29 June 2010

Away for a bit....

Sigh ... I recently announced my blog to the Art & Artist Network group in SL, with my eye on two or three builds to blog about ASAP, and then RL immediately stepped in and stole all my time.  And time's up: tomorrow I leave for a month travelling around Europe (half vacation, half conferences, all expenses paid -- by me, dammit). The Bryn Oh interview was long done, I had to wait a while to post it so as not to scoop the magazine that commissioned it ... well, not scoop too much.

One build I wanted to write about was Glyph Graves's "Liquidity." At the time I saw it, it was supposed to be taken down 20 June or so, although it's still there now. I was able to join a tour of it that Graves gave, which helped enormously. I went a couple times to take photos but I hoped to go again to take better ones, and for the most part stills aren't very meaningful here, they need descriptions and explanations, and better yet, you should interact with the pieces and watch the transformations yourself. But here are a few photos anyway:

I also wanted to spend some time at SL7B to see what work people installed there, and try out Bryn Oh's self-constructing staircase (see the video).  I managed to find the parcel it's on -- isn't there a map of SL7B anywhere? -- but my computer couldn't hack it. I was getting under 2 fps! The parcel seems to be overly script heavy. As soon as I stepped out of the parcel I returned to my usual lousy 17 fps (give or take). There seems to be a version of the same staircase at her wholly-transformed Immersiva sim, but it (the stairway) wasn't dynamic when I visited there. She's up to some interesting in Immersiva, which I hope to write about some day.  (No, I am not a one-man Bryn Oh and Glyph Graves fan club, though it does look that way at the moment. What can I say, they're doing work that interests me, and they rolled out some new stuff.)

So hopefully I'll be able to get back to blogging when I return in early August. I find blogging very slow going, or more exactly I write very slowly. So I'll have to scale back my expectations and hope to get a post out every couple of weeks, probably not every week as I hoped.

Cheers, folks ... 

28 June 2010

Interview with Bryn Oh

Scruplz Magazine asked me to interview Bryn Oh. She agreed to an interview by notecard, which we did in early June. A condensed version of the interview will appear in Scruplz'forthcoming July issue. Here is the (slightly edited) full version.

Dividni Shostakovich: What challenges did you face in moving from two-dimensional landscape painting in RL to creating three-dimensional work in SL? What aspects of your RL work continue in SL, and what changed? Has creating art in SL affected your RL art?

Bryn Oh: As a 2D painter not just of landscapes, I would work around a lot of compositional elements where you design knowing your physical relationship to the viewer, the vantage point from which they will look at your work. For example, generally a viewer will stand five feet or so away from your painting, their eye will enter the painting in the bottom right hand corner and travel counter clockwise moving from focal point to focal point. You can control how you want the viewer to interact with your work visually since you know from which angle their view enters. In a 3D space people can view your creation from any direction. They need not even view your work from the "eyes" of the avatar. They can bring the camera from above or any such angle. This means you need to work on creating a strong composition from all angles at once. Leading one's eye around is more of a challenge now.

The aspects of my RL work which continue here are my desire to create mood through colour and form. What has changed is that now I have a variety of new tools to work with. I use a great deal of ambient sound which affects emotion, I use scripting, movement, narrative beyond a still image, sky settings, interaction all manner of things really. It's a new medium.

You've called yourself the "Steampunk Princess," but you use very little Victorian imagery, unlike (say) the Caledon sims. What does steampunk mean to you? What aspects of it have you adopted into your art? Why is it important?

Actually a friend ages ago dubbed me the Steampunk Princess just as I was making a group and I adopted it. I no longer really see what I do as being entirely Steampunk anymore. My work has elements of Steampunk aesthetic in it, but as a style it has progressed to what I call Immersiva.

Why are the characters in the world you create populated by robots, rather than (say) humans, caricatures, animals, or your omnipresent insects? Why are your robots so anthropomorphic?

The story behind the Immersiva sim has been ongoing for years. It is an abandoned robot theme park. The owners have left and the remaining robots who manned the theme park wander aimlessly trying to find a purpose to their existence. Most of the stories are hidden but should you find them they begin to show how each is related to one another. The Daughter of Gears story is 100 years before the Rabbicorn. If the viewer only finds the Daughter of Gears story then as a build it stands on its own as a narrative. If they find the Rabbicorn story then they see the relationship between the two characters emerge. Robots in my world are those who have been abandoned or have become obsolete. They are pure and in some ways naive in the classical sense of the word. The stories I tell on Immersiva are my own hopes, dreams and fears hidden behind the mask of robots.

