The Physical Impossibility of Running an Art Gallery in Second Life

Readers may recall that about 18 months ago we ran a review of the virtual installations at the Primtings Museum. If you want to see the gallery’s lovingly-sculpted recreations of famous artworks you had better hurry; Artistic Director Ina Centaur has announced that the space is to disappear some time in the next few days, along with the associated sims of the SL Globe Theatre.

I went over there this evening, to walk up the staircase one last time:

and to contemplate mortality:

(On a brighter note, the other art space we covered in that review, The Leominster Galleries, is still going strong.)

Reoccurring Dreams

There was a lively debate amongst the commenters at Botgirl’s blog over the last week or so, concerning that perennial preoccupation of the SL intellectual elite, the question of identity in virtual environments.

I must have listened (and occasionally contributed) to this discussion dozens of times in the last three years, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything that was a significant advance on what Sherry Turkle was writing about fifteen years ago.

The particular facet of the issue that we (for of course I couldn’t resist chipping in with my two cents’ worth) focussed on this time around was the significance of choosing to represent oneself in Second Life with an avatar that differs substantially from one’s corporeal incarnation, especially with regard to gender.

How dishonest is this? Moral relativist that I am, my answer to that question is “it depends”; upon a lot of things, but mainly the expectations of the parties to the interaction. In the discussion parallels were drawn with other media, such as written fiction or cinema, with the point being made that no one feels deceived when they discover that, say, Robert De Niro isn’t really a taxi driver. This is true to a degree; for books, plays and movies there are commonly accepted cultural norms that define when it’s OK to make stuff up and when it’s not, and people do feel cheated when the rules are broken.

There is much less consensus regarding online interaction though, and, crucially, in a space like Second Life there is no easy way to communicate the extent to which one is using the platform as a vehicle for personal reinvention, as opposed to expressing one’s everyday self (which of course opens up the question of where one’s “true” identity really lies, or if such a thing even exists).

I’ve noted before that the research evidence suggests that it’s harder than one might think to create a new personality in a virtual world (certainly my avatar is boringly similar to my mortal form, in appearance and character), so in theory it should be possible to get to “know” someone just by interacting with their SL alter-ego. I suspect that there are not many people who could be bothered to put in the work required for this though, and there is always the (mostly unconscious) drive to project one’s internal object-relations on to the virtual relationships, which further muddies the waters.

With all this going on it’s hardly surprising that miscommunication and unhappiness can occur from time to time. I don’t think that there’s much to be done about it; it’s the price we pay for access to the creative possibilities of the medium,  like Cézanne being poisoned by Emerald Green.

Like I said though, none of this is new, or particularly profound, except insofar as it sheds some light on that other topic that has launched a thousand SL blog posts; “Why blog about Second Life?” Why make the same points about the same issues over and over, when we could be turning our minds to something more productive? I can only answer for myself of course, but I think (as, unsurprisingly, I’ve said before) that SL blogging is essentially just another form of role-play, a chance to imagine oneself as a heavyweight intellectual commentator, without all the tiresome business of actually having to think too much about what one writes.

It keeps me amused anyhow. And I get to link to some cool music.

From Off the Streets of Cleveland

I’m just back from holiday, and I was going to leave it a while before I started blogging again, but I have been moved to action by the sad news of the passing of a true hero of the counter-culture, Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame.

I’m not usually one for vicarious grief, but I have been feeling genuinely cut-up since I heard that Harvey was dead. His work was personal and honest, sometimes painfully so, never glossing over his own character flaws, and it was hard to read it without getting to feel that you really knew the guy. Long before anyone had even dreamed of blogs, Harvey was there, documenting the daily grind of a lowly wage-slave, creating poetry from the rhythms of his blue-collar existence.

If you’re not familiar with American Splendor then visit your local comic-book store and pick up an anthology – the best one to start with is probably American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar which collects up the best of the early issues; also worth reading is Our Cancer Year, which chronicles Harvey’s experience of lymphoma – it is quite grim in parts, but ultimately positive. More recent comics can be found online at The Pekar Project. The 2003 biopic American Splendor was justly lauded by the critics, and Harvey also features in a segment of the 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential (which was where I first came across his work). He appeared several times on the Letterman show in the late 80’s, until he fell out with the host after criticising NBC’s owners General Electric on air. He also recorded a series of opinion pieces for radio station WKSU, which can be listened to at their website.

Harvey’s work was based on the idea that the lives and experiences of ordinary people, living through good times and bad with their family, friends and community, were worth recording, and would tell the story of our times more accurately than more conventional histories. As he said, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff”, and few have captured it better than he did in the pages of American Splendor.

Two Galleries

I recently spent some time wandering around The Leominster Galleries, a new project from Sigmund Leominster, of SL on SL fame. The space exists to showcase Siggy’s personal art collection, with three floors of permanent exhibits and a room for temporary shows, all floating in the air high above the Root Squared sim.

