26 December 2012

A conversation with FreeWee Ling about the nature and impermanence of Second Life art

A few nights ago I contacted FreeWee Ling (art curator for the University of Western Australia's Second Life sims) about a couple of minor topics. Our conversation drifted onto the subject of ArtGyro (FreeWee's group for open discussion of various issues in SL art aimed at arts stabilization and collaboration), UWA, and then the preservation, sustainability, and nature of SL art itself. Like all conversations it wanders from topic to topic, sometimes modulating ideas or not completing them, but it occurred to me that other people might find it thought-provoking. So with Free's permission I've copied part of our conversation below (with edits for typos, clarifications, etc).

FreeWee Ling's profile photo,
much in need of updating
FreeWee Ling: [UWA is] starting another big money competition like the Centenary show last year. That'll be the first few months. Starting Feb.

Dividni Shostakovich: Open submission again?

FreeWee: Yes. I'd like to have some [ArtGyro] sessions to talk about what it all means. Is what we're doing here important? Is it good? Does it have lasting value? Art with a capital A? That kind of thing. The ephemeral nature of art here defines its legacy in some ways.

Dividni: Yes -- there are complicated feelings about that issue, not surprisingly.

FreeWee: Of course. People who value the work, whether their own or not, feel like it should be preserved. I think so, too, but maybe for other reasons.

Dividni: I think it should at least be documented, but even doing that can be a challenge.

FreeWee: Right. That's why I document every show we do here. But the difficulty is preserving the idea of the work, not the work itself.

Dividni: Yes. But defining what "preservation" means is actually not so simple.

FreeWee: I feel pretty strongly that the strength of art in virtual worlds is the ability to do a rapid prototype of an idea. The actual technical quality [of the SL platform] is pretty much crap. Even the best of it. But it's so easy to express compelling ideas despite the limitations.

Dividni: Hm, but how does the experience of immersion and interaction fit into that view?

FreeWee: That's what makes it easy. I think of it like Picasso sitting in the Lapin Agile, talking about art and sketching ideas on a napkin.

Dividni: But a sketch of an interaction isn't an interaction: that's a real experience (so to speak, given we're in a virtual world). Regardless of technical quality, psychologically we project ourselves into the virtual space.

FreeWee: The sketch is the idea. An illustration of an idea. But not a fully fledged artwork.

FreeWee: SL is a napkin ... heehee.

FreeWee: No... SL is the Lapin Agile... ideally.

Dividni: Yes, I understand your analogy, but I'm questioning it.

FreeWee: The interaction is the interaction. The others at the table. My point is SL is a place to gather and exchange ideas. The technology is crude, but highly effective because it's easy. It's accessible.

Dividni: So in RL it would be an interaction through the medium of the napkin?

FreeWee: So we can't necessarily critique work here the same as we would in a formal gallery with finished works that are complete unto themselves. We have to see beyond the form to the idea. We make allowances for technical weaknesses if the idea is compelling enough. A lot of the winning entries at UWA are far from the strongest technically. I think there's a consensus that the idea is implicitly transcendent over form.
          This is a different observation than a gallery curator would get. I'm observing a larger population making specific judgments. And I see trends in that. The Artists Choice series reflects the temperaments of artists. The UWA challenges reflects the temperaments of a different type of judging population. But in all cases, they tend to support the rendition of a compelling idea over technical quality.

Dividni: I agree that technically SL doesn't present what many artists have in mind, but I don't think that "draft" quality applies to interaction and immersion. I think that stands more clearly, even if still not precisely what an artist might dream of. But that issue applies in RL too.

FreeWee: Well the question might be, then, what is the quality of the interaction? Is it comparable to RL? Better even? Or is it the facility? The opportunity? Again, it's a matter of simplicity over technical quality that allows interaction to take place on a global stage with few barriers.

Dividni: Why can't the quality of SL art -- including technical -- be exactly what the artist wants? Cartoons can be art after all.

FreeWee: If the artist is satisfied with it, that's fine. What makes a cartoon effective is not its artistic merit but the ability to convey an idea in a simple way. Certainly it's art. And it can be a complete expression. But there's a difference between a cartoon and a Rembrandt. There is depth that can't be achieved simply. A novel instead of a limerick. A symphony instead of a folk song. All have their merits. It's good to be able to use this platform to express ideas, but some people have the illusion that it will last.

Dividni: Yes -- but perhaps the problem there is that they expect RL art to be more permanent than it necessarily is. Some arts are always evanescent, like theater, dance, and music. Oil paintings crack, corrode, etc.

FreeWee: I'm not talking about erosion. I'm talking about this work that we see every day no longer existing. The world itself is evolving away from this technology and there will be no retrieval.

Dividni: There's no retrieval of a theater performance either -- just documentation.

FreeWee: Imagine if oil paint suddenly started to evaporate off all the paintings in the world.

Dividni: See, that's the analogy that people shouldn't be using. Performance is more accurate.

