In the weeks following September 11th, 2001, I was performing in the Firebirdz Forest Palace, one of the hundreds of 2D, graphic, sonic, multi-user, computer chat rooms available worldwide at that time through The Palace software. My aim was to brush up some comic improv. skills prior to a 4-month cyberspace residency with the abc experiment (abcexperiment.org). I’d been warned that Palace members were a tight knit bunch – ‘like frontier people’, but assumed that my years of promenade and street theatre would serve me. They were only avatars after all, what could possibly happen?
My avatar was was called PayCheck and presented as a scruffy, indeterminately gendered representation, with a willingness to play the fool. I knew PayCheck’s visuals made it relatively easy for me to be cast as an outsider, perhaps even a ‘foreigner’. However I’d underestimated the precarity of this profiling in what turned out to be an exclusively American arena, at a time of widespread national anxiety and xenophobia.
Looking back at the abuse that was enacted on my avatar body following that profiling, I’m still surprised at the depth of my reaction to these encounters. It wasn’t as if the PayCheeck avatar was a lovingly crafted art object, or that I had worked hard at becoming fully immersed in this online Palace community. On the face of things, I had little at stake: spectator rejection was not only a distinct possibility but a necessary component of the comic routine. Re-reading my journal from those weeks one thing becomes clear: in the writing, both “I” and “my avatar” occur in the same sentence. In the writing, we occupy the same space, we share the same experience.
September 22, 2001 Journal Entry
For awhile, PayCheck, Performance Poet, really had them hooked. “Everyone loves a PayCheck” someone quipped. Eventually sides began to develop – pro PayCheck and ‘agin PayCheck. The ‘agin camps seemed uncomfortable about my gender status. I was asked repeatedly if I was a ‘shemale’ and queried about the choice of avatar footwear. Then someone asked if I was a male in the real world which brought down considerable criticism from the crowd. Apparently, this was a transgression of Palace etiquette – you don’t ask avatars about RL. Like a B-list celebrity, I declined comment as I sidestepped to centre stage in preparation for my next performance. This was a poem entitled “Don’t Turn Me Off” and I declaimed it with as much nuance as my text to speech plug-in allowed.