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Avatar re/assembling as art-making, knowledge-making, and self-making

, The Pennsylvania State University, United States

The Pennsylvania State University . Awarded


An avatar is a representation of an identity in an online virtual world. Most virtual environments provide options for avatar customization. This means that a person can either create an avatar from an existing selection of body parts and apparel or design an even more personalized image. Second Life, the investigative site for this study, is a popular online virtual world that provides almost endless possibilities for avatar assembling to anyone with the vision, skills, and patience to realize them. The process of creating an avatar usually involves negotiating with identity and body image, as it is necessary to select the avatar’s gender, race, body type, features, and clothing style. These elements are all identity markers in the physical world. Even when a person creates a non-human avatar, the avatar is still likely to reflect something about that person’s identity choices. As people are increasingly spending significant amounts of time in online environments, avatars are becoming an important medium for communicating and understanding identity. Though learning about identity is generally considered a critical component of contemporary art education, studies that address the virtual body from the perspective of art-making, self-making, and knowledge-making are scant.

In this study, I argue that the processes of creating and communicating through avatars constitute a means of learning about identity through art-making. I argue that avatars are a medium and that avatar-making is art-making defined on the basis of three theoretical frameworks: Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, Joseph Beuys’s idea of social sculpture, and Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of relational aesthetics. Moreover, avatars are a medium for creating art within the broader practice of Net art. In using the term “avatar re/assembling,” I refer to creating avatars through an art-making process that relates directly to the genre of assemblage. In connecting avatar creation to art-making, I not only emphasize the purposefulness, complexity, and creativity inhering in presenting an avatar, but also postulate avatar re/assembling from a critical position.

Further, I frame the knowledge-making and self-making experience of avatar re/assembling through Elizabeth Ellsworth’s (2005) discussions of the anomalous place of learning and the learning self in the making. Using this framework of learning to understand avatar creation, I perceive avatar re/assembling as an experience of knowledge in the making and envision the self as emerging from the experience of avatar re/assembling. Moreover, I contend that we do not create avatars in order to grasp an “already-made” knowledge of identity and socio-cultural ideas of the body, although doing so might teach us these. Rather, we assemble avatars to create experience and gain knowledge of the learning self in the making—a self that is constantly learning, transforming, and becoming.

I ask: How do different kinds of avatar-making experiences tell stories about self-making? How does avatar creation constitute art-making? How are these experiences pedagogical? Using the avatar as a methodological device (specifically, I observe avatar culture and reflect on my own avatar creation experience), I draw on two qualitative research methodologies: participant observation and autoethnography. I have investigated the experiences of people new to avatar creation, of those who continually change their avatars’ appearance and post photographs of the outcomes online, and of those whose avatars do not represent an idealized human form. Through fictional dialogues, I create performative texts that present my interpretations of the findings. I consider the fictional dialogues as offering knowledge (Denzin, 2005; Neilsen, 2002) and insights through which others can learn about avatar re/assembling and make connections to their own experiences.

I found that most participants in my study saw themselves as engaging in a creative process whereby they were able to give aspects of themselves fuller expression than in the physical world. Even those new to avatar creation whose avatars tended to reveal the limits of their incipient technological knowledge focused on creating avatars that reflected their physical appearance in some way, whether literally or in an idealized version. In addition, from my interviews and observations, I found that the experienced participants considered avatar creation crucial to their ongoing negotiation of identity and body image, their avatar-assembling experiences constituting a mixed-reality existence in which their virtual and physical bodies work together to create a learning self. And, based on the participants’ experiences in this regard, I was able to identify the knowledge-making and pedagogical moments inhering in avatar embodiment.

To translate these research findings, I suggest avatar pedagogy as an element of art education. In theoretical terms, such an incorporation would involve using avatar creation to provoke critical discussions about body image, identity, and technology. In practical terms, drawing from participants’ experiences, I recommend processes that can be exercised and transformed in teaching in service of a meaningful and effective avatar pedagogy.


Liao, C.L.Y. Avatar re/assembling as art-making, knowledge-making, and self-making. Ph.D. thesis, The Pennsylvania State University. Retrieved March 21, 2019 from .

This record was imported from ProQuest on October 23, 2013. [Original Record]

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