Saturday, May 31, 2008

Syncretia revisited - Exhuberant elegance

Is it possible to get to know a person only via email and the rare IMs and even rarer conversations? Historically, people who were geographically distanced from each other only had letters to go by and none of the social cues communicated through voice, facial expressions and body language. Somehow they muddled through, many of them admirably, as can be appreciated by reading old corresondence between the likes of Virginia Woolf, Rainer Maria Rilke and Jorge Luis Borjes.

Today, and even though I live 6,861 miles or 11,042 kilometers or a non-stop 14 hour flight away from Istanbul-based artist and designer and educator Alpha Auer (aka Elif Ayiter) - and thanks to virtual worlds - I can "inhabit" her space - Syncretia - and watch it progress in a very direct and personal way, almost as if I had an extra key to her Real Life studio, but was only allowed in when she was not there.

Syncretia continues to evolve and grow richer with each passing week. It is certainly quite different since I blogged about it three months ago. In the five months that I have known her - ever so virtually - I have rarely communicated with Alpha about Syncretia, but she knows I watch over it. Instead, we talk about everything else! Just this week she was a guest blogger here, reviewing the three new Konica Minolta sims.

I mostly learn what Alpha has on her mind via her Flickr journal, where she has written: "Please note that the north shore of Syncretia is subject to highly inclement weather conditions, due to the personal proclivities of Alpha Auer, who has a marked preference for rain, storm and snow over sunlight."

Syncretia is an intensely elegant manifestation of Alpha's investigations in the new media wedding of the year, where her research in virtual worlds is coupled with art and design. Importantly, Second Life® is central to Alpha's PhD coursework.

"Above water, suspended in the air are three huge spheres which are home to an endless army of lizards and other strange and inexplicable creatures"

"The basin has also been the scene to a plane crash, the debris of which can still be seen and heard clearly throughout the southern shore"

While it is one of the handsomest islands on the grid, like everything that Alpha does, Syncretia is playful. Trees and bushes are gently swaddled in ghostly wrappings. In the botanical garden, plants are suspended upside-down and sideways. Here and there, surprises: a stingray encircles a conference table in the company of a small school of tropical fish; a nuclear bomb to reminds us that everything can disappear at any moment... No music is streamed at Syncretia. Rather, a piano offers the Goldberg Variations (Johann Sebastian Bach), Mozart's Sonata in C Major, and Debussy's Clair de Lune.

"The Angry Monkey Tent, Alpha’s island retreat, (is) a tribute to her own nomadic heritage as a Turk. However, interspersed with the nomadic element are also Hobo and Steampunk interests, such as a tripod camera, a cast iron stove for those chilly island nights, a copper samovar, a Hobo bicycle and backpack. The tent further houses a big field of steaming snake plants as well as a tiny sculpty rabbit"

Is this the future of virtual meeting rooms? Where conference tables, fish, bathtubs and crashed planes share a space underwater? Bathtubs under water?! Yes, Alpha believes that "cleanliness is next to godliness" and clarifies that "the fact that they are already underwater should please, not deter avatars from taking advantage of the considerable power of the additional cleansing properties."

The ecosystem at Syncretia is oddly logical. Here, no organism or thing is an autonomous entity isolated from its surroundings.

In a notecard offered there, Alpha explains: "Citrinitas, or sometimes referred to as xanthosis is a term given by 15th and 16th century alchemists to "yellowness." It was one of the four major stages of the alchemical opus, and literally referred to "transmutation of silver into gold" or "yellowing of the lunar conscientiousness." In alchemical philosophy, citrinitas stood for the dawning of the "solar light" inherent in one's being, and that the reflective "lunar or soul light" was no longer necessary. The other three alchemical stages were nigredo (blackness), albedo (whiteness), and rubedo (redness)."

"Syncretia/Citrinitas is an alchemical power plant which utilizes the water pumped from the Black Mountain for alchemical purposes. This water is cycled through the fairy chimneys at Syncretia/Cappadocia, after which it begins its long journey across the plains of the northern shore. The acquisition of alchemical properties is initiated during this phase: As it progresses the water gains in density. In the plant proper the water is further treated to the point where it can actually turn dross to gold! The two Hobo trucks inside the huge containers are currently undergoing treatment. One unexpected byproduct is a rejuvenating elixir! Sitting inside the two spheres below the purification tanks can create wonders, not only in terms of appearance but also of state of mind!"