Some artists feel that scripting is a crucial part of SL art. For instance, Sasun Steinbeck's morphing sculpture is almost pure scripting, and some of Glyph Graves's creations are similarly script-centered. In general your own work doesn't depend so heavily on scripts, although obviously they're essential to the paths that construct themselves as you walk. How do you view the role of scripts in your work, and in SL art generally?

I think of Second Life as an art medium. Imagine walking into a studio which had oil paints and clay for sculpture, electronics, and wood to build with. Sound equipment and welding tools. By the front door to this wonderful studio is a pencil and paper for writing up your initial ideas. If you take that pencil and merely draw a stick person, then you have wasted much of what is offered. Scripting is one of many tools within Second Life the art medium. I like to see builds that use a variety of these tools skillfully, but finding the balance is what is important. Over time the art we create here will age and only those with enduring qualities will be remembered. A brilliant script today might be commonplace tomorrow. The last three Star Wars movies used the most cutting edge computer graphics yet failed due to bad acting and narrative. Nobody really cared about the characters. As time goes by these "cutting edge" graphics are replaced by movies with more advanced graphics such as Avatar. Now they become judged on other elements beyond graphics and lately they often fail. Movies like Lord of the Rings will remain classics because they made sure each part of the whole was of a high quality. When the computer graphics for these movies become dated the story will remain strong.

An impressive script met with indifferent viewers often turns out to be a technological achievement rather than an artistic one. On the other hand a JPEG of a first-life painting on a prim uses none of the unique tools that SL offers the artist. Not only that, but the JPEG painting contains none of the qualities that make a first-life painting special. They show no surface texture, the colours are altered, the scale is at most the size of your screen, they are often unfocused, and so on. This also does not use the unique traits of SL as an art medium. It's about sitting back and looking from an art history perspective. What is this medium best suited for? what are its strengths and weaknesses? Much of my work does actually use scripting yet it is often subtle except in the case of the rising blocks at the World Expo as you mentioned above, or in builds like 4Jetpacks4. I create an idea for Second Life the medium, then build it using the tools that I need. I don't shy away from scripts yet I also don't use them unnecessarily as they also can create lag.

You seem to work primarily or solely with classic prims. I don't think I've seen sculpties in your work, but admittedly, some sculpty objects are so intricate that it's hard to tell they aren't constructed from prims. Are you using sculpties, or do you have any plans to? Are there aesthetic considerations in using prims vs sculpties?

Besides going to school for traditional art, I also attended schools for Softimage and ZBrush, two high end computer animation tools.

One of the things I like about Second Life is that I can build in-world rather than building offline in Softimage or ZBrush, importing them in later. For me I like the social aspect in building around friends or chatting about things in progress. And I also like basic prims because it's like working with Lego. You think up an idea and try to build it using only the native tools. It's like a puzzle. When mesh comes this summer I am thinking I might import ZBrush artwork, but it will also depend on how well they rez and other considerations. I spend a lot of time painting alone in my studio at home. I am not sure I will like working alone in ZBrush or Softimage for hours as well. I don't know, I guess I will see. But I don't want to isolate myself first in my painting studio then in front of my computer. I have in the past become absorbed in my art to the extent that I unwittingly spend days without speaking to another human being. When I notice myself doing this I call up my friends to meet or otherwise just get out and socialize. I have nothing against the aesthetic look of sculpties though, they are great for organic builds. Prims are good for sharp builds. Right now I don't need sculpties but if I ever feel that I do then I will combine them.

Do you plan to use new features of the Second Life Viewer 2 (web on a prim, etc), or do you expect to stay with the classic tools? Would using Viewer 2 features improve or detract from the visual style or the sort of interactivity you want?

Viewer 2 has some great new features and some terrible flaws as well. But they are in beta so it's to be expected. I do a lot of machinima and if you type Ctrl-Alt-F1 in Viewer 2 it leaves the outside of the screen on, which is recorded when you film. Because of this I use Emerald, which also has some features I really enjoy that are not in Viewer 2. I often feel confused in Viewer 2 where I can't find what I am looking for. I am hoping that the Emerald team will incorporate the new Viewer 2 features at some point and at that time I will start using them.

What directions do you want to take your work in SL? In any sense -- technology, style, emotional tone, narratives, etc. 

