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Avatart: Susan Silton and the Art of Public Apology 

Tuesday, Sep 15 2009

Susan Silton’s avatars came to life through her interest in, and ambivalence about, a certain social network. The L.A. artist wanted to create a project about Facebook, on Facebook. “I absolutely have skepticism about it,” she says, “but am nevertheless interested in it, in the way that it constructs a social space that is in my mind inevitable in terms of social networking. (You either choose to jump in — as with digital cameras — or not, but you can’t deny that it’s the wave of the future.) I’m also interested in the way Facebook mines the territory of scripted banality, i.e., ‘what socks you’re wearing today.’ It’s a script because of the fact that it’s going to be seen. It’s not private, no matter how banal — it’s still scripted.”

Meanwhile, Silton had also been long interested in using the customized speaking avatars available from Sitepal. She realized she could use the program, and package it with all the public apologies so popular in American life. They too are scripted. “And of course there’s the double layer of the public apology being a private wrongdoing,” she says. “The project seemed to coalesce with all of these things coming together.”

On June 22, Silton posted her first avatar: Jack Abramoff, flatly animated against a courtroom background. “I’ve had many hundreds of sleepless nights since I’ve come to acknowledge and recognize what I did over the course of my misconduct,” he begins. “And I want more than life itself to try to do what I can to make things right.” A week later came Jimmy Swaggart, wearing a slight smirk and standing before a throng of churchgoers, their hands raised to God: “Everything that I attempt to say to you this morning will be from my heart. I will not speak from a prepared script. ...” Next was Michael Richards: “I lost my temper on stage. I was at a comedy club trying to do my act and I got heckled. And I took it badly and went into a rage. ...”

click to enlarge Susan Silton's Apologizing Avatars (Mel Gibson, with Christ wrestling the cross in the background)
  • Susan Silton's Apologizing Avatars (Mel Gibson, with Christ wrestling the cross in the background)

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Over the next 10 weeks, Silton rolled out nine more apologizing avatars: Marion Barry, Ted Haggart, Trent Lott, James McGreevey (planted next to a photo of his wife standing by the real McGreevey during his apology), Larry Craig, Chris Brown, John Edwards, Mel Gibson (with Christ wrestling the cross in the background), Bob Packwood and Mark Sanford. Each avatar is flatly animated, like a cartoon, and each weirdly reacts to the cursor — when it moves, the avatar’s eyes follow it. And each makes his apology in the same measured voice — Silton’s — which adds a layer of eeriness, and also one of intrigue: The female voice (or at least Silton’s) seems to make the men appear more sympathetic. “You want to believe them,” Silton says, “and, based on the reactions I’m getting, my voice seems to offer sincerity.”

By the time the project wraps up, at the end of September, there will be a total of 15 avatars and apologies. Silton’s avatars are licensed only for use on Facebook, so the project will end there. Which is as it should be. She may be a skeptic, but in the process of saying so, Silton has created something that transcends Facebook — at least the way we think of it.

As of now, the project doesn’t have a dedicated Facebook page. Click here to view it, or search Facebook for “Facebook project by Susan Silton.”

Reach the writer at tchristie@laweekly.com

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