. It might make someone’s day.

C James Fagan

Robots and Avatars the exhibition continues at FACT until Sunday 27 May

Images courtesy Martin Bricelj Baraga

Posted on 21/03/2012 by thedoublenegative