The Avatar’s Voice is a video series of conversations hosted (and filmed / produced) by writer, artist, scholar, and virtual worlds thinker, Erik Mondrian. The third segment in the series, featuring an interview with Cubey Terra, recently launched on Erik’s You Tube channel, which further fuelled my interest in the series as a whole and how it came into being, and recently Erik kindly agreed to discuss the series with me – how it came about, his approach to it and future plans, as well as touching on his work in general.
However, before we get to that, some background on the series for those who may not have seen it.
The Avatar Voice, is an ongoing series of conversations between Erik and active virtual world residents, with each 30-minute segment focusing on a single guest (all of whom have thus far been Second Life residents, although Erik hopes to expand the series to cover other worlds), discussing their involvement in virtual environments, their interests, and their thoughts on a range of subject related to virtual living and virtuality.
In this, they are in many respects the virtual equivalent of interviews conducted by the likes of Larry King in his heyday or Christiane Amanpour; rather than being solely interrogatives, they are conversations wherein the host takes a back seat, gently offering up questions and occasional feedback while letting the guests tell their story and offer their views entirely in their own words, without the need for undue interjection. The 30-minute time length Erik has set for each segment allows for a more informative conversation to take place than a shorter format might allow, but without the audience ever feeling it is perhaps being drawn out or becoming stale, as might be the case with a longer time frame; instead, we are able to become quiet listeners as the discussion naturally flows between host and guest.
In discussing the series with Erik, I started with perhaps the most obvious question: where the idea for the series originated.
Erik Mondrian (EM): Many years ago, I thought The Avatar’s Voice would be cool as the name of an on-line ‘zine I might eventually start about virtual worlds, pulling together stories/headlines from and about these worlds with “correspondents” from them working and writing together on the one site … I haven’t really done anything with that idea; but at some point I started thinking about it as a podcast instead, with the purpose being to go directly to the avatars themselves, to hear from them personally about what virtuality and their chosen virtual world(s) mean to them, what they’ve done and experienced there, and so on.
Inara Pey (IP): What in particular crystallised the idea of a podcast?
EM: I think the idea for it as a podcast became more clearly defined and make sense to me because of my MFA¹ studies, and the fact that the one side of my multidisciplinary degree at CalArts was in what the Institute calls “voice arts”. So The Avatar’s Voice felt like it fit with the idea of actually hearing people’s voices – the people behind the avatars – in a format that’s not necessarily focused on any one topic or overarching goal, but allows people involved in virtual worlds to have more of their story to be told.
Also, while at CalArts and studying for my MFA,there was a call for graduate students to suggest and run courses during the two-week Interim sessions about anything that interests them. I presented two courses – Virtual Worlds, Real Artists and Virtual Worlds: Placemaking as Art Practice, in January 2017 and January 2018. In them, I attempted to show my students as many examples of virtual world creativity as I could, including having guests appear remotely from Second Life. I think teaching those two courses and especially, having those speakers share their perspectives, was crucial in leading up to the podcast, cementing my desire to try to start a project like this.
IP: Is there a particular fascination for you personally in setting up the series?
EM: I’ve always had a desire to learn more about what makes virtual worlds tick and why so many people, including myself, are drawn to them as places to “live”, often for years or decades. There is also a desire to preserve and document these worlds and their history by recording these conversations and hearing people’s perspectives.
IP: How do you select possible candidates for the series?
EM: I have a long list, even if just in my head, of people I’d love to interview. I’m sort of in a constant state of admiration for what people do in and with virtual worlds, even if it’s “just” living their lives there, building relationships and creating a home of some kind in a way that’s meaningful to them.
Since there are so many people I want to interview, the “who I select” is probably more a matter of scheduling and who’s available and willing; Groves [Mangrovejane] was the first both because I really admired her work and because we’d become good friends in SL, so she was willing to be my guinea pig for the very first interview. For that first session as well, I wanted to have a level of trust and comfort, as I was – and still am – learning by doing; so I wanted a guest who could be at ease with me and I with them.
I’m approaching people over time, and have a couple who have already said yes, and there are two more I haven’t asked yet but I think would do it. Ultimately, I want to have a variety of people, who’ve done different things, lived different virtual lives.
IP: Is there anyone in particular you’d like to interview?
EM: I would absolutely love to interview Steller Sunshine at some point, though I have no idea if she still logs in to SL or what she’s doing these days. I think it would be absolutely amazing to talk to her and hear at length about her experience, given she was the first non-Linden SL user, back in 2002.
IP: One of the attractions with The Avatar’s Voice is the relaxed approach you take with your interviewees. Is this a case of research only, or the result of an initial conversation with them, from which a core set of questions is formed, or a combination of both?
EM: I think it’s a mixture, and may change as I do more interviews and get a better feel for the process. I do try to have certain questions or topics in advance that, for that specific person, I know I’ll want to raise; but at the same time, I try to let things come up naturally during the conversation. How I ultimately edit that conversation’s recording down into the interview is another story; but even there, I try to maintain that sort of (hopefully) unforced flow, mixing thought-out questions with interesting little conversational tangents here and there, sometimes circling back around to cover a particular topic from another angle or in greater detail.
