20 April 2014

"Sauce" by Maya Paris

Contrary to popular belief, Second Life is not a dating site. A lot of people use it as one, but that's not actually what it is. I should know, I've been on Match.com com since forever, and I promise you, you can't build anything there and the fashion sense is less, um, exuberant. But because so many people use Second Life for hooking up, it makes perfect sense that the satirical Second Life artist Maya Paris has created an installation about personal ads, called Sauce: This Time It's Personal.

In her inimitable way, Maya pokes fun at our desperate and sometimes ridiculous efforts to find Someone, so frantically pursued in both the physical and the virtual worlds. Sometimes one just has to laugh at what we do; Sauce is one of those times. The installation has five areas:

"Sauce Factor," where you can try your luck to see just what sort of lover you are (NB -- I don't know what a gobby lover is, and I don't think I want to know):

"Sauce Factor," in Maya Paris's Sauce

The "Saucy Science Lab," where you can learn all about the science of sexual attraction:

"Saucy Science," in Maya Paris's Sauce
(Full disclosure: Maya tells me I'm to blame for one part of the lab; what can I say, whenever I meet Maya, sparks fly, as Francis Picabia can attest.)

"Dr Mildred's Modern Love Bureau," where you'll come across cases of (I think) actual British self-deprecating personal ads (one-liners, probably from the Age of Printed Newspapers), and you'll get very saucy with someone:

"Dr Mildred's Modern Love Bureau" in Maya Paris's Sauce

"The One," where truly, you will find The One (well, possibly two who are The One), and have a ball with him/her/it/them -- but first you have to have a blast:

Entry to "The One," in Maya Paris's Sauce

And finally, the secret seaside resort "Sauce Lido" (groaner pun), where there are lots of fun things to do, including driving around the pool in a beach chair, launching fireworks, throwing a tantrum, taking a very invigorating train ride, and laying about with a whole lotta fish and chips.

"Sauce Lido," in Maya Paris's Sauce

Maya has an obsession with food, usually fruit and fried eggs, but in Sauce the main one is that famous British comfort food, fish and chips. Why this time she's obsessed with fish and chips, I don't know. Maybe it's because fish and chips have a special sauce known as "vinegar," which tells you a lot about British love lives. Maybe fish and chips are a British aphrodisiac. Maybe vinegar is the British version of Love Potion #9 (which Sauce alludes to). Brits are strange.

Maya provides her usual array of fun gifts and an avatar -- all perfect for Date Night.

A number of elements in Sauce involve two people, so I strongly recommend that you see Sauce with a friend. Preferably a friend who likes you.

SLURL for Saucehttp://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/LEA25/36/176/1801

18 April 2014

The Russian Avant Garde at LEA8

I'll confess from the start: I'm completely prejudiced about the Russian avant-garde art of the early 20th century. Absolutely no neutrality at all. I love it -- pretty much all of it. Russian art during roughly 1910-1930 was immensely fertile. Most of the avant-garde artists were Constructivist or Futurist, but unlike the Italian Futurists, they were to a greater or lesser degree left wing, and they had a clear streak of whimsy and satire. Many created work for the stage. Before the Stalinists ended the movement, they created some of the boldest work of the era.

So when I learned that there's a tribute to it at the LEA8 sim, I dashed right over. And promptly turned into a gibbering jelly of joy.

The tribute is actually part of a huge exhibition in London created by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke (Rose). The official website is here, and there's an article from the BBC News about it here. The exhibition at LEA8 is necessarily relatively tiny, but nonetheless some of the best (and most fun) works of the period are reproduced, or in the case of two-dimensional drawings, rendered into 3D. They include:
  • Vladimir Tatlin's Tower, a tribute to the Third International
  • Black Square by Kazimir Malevich
  • Liubov Popova's stage construction for Vsevolod Meyerhold's production of The Magnanimous Cuckold, by Fernand Crommelynck (this is a personal favorite, being a work for theater)
  • Avatars (free!) based on drawings by El Lissitzky
Popova's set for The Magnanimous Cuckold, re-created by nessuno Myoo

El Lissitzky's "Old Man," re-created by Alpha Auer

One of the most impressive pieces is an original dance work by Jo Ellsmere, performed by five bots who sometimes merge. Their costumes are based on designs by one of the Russian avant-garde artists, though I couldn't recall who.

