22 May 2010

Shanghai World Expo: Island Three, Bryn Oh's "no colour"

Island Three uses one of Bryn Oh's customary bleak Windlight settings, making the build considerably more typical of her work than Island One. Nearly everything is rendered gray, olive green, and emotionally loathsome (which is not at all to say that it is loathsome as art). Not only is this world bled of color, one despairs of ever seeing again.

At the sim's landing point, one is confronted by a large, rickety, decrepit metal crescent moon, inside which a victrola plays an old jazz song, "I'm in the Mood for Love." Such songs are often embedded in Bryn Oh's builds; but they carry none of the nostalgia one might expect, nor are they truly ironic. They speak more of a deep distanciation or even alienation from the emotions others experience. Slipped inside Bryn's rusted moon, the song becomes an echo of a broken dream. We aren't looking at "only a paper moon," but a moon for the misbegotten, the cold dead place where we'll see you on the dark side of the moon.

The moon is held by a thin, unsteady-looking frame on wheels being pulled by a robot owl, which on closer look is itself being dragged forward by a small robot mouse. Rather than eating the mouse, the owl seems to have enslaved it. (Artistically, if not thematically, the image takes page a page or two from Dali.)

The sim as a whole is a barren land from which some mountains and steep hills jut, and a few constructions appear as outcroppings.  To the left side of the sim, telephone poles stretch into the distance (Bryn Oh meets AM Radio?) and one finds an office table surrounded by a few chairs and set with a sort of vase-like pod of "milkweed floaters."  Nearby stands a small diorama of a rabbit wearing a gasmask, contemplating the corpse of another rabbit whose gasmask hangs from a piece of metal. What miasma forces them to wear gasmasks, and are we breathing it now? Why was the dead rabbit not wearing its mask? The way its mask hangs neatly from the metal bar, it does not look like an accident. Suicide? (Bryn Oh added the diorama to the sim a few days after I began writing this post; perhaps she will make other changes.)

Closer to the middle of the island, some shopping carts are scattered about (another of Bryn Oh's motifs). A little girl robot stands with a jump-rope beside a lamppost, accompanied by a rabbicorn (both of whom figure in many of Bryn's narratives). There is a kind of intimacy between them, a sense of solace in the barrenness. Not far is the Whisper Tree; using the anim of whispering to the tree sets off no changes, however. In fact the centerpiece of the installation -- almost at the sim's center, in fact -- is actually a tower of shopping carts, with crows swooping menacingly overhead. Suddenly the tower transforms into a lush tree; a nearby lamppost becomes flanked by two palm trees; flowers and mushrooms sprout nearby. Here is where we are granted color.

The transformation is on a straight 8-minute cycle, give or take some seconds; one can also trigger the change by saying "tree" or "vendor" in chat, though there's a short delay. (Why "vendor"??) Island Three is jointly credited to Soror Nishi, and this unexpected vegetation is her work. (Perhaps it would have to be: the content, to say nothing of the temperament, is utterly unlike Bryn Oh's typical creations.)

Aside from the flora and the diorama, these builds are the setting for the machinima "Stay With Me," which was Bryn Oh's entry to Moby's competition to create a video for that song.

At the far corner of the sim, a dark building looms: a reinstallation of "Vessel's Dream" (the machinima is embedded above), Bryn Oh's entry into the 2009 Burning Life festival. You need to cam around extensively in order to see all parts of the build; her machinima helps show the path, but it's no substitute for exploring it yourself.

The dream begins nightmarishly with a fragmented, angular, contorted bird. One proceeds through the building's rooms first through a door, then a hatch, through a tunnel, around some corners, and ultimately past a hidden scrim -- ever more subtle gates, yet ever less disturbingly phantasmagoric settings, until one comes upon the sleeper, kept company by a rabbicorn. The dreamer's mind is open to us, and this open-minded dreamer transports us to his inmost dream, a childhood memory of a girl he once kissed.