I work in a style or movement called Immersiva. It is essentially about creating an environment where the viewer forgets their first life for a time as they are drawn into my SL creation. It includes techniques such as ambient sound and narratives as well as colour and composition to draw one in. Creating Immersiva is quite difficult as it's a fragile state where everything from your phone ringing to your eyes wandering past the frame of your monitor screen to an unpaid bill will break the immersion. Much of what I wish to do in the future is to use things like goggles that will remove the peripheral, to incorporating the use of scent and wind to the viewing space. Much of these things are meant more for first life gallery shows that would have the viewer sit in a chair and navigate my narratives while being influenced by scent, wind, etc. That is the direction I am working on now but will rely on grants etc.

Why did you want an SL presence in the Shanghai World Expo?

Aino Baar from the OPEN THIS END group in SL is also a first-life curator. She convinced the Spanish officials for the Madrid pavilion to let her showcase a new form of art (to them) called machinima on five four-metre HD monitors. Once they had agreed in principle to that, I spoke with the Lindens and was given five sims to showcase SL art by creating builds for use in the machinima. The World Expo has around 250 countries taking part and they expect between 70-100 million guests. It's a massive event and could be great for SL if even only a fraction take notice. I would be ecstatic if 1% of the 100 million were even remotely aware of my work, but the reality is it's much less than that. So for us we tried to put our best work out there regardless when it was created, just so that if people come in-world due to seeing the machinima in first life, they would see well thought-out pieces and hopefully stay. I want a strong SL art scene.

Is the reception of SL art changing within either SL or RL?

I think with the loss of the NPIRL* blog SL art has become fragmented again, with builds coming and going without people being aware. It seems to be contracting a bit, but it goes in cycles. In RL though I feel as though lots of good things are happening. There was a gallery show in Boston recently that showcased our SL art and RL art in one venue to great reviews, there was the World Expo, Nuit Blanche, Chantal Harvey's machinima festival held in a first-life movie theatre, and we have plans for things like the Cyberarts festival. A very talented first-life composer named Justin Lassen has just come into SL and is inspired and writing music about Immersiva and Straylight sim. Its really quite exciting and hopefully the RL interest will help the SL art community.

How can SL artists and others build an audience for this work?

Well, there are different ways to look at that. There is from the art history standpoint, where virtual art could have a chapter in a textbook some day. For this to happen SL needs to develop a distinct artform which would show that what we create here is unique to this medium. If, for example, Amy Dempsey were convinced to look into the art we do here. She might come in and see a sculpture of let's say Michelangelo's David. She might then say, well it's ok but not as good as the original nor even as good as if it were done in a 3D program like ZBrush or Maya. To get this type of audience we need to make work that is meant for this medium.

Another way to look at that is for creating a personal audience. Marketing. I would suggest building in a public place like the IBM sandbox where potential gallery owners can see your work. Join art groups and let everyone know when you have a show. I agreed to be in a committee called LEA [Linden Endowment for the Arts] and hopefully we can help in some way. I would love it if we can get a blog going that would focus on machinima, SL art and SL music.

*Not Possible In Real Life. Although it is no longer maintained, the blog is still accessible at http://npirl.blogspot.com/

27 June 2010

Earth to Linden Labs ... come in, Linden Labs ....

Hopefully, at this point everyone has heard about Linden Lab's absurd expulsion of Rose Borchovski's "The Kiss" from SL7B, and later Misprint Thursday's piece as well, due to their cardinal sin of creating works that show ... nipples. Not erotic works -- the pieces showed the nipples of a cartoonish child and of naked Barbie dolls. Pretty much every child under the age of eight has seen as much, but Linden Labs found them shocking, demonstrating ridiculous immaturity and prudishness. (Or maybe hypereroticism: I'm reminded of Tom Lehrer's satirical song "Smut," with the wonderful line, "When correctly viewed, everything is lewd.")

Rose Borchovski's banned work

Misprint Thursday's banned work
There's not a lot I can add to what others have written (e.g., New World Notes, and I liked Soror Nishi's comments), except to join the chorus of boos and express my own incredulousness and disgust at LL's behavior.  Yeah, their rules for SL7B say "no nudity," but come on!

A petition was sent to Linden Labs by artists to protest the censorship (which I didn't sign, because it was expressly from artists and I don't care to misrepresent myself). I hope it has some impact but I'm skeptical. I have to assume the members of the Linden Endowment for the Arts (well-regarded figures all) know about what happened, but I haven't heard if they've done anything.

Linden Labs: grow up!

