Empowering embodiment: Our Digital Selves

We all have blood. We all feel. We all matter. We are all different.

– Shyla the Super Gecko (KriJon)

Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me  is a new video documentary by Draxtor Despres, which officially unveiled on Thursday, May 17th, to coincide with Global Accessibility Awareness Day.

It’s a powerful 74-minute piece which, as Draxtor himself notes, “Was supposed to be a slightly extended episode of The Drax Files World Makers,” but which, “ballooned into a dense investigation into the power of living vicariously through an avatar in Second Life and next generation virtual worlds like High Fidelity and Sansar.”

The documentary grew out of a desire to follow the work of Tom Boellstorff and Donna Z Davis (respectively Tom Bukowski  and Tredi Felisimo in Second Life). For the last three years, Tom and Donna have been engaged in a National Science Foundation funded study formally entitled Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Selfand more informally referred to as Our Digital Selves.

I first covered this study in Exploring disability, new cultures and self in a virtual realm, back in 2016, when I outlined Donna and Tom’s examination of the experiences of people with disabilities – visible and invisible – who are using Second Life to represent themselves, possibly free of the shadow of any disability, engage with others and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

How is the internet changing the ways people think of themselves as individuals and interact as members of communities? Many are currently investigating this important question: for this project, the researchers are focusing on the experiences of people with disabilities in “virtual worlds,” three-dimensional, immersive on-line spaces where people with disabilities can appear any way they choose and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

– Donna Davis and Tom Boellstorff introducing Virtual Worlds,
Disability and New Cultures of the Embodied Self

Using in-world meetings and discussion groups, Donna – a strategic communications professor at the University of Oregon specialising in mass media & society, public relations, strategic communication, virtual environments and digital ethnography, and Tom –  a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine – set about engaging with Second Life users. Through these sessions they explored the many facets in living with a disability, people’s reactions to those with disabilities, and the experiences those with a wide range of physical and other disabilities – the ability diverse, as Donna notes – find within virtual spaces.

Donna Z Davis and Tom Boellstorff (Tredi Felisimo and Tom Bukowski in Second Life), co-researchers in Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self, supported by the University of California, Irvine; the University of Oregon; and the National Science Foundation.

Covering enormous ground over the three years – including providing participants with virtual space in-world at Ethnographia Island where they might express themselves and their relationship with their condition – Virtual Worlds, Disability and New Cultures of the Embodied Self is perhaps best described as a voyage of discovery and revelation for all those involved – researchers, participants and observers alike. And it is this voyage that the documentary Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me encapsulates.

The documentary focuses on thirteen participants in the study who, along with their avatars  transcend their various disabilities through artistic expression and making a home for themselves in the digital realm.

Starting with the idea of freedom through embodiment that environments like Second Life offers as a result of the almost entirely free-form way in which we can express ourselves through our avatars visually free from the disabilities or imperfections that might otherwise define us, the film moves onto the concept of being rooted to a place, and the idea that having that space allows us to further define and extend who we are. This idea of “emplacement”, as Tom calls it leads to an initial exploration of the places the study participants built on Ethnographia Island.

Jadyn Firehawk, one of the original participants in the study – and who first notified me about it in January 2016 – before her installation ” Reconstructing Identity After Disability”, Ethnographia Island, 2016

It is here that the personal stories begin to unfold, with Jadyn Firehawk describing what those of us blessed with sound minds and bodies might take for granted in ourselves those around us:  performing every day tasks when living with an invisible disability. It’s easy enough to show understanding and compassion – and make allowances for – those with physical disabilities. Yet how often do we (if only silently) question or shy away from those with mental / emotional disabilities when they raise the subject of their health, simply because we don’t see physical evidence of their disability?

These stories are fascinating, moving, and deeply revealing studies; not only in terms of those relating them, but also in what they say about the sheer power of a platform like Second Life to imbue creativity, to form relationships, to encourage our desire to push past barriers – physical, mental, personal and societal – and even to re-grant the authority for us to control our identity and how much of it we choose to reveal to others.

