03 July 2015

Fest'Avi in FrancoGrid: A Visit to an OpenSim

A friend invited me to go into FrancoGrid (an OpenSim grid) to see a performance called Fest'Avi, created largely by Cherry Manga, who is well known for her surrealistic and often dark installations in Second Life. (She built a piece at Split Screen, part of which is still there now.) Until then the only grid outside SL that I'd been to was InWorldz. OpenSims have technological differences from SL (a bit behind in some ways, ahead of it in others) but they have more flexibility due to their local control and open-source nature, and their cost is decidedly lower. On the other hand, they're also underpopulated. As a result, they're attractive for creating many types of art, but the works can seldom garner a significant audience (Fest'Avi did overcome that). In any case, given what's going on in SL, I went to the performance with somewhat low expectations.

It's a pity that Fest'Avi was a one-time-only event, for the production was extraordinary.

Fest'Avi was fundamentally a dance piece consisting of intense, driving music and rapidly changing scenery and avatars. The sweep of settings and avatars was fascinating, ranging from tiny fairies fluttering on flowers, to mechanical insects, to cyber figures, to demons in hell, to a rumpled elderly couple dancing around the world as tourists, and much more. Both the avatars and the sets were well-designed and executed. It was a particular pleasure to see some of Cherry's work become a stage. My photos scarcely do the performance justice, partly because it was constantly in motion, and so photographing on-the-fly sometimes obscures was happening and of course makes good positioning impossible; also I didn't start photographing until perhaps ten minutes into the show. I took nearly 80 photos, so I can give only a sampling here, but I've tried to indicate how some of the transitions looked. Click the photos to enlarge.

One interesting aspect technically is that other than (I think) Cherry, the performers were not live people, but rather NPCs (nonplayer characters). These are different from bots: the latter need to be run by somebody logged in with a viewer, who must sit the avatars on animating prims and coordinate the timing, whereas NPCs are programmable and operate through the sim without anyone logged in. This is one way in which OpenSims are actually preferable to Second Life. I'm sure Jo Ellsmere, who has to run over a dozen viewers in order to run her performance piece at "Obedience," would have appreciated that alternative (especially when the power went out at her house).

Fest'Avi makes it crystal clear that anyone interested in the arts should pay attention to what happens in the OpenSim grids. Given the cost of land and uploads into Second Life, many artists have moved to the OpenSims, and I think we can expect that to continue. I hope they'll publicize their work through the Second Life arts groups so that they get the audiences they deserve. In the meantime, there is a group called Hypergrid Safari, which people may be interested in joining or at least following. (Regrettably, their expeditions are usually at a time when I'm not free.)

26 May 2015

"Obedience" by Bryn Oh and Jo Ellsmere

The J├╝disches Museum in Berlin recently opened Obedience, an art installation about the biblical Abraham and Isaac story (produced by film director Peter Greenaway and multimedia artist Saskia Boddeke – Rose Borchovski in SL). In conjunction with this show, Boddeke and Greenaway asked Bryn Oh and Jo Ellsmere to create installations in Second Life. Their contribution to Obedience is at LEA1. For anyone unfamiliar with the Abraham and Isaac story, there is a telling of it on one of the walls at the entry point. There is a larger story, however: the tale of Abraham and Isaac is the founding moment of the three monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (consequently known as the Abrahamic religions). The story often attracts artists interested in the complex relationships between the three religions, the conflict between religious faith and earthly duties, father/son relationships, or societies' sacrifices of their young (as in war). For example, in 1993 composer Steve Reich and multimedia artist Beryl Korot produced The Cave, which incorporated recordings of Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans talking about Abraham and his family. As an essay accompanying the RL exhibition observes, in 1969 Leonard Cohen released a song with his own version of the story, focused on the paternal relationship. (The essay is well worth reading for background on the story's interpretation within the three Abrahamic religions.)

The Second Life installation begins with Bryn's work. It tells the Abraham and Isaac story, but setting it in modern times. We see Abraham caring for Isaac as an infant; later, his television gives him an order from God to sacrifice his son. The mountaintop to which the original Abraham took Isaac for sacrifice becomes an apartment building. On its roof, Abraham pulls Isaac onto his lap and, horrifyingly, puts a gun in his mouth. At the last moment, an angel stops Abraham, as God is now convinced of his faith. In the final scene, accessed by a teleport hidden in the rooftop stairway, Bryn shows us Abraham trying to ease his terrified child. One wonders whether the boy could ever forgive his father. One wonders how the original Issac ever did; many interpretations evade the question by saying he was a willing sacrifice.

