22 May 2011

Bryn Oh Gets Gorey ... um, I mean, Gory

Bryn Oh has always had a slight morbid streak. Okay, maybe a thick morbid streak. In her latest build, Anna's Many Murders, she takes her morbidness in a whole new direction, presenting us with a rather disturbed little girl:
Anna tired of body apps
that people used
to fill their gaps.
So with a touch
of profound sadness,
Anna embraced
what we'd call madness.
As people accessorize and modify themselves with electronic gadgets, Anna responds by killing everyone in sight, a narrative the Bryn presents through short verses like the ones above.

Some selected murder scenes. Click to enlarge.

As she often does, Bryn has developed a custom Windlight setting to give the dark, dank feel she wants for "Anna's Many Murders." She gives instructions on how install the settings and other recommendations on her blog and at the site as well.* They add considerably to the effect.

"Anna's Many Murders" has a well-known predecessor: The Gashleycrumb Tinies, by the master of the merrily macabre, Edward Gorey. In it, Gorey recites an alphabet of children succumbing to one amusingly pitiful death or another. Here are a few (click to enlarge):

(The entire alphabet of The Gashleycrumb Tinies has been posted online, probably illegally, here.)

During my first visit to "Anna's Many Murders," I came across Bryn, Colemarie Soleil and one or two other people, apparently waiting to see who might fall off the railroad tracks that are the setting for one of the scenes, and in the same vein as Edward Gorey, Bryn started improvising an alphabet of SL arts mortalities, such as:
c is for colemarie who died of a fit
d is for dividni who was suddenly split
I don't know whether Bryn even knows Gorey's work; it scarcely matters, since this sort of humor is widespread through many cultures and amusing ABCs have been around many decades, probably centuries. Some people are repulsed by black humor (yet how many love "They killed Kenny! You bastards!"). But there's perhaps no more succinct way to capture the true nature of life, which is a mostly messy and miserable affair that has a way of demonstrating how ridiculous we are, with the perverse result of making us enjoy it more. I'm glad to see some in Second Life.

"Anna's Many Murders" reverses a major theme of Bryn's Rabbicorn trilogy ("Daughter of Gears," "The Rabbicorn," and "Standby"), which centered on a robot girl and her friend-sister-protector, the robot rabbicorn, both of them running from the malevolent humans hunting them down. In "Anna's Many Murders," however, the protagonist young girl is human, who sets out to kill people who to one degree or other have become robots. The inversion is itself noted by a painting of a climactic scene in "Standby," which simultaneously invokes the Rabbicorn story and sets it firmly in the past.

But this reading is a bit simplistic: just as the Daughter of Gears was anthropomorphized by having human feelings, Anna has a few robot parts herself. Further, some of her victims don't seem to have much that's robotic at all, like little Timmy, who appears no more modified than Anna is.  In short, there's a tension between what Anna thinks motivates her (exasperation over people's self-cyborgification) and what she actually does. On close inspection, why she's killing becomes an open question. Although she tires of people using body apps, she herself is a killer app.

One striking element in "Anna's Many Murders" is that it is, in a sense, built upside down. The effect is amplified by the gloomy Windlight setting; it really is essential to use it. One lands in an orientation room, and exiting the doorway one walks up onto a meadow. A few promontories are visible in the distance. After roaming it, you pass through the fence gate where Anna's murders begin ("She brained the mailman in the yard / She hit him once, but very hard"), and then cross a somewhat fragmentary walkway, actually a bridge, to enter the house. It's easy to miss how high you are. After viewing a couple of murder scenes you fall through a hole and land on a crumbling railroad bridge. The fall is disorienting -- at first the setting feels like an enormous cavern.

What seemed like a meadow is in fact the top of an extremely high plateau (which one would realize earlier only by paying close attention as you approach the house). The railroad bridge is actually just a short way down from the top, and if you lose your footing, you'll plummet quite a distance. The path through "Anna's Many Murders" continues ever downward, until you reach the true bottom of the build where Anna wades through a marsh to find her freedom, and more murder victims. The degree of spatial imagination needed to build "Anna's Many Murders" and to understand its structure is quite unusual.

Be careful while crossing the railroad bridge, by the way. Bryn tweaks the build now and then, and a few days after opening "Anna's Many Murders" she introduced a whole new sort of interactivity. (New for her, anyway; can't say I've seen it with any other artist.) It's not the only location for this newbie-unfriendly touch!

Another interesting aspect of "Anna's Many Murders" is its theatricality. In several scenes, Anna is in a spotlight. I've included a couple of examples above. The motif helps to separate the storytelling from reality, to keep us from taking the murders seriously. The verses have a similar effect.

"Anna's Many Murders" might be Bryn's most humorous build to date; it might even be her only humorous build to date (I don't go back that far). It's a good change of pace. She seems to be probing into a number of new directions lately, such as the naturalistic marsh setting of "Mayfly" (which opened Split Screen and is incorporated into the end of  "Anna's Many Murders"), her work with sculpties, etc.

*The Phoenix programmers deserve our thanks for making it easy to switch to a different Windlight setting, obtain a new one, and even have a Windlight setting made part of the land options. Maybe Linden Labs will pick up on these ideas the way they eventually added jiggly ... but I'm none too hopeful: there's been a JIRA request for land-controlled Windlight since June 2008.

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