In this, the video not only covers matters of personal representation of self when living with a disability, but covers wider issues of identity, revealing who we are, have the right of control over what is revealed to others about ourselves. In the age of Facebook, Google, data gathering, Cambridge Analytica style activities, this is an issue that reaches far beyond what might be seen as the “core” subject matter of the study – be which nevertheless is part and parcel of the idea of embodiment; one which does affect us all.

The stories revealed through the film are moving, insightful – and revelatory; not “just” because of what they reveal about the participants, but in the way it can cause measures of self-reflection and encourages thoughts on our own virtual embodiment: what it means to us, how it exercises our desire for growth, etc.

Continue reading “Empowering embodiment: Our Digital Selves”

A village called Ahiru in Second Life

Village of Ahiru; Inara Pey, May 2018, on FlickrVillage of Ahiru – click any image for full size

Village of Ahiru is a full region themed along Japanese  / Edo period lines (although the time frame for the region isn’t specifically the Edo period, as evidenced by things like the bicycles to be found scattered along the extensive paths and walks within the region).

The main landing point, located in the sky above the region offers an introduction to the setting, noting it is a mixed public / private location with a number of rental properties to be found within it. However, providing the privacy of those renting is respected, visitors and photography are both welcome, and for those wanting to get a little more in character, two vendors at the landing point offer free female and male kimonos.

Village of Ahiru; Inara Pey, May 2018, on FlickrVillage of Ahiru

Ground level is reached via a map teleport board. This lists all of the public areas, and denotes the rental properties – the majority of which are located to the east of the region, with a few more located on the southern coastline. The large rentals are surrounded by walls guarding their inner gardens / courtyards, and smaller properties can be identified by the “mailbox” rent boxes on their walls.

At ground level, the region is split into two land masses by a narrow river. Public areas straddle both of these islands, so decided on where to start a visit is open to choice. However, having spent time wandering through the village, I’d recommend the shrine on the south island or the Onsen or theatre on the north island as being good starting points; they are all public places, and offer good map reference points when making your way around the region.

Village of Ahiru; Inara Pey, May 2018, on FlickrVillage of Ahiru

Richly wooded, Village of Ahiru also has a veritable web of paths and trails running around and through it.  Climbing and descending over stairs and steps, winding around hills, passing under the arched canopies of trees, some of these paths are paved, some form grass tracks and others are marked by stepping-stones or look like cinder tracks. The thing that the have most in common is that they form a complete network which, as you follow it as paths cross and divide, serves to make Village of Ahiru feel a lot larger than the usual 256 metres on a side region.

From the grand bulk of the Theatre, visitors can head south along an arrow-straight avenue to one of the bridges spanning the river. Branching from this to the right (west) and east (left) are paths leading to other points of interest: a wild garden with standing stones, a more formal garden area with pavilions, a little waterfall spanned by another little bridge and opportunities to relax.

Village of Ahiru; Inara Pey, May 2018, on FlickrVillage of Ahiru

To the left from the theatre avenue, stone steps offers a way to the ochaya (tea house) located on one of the region’s two high points. Or if you prefer, you can follow the path around the hill on which the tea house sits and find your way to the impressive Osen, with heated and cold water pools for bathing. With waters following past its entrance from water falls, this is perhaps the centrepiece of the region, and another point at which a teleport map board can be found for those wishing to hop between locations. The second high point for the region is located on the southern island. It is home to the region’s shrine and overlooks the rental properties to the east and south, the base of the hill again surrounded by paths.

Other highlights within the region include a small commercial shopping area, a children’s playground nestled under the trees, and several lookout points such as the waterside hangout – and perhaps one or more places to discover. “As usual, my areas have a couple places hidden away,” principal designer Hatsumomo (Yasyn Azemus) informed me during our visit. I’m not going to give these all away, but I did enjoy discovering the Café Grotto.

Village of Ahiru; Inara Pey, May 2018, on FlickrVillage of Ahiru

Surrounded by mountains, rich in flora and trees, and laid out in such a way to give the impression of far more space than the region might otherwise suggest, Village of Ahiru makes for an engaging visit with plenty to see and discover while exploring.

SLurl Details