13 May 2012

To LEA or Not to LEA

This post is a belated response to Quan Lavendar's discussion of some controversies regarding the LEA sims. At the time I was too busy to comment, but after Quan and I discussed some of the issues during the opening reception for A Rusted Development at LEA1 (a great installation, by the way, albeit a bit disjointed), I decided to write this post, expanding on some of my original thoughts. And from the start, I'll state that a number of my comments are based on ignorance ... which will be part of my point.

Many people have strong feelings about the LEA sims, sometimes accusing the committee's members of bias or favoritism or corruption or cliquishness. I'd like to pose a contrast that raises some questions. How do the independent curators compare? I don't know how the people who run (for example) Art Screamer, MetaLES, Originalia, and NMC select artists, but at Split Screen only one person has any say: me. I invite whoever I want to invite. Once in a while someone asks to build there; sometimes I say no, and sometimes (actually more often) I say yes. In theory, people could easily charge me with favoritism or whatever else, yet I've never heard that complaint raised against me or any of the other independent curators (not yet, anyway ... I've probably just invited it). So one has to ask, what's the difference between the necessary selectivity exercised by independent curators, and the necessary selectivity exercised by the LEA committee? Imagine the LEA committee didn't manage the sims on behalf of Linden Labs, but instead paid for the sims themselves. Would people's attitudes be different? I suspect they would.

Most likely, the LEA sims raise so much debate because of their "official" character. I know artists who won't even apply for a LEA sim because of their "official" status or their feelings about the LEA committee. Conversely, I'm told that one or two LEA members have been unwelcoming toward some artists, even accusing a few of "hating SL." The situation is a pity, because I bet those artists could do amazing things with a full sim. However, their refusal to apply helps make the point: the sims' "official" character raises hackles. If I'm right about that, then one of the questions artists need to ask themselves is why they have such strong feelings about the LEA sims. Does the intensity derive from the desirability of a full sim? Does "official sponsorship" offer higher status, cachet or clout? Is there a sense of entitlement or a right to LEA land? Will a LEA sim -- and only a LEA sim -- enable you to create better art? What's the difference between a LEA sim and an independent sim?

I don't envy the members of LEA; they have a tough job. That doesn't mean I agree with everything LEA has done. In fact I don't even understand some of their decisions (why 5 months, rather than 3, 4, or 6?). They do a crappy job publicizing work (like most artists). They need to be cautious about what they say to whom, and they sometimes fail. And they face the problem that confronts every sponsor of a new work: you make a bet, and there's a chance you bet wrong. Most of the work LEA has sponsored has been good, some has been amazing, but there have been some duds too. The possibility of disappointment is simply part of commissioning new work.

It is true that Linden Labs benefits from LEA's work -- the company didn't provide the sims (tenuous as they are) out of pure generosity. So? If LEA's work simultaneously helps artists and helps Second Life survive, I don't see the point of faulting them for it. (Some of LL's calls for promotional work are more exploitative.)

However, LEA suffers from a lack of transparency, starting with the committee's composition. I for one have no clue how its members were selected. A couple of them I've never even heard of, let alone observed their interest in SL art. (For what it's worth, none of the members are on my Friends list -- not even Bryn, who had an installation at Split Screen.) The grapevine says that there are major conflicts among personalities and/or priorities, which makes me wonder if the committee's membership needs to be reconsidered. It also suggests that the committee doesn't have a coherent set of goals for the sims. Do they feel it's important to include artists who haven't built on a full sim before? Do they strive to have a mix of (say) highly scripted and unscripted work? Do they place a priority on work with a narrative element? I have no idea -- but if they do have an articulate set of goals for the sims, it would help to set them out publicly. If they don't have clear aims, then the committee really isn't a committee: it's a squabbling reality TV show, and from the outside its decisions can easily look arbitrary or political -- even if they're nothing of the sort.

Which brings me to my major concerns about LEA: whatever the committee thinks or intends, from what I've observed it has given itself the appearance (and maybe reality) of operating in a top-down manner, and fostered competitiveness and jealousy among artists. Competitiveness and jealousy in turn are likely to make the sims more trouble than they're worth to Linden Labs. LEA needs to work toward generating a sense of community. But artists must bear some responsibility for achieving that too -- LEA can't do it alone. (I have other concerns, but these are at the top.)

The heart of community is transparency. I propose a set of forums, in which the LEA committee members explain what they do, hear and respond to concerns (maybe only to issues submitted in writing, in order to avoid heckling and recriminations), and seek ways to resolve shortcomings. I would also like artists to discuss why they respond to LEA the way they do (honesty would be nice, though I'm not sanguine about that). It might be best if LEA didn't directly sponsor the forums: instead, FreeWee Ling's ArtGyro group might provide more neutral auspices, although the forums might be held on a LEA sim (e.g., the theater space). (I haven't talked with Free about this; she's a smart woman, so she'll probably run like hell.)