Keep an eye out in the first room: you can pick up a painting of a scene from Bryn Oh's "Condos in Heaven" to take home with you, free. (Another example of the intertwining of her work.) I might write about "Condos in Heaven" sometime -- it's the only work of hers that I know of that makes an explicit social critique.  Her shopping carts could be a commentary on consumer culture as well, but so far I haven't encountered anything in her narratives that would confirm that. (Or maybe that's why the trigger to change the trees in Island Three back to shopping carts is "vendor.") Personally, however, I see the shopping carts more as detritus left by the long-gone humans -- useless for robots, whose concerns are mainly emotional and literal survival. Thus "Vessel's Dream" includes the Angler Girl, who must steal batteries to stay alive.

"Vessel's Dream" works more effectively as part of Island Three than do the reinstallations of earlier creations in Island One. It's more consistent with the rest of the sim's overall tone, both emotionally and visually. It's also more integrated into the sim. "Vessel's Dream" forms a pair with the dead rabbit diorama set diametrically across from it, as two framed narratives within the sim's larger narrative. The teleport out of the final room of "Vessel's Dream" deposits you near the diorama, making their connection all the clearer. In this manner Island Three achieves, if not closure, then a sort of recursion that makes it feel complete.

Shanghai World Expo: Island Three, Bryn Oh's "no colour"

08 May 2010

Shanghai World Expo: Island One, Bryn Oh's "no love/emotion"

Three things are particularly distinctive about Bryn Oh's work: the strong narrative elements, which appear in relationships among figures, texts scattered in various places, and machinima; the Spartan rawness and simplicity of her materials (generally speaking, basic prim shapes, a few unelaborate scripts, the sound of desolate wind, and a narrow color palette tending toward sepias and grays); and the intense intricacy of her designs. Hers are not works you can glance at for 15 seconds and then walk on. You have to spend time exploring and investigating her installations. You probably missed something and need to come back. Even if you missed nothing, you need to come back. And if you're not very proficient at camming, come back yet again in three months when you know how to slipslide into tiny spaces, behind walls, and down jagged tunnels. In the meantime you can watch her machinima (see Bryn Oh's blog), which are often linked directly to her builds and are richly evocative in their own right. (Moby, you blew it.)

Linden Labs gave Bryn Oh five sims to host and build on as part of the Shanghai World Expo.* (Fuller account here.) She herself built three of them. The sim built by Glyph Graves described in my previous post is Island Two. All five are anchored in some way by the Chinese folk tale, "The Whisper Tree." According to the notecard about the project available and each of the sims, "Each island will be missing something. Island one is missing love and joy. Island two energy, three colour, four sound and five light. When an avatar whispers to a tree within each sim it grants a wish. The wish is to return that which was missing."**

Here I'll write about Bryn Oh's build on Island One, "no love/emotion."  One enters on a tiny island, from which the beginning of a bridge extends. As you walk on it, pieces leap into place in front of your feet, and as you proceed they crumble away behind you: in a way, you create the path as you walk it. If you walk too fast, you're liable to fall off, especially when the path takes a sudden turn. Once in a while you have to move around until you find which direction the path leads next. You walk up and around a building on which various steampunk robot insects rest, and a statue of Bryn Oh too. Then a platform you walk onto collapses and you fall onto a platform beneath, which collapses underneath you too. You come to a sphere, you enter it, and it shatters. But if pay attention and mouse around, you'll soon find that the shaft in front of you is a TP that will take you to the next little island.

Another building stands there, and at the far end is a Whisper Tree, like the one on Glyph Graves's sim which set statues into motion.  In Bryn Oh's machinima of Island One, which I've embedded below, whispering to the tree unleashes a splash of light, and brightly colored balls appear, accompanied by children's laughter (frankly, a rather uncharacteristic moment for her); but I tried a few times on different days, and nothing happened for me.

World Expo machinima by Bryn Oh

At the beginning of this post I listed three distinctive aspects of Bryn Oh's work, but one of her artistic techniques almost counts as a fourth: she uses SL's Windlight settings to transform the sky and atmosphere.  Since currently it's not possible to make Windlight settings part of the land (vote here to get that feature added), you have to install those settings into your viewer yourself. One of the notecards you get at the sim explains how. It may seem like a pain in the neck but it's absolutely worth it. Most of her Windlight settings create a world drained of color and touched by a cold mist -- but as you see in her machinima and my photos below, on Island One, the world is lit up in an astonishing blue.

