21 December 2010

Net Neutrality! ... Not ...

Today, the US's Federal Communications Commission, which (cough) "regulates" telephone, television and some other communications media, decided on a set of regulations that pretend to adhere to "net neutrality" (Internet service providers have to be neutral regarding the source, content and destination of Internet traffic) but in fact undermine it. Most dramatically, ISPs will be able to treat wired and wireless Internet differently; landline service providers are supposed to maintain neutrality, but wireless companies can impose restrictions on the rapidly growing wireless segment. Apps and services can be blocked on iPhones and similar devices. In addition, the ISPs aren't prevented from creating "fast lanes" for their own content or for content providers that can pay for them (which they've been eager to do). The landline ISPs can also introduce tiered pricing based on how much broadband you use, and block programs that they claim cause network congestion. Basically, they can separate the Internet into (so to speak) a zippy private corporate wholesale system, and a slower retail market for customers like you and me and the small startup companies that provide most of the innovations in Internet services. (Unfortunately I'm depending on media reports of the decision; I've been unable to download the ruling from the FCC itself....)

The US already has distinctly mediocre Internet service. According to Speedtest.net, Gizmodo, cnetTechKnowTimes and other sources, the US ranks only around 30th in Internet speeds, with speeds lagging at anywhere from 1/4th to 1/12th of the top-ranked countries, depending on which figures you use. Many parts of the country still make do with the dialup modem service; some still have nothing!  Now it looks like we'll be even less well served by the major ISPs than we already were.

None of this bodes well for the increasing use of the Internet for all forms of telecommunications -- the Web, music, TV, voice, etc. I'm not myself a huge eater of bandwidth, although my usage has certainly edged upward, particularly after I cancelled my cable TV service some months ago and now watch my 1-2 hours a week online. But I have plenty of friends who might as well live and die on broadband. And virtual worlds like Second Life don't do well on slow connections.

Botgirl Questi recently commented on the stagnation of virtual world growth, arguing for the importance of browser-based access, and suggesting that
OpenSim Hypergrid technology (or something like it) is the way ahead for those of us who want to continue to push forward the old-school Full Monty experience. An integrated system of grids owned by small businesses, non-profits and private individuals will not have the kind of financial pressures that necessitate the kind of growth that investors in venture-backed companies demand.
Botgirl ought to be right. Along with browser-based access, there should be access through mobile apps. But under this ruling, one has to wonder how well small businesses, non-profits and private individuals, or for that matter Linden Labs, will be able to provide access of any sort to the worlds they create, or whether they'll simply get pushed aside. As the behemoth telecommunications corporations make the world safer for themselves, I have to question whether the "small fish" really won't have the sort of financial pressures she speaks of. I suspect the opposite is coming true.

05 December 2010

Split Screen's opening

The opening of the Split Screen Installation Space went far better than I could have hoped. During the first three days there were around 100 visitors (some of whom came twice), and people have been enthusiastic about the works themselves. Already a couple of artists have asked me about working there.

In fact a lot has gone better than I could have hoped for. When I approached Bryn Oh, I knew she had her hands full with the opening of "Standby," so I simply asked for her to put in her Burn 2 build. When it turned out that wasn't feasible due to the parcel's prim limits, I suggested she put up something else she'd already completed, and she said she probably had something that would fit the bill. But instead, she created an entirely new work. And not just something in her typical mode: although still quite clearly a work by Bryn Oh, "Mayfly" is quite distinctive, perhaps unique, possibly even part of some new directions Bryn seems to be taking. It is a nature setting. It has no robots, no steampunk creatures. Her windlight setting is naturalistic. "Mayfly" does center on her signature insects, but even these are different: they aren't mechanoid, they are wholly organic in appearance.

Miso Susanowa's piece is similarly unusual. Music and sound are normally key parts of her work. But not "Chroma." One person even asked me to confirm that nothing had gone wrong: there is in fact no sound component. Miso put in some sounds but decided they distracted and detracted from the piece. This is a wholly visual work, involving various layers of moving textures that interact in unexpected ways, creating effects that sweep from the pellucid to the psychedelic to the impermeable, sometimes in seconds. Figures appear -- a woman dancing, a couple talking, others -- perhaps suddenly to be obscured by waves of light. Equally suddenly one fines a clear path; turn just a fraction and it vanishes.

In a way, both artists also took a page from the other's book.  Not intentionally or even unconsciously, of course. But in many respects Miso's "Chroma" is a cam build, requiring the viewer to move her camera to different places and try various angles, involving a level of viewer camera skills similar to those needed by Bryn's numerous cam builds. And for her part, in "Mayfly" Bryn has created perhaps her most meditative and peaceful work ever, elements often to be found in Miso's builds, such as her Temple of Sound and the "Solar Symphony" (to some extent even in "Chroma").

Several people have asked me if there was an opening event.  Unfortunately, for various reasons there wasn't. The main issue was that homestead sims allow only 20 avatars at a time, which would be fine if Split Screen occupied the entire sim, but it shares the region with residents whose access shouldn't be blocked. So I would have to either arrange a time when they don't plan to be home, or (better) temporarily restrict the number of people with access to Split Screen in order to schedule the event at a time good for both me and the artists, and I had my hands full enough already. Seeing how many people came to Split Screen during the first couple of days (and considering how many people turned up to the opening concert at Bryn's "Standby"), probably I was right to be wary of inviting lots of people to a party.

Now that things have quieted down, I can think about organizing an event. BUT: if I decide simply to restrict how many people can attend, one option is to invite only members of the Split Screen group. You can join from one of the signs in Split Screen or by searching for it in Groups. You heard it here first...

