[NetBehaviour] Phantom Limbs: Affect and Identification in Virtual Performance

Patrick Lichty pl at voyd.com
Fri Feb 20 14:09:56 CET 2015

Phantom Limbs: 
Affect and Identification in Virtual Performance
Patrick Lichty

In the concept of a ³phantom limb², an amputee relates feeling, often pain,
from the absent limb.  The process of amputation delineates the borderline
of presence, the liminality of separation, the phantom effect the feeling
for that lost presence.  Performance art inscribes space with presence, with
flesh, bone, and sinew; wasn¹t it supposed to be a final authentic site of
immediacy and authenticity in art following the dematerialization of the
object in contemporary art after Formalism in the 1960¹s?  But in the era of
ubiquitous mediation (the fin de millennium), embodied expression itself has
become a site of contestation.  The body had become the repository for
direct expression in art with the coming of Performance Art.  With the
recontextualization of seminal works by Marina Abramovic with her Seven Easy
Pieces [1] the meanings of the works as immediate, site-specific happenings
became circumspect.  This was further compounded by artists Eva and Franco
Mattes, self-proclaimed ³haters² of Performance Art, who remediated other
seminal works, including those of Abramovic in the online virtual world
Second Life. What can be said for the veracity of a mode of expression when
the traditionally conceived distinctive qualities of that medium are
removed? What happens to embodied art when the body is removed?
Virtual performance art should not function, but it does.  The process of
draining the site of performance through decontextualization then
disembodiment should have destroyed the event of meaning.  Where there was
blood, there are now only pixels. Where there was presence, there is only
the feel of a mouse in the hand.  When the avatar shoots the other with a
gun, we still flinch.  What are the qualities left that connect us to the
when avatar when we sever the flesh from embodied performance?  I posit that
there are three aspects to performance that remain after the
virtualization/removal of the body in the creation of virtual performance.
These are affect, desire, and mirroring/identification in relation to the
avatar.   These correspond to the prepersonal, productive and neurological
identifications with the proxy. This presentation will explore a
phenomenology of affect, desire and identification in the virtual and
discuss the importance of these qualities as intrinsic criteria of synthetic

1: Affect
Brian Massumi, in Parables for the virtual: movement, affect, sensation
speaks extensively on the autonomy of affect.  ³Affect is the virtual as
point of view²[2 Massumi, 35], he says, relating to his assertion that the
virtual begins with the event that is too immediate to be perceived, and
thus elicits that event¹s autonomy from the body.  What is happening in the
site of virtual performance is the precognitive conversation of ³the
simultaneous participation of the virtual in the actual and the actual in
the virtual, as one arises from and returns to the other.²  The virtual as
site of immediacy begins in the moment of the imperceptible, opening the
synesthetic space of autonomy (from the body) while retaining the intensity
of the moment.  Affect implies, ³a participation of the senses in each
other: the measure of a living thing's potential interactions is its ability
to transform the effects of one sensory mode into those of another.²  Can we
say that this potentiality is the precursor to emotion, to identify with the
potential of a living thing¹s interaction with a mise en scene (through an
avatar?)  One axis of virtual performance¹s efficacy is the disconnection of
affect from the body as eliciting of synesthetic effect, suggestion that
affect may have more to do with action and intensity, perhaps evoking
desire, which brings us to Deleuze.