I'd also encourage LEA to use its blog to explain as much as they can about themselves, their aims, their hurdles, and especially their relationship with Linden Labs ... or from what I hear, lack of relationship, and being upfront about their problems getting responses from LL might nip a lot of problems in the bud.

Meanwhile, to any artist angry about not getting a LEA sim: that's life. LEA is not all there is to SL art, and getting a LEA sim isn't the only chance -- or necessarily the best chance -- to do great work. There are other sims in the virtual sea. So I might not feel sorry for you. I might be celebrating, because now I have a shot at getting you. Maybe you should be looking for people like me. In fact maybe you should flip your perspective -- independent curators have to be far more selective than LEA because we have less land to offer, so maybe we're the plum gigs. Support your local independent curators.


  1. This is a fantastic post, Dividni, I couldn't agree more (including the bit about A Rusted Development being disjointed - as Curator it was my one worry, but I wanted it to develop organically, so that's kind of the fallout).

    I was asked to be an Advisor to the LEA early this year, and I decided to accept because I, like you, had no idea what they were doing outside of the land grants, and I am committed to supporting the arts in SL. I very quickly learned two things:

    1. They were doing a lot more than I thought (for example, I'd never heard of the School of Virtual Art).
    2. Although what they are doing is good, marketing and transparency are not priorities.

    In fact, I have been specifically told that theirs is not a transparent process. Now some of this I get... for example, they have no duty, in my opinion, to explain why people get the land grants sims. In fact, it would be unprofessional. I can say, from witnessing the last selection, it is an incredibly democratic process (and there are far fewer applications than people think - the majority that apply get sims, to my recollection).

    However, I DO think transparency is key, and I kicked up a fuss for a couple weeks just to get the committee names posted on the website (you can see the list here: http://www.lea-sl.org/). I don't think this lack of information was down to a secret agenda, merely an oversight or lack of prioritisation. But it is an important point - who are these people, and why are they here?

    One of my first goals as a new board member - Ginette Pinazzo and I were recently asked to step up from advisor status - is to make a post on the blog with brief bios of who we are - it IS an impressive group, and I think now one that it is not just limited to artists, but those who have wider experience in arts administration. This, I hope, is a good thing.

    But I think you are very astute in your observations that the connection with Linden Labs makes everyone wary - and I'd include the committee in that. The original committee was selected by LL employees after an application process, and was then given leave to form things however they like with very little remit from LL - as I've been told recently in trying to learn the ropes - and so this project has grown organically, which in some ways is great. But I do think it is time to step back and reflect, see what has been done, what is working, and what isn't.

    I think there are some growing pains... and I hope that I will be able to help with those. But that remains to be seen. For me, the input of people like yourself, Quan, FreeWee, and the Art Screamer crew is invaluable - as you may not be practising artists, but you are certainly the movers and shakers of the virtual arts, in my opinion.

  2. Thanks, Rowan. And I wholly agree that the committee's discussions about who gets sims shouldn't be up for public review -- I've been on enough committees in RL to know what an unnecessary and undeserved mess that can cause. Confidentially about those deliberations is based on respect for the people under discussion.

  3. Great blog post and great comment! I will link that to my post.

  4. Marmaduke Arado15 May, 2012 10:49

    Dividni, you address some issues about LEA that are very much worthy of further discussion, but you leave out the ones that I'm concerned about.

    As Quan writes in her post "It's Time to Turn to Something Productive" (that prompted you to write this post), the specific issue I'm talking about is "the protest of some artists, caused by the banishment of SaveMe Oh on almost all LEA sims".

    You see, what demonstrably happened was that SaveMe Oh was banished from LEA sims under a false pretext, and that configures a totally unacceptable abuse of power from the part of the LEA Art Sandbox Administrator who banned her (Sasun Steinbeck).

    As Quan explains on her blog post "The Political Culture of Second Life" about this incident, the reason given by Sasun Steinbeck for banning SaveMe Oh was that she was wearing prims that blocked access to the Pirats gallery in which an opening was taking place. This, according to Steinbeck, violates the LEA rules against griefing, thus the ban was entirely justified in her view.

    The small problem with this justification is that it's a complete and utter lie, for one simple technical reason that is beyond refutation: any prim or object you wear in SL becames AUTOMATICALLY phantom, so it can't block access to anything, you go as freely through it as if it wasn't there.