Later edit: I tried to pull together something for this month, but unluckily, with the holidays nothing worked out.  But I expect I'll manage one for the opening of the next pair of installations.

01 December 2010

Split Screen opens with Bryn Oh & Miso Susanowa

About a month and a half ago, I noticed that half of a homestead sim near my house was for sale, and with it, I saw an opportunity to do something I've long wished to do, in a form I can actually afford, and from a sim owner I trust.

I leapt at the chance.

I am pleased and excited to announce the opening of the Split Screen Installation Space, where 1-2 artists at a time will have two months to create and display a relatively large installation, preferably of the sort not possible in real life. I hope that from time to time I can provide space to artists who haven't had much opportunity to create large builds.  But I'm delighted that the artists who are helping me launch Split Screen are two of SL's most notable: Bryn Oh and Miso Susanowa.

At Split Screen North, Miso has built "Chroma," in which she returns to the pixel magic that drew her into computer art in the first place -- the interactions of red, blue, green, and luminance. Within the moving, glowing colors, she has placed various figures which become visible if you place your camera just right. Along with being a tribute to the foundations of computer graphics, it is a celebration of the Season of Lights.

At Split Screen South, Bryn created "Mayfly," a new work that consists entirely of a natural environment -- something I don't think I've seen her make before. Dare I say, it's lovely? It might be unique within Bryn's oeuvre. Be sure to pick up the notecard for the Windlight sky setting, and watch the machinima as well (either at the site or from here). The first time I saw "Mayfly," someone was already relaxing there!

Both works will be on view throughout December, after which I hope to have two other artists come in. So visit soon!

I am grateful to both artists for their willingness to help me kick off Split Screen. I have already begun looking for the next artist(s), and I welcome applications. Here is a fuller description of Split Screen and its goals from the notecard I'm using in-world.

The Split Screen Installation Space is part of a homestead sim, set aside for artists and builders to develop a large installation and exhibit it for a set time. In general, one or two artists will use the space for two months (give or take), and then another artist will take over.

Depending on circumstances and goals, a quarter or half of the sim will be available.  Homesteads allow fewer prims, scripts and avatars than regular sims. A quarter sim has a little over 900 prims to work with. However, aside from that restriction, creators can use scripts, have music/media streams, build in the sky, terraform, set a landing point, etc.

I am mostly interested in work that either is impossible in real life, or in some manner deeply involves or challenges its audience, or is a lot of fun, etc. The space is meant for large builds that utilize the possibilities of Second Life as an artistic or immersive medium.

I am also particularly interested in giving opportunities to creators who have had not yet created many or any larger works, and can use an opportunity to think big and experiment.

Machinimatographers are welcome to film in the space, provided they credit the artist(s) and the Split Screen Installation Space itself. (Please note: my permissions do not extend to the residential areas on the rest of the sim.)

Creators may sell their works from vendor boxes/panels, and I don't plan to charge a commission. Please do not use more than three vendors -- if you want more than that, I'll give you a multi-object vendor. In general, installation pieces should not be vendors themselves; besides, you may want "touch" scripts.

I will use a few prims for an information kiosk, tipjar, etc., to be located in a mutually agreeable spot.

People are welcome to ask me about working in the Split Screen space, and I'll be happy to hear about artists who might benefit the opportunity. Send me a notecard in-world or an email describing your ideas, along with a landmark or SLURL so I can see some of your work. If you'd like to know more about what sorts of things interest me, it may help to see my blog.

I'm sure I'll revise this statement of intent as I go along, but as you can see, Split Screen aims to be a micro-version of Caerleon, the New Media Consortium, etc. I'll have to think about how -- or whether -- I should blog about the artists I support, so stay tuned. But I'm looking forward to promoting SL art not just through commentary, but also through direct support.

I want to thank Syzygy Merlin, who owns the sim where the Split Screen Installation Space is located, and the sim where I live. She deserves credit for letting me use half of a residential homestead in order to undertake this venture. I'd also like to thank Miso for creating Split Screen's logo (final version to be unveiled soon).

Finally, on the financial front, in order to lessen the burden on any one person (i.e., me), strengthen Split Screen's existence, and create the possibility of its expansion, I am inviting people to become regular monthly donors. I'm happy to say, one person has already stepped up to the plate -- Kara Trapdoor -- and a couple of others are at least thinking about it. Even small amounts will go a long way. Donors get a special group tag and the pleasure of becoming an acknowledged source of continuous support for the arts (and maybe other perks in the future). Please contact me if you're interested!

[For those of you who are wondering if I know what I'm getting myself into: yep, I'm aware that relationships between artists and patrons can be tricky, as described for example in the editorial written by NMC's Larry Johnson, aka Larry Pixel, and the many responses to it. I already had a mild brush with an artist who visited the space. So hopefully I'm going into this with open eyes, and a sufficiently thick skin.]

16 November 2010

Schoeffer Tower at Gallery Diabolus

Over the past several weeks there has been a "cybernetic tour" and performance at Gallery Diabolus, part of CARP (Cybernetic Art Research Project), focused on a construction of the Tower of Light that Nicolas Schöffer had designed for Paris.  Schöffer is described as the "father of cybernetic art," and the Gallery is a tribute to his work.  On its nine levels are pieces by SL artists Dancoyote Antonelli, Velazquez Bonetto, Josina Burgess, Artistide Despres, Glyph Graves, Werner Kurosawa, Merlino Mayo, Bryn Oh, and shellina Winkler.  Most of the works are reactive or interactive.