Click photos to enlarge

Just before these two last scenes, we come to a bot performance created by Jo Ellsmere. It is linked artistically to Bryn's portion through the appearance of the angel in a grouping to the side of the bot performance. That group, created by Bryn, consists of God surrounded by a lion, an eagle, an ox, and an angel – the symbols of the Four Evangelists (Mark, John, Luke, and Matthew, respectively, although the angel here is female). In this part of the installation, we shift from the Old Testament to the New. The 24 bots, arranged in two rows, represent the 24 elders in Revelations, the last of the New Testament books. The elders, however, seem quite bored as they wait for something; they shift their bodies, stretch, or read to pass the time. The thematic connection between Bryn's and Jo's sections lies in the fact that the Abraham and Isaac tale prefigures the New Testament story of God's sacrifice of Jesus. In addition, one at a time each of the elders in the first row rises from his chair, walks over to God, and bows, kneels or supplicates – bodily enactments of Obedience.

There is an additional figure, Colubrum – the name means "snake" or "serpent" – played by two different avatars who merge and transform into each other. From time to time he steps into the scene with Abraham about to kill Isaac and the setting with God and the elders. His name associates him with Satan, in one of his two versions he has horns, and he frequently hulks, crawls and crouch-walks. I haven't quite figured out why he's there, but he introduces a strong dynamic note into the scenes; when he watches the scenes he appears less a figure of evil than of skepticism, willing to question both the lessons we should learn from the story of Abraham and Isaac, and the elders' rote obedience to God the Father. He himself salutes God.

The entire performance is fascinating, even hypnotizing (as Jo's work so often is), and one must watch it at least long enough to see both versions of Colubrum, if not many times after. Also it's richer with details than first meets the eye. Examine the elders' skin: each one has a different pattern, which shimmers or moves. They wear golden crowns adorned with religious and secular symbols. Beneath their feet, rows of letters in apparently random order slowly scroll downward; the letters are G, A, T, and C, which represent the four main components of the DNA molecule. (In this regard, consider the fact that in many cultures, snakes represent life or the birth of the universe.) And in both parts of Obedience, there are globes or astrolabes, which in this context serve as symbols of God's dominion over earth.

Click photos to enlarge

(Arguably, since this part of the installation concerns the New Testament and its connection to the Old, a representation of the crucifixion as the image of God sacrificing his son would underscore the parallel; but it would surely raise pointless hackles because of the possible impression of proselytizing, it could make the theme heavy-handed, and the section is quite successful without it – probably more so.)

Obedience makes some technical demands. Visitors are asked to use a particular windlight and adjust a few other settings in order to create the enveloping darkness; Firestorm is implicitly the preferred viewer. In addition, visitors should turn on shadows and projectors. People who don't have powerful graphics may have difficulty operating with the shadows/projectors setting. If at all possible, try to work with it because the light and shadows contribute enormously to the installation's aesthetic effect. But if that's simply impossible, at least apply the windlight and other small adjustments, for those are crucial. It's also extremely important to set sound levels as high as possible. Unfortunately the recordings were made a low volume, so I had to set not only the sound slider to max, but also the master slider, and sometimes even my computer's. When watching the bot performance, I recommend turning name tags off (in Firestorm, you can do this either through the Preferences–General tab, or through the Quick Prefs button if you have it).

Also, visitors in the RL installation are able to see the SL installation and walk through it using avatars named Isaak001 (male) and Ishmael001 (female). So you may see those two avatars when you visit LEA1, but you won't make much headway if you try to chat them up.

There are machinimas of the installation by Bryn and Iono Allen.

Obedience runs through 13 September.

14 May 2015

How Not to Choose a Theme

For Second Life's 12th birthday celebration, the organizing committee chose the theme "What Dreams May Come," a quotation from the play Hamlet. As so often, it seems nobody thought to check the source, which is Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy.  Here's the line in which the phrase appears:
To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
"Must give us pause," indeed. Hamlet is discussing the nightmares that may attend the afterlife, and his fear of those nightmares persuades him not to undertake the act he is contemplating: suicide.  So the SL12B theme pertains to death.  I wonder … maybe the organizing committee agrees with Wagner James Au that "Second Life is a dying world."  Interestingly enough, his av's name in Second Life is Hamlet Au.  Coincidence?  I think not!

