GBTH Magazine #9
Jan. 2022

We’re starting off 2022 and the conversation about the metaverse is making the world think about their virtual presentation more than ever. The collective thinking of our virtual selves is spreading to a bigger audience that is getting familiarised with the idea just now - as in Second Life, which exists for almost 20 years, we can safely say it has been going for awhile.

Launching our new exhibition space - the 2D Gallery W, we have Rob Danton, in Second Life for over 16 years and RL filmmaker for longer than that, with a series of personal portraits from ten residents on the grid, highlighting the similarities existing between their physical and virtual personas.

This subject is one of the most fascinating in the grid because of the human value applied to what we can call essentially blobs of pixels. It has been a common subject amongst academics, artists and whatnot. What is fascinating is seeing how it is approached, unravelled, unfolded, digested.

Marina Münter - Rob Danton! We’ve been having interesting exchanges through the process of developing this exhibition. Instead of starting this interview asking what made you join Second Life, which you’re also free to talk about, could you tell me what made you stay in Second Life all these years?

Rob Danton - I think it’s the sense that there’s a huge potential here, and I think it’s a potential that hasn’t come close to being realised yet, despite SL being almost 20 years old now.

I read a lot of Terence McKenna when I was a student and he had some playfully visionary ideas about what virtual reality could be back in the 1990s when it was really very limited. He saw virtual reality as a transformational possibility for connecting us in a kind of shared lucid dream, in a “world made of art”.

He said “the human imagination, which is this titanic, Promethean force that is loose in our species – it is free in a virtual reality to create all of the castles of the imagination.”

So it was with that level of excitement that I arrived on the grid in 2006. I guess what he didn’t factor in is that sometimes the “castles of the imagination” are more modest than the phrase suggests. Outsiders looking into SL often remark that it seems to be a world of shopping malls, housing developments and strip clubs that is all too depressingly familiar. But I think we’re still in the infancy of getting to grips with this medium and it makes sense for us to start with what we know we want, a beautiful house or a landscape that reflects a place we love to be in RL.

It is a rambling answer to your question and of course the creations of Starax Statosky/Light Waves, AM Radio, FourYip, MadCow Cosmos and so many others hinted at the creative possibilities; but it’s the people that have kept me interested. I have met a lot of interesting people here - people who are prepared to dive in and learn the tools and experiment with new ways of being. It still feels like a frontier town and there’s a kind of SL culture that’s built up that since it began has that pioneering spirit in its DNA. This I think will remain an important cultural aspect of whatever the metaverse becomes.

I think after the explosion of hype about SL in 2007, interest in virtual worlds waned because of two main factors; firstly the iPhone began the great change towards mobile internet use and secondly the success of Facebook firmly rooted online social activities as being a digital augmentation of our ordinary real lives rather than literally a second life of the imagination.

So it’s interesting that Zuckerberg has come back to this idea that virtual reality is the next big thing because the metaverse is now not new. There is an established culture here that is at odds completely with many principles of Facebook. And it’s that culture that makes SL so magical.

I think the key difference is illustrated in how we make friends on each platform.

In SL I don’t have a huge friends list of people who are still active online but every one of those people I have met organically, by (sometimes literally) bumping into them at sandboxes, art installations, events, concerts, even, sometimes, shopping malls. SL has never asked to go through my phone contacts to “find friends” for me in this new world based on my real life. We all started afresh here, we can’t even have our real names and the impact of that is huge. It sets SL up as a separate area, ring fenced from reality, when compared to Facebook and other social networks. There’s no social algorithm here pushing us towards those we already know, so although it’s a more fantastical, imaginative world it’s strangely more organic.

It’s funny that online social platforms sometimes refer to the profile picture as our “avatar”. Some people on FB even choose not to represent themselves in that picture, but rather something that they are proud of, maybe it’s their dog or their national flag or their car. This is because the idea of an avatar is very basic in a social world ruled by algorithms, which means your online friends already know you. Only in SL has the idea of an avatar become so sophisticated, and this is because the pressure placed on our avatars here is much greater. Your avatar is all that people know of you at first, of course we have profiles, but you only click on someone’s profile if you think they might be interesting and that’s down to their avatar. So our avatar becomes this nexus of a lot of things we want to represent about us, we have to put that stuff in it, and it becomes, as Belphegor said, a “vessel for the soul”, but it’s also a vessel in the sense of a ship in which we sail the high seas of virtual reality.