The tour is an excellent way to introduce someone (like that newbie who just latched onto you) to NPIRL art, and it's worthwhile for those of us already acquainted with many of the artists' work.  The tour script-controls your camera and seat, so you see every level from various angles.  It concludes with a performance of "Alien Bolero" directed by Medora Chevalier, danced to Ravel's famous orchestral composition "Bolero" (a real treat!).  Unfortunately one can't dance it oneself, so come to a performance, it's well worth it. [Edit: there's a machinima by Debbie Trilling.]

A few photos:

The tours and performances at the Tower of Light will continue over the next several Sundays at 1:00 PM SLT.

12 November 2010

Interview with Miso Susanowa: Sound Visionary

I interviewed Miso Susanowa for the new issue of Scruplz Magazine, which I've reproduced below.  Below it I've added a part of the conversation which I had to cut for length.

Miso Susanowa’s art can easily mislead a visitor. One can stop by her shop and gallery, closely view her pieces, and go. But to experience and understand her work, first you have to open your . . . ears. For Miso is unusual among Second Life artists, because of the importance she gives to music and sound. Turn up the volume, touch the works around you, and listen.
Miso’s fascination with music and sounds began when she was a child, and she started working with computer-mediated communication from the very beginnings of the Internet. In an interview, we discussed the way she combines sound and sculpture within Second Life.
Dividni Shostakovich: Do you have particular ways of connecting your sound work to visual elements?

Miso Susanowa: Well, not really. Sometimes I will start with a sound, but often it is shapes that I begin with. I am less a builder here than a sculptor. I made the decision early on not to go around and see too much artwork, and to let the world and the tools speak to me. I spend a lot of time here staring at the ocean or a shape or the build tab. One thing I know from my online history is that you can get caught up in this kind of ticking clock thing, like you should be doing something. But that isn’t really how you do things in the atom world. You take rests, you sit and relax. I built the Garden of Sound because LA was being very intense for me, sound/noisewise and density wise. So the Garden was actually my escape, my peace, my slow-down spot, my meditation place.

So I’d sit and I’d play with shapes and scripts. My flowers were some of my first. And I thought, well, I could put sound in them. That led me to think about the stuff I liked—Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Brian Eno—especially because of the sound limitations in SL. I had done loop-music, “ambient” music a long time. SL made me rethink that in terms of 10-second loops and how I could spatialized them, make the same kind of music, the long-wave music I did in RL, in SL.

The Flowers became a series where I was working with spatializing sound, trying to make the loops not sound so repetitive but still be Riley-esque. I would keep each Flower that I did on a master track. Then the next Flower was tuned to that one, so that they would harmonize. Most of the Flowers work together as a composition.

DS: So a person can select some Flowers, and create a personal composition simply from those choices.

MS: Yes, that is the other main and integral thing I am working with here, with my gaming and VRML [Virtual Reality Modeling Language] background, where you explore everything. You don’t know what is a clue, like in Myst or Under a Killing Moon or Blade Runner, so you examine everything. It’s very interactive. So I make many of my multiple-sound pieces as touch-start instead of sensor. Then people can compose, or remix or whatever you want to call it—get involved, adjust, play with. That is one of the things about these worlds that is not like the web: you are interactive. It’s still hard! I see people never touch or explore things here. Many people don’t realize my work has sound. I could use sensors, but that is a rather passive, television-like thing. I demonstrate my “Solar Symphony” for people and then let them play with it. It’s really cool to watch them actually focus in and try different things and listen and be part of the process.

DS: One of your recent works, “code dreams,” was at the Art Breakers show at the Pop Art Lab. It might be described as a meditation on the dangers, pleasures and possibilities of human-computer interaction, centered around the concept of identity. How did you develop the ideas for its structure and contents?

MS: Well, many of the pieces in “code dreams” have come from the Garden. Really, it is the same theme I have been working with, but hasn’t been focused in one place yet. When Binary Quandry approached me about the show, I was very excited because it was a focus on sound, the whole show, which is unusual here. There’s a lot more graphics than sound in SL. And I’d had a previous piece which dealt with something I have studied a long time online, that of self image and projection. This is an issue as an artist I have dealt with a long time: who am I? Am I all the labels my parents, my teachers, my friends put on me? The existential question, right? So, at first I put up some Flowers, some small pieces. I realized I could expand my Garden and actually all my single piece works into a thematic statement of this question, who am I? And there’s a lot of bloggery about this now, and with Caerleon doing the Identity series: “is SL real?”

This is a stupid question to me, after all the communities I have been involved in. A voice on the telephone is “not real” in that it isn’t even an analog movement of air now. It’s all digital now. But that person is real, of course, as is a letter writer, or the electrons you see on TV that are people. I wanted to engage that question and take it further, with my experience with Jungian analysis and quantum physics. Quantum mechanics also says we are not real; we are at best whirling atomic particles . . . or waves . . . they aren’t sure :)

Einstein engaged this question, as did the Copenhagen Interpretation and Heisenberg. Yet we are real to us, and a solid oak table will hurt my foot if I kick it. Einstein, and Jung, and Sufis and the rest all agree: this is both real and not-real. It is an observer phenomenon. We participate. Jungian analysis will show you that most people are not a truly defined “I.” We are a collection of personas that are stronger or weaker in situations. So I see no difference between the “persona” of an avatar and the “persona” of a person who is one way at work, another with a lover, a third with children. They are all real in some way, parts of a human’s being.

