Posted by Alpha Auer
4Jetpacks4 was an immersive installation created by Bryn Oh, with the participation of Glyph Graves and Nonnatus Korhonen earlier this year. I was privileged to be one of the group of avatars that were given the tour of the research centre back on March the 6th. I will not talk here about what 4jetpacks was all about. The extraordinary video by Evo Szuyuan above does that far better than I ever could. What I will attempt to do instead is to talk about "immersion" and "presence" as integral parts of virtual world creativity. I know from personal conversations we have had that this is a subject as dear to Bryn Oh's heart as it is to mine, the thing which she puts at the center of her (virtual) creative activity.
I will quote a bit from scientific sources while I try to set up a basic definition of "presence", as a sense of “being there” in a mediated environment (IJsselsteijn, deRidder, Freeman and Avons, 2000). Lombard and Ditton (1997) define it as an illusion of non-mediation in which a user no longer perceives the display medium as a separate entity. A high level of presence will help users remember a virtual environment as more of “a place visited”, rather than “a place seen” (Slater et al., 1999). A success indicator of the attainment of presence is also considered to be the realization of similar behavior patterns in virtual environments to those in the physical realm (Slater and Wilbur, 1997), and even the manifestation of similar physiological responses towards a given event to its approximation in the physical realm (Meehan, 2000).
Various definitions of the term “presence” and their relevance to the immersive virtual experience are discussed by Mantovani and Riva who challenge the notion that experiencing a simulated environment deals with the mere perception of its objective features; instead proclaiming that presence in an environment (real or simulated) means that individuals can perceive themselves, objects, as well as others not only as situated in an external space but as immersed in a socio-cultural web connected through interactions between objects and people, leading us to the paramount importance of the interacting agent within a virtual culture, i.e., the avatar.
And this to me, lies at the very heart of the problem where artistic activity in a virtual world such as Second Life® is involved. Is the goal to be sought the "perception of objects" only? Or could it be that what would set artistic activity in a virtual world as a genre apart, would involve conditions wherein "individuals perceive themselves, objects, as well as others not only as situated in an external space but as immersed in a socio-cultural web connected through interactions between objects and people"? For me, without the shadow of any doubt, it is the latter. And it seems to me that this definition is what 4jetpacks is/was all about as well: That the creation of an immersive experience was the primary intention became obvious to me during Bryn Oh's opening statement where she addressed the importance of "presence" in virtual art. In her terminology the word "presence" is interchanged with "immersion", which does of course add up to very much the same thing. "Viewing" art, i.e., "the mere perception of its objective features" does not seem to overly interest Bryn Oh, and I am so very heartened to observe this in a fellow content creator, and one for whom I have a great deal of respect at that.
Bryn Oh is an exquisite builder. Every texture, every prim, every shape and object placed in perfect proximity, culminating in visual systems that I am awed by over and over again. And a very good thing that this is so: The immersive experience needs that level of concern for perfection to be pulled off with credibility. Creating an immersive experience does not imply that one can get away with shoddy visuality. If anything, it would imply the exact opposite: For us to become fully "present" within the "artwork" involves a level of visual expertise on behalf of the artist whereby perfect cohesion and gestalt are achieved to the extent at which not even a tiny component of the installation appears out of sync, thus distracting us from the immersive experience through its ineptitude or its misplacement within the overall system. Whether the visual gestalt that is meant to bring about "presence" involves high levels of abstraction or realism, opulence or stark minimalism would not be the issue at all by the way: I would seriously doubt whether one would need minutely detailed craftsmanship emulating realism to attain a state of presence. But, I would dare to say that what one would need would be a continuity of visual language - which as any artist worth his or her salt knows is a devil of a thing to pull off.
However, presence needs more than visuality. It also needs narrative. It needs a story or a situation endowed with sufficient power and imagination to pull us in. "Presence in art" needs substantial planning. An observance of fine detail whilst maintaining a firm grip on the whole. In other words, not a thing to be pulled off in one afternoon. Amongst much else, it is visuality, performance, role play, cyberpsychology combined. Bryn Oh has whatever it takes...
In the end, for me, the attainment of "presence" is more than likely to be the thing which will eventually create a "genre" out of the currently rather haphazard conglomeration that is the state of art in virtual worlds today. It really does seem to me that art generated in virtual worlds needs to be contextualized within the broader framework of contemporary art, given a raison d'etre, a property unique onto itself - and the attainment of "presence in art" would be a not too easily imitated attribute of virtual world based artistic activity. 4jetpacks gave me huge hopes in this direction and I am very grateful to Bryn Oh for having given me just that - hope!
A video created by Bryn Oh on 4jetpacks ends this post:
Also please read the post by Hamlet Au on NWN talking to Evo Szuyuan about her utterly remarkable SL-video skills and all that is involved in the attainment of the perfect SL-video here.