19 April 2018

Storm Septimus's "Untitled": A Not-So-New Installation (Revised)


As Storm sent me a notecard objecting to my assertions, I decided to revise and replace the post, clarifying some items, placing less weight on others, and presenting evidence for my claims. Also. my argument involves certain "weights and balances" judgments, and people may weigh them differently.

Storm Septimus has an impressive and moving installation, which she has left untitled, that recently opened at LEA28. Enormous statues of men in chains and anthropomorphic monsters stand on or support floating islands, one island bearing a garden, and on the largest one, a shambled scene including a church and graveyard. Everywhere there are various types of human detritus such as ruins, a shipwreck, medical equipment, manikin parts, and severed limbs. In a few locations, insects crawl about. All of it is shrouded by a dark, foreboding sky. Inara Pey wrote an excellent description and interpretation of it here.

According to the announcement on the LEA blog, there is a notecard about the installation, but unfortunately I never found it. I visited the installation several times, including with an alt, but no luck. The installation has several signs about Virtual Ability (a support group for people with various types of disability) and a notecard describing its work, but the relationship between the group and the installation is not presented in an explicit manner. That work is done symbolically, which Inara portrays well.

My usual posts (aside from the ones about Split Screen) do something similar to Inara's by assessing and interpreting the work. In this post, however, I want to address two issues concerning artists' practices. I have two problems with the installation.

The first is that (as Storm herself acknowledges in the LEA blog announcement) the installation can be severely demanding on one's computer. This of course varies depending on your computer; it also depends on the location within the installation. My own computer isn't top of the line, but it's fairly robust, enough that I can run it at a notch below Ultra and still get a decent frame rate. In Storm's installation, in some spots I got a respectable 35 FPS. In one place, however, I shot down to 4-5 FPS, and setting graphics to Low gave no improvement. I raise this point because even though I want artists to use SL's resources as much as possible, I also want their work to be seen by as many people as possible. For that reason I have deep concerns when only people who can afford high-end computers are able to enjoy the art. (I have similar concerns about some of Bryn Oh's sim-sized installations.)

The second problem is far more serious, but it's an issue which requires people to make judgment calls, and people may judge differently. My problem is this: as far as I could tell, extremely little of the installation -- and not one major item -- was created by Storm herself.

As this is an extremely alarming charge, I must present evidence. I don't normally run around checking who made what, but once in a while something makes me curious. So I do what most people do: use Edit. The method isn't foolproof, so if you really want to dig down, there's the Inspect mode buried deep in the right-click menus. Something or other caught my attention in Storm's build, so I looked. And then I looked at other things. And many more things.

For this post, I'm going to focus on just a few parts of the installation. Below are some screenshots including the properties shown by the Inspect mode. You will have to enlarge the photos to see the properties.

At the landing point there are four huge statues of men in chains:

As you see, the properties indicate the creator was MedievalFantasy. You may compare it with the following item in the Marketplace:

Inside the church on the large island, there's this figure:

The middle line indicates that the large figure is a "Monster human tree," also by MedievalFantasy:

According to the properties, what we see below are "Petrified Trees" by Kadaj Yoshikawa:

Kadaj Yoshikawa sells them in the Marketplace under the business name Harshlands:

A shipwreck by Fox Nacht:

And here is the image in Fox Nacht's ad:

Finally, under the large island there are four enormous beasts, which the properties show were made by Qutsal Alex:

In this case I didn't find a similar object in the Marketplace or at the creator's inworld store, but the properties still tell the tale.

You can check for yourself if my evidence is correct, and who the creators are for everything else. I stopped at twenty different people, but that probably includes makers of minor elements like rocks. (But it's worth mentioning that I've worked with artists who make their own rocks.)

It's conceivable, of course, that one or even two of the creators displayed through Edit or Inspect are actually Storm's alts, but it's difficult to imagine that all of them are, particularly not the ones with Marketplace stores. It's also possible that a couple are friends who had useful items which they willingly contributed. The biggest stumbling block, however, is that the most prominent or compelling items are by someone else. Even if she bought everything full-perms, that doesn't escape the issue.

Another possible explanation can be imagined: maybe everything was created by members of Virtual Ability. But as I mentioned, nothing in the build -- no sign, no notecard, no statement in the LEA blog announcement -- suggests they were contributors. In fact in the LEA post Storm comments that it was "worth mentioning" that the area has a section on the work of Virtual Ability -- which implies the group did not provide materials for the build itself. Aside what the build may show metaphorically, the sole direct association with disability is a wheelchair on one of the floating islands.

"OK," one may ask, "let's say she used almost entirely materials by other people. So what?"

Now we get to the judgment call issues. Personally, I don't object to artists using others' creations for certain things -- for example, decor like chairs and (in this installation) umbrellas, or basic terrain features like rocks and water textures -- and it's not at all unusual for artists to use other people's scripted items, such as teleport doors and sitting animations. There's no reason for people to re-invent the wheel, particularly when creating a sim-sized installation.

I'm also aware of the artistic use of "found objects" (objets trouvés) in RL. But with found objects, it's obvious that someone else made the item at hand, and that the artist's work resides in recontextualizing the object for aesthetic perception -- and usually the original object bears no particular indication of aesthetic intent in itself. Duchamp did not make the urinal he so famously put on display as art, and no-one thought he had.

In fair-use terms, the question concerns "transformative" activity. For example, under US law, thumbnail images of an entire work of art is considered fair use (with some conditions). Within SL, one can say similar things about Eupalinos Ugajin's work: he uses numerous items that one can readily assume other people made, but he combines, re-purposes, and radically recontextualizes them in a manner that creates a very recognizable style.