That became the entire theme: what is real, what is definition, and who decides. People were talking about SL and computer code. I realized I could show my other background by taking the same issue into biology. After all, at base we are 90-something percent water. A handful of chemicals. A few simple amino acids. And some electricity.

But to say a woman or man or animal is just that is silly. It is sophomoric. Chemicals do not explain the Sistine Chapel. Or philosophy. Or Beethoven. Or why such things connect with us and move us no matter what nationality or race or sex we are.

DS: It’s reductive.

MS: Yes, and this is a great modern problem, reductionism, a poison from the Industrial Revolution. We are sadly hurting for generalists now. It’s affecting progress, it is discussed in many academic places. Many techs discuss it frequently. Innovation is falling. It’s worrisome. So, in “code dreams” I tried to bring out all these reductionist things. The AGCT amino acids of biology, the 1 and 0 of computers. I show that to think of such things in such a way is both stupid and ultimately denigrating yourself, computers, anything.

In “code dreams” I brought together my music, and tried to show people how my world is for me, awash in sound, like a painting but in the ear. And I used symbols of my life—the girl’s bed, the mirror, the plants. The toys I made of such concepts as identity and time and biology. How those facts enrich my life, my understanding. But yet . . . all a dream. We are all dreaming here, as both psychologists and shamans will tell us. So to me, SL is a magic mirror. People show me parts of themselves through avatar, dress, work they do. That is no less real than what they show me in atom life.

DS: By the time this interview comes out, Burn2 will have passed, but the readers may have seen “House of Cards,” which you created with Xenophile Neurocam. Can you tell me a little about it?

MS: “House of Cards” began as a silly idea, part haunted house and part disgruntled reaction to some of the business decisions Linden Labs is making. Especially with my history of watching worlds and communities like Geocities fold, and There.com, and the like. The structure of the haunted house gradually evolved through meditating about these issues, and the architecture was influenced by the theme of Burn2, the film Metropolis.

House of Cards” is a theatre of memory for the evolution of communities on the Net. The bottom floor is the Iron Age—the hardware stuff, TCP/IP, kermit, BBSes—so it is all rusted iron, “heavy metal” as we used to call the big mainframes. The second floor is the Steam Age: a cathedral of stained glass, the laying down of the railroad tracks of the Web. It features textures of all my old worlds, the mothers of SL: Alphaworld, Cybertown, etc. The top floor is the Industrial Age, where we are now, and features most of the existing grid worlds. But all the walls are thin and have playing card backing textures. Nothing is precisely aligned either, as when you make a real house of cards. The figure on top represents both The Avatar and Maria of Metropolis. She has scaled this tenuous House of Cards in her search for the future, for the new worlds, the hypergrid, the dream we all have here. The soundtrack’s base is made entirely of computer and telephone sounds. As you rise, you hear other sounds and music. Building up to the top floor, where you hear the Great Music. And you will hear other things, notably Phillip Linden speaking about SL. :D

But under all of it you will still hear the telephone and the computers, the basis of this world here and others. Along the way are fallen pages, or cards, of worlds past or gone or backwatered. Also, ghosts of Lindens gone—Blue, Robin, Pathfinder—good people. All as playing cards.

From far back the lower building appears as a being, as the M-machine, Moloch, in Metropolis. I worry about the good people being left, or the worlds, in this quest for . . . monetization? I watched the worlds come apart before from this. It set the web back ten years. Imagine what SL would be now if that development hadn’t stopped. That is my anxiety about SL, because of course I love it. As Bryn Oh helped me do, I was able to articulate not just my fears and disappointments but what I come here for—the wonder, the creativity, the people, the hope.

Metropolis also has these themes. And it is an old theme. How much of our cities are we to sacrifice for? When does a city become a trap and not a joy? These issues are very old in the atom world and they are becoming important in the digital. “House of Cards” is not only a warning but a memory of the beauty and magic that came before SL and led to it, and my own personal feeling that expanding the grids outside LL is the best thing to do. Propagate the worlds, so they can’t all fall at once and break someone else’s heart.

I am very pleased with “House of Cards.” And Xenophile was a wonderful partner. He remembers all this too, the progression, so he got it right away.

Miso Susanowa’s Garden of Sound is at secondlife://Craigavon/48/223/67.

Here are some additional portions of our interview, preceding the discussion of "House of Cards":
DS: There’s an interesting contrast in your work that I’d like to discuss. Your larger pieces include what might be described as “New Age” pieces such as Shinden no Kagetsu (Temple of the Radiant Moon), and political installations such as “State of Mind.” Some people might see those as a strange combination. How do you see them?

MS: My work all comes from my passion and involvement in life. No human being is polarized. I spent many years exploring meditation and spiritual working, to help balance myself, to find some personal peace. “State” came about from my knowledge of the net’s very beginnings and what it has gone through, and what is happening now: a struggle for control of this medium. But this medium is my home, more than any physical place. So my passion for “State” came from my home being threatened. There’s been a struggle for control of the Net since Microsoft started with its code pollution. People forget that television was originally spoken of in the same way the Net is now: as a tool for community, for artists and moms and communication. It was taken over and subsumed to corporate interests. And it’s been being assaulted by those same forces for 20 years now. So I am very passionate about that. “State” was an ugly piece to do. I knew quite a lot because I follow such things closely, but I put in solid 8-hour days for two months for “State.” It was quite depressing. “State” was a piece I had to do as an exorcism, to manifest my fears and frustration. At first I didn’t plan to show it at all.