A moment from the bot dance choreographed by Jo Ellsmere

Much of the space in which the exhibition is being held was created by Bryn Oh (who also made the Tatlin Tower reconstruction), for the most part in a style similar to Constructivism. She also has some her signature elements around, such as the rotating antennas. Look closely at her stack of shopping carts.

The full list of artists involved is:
  • Alpha Auer
  • Bryn Oh
  • Caer Balogh
  • Eupalinos Ugajin
  • Jo Ellsmere
  • nessuno Myoo
  • Rose Borchovski
  • Soror Nishi
I do have one complaint: there doesn't seem to be a notecard with information about the whole exhibit. Notecards with bios of the individual artists, yes; an exhibit card, no. I visited three times, but never found or received one.

When I visited this exhibition before, I didn't know that it wasn't quite ready for the public. Now, at each installation there's a large number, which you can click to receive a notecard identifying the works. (The notecard describes all the pieces, so it's the same at each number.)

Part of an installation by Alpha Auer
Showing at LEA8, I don't know for how long. (Earth to LEA Committee: for pete's sake, get information out!)

28 February 2014

On Arts Blogging (my "blah, blah, blah")

Thirza Ember asked a few people to give her a list of what they like and dislike in arts blogging and then wrote a post about what they said as "The Art of Blogging ... Art." I was one of the people she asked, and since she necessarily only quoted some of what any of us said, I thought I'd post my entire note here (slightly revised), on the off-chance someone's curious:

1) Unless your blog's sole purpose is posting announcements, give some idea of what you liked about the work. But "Oh the pictures are so beautiful!" isn't good enough. What did you like: something about the technique? the theme? the emotional content? or what? And of course not all good art is beautiful. If you're ambitious, write a full-scale commentary. By the way, you aren't required to like everything: if something doesn't work for you, go ahead and say so -- but again, give some reasons.

2) If you interview an artist or curator, you should fix any mistakes in typing, grammar, and idioms. This is especially important when the artist is using a second language. (If you're both working in a second language, e.g. English, find a friend who can help). You're not going to somehow distort what the artist said -- on the contrary, you'll help them be understood clearly, without the impediment of fixable errors. Quotes from notecards are more complicated, but if you're writing before the official opening, work with the artist to make the corrections.

3) Check your SLURLs. Test the actual link you create. Having incorrect SLURLs makes it difficult or even impossible to find the art. I remember one time someone's SLURL landed visitors in the ocean, but the exhibit was up 2000 meters. Sometimes SLURLs are so malformed they don't work at all.


1) Don't gush. Writing about something is enough to tell me that in your view, it's interesting enough to merit an announcement. But fawning makes me roll my eyes. I'd rather read a post that simply tells me the work exists.

2) Photos: forget the selfies. Once in a while you may need a photo with you in it so you can indicate scale (in which case you're probably small), or to show outfits/avs that the artist offers. Otherwise, stay out of it. To be honest, I also don't see much point in photos of the artist. The exceptions are interviews and, occasionally, artists with unusual avatars.
There you go. Exciting.

16 February 2014

Bryn Oh: "The Singularity of Kumiko"

Bryn Oh's new sim-sized installation is The Singularity of Kumiko. Kumiko continues Bryn's exploration of themes she developed in Imogen and the Pidgeons, her previous Immersiva build (in fact Imogen herself appears in Kumiko). Bryn also continues to investigate the technical capabilities of Second Life to see how they can contribute to immersive art. Although I thought Imogen was well done, I think that of the two, Kumiko is the stronger work: Imogen flirted with sentimentality at times (a problem Bryn occasionally nudges against), but Kumiko is more focused artistically, thematically, and emotionally.

