Saturday, August 1, 2009

The impact of Selavy Oh

Posted by Alpha Auer

By way of an introduction
Anyone who has had the patience to read what I write about will have noticed that I have a few bees in my bonnet to which I keep returning over and over again. One is avatars and identity creation; the other one is the creation of cohesive visual systems over standalone objects/or conversely the presence of a strong system within the standalone object; and the third one is narrative. Now, it is here with this third one that I tend to get into the biggest trouble in that more often than not I end up getting vastly misunderstood: It is inevitably assumed from my lamentably unclear delivery that I am talking about tangible stories with a beginning, a middle and an end - things that are decipherable, that can be conveyed in the spoken language just as well, if not indeed much better, than a visual manifestation. Nothing could be further than the truth - and it is entirely my mistake in that I have really not been at all clear about just what it is exactly that I mean to convey when I say "narrative".

For starters I should probably be using "visual narrative", rather than just "narrative" which does, after all, mean "story". But in any case, here is a quote from Marcel Duchamp, talking about "humor", which does come very close to what I want to convey when I say "narrative" in my hitherto fumbled manner of expression (please note the bold text):

"A great power; humor was a sort of savior so to speak because, before, art was such a serious thing, so pontifical that I was very happy when I discovered that I could introduce humor into it. And that was truly a period of discovery. The discovery of humor was liberation. And not humor in the sense "humorist" of humor, but "humor" humoristic of humor. Humor is something much more profound and more serious and more difficult to define. It's not only about laughing. There's a humor that is black humor which doesn't inspire laughter and which doesn't please at all. Which is a thing in itself, which is a new feeling so to speak, which follows from all sorts of things that we can't analyze with words... ...A large amount of rebellion, a large amount of derision toward the serious word... ...And it's only because of humor that you can leave, that you can free yourself".

And here is yet another quote, this one supplied by Soror Nishi, during a conversation we had going on her blog a while back: "a long, immense and deliberate derangement of the senses" - already suggesting narrative in that in it is embedded the very notion of temporality and process.

So, for me (amongst much else) visual narrative, i.e., the construction of a visual language is primarily a vastly complex set of maybe half verbal and very possibly even entirely non-verbal elements which conglomerate to form "a thing"; a temporality, a process, a visuality in which things are implied, half implied and yes, maybe even not even implied at all. A dark process involving metaphor over description, enigma over clarity. A thing whereby the individual components converge to create a whole larger than the sum total of its parts - a Gestalt.

And no, in no way does visual narrative have to involve recognizable objects, things which are realistic or are endowed with realistic references at least. My own work is of such a kind that a power plant does in fact look like a power plant (well, sort of anyway...) and a gym like a gym (regardless of whether the exercise stations may be placed on steam pipes). It does not mean that this is the type of work which I prefer, which I take to be the sole carrier of the potential of visual narrative. The starkest abstraction can be a powerful conveyor of what I consider to be visual narrative. If anything, indeed probably much more so, since precisely in the very abstraction lies a vast potential for the conveyance of metaphor, of enigma, of process - of the telling of the story that really has no words whereby it can be told...

Which would, of course, bring me to Selavy Oh; an artist whose work I have loved from the very moment in which I set eyes on it.

The creation of an identity
I had already assumed that Selavy Oh's choice of name was not a random event, but was closely associated with the famous alter-identity of Marcel Duchamp, Rrose Selavy. And so indeed, the urge to find answers to questions such as "would it be possible to create an identity out of nothing", what exactly "would be needed to create an identity that is separate from your own", and very importantly whether you "would need a history" were what led the human behind the avatar, who incidentally is a computational neuroscientist in Real Life, to the creation of Selavy Oh, whereby a contextual, if not historical, reference to not only Duchamp but to the whole idea of "alter-ego" seems to be implied.

"Impact" and the power of abstraction
The metaverse is teeming with so-called art objects which are meant to interact with the avatar. What is usually meant by that is that something completely ineffectual occurs as I approach or touch the object in question. I say "oh" and move on. I have not changed, nothing fundamental has occurred to me which has brought on "a long, immense and deliberate derangement of the senses". And not only the metaverse obviously: The whole web is a dump site of "interactive" art installations. Very few resonate with me in any kind of meaningful and profound way, they simply do not interact with me, my inner being...

