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.


  1. It is an interesting conversation. I would disagree with art here being considered a prototype though. For example, Virginia Alone, a recently closed build of mine, was in devellopment for a year, received funding from the Government and was then shown at the Santa Fe new media festival. There were dozens of prototypes or sketches made in rl for that sl work, but it was a finished piece.
    The artists here are working in a medium that exists today. We use its unique elements, such as it being a multi-user environment, its ability to allow for interaction, the use of sound combined with a 3d space etc etc, the technology will pass to something greater but the evaluation should not be concerned with what is possible in this future but rather what the work says today.
    Not sure what is meant by the technical quality but I am thinking artists like Van Gogh, Munch, Klimpt and so on would find our tools to be quite impressive. But then they were using things like carmine red which was made up of thousands of crushed up bug shells or perhaps naples yellow as taken from the volcanic rock of Pompeii. Burnt Sienna was mud, and they would push the paint out of a pigs bladder. It is not the technology but rather the artists ability to manipulate it. The Wizard of OZ was considered to be a technical masterpiece of its time but compared to Star Wars the Phantom menace it pales in comparison. But which was a better movie? It is an interesting topic and I both sides have some merit.

  2. I enjoyed reading this, Dividni. Thanks for sharing!

  3. "everybody should document!" says Divi. Well, I know of at least one artist, Ultraviolet Alter, that wants hers concerts to be an immersive experience NOT to be recorded. I took a chance when I recorded her last concert and only got her approval after the fact :)

    1. Hi Apmel, I certainly understand Ultraviolet's view! But it comes from the fact that music can be taken outside SL and marketed in a way that sculptures and installations can't (the preservation issues concern those). Ultra wouldn't want to undercut her own (real or potential) sales. In theory 2D images can be copied and distributed outside SL, but I'm sure there's little market for them.

  4. The comparison of the sl-technic with artists like Rembrandt, van Gogh and other rl-painters is strange. Sl is a unique tool. Possible to develop of course but all the same unique.
    Does the complaints come from the fact that a lot of artists in sl are pictorial artists in rl?
    Do they forget that art is much more even in rl than pictorial and not at all necessarily Rembrandt-like or van Gogh or Picasso-like ?
    I am very fond of pictures. But I have a background in rl in theatre and written words. As unique as the art in sl and the sl tool is it is mostly comparable with the conditions of performance. But still it is something else.
    Isn´t the comparison only with pictorial rl art a dead end way of locking the art of sl in a cage of predetermined patterns?

  5. Interesting perspectives from both you and FreeWee. I’m not sure that FreeWee was saying virtual artworks are prototypes, but rather that the strength of art in virtual worlds is the ability to do a rapid prototype of an idea. It’s along the lines of Bettina Tizzy’s ‘not possible in real life’.
    I wouldn’t describe the work of artists like Bryn or Glyph or Rose or many Sl artists as ‘protoypes’ or ‘drafts’. FreeWee is right, the strength of the medium is in allowing artists to produce (relatively quickly, compared to real life) extensive, compelling three dimensional works. They may not be technically complex, but they do work in a way real life artworks just cannot.
    One of the great strengths of SL has been the building tools. However imperfect, they have allowed artists an easy pathway to creating virtual artworks. Truly good artists are not limited by the limitations of those tools. The other strength of SL for artists is it’s provided a conduit for exhibition, collaboration, exchange of ideas and skills – in short a community.

    1. Juanita explains her thoughts more fully on her blog: http://juanitadeharo.blogspot.com.au/

  6. Great dialog starter! It's interesting to see how others feel about it...FreeWee and I have talked about this before and i dare say we will again...it's a great subject~as for me, i see sl art as a means of expression that is hard to attempt in any other sort of avenue as the physical world intrudes soooo much~and no matter if our tools could be better, we are still able to create things here that will likely never exist anywhere else.I am trying to preserve at least the images of what I am doing...though for what end, i don't know...as a memory booster in my aged years?"i remember back in the days of SL when we made art there..." Great forum, Dvidni :) (Secret Rage)

  7. I, also, firmly believe that SL is its own medium; a wonderful (albeit constantly evolving) medium with which to create and express, every bit as valid as any other creative medium. To think of SL as merely a prototype platform is quite a limited view.

    On the topic of preservation, I've often wondered if it would be possible to "save" work (full-sim or otherwise) on usb drives that could be reloaded and re-experienced as and when desired (thinking "sim on a stick"). I have no idea if this is feasible or even possible (not being at all technically-minded) but in my perfect little bubble-world I see a little library of hundreds of usb sticks holding virtual artwork of all kinds, waiting to be re-experienced.

  8. I'll let Free elaborate her view herself (assuming she can find time), but in an IM she left me, she indicated that "prototype" may not have been the best word choice. So stay tuned, revisions may be coming. Meanwhile, I'm happy to see the topic being discussed!

  9. Kandinsky in my case I brought up Van Gogh, Munch and Klimpt not because I feel painting and 3D environments are the same... that would be silly.. it was to illustrate that artists of the past used far less advanced means to create works of art that are extremely effective. They were not hampered by the low tech nature of their methods. The fact that SL tools are considered poor should not diminish in our minds what they are capable of producing. We must remember that with the lesser graphic output involved it allows for our multi user environment to exist, and that environment is one of the many elements which make this medium unique. Most high end movies with stunning special effects that make SL graphics seem poor, use rendering "farms" which are multiple computers all working together to render single frames second by second. Those types of high end graphics can not be navigated in a multi user environment like our own which relies on internet bandwidth. The problem is that the comment is far too broad to say sl art is similar to a prototype. Some things are made quite quickly here and do resemble a prototype, but many others are finished works that have taken a great deal of time and effort to create. The word prototype to me suggests something that is put together fairly quickly with the intention of creating a superior product at a later time. But having said all this I would still maintain that there are many connections between this medium and others such as painting, sculpture, performance and cinema because elements of colour theory, composition, narrative, sound and so on are present in both. To reference artists of the past, styles or mediums doesn't mean we think they are the same as this virtual medium but rather we are recognizing a few similarities. It is not a "dead end" to be aware of other mediums when forging ahead with this one in new directions, provided we understand that what we have is unique with the potential to create new forms of art.

    1. Those artists you mention Bryn, with their special tools, as painters, were extremly advanced and skilled of course. Their means and techniques were not less advanced in their circumstances, they were different as I see it.
      What I try to stress is that sl is a different tool from theirs and it cannot really be compared. Of course I am very aware of the importance of the history of art and I would never reject it. Therefore I am glad that you in your post also mention the connections between sl-art and a lot of other rl-artforms and not only refer to painters. By the way did I not especially think of you when I mentioned rl-painters active in sl. Your sl work is very different from at least the few rl-paintings I have seen from your hand. But as you mentioned some rl-painters I reacted.
      You write:
      "The fact that SL tools are considered poor should not diminish in our minds what they are capable of producing. We must remember that with the lesser graphic output involved it allows for our multi user environment to exist, and that environment is one of the many elements which make this medium unique".
      To that I fully agree with you. Here you also stress that sl is unique.