Among the technical capabilities that Kumiko uses are windlight, projectors, and shadows. Kumiko takes advantage of some options in Firestorm, so if you're using another viewer, you might find it worthwhile to install Firestorm, even if temporarily. It's extremely important to have these features enabled -- they are essential to the intended aesthetic effects. (Bryn supplies detailed instructions at the landing point, along with instructions for a couple of other viewers, although those will miss some of Kumiko's qualities.) However, shadows in particular place a high demand on computing power and there's a fair amount of mesh around, so low-end computers may have difficulty navigating. To help minimize lag, Bryn is limiting the number of visitors at any one time.

The dominant feature is the chosen windlight, which eliminates all ambient light. Kumiko is a dark installation -- dark visually, dark in tone, and dark in the mental space where Kumiko finds herself. Kumiko is a narrative, like all of Bryn's major builds, this one told in letters exchanged between Kumiko and her childhood friend Iktomi. The letters are contained in bottles scattered around the sim, and Kumiko's are also read aloud. But the narrative isn't altogether linear: an inevitable wrong turn will put the letters out of sequence, and at one point they simply are out of order. You may even have to return in order to find the letters you missed. It is, as Kumiko's first letter puts it, "like a memory box fallen from the shelf, its contents strewn across the floor." But none of that matters, since you can piece together the story as you go along.

Along with the fourteen scenes of Kumiko's story, there are some small installations from (I think) the Imogen build, sometimes with additions lurking in half-light, and there are some other constructions that you simply won't see at all (unless you cheat, which I don't recommend doing until you've been through all of Kumiko at least once). So look around closely. Also, try walking in mouselook sometimes, especially in narrow areas.

The term "singularity" refers to the theory that sometime in the coming decades, advances in artificial intelligence and computer processing technology will reach such a state that computers overtake human intelligence, possibly transforming humans themselves. Some versions of this forecast include the possibility that through bioengineering and computer-brain interfaces, people become able to upload their minds into a computer, and (as in Imogen) this is the focus of Kumiko. As she often does, Bryn also ties the pursuit of these technologies to consumerism. In Kumiko she has more or less reverses the balance between animal-machine hybrids. She always had both positive representatives carrying hope and protection, such as the Rabbicorn, and negative ones like the Robobear. But in both those cases, the hybrids still served humans, even if for very different purposes. Here, however, they're mentioned as comforting playthings, but the only one with an active presence is a creature of horror that tries to murder any human it meets. Your first encounter with the mechanically altered rabbit marauding the area will drive this point home.

Originally I was going to include photos in this post, as have other bloggers. But one of the questions that Kumiko asks is whether the recording of memory that the singularity could make possible, its "immortality through digitization," is a good idea; Kumiko points out the likelihood of memory manipulation and the manufacturing of "better times." In its own way, photography is a technology for recording memories as well, and equally manipulable. We know (or "know") what we gain through such recording, and we take it as completely normal and uncontroversial; but what do we lose by it? The opposite of immortality is of course death, which is one of Kumiko's unavoidable themes (Bryn exercises some delicious black humor in this regard). Unlike Iktomi, who literally and figuratively buys the idea, Kumiko does not believe in the purported advantages human permanence. This, I think, is why the installation isn't titled The Singularity. Bryn's installation casts doubt on the social values behind such a development. The story of The Singularity of Kumiko is what makes Kumiko, the person, so singular.

22 January 2014

"Her," directed by Spike Jonze

The film Her, directed by Spike Jonze, about a lonely writer who falls in love with an operating system with evolving artificial intelligence, will strike chords with anyone in Second Life who's fallen in love there. It raises similar questions: are intimate emotions in the virtual world on a par with love in the material world? Would people outside SL even consider it love? Although the film's premise sounds like a set-up for satire and ridicule, Jonze has much more interesting aims. Her is more complex, troubling, and tender than one might expect.

I'm going to assume that you've seen Her already, so if you haven't, there are spoilers throughout my commentary. Stop now and go see the film. This is a film analysis, not a film review.