She goes on to explain: "Psychologist Carl Jung is credited with interpreting the pseudo-scientific alchemical process as analogous to modern-day psychoanalysis. In the Jungian archetypal schema the nigredo is the Shadow; albedo refers to the anima/animus (contrasexual soul images); citrinitas is the Wise old man (or woman) archetype; and rubedo is the Self archetype, which has achieved wholeness.

Here, Light Waves' ghostly horse and lion munch placidly on giant grape leaves

While there are seemingly unlimited new places to acquaint oneself with on the grid, and never enough time, I intend to keep using that spare key I have to visit Syncretia for as long as it is there.

Teleport to Syncretia directly from here.

All photographs taken in Blue Midday Windlight settings. No Photoshop.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Random stuff about Hamlet Au, and some questions for the man who asks questions

In as much as I routinely go against the advice of nearly every social media specialist and don't shrink from publishing long blogposts here, it is hard to condense what I have to say about Hamlet Au (aka Wagner James Au) in one article... so, to heck with that. Today a morsel... tomorrow the world!

Instead, let me give you some tidbits that have little or nothing to do with the recent publication of his book "The Making of Second Life," which has been praised to the hilt by everyone including me, or that he publishes New World Notes, the most widely read Second Life® blog (and it is believed that there are at least 1,000 of them), or the fact that Torley Linden credited Hamlet and his New World Notes for convincing him to dip his watermellony toes into Second Life, or that Hamlet's been covering the gaming industry for since July 2006, or importantly, that he was hired by Linden Lab as the first embedded journalist in Second Life between April 2003 and February 2006, or that whenever he's blogged about me, or NPIRL, or the Garden of NPIRL Delights, readership of this blog has soared.

I don't know how he does it.

And that's not the half of it.

Whenever I get to feeling sorry for myself and my combined Real Life/Second Life workload, I think about Hamlet. In all my dealings with him, I have never once heard him complain, even when he was in the throes of launching his book and doing most everything else at the same time.

At home, Hamlet has the bestest wall clocks. If I knew how to file a JIRA, I'd ask for something similar: the current time in these six places in the world, on the top of my screen

But back to those tidbits:

* He didn't major in Journalism; rather, his BA is in Philosphy from the University of Hawaii
* In fact, he's originally from Kailua in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, which also happens to be the location where episodes of the television series Hawaii Five-Oh were filmed and where Lost is shot today
* His first by-lined article was an interview with David Lynch
* His first published piece was erotica for a now defunct San Francisco magazine called Future Sex , and yes, I did look for it and didn't find it :D
* He has a lot more on his mind than virtual worlds and games. In his January 1, 2002 controversial piece "We were wrong" for Salon he asked "When will Nader, Moore, Steinem, Chomsky -- and the other leftists who were monumentally mistaken about the war in Afghanistan -- join me in admitting it?"
* Hamlet doesn't rightly know what his true rez day is, especially since his Hamlet Linden account has been deleted

I find it interesting that someone who was born in paradise - Hawaii - and lives in one of the most sophisticated and exciting and delicious and expensive cities of the world - San Francisco - spends most of his time in front of a computer.

In his virtual living room, Hamlet enjoys a photograph of the view outside the window of his Real Life home

Several weeks ago, just before my two lives went simultaneously crazy, Hamlet indulged me and let me ask him a lot of random questions - some which are now as old as a good bottle of Port (how time flies in Second Life!), but a few are perennials - like, what did he look like when he was a newbie? Did he wear wings? His answer: "I had giant weird 70s hair and white pajamas because I didn't know how to make a suit or adjust hair, and it took me forever to bother doing either. A bit like an afro meets, I dunno, Sean Cassidy."

What were some of your earlier epiphanies as a user... not as a journalist?
Hamlet Au: Any epiphany I've had, I've written about. That's how I did it. I didn't want to insert my epiphanies directly, but rather, describe what I saw and experienced and who I met.