2: Desire
Second Life is an online 3D multi user virtual environment, or MUVE, that
owes its existence to the aggregate contributions of tens of thousands of
online participants, who construct the buildings, socialize and perform in
virtual space.  In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze and Guattari posit that desire is
not to be linked with the gaze, or signification, but with production in the
social field.  The avatar represents, by its very existence, an evident
desiring-machine that, through its production of virtual capital in the form
of artifacts, buildings, codes, and interactions, manifests reality through
the consummation of desire via material and social expression. As affect and
its translation into the virtual is opened by the preperceptive moment, it
is the unconscious and the libido that are the engine of desire.  But in
their text, their deconstruction of desire signals the aggregate Body
without Organs that assemblages of desiring machines, which then represent,
³the nonhuman sex, the molecular machinic elements, their arrangements and
their syntheses, without which there would be neither a human sex
specifically determined in the large aggregates, not a human sexuality
<http://www.christianhubert.com/writings/sexuality.html#22>  capable of
investing these aggregates² [3 Anti-Oedipus, p. 294] It is this nonhuman
sexuality of the desiring-machine, the Krokerian ³sex without secretions²[4]
that then creates an effusive concrete production in the virtual.  From
this, we can say that the production of the aggregate world of Second Life
is a desiring-production in the virtual socius that is product of the
deanthropomorphized libido. As such, it begins with the birth of the avatar,
manifests in the production of the virtual world, and is consummated in the
performative gesture of everything from the cocktail party to execution of
code to virtual (machinic) sex. Therefore performance art in Second Life
could be said to be the production-manifestation of desire made manifest in
the virtual.  And to playfully quote the Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, ³How
could be otherwise?² It appears that the desires of the machinic mirror the
body to some extent and this is the next subject of our discussion.
3: The Mirror Cortex
We have discussed the issues of the affective and desire, but I would like
to return to idea of the phantom limb metaphor and the identification with
identification with the avatar.  As there are times when a person with
phantom limb disorder can be soothed through seeing a limb be massaged,
there are theories that humans empathize with human-like forms through
neurological empathy, Neuroscientist VS Ramachandran has popularized
neurobiological research of the existence of ³Gandhi Neurons²[5] or what he
calls the mirror cortex.  These neurons are thought to be the basis of many
aspects of human existence, such as empathy, learning, and culture.  Mirror
neurons fire in sympathy with the observation of another person¹s action.
One thing that is ironic that Ramachandran uses the metaphor of watching a
virtual reality simulation of the other person¹s actions, and this brief
aside is the opening for our discussion.  To put forth the idea that we
identify, empathize and project action or touch through the engagement of
the mirror neurons, and the idea that we simulate action and touch though
projection though perception is very important. To do so explains empathy
for the other in a performance space, but in our case, the projection of the
self upon proxies such as dolls or avatars.  Where this is shocking is when
we consider Ramachandran¹s example of soothing phantom limb pain by
massaging another¹s limb by proxy.  What I propose is that neural
identification through the mirror neurons is a fundamental cognitive act
mitigates performance, and also translates to proxies and poppets.  For the
next section of this essay, we will look at examples of virtual performance
that will attempt to illustrate aspects of affect, desire, and mirroring.
Sites of Engagement: Affect
Saveme OH [6] is a Dutch virtual artist who works in invective and
narcissistic grandeur reminiscent of the New Media artist formerly known as
NN, who often dominated listserv traffic on lists like Nettime and 7-11[7].
Her art, as mentioned before, consists largely of narcissistic excess
through the colonization of the space around her, whether it involves
declaring herself ³President² of Second Life or imposing herself verbally or
visually into situations, often getting her banned.  In reaction to bans,
Saveme¹s reaction is frequently to stage an outcry about censorship. Her
strategy is a cross between ³trolling² (disruptive aggravation) and tactical
intervention, but her tactics inflame an immediate affective response.  This
is due to the fact that Saveme¹s visual appearance often dominates an entire
screen through use of huge ³worn² devices that create an optical disruption
that open the door for her virtual psychodrama.  What is most important here
is that her domination of a milieu creates a synesthetic disjuncture where
than can be no other focus than her gesture and the potentiality of action,
engaging affective reaction (albeit frequently negative).

