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!