FreeWee: But doesn't performance have temporal and social elements that are lacking in visual art? [ADDENDUM: What I wanted to say here about performance is that when the music is over, there are scores and recordings. When a play is done, the script remains. It doesn't vanish forever. The essential element of an art performance can be recorded or the instructions retained so it can be reproduced. The art in SL is often site- and platform-specific. Very often when a show is over, the work is removed and cannot ever be retrieved. And there is so little "legitimate" criticism by journalists, its memory will also be lost to the future.]

Dividni: Yes -- as does immersive & interactive art in SL.

FreeWee: Of course you're right in certain cases. It's hard to generalize.

Dividni: Yes, which perhaps where this conversation is stumbling! lol

FreeWee: Heehee. Yes. We can always cite exceptions. There are no absolutes. But I do see trends.

Dividni: OK, flesh out what trends you're seeing.

FreeWee: I think we're in for a massive change in technology over the next year or two that will make SL untenable. The core issue being mobility. The real estate model for SL can't survive.

Dividni: Yes, that's a big issue.

FreeWee: I see this where I work. A university. They're pushing hard to get more and more classes online. But what they aren't talking about is what happens to the campus when students don't have to be there? And if a student can get a history class from Oxford and an engineering class from MIT, why should he be in a degree program at the University of Kentucky? And he'll be competing with a class that is global in scope. It's a sea change.

Dividni: Yes, true. What implications does that have for SL art?

FreeWee: Everything is being delivered to portable devices. People are less willing to sit at a computer desk.

Dividni: People are watching whole movies on their iPhone.

FreeWee: SL won't work on a tablet, even if the technology is supported. The bandwidth used by SL is relentless. Significantly greater than downloading a movie. And ultimately, the immersion doesn't happen on a small screen.

Dividni: I haven't tried Cloud Party, but there've been some experiments with browser-based SL, I think.

FreeWee: I've been to Cloud Party. It's basically the same as SL, except that everything is mesh. Harder to create content, but much easier to socialize.

Dividni: I'm not sure I agree with you about the size of the screen impeding immersion -- one can compare it to watching a play from a back row: you still get immersed and can usually read faces even though they're small.

FreeWee: I'm sitting at a desk in my home with 3 monitors in front of me. About 4.5 feet wide altogether and I can spread SL across all three to get phenomenal peripheral immersion.

Dividni: Spoiled brat :-D

FreeWee: I spend enough time doing this there seemed to be justification ... heehee. I still get lagged and pissed about how slow it is. Spent a bunch of money on the graphics card.

Dividni: Yeah, SL is a systems hog.

Dividni: Gaah I need to go to sleep!

FreeWee: Good talking as always.

Dividni: You too, have a good night, and enjoy the holidays & break.

FreeWee: Gnite!

Since this is my blog, I'm going to add some thoughts, just to elaborate some points I raised briefly in my conversation with Free, primarily on SL art as a prototype (sketch, draft) and on its impermanence. I just want to flesh out some thoughts to which she and other readers may want to respond.

I don't actually know any SL artists who view their work as a prototype of something they'd like to do in the physical world, or wish that it could be, but perhaps I just haven't had those conversations. Plenty have complained about the limitations of SL's tools, but that doesn't seem to be what Free has in mind. Some artists (in SL or RL) do attempt to represent particular ideas through their works. For example, when sunflower Aichi talked about her contribution to the recent festival at the Odyssey sim, she said, "this sculpture represents the rebirth of man." So perhaps that artwork was a draft or illustration of the artist's ideas. I suppose Artistide Despres's Let These Facts Be Known (at Split Screen in December 2011 and then incorporated into other works) could similarly be described as representing her feeling about the power and importance of the Occupy movement.

But that latter example seems to stretch the idea. In my view, the artwork often is the thought. In these cases the relationship of draft and artwork is the reverse of Free's analysis. The artist's initial, conscious ideas are the draft; the final work constitutes the ideas' eventual form, the result of wherever the building process took her -- much in the way that a novelist can start off with a plot-line in mind and then discover that the characters somehow obtain a life of their own, pushing the story in unexpected directions. An artist certainly can be frustrated with the limitations of Second Life's tools, but that doesn't make the artwork a draft of something yet-to-be-achieved: it is still a completed expression, even if the articulation isn't what the artist would accomplish with better tools. In many other cases, however, SL provides the artist with excellent resources that the molecular world cannot offer. Because the artwork is the thought itself, it's often useless to ask an artist what her work "means" or what she "intends": at the end of the day, what she intends is the artwork. At that point the artwork just is, in all its (virtual) materiality, for its audience to receive and understand in whatever way it does.

