Avatar vs Agent


We find within popular culture a range of fictional forms – a spectrum, if you will. At one end, we discover the Avatar. At the other end, we encounter the Agent. (Let’s immediately rule out the theological use of the word Avatar as used in Hinduism, which in English is roughly translated to manifestation or incarnation. Instead, let’s want to focus on its circulation in current culture.)

Sticking with pop culture, the Avatar is most associated with the graphical representation of a user. In this sense, the Avatar is a fictional form created by an individual outside of that form: a sort of hard pixelated shell to be filled with content by that external force. The Agent is similar, also a computer generation. The Agent, however, uses his or her awareness of his or her presence within a fictional universe to control the ‘bodies’ (or hard pixilated shells) of other avatars.


So like an Avatar, an Agent is also assigned agency by a force outside of its existence. However, he or she makes the content him or herself, and at best, IS the content him or herself. Remember here the bullet dodging and gravity defying abilities of the Agents in the Matrix. They use what they have to rethink what agency is. The comparison of the Agent position to the Avatar position is useful because unlike an Avatar, an Agent holds an active subject position that claims power and re-distributes that power (even if this is usually distributed toward or within him or herself).

What happens when we apply this metaphor to trends in contemporary art?

Some of the most relevant practices today are those that in fact are taking up the voice, frame, and attitude of the Agent. Let’s take the Bruce High Quality Foundation for example. The collective is made up of five to eight rotating and anonymous members who have gone so far as to operate behind a mask in public.


Goldin+Senneby on the other hand have not remained anonymous, but instead send experts in their place to craft their physical tangible shape, their work, and perhaps one could add, their identity. Knowing their history with research of making and selling contemporary art in Second Life, I would argue that their new work Headless takes up the position of Avatar with a new kind of cheek.


An Agent can take full responsibility for his or her decisions, words and actions. Can an Avatar do the same?

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