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The Accidental Artist,
by Alan SONDHEIM (USA/Second Life), 2008

by Domenico Quaranta

"In my world, there are no errors, only seductions!"
Alan Sondheim

Both inside and outside the art world, there are artists who happen to be writers and writers who happen to be artists. Alan Sondheim would appear to belong in the latter category. For me, for a long time, he was the American professor who posted interesting yet cryptic essays on Nettime and other mailing lists. Then I discovered his code poetry, and then again his work in Poser, and his theories on digital identity started to take shape. It came as no surprise that he was one of the first to join the Second Life art community. At the opening of the ExhibitA Gallery in Odyssey, next to Gazira Babeli's legendary Avatar on Canvas, he showed a surprising video featuring the hypnotic dancing of a group of deformed avatars. In his essay on Gaz's work he wrote:

"[My work] is concerned with inconceivable positionings of one's own avatar, positionings within which behaviors pile on behaviors, creating 'behavior collisions' that create, for the viewer (distinct from the performer) a disturbing and/or dis/eased representation of the body, an abject body that indicates something else other than normative is occurring, something that can't be absorbed. With Gaz, this occurs first-person - the change is to 'me' and my image/imaginary; with my work, it is third-person and in a sense stains or transforms the mise en scene into something abject and unexpected." 1

I commissioned this text some months ago, upon Gaz's suggestion, for a book I was editing. Translating it into Italian was hard, but also a wonderful experience. Doing it, I encountered a writer who uses language in the same way that the artist Alan Sondheim uses textures, codes, scripts, physical laws to bring his ambitious, disturbing, absorbing and overwhelming Gesamtkunstwerk to life. And what are textures, codes, scripts and physical laws, if not language? Language and body: these are the pillars of Alan Sondheim's work. Both are concerned with the issue of identity, but not in an obvious, prosaic way. Both language and the body are the result of a mish-mash of human and machinic, natural and artificial:

"In SL your bodies intended, there's nothing given but the slate. [...] it's the projections that fundamentally characterize it - introjections from SL body to organism, projections from organism to SL body." 2

Identity. Since the dawn of the internet, it has been a given that a homepage is a projection of oneself on the net. Sondheim's website 3 doesn't even have a homepage: it is just an index page with an alphabetical list of files. There are no folders or any other devices to help you make sense of it all. Txt files, html files, images, videos, mp3s, essays, personal data: everything is on the same level. Take all this stuff, put it in a shaker, mix it with whatever you can find in a digital landfill such as Second Life (scripts, porn images, prims, active objects, textures etc.), and lastly distribute it upon three levels (underground, ground-floor and sky-sphere) - and you get The Accidental Artist4

"The human figure's place in art gets turned inside out here in this world of unfolded and refolded geometries. What remains of the body in the domain of the virtual? What survives the transition? Could this still be called a body? Where are we going in this crossing over into bits, why are we going there/nowhere and what does it say about the nature of human desire? At what point does a beautiful accident become a tragic mistake? Is there truly such a thing as a mistake?" 5

The Accidental Artist is a body turned into an environment 6, which abuses both users - kicking them around, throwing them up into the sky or down to hell, and, by virtue of its very existence, challenging those of users - and the place it is built in, bypassing all the rules of SL. In a text, Sondheim enlists his "not inconsiderable" sins in SL: "I have overburdened the servers with far too many video and image textures. / I have added too many prim scripts to too many objects. / I have required far too complex screen redrawings time and time again. / I have taken apart the building where the exhibition is held...", he writes. We could say that The Accidental Artist is the aesthetic of sin and disobedience. If paradise is a masterpiece of simplicity, complexity is evil; thus Sondheim is a sinner, and his installation is too. He doesn't like things simple, and even if he gave visitors two pages of recommendations on how to get the best out of his installation, he knows they would never understand its complexity. There is no linear way to describe or explain The Accidental Artist. Sondheim knows it, and that is why he created it, instead of writing an essay. In a way, The Accidental Artist is a visual essay. In his list of sins he confesses: "I have overlaid the whole with far too much theory. / I have thought too much and have left little space for spontaneous creation with the exception of the tunings and retunings that constantly occur." This is true, but not entirely. When you enter The Accidental Artist you are overwhelmed by the range of possibilities it opens up, and contents and theories it displays. Sure, you can't isolate them, UNDERSTAND them: but you SEE them in a glance, or better still, you EXPERIENCE them, and that is awesome.

At the same time, The Accidental Artist is a body of work that, while it occurs, while it is being experienced in different conditions by different users, generates other works, and other considerations. Sondheim is the first user of his own creation. The various series of videos and images he has put on his website are the best proof of this. Falling Sky, made in the skysphere with the sky set to midnight, is abstract, flashing, absorbing. Sexed, focused on the body, is fleshy, bloody and repulsive.

In their end works very few artists manage to hide the creative process and render it as perfect and finite as a diamond. In SL, Babeli is one of them. Her works are classic, simple, easy to experience, and do not need settings. Most artists fail in the search for simplicity. Sondheim points to a completely different target: he doesn't make the diamond, but gives us the furnace. He doesn't point to a final work, but explores and exposes the process. Try it. Looking into the fire can be a great experience, no different from looking into a diamond.

1 : Alan Sondheim, "I met my Baby, Out Behind the Gaz-Works", in Domenico Quaranta (ed.), Gazira Babeli, Brescia: Fabio Paris Editions, 2008, p.81.  

2 : Ibid, p. 79.  

3 : See Alan Sondheim's website :  

4 : To access the Odyssey exhibition The Accidental Artist, sign up on Second Life and go to  

5 : From The Accidental Artist's notecard.  

6 : Alan Sondheim's first avatar, Alan Dojoji, actually is a body turned into an environment. She is a kind of nebula, a luminescent agglomerate of abstract and human shapes and other particles that move and fade in the sky. His second avatar, Julu Twine, has a female shape, with a real penis between her legs, and usually performs slow, enigmatic dances that turn her body into a spineless puppet.  

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