Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Land Art in Second Life – A historical perspective and an introduction to virtual artist Comet Morigi

Posted by Bettina Tizzy

In the beginning, there was landscape art. It is believed that it had its debut in Çatalhöyük, Southern Turkey about 10,000 years ago with this image of an erupting volcano…

…and then worked its way over the millenniums onto the prized walls of galleries, museums, and the homes of the fortunate few.

That was the status quo until…

The late 1960’s

In 1968, the minimum wage was $1.00. The National Debt was $286 Billion. The life expectancy for males was 66.6 years and emergency living quarters had to be set up in hotels and trailer camps for the estimated 850,000 boomers entering college.

The counter-culture seeded by the opposition to the Vietnam War and led by baby-boomer Berkeley radicals in VW buses and Black Panthers with raised fists and Timothy Leary fueled by an odd combination of higher education and psychedelics and braless women using the pill and hippies with their noses buried in the Whole Earth Catalog and a rock movement that changed music forever…

… ushered in a growing and surprisingly organized attack on the “system.” Any system. Defiance was the norm and damn the conventions.

By now you are asking yourself… where is she going with all this and how could it possibly be related to art in virtual worlds? It is imperative that I share this background with you to put things in context, for even in Second Life we cannot ignore the fact that we are influenced by all that has preceded us.

Art felt the impact of those socio-political conditions in a very, very big way

Back in the late 60’s, a handful of American artists in their 20s rebelled against the very idea of representing landscapes, electing instead to work directly with them (think Gaia Hypothesis). Moreover, they washed their hands of the confines of the gallery space and even the Capitalistic notion of selling their art, and began to alter the shapes of deserts and mountains by moving massive quantities of earth, rock and vegetation on a grand scale to make the environment their studio.

This is not an enterprise to be taken lightly. Generally speaking, it is costly, lonely work that takes a long, long time to do. It helped that a number of foundations were beginning to seriously fund art and willing to back up these “visionaries.” And then there were all those vast expanses of land in states like Nevada and Utah and Texas - seemingly inexhaustible reserves at the time - with all kinds of geological seductions already built in, not to mention alluringly cheap land prices.

How large? Let’s just say that sometimes this Land Art or Earth Art is so colossal that it isn’t apparent to the casual observer on the ground, and then it is often referred to as Aerial Art.

In 1970, Robert Smithson created the 1,500 foot long Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, using mud, rocks and salt crystal. Because of the tides, it is not always visible.

Photo by N*A*UTILUS

Consider Michael Heizer who has been working on his “City” installation in the Nevada desert for over 35 years and doesn’t expect to finish for another 8 years. See the New York Times’ 2005 audio slide show (refer to the side bar) of Heizer’s work-in-progress, and another story on his Double Negative project.

The Roden Crater finally got underway in 1979 when artist James Turrell was able to purchase a two-mile-wide crater in Arizona with grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Dia Art Foundation and others, and begin redistributing tons of earth to give it shape. His story is well documented in this New York Times’ 2007 article.

The 400,000 year old Roden Crater is slated to open its doors to the public in 2011

While economies of scale in Land Art are paramount in Real Life, creating art on a very grand scale is nowhere near as problematic in virtual worlds. In Second Life® and on OpenSim grids, residents are magically empowered with land-altering – though quite indelicate - tools that enable them to instantly raise, lower, and sculpt the ground up to ± 100 meters, depending on the estate.

Terraforming, the ability to intentionally transform surface topography, atmosphere, temperature or ecology, is not unique to science fiction or even science (where it is primarily called planetary engineering).

In Second Life®, terraforming land is a skill that looks easy to do, but frequently results in unrealistic and poor duplicates of mountains, lakes and canyons. In this video tutorial by Second Life’s Resident Enlightenment Manager, Torley Linden instructs us on how to work the user interface to "terra":

Introducing Comet Morigi – A Terra Painter in Second Life

Japanese artist Comet Morigi became known to me when I came across one of her works quite by accident: an immense curtain-like particle effect that is driven by the sim’s wind (teleport directly from here).

To see all of Comet’s work to best effect, you must set your graphics preferences to render (see) the highest draw distance and particles, though do remember to lower them back afterwards as this decreases your system’s performance

Comet teleported me to see her newest particle work - a creation she'd been tweaking for two weeks - explaining that her idea was the visualization of a sim-wide wind stream, maxing out the wind map. The red squares indicate each point of the clouds' density. Its purpose: to research the wind stream in a sim.

I don’t often comment on human-like avatars, but Comet’s seemed almost Brazilian, sporting tan lines and a gold lamé dress and shoes, as well as a highly expressive talking animation that gestures as she types. This is unusual for Japanese-created avatars. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to find any aspect of Comet and her avatar that didn't strike me as unusual when taking her in as a whole. But back to the art, and her comments...