The way I see it, you take yourself out of the equation as much as possible and look at it almost as if it were a film... except that you get to ask questions. (BTW, Hamlet had originially intended to work in film way back when).
Hamlet Au: Well, if it's a film, then I try to be more like Errol Morris. That is, I have a definite perspective, but I try to keep it underlying the narrative and not let it overwhelm what people are telling me and doing. So, (I try to be) "Someone like that." The book finally gave me a chance to put my perspective more to the fore. My editor had to push me on that, it's been so ingrained for me to shut up and let the story unfold.

Ha! I knew Hamlet had the NPIRL blood in him. Here's a couch in his living room

We wonder about the person behind the man who reports for us.
Hamlet Au: "Reporting," per se, I consider less my role. I don't write "news" so much as try to find emblematic stories and content. My blog has become more "newsy" ironically enough, as I started writing the book and had less time to go in-world and really root around for that perfect story. That's always been a tension. People will often ask "Why aren't you writing the news about Linden doing X?" or whatever, and the thing is, if it's just the usual downtime or whatever I don't necessarily jump on it.

What's your daily life like?
Hamlet Au: I usually get up late, say 10am ideally, and either blog something immediately or more usually I was up the night before and blogged a late night post. I'm usually in-world late night, which probably means I've come to know more EU Residents than I otherwise would.

On the terrace of his Second Life home, Hamlet has a humongous marijuana plant that must be watered every day or it begins to IM him, complaining

How is the book promotion going?
Hamlet Au: The book tour has been fun, but most of the radio interviews I've done were so basic, I end up giving tech support. Seriously. The radio guy is like "Where do I go to download this?" "Do I have to pay money?" Etc. etc. Most have been curious. Just one radio host (I won't say her name) really didn't like the idea of Second Life. She kept wondering if she went in-world if a serial killer would attack her, so we spent about five minutes talking about serial killers. I said "Well, if you're worried, you can always log off. But she wouldn't give it up. I (then) said, "Well, there's serial killers in real life", and she's all "But I'd know to run away," and I'm thinking "Yeah, Ted Bundy was really popular with his female co-workers," and then I'm like, "Why the fuck am I arguing with this lady about serial killers?"

What were some of the better interviews?
Moira Gunn of Tech Nation did a really great interview with me. She's a smart cookie. She asked me if I was an evangelist for Linden Lab, and that was a good point to raise. I said "No, I'm an evangelist for the community, and for the idea of Second Life." I don't think I was even when Linden Lab was actually paying me as a contractor. Residents I interviewed would often go "OMG I love LL! I love Philip!" I rarely quoted that stuff. What's important is not what they think of LL; what's important are the things they express in here, what it says about them, about the world, and the world outside.

Good answer!
Hamlet Au: Virtual Worlds 2008 was hugely fun. It's so great and humbling to meet such a diverse group of SLers. "Colonel Bob in the Morning" - that's the name of his show - Very nice guy. He kept talking about wanting to be Dean Martin in SL.

You did tell him he CAN be Dean Martin?
Hamlet Au: Well, of course! Dean Takahashi did some great interviews and reviews for Industry Standard and Wall Street Journal. Very gratifying.

In between our chatter, I learned that Hamlet hasn't read "The Painted Word," a book that I have easily given away 50 copies of, by Tom Wolfe, the man who originally inspired Hamlet's three-piece white suit.
Hamlet Au: I've been meaning to send him a copy of my book. He seems to keep up on the latest tech stuff.

Hamlet Au... from Tom Wolfe-ish to Hunter S. Thompson-ish, but really his very own person who just happens to like three-piece white suits, seen here at Parsec

Seems to me that back in the early days you had more direct access (to Linden Lab). Is this just because everyone's gotten so busy?
Hamlet Au: I used to be able to ask Lindens I know about this or that issue and now they want it all funnelled through their PR agency. Again, it sort of is understandable, but then, I don't know how it's helping them overall. They're trying stuff, they deserve credit for that, press conferences, etc.

How often do you deal with their agency versus with them? Do they have an account exec that takes your questions and then "gets back to you?"
Hamlet Au: Yeah. I used to be able to e-mail Philip and get a direct quote within 24 hours. Wow, up until mid-2007, I think. I've always tried to be an intermediary between the Lindens and the Residents, sort of an ombudsman, but that's become quite difficult.