The questions Storm's installation raises are: (1) in what ways does an artist use other people's work; (2) how much of another creator's work can be borrowed or purchased for the final work to still be considered the artist's; (3) whether the other creators should receive credit (e.g., in a notecard); and (4) whether the overall artistic achievement is enough to legitimize using extremely large amounts of others' art. Readers will each have to make their own assessments. For me, the installation crossed a line. Which believe me, takes some doing.

First, context makes a difference. People like to give their privately-owned land a special "feel" by purchasing objects (sometimes including artworks) and presenting them in a way they like, which is a legitimate creative activity. It's a type of exterior decorating. It's fair and generally doesn't imply that the artworks are original. But at a LEA sim or museum or art installation space, one enters with a reasonable assumption that most of what one sees was created by the artist. Usually that's the only name one reads. In the case of Storm's installation, there's certainly no obvious reason (such as information on a sign) to think components like the statues aren't her own work, at least as of this writing.

The items Storm Septimus uses are clearly artistic items in their own right. For that reason I don't think they can be considered "found objects." The transformative activity appears to consist of selecting the items, arranging and combining them for the desired effect, and dealing with the ground and sky. One can resize and retexture a mesh object that allows modification, but it's not possible to (say) twist or cut it.

Still, as I mentioned, thumbnail images of entire works, like the ones in Google's image search, can be considered fair use. But the reason turns on an important aspect of "transformative activity": the purpose or intended effect. Google's use of thumbnails is acceptable because their purpose isn't to instantiate or substitute for the full-sized original, their purpose is to serve as an index -- a way to find the original. That's a transformative purpose. Similarly, parody is accepted because the original is ridiculed, which is a significant transformation.

When I apply the same principles to Storm's installation, what I find are objects which were originally meant as images of horror, agony, and so forth, being used as figures of horror, agony, and so forth. They are not, for example, turned into figures of fun. They are used in cumulative effect to strengthen the same general feelings.

As a result, I don't think the way Storm combined and arranged them is sufficiently transformative to treat the installation "her" work. I think I'd feel more or less the same way even if the original creators were all credited on a sign or in a notecard, because the original creators' works generate and govern the effect of the overall installation. And I say this even though I found the installation impressive, moving, and beautifully arranged.

Other people may weigh the factors differently. Some may consider what Storm has done completely acceptable. Some may find it ethically troubling but on balance it can pass. And so forth. For me, the installation crossed a line.

But there is more to this than Storm individually.

Storm's installation is scarcely the only case I've seen of "creating" art by using many other people's work as if it were their own, with (in my view) inadequate transformational labor. I see such over-use all the time. Storm's is merely the most egregious example I've seen.

In addition, there's a problem that's much harder to catch. According to a couple people I've talked to, some artists obtain a mesh file which they then import into SL. In that situation, they'll appear to be the actual creator, and no-one will be the wiser (aside from the few who know, although a couple of times I've noticed the similarity myself). I've been frustrated to learn that a couple installations at Split Screen have foregrounded work by other people. I think it's extremely troubling that people make implicit claims of originality that they don't actually live up to.

Some people create items specifically so others can utilize them -- different clothing designers, for instance, may purchase the same mesh from someone, but then apply their own textures, which is completely acceptable and I doubt any shopper is misled for long. On the other hand, creating "original mesh" is often a selling point. Also, people in SL of all sorts tend to have a rather cavalier attitude toward using other people's work. But in art, the standards are usually higher. It's not just a question of giving other people credit for their contributions (although there ought to be much more of that): the whole point is transformative creativity. People may gauge it differently, but they do have to gauge it.

One of Storm's friends told me I should be more respectful and understanding, not just to Storm, but to all artists. To me, this sounds like saying everybody should be patted on the head and praised. I refuse to treat artists like four-year-olds. Occasionally an artist has asked me for my thoughts on a work in progress, and I respect them precisely by giving my honest opinion -- which they are free to consider or disregard, and I know it.

I think it's important to create good art in SL, and that it should get more respect from the outside world. It can't do that without criticism. In addition, every artist has to expect criticism and consider its possible validity. Actors' very livelihood is affected by reviews, and they have to be tough enough to take it. Students get graded. As a published scholar, I have to withstand criticism all the time: it's called peer review. Criticism is how any person and any field grows and improves.

You can judge for yourself. Storm's installation is certainly impressive, artistic, and compelling. The question is, "Is that enough?"

20 January 2018

Women's March in NYC 2018

I thought I'd share some of my photos from the Women's March in New York City. The official count is that there were 120,000 200,000 marchers here. I wouldn't be surprised if it were actually more.

I didn't take any photos of the Trump Tower because eww. In the last photo, the two little girls in the window waved at us and we waved at them, exciting them very much and so there was lots of waving back and forth, and when the drummers (the crew in blue in one of the photos above) were having at it, you could see them sort of dancing in the window. I'd say they're off to a good start in learning they have power!

19 October 2017

Theda Tammas's "Dissected Soul" at Split Screen

Dissected Soul by Theda Tammas is now open at Split Screen. In this intriguing work, bodies are fractured, contorted, ripped through with holes. A red thread connects many of them, and much of the thread bears loops of barbed wire. The centerpiece is a heart shattering into small pieces which fly into the air. And all of it lies in a shallow lake that reflects a dramatically chiaroscuro sky.

Click to enlarge

Thinking of her installation, Theda quotes a poem by Fernando Pessoa:
I don’t know how many souls I have, I’ve changed at every moment. I always feel like a stranger. I’ve never seen or found myself.
Dissected Soul is at Split Screen's temporary spaee at LEA15 through December: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/LEA15/59/190/43