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Identity as Performance
Art in the Metaverse

Gazira Babeli, Grey Goo, 2006, performance, courtesy l’artista

Questo articolo è disponibile anche in: Italiano

Domenico Quaranta

Some time ago, a local newspaper asked me: ‘do you know any artists in Brescia working with NFTs?’ What made me think, more than the question itself, was that I found it instinctively out of place. With few exceptions, mainly related to having already linked their career to their first name, the artists active in the world of NFTs operate under pseudonyms or ‘.eth’ domains; they are part of a geographically dispersed community, they meet in Discord and Twitter channels, they communicate mainly in English, they manifest themselves as profile pics, and they treat their personal name, place of residence, age and gender as ingredients to be added to the recipe of their individuality only if it is functional, necessary, and not harmful to the public image they are confecting. For decades, digital communities have acquainted us with a fluid, ‘liquid’ (Zygmunt Bauman)[1] meaning of identity, which from being a prerequisite, an assumption, a rigid system of classification and, at times, condemnation, has become performance.

Discomfiting Byung-chul Han, we can say that the transition from a repressive disciplinary society to a society of performance has changed the modal form of identity, from a having-to-be to a being-able-to-be.[2]  This would itself be wonderful, were it not for the fact that, as both Han and Bauman note, the freedom of being-able-to-be ends up becoming a new form of duty; social structures have not yet adapted to such a performative declension of identity, both when they appear with their disciplinary face and when they offer opportunities: visibility in the ‘local’ newspaper, the award for ‘young’ artists, the ‘national’ pavilion at the Biennale, ‘pink’ quotas… This is not to say that habits developed online have not changed the so-called real world. Nor is it to deny that the introduction of new types of online identity verification – such as the proofof identityrecently invoked by a New York University lecturer, convinced that the pervasive spread of anonymous accounts and bots has evolved into a sociopolitical plague[3] – would be perceived as the definitive completion of the Internet’s regression into a contemporary panopticon.

Rather than questioning the legitimacy of discussing Italian identity in the metaverse, this preamble aims to introduce a key aspect, the densest in consequences in the artistic sphere: namely, identity as performance. ‘My body can walk barefoot, but my avatar needs Prada shoes’, declared Gazira Babeli, the first artist-avatar.[4] ‘Avatars … will replace the bathroom mirror and drown the cosmetics industry’. ‘Born’ in the virtual world Second Life (SL) in 2006, Babeli ceased any form of activity in 2010, without letting on any information about the identity (individual or collective) that controlled her puppet. This gave the subject, ‘Gaz’, an unprecedented concreteness, but at the same time made her an ambiguous, mythological, shamanic being, a hybrid of invisible flesh and out-of-control software, an ‘anomaly’ (Patrick Lichty).[5]  Her interventions in SL deform bodies, unleash storms of images and earthquakes, entrap and sanction viewers, violate the traditional metaphors of body, space and time that developers with little inclination for risk have translated into the metaverse. ‘My art consists in experimenting in an ironic and “pop” way with the complementary and often contradictory aspects of a “whole world” that, although inhabited by “puppets”, is home to at least a million people. Real people’.

Applying the term metaverse to SL may seem problematic to those who first came across this expression in connection with blockchain-based metaverses, or upon Mark Zuckerberg’s bombastic announcement of Facebook’s transformation into Meta in October 2021, with the consequent conspicuous investments in a fusion of Internet and virtual reality. Truth be told, like so many cases of technological hype, the Metaverse sparkles with novelty but leaves paint on the hands of those who venture to touch it. The idea is a literary one and was introduced by cyberpunkauthor Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash (1992). Stephenson’s metaverse refreshed William Gibson’s cyberspace, replacing its abstract and psychedelic data streams with an immersive reality, accessible through a VR visor, a space modelled on the real (with streets, buildings and means of locomotion) and traversed by bodies (the users’ avatars). It merged two then-growing technologies, but in two different stages of evolution: namely, the Internet and virtual reality. The first worlds to give concrete expression to Stephenson’s imaginary were not virtual, but primitive graphic simulations accessible through dedicated software, such as The Palace (1995) and Active Worlds (1995), or through browsers, such as Habbo Hotel (2000). The first artistic intervention in a metaverse, to my knowledge, Homeport, dates back to 1997: a space designed for The Palace by Lawrence Weiner with the support of the digital platform äda ‘web, a chat room as neutral as a white cube and inhabited by some of the artist’s famous Statements.[6] The second was Chelsea (1998-2001), the ‘virtual city for art and architecture’ conceived by Miltos Manetas and Andreas Angelidakis in Active Worlds ‘to experience the new sense of space that the internet was providing’[7] , used by Manetas to install his floating studio, conduct interviews, organise exhibitions, and develop virtual extensions of real exhibitions.