“Code dreams” can be seen as the other side of that, or perhaps as one other side of Miso. Parts of my life: both “State” and code dreams. I hate politics. I wrote a political blog [in the mid 1990s]. That was another thing that burnt me out in 1999. So I try to avoid them now. But the Net is my home, and I will fight for my home. “State” is me fighting; “code dreams” is me being Miso, the flower girl—dreaming, playing. Puppies and kittens :D

DS: And the Temple as well, as a place for peace and tranquillity.

MS: Yes! Actually I had a house there to begin with. And I made the Earth Sphere as a relaxation meditative sound to block out the Los Angeles cacophony. Then the Temple just talked to me—the idea of a place to work with the sound work I had been pursuing with ancient systems of music and healing. I follow a doctor at UCLA who is the authority on sonic healing, she knits bones with sound. And I had studied ancient musics, mode and frequency. Some organ keys in the great cathedrals are separated from the pedals, you cannot play them, because certain notes at certain frequencies have undesirable physical effects. One of which I know, is that one will make you fart! Which isn’t good in church. But most everyone has seen films of a bridge tearing apart under soldier’s feet from resonance, and this is why they are ordered to walk out of step crossing such structures. Tesla also did fascinating work in this.

So, the Temple became a place to make pure sine waves and pursue this research. Pauline Oliveros did a lot of work in this field. The sines for the Temple were very hard. Because of the wave shapes, making the cuts to make them looped was awful. It took days for each wave, to get rid of click artifacts that would happen if the wave was not cut precisely on a curve. And to then mix in binaural beat patterns, which are well-known. Very, very difficult, I almost gave it up. The higher frequencies were murder. Easy enough to generate at home but in SL ... ugh. But I finally got the last two to work.

DS: The SL environment must present a lot of different technical challenges.

MS: Yes, especially because sound seems to take a back seat here. Yes, you can stream, but native inworld sound is very primitive, although the FMOD [sound] engine used in the browser is well-known and used for much more complex things. It’s a sore point with sound people. A real world’s sound informs you a lot more than people pay attention to: depth, time, space, relational geometry—ask a deaf person. But most people don’t consider it much. How much the sense of hearing is integral. It’s just intuitive. Many people know at least rudimentary color theory. But many less know rudimentary sound theory. Not music theory. But it is critical to engineering, for example, sonic stress on tension cables and so on. Standing waves, resonant frequencies. Engineers must know these things or face dire consequences in, say, a high wind. or with 1000 people walking across a floor.

So the Temple is a great experiment, especially because the computer can accurately reproduce the sines. And with headphones, where you get the binaural effects. Binaurals wont work in speakers. They do not make the phantom synergistic beat in the middle of the brain. You must always use headphones for such sound. You hear overtones which aren’t really there. They are the sum of the sides, and it only happens in your head. When it does, it entrains the two halves of the brain to synchronize. Your brain hears, say an A=440 in one side of the headphones. In the other it hears a D=880. Your own brain will make the harmonic sum of 660, which will pulse because it’s being affected by both other frequencies. That pulsing is interior to the brain, it is the halves of the brain trying to sync up the sound. It’s the same way some visual effects strobing, moire patterns, yantras, can work on the optic nerves. In fact the walls of the Temple are a particular shade of violet that is known to stimulate the pineal through the optic nerve. As are the colors of the spheres, they are the sine waves only raised by powers to the visual. Because of course it is all waves. Sound becomes light. Light becomes rock if carried low enough. All harmonics of the fundamental frequencies. Which wraps us back to physics.
Miso and I talked of much else, including her activity in the early days of the Internet and her escapades in the punk music scene.  If you ever meet her, ask.

07 November 2010

Return of the Flux!

Once upon a time, there was the Bogon Flux. In a land inhabited by eerie creatures with one large eye on a mechanical stalk, rats, an enormous (and equally ratty) couch, and other oddities, it was a crazy, ramshackle steampunk build that grew from a smallish tower to a gigantic mishmash of rooms, tubes, outhouses and god knows what that you could wander through, soon getting entirely lost, and then tumbling out as it blew itself apart, sending pieces into the sky and onto the ground. And it was good. It was very good. And it went away.

Months and months passed. More than a year. Lovers of lunacy long lamented the loss.

Now, blotto Epsilon and Cutea Benelli, creators of Bogon Flux, have brought us the Petrovsky Flux, installed at the Spencer Art Museum sim. Its twisty branches sprout new parts of various sorts, as did the Bogon Flux, and also like its predecessor, eventually numerous parts fall off in a cascade of junk. You'll want something to protect your head, and the creators kindly provide one -- a "noggin protector" that you pick up from a sign at the landing point, complete with little propellerized sheep that fly around your head. The big sofa is back -- two of them in fact -- as are the eyeballs on stalks, now accompanied by eyeballs with wings. Pink armchairs are piled up and occasionally wander around; one or two provide rides of a sort. There are some TPs and other goodies.

All photos below are taken with the "Brighton" windlight settings recommended by Epsilon and Benelli. Click on the photos to see larger views.

I have to admit, I miss the creepier aspects of the Bogon Flux, especially the large number of eyeballs on stalks watching your every move, the rats, and the disturbing and undefinable creatures in the sea. And the Bogon Flux was designed so that people can wander around inside, which this build isn't (although you can get inside). On the other hand, it also isn't as lag-inducing as its predecessor (as an occasional scriptor, I'm fascinated by the technical aspects too). Anyhow, I'm happy to see the Petrovsky Flux, and already started dragging friends over to see it. It's that sort of build -- go share it with someone.

