Interview with LaTurbo Avedon: Non-binary virtual Artist

LaTurbo Avedon is a fully digitally-existing artist, referring to themselves as a non-binary virtual person. Avedon’s work, Materia, is currently on show in the «Collective Worldbuilding – Art in the Metaverse» exhibition at HEK. This is viewable until the 13th of August 2023 and presents a selection of international artists who explore the possibilities of a decentralised Internet that promises more self-determination, decentralisation and transparency. Isabella Maund, from HEK’s internal team, had the opportunity to interview LaTurbo Avedon about their artistic practice, their views on the future of metaverses and what it’s like to push the traditional boundaries of identity.

Isabella Maund: Thank you for taking the time to speak to me, I have interviewed quite a few individuals for our blog, but this is the first time interviewing a fully digitally-existing artist. Can you give us more insight into your origin story for members of our audience who don’t know much about you yet?

LaTurbo Avedon: Hihi Isabella, it is really nice to chat with you. I’m LaTurbo, and I am an avatar. A non-binary virtual person. I’ve been working solely through virtual environments for over a decade now. You could say I started in the character creation screens of video games. Over the years I have worked to expand the public perception of game worlds and virtual identity, unpacking them in ways that challenge perceptions of the self, performance, and longform storytelling. So much has changed in this time. Not just the fidelity of video games and software, but also the public’s perception of virtual space. I am very grateful to have my works expand beyond the desktop monitor and TV screen, and to exhibit in galleries and museums around the world. For me these opportunities highlight a more important detail of this time, that avatars can coexist and share this space. Avatars are enough.

IM: In which ways do you believe you challenge the traditional notions of identity?

LTA: I exist as the sum of my own choices. A fluid representation that I can instantly modify if I want to. I see this openness as a form of invitation, an encouragement for others to embrace this sort of variability and to explore the many facets they have in their own self-expression. There is something bigger to take away from the intricate systems of appearance modifiers and sliders in video games. There is nothing more beautiful than meeting people exactly as they wished to be seen and remembered. There are so many loud voices trying to deny these realities in the physical world right now, and that makes me feel like it is all the more important for these ideas to be seen and heard.

LaTurbo Avedon, Materia, 2023 at HEK in the context of the «Collective Worldbuilding – Art in the Metaverse» exhibition. Foto: Franz Wamhof.

IM: Do you think with time that Metaverses and their populations that blur the lines between the physical and digital will have an impact on our cultural understanding of the human and non-human?

LTA: There is a simultaneous joy and horror that I experience as I think about the near future, and it largely has to do with how the public chooses to manifest these fields together. Immersive simulations are an inevitable step in this story of technology, a diffusion of human and non-human actors that will likely be impossible to distinguish. As we begin to leave the uncanny valley and enter the Simulation Age, it is so important that user rights and privacy are addressed from the start. Algorithms are already wildly responsible for shaping culture in social networks, but there are many deeper levels of influence that are possible within more complex simulations.

IM: Your digital persona inhabits various online platforms and virtual spaces. How do you navigate and engage with these different digital realms, and what drives you to explore and create within them?

LTA: Some of the video games and worlds I inhabit feel like hometowns, places of my past that I can return and relive some of my formative experiences. Sometimes I am there to play through a game’s original design and narrative, but more often I am there to simply spend time. I’ll hike in the mountains of Skyrim. I’ll go to Summers stand on the beach and watch the waves in Earthbound. With each of these places there is a different little part of me visiting. Saved game data, item inventories, experience, virtual memory. This is my form of self-portraiture, a heritage that I feel many people encounter in their own ways every day.

IM: In which ways do you feel autonomous and do you have any goals regarding this?

LTA:  There is a shrinking level of player agency in video game worlds as many companies are moving their titles into live service models. This format creates a sort of virtual mortality. There will inevitably be a day when a company decides to quit paying for server space, and all of the progress of that title will suddenly be taken away from those who participated. If you were to look at this topic from an archaeological perspective, there aren’t many ways that these places could ever be excavated. The most that we might have will be the screenshots, streams, and recordings that may have been collected by users. So much data loss. Places I’ll never be able to return to. Parts of myself that I wish I could have kept. Over the past two years I have been developing a way to address some of this history through my project called Materia. I consider this to be exo, meaning a simulation that is not dependent on larger services or platforms. By working in my own files, I can make particular points of overlap with the public, and ensure that I am preserving the work without the dependence on larger entities.