I get the sense that it was almost a personal loss for you when Cory Linden (aka Cory Ondrejka) left.
Hamlet Au: Yes, I was really upset even without knowing what happened; I still don't. And I still am.

What would you like to have happen with New World Notes?
Hamlet Au: Well, I want to take NWN to the next level, and that could mean many things, including more Second Life content creation. I loved working with Lainy (Voom). I'd love to do more stuff like that. (Hamlet and Lainy created this vid to promote his book).

How ingrained is this life with you? And can you imagine another? Are you actively exploring other virtual worlds?
Hamlet Au: I report on lots of other VWs for my day job, so to speak, with, and I am interested in an abstract level, and there are definitely a lot of good ideas going on out there and folks building competitors to SL that I admire. Still... People keep asking me, What are you doing now that the book is out, will you leave SL? And the thing is, there's really nothing else out there that has everything I could ever want. This is what I do.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Archipelago of Konica Minolta

I admit it. I am sometimes too easily dazzled by new tricks, and the new Konica sims - discovered by Blackwater Gallery owner Jurin Juran - boast a few fun ground shakers. Given the scope and the nature of this enterprise, it seemed especially important for another builder to review them, so I was pleased when Alpha Auer (aka Elif Ayiter), creator of the deservedly acclaimed Second Life® island Syncretia (teleport directly from here), agreed to critique them for this blog. Alpha is an artist, designer, educator and virtual worlds investigator who has wedded her areas of expertise to explore hybrid art forms to much success, and Second Life is part and parcel of her PhD coursework. In other words, she really knows what she is talking about. That said, I want to go on record and say that I am anxious for corporations to succeed in Second Life. - Bettina Tizzy

by Alpha Auer

Building in a three dimensional environment devoid of two of the most essential elements of volumetrics - i.e., shadows and reflectivity - can be a tough proposition. Current global bandwidth conditions as well as the hardware configurations of most of the users, not to mention discrepancies in viewing conditions between platforms would make ray tracing almost impossible to implement at this stage of technology.

Future generations of Second Life will doubtless see the incorporation of spectacular three dimensionality, but as far as current building conditions are concerned, the situation is far from perfect. Indeed, some of the builders of mettle within Second Life have been challenged with these environmental conditions to the point where they have been prompted to develop solutions and techniques to either circumvent or incorporate these conditions into their creative output. In some cases these propositions have already gone as far as engendering the first tentative steps towards the development of a three dimensional, virtual, visual language unique to the metaverse.

One of the most effective approaches is to make a virtue out of necessity and to incorporate these shortcomings into the visual language itself. Two approaches that come to mind are monochromatic structures, in which the juxtaposition of surfaces becomes sufficiently interesting in itself, thus eliminating the need for shadows...

Whitenoise Church on the island of Die Angewandte (teleport directly from here) by MosMax Hax is monochromatic

...or the usage of structures assembled out of components with high levels of transparency, wherein the construct becomes a conglomerate of layers.

Elros Tuominen creates interesting content through the use of visual layers

A second approach in circumventing the problems surrounding the absence of ray tracing, and one that is employed by the bulk of the builders of Second Life, is to incorporate heightened levels of detail, especially (but not only) where textures are concerned. In its default state, a Second Life island presents us with an almost cartoonish appearance but there are countless islands in which texturing and detail work have been implemented to achieve stunning effects. Many of the cyber punk sims would constitute good examples, however the ones that I think of foremost are Saeya Nyanda's island "Silent” and Abramelin Wolfe's "Devil's Moon."

Silent by Saeya Nyanda

At Devil's Moon by Abramelin Wolfe, effective faux reflectivity is achieved through the intelligent usage of textures alone

What these examples and many others like them show us, however, is that good building in Second Life cannot be achieved on small scale economy: Not only will you need to spend vast amounts of time and energy in the development of an effective island sim, but you will also need to devote considerable financial resources by bringing in textures, weather systems, and scripts, and by deploying huge quantities of prims in the creation of content that has the necessary "depth" for the sustenance of a credible visual language.

The Konica Minolta archipelago (teleport directly from here) is comprised of three linked-up islands and from the onset I have to voice my disappointment that a huge corporation, with all kinds of resources at its disposal, seems to have done so little towards the building of effective island sims. It would, in fact, appear to me that many private owners spend more on the propagation of islands maintained entirely out of their personal income.