    And as it happens this is not the only demonstrable example of lying by LEA Art Sandbox Administrators in the events that ensued SaveMe's banning from LEA, regarding the protest that arose against it (and I insist, not because some people dispute Sasun Steinbeck's understanding of griefing but because she lied to justify her decision).

    So in a nutshell that's what is at stake here: an unacceptable abuse of power from LEA Art Sandbox Administrators: they feel justified in lying whenever it seems appropriate to them.

    And I have difficulty imagining that anyone would disagree on this point: no one with the power to ban should be able to lie in justification for using that power.

    It will make this comment too long to present two other demonstrable examples of lying by LEA Art Sandbox Administrators in the course of this process, in order to justify exercising their powers, but obviously I'm ready to do it at any time, in public or in private, to anyone who cares to know about it.

    Besides the demonstrable examples of lying by LEA Art Sandbox Administrators, there's a lot of other VERY WORRYING behaviors by the said Administrators, who are in the extraordinary position of being able to enforce the rules they write themselves.

    I'd have A LOT more to say about this subject, but will leave it here for the moment.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hi Marmaduke,

      Thanks for your comment. From my perspective, SaveMe's banning is a separate issue and I want to focus on one topic alone -- a topic on which I hope my comments can be useful for everyone.

  5. "Is there a sense of entitlement or a right to LEA land?"

    Based on the initial reaction to my crazy proposal for LEA to pick up the ball with SL9B... yes?

    I guess we'll see how they react when the grant is up for renewal and the Labbies tighten the screws.


    1. I'm not sure what you mean by the initial reaction to your most excellent suggestion, but the Labbies already said the land grants sims will be renewed. Whether they retract or change their minds is another story altogether.

      Rowan, former LEA Advisor/Board Member

    2. Marmaduke Arado17 May, 2012 13:54

      "the Labbies tighten the screws"

      sounds rather sinister ("North Koreanish" is the neologism that came into my mind), do you have a more specific idea of what form that may take?

  6. People with an interest in arts will not face that much problems to stage events, and would applaud a little rumour and exitement around it. People with an interest in power, ruling and enforcing that power don't belong in the artworld, they should join the police.
    And when they have done that it's he task of us, artist to question them.

  7. Excellent post, and a discussion that we need to have.

    You ask why the strong feelings and what is the difference between LEA and other art sims. It is not the committee, their quailifications or the intentions or selection processes, it is the fact that LL chose to GIVE land for this purpose to a small, selected group of people. In the process LL (and by deafult the committee) thumbed their noses at those artists, gallery owners and curators who had paid tier to develop virtual art over the years and who had made and were still making a personal and financial commitment to making it happen. LL chose to let excellent, well established exhibition spaces close because the owners found it hard to pay tier, while at the same time giving away an extensive exhibition space to a small group of people who (as you say) run it to their own taste and inclination while not paying the price imposed on private owners. We accept your right to impose your taste at Split Screen without comment because you pay for the privilege, but the situation with LEA is quite different.

    I don't know if LL has been a winner in this process, because I think so many galleries and exhibition spaces have closed and are closing, that perhaps in the end all they will have left is art spaces that are not paying them any tier. Certainly LEA was directly the reason I closed my SL gallery. Part of this issue was the withdrawal of subsidies from educational and non-profit sims. What was the effect? Those sims closed and their function is partly taken over by sims provided free to LEA. Perhaps a better strategy might have been to continue to provide subsidies. It would certainly have provided better PR than LEA.

    The third issue is the 'official' label. LEA sims are 'company' sims (this may or may not be the way they operate, but while LL continue to provide the sims it will always be seen that way). If there's one characteristic most artists have in common it's that they are anarchists at heart. They care more about their freedom than most and they want to use their in whatever way they want. They push at boundaries, they make political comment, and they will often poke their noses at 'the establishment'. Any committee appointed by LL to run free company sims is going to have an uphill battle (see SaveMe's comments above).

    The LEA committee seems to bedoing as good a job as any in making LEA happen, and there's been some great shows and some not so great. I applaud the not so great as well, it shows the committee are willing to take a chance and encourage unknowns etc. I don't know who is on the committee, but certainly from the outside their a feeling of insiders and others.

    I can't help thinking LEA has been the catalyst for many galleries and art sims to disappear or be relocated to other grids, and I am not sure just what LL has achieved for itself. Certainly not good PR. This is not the fault of the committee, I think LEA was always a bad strategy for LL to adopt.

    1. Hi Juanita,

      You raise *excellent* points. I've been thinking more about these issues myself and started sketching out another blog post, but you express several of the issues so well that I'm going to re-shape what I was planning to say. Hopefully I'll finish writing that post in the next couple of days.