20 December 2013

Elephants Heard

Eliza Wierwight, I noted recently, is using her artistic skills to help rescue and heal Asian elephants that are being appallingly mistreated. She created holiday elephant topiaries that she's selling at her store Patron, with all proceeds going to the Save Elephant Foundation in Thailand. So far she's raised enough money to sponsor 12 elephants, about a third of her goal of 35 elephants. As I wrote then, connecting art to a socio-political cause is a remarkable step for any artist, and it's impressive how far she's already succeeded in her goal -- in more ways than one.

Now her project is taking much larger form. The Linden Endowment for the Arts (LEA) has granted Eliza a sim for a short time (how long isn't clear), where she's built an entire installation called 35 Elephants. The sim opens on the 21st. She invited me to preview it, and since it was a preview, a few things may change by the time the sim opens, but these photos will be close. (All captions are my interpretation -- Eliza may want to correct me. Click the photos to enlarge.)

"Tomb" underneath the landing point

Entrance hall lined by negative-image guardian elephants

Scene from a chair at the back of the grassland

A sort of macabre circus

A small herd at a mud pond

A lake stained with blood

Eliza's approach is striking in several respects. Naturally, as in nearly all issue-oriented art, she has many photos of elephants, including old black-and-whites in the "circus" area. One photo includes the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation, Lek Chailert. There are a few placards and postcards as well. None of this is unusual. But Eliza hasn't simply created a poster display, and she doesn't incessantly bludgeon the viewer with images of horribly treated elephants. Sometimes, in fact, what speaks most forcefully is not an elephant at all. The bloodied lake is an example -- it's perhaps the profoundest moment in the entire work, saying so much with so little.

What most markedly distinguishes this installation from the usual efforts at political art is that Eliza has approached it as art, not simply as publicity for a cause. If you entered the installation without knowing who the artist is, you might quickly guess that it's Eliza's. Her hand is visible everywhere -- in the skill and style of the texturing, and especially in the imagery itself. There are two motifs: the huge glowing chains that line the entrance hall and reappear elsewhere; and the sharp needles that you can see surrounding the "circus" like the bars of a cage but also like spears (these too appear elsewhere). And defying the obvious, the chains never hold down the elephants themselves, nor do the spears ever pierce or directly threaten them. Like the bloodied lake, it is enough that we see them and understand their meaning.  Eliza understands the power of allusion (to be technical, metonymy). And the strange "circus" (or whatever one might call it), with its distorted checkerboard floor, has elements that say "Eliza" particularly clearly: the spinning clocks, the huge chain dangling from nowhere, the elephants standing on floating platforms, the black elephant with a red blanket on its back, the cage bars/spears. Eliza's best work always has an enigmatic quality, and we see some of it here, as well as in the allusive character of the chains and spears. Admittedly, in my view the "circus" section doesn't hold together as a whole -- which is so un-Eliza that I wonder if it's intentional. (Maybe the mishmash is a visual pun: "Jumble the Elephant"?) In any case, considered in its entirety, 35 Elephants easily strides into the narrow circle of works in Second Life that succeed both artistically and politically.

I want to add a note about LEA's role. One of its guidelines is that people can't sell things on its sims -- it's not meant to support commercial ventures. LEA somewhat pushed the limits of its non-commercialism when it provided a sim to the Portuguese Tourist Board (or something of that ilk), which installed what many of us felt was a pretty dreadful advertisement. In the case of 35 Elephants, LEA has pushed its limits in another direction, by allowing a sim to be devoted to a non-profit project encouraging donations to a cause (I believe one still has to go to Patron to purchase the topiary elephant). I haven't always agreed with LEA's decisions (of course for that matter, neither have all of its members), but in this case I think the LEA committee deserves credit, applause, and thanks.

The opening will be Saturday, 21 Dec, 11:30 AM (SLT), with a benefit by Joaquin Gustav. And donate whatever you can, whether you buy a topiary or simply give money. I think you'll agree that the elephants need you more than you need new shoes.

09 December 2013

That vampire you've been shagging could be an NSA spy!

Oh for pete's sake ... The Guardian in the UK reports that according to documents supplied by Edward Snowden, the US's National Security Administration and the UK's Government Communications Headquarters decided that virtual worlds like the World of Warcraft and (of course) Second Life might be a haven for international terrorists (forgetting, as usual, that they should first look in the mirror), and so they're now present in-world to do some spying the good old-fashioned way: by dressing up as orcs and almost certainly as vampires (fitting, huh?). That woman wearing an Alli & Ali box on her head as though it were the hair she just bought? Be careful, she (or he) is listening to you bitch about wanting a version with streaks, and classifying your comments as code for bombing a Pizza Hut. The NSA & GCHQ have also raided Xbox.

I have to quote a couple paragraphs from the article:
One problem the paper's unnamed author [an NSA analyst] and others in the agency faced in making their case – and avoiding suspicion that their goal was merely to play computer games at work without getting fired – was the difficulty of proving terrorists were even thinking about using games to communicate.
and this:
Meanwhile, the FBI, CIA, and the Defense Humint Service were all running human intelligence operations – undercover agents – within Second Life. In fact, so crowded were the virtual worlds with staff from the different agencies, that there was a need to try to "deconflict" their efforts – or, in other words, to make sure each agency wasn't just duplicating what the others were doing.
The second paragraph there is pretty scary. But I have to admit, I can't stop laughing. Hello, Austin Powers, and the 1967 spy film satire Casino Royale. But at last, we finally know why we get so many random "bite" offers: they're made by CIA officers conducting a sting operation.

Addendum: Wagner James Au has a post about this in New World Notes, with a little history and a mention of its constitutionality. As he points out, there's nothing really surprising in any of this; but something about it strikes me as ridiculous. What sort of body shape, skin, hair and clothing do the NSA and GCHQ spooks shop for? Are they investigating the BDSM community for interrogation techniques, or do they think the steampunk crowd is developing new and highly dangerous weaponry? Hey, maybe we now have the truth about SaveMe Oh! :-P

(OK, I admit, that was slightly mean. But I cut my political teeth when the FBI was massively infiltrating leftwing groups with agents provocateurs.)

06 December 2013

An artist with a cause

I've said on more than one occasion that good political art is extremely difficult to create. But I strongly believe that artists should have a political conscience, whether they express through in their art, through public activism (e.g., joining protests or movements), or in some other way. It's a rare pleasure to see an artist taking that step.

Not long ago Eliza Wierwight and her son happened to watch a documentary on the plight of Asian elephants. Eliza was deeply moved and decided to help in whatever way she could. Through the Save Elephant Foundation in Thailand, she and her son are sponsoring an elephant named Mae Bua Loy. But more than that, she has created an elephant-shaped topiary designed for Xmas, which she is selling at her store Patron and sending all proceeds to the organization. At L$499 apiece, merely 54 topiary elephants will sponsor a real elephant -- but Eliza is aiming to have residents of SL collectively sponsor 35 elephants. She is challenging everyone to take part in this project.

Topiary elephant benefiting the Save Elephant Foundation at Patron
Naturally I purchased one of the topiary elephants to support Eliza's cause, and set it up at Split Screen. Given I'm the wrong religion to have any particular affection for Xmas colors and ornaments, that's saying a lot. So those of you who cherish Xmas should buy an elephant for each of its twelve days!  While you're at it, give one as a present to everybody on your friends list. (Okay, okay ... how about 5 friends?)

Eliza's topiary elephant at Split Screen, accompanied by Scottius Polke's steampunk elephant.
Eliza's Satirical Polemicist is in the background.

More information about the Save Elephant Foundation (and how Eliza became involved) is available at Patron, and I've also set up a notecard giver at Split Screen.

As I mentioned, I think it's important for artists to get involved in social causes in one manner or another, and given how thoroughly screwed up the world is, there are a lot of causes to choose from. It's great to see that Eliza has found one that suits her gracious heart. Good luck!

24 November 2013

Rebeca Bashley's "Invisible People"; or, A Cobblestone on the Road to Hell

Rebeca Bashley is a highly talented artist whose work I haven't managed to blog before, mostly due to lack of time. Her recent Colour Key was a particularly striking work, ambiguous and disturbing. Quan Lavender put it well: Colour Key was "surrealistic, challenging, massive and tender, strong and poetic, dark and bright." Rebeca's current installation is Invisible People, located at the Lost Town - La Citta Perduta, and it again demonstrates her skill.

When you arrive, look for the sign announcing her work so you can pick up the notecard. (The notecard is not one of the ones you are automatically offered when you land.) The notecard explains the premise of the piece:
This is a story, presented thru camouflage body art,
about all those people that you pass by
on the streets every day and never notice them...

Lets play?

If you Find all invisible people and send me pictures
(sl, flickr or email invisible.people@live.com)
I will give you a sculpture.

There is 21 sculpture to be discovered in city
part of La Citta Perdutta and only one correct
angle of viewing.
The idea is that you walk through the Lost Town in order to locate these people, who are black on one side and textured on the other. If you then line up your camera just right, that texture matches the background and the people appear translucent, as if they were soon to fade away. A few examples:

Technically speaking, what Rebeca has done is impressive, maybe even brilliant. It's tricky to position the people exactly right; small bits can easily be out of alignment, especially if your computer (or your hand) isn't good at refined movements. I was able to get most of the shots, but there were a few that I couldn't figure out at all. As Rebeca says, there's only one correct way to view the people. Difficult as it can be, however, finding that camera location is rather fun.

Wait -- did I say "fun"? Yes. This is a game. I'm not just being perverse -- Rebeca suggests as much in her notecard: "Let's play?" There's even a prize at the end (a sculpture). But in this game Invisible People becomes ethically problematic. Finding the "invisible people" may be the name of the game, but it's also dead easy. After all, on one side the people are flat black. Can't miss 'em.

The actual game is not to find the people, but to position your camera so that they fade into the background. It's the reverse of the technique we sometimes see in which one must place one's camera so that shattered bits conjoin to reveal an image. Instead, in this game the goal is to make these people disappear.


From the tone of her notecard ("This is a story ... about all those people that you pass by on the streets every day and never notice them") I assume that Rebeca's intention is the opposite -- that she wants us to see people who we usually don't. I expect she'd be aghast to hear what I'm saying; in fact I'd bet most of my readers are shocked and will try to build a counter-argument, because we all want to do the right thing (i.e., see the invisible people) and so we want this installation to achieve its apparent aim. Seriously, I hope someone convinces me I'm wrong. Maybe somebody can persuade me that what the game does is make us see the invisible people in their invisibility, or (a hair more plausibly) that it's an ironic demonstration that we secretly want these people gone -- convoluted arguments that seem geared toward securing a predetermined conclusion rather than assessing the evidence, but perhaps one of them could fly. After all, some art is meant to produce queasy feelings. Or maybe there's another way to rescue the muddled ethics of this piece. If you haven't yet seen Invisible People, I urge you to go and judge for yourself. But it's hard to escape the basic facts of the game. Find the people, easy; make them fade away, difficult, so you win a point toward your prize. In a performative contradiction, the reality is that Rebeca forces us do the contrary of what she says she wants us to do (and what we think we're doing), and guides us to feel that in the process we're doing the right thing.

So now what? What does one say about excellent art that inadvertently (well, I hope inadvertently) makes a very conservative statement? Well, probably just "Try again, please." Creating political art that succeeds both artistically and politically is hard. I raised the same point about The Gaia Theory Project. But given how completely fucked up the world is ... just keep trying. In the case of Invisible People, the artistry is highly successful -- and that's easily the more difficult part. People definitely should see it just for that.

12 November 2013

"White Balloon": small experiment

In her latest notice to the Immersiva group, Bryn Oh gave landmarks for a handful of current installations, including one named White Balloon, described simply as a "small experiment" -- no further explanation or attribution. Since I'd already seen most of the other works in her list, I decided to take a take a look. It turned out to be a piece by Bryn.

One could say that there's not much to see. One could also say there's not much new here. One could.

One arrives in total darkness. Old-time music plays on the stream. Turning around, one sees four faint pools of light some distance away (you must have the ambient lighting model on). As one approaches them, one passes through a number of swallows flitting about; they are either black or in silhouette. To the left, a fair walk away, there is a pool of light where Bryn's rabbit-masked woman stands looking at a dark gray balloon bobbing not very high in the air. If you click the woman, it recites one of the short, melancholy love poems typical of many previous Bryn works. At the opposite end, another pool of light, where some pigeons are pulling a large bomb through the air behind them. They coo as you approach.

All of these are old pieces. But I left out one other thing, or rather a nothing, that makes White Balloon powerful and imposing: space.

White Balloon is a huge, dark, nearly empty space. It incorporates a whole sim. Aside from the small sculptures I mentioned, there is nothing inside it. Jagged, dimly lit ridges surround the region. But past the bomb-carrying pigeons, past the ridge, is what looks like an enormous opening onto blinding white light. There appears to be a texture of some sort surrounding it, giving the impression that the entire installation in enclosed in an enormous cavern. Walking out, however, is futile. The opening of the cavern seems to be past the sim's edge, and so one can never leave. More, the blazing white light from the opening provides almost no illumination. In actuality, the enclosing cavern and its opening are an optical illusion, a figment of a cunning windlight. (The huge "opening" is the sun.) But the actuality is irrelevant. One experiences White Balloon as a vast, black, desolate cavern from which one cannot escape. It manages to be agoraphobic and claustrophobic at the same time.

This is the most spare, even minimalistic work I've ever seen by Bryn Oh. In fact, in a sense it's the most pared-down piece I have seen in Second Life -- even more than the hyperformalist works by artists like Oberon Onmura and Selavy Oh. The space wants to be fuller, aches to be fuller. But everything has been stripped out. The three small pieces are isolated in their dim pools of light, any context or connections long ripped away. And even though each of them touches on flight, nothing truly escapes ground level. The swallows fly low, the pigeons are weighed down by the bomb, the balloon bobs in the air but within arm's reach. High and barren as the space is, there is no up. In White Balloon, there is little (f)light.

I considered including a photo in this post, but my efforts failed to capture the feel of the place. Photographing White Balloon even seemed beside the point. One cannot photograph the massive, omnipresent "nothing there" there.

"Almost nothing" is worth seeing in White Balloon. As in negative space, what you don't see is what you see. Seeing nothingness is why one should see it.

06 November 2013

Attack Party!

Last night an impromptu party sprouted on the little parcel where I live.  Actually these people invaded my parcel and I joined when I logged on.

The foxy babe is Misprint Thursday, and the man with the fan and a tan is Woody Woodpecker (aka Arrow Inglewood).

Misprint vamps it up ... rawrrrr!

Meanwhile I boogied with the other invading spirit.

The hot-hot-hot chick I'm dancing with is none other than the lovely Maya Paris. OK, maybe the banana on her head was a giveaway. Still, soak it up, boys and girls -- this may be the only time in the next three years you see our slinky siren wearing anything other than her Veparella dress! Who knew that she had anything else in her closet ... or that she has a closet? (Actually I knew ... a few years ago a friend spied her checking out the threads at Pixeldolls.)

Martinis were guzzled all around. I told the party-goers that I was going to blog the event but everyone was too drunk to say anything except "Don't you dare, you SaveMe wanna-be!"

Naturally I banned everyone afterwards. I did say everyone ... now I can't get onto my own land.

24 October 2013

The Gaia Theory Project

Ziki Questi and Inara Pey just blogged about The Gaia Theory Project, which is a set of installations by eleven artists on the theme of the Gaia Theory which argues that the earth is a self-regulating system. (For more info, read the description on the LEA site or the Wikipedia summary.) Ziki gave The Gaia Theory Project a fairly negative review, and Inara a somewhat milder negative review. I'm sorry to say, I agree with their general assessment. (Actually Ziki and I discussed it about a week ago.) We differ on a few points: I'm harder on some of installations, but more positive about others.

One can see the Project's general orientation in an instant by looking at the announcement for its grand opening:

Opening announcement for The Gaia Theory Project, using a photo by Tani Thor
As Ziki wrote, "The organizers and artists have taken quite the gloom and doom approach." To be fair, this isn't quite true for all of the builds, but it's certainly the overall impression one gets. And it doesn't jibe with the official theme. The question is not whether the Gaia Theory is correct, but how -- or whether -- the Project actually represents it.

For instance, Melusina Parkin has a set of photos which you click to see the other possibility for (more or less) the same location. The photos are excellent. But without fail, one swaps between a lovely nature scene and an unpleasant image of the products of human civilization. The visitor's guide says it all:

Sign at Melusina Parkin's photo exhibition
It's almost a visual quotation of what Buffy the Vampire Slayer once said (in an entirely different context): "Fire bad, tree pretty." The idea that there's a third possibility is left almost completely unexplored. Where's the emergent balance through co-evolution that the Gaia Theory promises?

I must mention that Melusina, in a comment on Ziki's post, says that she does in fact explore the third possibility, pointing out that there a photo that unites nature and culture. But it's the last of (I think) 46 photos, which is not much of an exploration -- assuming the viewer doesn't say "OK, I get the point already" and leave her exhibition much earlier, which in fact is what I did (I returned after reading her comment).

Betty Tureaud's installation gives another side of the picture, commenting on the destructiveness within nature, such as hurricanes and, um, lightning. When, as Betty points out, over a million people contract malaria every year, nature loses a bit of its luster.

Although Betty's installation pursues a litany of (mostly) natural destruction which she places on an outer ring, at her installation's middle is a more optimistic representation of Earth, and at the center of that is Gaia as Mother Earth.

Betty Tureaud's "Gaia from Chaos"
This part of Betty's installation might be even stronger if it were separate from the ring of doom. Still, there are some odd artistic choices. Gaia has some mean spikes down her back: as an old TV commercial once put it, "Don't mess around with Mother Nature!" She's giving birth to the Tree of Life, but ... well, a friend with a slightly dirty mind had another interpretation.

I'll skip other works that sledgehammer the theme, "Humans are destroying the earth, and themselves along with it!" (It's a pity nobody mentions the human invention of, say, pipes with clean drinking water.) I'll now turn to some of the installations that have another strategy. Gem Preiz takes a more subtle and successful approach:

Installation (untitled?) by Gem Preiz
The rings slowly turn about their axes, intersecting in ever-changing ways, and the photos on their surfaces (which look mostly like minerals) are almost abstract, avoiding the stentorian utterance of a Big Statement. It's easy to get engrossed in watching this build.

Kicca Igaly's piece, representing early life forms, is rather nice, although the teleport's landing point is so poorly placed that it's easy to miss. Chinon Beaumont's "Mandala " is mostly another installation, to me not very convincing aesthetically, but it includes links to a couple of videos. I watched only one, a short animated film that didn't seem to have much to do with either the theme or the installation, but it was fun anyway.

I was also unclear about the relevance of the piece by Daniele Daco (Daco Monday):

"Evoluzione, Progresso?" by Daco Monday
This is the only installation presenting -- as its Futurist style suggests -- a fairly positive view of civilization, despite its title "Evolution, Progress?" and some hints about regimented life.

The last installation I'll mention is comet Morigi's "Wind Floaters." It generates colored boxes moving in response to the Second Life wind. It's minimalistic and I wan't sure of its relevance to the the Gaia Theory either, but like many script-based builds, I found it fascinating.

"Wind Floaters," by comet Morigi
I won't review the remainder, since that would make this post far too long.

As a whole, on its own terms The Gaia Theory Project was unsuccessful: it glaringly doesn't follow its announced theme that nature ultimately balances itself out -- the pieces are more about the human destruction of nature or nature's own destructiveness. (Ziki discusses this problem most fully.) Some contributions did work fairly well as art, but interestingly, most of them were the more abstract pieces, and I don't think that merely reflects my tastes. However, the works that take the "doom and gloom" approach dominate one's impression of the show. To paraphrase one of my recent posts, art can make big statements, but Big Statements aren't what make good art. Believe me, I consider pollution, de-forestation, the decline of biodiversity, and global heating to be the most urgent problems we face. But surely something more constructive can be said than "Bad humans, bad, bad!"

For a much more positive assessment of The Gaia Theory Project, see Quan Lavender's post.

28 September 2013

Poetry and Banality in Second Life Art

Following the tip in a blog post by Ziki Questi, I visited the Frantastica sim, where there is a new installation by DB Bailey (David Denton). To say that Bailey's installation is eye-popping is almost an understatement: the colors are so bright, so astonishing in color, they send an electric jolt through the brain. Parts of the build are positively on fire. Images are layered like echoes -- a cathedral, the Eiffel Town, pagodas, a woman in a kimono, deer drinking at a lake -- establishing a clear sense of place, space, and depth. The textures sometimes suggest wireframe. The impact of these color-intensified scenes is other-worldly, or maybe a hypersensual and almost hallucinogenic version of this reality. Strictly speaking the installation is most likely "possible in real life," but its sensibility is decidedly outside it.

(Click to enlarge)

Startling and impressive as the build is, one small section was particularly striking. Compared to the rest, it is quite simple: using a narrow color palette, it consists just of a space with curved walls, within which are tall boards and poles stuck at various but not extreme angles. On the boards, a poem slowly scrolls upwards.

(Click to enlarge)

Nothing particularly unusual in any of that -- after a point, I'd bet that there are dozens of works more or less along these lines. Two things made this piece exceptional. First, the poem was good. That's rare: most of the poetry appearing on Second Life art makes for painful, occasionally even cringe-worthy reading. Written by Albert Murrian (one of DB's neighbors), the poem presents tiny vignettes of daily life, often preceded by the word "somewhere" -- a jazz clarinetist plays in the market square, a magician performs tricks, a waitress counts her tips -- which are framed or punctuated, depending on your perspective, by a recognition of the impermanence of everything around us ("In the morning, all of this..."). The poem's style, subject, and use of typography place it in the American modernist tradition of William Carlos Williams (rather than, say, the ruralism of Robert Frost, or at the all-too-familiar kitschy end, Rod McKuen).

The second element that stood out was how the presentation of the poem works with the poem itself. Scrolling text per se is, again, nothing unusual in SL. In this case, however, it directly adds to the meaning of the poem. Its slow cycling exactly matches the poem's subject, the routine pace of the world repeating without end, without beginning. Ordinariness -- the ordinariness of everyday life, the ordinariness of the poem's presentation -- becomes newly seen and newly valuable. It is a good example of content and presentation working together, possibly toward the same end, possibly in opposite ones (as, for instance, in irony), but in either case conjoined. This small section of the Frantastica installation prompted larger thoughts.

Poems abound; poetry does not. Poetry is often lacking in Second Life art. In a sense this is to be expected: as Sturgeon's Law puts it, 90% of everything is crap. But it's useful to have some idea why. It's also difficult to discuss. There is extremely little criticism of art in Second Life; Quan Lavender is one of the few people who tries to inject a little. One reason criticism is rare here is that it often seems like wasted energy: we all have limited time, why spend it writing about stuff you don't like? Another reason is that there's a danger of "hurting someone's feelings," which in a tiny community like ours is a pain in the ass. There's enough drama already. The sort of art that certain artists produce make a viewer suspect that the artist won't take criticism well, and for critics as much as anyone else, life is a lot easier when people like you than when they're mad.

But the fact is that no matter what sort of work someone does -- build installations, create scripts, paint, photograph, write -- they can benefit from critique, even when they disagree with it. I say this from lots of first-hand experience: I've written and continue to write scholarly articles and books, and scholarship usually can't get published unless two (sometimes three) other scholars have read and commented on it. Scholars must be able to endure criticism, or they won't survive as scholars. Sometimes the readers say the book/article is fine, sometimes they say it needs significant revisions, and sometimes they say the problems are so severe that the book/article shouldn't be published. After that, it's up to the author to decide what to do with the criticism. Like most scholars, I've also had to review other people's work and comment on it, and a couple of times I've had to say the book or article should be rejected, which is not a pleasure at all. I've had an article rejected only once, and actually the criticism was absurd, small-minded, a bit vicious, and showed a complete misunderstanding of what I was trying to say. But even though criticisms were wrong, it would have been dishonest of me to assume I had simply been the victim of bad readers. Identifying and solving the article's actual problems resulted in a stronger article, which did get published.

But when it comes to art, people are often afraid to criticize, partly because of the ideology that art is about self-expression. This is a terrible belief. Yes, art is frequently expressive -- but I'd say that generally speaking, it shouldn't be an act of expressing oneself. Instead, usually it should express the world we live in, necessarily based on the artist's perception of it, but without it being about the artist. As William Carlos Williams put it, "No ideas but in things." Otherwise, why should I care, what does the art actually tell me? The ideology of "self-expression" can easily lead to self-absorption. It also makes the work unassailable: by criticizing your art, I must be criticizing you as a person! In contrast, Albert Murrian's poem is an excellent example of how art can be an artist's expression yet not be about the artist. It clearly expresses a perception of the world, the perceiver is Murrian, and yet nowhere does he appear in the poem. Not once does he say "I" or "me" or in any other way point to himself. He simply and directly gives us perceptions, without stepping in the middle. DB Bailey does exactly the same thing. He confronts us with an experience of the world, without saying "This is how I experience the world." Whether he does or doesn't experience the world that way is not the point (it seems doubtful) -- but his installation is an amazing vision of the world.

Another detrimental ideology of art is that it's supposed to be about Important Matters. I probably won't explain this well, because good art does explore issues and ideas. However, the ideological version of that fact leads artists to distrust their art, and so they announce those issues, always (literally or figuratively) capitalized. Love. Family. The Cycle of Life. Loneliness. Devotion. Peace. Inequality. Et Cetera. Et Cetera. Et Cetera. Most of what's said through these Deep Statements is simplistic and trite. The art becomes merely an illustration. Let me demonstrate how the ideology of Important Issues can ruin art, by mangling Picasso's Guernica:

/Me is stunned and moved by the violence, confusion, pain and horror encapsulated by a brilliant painting,
which uses just the right techniques (such as distortion and monochrome) to build its meaning. [Source info]

/Me is dismayed by the artist's inability to trust his/her art, a distrust which wrecks a potentially
excellent painting, making it merely an illustration of war's destructiveness.

Compared to the presentations of Important Issues that often appear in SL art, SaveMe Oh's "(F)art," sophomoric as it is, is almost a relief. (Almost: it's still sophomoric, and it still tries to make a Big Statement.) Of course, anything can be done well. Consider, for instance, the bluntness (and ironies) of Jenny Holzer's "Truisms."  But such forcefulness is rare. And when an artist is obviously earnest in their desire to produce art that Says Something, what can one say when the art is awful? "I'm so glad you have these major ideas, now here's a bottle of scotch, let's see what you do when you're pissed and pissed off." The ideology that art is about Important Matters makes art unassailable in its own way: since I'm criticizing your art, I must be criticizing your ideas, but since you're the artist you know better, therefore I know nothing about art!

I'm particularly wary of works displaying people: the human figure so often invites platitudes. Only a few artists in Second Life get away with it. Bryn Oh and Romy Nayar spring to mind, and they succeed in part because they don't take the body literally. Their distortions or reconstructions of the body are necessary to their narratives. Eliza Weirwight does present realistic bodies, but for her the body is a surface -- sometimes simultaneously stripped and masked, sometimes radically naked when it's fully clothed, sometimes hidden and obscured by its nudity.

A third damaging ideology is that art consists of Pretty Pictures. There's not much one can say about this sort of art. It's basically candy. Which is fine, if you want candy. I myself want candy now and then. But good art is not always (or even usually) pretty. Guernica is not pretty. That doesn't mean art should be ugly -- it means that art can be beautiful without being pretty. Of course, art can also be both pretty and beautiful. Some of Ziki Questi's photos are of lovely places, some aren't, but the photos themselves are almost always beautiful: the composition is impeccable and the photos make one see via her perception. (Although I'll have to admit, she was over-using depth of field; she appears to be easing off.) Beauty isn't an essential criterion either. Some brilliant works of art are outright ugly, like Francis Bacon's. DB's installation and Albert Murrian's poem are neither pretty nor ugly -- but they're powerful works of art. The point is that prettiness, generally speaking, has no particular connection to art. Artists should ignore the concept entirely.

I suspect sometimes that those artists who actually believe the ideologies of "self-expression" and "important issues" think personal expression and significant topics can substitute for technical skill (which is pretty damn important) and thoroughgoing perception. As I've noted, by placing the artist's feelings and earnestness foremost, they make critical commentary unmistakably unwelcome. For its part, the ideology of "pretty pictures" misconstrues what art is altogether. All three ideologies lead to banality.

I haven't said much about technical skill. That's partly because this post is focused on a different issue, and partly because skills are learnable -- and if someone just can't get the knack of GIMP or Blender or whatever, they can figure out how to use whatever skills they do have to their best advantage.

True, I'm not an art teacher. Strictly speaking I'm not even an art scholar. All I can do is say is what, from my layperson's viewpoint, seems to work and what doesn't work. Sometimes I can even figure out why. Probably half of SL's artists disagree with me; such is life.

On the other hand, I do have limited time, so for the most part I focus on work I like. Plus pissing people off isn't really my favorite activity. Go see Frantastica.

24 August 2013

Steampunk dada: The Bogon Flux is back!

The Bogon Flux is one of the great classic "Impossible in Real Life" builds, created by Blotto Epsilon and Cutea Benelli. Alas, it vanished from the grid two or three years ago. It was eventually succeeded by the Petrovsky Flux, which is at the Spencer Art Museum. If you haven't been there, well, go!

But first, thanks to Eupalinos Ugajin, the Bogon Flux is back, hosted on a LEA sim until the end of September. To be honest, I like it more than the Petrovsky Flux, possibly because by the time the Petrovsky Flux was installed I was more accustomed to some of the wild things artists can create, but more likely because the Bogon Flux is a lot sillier. Most art (virtual or material) is serious, so sophisticated goofiness is much to be treasured. The only other sophisticatedly goofy artists I can think of are Maya Paris, who has a strong satirical streak, and of course Eupalinos, whose style (especially lately) tends toward surrealism. Artistically, I'd call the Bogon Flux "steampunk dada," or perhaps "dada steampunk," take your pick.

You can't merely drop in on the Bogon Flux, look around, and leave. You must spend time with it, or you'll miss everything. There is much to see and much to explore, and what you'll see and explore changes. Specifically, the installation slowly grows. And grows. And grows. And then flies apart, until there's nothing left but the small shed at the base, and the whole cycle starts again. It's important to cam out now and then to watch what it does. If you happen to be inside one of the pieces when it blows apart, off you'll go. There are also strange creatures around, including watchful eyes, rats, and what might be described as a hairy turd (although it's the wrong color). There's also a giant couch and a few other things on the periphery.

The houses on fire are the least of the dangers.  And there are certainly pleasures, such as hanging out on the patio.
Your starting point.

"I always feel like somebody's watching me..."


The creators give instructions on how to explore the build, or at least how to go up, through internal teleports. Sometimes the teleports lead to a dead end, so you may have to find some way out. But going back down the build in any sensible manner is a lost cause. Either fly out from one of the rare openings or wait to be blown up.

The Bogon Flux and its surroundings are a little different from its previous incarnation. Perhaps it's my imagination, but I think it grows more slowly than before. Also I miss the rat barbecue. Still, years later there's still nothing like it on the grid except the Petrovsky Flux, so see it while you can.

28 July 2013

Run away to the circus ... FAST!

Yooma Mayo's Mechanical Circus just opened a couple of days ago, and in a couple more days -- on 1 Aug -- it will disappear again, so go there NOW. Don't be too hard on Yooma for taking nearly all of his five months on a LEA sim to build Mechanical Circus: when you see it, you'll understand why. Yooma is a classic Second Life builder: where others are exploring mesh or using sculpties, Yooma works with prims, and proves how much can be done with them. His work is intricate and finely detailed for its scale. His texturing is so meticulous that seams are hard to find. This is handwork at its best. And there is plenty to see.

But you won't see it at first. The landing point is underneath most of the build. Stop a moment to pick up the circus performer avatar and wear it. Then cam out to see where you are ... way out. Mechanical Circus is enormous and photos don't do it justice. Still, here are a few -- click to enlarge.

You're still reading? Hurry up, go see the Mechanical Circus -- time is slipping away!

02 June 2013

Split Screen Closes (definitely for now, possibly forever)

The last installation at Split Screen, Scottius Polke's The Scribbled Cliffs

After hosting 30 installations across almost two and a half years, I am closing the Split Screen Installation Space. I don't know if this is a permanent closure; I'm keeping half of the land, and after maybe six months I'll decide whether to re-open, close permanently, or continue in a holding pattern. I've installed a number of small works by a few of the artists who have built at Split Screen, creating a sort of sculpture garden or installation park, which everyone is welcome to visit.

The decision was very difficult, but it was neither sudden nor recent: I came to it several months ago. Close friends heard me mulling it over for much longer. Once I made the decision, I kept my promises to the artists who I had already invited to Split Screen, but I scheduled no new ones.

There are three main reasons why I'm closing Split Screen. None of them are financial.

The #1 reason is that I'm exhausted. Curating even a place as small as Split Screen takes a lot more work than I ever imagined, and my one or two efforts to delegate work to someone else didn't bear fruit because I couldn't see any way to delegate the hard parts.

Second, my feelings about the curatorial work changed, which was partly the result of the amount of time involved, and partly the result a few unfortunate incidents (which I may discuss in a later post). I started Split Screen because I wanted there to be more opportunities for artists to create the kind of works that interest me most. And it was a great pleasure to do so -- in fact I was prouder of Split Screen than almost anything I've done in RL. But as time went on, it became less of a joy, and more of a job. I don't want my contributions to the SL art scene to feel like a chore.

Finally, I'd like to blog more. It's been hard for me to blog about SL art partly because with Split Screen going, I have little time for it, and partly because sometimes it feels like a conflict of interest. (If I criticize the work of someone I might want to bring to Split Screen, will they agree to come? If I criticize their work afterwards, will that spoil a good relationship? What would happen if I think an artist's work at Split Screen isn't as good as I hoped -- can I criticize Split Screen shows?) Blogging more will depend on my available time, of course. But with any luck I'll be able to, hopefully with the analytical and critical eye (not just cheerleading) that I tried to bring to it originally.

As I said, none of my reasons are financial. The main thing is that I'm burned out.

In many ways, Split Screen was a "proof of concept" experiment: I wanted to find out if it's possible to have a high-quality installation space within the limits of what I could afford, merely half of a homestead sim. That's a relatively small financial commitment. The prim resources are also small, but I bet on the idea that artists can create major installations with only 900 prims. And indeed, despite the limitations, the quality of the installations artists created for Split Screen was high. OK, a couple of works disappointed me, but that's always a risk when commissioning new art. Of course, the limits of available money and land resources weren't the only potential barriers: so was being a completely unknown person.  Would people trust me to let them work as they pleased?  It turned out that even two years later, some of the artists I invited to Split Screen had never heard of it before, yet gladly agreed to build there anyway, and only one artist ever said that it (or at least I) wasn't good enough for her.

On the whole I think Split Screen succeeded artistically. From that perspective, I accomplished my main goal. I wasn't able to achieve two other goals. One was fairly minor: not many of the builds had the level of interactivity that I hoped for. The other was more frustrating: I wanted to give "emerging artists" opportunities to create large-scale works, but the only time that happened was when the artist got in touch with me, rather than vice versa. (Hint: the easiest way to get to build at Split Screen was to tell me you want to!) My lack of success in this area looks stranger and stranger these days, because LEA has often given full sims to people I'd never heard of. One reason might be that I simply haven't had time to see enough art. Another reason might be that people apply to LEA because it has high visibility, and never think of Split Screen or perhaps don't know about it. Compared to LEA, everything looks little-league (maybe this explains the artist I mentioned who sneered at me). There was also a lesser goal -- I wanted to schedule artists that would make an interesting pair, whose work would rub against each other in intriguing ways. Unfortunately, cancellations and scheduling problems skewered almost all of my attempts in this regard.

Interestingly, one incidental aspect of Split Screen -- the fact that it was located on a residential sim -- became increasingly important to me. Nearly all art in Second Life is safely enclosed, either within a gallery or museum, or on a sim to itself. A few places show art outdoors for essentially decorative purposes. Not many areas mix art and residence, and in Split Screen's case, because the installations were large, the mixing was "in your face" -- certainly for the residents, and for the artists too if they paid attention. For that reason I started describing Split Screen as "art unboxed."

I have a long list of people to thank, if this really is the end of Split Screen. First, the artists (in alphabetical order, except when working as a team): Alizarin Goldflake, Artistide Despres, Betty Tureaud, Blue Tsuki, Bryn Oh, Cherry Manga, Douglas Story & Desdemona Enfield, Eliza Weirwight, Eupalinos Ugajin, Giovanna Cerise, Jo Ellsmere & Pyewacket Kazyanenko, Kolor Fall (Patrick Faith), Maya Paris, Miso Susanowa, Misprint Thursday, Oberon Onmura, oona Eiren, Pinkpink Sorbet, Pixels Sideways, Rose Borchovski, Selavy Oh, Scottius Polke, shellina Winkler, Simotron Aquila, soror Nishi, Trill Zapatero, and Yooma Mayo. Three dear friends helped keep my insanity going: Emma Portilo had the dubious honor of hearing most of my muttering, Kara Trapdoor helped fund Split Screen as it got off the ground and always promoted it in her blog, and Isabelle Mavendorf was the DJ for nearly all of the parties (and an exceptional one too: hire her!). Various other bloggers and magazine writers helped get the word out about installations, and a few people made machinimas there. And I thank all the people who enjoyed coming to Split Screen. I heard many kind words from them.

But my deepest thanks go to someone probably none of you have heard of: Syzygy Merlin. She owns Beleza, the homestead sim where Split Screen is located. Without her support and the support of her partner DFox Spitteler, the Split Screen Installation Space literally would not exist. Not every sim owner would be willing to let half of a residential sim become an art space where a bunch of crazy people created large works (sometimes visible from over a sim away), which sometimes blocked other residents' views and occasionally led to complaints and I suspect a couple of departures. Syzygy has been in many ways Split Screen's greatest supporter. If you ever want a little space to work or a cottage to live in, please rent from her. Nobody in Second Life deserves it more.


Have you really thought this through? Don't make hasty decisions!
I have. I didn't.
Are you leaving SL?
No. In fact if I blog about SL art, you might wish I did! :-P
Is this permanent? Will Split Screen ever come back?
I have no idea. Maybe yes, maybe no. I'm taking a break, but I'm keeping half of the land so I can delay that decision. If I do re-open Split Screen, I may do it under a different model (perhaps only one artist at a time, or less frequent changes, or more repeats of previous artists, or who knows). Or I may continue the same approach. In the meantime, don't hold your breath.
What are you doing with the land you're keeping?
I've turned it into an installation park or sculpture garden for my personal enjoyment. I won't be advertising it, but it will be open to the public. The SLURL is http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Beleza/3/243/23
Aren't you worried that artists are going to be upset with you?
Not really. Some will be. Some won't be. Probably SaveMe Oh will be delighted: one less curator in the world to interfere with Art! <grins>
You're really doing this because artists are assholes, right?
Actually, most of the artists who've built at Split Screen were wonderful to work with, and it was truly an honor to host them. Some even became good friends. A couple of them lived up to the stereotype about artists, but the majority were great.
Was Split Screen hurt by the LEA sims?
I feared that it would be when the sims were opened. LEA provides enormous opportunities for artists, far beyond what Split Screen could offer. However, Split Screen's small size meant that as long as I could get two artists, I was on my way ... although getting artists to meet their agreements was sometimes a challenge. The LEA sims could have hurt Split Screen by drawing away potential visitors -- for casual art viewers the LEA sims clearly offer more bang for the buck -- but the visitor statistics don't bear that out either, because they have been reasonably steady. (Not that the numbers were ever what I hoped, but I suppose many curators feel that. Except maybe for the curators of the now-closed Art Screamer sim, where the visitor counts passed the tens of thousands.) My concern at this point is that LEA inadvertently led artists to feel no need to seek or talk with independent curators.
Are you thinking of curating a LEA sim?
No, I don't plan to apply for a LEA sim. I can't think of a circumstance in which I'd want to -- the basic issue, after all, is that I'm burned out from curating. I suppose anything is possible so I'm not going to say I never will, but for the time being I doubt it.
Nooooo I was hoping you'd invite me to build at Split Screen!
I hadn't yet invited all the artists I might ever want to bring. But are you saying you're so fantastic and famous that I should have come begging you to work at Split Screen, or that you're not very well known yet but nevertheless I should magically know you exist? The best way to get to build anywhere is to ask. Maybe a quarter of Split Screen's artists got there by asking. I really liked being asked, and to be honest, had more artists asked, I might have kept Split Screen going longer. In a few cases I had to tell someone no (maybe they weren't creating the sort of art I want, or they weren't quite ripe, or whatever). In one case, a year later the artist asked again and I said yes. But usually I said yes right away. That includes one person who was decidedly an emerging artist.
Can you loan me 10 lindens? I'll give it back to you tomorrow!
My, that certainly is a frequently asked question. Sure, just give me your credit card number as security. I'll give it back to you tomorrow.
OK, folks. Maybe Split Screen will return some day, maybe it won't. Meanwhile, everyone is welcome to start their own installation space. I've shown it can be done. And thanks, all of you.

07 April 2013

Scottius Polke's "The Scribbled Cliffs" at Split Screen

Through April to 11 May, Split Screen is presenting The Scribbled Cliffs by Scottius Polke, Second Life's most famous tiny otter. An earlier version of The Scribbled Cliffs was actually built some time ago but it was never exhibited to the public, which was an otter disgrace. Also Scottius stopped building in SL for a while to focus on his physical world art (where he's known by the name Scott Rolfe), notably his assemblage illustrations for some of Aesop's fables called Æssemblage, which is available as a book. So it's great to have him back in SL with a revised version of The Scribbled Cliffs.

The Scribbled Cliffs by Scottius Polke

Walk up the road until you reach the volcano, which spews out colored tubs (script credited to Desdemona Enfield). Click once or twice on the blue tub sitting in front of the volcano, and it'll rez a tub which you can ride into the sky. You can grab the tub (if you hover your cursor over the tub, your cursor will become a hand) and fling it across the sky.

The windlight setting for The Scribbled Cliffs is "[TOR] SUNRISE - Tusken"; if you use Firestorm, it will set automatically.

There were several preview posts for this one, by Quan Lavender , Ziki Questi, and Kara Trapdoor.  Thanks, all of you!

Teleport to the entrance at Split Screen: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Beleza/21/220/27

25 March 2013

A Rant on Men's Clothes in Second Life

I'm going to go completely off-topic. This is my blog, I'll write whatever I like!

Despite my past efforts to convince Kara Trapdoor to the contrary (it's fun to pull her leg), I am in fact male in the physical world. And like a lot of men, shopping for men's clothes appeals to me about as much as cleaning up after an overstuffed and rancid-smelling garbage bag bursts on my bare legs. Possibly less. I almost never do it. A friend once gave me a gift card and it took me a couple months to even go to the store. It doesn't help matters that few stores in SL pay much attention to men, let alone men with my particular tastes. (Me in a store when TP is down: "Help! I'm a male and I can't get out!")

So when I heard about the 49L Sale For Dudes, I thought I'd check it out -- at least I might find one or two stores with worthwhile men's clothes. The experience was almost enough to put me off clothes shopping for a year. Alright, that's partly my own damn fault, I should've dragged a female friend around with me. I have zero patience for shopping; they have zen.

First, pleeeeeze large and even medium sized stores, especially in malls: I'm not shopping for women's clothes. If I want women's clothes I'll send a female alt (assuming I have a female alt). Right now, I'm looking for the men's clothes. So you gotta help me find the men's section! I shouldn't have to spend 15 minutes camming everywhere to find the 3% of floor space where the men's clothes are. Put up a teleport system, or at least a map! I want to get to the men's section fast, find the one or two things I'd actually wear, and scram. Point #1: Figure that I want to arrive at the right spot 45 seconds before anything's rezzed. (Yep, I'm zen-deprived.)

Ducknipple is right over ... right over ... ummm ..... OK, truth in ranting time: the reason I didn't find the teleports inside Ducknipple is that I couldn't find the store. There's no directory at the landing point, and there weren't store names above all the entrances. I ended up camming like mad until I found men's clothes. Yeah, stupid me, not knowing instinctively that Ducknipple was the big store with its name way off to the sides in gray lettering over a slightly lighter gray background. (Click photo to enlarge.)

Second, let's assume I've found the men's clothes and now I'm looking around. What do you have to offer me? Let's see ... oooo a pair of jeans! Yay! It can join the 47 freebie jeans already in my inventory, where yours will be indistinguishable from the ones I picked up five years ago! Woohoo, I gotta spend my money for those! And OMG, a tank top saying "Suck my Richard," gosh how can I live without wearing that! Over there, wow, a leather jacket ... a business suit ... a plaid sweater ... a solid-color tux .... /me keels over, nearly comatose with boredom.

I'm not kidding, look at the photos in the website for the sale, you'll see what I mean. A couple of items are worth a TP, but nothing is a stand-out. I can't entirely blame the designers -- men's clothes in the physical world are excruciatingly boring too -- but seriously, with all the ideas they pour into women's clothes, surely they can spare a few for guys too. I suppose even crap sells, and undoubtedly the tepid as well, but possibly it sells because men aren't given many alternatives. In any case, once I have (say) one decent leather jacket, I'm not going to waste my money for another unless it really has something special. Point #2: Don't bore me to death -- if you want to sell to me, then make something interesting and unique. I'm never going to buy just another leather jacket, but I might buy a very different one.

Top row: Two of the items in the 49L sale. Yes, I know, if I don't like it I don't have to buy it; the issue is that this approach to men's clothes is depressingly widespread. Shoot me now. Bottom left: One store's men's section. Bottom right: Did the designer get a license from DC Comics to use the Superman insignia? There are definitely ways to appropriate other people's work that come under "fair use" (in the UK, "fair dealing"), but this is not one of them. But the point here is the utter vacuum of imagination required to simply swipe what already exists. And yeah, more tank tops.

I told a female friend about my frustration with men's clothes; she agreed, but added that men's roleplay clothes can be really sexy. Maybe I'll join Gor, just for the fashion sense. (Sigh ... ok, not my style either.)

After visiting some of the stores participating in the sale, I went to Hoorenbeek, which a friend suggested I check out. What I found was very well made, but mostly standard issue stylistically. However, to my amazement, they did have some shirts that were kind of neat, up on the second floor. (At the store I visited, the entire first floor offered whole outfits, which isn't a bad idea since piecing together an outfit from one's inventory as about as dismal a prospect as buying the stuff in the first place.) So I checked the price and had myself some sticker shock. L$480? For a simple shirt?? I checked out a couple of the women's stores nearby and saw attractive gowns for less than that, plus full outfits for L$500. I don't know whether Hoorenbeek thinks that their work is so fantastic or their customers so desperate for anything half-tolerable, but I'm not buying it, in either sense. I don't think the shirt is mesh, but that too would be no justification for overpricing. (Besides, mesh is both overused and overrated.) Point #3: Selling me something for L$200 may be L$200 less than you think it's worth, but it's L$200 more than not selling it to me at all.

Interesting men's clothes at a reasonable price definitely exists. For example, a few years ago I picked up some vests from Pixeldolls in various colors (colors!!) and with different designs on the chest (designs!!). But eventually my women friends told me they were sick of my vests, go find something else. I've been miserable ever since. I even pay attention to Fashion Freebies for Men, but usually it seems to be a lost cause. I'm not simply being cheap: if a store offers free yet appealing clothes, probably there's more and better to be found there. Presumably that's why designers offer freebies for women.

And in fact it works. I was frustrated by Ducknipple's lousy outside signage, and the item they offered in the 49L sale looked like a "maybe" in the photo but didn't grab me when I looked at it up close. Still, while I was there I noticed a few other men's items that I'd actually consider. Yep, a bit of style there -- and good prices (mostly L$195, for the women's clothes too). Ducknipple focuses on casual clothes somewhere in the continuum from funky to spunky. Probably a little "young" for me, but I'll probably look again.

So, clothing designers: I know some of you are earnestly striving to offer good men's clothes, and I appreciate that. Here's what you need to know: I'm well over 35 (like most of SL), I didn't discover my Richard three weeks ago, I'm intelligent, and I don't need to prove how tough or powerful I am. It's fine by me if the women who have the hots for guys with huge muscles leave me alone. (Well, sorta fine ... I mean, I wish ... oh, never mind.) While I'm nobody's idea of a butterfly, I do have an aesthetic sensibility. I don't just want excellent execution: I want interesting. I'd like a dash of flair and creativity in my clothes. Maybe even more than a dash. Subtle is good, but so is directness. I've seen plenty of women's clothes that hit that mark. Surely you can make some for men?

[End of rant. We will now return to our regularly placid programming.]

PS: The fact that I hate to shop for myself does not mean I hate accompanying women when they shop. In addition to the pleasure of spending time with a friend, I get to satisfy my wish to see clothes that are both sexy and smart, and help her look attractive too.

PPS: After reading a draft of this post, one of my women friends threatened promised to take me to some men's shops, and then she dumped a boatload of LMs on me, so we'll see. Maybe I'll take this all back. Or maybe I'll need psychotherapy due to the trauma of shopping. I've probably doomed myself by writing this post....