18 July 2012

"Virginia Alone" by Bryn Oh

It's curious that with all the reviews of work at the LEA sims and various other builds around the grid, there don't seem to be any commentaries on Bryn Oh's new installation at Immersiva, Virginia Alone, which was part of the Santa Fe New Media Festival -- or if there have been, they've passed me by.  Maybe people feel she's popular enough not to need advertisement, or they assume her popularity is somehow a reason to ignore her, or they haven't bothered to check out her work thinking it's more of the same, or they're afraid to comment critically on such a major figure, or who knows what the reasons are. Anyway I think she should be treated like any other artist in SL, and given that I'm quite willing to yell at her ("Bryn, get your gray ass over to Split Screen!"), I don't mind taking a stab at Virginia Alone, just to offer a starting point.

The problem is, my thoughts about it refuse to gel. And I'm willing to consider the possibility that they won't gel because the Virginia Alone exists in a state of indeterminacy. As most readers probably already know, it's about an elderly woman (over 80 years old), blinded by cataracts, who lived by herself in a remote farm house in the Canadian countryside, and later was moved to a nursing home. (See Bryn's full account of Virginia's background.) According to Bryn she suffers from schizophrenia, but I don't know if that's an actual diagnosis or Bryn's own best guess; be that as it may, it's clear that Virginia has delusions that she herself sometimes recognizes as departures from reality.

Over the years Virginia recorded hundreds of cassette tapes about her activities, thoughts and experiences. From the cassettes Bryn culled over an hour's worth of material, coupled it with machinima and real-world video recordings, and turned it into nine YouTubes which one accesses by clicking on cassette players scattered (sometimes hidden) around Bryn's simulacrum of Virginia's house. Thus the cassettes -- indirectly, Virginia herself -- form the basis of Virginia Alone.

What this means, and one of the things that I think makes the work strangely indeterminate, is that Virginia Alone is a Second Life installation dominated by the material Bryn has placed outside SL. The work constantly takes us out of itself, or rather, into a different-world part of itself. One of the YouTubes even blurs the difference: one scene focuses on a handwritten letter, and then cams backward and down the hall, at which point you realize that the letter is actually an image imported into SL and the entire scene is machinima. At the risk of sounding too cute, it seems that Virginia Alone, like Virginia herself, exists in multiple realities, both equally real and unreal. This interpretation is underscored by the cassette tapes made at the nursing home, in which the background sounds -- people talking or yelling or screaming, and various other noises -- are at least as compelling as Virginia's voice calmly talking in its midst (in fact for me, sometimes more compelling), giving the real-world recording a sense of unreality.

Click on photos to enlarge

One obvious difference between Virginia Alone and Bryn's well-known older installations, such as the Rabbicorn trilogy, is that she has more or less departed from the arena of robot girls and robot animals. As she has done in many of her recent builds, the main lines her approach is more or less naturalistic: an isolated island with trees, rocks, a water-logged boat, a house modeled after Virginia's actual house, cobwebs and so forth. It's more like her oil paintings, which Bryn occasionally imports into SL, and you'll find one in Virginia Alone. Admittedly I'm usually not enthusiastic about art in SL that attempts to reproduce RL, but Bryn makes it work by her inclusions of the strange or uncanny, and anyway, Bryn has the right and need to take new approaches. (One thing that has not changed is her obsession with insects, of which there are quite a few in the YouTubes.)

And I did say, "more or less." The basement plumbing is a chaotic network of pipes that seems characteristically Bryn, and not a bad way to image Virginia's thought patterns. More to the point, she has placed a number of her signature motifs (such as poems, piles of shopping carts, and a robot rabbit) in the house and on the island, and she has a bit of cam build as well, so be sure to look around closely.

Click photos to enlarge

You may notice that I haven't addressed the emotional impact of Virginia's tapes. Basically I think that would be redundant, visitors will naturally focus on it themselves. The question I wanted to ask (or ask myself) is how Virginia Alone works, what aspects contribute to its impacts and meanings.

Unless you're blessed with lots of free time, you'll have to visit Virginia Alone several times in order to watch all of YouTubes and explore the house and the island. When I was in the upstairs I happened to visit the rooms left to right, which turned out to have a very good effect.

SLURL to Virginia Alone: secondlife://Immersiva/16/157/21