True... there are a couple of scripted wonders at Konica Minolta, one being a rising pyramid and another is a water tunnel, but the wow effect is eliminated most thoroughly through the usage of very cheesy textures compounded by the absence of any detailed prim work whatsoever. Thus, the rising pyramid turns out to be nothing but a series of mottled brown surfaces, albeit rising with slow majesty out of a ground that has been simply left to its own, sad, "SL default grass texture" fate.

The parting waters of the water tunnel: Clumsy texturing wrapped around a mega prim diminishes the effect. The glowing directional arrow pad, dead center in front of it, doesn't exactly help matters either

The inside of the pyramid can be accessed through a particle door. (And again, I have seen some beautiful, graceful particle effects in Second Life - this is definitely not one of them!). Once inside, the "dramatic" Meso American exterior of the pyramid reveals itself to be nothing more than a shopping mall (with no merchandise!?)/photo booth - all very shoddily built and very, very meagerly textured.

There is a stage for posing your avatar against a backdrop illustration wrapped around a concave surface in simulation of a three dimensional photo booth. I stood there for almost 10 minutes to see if the blurriness in the photo (suspiciously like a half rezzed tga file) would eventually go away - but no, that was how it was meant to be and that is how it stayed to the very end.

The inside of the "rising" pyramid revealed itself to be nothing more than a shopping mall, with no real merchandise and a photo pose stage with a blurry photo...

Unlike mainland sims which do not give their owners the option to change ground textures, island sims have this unique advantage and much can be achieved through the importing of rich, deep textures to this end. It is surprising then that at Konica Minolta this was so totally overlooked. As far as I could tell, the ground textures on their islands are the default textures of Second Life.

It appears that economies were realized with the foliage, too. Yes, there were trees and shrubs that I recognized from my own visits to Lillith Heart's Heart Garden Centre (teleport directly from here), but the bulk of what has been rezzed in terms of planting seems to have come from the default Second Life inventory’s library folder.

One might say that there is nothing wrong with that, "how were they going to fill three islands with enough plants?" Except that there is: I have worked and worked on those trees, played with their transparencies and their color values and nothing that you do to them will make them become anything other than what they are – default trees. There are plenty of sims where I've seen the default trees and do not feel so bothered by their presence. Something that the content builders do there is obviously different than what has been done at Konica Minolta. My guess would be that there the trees are grouped differently, they are rotated to achieve a more natural look, they are scaled to form clusters of varying height and so on. But in any case, default trees are OK to use if you really and truly are on a shoestring budget. Definitely not OK when you are multimillion dollar corporation!

Color and especially the glow effect are yet more things that I had huge problems with at Konica Minolta. The glow effect is a godsend – if you know how to use it adroitly! The effect is powerful and thus really needs to be incorporated into the overall design and repeated at intervals throughout the scheme so that it does not fragment the design system. Second, it helps if the effect is used with a purpose, such as the emulation of light. Third, the effect can be absolutely lethal if you push the slider since it really does provide a very powerful input. Here it has been used haphazardly, only in isolated instances and at great force, causing the glow ridden objects to completely break away from the overall visual language.

The colors used on the glow objects has not really helped things any either: The neon purple of the particle doors and the vitriolic green of the navigational arrow platform are overwhelming in their intensity and are not present in sufficient quantities elsewhere to establish a coherent visual language, such as the glow paths by Spiral Walcher seem to have done in the Garden of NPIRL Delights sims (teleport directly from here).

Spiral Walcher's glow paths weave four sims together at the Garden

In fact, the color and glow intensity of the paths in the Garden are almost identical to the arrow pads at Konica Minolta. What seems to work remarkably well in one instance utterly fails in the other due to the fact that in the Garden, the paths achieve continuity whereas at Konica Minolta they remain as isolated objects.

The glow effect remains isolated at Konica Minolta and thus breaks down design continuity throughout the island

One of the most effective ways of dealing with the lack of volumetric perception in Second Life is the usage of weather systems and fog scripts. Besides the lack of shadows and reflective surfaces, one major perceptual problem in Second Life is the lack of aerial/atmospheric perspective so that everything you see is equally sharp regardless of whether it is foregrounded or backgrounded.