06 April 2015

To Haveit and Haveit Not

Haveit Neox currently has two large installations on show in Second Life. One, The Centaurs' Hall, has been open for about two months. The other, City Inside Out, opened recently on one of the LEA sims. These are major works; but they're also very different – in some ways, quite opposite.

In a post some time ago, I criticized artists who strive to impart a message but produce banal art. Haveit often has a message, but he also has the artistic skills to support it. City Inside Out concerns the homeless, or more precisely, the experiences of the homeless. This is a highly complex work, with three levels and many locations at each, all of them exteriors. The ground level is perhaps the most straightforwardly representational, dominated by a highway speeding underfoot, a huge network of footbridges rising impossibly into the sky, road signs, and billboards. But there are also a few oddities, like a small pile of giant, somewhat ghostly distorted chairs.

City Inside Out -- ground level

There is a huge gouge in the ground, and walking (or falling) down it leads to the entrance to the lower level, guarded by two ominous serpents – as medieval maps say, "Here there be dragons." Down the path one reaches what appears to be a welcoming house, but when you enter the open door you find yourself in a large city (with Haveit's characteristic nineteenth-century fa├žades). Although the edifices initially give a realistic feel to the setting, the entire level has many symbolic elements, some of them on the buildings themselves. Overhead, a huge ship is going to pieces, like the shipwreck that is most homeless people's lives; the hulk of another ship already lies at the bottom. A pack of dogs roams the street. The large, classically-styled front of a building (a bank, courthouse or City Hall) faces the street, but the emblem on its pediment is a devil, and although one can peer in, one cannot actually go inside, and what one actually sees there is yet another exterior. Elsewhere a porch has another open door, but through it there's a completely modern urban seating area, marred by graffiti, warped streetlamps, and benches built to prevent sleeping. Welcome to the unwelcoming city.

City Inside Out -- underground level

The upper level (one can get there from the stairways at the ground level) is the most phantasmagorical. Dogs tug at leashes while others are already running loose. Shrimp are flying in the sky. Misshapen towers loom overhead, leaning precariously. A ship sails in the air, split fore and aft, its sails torn to tatters. Billboards and telephone poles are scattered around. Devils survey the action. There are some enclosed spaces but once again they present exterior scenes. And then there are the bugs. As in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch (recalled by other aspects of this scene), inanimate objects have sprouted legs and scurry about as new torments. The locusts of homelessness are wine bottles and handguns; what should be a warm coat is infested with spiders and whirling debris.

City Inside Out -- sky level

I have described only some of the locations in City Inside Out; one can easily explore this complex work for an hour, and one should spend at least that long.

What a contrast, then, to The Centaurs' Hall. Centaurs are a frequent motif in Haveit's work. These elegant and majestic creatures, as a book in the building explains, are able to fly by the sheer force of absorbing air into their lungs and rapidly breathing. These are creatures of the spirit. Here he presents their mansion – their home, and a monument to themselves. Unlike the city of City Inside Out, the hall literally welcomes visitors inside. Two telescopes stand along a walkway, testaments to the centaurs' intelligence and ingenuity. Inside a greenhouse, tables are spread with fine foods and drink free for the taking, to be accompanied by a violin and the soft tinkling of a blue centaur-shaped fountain. Golden-robed statues line the main hallway. Reflecting the centaurs' spirit, this is a place of beauty and sensitivity – but also opulence. There is, I think, a dark side to this installation. The Centaur's Hall is the noble castle of the Haves, a contrast to urban environment of City Inside Out, the acidic non-home of the Have-Nots.

The Centaur's Hall

And something seems awry. Those deer wandering down the hall – are they symbols of the centaurs' unity with nature, or signs that the building is being abandoned? Is that a devil pointing upwards to where spirits seemed to be swirling about, perhaps trying to escape? And most of all, who are those human-like figures struggling on the ground? There is something desolate about this place, something decaying, and even though the food still has steam rising from it, one gets the feeling that it has stood on those tables for a long time.

