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.

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