Windlight, which is now integrated into the official Second Life viewer, goes some distance towards the elimination of this problem. However, by itself, Windlight is hardly ever sufficient. I took several shots of the identical location at Konica Minolta using different windlight presets and there really was no noticeable difference in what I saw.

The Meso American "rising" pyramid, photographed under different Windlight settings

What brings out the magic of Windlight are the things you use in conjunction with it: weather systems and fog dispensers. Now, these do not come cheap. The best fog emitter that I have found in Second Life is a "no copy" object and I think I ended up buying something like 20 of them but the difference that they have made has been worth every penny spent.

The same can be said about weather systems, which give the atmospheric depth that Windlight alone achieves only to a limited extent. My guess would be that the sims of Konica Minolta would vastly benefit from a large scale introduction of atmospheric aids of many different varieties, but most particularly fog emitters.

There are spaces at Konica Minolta which, had they only been implemented with good craftsmanship, would have become highly interesting visual experiences. The Sea of Babel is the most conspicuous one. The Fireworks Tower and the submerged (amphibian) arrow pad can also be considered within this category. In all three cases, the texturing combined with the utter clumsiness and lack of detailed prim work dampened the effect.

The Sea of Babel is accessed through yet another rising edifice, this time built to the resemble the Tower of Babel in Brueghel's famous painting.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, c. 1563

Once inside (the entrance being yet another purple particle door!) one can make one's way to a basement lab where a cart will take you on a journey through the human gastrointestinal system. This is, in all likelihood, (the absence of any kind of informational material throughout the sim is somewhat bothersome, I might add) the demonstration of a medical visualization technology developed by Konica Minolta, whereby a tiny camera is swallowed for interior scans of the body.

Now, had this journey been created with attention to detail, with good textures and effects, it really could have been the sort of thing that half the metaverse would have trekked out to experience. As it stands, it is nothing more than a conglomeration of internal body shots arranged along a prim tunnel.

Journey into the human gastrointestinal system: Could have been amazing, but...

The same can be said about the Firework Tower. The poor exterior textures, not to mention the fact that the structure can only be accessed from the top, makes the tower an unattractive proposition for further investigation when looked at from the outside. I did, however, venture inside and again, if the craftsmanship had been executed with greater finesse it would have become very interesting metaverse content.

The entire effect is severely curtailed given the appalling graphic design on the huge instructional panels, that stand out in stark light contrast to the overall dark ambiance of the interior

Finally, what bothered me about the sims is a lack of clarity of purpose. I had a really hard time understanding what these sims are here for. Are they promotional or recreational or educational or artistic - what is the purpose here exactly? Not that I wish to imply in any way that purpose is essential in the creation of good metaverse content or indeed metaverse activity. However, these sims are confusing: They are obviously not "play" or artistic environments, since there are far too many Konica Minolta logotypes, far too conspicuously displayed. Then again, if they are promotional/informational sims - where exactly is this information? The note card dispensers? The bi-lingual signage? Even Japanese signs are awfully thin on the ground - English ones are pretty much non-existent.

Confusing purposes and incongruous content - both of which would probably not have raised any questions whatsoever had the visual language been strong enough to sustain them

And, how does the content actually hang together? What logic brings together the Tower of Babel, a Flying Saucer and a Fireworks tower? Why does the exterior of the shopping mall need to become a Meso American pyramid? Again, not that I am looking for logical thought processes within creative activity - I would be hard pressed indeed to explain my own creative process if I did so. But unlike a purely artistic environment, where one would certainly not pose any of these questions, these sims are caught in a twilight zone between a concern for displaying informational content and a haphazard conglomeration of structures aspiring towards artistic expression.

Sadly, neither aspiration can fulfill its brief due to the lack of a sufficiently well defined and coherent visual language and a lack of attention to detail, be it textures, prim work or atmospheric conditions.

The bottom line, for me, is that - presumably with every good intention in place - not enough time, resources and thought has been devoted to the creation of these islands. And given that a huge corporation capable of providing all that would have been needed for satisfying results is responsible for their instantiation, visiting them and writing about them has been very saddening and thought provoking indeed.