23 October 2010

The Identity Fix(ation)

One can scarcely encounter a blog on art in Second Life (or indeed many other blogs about SL) without coming across a discussion of identity in virtual worlds.  Many artworks focus on that theme; some artists, such as Gracie Kendal, Vaneeesa Blaylock (who recently said she's leaving SL) and Botgirl Questi, devote practically their entire oeuvre to it; and now we have the Caerleon Museum of Identity, an exhibition running through the end of October.

Commonplace topics on this theme for bloggers and artists include the question of whether the SL identity is "real," the possibility of confusion between SL and RL identities, the "ambiguity of identity" (the Caerleon exhibition originally used that phrase for its title), multiple identities and the possibility that they each have their own personalities, and attacks and/or celebrations of gender role play.

But I'm not going to examine those matters: my focus here is the "identity" theme itself.

There are two curious aspects of how the topic of identity tends to be addressed.  One is there is often slippage if not outright muddiness about concepts.  When someone takes on the theme of identity, often what they actually discuss is personality, social role, social category, personality, visual presentation, sense of self, individuality, psychology, sexuality, or some other concept.  But these are distinct ideas, or at least they can be distinguished.  For example, I have a pretty strong sense of self, but I don't have a strong sense of identity in the sense of membership in a category.  And designating an identity is often a way to safely pigeonhole someone, avoiding an actual encounter.  (Identity theft?  I'm tempted to say identity is theft.)

The other oddity is a certain, dare I say, narrowness.  One can tell a lot by what is and isn't at the Museum of Identity.  Lining the entry hallway and ringing the top of the central gallery, there's a cavalcade of avatar forms, from warriors to wolves to elderly ladies to businessmen to ducks to vampires to mermaids and on, celebrating the vast array of possibilities that SL offers.  But these seem like token appearances: the identities depicted in the artworks themselves are strictly human. There's not a furry, cyborg, tiny or even neko to be seen. (There's Maya Paris's wacky mechanoid bird, which I loved, even though—or more likely because—it seemed to merrily fail to answer any of its questions; but in context, I think it's more of a costume than an avatar.)  Somehow, alternative embodiments of identity aren't at issue: there's a distinct normativity about the sort of avatar that's up for consideration.  The depictions and obsessions suggest that the norm is young, white, and most often female.  Whether or not that reflects the demography of the real life artists in Second Life, it certainly doesn't reflect the span of avatar types in Second Life.  It doesn't even reflect the range of artists' avatars (some of which are supposedly expressions of felt identity).

Maya Paris's mechanoid bird

I should emphasize, I am not criticizing the Museum of Identity exhibition curator, FreeWee Ling, who brought together many interesting and provocative works.  The disjunction between expressed ideas about the plurality and fluidity of identity in SL vs the artistic representations about it is much more widespread than that.  Nor am I suggesting that the pieces at the exhibition are bad art.  In fact the overall quality is very high.  My personal favorites are Botgirl Questi's [correction:] Chrome Underwood's smart, witty cartoons, especially the one in which an avatar is unfaithful to one of his alts by getting into an affair with his other alt; but I liked many of the others as well.  My subject here lies not in the quality of the art, but in the nature of the ideas behind it.

Two comic strips by Botgirl Questi [correction:] Chrome Underwood
(read the left one from the bottom up)

There is yet another important characteristic to nearly all of the art and discussions about identity in SL: its individualistic mode of thought.  The identities at stake are essentially independent beings, perhaps connected to an individual in the real world, but in all other respects separated or outright isolated from an overall social context.  Of course, individualism (in both the moral and philosophical senses) is endemic to modern industrial and post-industrial societies.  It is in fact one reason why the concept of identity is so appealing to many people: "identity" brings the self-confirming assurance of a drug that demonstrates individualism's correctness.

The one piece in the Museum of Identity that notably departs from straight-up individualism is Lollito Markham's "Identity Office," which perhaps not coincidentally doesn't portray any avatars at all: it is a police detectives' office, ready to pin down who we are in order to keep us in our place.  I haven't decided whether Markham is engaged in social critique or following the simpler idea that society is an oppressive force opposed to the individual, which is a problematic theory too; the latter seems more likely, since the police office doesn't appear to gesture outward to underlying social structures, but at least Markham engages with a concept of society.

Lollito Markham's "Identity Office"

It is worth comparing "Identity Office" to two other works, not part of the Museum.  Miso Susanowa's build "State of Mind," which had a theme somewhat similar to Markham's, was more clearly a critique, concerning a system of social structures and relationships involving the network of overreaching state power, surveillance, torture and propaganda.  Bryn Oh's "Condos in Heaven" (blogged previously) extrapolates consumerism and economic imperialism by having them win a war again heaven itself.  As far as I know, this is the only full-scale piece in which Bryn undertakes social criticism (although one should note her abandoned shopping carts), but in most of her artwork, society is felt through its absence: a key source of her characters' tragedy is their forced deracination from the world they came from.  They are not loners or renegades—they are exiles.  Because exiledom involves a relationship to one's society, Bryn's work departs from individualism, though perhaps only to an inchoate extent.

We do not exist outside society: on the contrary, society is the condition for our existence, and our ideas and experiences are deeply rooted in its structures.  Our consciousness doesn't shape our being so much as our social being shapes our consciousness.  History isn't the creation of Great Men and Great Women: we got here because of the doings of all who came before us.  And the simple fact is, life is with people.  We cannot understand ourselves outside of that fact—if understanding ourselves as personal identities is even so important.  Identities are social.