MM - It is also funny how as the conversation about a virtual persona arises, you present how the importance of the similarities between virtual and physical seems vital to make the experience genuine, in a fast forward way of thinking this relation. Do you think it is always a conscious process?

RD - No I don’t think it’s always a conscious process. In fact it seems from conversations I’ve had, that people often at least start by consciously trying to avoid similarities to their physical selves, maybe out of curiosity to see how it feels to change certain things and sometimes out of a lack of skill in the beginning to model their avatar. But I do think it’s interesting that most people who contributed had given their avatars certain elements of their physical appearance. I can only speculate about others but from my own perspective, it felt more “honest”. I found many male skins in SL to be ridiculously muscled and I felt that if my avatar looked like that then it just wouldn’t be me. It’s interesting to me why that matters.

If I wanted to look like a bodybuilder in RL then I could do that but my life priorities would be totally different, so it’s not just a look, it says a lot about who I am and what I think is important.

We have this incredible drive to be social and, to follow on from what I was saying before, that means we want people to like us - or at least some people. If it was simple we could all make ourselves look like these cliches of desirability, typically like the pictures you see in the ads for new shapes, faces or skins. Maybe some people just go with that but, I wanted to understand how people choose what of their physical selves to put into their avatar.

We might start by experimenting with changing things we aren’t 100% happy with about ourselves, but then it seems from talking to others that, perhaps as we spend more time in here and make deeper connections, we have a greater need for our avatars to represent at least some things about us. We can end up with what Yennefer calls “how I’d like me to be, me 2.0”. The “me” part is very important, because the avatar still has to connect with us.

MM -  You’ve worked in a film about a similar subject which was released back in 2010. Do you feel an impactful difference from this experience back in the day to the statements you collected from the residents you photographed for Vessels?

RD - I spent a lot of time in SL from 2007 to 2010 working on My Avatar and Me, which was a kind of fantastical exploration of the relationship between virtual and physical existence. I do think things have changed; of course the platform and the people in it have matured.

Mesh avatars and the improvements in SL graphics have perhaps meant that it’s easier for people to incorporate elements of themselves into their avatars.

Certainly wrinkles and “imperfection” layers have become more widely available and seem to be used more.

In 2006 and 2007 thousands of people were registering accounts every day to see what all the fuss was about. Many were barely in here at all and others spent very little time on the avatar customisation but I would guess  there’s a correlation between time spent in here and the time spent making our avatars more like us.

I don’t have any evidence of this but it seems to me that there is more of a convergence now between people and their avatars, perhaps it’s just with people like me who have been around for a long time, because it seems like it's a process and it’s my theory that as our connections in virtual worlds become deeper we have this need to connect them to ourselves a bit more to make sense of them.

MM - Thank you so much for your time, Rob! Is there anything you’d like to add?

RD - I’m excited to see where the metaverse goes next. Watching Mark Zuckerberg’s promo for Meta I felt that he doesn’t understand the prevailing culture of the existing metaverse at all. When he talks about sitting in a virtual office with colleagues from around the world it’s such a mundane use of the technology but perhaps for us in SL it’s just that we take that for granted, hanging out in the same space with people from all over.

One of McKenna’s ideas about virtual reality back in the 90s was that by using it we could transcend language. He was fascinated by the octopus and how it’s entire surface is like a screen for visual communication using patterns. Would we reach a point in virtual environments where we can just manifest who we are and what we mean in a more pure way, unmediated by language and its constraints. Belphegor touches on this possibility when she says: “ in SL we can be who we truly are, display our heart on our sleeves, adorn ourselves with our values, show them firsthand before any spoken word destroys what could have been.”

Most of us are not ready to leave our human forms behind, at least not yet, and perhaps we will always remain rooted in our biology, using avatars to represent our gender, age, and so on, not least because we have millions of years of evolutionary conditioning that we use to judge others. But that prospect of existence within virtual environments being a transformational change for humanity remains full of potential. Thanks to you, Marina and GBTH for the encouragement and opportunity to scratch the surface of this fascinating subject!

Clicke here to visit VESSELS by Rob Danton @GBTH (opening on the 14th of January).