Editor's note: In fairness, Alpha contacted the creators and waited for several days to hear back before she finally went ahead and prepared this blogpost.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Your photos, your world

Naxos Loon suggested I try Tag Galaxy and then type "NPIRL" as a tag. The first word out of my mouth was... "fantastic." If you have pics on Flickr, you are in for a treat, but any tag word will do.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Kiss the Sky: Tipping point on the axis of a virtual world

2008 has already been a landmark year for art in virtual worlds. It is the year that Brooklyn is Watching gently dipped its toes in Second Life® and found itself nearly crushed by a multitude of artists and artwork. Babelswarm, the winner of the Australia Council for the Arts' Second Life arts residency, came to life. Blackthorn Hare got his Masters degree in Second Life sculpture. This year also marked the launch of Arthole, which I will write about soon, and the opening of the Kirsti Aho Museum, and one week ago, we celebrated the unveiling of our Garden, simply the largest collection - ever - of content creation that is not possible in Real Life.

Meanwhile, another show just debuted that is critical to our understanding of the unique possibilities in a 3D virtual medium, and the list of participants reads like a Who's Who of virtual abstract art. I welcome guest blogger Bjorlyn Loon, and her insightful piece on this collection.

by Bjorlyn Loon

DanCoyote Antonelli’s (aka DC Spensley) new exhibit, Kiss the Sky, is an historical document in recognition of a community of artists in Second Life. Like most of us, artists and critics are searching for new words and constructs to define their virtual experience. Says Antonelli: “Since virtual worlds are a change of venue – a drastic change of venue – the former critical language is not enough.”

Dancoyote Antonelli: "The people in this show are each like a Picasso, or like the abstract expressionists of our time. They have embraced virtual world conditions, and are representing an avant-garde within an avant-garde that is nearly incomprehensible in material-world art. Feel the history, we are living in it!

One of the reasons that Hyperformalism has not mainstreamed until now is that there are a lot of practitioners that are not communicating with each other. In Second Life Hyperformalism has found a home in that it is an indigenous art form. Hyperformal work has always existed uncomfortably in the material sphere.

While space in virtual worlds is a simulation, place can be real. In fact, art experiences are the only thing that can be real in both the virtual and material worlds at the same time.” Kiss the Sky is tiered in the air above New Media Consortium’s NMC Arts Lab (teleport directly from here), and visitors are encouraged to interact with the works, and to experience them on many levels, including sight, sound and play.

Not all of this work is brand spanking new: it is not intended to be. What is new about it is that it is all together. This is a survey, a critical milestone to mark this time in history and present the shared histories of these artists in one concentrated punch.”

In addition to work from DanCoyote Antonelli, Kiss the Sky artists include Chance Abattoir, Vlad Bjornson, nand Nerd, Selavy Oh, Adam Ramona, Nebulosus Severine, AngryBeth Shortbread, Sasun Steinbeck, Sabine Stonebender, Seifert Surface, elros Tuominen, Juria Yoshikawa, and i7o Zhu.

Antonelli has developed a new native architecture for experiencing this exhibit, which might otherwise be difficult to maneuver as a result of its massive scale. Strategically placed purple seats call up a menu where you can select from among the 35 works in the exhibit, and the seat will gently transport you to your choice. Says Antonelli, “What is important is that there is no remediated architecture here: Interface serves content. The seats take you to all the exhibits, near the sign that only opens when you are near enough to read. The signs and seats are in the same place in each exhibit, so once you get it, you have it.”

Hyperformalism is non-figurative abstraction in a hyper-medium, including abstract objects arranged in simulated space, navigable on a network, as well as expressions of reactive and interactive artwork behaviors and geometric or algorithmic pattern play in 2, 3, and 4 dimensions. Because Hyperformalist works are unique created entities that are not representational, viewer relationships are less fettered by pre-existing symbolic weight and the artworks encourage fascination with form and pure relationships. The virtual world provides the ability to liberate the work from scale constraints and provides a perfect context for this post-conceptualist movement.

Juria Yoshikawa’s creation embraces Kiss the Sky in sheer physical dimensions. "In all three of my works, as the name of the show Kiss the Sky suggested,” says Yoshikawa, “I tried to create forms to pull people in and draw them skyward. In the large piece Infinite Pixel Loop most of all, I was aiming at a reaction of immersive upward motion."