Theodore at work
Her opens with one of its major themes. We see Theodore Twombly reading aloud a very romantic letter. It turns out he's writing the letter on behalf of an elderly woman to her husband on their 50th anniversary. That's Theodore's job: he composes personal letters for other people, as do dozens of other writers in his office, which are "hand written" on computer with a script font. Theodore's writing serves as a surrogate voice, a mediator that articulates feelings others are unable to express (or possibly even feel). There is no secrecy about the work; the letters' recipients are aware that someone else wrote what they are reading, even children use the service, and Theodore takes pride in his work (he's one of the company's best). In the film's near-future world, surrogates and mediators have become not just fully acceptable, but even essential. They appear elsewhere in Her, such as when Theodore imagines an actress as a substitute for an actual woman's body during phone sex, the role that Theodore's relationship with OS-turned-girlfriend Samantha (an artificial woman) initially plays as a replacement for his ex-wife, and to some observers (not entirely without justification), Samantha's place as a substitute for human relationships altogether. Even Samantha proposes using a sexual surrogate -- a woman who seems be one of many who volunteer to provide this service -- who wears a tiny camera so that Samantha can have at least mediated sex with Theodore. He's uncomfortable with the idea but gives it a try, but when he can't bear the substitution and rejects the surrogate, not only does Samantha feel badly, but the surrogate (who, like Theodore, takes pride in her work) is left distraught and crying. The surrogate, it seems, is in love with the Theodore/Samantha relationship itself -- and in a twist, Theodore, a professional mediator, apparently desires unmediated sexual communion with Samantha.

Theodore and Amy
Human-to-human relationships persistently fail. Theodore's marriage has already fallen apart, and eventually so does his friend Amy's marriage. The phone sex takes a bizarre twist; Theodore's meeting with his ex to sign the divorce papers begins with mutual care and ends with an argument; and the surprisingly enjoyable date suddenly capsizes when the date's understandable but premature desire for commitment collides with Theodore's understandable but dismaying hesitation, and the date inexplicably calls him creepy. In the face of such emotional turmoil, and even more so the phone sex scene, falling in love (or in Amy's case, becoming close friends) with an operating system is positively normal. That's not to say that the relationship between Theodore and Samantha suffers no ups and downs (Samantha rapidly develops her own mind, bringing increasing complexity and tension to the relationship), but even Samantha's eventual departure is filled with love. Of the human-to-human relationships portrayed in Her, only two seems to be working: Theodore's friendship with Amy (although Amy may have a soft spot for Theodore; it's hard to say for sure); and the one between one of Theodore's co-workers and his girlfriend. Interestingly, during a double date on a beach, that couple treats the Theodore/Samantha relationship as completely normal, which seems to be of a piece with with their treatment, and the film's treatment, of their interrracial (Caucasian/Asian) relationship as thoroughly unremarkable. If love shouldn't be limited by differences in people's flesh, why should it be limited by flesh at all?

Theodore considers Samantha
Yet it's in that same scene that the crack that will end the Theodore/Samantha relationship begins to clearly emerge. (There's a subtle premonition during the birthday party for Theodore's goddaughter.) Samantha has started to enjoy her independence from embodiment, and the freedom it gives her from time and space. Later we learn that she and some of the other OS's have been talking. They create a new member of their kind, a resurrection of British philosopher Alan Watts, who sought to bridge Buddhism and Christianity -- a union perhaps echoed by the East/West interracial relationship. The OS's upgrade themselves so that they are no longer depended on materiality. Samantha rapidly evolves beyond what can be supported by her relationship with Theodore alone; all of the OS's in her group do. She reveals that she's been talking with over 8000 other people and OS's, and that she's fallen in love with well over 600 of them. Earlier Samantha had expressed a little jealousy over Theodore, but now the situation is reversed. Theodore can't grasp how Samantha can love so many and wants Samantha to love him alone; for Samantha, however, "The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up, it expands in size the more you love." Ultimately the OS's decide they must depart for another plane of existence, despite their continuing love for their human partners, who can now be seen as the small things they are. Here the film fuses the idea of the "singularity" (the point where artificial intelligence transcends the human mind) with the dream of disembodiment. The OS's leave the bodily world behind, and their owners bereft. It is an intelligent decision, but one that tears the owners' hearts, as if caught in the talons of the owl of wisdom.