The Giant Arc, Photograph courtesy of Selavy Oh

So, how is Selavy Oh's work, the kind which does interact with the avatar, different? The keyword here, I believe, would be impact! This is, of course, yet another word hard to pin down into a description in that it could be constituted of different attributes in different cases. In Selavy Oh’s case, at least one of these attributes is scale. So magnificent, so vast, so sublimely endless and yes - ultimately so visually satisfying in its amazingly cohesive system is the huge arc which stretches itself over the virtual sky above the Museum of Hyperformalism (teleport directly from here), and which begins its unutterably sad and yet graceful disintegration and demise upon my touch; that as I watch spellbound, something is in fact changing in me...

I am slowly demolishing the cubes...

So absorbing in its complexity, the complementarities of the contrast between the hard edges of the cubes and their soft descent upon my collision, are the nested cubes, which Selavy Oh rezzed for me, thanks to the generous hospitality of Mab MacMoragh, that I spent an entire afternoon and early evening slowly demolishing them.(I am indeed very proud to be able to proclaim that apparently I am the second avatar in metaverse history to have completely done so, the first one being Wizard Gynoid).

My reward? The magic of having them restructure themselves in a choreography, the enigmatic beauty of which would be very hard to describe in mere words. That is the impact of the abstraction of minimalism when it transcends the ordinary and moves into the realm of the resplendent: You cannot describe it, what it does to you, what it means to you or even how it looks. It is completely intangible and therein lies its huge power. And yes, I dare to say it, again: its ultimate power of narrative - as I define it in "a long, immense and deliberate derangement of the senses"...

But does "something" really need to do "something" before it becomes truly "interactive"? The third piece of Selavy Oh's that I wish to talk about after the sky arc and the nested cubes is static: Formes Nocturnes, now no longer in existence - alas. Nothing moves - or at least it did not while I was there. A torrent of bits which has become frozen in a tempest, reminding me of Goethe's famous words that "architecture is frozen music". Interaction is not pushing a button. Or bumping into an object which then goes "squeak" or whatever. Interaction happens in the mind: Something or someone evokes a change in me - interaction has happened.

Formes Nocturnes. Photographs courtesy of Selavy Oh

And with Formes Nocturnes and Goethe's statement I come back full circle to Duchamp, and his pre-occupation with frozen time and space: The strong connection which I felt that the island had to Duchamp's glass painting "The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even". I was gratified to hear that my instinct was not unfounded, that there had indeed been this connection in Selavy Oh's mind as well. A connection with the temporal fragility of the "Bride" and with happenstance and chance (apparently the glass broke during transportation), as well as the shared obsession that the artist has with Duchamp: "Dureé", temporality and space, reflected throughout the extraordinary output of Selavy Oh.

I have been wondering how to end this post and what I think I will do is refer back to an email conversation which Selavy Oh and I have been intermittently conducting over the past week or so, concerning wherein might lie the difference between the creation of cohesive visual systems and visual narrative. One would almost be tempted to say that the difference between a cohesive visual system and visual narrative is a matter of degree. However, ultimately, I suppose the difference lies in the temporal element given that “static” visual work can have a temporal connection/element, be endowed with an attribute of temporality even though it captures only a single instance in time. A cohesive visual system need not necessarily have embedded into the notion of the 4th dimension, whereas visual narrative would. So, in the end, in a way, it is still a matter of degree, I suppose: The output of creative activity (and I would dare to suggest that this would involve the output of all creative activity, regardless of whether it is text, sound, visual or indeed scientific data) relies on the engenderment of systems to come to their full fruition. While textual and audio systems inherently carry the element of temporality, when it comes to static visual systems there would seem to be a distinction, they need not inherently possess this dimension: It is whenever we find that the 4th dimension has been evoked within a static visual system that we can begin to talk about “visual narrative” having begun its magical process. The process of the art of Selavy Oh.

Selavy Oh’s Flickr stream from which I have borrowed some of the photos of this post can be viewed here. You can teleport to the giant arc at the Museum of Hyperformalism from here.


sororNishi said...

Excellent post.

I am so totally in agreement with you regards "interactive", "immersive" stuff/junk, it's driving me potty.

Last week, I finally understood what you had been trying to explain to me previously. Visual narrative is a great improvement as far as terminology goes.... 'Stuff Like Selavy's" would also have sufficed...:))

Alpha Auer said...

Thank you soror.

And yes, about the "interactive" flotsam - tell me about it... It is amazing to me that 20 years onwards people manage to somehow still be enthralled by the "how" rather than the "why" of computational effects.

Bettina Tizzy said...


And beyond what you have to say, Alpha, it is how you say it. Once again, I congratulate myself for bringing you on board. This is a damn good read.

Sam and Jake said...

i recently dealy with very similar issues for an architecture project in NEw Zealand.

Please Check it out!!!

i am a member on NPIRL in second life and my avatars name is samuel sharktooth.
please have a look. thanks