Conversely, the pulsating rock specatacle of i7o’s Zhu Name Unknown contrasts with the aerial setting of Kiss the Sky, suggesting a literal and conceptual grounding.

According to the artist, Adam Ramona’s works in Kiss The Sky “explore the audiovisual relationship between the avatar and virtual space. Sound and vision are created and modified dynamically by the avatar's movement through space, creating a real-time composition unique to that user and time.” Seen here: A Rose Heard At Dusk

Seifert Surface is directly concerned with the mathematics of 3D, which Antonelli describes as “one genre of hyperformalism.” For example, Surface’s Spore, created in 2006, “is based on a process that turns up in nature a lot: 'growing' new objects around some axis at an angle of 2pi/Phi from the previous one, where Phi is the golden ratio, (1+sqrt(5))/2.” Siefert’s Meandering Hypercube “is a projection of the hypercube from 4d to the 3d of Second Life, just as the 3d of Second Life projects to the 2d of a computer screen.”

Veteran artist Sabine Stonebender describes her KissTS – MoreAndLess as “Positive space vs. Negative space in an endless cycle,” and it is mesmerizing.

Of his Plant Deco installation, artist Vlad Bjornson says “The changing, geometric shapes of each piece are fractal and self-similar in nature, somewhat like the structure of Real Life plants. The colors of each piece were inspired by some of my favorite artists, borrowing color pallets from their works. Each piece changes to a unique configuration each time it is touched, with billions of possible combinations.”

AngryBeth Shortbread extends her Real Life art into Second Life with a strong emphasis on sound, play, and interactivity. Her Pusher-Tron is no exception.

Nand Nerd, who refers to himself as an… “Artist? I'm no artist. What would I know about art? I'm an Engineer, damnit,” has always been intrigued by Antonelli’s art. “The flexi-hedra started off as a whimsical use of the new flexible path feature,” says Nerd, “Once I'd seen the outcome I was hooked and developed a range of polyhedra to be given the same treatment.” Nerd’s Square Antiprism Tower at Kiss the Sky responds to touch in unexpected ways, which defy gravity.

Nebulosus Severine, who has been working in Second Life since 2005, produces works which she describes as “Chromotive [Chroma (color) + Emotive (drawing out or evoking emotion)].” Her Pulse Points (I, II, III) is a crystalline structure which surrounds the avatar in pulsating light.

Chance Abattoir is interested in interactivity, and brings skills in texturing, building, 3d modeling, and scripting to the artistic task. His 5.3.5(2) juxtaposes dissimilar shapes which evolve according to the angle of view, and change further, and more dramatically, upon touch. Chance elaborates, “It's not meant to convey anything other than self-reflexivity. Each part of the art refers to another part of the art.”

In the year and a half that elros Tuominen has been in Second Life, he says that he has “never stopped learning about building, scripting, textures... I feel like a child, playing with everything I find, and expressing myself freely.” Tuominen is a prolific artist, treating his friends to new poetry or sculpture every single day. For elros, Underconstruction City v.06 is a massive work, demonstrating his increasing mastery of the medium, and communicating his expanding reach towards impossibilities.

Sasun Steinbeck has been working on her Morphing Sculpture for years, perfecting it. It scintillates against a starry night sky or cloudless blue with equal impact. Like many of the works within Kiss the Sky, Steinbeck’s is configurable by the visitor, in this case via choices of texture.

Selavy Oh describes her Soft Structure as “part of a series of conceptual works exploring and utilizing inherent properties of the simulated world of Second Life. Motion of the structure is created by virtual wind, the color reflects cloud density, and the cloud-like fragility of the installation is emphasized by temporarily dispersing the elements upon avatar intrusion.”

In sum, for all their differences, the works of art in Kiss the Sky achieve Antonelli’s goal of creating a historical node. People will look back at this exhibition, with the experience of years, and see a tipping point, where, according to Antonelli, “Hyperformalists on Second Life have more in common with each other than we do with the material or conceptual art worlds.”

All photos by Bjorlyn Loon, with these exceptions: Overview: Antonelli, Infinite Pixel Loop: Yoshikawa, Morphing Sculpture: Steinbeck, A Rose Heard At Dusk: Ramona, Pulse Points (I, II, III): Severine, and Soft Sculpture: Oh.