Lily Lynch jumps into the virtual world to find out who the hell is this transhumanist, blogger, activist, conceptual artist and Second Life genderqueer prostitute. If you’d like to see for yourself, you can catch up with Khannea in person at SHARE Conference in Belgrade, Apr 26-28
It’s midday on a Tuesday and I’m in the Abbey Island Pub inside Second Life. My avatar, WhitneyWinehouse (tastelessly named, I know; I’d confused “Second Life” with “afterlife”), has been teleported to a place that proudly boasts a clientele of self-described “demons, vampires, bukkake aficionados and flashers”. A bit awkwardly dressed and obviously n00bish, my avatar struggles to blend in with the crowd, which is looking a little thinned out today.
In case you don’t remember (or don’t care), Second Life (SL) is the “online virtual world” that allows users to own the intellectual property rights for the creation of “places” like the Abbey Island Pub I’m “in”. Though the Second Life economy (and number of registered users) has been in steady decline for several years now, it once had more cash flowing in and out of it than several Third World countries.
I am in this virtual pub to interview the transhumanist, blogger, activist, conceptual artist and genderqueer SL sex worker Khannea Suntzu. Khannea is perhaps most famous for her status as an allegedly “highly desirable virtual call girl”. Several major media outlets, including Le Monde and Forbes.com, have published profiles of Khannea highlighting her virtual sex work. What makes Khannea noteworthy is that in addition to her participation in fantasy and the virtual, she uses her SL avatar to engage with real world social issues, including human rights and technology, social justice, and the subversion of traditional gender roles. Among her well-known actions in this area has been her ongoing attempt to have her legal gender officially changed to “metagender” (I refer to Khannea in the feminine throughout this article because she says that she identifies as an “avid lesbian/bisexual woman caught in a male body”).
Beyond the gender nonconformity and fluid engagement with the virtual and the real, an Internet search reveals even murkier information about Khannea: One source alleges that she is not one person, but rather a collective of several conceptual artists. Other sources describe her as a solitary, lower income individual with several physical and psycho-social disabilities living in the Netherlands. Whoever or whatever makes up Khannea Suntzu, her online presence is solid, and she presents as a smart, cohesive individual with a set of very coherent, if disparate interests.
One of the topics Khannea blogs about is transhumanism, a controversial movement and philosophy (Frances Fukuyama has called it “the world’s most dangerous idea”) that focuses on the utilization of technologies for the intellectual and physical enhancement of humankind, including the elimination of the aging process. In this vein, Khannea has written about her desire – and perceived imminent ability – to “become” her sexy, “hyperfeminine” SL avatar. In an e-mail, I asked her if instead of striving to become superhuman, we shouldn’t embrace our frail, imperfect bodies and love them anyway. She disagreed:
“Everyone in their right frame of mind wants to be healthy. Aging is simply an advance of a bodily decay into death. To be able to accept aging or sickness or other kinds of frailty might be useful – it allows people to ignore the inevitable. Too bad for me, I am the kind of idiot that can’t ignore death, sickness, aging and frailty. I can’t stand it. I have the self-torturing imagination to visualize myself as pretty, eternally young, feminine, smarter, sexier, immortal. That I can envision this doesn’t mean I get my wish…but I am pretty sure that the first person to live for centuries is already alive today.”
Khannea describes Second Life as a “visualization tool” that allows users to envision themselves as the “eternally young, smarter, sexier, immortal” version of themselves imagined by the transhumanist. This rich fantasy life, or as she describes it, her “perception of the freeflow dream-state in the virtual”, is what ultimately led to her success and desirability as a virtual call girl.
Khannea says she first became involved in virtual sex work for material reasons, because she “wanted to own nice things in SL”, but that she came to “enjoy the buzz” of fulfilling the fantasies of her SL clientele. She detailed the experience in an e-mail:
“Between 2005 and 2007 I made a few thousand dollars servicing masturbatory fantasies. That means – I type erotic fantasies and someone else masturbates upon the imagery and my explicit use of words. Note that while I do I have my hands on the keyboard. Now…such behavior would be scandalous, and easily ridiculed by many people in society. They don’t like men and women not conforming to ideal sexual roles. I’d be regarded as especially threatening by many conservative people because I cross the gender divide…I might have caused men (married men) to experiment with bisexual fetishes. And I have a little option feature in second life that grants my sexy hyperfeminine body a horse’s penis. And it goes all in!”
I receive a glimpse of Khannea’s self-confessed exhibitionism during our meeting in the Abbey Island Pub. At one point, she suddenly asks me to “wait just a moment” before eagerly removing her virtual shirt to reveal her enormous virtual breasts. When I ask her if you can purchase silicone breast implants in SL, she informs me, “I can edit the size of my tits, or I can patch on a ridiculous set of utterly imbalanced jugs.”
Khannea readily admits that this kind of permissiveness in SL makes it “politically incorrect”, but that its “radical libertarian design philosophy” is what differentiates it from larger, more corporate virtual communities like Facebook. When asked about the future of virtual worlds beyond SL and the more corporate, controlled SL spin offs that she fears will come to replace it, Khannea suggests that Google Earth would be the ideal place to embed virtual space. As for SL’s current state, she laments that most places (including the Abbey Island Pub) are far emptier than in previous years, and that people are spending less time in SL because of the global economic crisis.
The last question I ask Khannea before logging out of the Abbey Island Pub and SL is if I’d be meeting her avatar or her “real life”, physical embodiment at this year’s Share Conference. Though she claims she’ll be there “in the flesh”, I’m still pretty uncertain as to who exactly we’ll be meeting there for sure.
*BTURN teams up with SHARE Conference, a three-day international event in Belgrade, Serbia, focusing on Internet, new media and social activism, packed with talks, discussions, presentations and music gigs. In the upcoming weeks, we keep you informed on whos and whats of this year’s edition of all things geeky and subversive