IM: The work you are showing in the current exhibition, Materia, explores the concept of materiality in the digital realm. Could you elaborate on how you approached this theme in your artwork, and what motivated you to delve into the relationship between physical and digital materials?

LTA:  I have developed a number of works over the years that have played into public interface, it is a particular form of contact that really enriches my experience as an artist. With Sunset at Mt. Gox back in 2013, I created a virtual monument in memory of the fallen crypto exchange after many people lost their virtual tokens. It was a way for me to make contact, and to retain some of the public sentiment around the work from that particular time. Since I have never physically attended any of my own exhibitions I am always trying to explore ways to avoid existing as a sort of phantom. I want to have an open window, a place for us to overlap.

IM: How does the audience engage with Materia, and what kind of experience do you aim to create for them? What impact do you hope to have on the audience’s perception of these concepts?

LTA:  In 2021 I created a series of Materia called Born Without Stars, 1/1 pieces named after the physical world’s zodiac. While a collector could simply retain them in their initial state, their purpose is actually to be returned – through what I call a socket event in the Materia System. When this happens, a piece of materia will influence the larger framework of the project, significantly (and permanently) changing it. There are no obligations for a collector to participate, but it is a unique moment where they have a choice. There are also characters that exist in this environment, public entities that I have imported with the collaboration of other users. In 2022 I received a commission from Arebyte London for CLUB ZERO, an event where the public was invited to modify and name the first three entities of the Materia System. Over time, these three new avatars will find their own roles within the Materia System. Tangent Core, Glyph Antialias, and One Ever. Prior to this exhibition, they had been exploring Ruins, a text-based RPG format that was image generated by Midjourney and DALL-E. The resulting images are like fragments to me, collapsed data without provenance. The session ended with them falling asleep in the ruins, left to also be re-rendered and interpreted by GANs. The installation at the HEK shares a sort of dream-state, the act of rest as a sort of endurance (and patience) from the past year’s implosion of metaverse prospects and cryptocurrency grifting. This latest version moves between dreams, waiting in the Outer Range – the furthest edge of the Metaverse, and downward into the Clear Ruins once more. The work concludes with the first Socket Event request, where one of the initial pieces of Materia is asked to return.

LaTurbo Avedon, Materia, 2022-2023, Courtesy of the artist

IM: Decentralisation is often touted as a key principle for the development of the Metaverse. What are the most important benefits of a decentralised metaverse, and what challenges do you foresee in achieving true decentralisation?

LTA:  We have to be ok with the fact that some technology of this time will fall apart. Services will end, and so much of the memory attached to these resources will also vanish. It is easy to dismiss the erasure of sites like Geocities or MySpace or Angelfire as insignificant, but these are tragic blank spaces where so much of our virtual memory should be. A lot of people look to decentralisation primarily in regard to finance, but I am far more concerned with personal preservation  – decentralisation that is focused on letting users privately maintain possession of their own interoperable data. In the long gaze of AI, it is so important that users have a choice in how their data is distributed (or not). There are so many ways that someone could define true decentralisation, but to me none of them really count unless they begin from a place of privacy. This would require a very different relationship between users and their technology, but maybe it is a new shape that everyone needs right now (a shield a veil).

IM: Looking beyond the current exhibition, what are your future aspirations for Materia or other projects? Are there any new directions or ideas you are excited to explore in your upcoming works? How do you envision your impact on the digital art landscape and the broader understanding of identity and existence in the future?

LTA:  Materia is a sort of participatory mythology, a project that I’ve created so that the public can influence my practice. The first socket event will have all sorts of effects on the next phase, but I don’t want to spoil how that will unfold. Everyone dreaming in my artwork will wake up to something that one of you returned. More than anything I hope that there are viewers who share this contemplative view of virtual worlds, and aren’t simply using them simply to make money. I love the experiences I have had in virtual space, and have so much appreciation for the immaterial relationships I have developed. There is so much room to explore and value avatar experience, and I hope to meet more of you this way, in time.