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.

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