LaTurbo Avedon is waiting for me at the center of Orbital, a cavernous and almost empty trance nightclub. Pulsed lights illuminate their platinum hair as they roam alone under a purple globe floating on the expansive dance floor. Our date is in Second Life, so finding this space-themed nightclub involves nothing more than typing on a laptop keyboard. Yet I am late. Novice, I am still looking for how to maneuver in this sprawling virtual space; Avedon politely stands as my avatar walks around them in zombified circles of morons. Unlike me, Avedon is a laughing old Second Life pro. They look at home here. For more than a decade, they have been working as an artist exclusively on the Internet, as an avatar. Virtual worlds are their permanent haunts.
The deal with Avedon is this: they don’t exist offline, describing themselves simply as “from the Internet”. They are a digitally native creature, creating art in online worlds like Second Life, Fortnite, and Star Citizen, and showing this art in prestigious galleries across the United States and Europe. (A recent exhibition is presented digitally at the Whitney Museum.) There is no separation between art and artist, because the artist is the artistic project, a non-binary virtual being with a lively pace, detached from a human body. You might call them an artistic version of avatar influencers like Lil Miquela, although the most apt characterization may be a cross between Japanese hologram pop idol Hatsune Miku and pseudonymous British street artist Banksy – the performance of persona is part of the project. Like the ethereal Hatsune Miku, Avedon is visually represented by an avatar. But while it comes to light that Miku is a software collaboration between teams of humans, Avedon fails to recognize that there is a person or team behind the curtain, leaning over a keyboard. Like Banksy (or, in the literary world, Elena Ferrante), they admit no identity beyond that which they have assumed as an artist in front of the public.
It makes the conversation with Avedon a bit trippy. There’s no character breaking, though all you really want to talk about is how hard it must be not to break character. When I ask Avedon when they were born, for example, they deviate, saying things started to “make sense” in 1995 while playing the trigger of a stopwatch, an RPG for SuperNintendo. When asked what it is like to have a job displayed in real-life spaces without being able to browse them – which one might think is a major drawback of not having bodily form – they respond that it’s no different from the way gamers don’t have access to every part of the game world they’re playing in.
Kelani Nichole, founder of the Transfer Experimental Art Gallery, has worked with Avedon for over eight years; like me, she met the likable avatar in Second Life, where they were working on an installation that ultimately screened in a physical exhibit in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nichole sees Avedon as a particularly timely figure in the art world, one who has adopted the identity-tweaking ethic of an artist like Cindy Sherman and cleverly applied it to the virtual world. “They are very prescient,” she said. Dealing with collaborators like Nichole by inviting them into virtual spaces, Avedon has built a career entirely within the confines of the Internet. They’ve been doing this for over a decade, long before the “metaverse” became Silicon Valley’s slogan of the day or the world took its business meetings on Zoom. Meanwhile, digital art has exploded from a niche search to the epicenter of an economic bubble.
And Avedon is staying one step ahead. Better than most, they understand the real creative potential of the metaverse, how immersive online spaces can help merge communities and allow people to explore who they are and who they would like to be. Take, for example, their work in Fortnite, where last year they created Your progress will be saved, a sprawling installation for the Manchester International Festival. By choosing such a popular digital destination, Avedon wanted to show that they could stretch the lens of the gaming world. Instead of playing in its hackneyed battle royale logic, they created a contemplative and playful port in which to stroll. Exploring Your progress will be saved from a laptop it’s like exploring the online equivalent of a large, long-abandoned subway station, a vast and underused cityscape that’s both peaceful and eerie. “Sometimes we have to create safe rooms inside these simulations in order to overcome the problems that they also present,” they explain. “I can only do my part, and that is to hold a mirror of the metaverse and its possibilities.”