Another group of artists that have elicited an affective immediacy in
virtual spaces is that of the performance group Second Front.  Founded in
2006, Second Front are a dispersed set of individuals ranging from San
Francisco to London who engage in NeoDadaist/Fluxus-based interventions in
Second Life.  For a piece entitled ³Wall-ker Art Center²[8] (or Dancing
About Architecture), Second Front appeared with huge cement walls,
disrupting the visual field, where they engaged animations to gyrate the
structures erratically in space, creating an architectural performance. The
result was a disorientation for many onlookers, as the ephemeral walls swung
around, appearing to hit the avatars, but passing through them.  An
anecdotal report during the performance related that the experience was
jarring to the point where they had to ³teleport² out of the space because
of the visceral reaction, reifying Massumi¹s assertion of translation of
sensation in the affective.  Both studies depend on the virtual as point of
view and utilize the immediacy of the visual to create effects that
translate into the visceral. This bodiless visceral reaction brings us to
the site of desire.
Sites of Engagement: Desire
It could be said that using the Deleuzian model of desire, manifestation of
being in Second Life is self-sufficient for the description of efficacy of
the avataric desiring machine as engine of production or signifier of the
libido. To expand from Deleuze, desiring-production is not making love to
become one, or two, but thousands.  The fecundity of the Body Without
Organs, literally or semiologically, is to unchain the repressed libido in
revolutionary fashions that the flesh can never attain.  This unfettering of
the Freudian unconscious takes place in two pieces, Eva and Franco Mattes I
Can¹t Find Myself Either[9], and various incarnations of avatar Vaneeesa
Blaylock¹s installations.  In the first of these two, as part of their
Synthetic Performances they suggest that the infinite gesture of becoming is
to stay at home and play video games, like Second Life. In this piece, a bed
with embedded sexual animations for is activated in the performance space.
Eva and Franco¹s avatars gyrate on the bed, and soon other avatars join in
the cyber-orgy.  Soon the bed is packed, and the avataric bodies obscure one
another to the point where the piece¹s name comes into play.  No one can
find themselves, but there they are.  And, the gesture of the Body Without
Organs on screen belie that the avatar is no one and yet everyone, the
production of a null body implies the birth of all possible bodies in the
Another artist who explores the multiplicity of production in virtual space
is that of Vaneesa Blaylock, whose name closely mimics that of performance
installation artist Vaneeessa Beecroft.  Her motto is that she is an
individual, and so is she, suggesting a self-reflexive stance about her
multiplicity.  Much like Beecroft¹s installations of nude bodies in gallery
spaces, Blaylock stages arrays of nude avatars in space under some sort of
framing mechanism, Various pieces[10] explore general topics of identity and
cloning, the average parameters of avatars in Second Life, ³the girl next
door², and replication of form as production of desire.  In each
installation, Blaylock arranges the avatars as manifest desiring machines in
the unfettered frame of the virtual, inferring that her production is but a
sample of infinite permutations and endless emanation.  The nude avatar, as
signifier of basic sexual desire is here emptied and used as a proxy, a
placeholder for our own projections of desire, but since they have been
machinized and dehumanized, they stand for an infinite space of nullified
machinic desire, and infinite fecund potential, potential being essential
for affect. Vaneeesa¹s installations also engage the doppelganging the body
in configurations like Beecroft¹s, which takes us to the idea of Mirroring.

Sites of Engagement: Mirror
Macarthur Foundation Director of Connie Yowell said at the 2007 Second Life
Community Conference that the first move into the virtual is recreation of
the real, called orienteering.  Performance artists like Scott Kildall, and
again, Eva and Franco Mattes have done ³remediations², or restaging of
classic performance art pieces. In Kildall¹s Paradise Ahead  series of
recreations[10] include Chris Burden¹s Shoot, in which he allowed himself to
be shot in the arm in the gallery, or Yoko Ono¹s Cut Piece, in which she
allowed her dress to be cut away a piece at a time.  But these are not
merely recreations, but empathic mirrors of the gallery, as Ramachandran
might argue that we will still feel as Kildall¹s avatar fires the virtual
rifle, there is a still a flinch when the other avatar is hit.  This is not
mere signification, if neurological mirroring applies to proxies of the
body, then our feeling for the virtual phantom limb of the avatar is real.
The eponymously named AM Radio recreates pathos in the recreation of a
trompe l¹oeil of David¹s Death of  Marat[11]. The original, which depicts
the radical French journalist Jean Paul Marat dead in his bath after being
murdered by Charlotte Corday is recreated sans the body of Marat, upon which
the visitor clicks oupon the bath, and their avatar fills that position.
Therefore the projection through the avatar is further extended into the
David painting, specifically into the position of Marat. Here the interactor
becomes the subject of, as Baudelaire mentioned, David¹s ³dramaŠ vivid in
its pitiful horror². This scene Œs abjection and the user¹s requirement is
not isolated; its requirement to participate affectively projects the self
into that horror and peace concisely.