I don't know if Haveit intended these two installations to contrast each other; I tend to doubt it, but contrast they do. The question underlying these works is "Who lives in what way?" On the bottom floor of The Centaurs' Hall, he has installed a small version of The Miniature Goal from about a year ago, a work about the worldwide depletion of resources. The phrase "living in reduced circumstances" takes a new meaning here as city buildings shrink to uninhabitability. If we continue to live this way, the installation seems to say, soon we shall all of us be homeless.

The Centaurs' Hallhttp://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Verdigris/180/69/56
City Inside Out: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/LEA20/138/129/22

01 February 2015

Giovanna Cerise -- Then and Now

Not long after I opened Split Screen, perhaps in spring 2011, Giovanna Cerise contacted me asking to build there. She had a show at a gallery, so I took a look. Most of the work was smallish and in the very contained abstract style one sees frequently in SL; it's a genre that generally leaves me cold. As a result I didn't think she was quite ready to get "out of the box" in the way Split Screen installations had to be. Nevertheless I sensed something promising there, and so I invited her to check in with me later -- and about a year later she did. Her work had developed enormously by then, and I was happy to host her at Split Screen. The result was Synesthesia, which showed in August and September 2012.

Synesthesia by Giovanna Cerise, at Split Screen 2012

A retrospective of Giovanna's work is now showing at Gay Island Resort. The earliest piece dates from 2009; the most recent is a miniaturized fragment from her sim-sized installation Chaos, Kosmos, which was at LEA in November and December (evidently it's now gone). The retrospective is well worth visiting. The gallery which houses it is fairly small, and because she obtained more opportunities to build installations as she progressed, the collection is dominated by her earlier art. There didn't seem to be a notecard discussing or listing the works, unfortunately, but the pieces themselves have dates in their description so it's possible to get an overview of her development. Along with the many abstract pieces in the works from 2009 through 2011 (some rather mathematical, others more expressive) are a few figurative items, plus the amusingly murderous Act final!. But a distinct shift occurs 2012-13, when her work rapidly became more sophisticated artistically, intellectually, and expressively. In these more recent pieces, representation becomes foremost and abstraction often serves it, as we see in Man (Apr 2013), a bust composed of simple white cubes, and Broken Time (Jan 2013) -- one of the best of her small works -- which seems to capture a somewhat abstracted hourglass that is simultaneously solid and in the midst of exploding.

Habanera (2009)
Act final! (Sept 2010)
Sirio (June 2010) & The Hidden Purity (Apr 2011)
Interference (Jan 2011)
Omaggio a Monica Vitti (Dec 2012)
Broken Time (Jan 2013)
Man (Apr 2013)
Diamond (Oct 2013)
(Click photos to enlarge)

This brings us to the present, Chaos, Kosmos. Unfortunately I was unable to blog it when it was showing -- in fact, I haven't had time to blog at all for the past several months. Thematically, the installation concerned the emergence of rationality out of disorder, and creativity out of formlessness. The installation again conjoined the abstract with the representational, though leaning more toward the representational. Some elements, such as the flowcharts and flattened running figures, are abstract representations of real life. Giovanna has also built large installations with a largely abstract, mathematical orientation; although the clarity of mathematics is clearly an important element for her, I often feel these works are rather static (contrast with the dynamism of Broken Time). Chaos, Kosmos conjoined these possibilities in various ways. It had several levels, not all of them pictured below. At ground level, she brought the static to monumental proportions, yet human figures are running and the flowcharts seemed to present a very orderly procession toward confusion and catastrophe. The enormous whirlwind on one of the upper levels (third row down, on the right) gave a breathtaking sense of chaos; it was almost a shock to cam out and find how technically uncomplicated it was. The version in the retrospective is microscopic in comparison -- to get a dim sense of the impact, I recommend floating inside and going into mouselook. And at a third location, amid the slowly rising and falling pages, Giovanna implemented a solitary lighting effect (see the bottom row) that I don't recall her using before, but was strikingly beautiful in its simplicity.

Chaos, Kosmos (click photos to enlarge)

Giovanna has entered the ranks of Second Life's major artists, and now is a good opportunity to view the road she followed.

SLURL to the retrospective: http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/GAY%20ISLAND%20Resort/147/152/1503
Note, the sim is rated Adult.