Siggy’s taste seems to be firmly rooted in the 19th century, with the work of William Adolphe Bouguereau particularly well represented:

Bouguereau is an interesting choice; a stalwart of the French Académie des Beaux-Arts, he was acclaimed a genius in his day, but his reputation declined spectacularly in the 20th century, when his work was largely viewed as technically competent, but exemplifying the worst aspects of the ossified Academic style. He was entirely eclipsed by the Impressionists, a movement he had attempted to exclude from the Salon, and which he struggled to understand. More recently reviving the popularity of Bouguereau has become somewhat of a cause célèbre among conservative art critics, who see in his work an affirmation of traditional values tragically displaced (in their view) by modernism.

I don’t know if Siggy is making a political point with his picture selection, or if he just likes the sanitised eroticism that was popular in 19th century bourgeois circles. To be fair, the collection is not entirely composed of tasteful nudes in classical tableaux – there are some tasteful nudes in faux-Arthurian tableaux too, courtesy of the Pre-Raphaelites:

a fair representation of Symbolist works:

and a smattering of Surrealism:

The visit introduced me to several works I hadn’t seen before, since, I must admit, I usually hurry through the 19th century rooms when I visit the big galleries, so it was educational to a degree, but I do wonder what value was added by hosting the exhibition in Second Life, rather than, say, posting it in a blog. I suppose one could invite one’s friends around to make it a more social experience. The exhibits might perhaps be a little more interactive, with links to information about the artists and movements, and some explanation of the curatorial philosophy. The gallery design could be a bit less clinical too, since the modern aesthetic of the plain walls and light wood floor clashes somewhat with the cluttered hanging. A few chairs wouldn’t go amiss either. These are minor criticisms though, and the Leominster Galleries are well worth checking out.

A rather different artistic experience is on offer at The Primtings Museum, where they don’t hang the pictures on the walls, but build installations that allow visitors to place themselves into some iconic images:

(I’m pretty sure that I once sat in a real-life recreation of Van Gogh’s Room at Arles, but this was in Amsterdam, so it might just have been a drug-fuelled hallucination.)

There are dozens of works on display by various virtual artists, including our old friend AM Radio, who reworked David’s The Death of Marat, above. A full catalogue can be found on the Primtings website.

Surrealist paintings provide the inspiration for a large number of pieces, but, ironically, these are perhaps the least successful works in the gallery. The dream-like quality of Surrealism seems to be lost rather than enhanced by being lifted from the canvas and transformed into rather prosaic tangible objects:

I think for these sort of pieces to work they would have to be more immersive than just three dimensional representations of the paintings presented in a box. A sim-scale re-imagining of Un Chien Andalou perhaps, with the opportunity to slice up eyeballs and pull a piano full of dead donkeys around.

My favourite work at Primtings is this replica of Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living:

As befits conceptual art this works just as well in Second Life as it does in reality. The best part is that you can take away a free copy of the formaldehyde tank (though not the shark), and suspend yourself, or your loved ones, in it when you get home.

I did wonder a bit about the copyright status of these two galleries. I think Siggy should be all right, since the artists he features are all long dead, but Primtings might be on shakier ground if Hirst ever finds out they have been ripping him off, so you should probably take it in while you still can.

And finally – Johnny would have a fit if I mentioned Un Chien Andalou without linking to this.

Feel Good Hit of the Autumn

It’s a couple of years now since I added “go to the Burning Man Festival” to the long list of ambitions that I am destined never to fulfil, alongside “play in a rock band”, “run for President” and “make a living from blogging”. It may be for the best, since I’ve heard that it’s not as good as it used to be. If I ever did go I would probably just accelerate the rot, since I would be there purely to consume the spectacle rather than contribute to the creativity – though if anyone pulled me up for that I guess I could argue that all aesthetic endeavour is the result of the interaction between artist and audience, assuming that I could summon up the energy to make such a case after a few days wandering around stoned in the hot sun, gawping at the freaks.

Legend has it that Philip Rosedale was inspired to create Second Life after a trip to Burning Man in 1999. The man himself has debunked this, but there are interesting parallels between the way that die-hard burners complain that the festival has lost its way, and the general feeling among long-time SL residents that things aren’t the way they were, and are only going to get worse. Philip sort of addresses the question in this post, (which in summary says that what we have now in SL is terribly precious, but in order to move on everything has to be renewed), but his subsequent departure from day-to-day management at Linden Lab can only serve to deepen anxiety about where Second Life is headed.

Anyway, in lieu of actually making the effort to haul my bod up to the Nevada desert, I thought it would be cool to take in this year’s Burning Life. I had heard how great the event had been in the past of course, but I have to admit that I was expecting to be thouroughly underwhelmed.

I’m happy to say that my cynicism was entirely misplaced; I ended up spending about ten times as long as I had planned exploring the many and varied installations dotted around the virtual playa, and still had the feeling that I had barely scratched the surface. For the first time in ages I felt a real sense of the creative possibilities offered by Second Life, unsullied by the crass commercialism that too often clouds the grid experience.

The best part though was that there were other people around; friendly people who were willing to exchange opinions about the art and the music, or just have a chat. I know that Burning Life isn’t unique in that regard, but it is unusual to have so many agreeable types gathered together in such a small area.