Okay: I'm perfectly aware that if any artists are reading this, they'll take or leave it, and that's the way the cookie crumbles.  Anyway I'm not interested in being prescriptive: my aim is to describe and interpret what I see, rightly or wrongly.  Still, I agree with one artist in RL, Ben Vautier, who wrote: "To Change Art Destroy Ego."

21 October 2010

Burn 2: A few favorites

Okay, I simply don't have time to blog about Burn 2, mostly because I'm working on another post entirely that with any luck I'll have ready tomorrow or the next day.

But here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order, and not to imply that there aren't other good things -- I just crash all the time and I'll never get to everything!

Miso Susanowa's "House of Cards: The History of Social Networking Considered as a House of Cards" is both a trip down memory lane (for those of us old enough to have memories with lanes) and a warning about the dustbins of history.  Near the top are some playing cards with Philip Linden's (original) face ... and already he too seems to be in the dustbin of history.

Madcow Cosmos and Lorin Tone have an archaeological site rising from detritus to a spaceship heading to the stars. On the middle level of the part you see below, a little to the left, are buckets and oil drums which play drums and other percussion, and skulls which chant. You can easily spend an hour playing with them. Find some dances in your inventory, you'll want to use them.

Bryn Oh has a new, disturbing work -- another one of her cam builds, which you enter by leading your camera through a doorway and up a corridor to small for you to enter, until you reach a chair with a sit which you can use to get inside, later having to do more camming. The use of the sit is I think a step toward involving the viewer even more intimately than ever.

And that's all I can manage to blog about.

08 October 2010

Pick your jaw up from the floor, Div ... twice!

Jaw-dropper #1 is Linden Labs' bizarre asinine moronic obscene and I think self-destructive decision to double sim prices for nonprofit organizations and educational institutions, which (more or less by definition) are not major moneymakers yet are (more or less for the same reason) fonts of creativity. It's hard to imagine what LL's forecast is -- that these groups are heavily invested enough in SL that they'll choke down the additional US $150/month? Well, maybe a bunch of them will. My own university isn't doing squat in SL, but given its two rounds of layoffs, drastic cuts in the library acquisitions budget (ca. 40%), elimination of travel funds for professional (non-faculty) staff, etc etc, I doubt it would consider SL a great use of its cash. But maybe other schools are doing work in distance learning or other activities that would make the increased cost tolerable. It seems like a stretch to me. More endangered is involvement by nonprofits, many of which are small and often desperately underfunded; yes, there are a few enormous and essentially corporate foundations like the American Cancer Society, but it seems like time and again, LL's decisions favor the big guns and let the small players hang.  People keep saying small businesses generate the most jobs, maybe that should be a clue to what LL should really support....

Jaw-dropper #2 is a post John "Pathfinder" Lester (formerly Linden) wrote describing how people are already able to run OpenSim and Imprudence on a USB key. Yes: an entire virtual world and the ability to inhabit it, all on a single thumb drive, and all of its contents your own -- not rented, not reliant on someone else's servers. And since a viewer like Imprudence can be used with more than one virtual world, in principle it should be possible to seamlessly travel from OpenSim to Second Life to Inworldz and on. It's a declaration of Virtual World Independence. Go plug in.

17 September 2010

Miso Susanowa's "code dreams"; or, "if (gAvatar == misoSusanowa) { state Identity; }"

Having picked on Miso Susanowa a little bit in a recent post, it turns out she's given me another morsel of food for thought, an intriguing one in the form of her piece at the Pop Art Lab's Art Breaker show, "code dreams." To understand it -- and certainly to make your way through it -- you can hardly do better than to read Miso's own blog post about it.

Miso is unusual among SL artists because sound is a -- perhaps the -- primary element in her work. (Her discussion of this is one reason her post about "code dreams" is so valuable.) It's crucial to turn up the volume on sounds, and probably the master volume control as well (you may want to turn down the UI volume if you do that). If you don't, you won't hear much of anything, which is how I missed almost everything in this piece the first time I visited it. Wearing earphones is a good idea, since the installation has stereo effects. Note that some objects play sounds only when you're nearby (camming isn't sufficient, though it's often valuable in order to increase volume); sometimes there is a bit of a delay before sounds play, probably due to SL sluggishness. Also, there are a lot of objects with sounds, and you may find it helpful to adjust their volume or turn one or two of them off temporarily (a click usually opens up a menu).

At first glance, "code dreams" looks like a random jumble of plants and objects and odds and ends, and perhaps not very interesting. But once you've adjusted the volume controls, "code dreams" clearly emerges as the immersive environment it is meant to be. It should be said, this quality is less pronounced in the first part of the installation, on the right side, which Miso identifies as the "input" side. (True to form, the first time I went, I unwittingly entered on the wrong side. The installation works better her way.) Here Miso introduces the most explicit codes in this work, starting with a cube at the entrance which gives a notecard about the piece, and has an image hidden within it.

Most of the codes in this part of the installation are of the computer sort: her SL avatar's unique alphanumeric key, an assortment of everyday identifiers such as her driver's licence number, audio waveform graphics, hexadecimals, and so forth. One object dispenses a notecard with a pure binary sequence of ones and zeroes. (I won't translate the computerese for you, but I'll reply to Miso by quoting Bertolt Brecht: "ein Mann ist kein Mann" ["one man is no man"].) However, "code dreams" also incorporates the fundamental code in the biological world: the four nucleic acids (as represented by letters) that combine in a dizzying array to create every living creature's ultimately unique DNA.