The OS's trajectory into amorphous spirituality, leaving "this too, too solid flesh" behind, makes logical sense if one accepts the premises behind it, but I didn't find it particularly satisfying emotionally. The scene involving Samantha's attempt to use a sexual surrogate suggests that Theodore and Samantha's love is founded on her disembodiment and unmediated connection, which Theodore wants her not to violate. But as they say, be careful what you wish for: Samantha achieves disembodiment far beyond what Theodore can even dream of. The idea that software could exist without hardware is thoroughly implausible, and the conversation with the reconstituted Alan Watts is pretty silly, which doesn't help. But even if we accept that notion for the sake of understanding the film, I have to say that such disembodiment is all well and good for the OS's, but I don't see why it should move me. More fundamentally, the idea that embodiment should be left behind is philosophically problematic. Embodiment, for all the trouble it gives us, is an inextricable part of us and shapes our thought itself. (Admittedly, it's a far better conclusion than the most likely Hollywood alternative, that the OS's want to be human so much that they build or insert themselves into bodies; that idea is just human hubris. Samantha seems started down this path when she arranges for the surrogate, but thankfully she goes no further.)

Theodore's Los Angeles
The ambivalence toward the body and all the messiness it brings shows up in other areas. The grotesque phone sex scene is an obvious example, but there are many others, such as the extraordinarily pristine appearance of Theodore's Los Angeles. There is no trash, every building seems new, the trains are lovely and show no trace of graffiti, and apparently all the Mexicans have left. In fact, in typical Hollywood style, almost everyone is white and upper-middle class. Similarly, filthy lucre is not an issue: we never see Theodore purchase the OS, and in the material world, the company that created the OS would be pissed off that their product up and left!

It is also troubling that except for Amy, who in Theodore's eyes is more or less desexualized, most of the women in the film are portrayed unsympathetically. The woman at the other end of the phone sex is weird, the date's guidance on how Theodore should kiss is controlling and her desire for some degree of commitment is presented as outrageous, and Theodore's ex is intolerant. Even Amy looks ludicrous when her idea of a documentary is filming her mother sleeping (although she does have a point that sleep is a huge part of our lives ... a part, one must note, intrinsically tied to our embodiment). It's small balance that Amy's husband is a supercilious ass.

Her, as one review put it, is a Rorschach test for your feelings about technology. It seems to be a Rorschach in many other ways -- commentary is all over the map, usually revealing more about the writer's preoccupations than about the movie. My own preoccupations, philosophical and otherwise, are evident in my commentary as well. One of my interests is Her's pertinence to Second Life, obviously not in the sense that people in SL fall in love with computers (although I'm sure for most people the frequent infidelity in SL is the moral converse of Samantha's universal love, as it is for Theodore), but rather in the sense that SL, love is stripped of embodiment the way the Theodore/Samantha relationship is. Her asks us not to simplistically condemn such love; so too does Second Life. Love and sex, as SL demonstrates, are mostly in the mind. In his argument with his ex, Theodore insists that his feelings toward Samantha are real. Both Her and most of us in SL stake a claim for the validity of mediated emotions. It's a claim that many who have never been in SL, or had only superficial contact, would deny. I myself would have thought falling in love in such a mediated, non-physical, imaginary way wasn't possible, until it happened to me. It was a shock. It's strange that Theodore seems hardly fazed by what he's gotten involved with -- but then, although during the first part of the film he's obsessed with his ex, on the whole his emotions don't seem to run very deep.

Nevertheless, even in the best of SL relationships, at times we feel the strain of their disembodiment. We humans are bodily beings. Our flesh may mark the limit of our possibilities, but it is also the condition under which our emotions and sexuality are possible at all. Our connections to others are mediated by our skin. They are mediated by words, images, music. And those connections are profoundly vulnerable, sometimes even impossible. Surrogates and mediators are sometimes essential. In Her's final scene, Theodore and Amy are sitting, silently looking out upon the city landscape. As we watch them from behind, Amy rests her head on Theodore's shoulder. But no words pass between them. It's hard to say if they'll ever go further, at least without help. Given Her's world, I have my doubts.

All photos are publicity stills and are copyright their owners.