07 June 2010

Shanghai World Expo: Island Five, Bryn Oh's "no light"

You enter Island Five, Bryn Oh's "no light," at night. It's always night on Island Five. You stand on a long, solitary island. In front of you there's a simple entrance surrounded by rectangular frames of various dimensions, intersecting each other; some are filled with windows of the sort you see in long-abandoned factories. A similar structure stands at the other end of the island.  Beyond it, an aurora borealis shimmers. When you walk through the entrance, you are enveloped in glow, at the end of which you encounter a little girl looking up at the windows.

Farther on are a variety of objects. Although Island Five is "no light," there are lots of electrical lights. Three lightbulbs float toward the side, cupped in spherical shades, undulating like mechanoid jellyfish. Other lamps are also scattered about, some as globes, some as flowers, some perhaps as weeds. And, of course, there are also the Northern Lights. Other small works also populate the island, and a little outcropping nearby.

In the middle of the sim stands a Whisper Tree, very different from the ones on the first three islands, and clearly Bryn Oh's own making. But like the others, it includes the "whisper" anim. However, the tree is a good example of how one shouldn't assume that her individual pieces each hold only one secret. If you keep exploring it, you'll find a teleport to another location. You'll land in "Condos in Heaven."

In my commentary on Island Three, I pointed out that you can collect a painting of a scene from "Condos in Heaven" if you keep you eyes open, and I mentioned that I wanted to write about it sometime, little suspecting it would be so soon. Perhaps the Whisper Tree granted my own small wish.

The world of "Condos" is glaring white. Like being snowblind. Install the Windlight settings (in one of the pillars nearby) for the full Antarctic chill. This world is horizonless, directionless. Here, you can barely escape the light. Far away, three hulking buildings stand uninvitingly. You trudge toward them.

The narrative of  "Condos in Heaven" is that humans have found a way into Heaven. They battle the angels and ultimately win. They occupy Heaven, capture angels, and make them their commodities. Some are sold as pets. Some meet worser fates.

You first go to the building on the right. Outside it, an infant in a baby carriage. This is a shop. As the shopkeeper sits, mildly bored, a man and his young son consider the store's wares. They are angels' wings. To the right, some halos.

To the left, barely noticeable, is a doorway. You open it. Inside, two men are working. One uses a ragged saw to hack off an angel's wings. Soon those too will be on sale. You cannot tell if the angel is dead or still alive.

You leave for the second building, which turns out to be a museum of Bryn Oh. Several of her classic works, framed in alcoves. The Butterflycycle. A robot boy watching a television, inside which is a drawing of a boy watching a television. "26 Tines." Shopping carts. A skipping girlbot -- the same one we met on Island Three. Also seen on Island Three, the milkweed floaters. A pile of shopping carts surrounded by crows. In one alcove, there's "Willow": a small girlbot, locked in a small tower. In her hand floats a small globe of the Earth. She is about to touch it. You touch it, to see her story.

The boy, Willow, and the skipping girlbot are some of Bryn Oh's own angels, caged for us here. Somehow these museum pieces -- with their ultimately intersecting stories, captive in their museum frames -- are like the intersecting frames at the island's entrance. Of course, the latter have nothing to do with the former. Maybe.

At the back of the museum, a girl, accompanied by her dog, half-hides behind a window and peeks out. You peer out too. She sees a captive angel. It is kneeling. It is enchained.

You leave. You go to the last building -- a cross between a railroad engine and a factory. The doorway separates to let you in. You enter a long hallway. Like a hotel that has seen better days. Placards advertise body clones, a newspaper with only happy news, mood enhancing pills. Everything you need to whisk away your worries.

At the end of the hallway is a room, with a four-poster bed, a scrolltop desk, a steam powered grandfather clock, and a table. On the table is a newspaper where you can read about the humans' glorious victory over the angels. You learn that the wings and halos amputated from the angels can be transplanted onto you. It's the next fashion trend. The news continues.

That's only half of what's up here.

You head out of the building and make your way back to the two pillars that mark the entrance. There's a teleport. You take it. But it drops you in mid-air and you plummet, like an angel whose wings have been chopped off.

There is a painting by Paul Klee of an angel, renowned by Walter Benjamin's description of it.

A Klee painting named "Angelus Novus" shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.*

"Condos in Heaven" could stand as the story of what happens next, when progress catches up to the angel. There are no heights, I mean depths, that this pile of debris will not reach. There is nothing that this "progress" won't desecrate and put on sale.