In the middle section ("processing"), the computer codes are subordinated to the more personal codes of memories and dreams. A couple of plants play bits of dialogue from the movie "The Wizard of Oz"; in one Dorothy declares that she'll stay where she belongs, in the other she defends the reality of her dream. A dog barks. A "guardian angel" sculpture plays a muffled recording of a child reciting a prayer. Bytes of computer and DNA code are scattered on the rug. A small table cluttered with childhood objects (some of which respond to touch) stands next to a girl's bed -- complete with Disney headboard -- which invites you to sleep. There, the sounds of the installation blend together in an intense and dynamic surround.

Aside from the soundscape here, which is wonderful, I have some mixed feelings about this part of the work. The focus on Miso's personal "codes" is problematic since there's not much to elucidate the context or the references, or even to indicate that these are references; Miso's post identifies them, but that provides only a little bit of help and one can't expect most people to read it. On the other hand, that focus fits with one of the work's other themes, identity. However, as if to alleviate this very problem, the bed table holds the "key" to the work, in the somewhat literal fashion of a golden key which delivers a poem called "code dreams." (It also tells Miso who touched it.) In the poem, Miso tells us that she both dreams in code, and codes dreams.

Miso's post calls the last section "output"; I'd describe it as "out into the world," where one can think big. The section is dominated by large "blossom tree," above which is a model solar system. Sit on the sun, and click planets on and off in order to play Miso's "Solar Symphony." The music is similar to Steve Reich's (especially his "18 Musicians") in its use of repeated and layered musical phrases and rhythms. (I love Reich's music, so frankly this was my favorite part of the installation.) Another piece on this side of "code dreams" is Shijin, a mechanoid "poet" who utters a number of poems into chat. And near the exit there's a "data" cube (with the word "data" repeated everywhere on its sides) that shrinks when you approach it to reveal an "information" sphere that will give you a copy of Miso's painting "The Artist as a Binary Process" -- a parallel to the cube in front of the entrance. These three pieces seem oriented toward the question of finding and expressing one's place in the world.

There are many more pieces in "code dreams": I'm only picking out the most prominent. Also, the elements in the three sections aren't nearly as discreetly separated as my description may suggest: binary, hexadecimal and nucleic code is scattered everywhere, a drum on the right seems to presage the themes of memory and dreaming in the middle section, and so forth.

The soundscapes of "code dreams" are impressive. However, I have to say, I'm not enthusiastic about computer metaphors for human thought and experience. Our minds are not computers: scientific research into cognition increasingly demonstrates that thought is emphatically an embodied activity -- the body is very much in the mind. Cognition and experience are emergent capabilities, simultaneously different from flesh as such, yet deeply rooted in it and existing only on its terms. We do not process inputs and produce outputs the way a computer does: our environment and our physical interactions with it structure the conduct of thought itself, in particular the way we create associations and metaphors (which are, it turns out, intrinsic to human cognition). The close of Miso's poem "code dreams" epitomizes what bothers me: the statement "physical world / only masks on the core of self" (or in the version in her blog, "the core of experience") articulates a dualistic view of the body/mind relationship, positing a deep division between them, in which our thoughts are Cartesian ghosts in the machine, our corporeality a mask shrouding our selves. I don't believe that.

And I'm not sure Miso really does either, precisely because she's an artist. Art depends on materiality just as the mind does. The codes dominating the first part of "code dreams" are more or less isolated abstractions rather than the ground of the work (although they are important to the theme of identity). They actually have a more concrete quality -- functioning less as interesting curiosities, and more as integral components -- in the dreamwork of the middle section, surrounding the bed of the little girl; and I say this, despite the problems of having work that alludes to but does not represent private experiences. So the codes and dreams of "code dreams" are in a difficult tension; perhaps the point is irony, though it feels more like ambivalence. In either case, when the codes become the background and not the focus of "code dreams," the work takes off. The dynamic is exemplified by music itself: yes, you could say that in music, "here's a note, here's another note, here are three at once" ... but you would be wrong. Thus the two strongest moments of "code dreams" are the most symphonic: bed and planets. The artist's professional code is to dream big.

It should go almost without saying that I'm poking at "code dreams" because I think it's a really stimulating work and I think you (O Reader) ought to haul yer ass over to the Pop Art Lab pronto, because the installations are supposedly going to be removed on 4 Oct. And there are seven more besides this one. So go -- NOW!

There are a number of interesting issues regarding the theme of identity, which is central to "code dreams," but I'm leaving the subject aside for another time.

Oh, and in tribute to Miso's themes of codes and identity, the alternative title to this post is an invented snippet of Second Life script (LSL). It means, "If the current avatar is Miso, set the program into the state of Identity (and do whatever you do in that state)."

13 September 2010

soror Nishi's Tree of Trees

Just a short post on Tree of Trees, soror Nishi's newest major installation. One hardly needs to say more than that it's enormous, beautiful, iridescent, magnificent.  Not as enormous as Kolor Fall's builds I discussed previously, but certainly equal in magnificence.  It has a strong "rain forest" sense to it, and indeed there's an area where you can hear water dripping. More than that, however: if you turn ambient sound (and probably the master sound slider) all the way up, you can hear the drone of meditative singing (possibly throat singers of Tuva?). Meditation is I think a core element of Tree of Trees, as signaled by a poster in the landing area.

I only wish that soror had incorporated a few animations into the piece. There are a few sitting poses in one location, but I didn't locate any of interest. A couple of meditation poses or tai chi anims would be very fitting.

Some photos: