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!