7. Looking at Ed Atkins

Looking at the work of Ed Atkins

In our video meet I talked with my tutor for quite some time around my personal experience of being an Avatar in Second Life.  It is enjoyable and interesting to be able to fly, to run fast, to suddenly transport to a different space and I certainly understand the attraction for people who have disabilities that limit them in their ‘real’ life. The aspect I’ve noticed most though is that no one looks old and there’s no facial expression.  It’s really surreal to watch a video of a virtual conference at Second Life where the staff and developers discuss topics as their avatar selves but there are no non-verbal cues to give any indication of feelings. I had written that I had wanted to avoid an ‘Uncanny Valley’ effect and for my Avatar to look as human as possible and my tutor suggested I also have a look at the work of Ed Atkins. In fact, I had looked briefly at his work a while ago but have to confess that I felt slightly unnerved by his robotic face and movements and digitally altered, deadpan voice.

Below is the video suggested by my tutor:-


I spent further time looking at his work, video interviews, such as with Louisiana channel and talks,  and articles about him. With this second look I realised that I am being reminded of some of the young men I worked with in the past who would come to see me having suddenly shaved their head back to a skinhead style and/or having a vivid new tattoo to show me – rainbow crusted colours writhing over their skin. “What’s happened? Will he tell me?”, I would think to myself and wait.

Below is Ed Atkins talking about another of his works.

He refers to alienation, depression. The ‘literalising’ of a working day of a person on the edge of collapse – a disembodied, talking avatar head with a ‘real’ person at the side of him – yet with a hooded head. There is an emptiness about Atkins’s characters and he believes that “Loss, insufficiency inability, failure and in particular melancholy play a great role”. He uses so many different filmic and narrative techniques – photography, video, CGI avatars, installations and performance. I heard him say in another interview that he starts with a title first – ‘a lifeline that enables one to go mad underneath’. Even one apparently simple word such as ‘food’ can be echoed through so many other things.  His work is about what’s not there – never there – real people.

I have the Kindle edition of his first book A Primer for Cadavers (2018) which is a selection of his texts from 2010 to 2016 and below is the beginning of one of his poems Elective Mute (2014)

The afterword of the book by Joe Luna  refers to Atkins as “….. an elegiac, erotic Frankenstein for the twenty-first century”. What did I think? Well, it’s a different experience just to read the words which are like a stream of consciousness, a form of rapping, coming from someone full of words who is attempting to push through to the kernel of something far deeper where words are not enough, although their force might push him over the edge and into the abyss. I can, therefore, understand his reference to his title for a work being ‘a lifeline’.  I did feel depressed after reading through the book but, after a while another thought struck me.  When those words become part of a multi-media performance it takes the edge off them slightly, so they become more like a slowly beating heart. To me Atkins is touching upon those existential anxieties I’ve written about before  –  to be alive, knowing this isn’t permanent; to seek another, knowing that, in the end, I’m essentially alone.  In choosing to be in ‘avatar’ form Atkins is questioning what it is to be human I think

Here is just a little more of him


There’s more I want to write about – on the uses of landscape vistas in second Life and also the views of Andy Clark, professor of philosopher and Chair in Logic and Metaphysics at the University of Edinburgh. I was introduced to his ideas through a blog post from my fellow student Sarah-Jane Field, and they really struck a chord with me as, to me, they follow on from Marshall McLuhan’s earlier ideas on how we model technologies on our brain networks. More to come in time then….





Atkins, E.(2018) A Primer for Cadavers (Kindle Locations 2046-2050). Fitzcarraldo Editions. Kindle Edition.