Site of Engagement: Affect/Desire/Mirror
Although we have examined sites of engagement that have dealt with the
unfolding of Massumian affect into the profusion of virtual desire to the
projective identification of the mirror, there are many virtual works that
address any and or all of these modes of engagement.  Micha Cardenas and
Elle Mehrand¹s Technesexual[12] performance engage all three loci of this
discussion.  Technesexual involves the two engaging in erotic acts in a
physical space while equipped with biometric sensors. The output from these
sensors is fed into Second Life through an interface using the programming
language Pure Data, which is reflected in actions by their avatars in Second
Life, which are projected in the performance space.  As Cardenas and Mehrand
play on stage, they engage the immediacy of the body and the affective lag
of translation into Second Life, virtualizing their acts. Their unleashing
of the libido into the machinic body creates a manifestation of
desire-production in the virtual through gesture and translation of the
physical into the virtual and the transmission of that experience to the
online participants. And lastly, their doubled bodies, both in world and in
the performance spaces powerfully create the projective connection between
the two, and the connection of virtual space.  Perhaps the introduction of
live bodies into the milieu either negates or amplifies the argument for
performance in the virtual, but  from this author¹s perspective,
Technesexual appears to consummate (metaphorically and literally), affect,
desire, and projective identification, and is the pinnacle of the elements
of our conversation.
In this essay, I have sought to construct an argument for the understanding
of affective engagement in the genre of virtual performance through the
thought of Massumi, Deleuze & Guattari and Ramachandran as played out
through the work of many artists.  This is not to say that there not other
artists who also fit this discussion, like Joseph DeLappe¹s Gandhi
project[13] and Stephanie Rothenberg¹s work in virtual labor[14] and Elif
Ayiter¹s collaborations in virtual textuality with Roy Ascott[15].  The
choice of works in this essay are merely a brief archipelago designed to
create an epistemic arc to explore the visceral connection to the virtual.
There are far more examples to me touched on, and this presentation is
designed as the opening note of an ongling conversation regarding virtual
By all rights, we should not care about virtual performance as performance
art is intrinsically tied to the body as last bastion of creative
authenticity. Upon severance of the flesh from the performative gesture, it
would make sense that our affective relation for the virtual body should
cease.  But our phenomenology of virtual performance through affect, desire,
and projection suggests otherwise; virtual action creates real responses.
In this text, I have sought to explore the role of affect, desire and
mirroring-identification with the avatar as evident site of engagement.
Although the case for virtual performance¹s connection to the flesh through
our desires, projections, and empathies, it is easy to hold these forms
circumspect.  Is virtual performance new enough that it constitutes a
nostalgia for the flesh, and echoes of the body as phantom limb, or merely
grown up poppet play? One could argue that this genre is a fetish for
performative dollplay, but regardless, virtual performance contains a
combination of echoes of the real and real affective response.  This is seen
from phenomenology to prepersonal cognition to neurology. Our affect for the
avatar exists, and it appears to be acculturated and hardwired into our
beings. But as genres such as MMO¹s and virtual environments like Second
Life continue to mature, it will be curious as to whether virtual
performance will be a momentary affectation or an emergent genre that merely
reflects the virtual as a primary mode of human existence.
[1] Erika Fischer-Lichte. Marina Abramovic: Seven Easy Pieces, NYC: Charta,
[2] Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation,
Durham, NC Duke University Press, 2002.

[3] Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and
Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1983.

[4] Kroker, Arthur and Marilouise. The Last Sex: Feminism and Outlaw Bodies,
NYC: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993
[5] VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization, TED Talk,
on.html> , November 2009

[6] Oh, Saveme. Saveme OH Blog, http://savemeoh.wordpress.com/
<http://savemeoh.wordpress.com/> , 2011
[7] Mieszkowski, Katharine. The most feared woman on the Internet,
[8] Second Front. Wall-Ker Art Center,
<http://www.secondfront.org/Performances/Wallker_Art_Center.html> , February
9, 2008
[9] Mattes, Eva and Franco. ICan¹t Find Myself, Either.
tml> , January 23, 2010
[10] Bancroft, Vaneeesa. I Rez, Therefore I Am. http://vaneeesa.com/
[11] Au, Wagner James. Die Like Marat: Turning David's masterpiece into an
interactive experience
 New World Notes Blog http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2007/10/die-like-marat.html
<http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2007/10/die-like-marat.html> , October 09, 2007
[12] Cardenas, Micha and Mehrand, Elle. Technesexual. Networked Performance
September 25, 2009.
[13] Delappe, Joseph. The Salt Satyagraha Online,
[14] Crouse, Jeff and Rothenberg, Stephanie. Double Happiness Manufacturing.
[15] Ayiter, Elif et al. La Plissure Du Texte 2.0.

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