Comet: In-world, everything is made of pictures. The ground and the sky, every creature, house, clothes, our bodies… everything. You terrain-edit as if you are painting with a brush on the ground. The in-world is NOT the opposite of Real Life but rather a type of Real Life. Why don't you say “OutWorld” instead of Real Life (RL)?

This OutWorld-InWorld notion preoccupies Comet considerably. My associates and I often refer to Real Life as "off-world" but that isn't what is at stake here. In Comet's view, the two "worlds" are distinguishable only as types of the Real reality.

Comet asks: "What is InSide/OutSide?"

Inside and looking out from Comet's Galleria OVERFOTO (teleport directly from here)

Comet: Here at OVERFOTO, I am working directly on the geological conformation of the natural-virtual environment, transfiguring its composition and changing its original morphological features through a land-art operation that translates the same space - which normally hosts an exhibition - into a piece of art in all respects.

Treating nature as a raw material and the means for the creative process... the concept of manipulating terrain as a large scale three-dimensional sculptable object... these are ideas that Comet wears like a second skin. At another location, her composition features knobby, rugged land portruding through translucent planes.

Given that most Land Art works are site-specific and often ephemeral in nature, they cannot be marketed in traditional ways. The original work is seldom saleable, but derivates such as photographs and sketches are easier to share and duplicate. Comet has created these panels of previous works, which are available at her gallery/studio (teleport directly from here).

Patterns of land and water land forms look natural, but the relief map is abstraction.

Admirers of Comet's work are intense in their appreciation. Art collector Eddie Gotter has given her a sim to work with - Art Art - for example, and collects images of all her art. She is experimenting there now with mega flexi tubes and wind elements.

Meanwhile, she is hoping to find a sponsor for her Sunken Museum, an installation she did for the Arena group that no longer remains. The steep-sided gorge is a dramatic display that - once again - few visitors understand as art.

Upon arrival at the Sunken Museum, I was informed that the whole sim environment was the art, anything below the clouds and even underwater. "She has sunken the museum INTO her environment work. That is a work NOT IN the museum."

Could all or most of this be realized in Real Life? Yes, I think so. But consider the hoops that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have to go through for each of their monumental projects, whether urban or rural. When asked a few years ago about their Over the River project, slated for completion in 2012 or later, here was their response:

"Right now, an environmental impact report is being prepared. It will be a big book of over 250 pages. It is done by a company in Colorado, which has been chosen by the local government of the Arkansas River, but at our expense. We get the bills. They have been working on it for over two years now and we have already spent more than $250,000, just for the environmental impact study. When that will be ready as a draft, it will be distributed to all the public places along the route of the project, like the post office, the city halls, the schools, so that the public can look at it. And some of those who are against would say, “Ah, you forgot about the butterflies, what about those butterflies?” Then the engineers who have prepared it will answer, “If you look at page 257, you will see that we are talking about the butterflies.” That’s just an example. If we have indeed forgotten something, which might happen, since this is only a draft there is time to correct it and say that no alligator will be endangered, for instance."

In fact, I think Christo, Jeanne-Claude and other Land Artists would be well served if they used virtual worlds as their sketchbooks.

Today, March 24, is Ada Lovelace Day, an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Women's contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognised. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Whatever she does, whether she is a sysadmin or a tech entrepreneur, a programmer or a designer, developing software or hardware, a tech journalist or a tech consultant, we want to celebrate her achievements.

Ada Lovelace was one of the world's first computer programmers, and one of the first people to see computers as more than just a machine for doing sums. She wrote programmes for Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, a general-purpose computing machine, despite the fact that it was never built. She also wrote the very first description of a computer and of software.

I elected to write about Comet Morigi and her work with Land Art/particles on Ada Lovelace Day because, with her art, she is stretching the boundaries of technology and by doing so, encouraging others to make new and previously impossible uses of it.


Unknown said...

As well as using the terraforming tools within Second Life, I suspect much of the land art going on is done by editing the raw files externally to SL and uploading to the sim.

Zarf Vantongerloo's Backhoe (http://www.notabene-sl.com/Backhoe/) is one such tool, it can also be done in image editing programs or generated procedurally.


sororNishi said...


Unknown said...

This is an incredible piece. I need to read all of it again later.

Unknown said...

wow a very well done post and a very interesting artist!

Solo Mornington said...

Yay comet!

She also has an interesting piece up at Brooklyn is Watching, which is worth checking out as well. It's a landscape in the sky.

Terrain is just another sculpty. :-)

André L said...

aww, great work I need to read all again

Overfoto said...

very good research, comet. and, as you know, I always love you art works. alida