The point is especially true for art with a strong narrative element. Bryn Oh's Rabbicorn story is about an orphaned robot-girl and the robot-rabbicorn who eventually saves her from attack; Rose Borchovski tells stories about Susa Bubble, "who went to bed single and woke up double"; and Artée's Let These Facts Be Known has an implicit narrative about the Occupy movement. (The stories, of course, are also about themes like loneliness, fear, and liberty.) But the story is the story. The fact that it was developed and expressed in a virtual world doesn't makes it a prototype of some idea: it is the idea.

I'd like to tie the issue to the problem of preserving Second Life art. At some point, nearly all artworks in Second Life have to be removed, but often we wish they could continue to be available. However, preservation confronts all sorts of pragmatic problems such as who would pay for the sims, and technical problems such as the eventual extinction of operating systems and hardware.

In my view, people should think about SL art not on the model of paintings and sculptures in the molecular world, but on the model of performance. Let's face it: art in Second Life is evanescent. In a sense, all art in Second Life is narrative: not a narrative about something, but instead, a narrative in itself. It came, we saw (or we didn't), it went away ... end of story. That's how arts like music, dance, and theater exist. I wish I could have seen David Tennant as Hamlet (a very good production, I've heard), but I'm out of luck. One can have scripts and scores and recordings of performances -- documents of various types -- but the performances themselves vanish.

Stop wishing that SL art could exist permanently. It doesn't, it can't, and maybe it shouldn't:  maybe trying to make it permanent would simply freeze it to death. The fact that it disappears is part of what makes experiencing it valuable, fascinating, and in every sense immediate. On the other hand, everybody should document!

FreeWee may see the issues differently; or maybe I'm misconstruing her argument; or maybe she'll find she agrees with me on some points. Who knows, maybe I can be persuaded to see things differently.

I'm not going to get into the issues of immersive and interactive art, where immediacy is even more crucial; or the related matter of our psychological projection into such environments, which is being increasingly illuminated by cognitive science. These topics are actually more important to me than the issue of impermanence; however, my impression is that currently impermanence is on more people's minds. So possibly I'll discuss immersiveness and interactivity some other day.

21 December 2012

Advice to Second Life Artists from Quan Lavender

One of the great challenges confronting Second Life artists is how to increase the value and significance of their work. Much like any other market, Second Life art obeys a version of the law of supply and demand: the less available or accessible the art is, the better it is. Popular work is always of low quality (just like the masses who like it), and conversely, rare and obscure art meets the highest standards. But there's also an opposite problem, because people need to have heard of an artist's work, even (or especially) if they've never seen it, in order to perceive its value. Artists face a difficult problem in balancing these two forces.

But help is here. In How to Avoid Visitors - A Guideline for Artists...., Quan Lavender had provided artists with excellent pointers on how they can make visitors and curators understand the excellence of their work. Her recommendations cover dealing with visitors, the press, opening events, curators, and other aspects of obtaining recognition for the best art that Second Life can offer. She also provides advice to art galleries, some of which applies to installation spaces, and so I am taking those suggestions to heart. And for people who have difficulty grasping her point, at the end of her post she even provides a bit of sodium chloride.

I'm dismayed to add that only one or two of the artists who have shown their work at Split Screen have followed Quan's recommendations, which (alas) tells you something about the quality of the work I'm able to obtain. I have tried to arrange for installations by superb artists, ones who clearly do follow Quan's wise advice, and as a perfect demonstration of how accurate her guidelines are, I have been unable to do so -- proving the excellence of these artists' work.

I urge everyone in the Second Life art world to read and heed Quan's words.

16 December 2012

Yet another installation space gone

Apparently I'm way behind the times: I just learned that at the end of October, the Art Screamer sim closed. Its curators Zachh Cale, Chestnut Rau, and Amase Levasseur did a spectacular job, and between their own sim and LEA sims they obtained, they made six major installations possible and reached a huge audience in SL -- there were tens of thousands of visitors to Claudia222 Jewell's "Spirit" alone. The curators cite a lack of resources, which is not surprising when a sim has no commercial or residential activities on it: aside from the occasional tip, tier is all out of pocket, and full sims are far from cheap. Art Screamer's existence was a huge contribution to the Second Life art scene, and after the closure of so many other art spaces (see my posts herehere and here), the loss is especially large. I for one will miss it deeply, and I thank Chestnut, Amase and Zachh for all they did.

10 December 2012

Article and Interview with Cherry Manga by Quan Lavender

Quan Lavendar has an excellent article in Avenue incorporating parts of her interview with Cherry Manga about Danse Macabre. The article includes photos by Piedra Lubitsch. Definitely worth reading! See:

http://issuu.com/avenue/docs/avenue.december2012/318 (direct link -- you have to find page 318 if you use the embedded viewer below, which isn't hard since it's the last article)

01 December 2012

Another Machinima of Cherry Manga's "Danse Macabre"

Boa Tatuagem created this machinima on Danse Macabre:

Nicely done! I don't know who Boa Tatuagem is and the name doesn't seem to be listed in SL, but thanks anyway!

Update: The machinima is by Maxim Ouachita.  Thanks again!