Avatars in the Flesh


The logic of sites like Second Life comes to bear on the 'first life' in The Girlfriend Experience, a project by Martin Butler and his Liminal Institute. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday evenings from January 26 until March 9, four members of the group, who have been styled to look like avatars in a virtual community, will inhabit a web-monitored space at Amsterdam's Mediamatic space. Online players are invited to command the 'flesh and blood' avatars as they would their more common digital counterparts, using the borrowed bodies to interact with other users. Taking its title from a prostitution-related term for well-fabricated intimacy, the project creates a caricature of the personal yet anonymous desires underpinning relationships formed in virtual communities. For example, the control fantasy implicit in molding a detached, idealized second self becomes embarrassingly obvious when the avatars are humans who can resist a player's will. Players can request any action they want, but the avatars ultimately decide where they go and what they do. Inevitable comic scenarios aside, the experiment offers a chance to find out what happens when we start to force the rules at play in our online social lives back onto reality. - Bill Hanley