Manetas is a central figure for art in metaverses, having strongly asserted the reality of virtual spaces, the inseparable link between avatar and player, and the need to narrate the ‘extended version of reality’ that we mistakenly call video games.[8] In the 2000s, it was on these bases that artists were attracted to online video games such as World of Warcraft and Counter Strike, and to virtual worlds such as the aforementioned SL. The latter, created in 2003 on the initiative of Linden Lab, a company founded by Philip Rosedale with a declared debt to Stephenson’s metaverse (and the Burning Man festival), catalyses a lively community of artists, due not only to its attractive force (in 2013 it reached one million active users) but also to the flexibility with which it lends itself to interventions regarding both the space and the avatar. The Italian presence is substantial, both in quantity and quality. Marco Cadioli, who declared himself a ‘net photographer’ in 2003, managed, by immortalising moments of ‘life’ in graphic chats and videogames, temporarily to convert an artistic stance into a profession, as newspapers began to commission him to write reports from the virtual world. In 2006, Eva and Franco Mattes inaugurated a series of avatar portraits, prints on canvas made as a tribute to those who invest huge creative and economic resources in the construction of their own double; this was followed by Reenactments (2007-2010) and the Synthetic Performances (2009-2010), which investigate peculiarities and contradictions of the notions of body and space translated from the real to the virtual. Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico bring back to life – in the form of artificial intelligence-animated avatar-bots – Franz Kafka, Coco Chanel and Karl Marx (Dead on Second Life, 2008). They analyse how ‘linguistic limitations, avatar characteristics and social acceptance promote standards and stereotypes, rather than identity’.[9]  Giuseppe Stampone, in turn, anchors his reflection on neo-dimensional experience, the infiltration between physical reality and liquid worlds, in hybrid installations such as Stargate (a Flavio) (2007) and Territorium Museum (2011).

The victory of social media over immersive realities would considerably impact the following decade, in which there was an abundance of important developments. One was the emergence and growth of gaming experiences such as Roblox (2006), Minecraft (2011) and Fortnite (2017), which enthralled communities of millions of users, sparked the creativity of gamers and led them to familiarise themselves with the idea of digital ownership. Another was the development of new standards (WebVR and WebXR), which allow the experience of virtual reality in the browser, later enacted in tools such as Mozilla Hubs (2018). Then there was the emergence of blockchain-based metaverses, e.g. Decentraland (2015) and Cryptovoxels (2018), which aim at interoperability (i.e., the possibility of moving avatars and assets from one world to another) and use the NFT market for trading virtual real estate and digital assets. To this we can addthe development of consumer-oriented virtual reality devices, such as the Oculus Rift (2016) and the HTC Vive (2016), and the increasing deployment of VR in gaming. Finally, there was the impact of the pandemic in making digital environments perceived as the only escape from the domestic space and the only form of contact with the world.

Within this context, the research of some artists already mentioned, such as Cadioli and Manetas, finds continuity, but this is also flanked by new proposals. These include the fluid identities and environmental explorations of Federica Di Pietrantonio, who moves in the space of video games as a digital flâneur traversing the contemporary chaos; the live simulations and interventions on Hubs by Martina Menegon, inhabited by clones of her 3D-scanned body; the study conducted by Kamilia Kard on the conjugation of affects, feelings and relationships on the web, which led her this year to the production of Toxic Garden (work in progress), a Roblox map that translates into a visual metaphor and habitable space the toxic relationships into which frequent users of online communication spaces often fall, particularly the younger generations. Working on the analogy between the defensive toxicity of plants and behavioural degeneration, it strips visitors of their recognisable appearance to give them a new ‘plant’ avatar, while using dance as a relational device capable of uniting a community in a collective reflection on the evolution of identity in a constantly hyperconnected society.

[1] Z. Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Polity, 2012.
[2] B. Han, The Burnout Society, Stanford, 2015.
[3] S. Galloway, ID, in No Mercy / No Malice, 30 September 2022, <>.
[4] For this and subsequent references, see Gazira Babeli, edited by D. Quaranta, with texts by M. Gerosa, P. Lichty, D. Quaranta, A. Sondheim, Link Editions, 2011.
[5] P. Lichty, in ibid.
[6] D. Quaranta, Net art 1994-1998. La vicenda di Ädaʼweb, Vita e Pensiero, 2004.
[7] For an in-depth look at the Chelsea project see <>.
[8] M. Manetas, In My Computer. #1, Link Editions, 2011, p. 41.
[9] For more on Dead on Second Life, see <>.