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/

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