One little addition: I’m a big admirer of Syrmor and his VRChat video interviews. While his approach is to talk more about people’s lives as whole, I think his interviews are quite validating and inspirational as far as being able to use virtual existence and interaction to hear from people in this kind of way, although I don’t try to occupy his space, as The Avatar’s Voice is very much tied to virtuality, virtual worlds, and avatar-based identity as underlying driver of the discussion.
IP: Tell me more about the editing process.
EM: Editing those recordings down to fit that limit can be a challenge, to say the least! But I do find that certain things, certain topics, seem to fit together more easily. I try to also listen and “feel” for when a topic seems like it’s probably more important/personal for the interviewee, and leave those areas in as opposed to other parts of the recording where I can hear it’s [perhaps] less meaningful to them. [It’s] a question of palpable enthusiasm, maybe? Listening for even just a subtle sense of things that are unique to them, rather than being just a part of the conversation that could be seen as a little more generic and unfocused.
IP: Given you do have guests who have already committed to the series and have others in mind, how frequently are you hoping to produce segments of The Avatar’s Voice? Is it something you’re aiming to put out perhaps monthly, as with the Bizi and Cubey interviews, or will it be more a case of as time and commitments allow?
EM: I would say that while I would love to actually put out an episode weekly, it’s more likely to be closer to every few weeks or worst case even monthly, as you said, at least for the time being. As I do more of them, of course, I’ll hopefully not only get faster at the editing process but also be better with the planning beforehand and with the interviews themselves in the moment.
I have thought about the possibility of doing a sort of “interlude” episode every 4 or 5 interviews, to keep the momentum going whilst also involving more people. Rather than a whole 30-minute episode with one person [these “interludes”] would instead be me sharing responses from residents to a call I’ve made via Twitter or what-have-you [for thoughts and feedback], either with me giving their response in voice if they answered through text, or even letting them speak for themselves if they wanted to share a brief recording of themselves responding.
IP: In closing, is there anything your like to add concerning the series and your aspirations?
EM: I’m eager to hear what people have to say, whether in the full interviews or in the interlude submissions idea. I started this because I truly believe that there have been, and still very much are, many amazing people in virtual worlds of all kinds, [with] so many interesting things being done; this is a way for me to know more about them and to hear directly from them about why virtuality has been a meaningful part of their lives.
I should also mention that while I do expect the bulk of my interviewees, at least for the time being, to be SL Residents, I think much if not most of what they have to say is applicable to virtual worlds at large, and I do also hope to interview residents of other virtual worlds as well, to ultimately have that diversity of realities represented.
I’d also like to say that – time and money permitting – this is only one series, one facet, of the projects that I’d love to be able to do to show SL and virtuality in multiple ways. [For example] I also have in mind a video series exploring SL as a connected world, and another that would examine some of the activities therein. These would be in addition to the fly-throughs and music videos I’ve made to showcase places … [and] would sort-of complement the podcast by having a similar style or approach with a voice-over talking about them.
As noted towards the top of this article, the first three segments of The Avatar’s Voice are available via Erik’s You Tube channel, and are summarised below with links to them for viewing. I recommend anyone with an interest in virtual worlds, Second Life and virtual living take time out to listen to them; they are all equally fascinating.
The Avatar’s Voice 1 – Mangrovejane (August 2018): a visual artist who has been in Second Life since August of 2016, who discusses her time in Second Life, how she established it as her virtual home; the differences she’s noted between it and platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity; and the power (and peril) of avatar embodiment.
The Avatar’s Voice 2: Bizi Pfeffer (January 2020): a software engineering student and accomplished virtual explorer active in SL since early 2007, discussing his travels around the SL mainland and how having a contiguous world can help foster a sense of community and discovery, especially when the spaces there are user-created; the rewards and occasional challenges of sharing that world with a diverse population of people from around the globe; and the impact of decentralisation & open-source software development (or a lack thereof) on a virtual world platform’s evolution and survival.
The Avatars Voice 3: Cubey Terra (February 2020): an acclaimed content creator and pioneering virtual aviator active in SL since the latter half of 2003, discussing the history of the original Abbotts Aerodrome, which he co-founded; the value of SL’s in-world building tools and thoughts on the arrival of mesh in SL; and how Second Life, as a shared, user-built environment, still manages to pull people in and keep them engaged despite the platform’s limitations, visual and otherwise.
Catch all segments of The Avatar’s Voice via Erik’s playlist for the series.
Also, if you would like to help support Erik in his work in producing The Avatar’s Voice and to help him with his other projects related to virtual worlds, please consider buying him a coffee via his ko-fi page – the donations made will directly support his work.
- MFA: Master of Fine Arts, studies that saw The Avatar’s Voice interrupted between its first and second segments while Erik focused on producing his thesis, which included producing a fabulously engaging 11-part video series exploring matters of identity, life, emotions, desires, introspection and self-understanding as a part of his thesis for his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Voice Arts & Creative Writing (please read Erik Mondrian: master of fine arts in and beyond Second Life for more).