You return to the island, "no light." There are paradoxes, ironies. "Condos in Heaven," glaring with light, is Bryn Oh's darkest work, and the most tough-minded. It's the only one I know of with an explicit social critique of our benighted world. On the island below, where it is always night, the darkness is airy and practically luminous. The Northern Lights lead your eyes to the heavens. The lightbulb jellyfish seem almost peaceful.

And as you return toward the entrance, you notice the little girl again. There is something remarkable here. She is shading her eyes from the sun streaming through the windows. She looks like she has paused. Like she is about to step forward, into and through the sunlight.

Perhaps she is leaving.

Shanghai World Expo: Island Five, Bryn Oh's "no light"

*Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 257-58. Laurie Anderson used these words in the song "The Dream Before," on her album Strange Angels.

03 June 2010

Shanghai World Expo: Island Four, Marcus Inkpen's "no sound"

Marcus Inkpen's "no sound" sim is dominated by a large tower composed of ramshackle rooms piled on top of each other, somewhat reminiscent of Breughel's "Tower of Babel." You can click the lights on and off in the rooms, creating an appearance of activity and life within the tower, but really it's quite empty.

A road supported by a high bridge (looking a lot like a Roman aqueduct) runs through the tower, but the road has crumbled away at both ends. You can switch the streetlights on and off, again creating an empty sign of life. Inside the building, there's a path slowly spiraling up that leads up to a room with a chair, and another path heading back down to ground level where you find a small courtyard with a dead fountain. The tower's interior reminded me a bit of places in Spain and Italy.

Across the water, facing the tower, is a large old Victorian mansion, perched precariously on a ledge extending from a hilltop. It is empty of furniture -- just a maze of ghostly abandoned rooms. But clearly, it was once as opulent as the rooms of the massive tenement are tiny, crowded and dilapidated. These are the remains of a long dead class divide.

The sim also has a couple of large, twisted, dead trees; but as far as I could tell, not the Whisper Tree found on the other World Expo sims. There are Windlight settings so you can see the ruins in a nice gloomy light. You'll find the setting information in the information card about Marcus Inkpen, contained in the general card about the World Expo sims.

I have contradictory reactions to this piece -- or to borrow a phrase, I have an opinion, but it's wrong.  Maybe I just didn't get it. Did I miss something? It's a ruin. As ruins go, it's relatively interesting, if you're interested in ruins. And apparently many people are: the sim attracts more visitors than the others in the Shanghai World Expo, and the visitors seem more varied as well, ranging from Gorean warriors to a schoolgirl playing an electric bass to a couple of street urchins to a neko with a shopping bag to one of those distressingly anorexic models that clutter SL to a Japanese guy straight out of a manga to a rather ordinary-looking woman who evidently decided this was a good place to try on clothes. I think she was there for an hour, while I meandered about trying to find something that might illuminate why I was there. Something to interact with. Something that teleported me. Something that transformed itself. Something that wanted to eject me. Something that would surprise me. Something. There are a few doors you can open and shut. I found a flower that you can close and then make bloom. I clicked on a huge number of lights hoping to find one that was different. That woman was still there exploring her inventory when I gave up. I went back a few more times to see if I might stumble on something, but no luck. To be blunt, I was bored.

So I mulled over the question, why is it called "no sound"? Well, there's no sound. But thinking a bit metaphorically, I noticed how often it reminded me of something else (Breughel, aqueducts, etc). It has no sound, but it has echoes of other things? Maybe that's what the artist was after? If so, then I'll applaud him -- but in the same soundless vein, I'll do it with one hand clapping.

Okay, well maybe Marcus Inkpen's ruins aren't my cup of tea. Let's get down to brass tacks: what difference does it make what I think? Reality check! As I mentioned, Island Four draws more visitors than the other sims in the Shanghai World Expo. I visited it four or five times hoping to find something to hook me, spending a half hour or more each time -- but not once was I alone on the sim for more than a few minutes. Not once! And isn't that more important than whether I happen to like it? If the sim has succeeded in attracting people and bringing their attention to SL art (of whatever sort), then it has succeeded in a very important way. And if its visitors go on to explore the other World Expo sims, I'll have to applaud with both hands.

But I'm not sure how it can do that. Some of the World Expo sims have pedestals near the landing point where you can get notecards and landmarks for the rest of the sims. Unfortunately, this one doesn't. You can roam around here all day and never know there are four other sims to explore.

Shanghai World Expo: Island Four, Marcus Inkpen's "no sound"