(The way my mind works, the Windlight settings are connected to the theme of "no love" through the idea of feeling blue. But I doubt Bryn Oh thinks in puns the way I do.)

The tree is the end of the island and the end of the machinima, but it is not in fact the end of Island One. Across the water there are a few "classic Bryn Oh" constructions: a small and lonely merry-go-round, an abandoned classroom where a forlorn Bryn Oh figure sits, a ramshackle tower. The first part of "no love/emotion" is principally a path, with only one or two secrets (that I could find, anyway). The builds in the second part demand inspection and camming skills. Chase down the inside of any opening, peer around corners, dive under water, touch whatever you can.

Sometimes I lose my sense of scale when camming through one of Bryn Oh's works. A space I thought was tiny can turn in reality to be large enough to walk around in.

When I described these builds as "classic Bryn Oh," I meant not just that they beautifully exemplify her style, but also that these are in fact older works, such as the piece "7 backspaces." The second half of "no love/emotion" is something of a Bryn Oh retrospective.

There are pros and cons to having done that. I was glad to have the opportunity to explore works that I'd only seen in some of her machinima. Besides, she has a number of core motifs and structures -- insects, shopping carts, crows, floating TVs, and of course characters -- which she reuses, recontextualizes, and builds upon.  Reproducing set pieces and whole works can be viewed as just an extension of that somewhat obsessive methodology. Still, it's hard to avoid the thought, "Why isn't she making more of the opportunity to use a donated sim to create new work?" [Later edit: Bryn Oh read this post and told me that she had in fact taken the sim as an opportunity to give these works another chance to be seen.]

Undeniably, however, the older pieces suit the idea of "no love/emotion." (Then again, most of her works would.) The disconsolate Bryn Oh robot sitting on a student chem lab table tells us that, without us needing to read the poem on a tiny slip of paper locked inside the small box she clutches in her hand.

Which makes me wonder, isn't Island One built backward? We follow a winding, somewhat treacherous path until we encounter the tree that (at least in the video) releases light and joy, and then we drift toward the despondency of the older builds. But if the promise of the Whisper Tree is to return what's missing, shouldn't we begin with dejection, then find our way along the meandering walk until the tree grants our desperate wish?

Those questions aside, Bryn Oh's work is among the most powerful and moving that exist in Second Life, and one shouldn't miss any opportunity to see it.

Island One, Bryn Oh's "no love/emotion"


*One can't readily refer to her as "Oh," for one reason because there are at least two other Ohs in the SL art world, Selavy and SaveMe. I wouldn't be surprised if there are more.

**What's said in the notecard is all I know about the folktale. I can't find anything more on it, despite the fact that oodles of people refer to it. Sorry, fellow ignoramuses, I'm no help there.

05 May 2010

Through the Virtual Looking Glass/Shanghai World Expo: Island Two, Glyph Graves's "no energy/Entropy"

I've been running into more and more of Glyph Graves's work lately. (By now, you'd think I'd already seen acres of it. Like I said, I haven't been getting out much ... sigh ....) His "life forms" of various sorts -- bulbous plants, translucent flying animals, jellyfish and the like -- are a central hallmark of his work (in real life he's a biologist). Many of these creatures look like they emerged from the deep ocean.  One of his avatars is such a being.  The largest of his creations that I'd seen before was his "Strangers Also Dance," an immersive realm telling the story of an alien jellyfish species that traveled too far from home. (There's a good description by Bettiny Tizzy here.)