After a couple of hours I was in such a good mood that even the drawbacks of the platform started to seem strangely endearing. The latest iteration of the SL viewer is far too heavy for my elderly box, obliging me to run it at the lowest graphics setting to avoid the sensation of wading through treacle. The short draw distance meant that each new installation loomed up in front of me as if emerging from a dust storm, greatly enhancing the verisimilitude of the experience.

If there was a disappointing aspect it was the music; in my imagination Burning Man is always soundtracked by Queens of the Stone Age, but try as I might I couldn’t find any robot rock on the many stages scattered around the site. Maybe I should rectify that next year with my own build.

I took lots of snapshots of the festival, but due to the aforementioned graphic limitations most of them are pretty poor; have a look at the Burning Life Flickr stream instead.

Sadly, due to my tragic inability to understand the relationship between SLT and GMT I missed the climatic burning of the Man by twelve hours:

burninglife01

There’s always next year I guess…

Ferrisburg, Vermont

Award-winning Second Life artist AM Radio has a new work, “The Red and the Wild” on display at the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts.

An empty house and a steam locomotive float eerily on the surface of a shallow sea. A dynamic red mass surges out of, or perhaps into, the upper storey of the building, exploding over the landscape. Cables radiate out from the house, leading to boxes containing mysterious artefacts. In the distance stands a row of water towers, brooding over the horizon.

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What does it all mean? In a Freudian analysis, a house would symbolise the human body, the open window suggesting a female form, while the locomotive and the water towers seem clearly phallic. The scarlet substance may be blood, or perhaps a representation of energy of some kind. Is it emanating from the building, or penetrating it? Are we witnessing an escape, or an intrusion?

I may be over-analysing this. Mr Radio, in the interviews he has given about the piece, says it was inspired in part by “Breakfast at Tiffany’s“, where Holly Golightly visualises her anxiety as a “mean red”. He also mentions that the house is based on one that he remembers from childhood. Looking inside the building reveals that the red has its origin in what looks like a crystal radio set. So maybe there is a message about containing anxiety by constructing your own reality/identity, something that Second Life is well suited to.

Or not. The ambiguity of the piece is a large part of its attraction. It’s like a Rorschach ink blot. My sexualised interpretation tells you more about me than it does about the artist or the work.

I’ve read a couple of pieces about AM Radio, but I haven’t heard him discuss his influences. I would say that his installations give more than a nod in the direction of surrealism, particularly the work of René Magritte. Doorways, windows, locomotives, are all recurring themes.

(As an aside, I vaguely remember seeing somewhere that someone had created an avatar with an apple for a face, after Magritte’s famous image. If I only imagined that, and no one has actually done it, I want to claim credit for the idea right now).

I like AM’s stuff, though I find it mostly intriguing rather than unsettling in the way that the best surrealist works are. I think the Second Life aesthetic is too clean to really invoke that dream/nightmare feeling that you get from someone like Max Ernst.

My favourite is probably the “Lost Highway” segment of “The Space Between these Trees“:

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Doors again. The Doors of Perception perhaps. I should drop some mescaline next time I log on, I might get more of a nightmare thing going.

Live from East 3rd Street

Johnny stopped poring over the blog statistics just long enough to suggest that I do another piece about vampires, or Star Trek, or, ideally, vampires and Star Trek. So we beamed up to the Enterprise sick-bay to recreate this touching scene from “The Man Trap“, the first-ever episode of the original series:

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Johnny is Dr McCoy and I’m his long-lost love – or so he thinks. I’m actually an alien salt-vampire, who lures her victims to their doom by assuming the form of their deepest desire. It ends unhappily for one of us, you can probably guess who.

With that nonsense out of the way I was free to sample some rather higher culture with a visit to “@“, an exhibition curated by the Ars Virtua gallery, that I had read about a month or so ago. The preview on the gallery website promises an examination of “the nature of space, place and the observer, the interplay between the observer and the observed, and the way in which location and “placeness” define or conscribe experience”, which sounded interesting. The show is (or was) presented simultaneously in Second Life and in real life, at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles, with visitors at each location able to see into the other gallery in real time:

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Or not as the case may be – by the time I visited the non-virtual part of the show had already closed, and I think the video feed from LA must have been frozen, since there was no sign of life.

I ended up spending about an hour at the show, but I came away a bit disappointed. As I have often found in Second Life, the concept outlined in the preview worked a lot better than the actual realisation. For example, here’s the description of one of the pieces: “Oberon Onmura creates, destroys, and re-creates a megalithic tower or beacon which hints visually at the works of Donald Judd. The work creates a rhythm for the space that is pleasing to watch from afar but possible to participate in from up close”, and here’s how it looks:

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To be fair, this picture doesn’t really give a sense of the impressive scale of the work, and you can’t see how it dynamically constructs and deconstructs itself, but even so I think that comparing it with the work of Donald Judd is a bit hyperbolic.

I didn’t feel my hour was totally wasted though, which isn’t something that I can always say after spending time in Second Life. Even if it didn’t fulfil all my expectations the show did, as it promised to, make me think about the nature of virtual space and its relationship with the real world.

After the exhibition I wandered around the neighbourhood, and right next door to the gallery was the House of Night, a vampire-themed dance club. There’s just no getting away from them.