His installation for the Through the Virtual Looking Glass exhibition, called "no energy/Entropy," is also part of the Shanghai World Expo, which has a five-sim SL component. I could've sworn there was something specific I wanted to say about Glyph's piece here, but after dealing with some issues at work and a head cold that made me want to do nothing more mentally strenuous than catch up on episodes of "Glee," I haven't a clue what it was. Anyway I'll describe this installation a bit. By clicking/sitting on a tree near the center of the sim, "whispering" to it, you start a transformation: four more or less human-shaped statues on mountains in the distance slide into pieces that turn into glowing creatures. They travel down four rivers that merge into one basin, which the creatures intermingle and slowly swirl about. Whisper to the tree again, the creatures separate into groups which travel up the rivers to the mountains, where they coalesce once more into the statues. (Sorry that the photos are so dark, I set to midnight to highlight the creatures' glow.)

The effect is magical, and I've hauled a few friends over to watch. It's undoubtedly even more beautiful on a better computer than mine. The piece is thoroughly characteristic of Graves's work in its focus on transformation. The scripting involved involved is quite cool; as a rough guess I'd say it's probably akin to the scripts used to make trains and rollercoasters in SL follow a path -- which is not a criticism, just an observation on how scripts can be adapted for artistic purposes. Nevertheless, I'm a little disappointed that there isn't more interactivity, as there was in "Strangers Also Dance," a work which had the additional benefit of a narrative in the background.

01 May 2010

Through the Virtual Looking Glass: Kolor Fall

Through the Virtual Looking Glass was a large exhibition during April that combined art in SL and RL.  I was already familiar with maybe a third of the artists involvevd, which I suppose is a sign of how little I've scratched the surface of SL -- it's a shock that I hadn't known about the Caerleon sims -- but then again, during the past year I had very limited time in SL.  Not all of the "new" artists sparked my interest, but a number of works were enchanting (the best word I think), and a few were truly impressive.  And as it happened, I also met a few of the artists.

One of them was Kolor Fall (Patrick Faith in RL).  Since his work was new to me, I decided to make my first blog post about him and his sim.  The sim, Kolor Studio, holds one of the most monumentally large builds I've encountered.  Certainly, innumerable builds have lots of "stuff" (buildings and whatnot), and there were plenty of things at a normal scale there, but when the planet Saturn looms above you, it's hard not to stand in awe.  More than that, above the ground level there are more several levels of builds, with different styles (parts are by other people) and no less enormousness.

Lowest level, with Saturn

Lowest level

Part of the second level (I'm standing almost at the top)

Part of the second level (I'm in the middle, standing on one of the dice): a quantum field, governed by randomness?

Part of the third level (I'm standing right in the middle)

The fourth level

The best SL artists make size not just imposing, not just grand, but magnificent, even sacred (a word that normally doesn't leap to my tongue, as I don't consider myself a spiritual person in the least).  Kolor's builds pull you aloft, like the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages.  The smooth, cool surfaces look alien, but the shapes have a biological, living feel that seems very much of this earth.  It's not a surprise that Glyph Graves's jellyfish float about at the lowest level.  The highest level is a grimy urban neighborhood of the sort one sees all over SL; set here, however, it becomes disorienting.  Artistically, does it belong with the rest?  Or does it belong because our homely world hides an astonishing universe below its surface?  I haven't decided.

While I was at the fourth level (it looked like there might be workspaces even higher) I noticed Kolor on radar.  He TP'd away almost immediately, but later, when I returned to ground level, I noticed him working nearby.  I'm generally cautious about approaching artists, mostly because I don't like to interrupt their concentration when they're at work (plus I've had a couple of dismaying encounters), but Kolor noticed me and said hello.

Our conversation soon turned to music, for it turned out that Kolor/Patrick is a fan of Dmitri Shostakovich (one of my own favorite composers, which is why I chose it for my SL last name).  Patrick in fact is a composer, he streams some of his work into the sim, and he sent me to download a couple of his MP3s.  I liked his music as much as his builds ... but then, I have a taste for the difficulties of much 20th and 21st century music.  His builds don't incorporate his music, because SL's server issues basically drive him nuts.

I should add that there is more to the Kolor Studio sim than the huge builds.  At ground level there are sculptures of various sorts, including some which you can "paint" by dragging your mouse across it (a nice bit of scripting there) and some free earrings for ye who would like.  There's also an underwater level, much of which is populated by Glyph Graves's work.  I'll talk about him in my next post.