Second Life has always been a powerful medium for artistic expression, whether it be 2D (through the creation of photographs and machinima taken in-world, or the use of SL as a means to display paintings and drawings, and so on), 3D (in the form of sculptures, models, etc.), or immersive (such as partial or full region builds).
Such is the platform’s versatility, that it has always attracted amateur and professional artists, who have formed one of Second Life’s strongest and most vibrant communities of users who have created some of the most stunning pieces demonstrating the creative power inherent within the platform.
Rose Borchovski an artist in both RL and Second Life is renowned for both her immersive works in the latter and for her multimedia music theatre performances and multimedia art installations in real life, of which perhaps the more internationally recognised being The Blue Planet, produced in collaboration with her RL spouse, director Peter Greenaway (with whom she is also collaborating for a new installation in Rotterdam entitled Sex and the Sea).
Within Second Life Rose is perhaps best-known for her Susa Bubble creations. Susa, is child-like character who “went to bed single and woke up double”, came into being in Second Life when Rose’s own daughter was ill, and Rose created the first story for her.
Since then, of course, the Susa Bubble story has become famous across Second Life, and Rose sees the platform as the means by which she can carry forward the developing story of these small, fragile-looking but nigh-on indestructible characters as then go about their own explorations and mischief.
Rose sees SL as a means of expression on many levels; not just in what we might regard as “art” in the usual sense, as demonstrated by her one pieces in-world, but also in how we chose to present ourselves through the medium of our avatar, it’s appearance and what we bring to it from the real world in terms of our own thoughts, desires, ideals and physical attributes, such as our own voice, touching on all this combines to affect how other react to us and identify with us.
“I still would like to convince you that you’re going to film Rose, my avatar, and not me. Because Rose is handsome and she’s slim and I have a charming accent, so Rose is much more sympathetic as an image,” she tells Drax at one point. In many respects, the creation of our avatar presents a level of freedom in how we express and present ourselves which simply isn’t possible in real life for a variety of factors, external and internal. As such, the artistic and emotional involvement we have in the process of creating and refining our avatar is a means by which each of us can artistically express ourselves, if we so wish.
And of course, how we opt to behave when using our avatars might also be seen to be reflected in some of the tales Rose tells through her Susa Bubbles stories …
Second Life is also very much as practical tool for Rose. While she has stated elsewhere that as a means of artistic creation, SL can be a slow and time-consuming medium in which to work, it is one that nevertheless greatly assists her real world art; allowing her to visualise and model her real life installations and walk through how she wants to stage them and have them appear to the visitor.
In this she touches upon two other aspects of Second Life which lift it above the “mere” definition of it being a game or simply an open sandbox: it can have both a practical feedback into our real lives, much as it helps her visualise and build real life installations, objects and models, and it can form an even greater channel for emotional and creative release because it can feedback equally into our real lives as much as we feed into it from our real lives; something I believe I’ve been experiencing in my own small way through SL photography, which has started to feed back into my real life activities.
For the artist, Second Life has always, and in so many ways, been at the cutting edge of expression and development. That is as true today as it was back when SL burst into the public consciousness. Almost every visual development and enhancement to the platform adds yet another opportunity to the visual artist. As Rose herself says, more fool those outside of the platform who could benefit from it in their refusal to accept it as a means of expression; given its global reach, they are only denying themselves a new, and potentially huge, audience.
In Conversation 8: Immersiveness, democratising the creative process and walled gardens
The Drax Files have taken Second Life by storm. Each segment is a rich piece of video journalism reaching into the heart of the platform, its appeal and its potential; so much so that they invite discussion and feedback. Over the months, Draxtor and I have taken time out to explore some of the themes and ideas raised in various episodes, as well as at times discussing the series as a whole.
Draxtor Depress (DD): This episode is very important to me, because immersive art as you know – and maybe the SL sceptic does not know – is something that is a completely new art-form which can only be exercised in persistent 3D environments. It could and does sometimes happen in a game or MMO, but obviously with Second Life being this blank canvas, it can only happen to the extent it does in a platform like SL. In a free open virtual world – and by “free” and “open”, I mean that you can do what you want; I don’t mean it is open in the sense of open government. SL is owned by a private company, but let’s put this aside.
DD: Immersive art is unique. Yes, you have installations with elaborate mixed multi-media things happening in traditional galleries or established museums, but you have nothing as democratising as the virtual world.
Inara Pey (IP): As society, government and Second Life are often the subject of debate and discussion, it is probably worth defining “democratising” here as well. You’re not talking governance per se or any form of democratic activity in the manner most would perhaps take the terms to mean…
DD: No, I mean in the sense of amateur participation – perhaps a better term is dedicated hobbyist – in the sense of accessibility. We often talk about Second Life in terms of a “walled garden”, and this is an important point. Yes, it is a walled garden; you need to sign-up, you need to create an account and an avatar, log-in and go through all these steps. But a museum, a real-life museum, is also a walled garden.
IP: Because it is geographically and, in a sense, demographically, limited in its reach. Only those who are located near to it, and / or whom it actively cultivates are liable to make use of it. As Rose states, the potential audience reach is limited.
DD: Yeah; there is this certain arrogance about it, We have this thing opening at the MoMa or the MoCa or whatever, come on down!” But in Second Life, art really is democratised, because it’s a level playing field. Everyone can participate and an artist and or as a member of the audience. We can all start with prims and put them up, and invite others to look at them; and that’s just amazing. And when it is up, it’s accessible from everywhere as long as you have an internet connection.
DD: I can look at a museum’s website, and that’s about it. I can look-up in my local library – if I have a local library still – where there’s a catalogue for a museum or gallery or I can look-up work by an artist, but I don’t have the sense of being there: I don’t have the sense of being immersed in it. But in Second Life, the power is there, even by just hanging a picture on a wall, because you have the shared experience.
IP: A shared global experience which works both ways: for the artist and for those viewing the piece. There is a sense of reciprocity at work that transcends the physical / geographical divide. But isn’t that true of SL and virtual worlds in general, rather than purely something involving art?
DD: It is, but I think the resonance is stronger where art is concerned. Let’s look at immersive art. I chose Rose for a couple of reasons: she is well-known and was willing to put herself out there as a great spokesperson, and she is known in the real world both for her own work and through her collaboration with her husband. So she’s at the forefront of immersive art, which does need to be recognised as a legitimate format by more of the art world.
IP: Hence Rose’s comments towards the end of the piece.
DD: The art world is perhaps as conservative as the jazz connoisseur, and it’s very sad. I want to see this in museums that maybe originated in Second Life; I just don’t know how we bring this together; it just needs to be recognised by the art world. Second Life provides a unique and free artistic power to give you anything your imagination can provide. I mean, it goes back to the original slogan of “your world, your imagination”.
DD: You know, this is Second Life’s greatest strength, and also its biggest problem. when you look at the state of the world, when you look at what is being promoted in the world. Most of it is corporate, boxed-in things, being sold as “creativity”.
IP: The limited intent and structure, driven towards perhaps stating a shorter attention span or focusing on one particular aspect of immersiveness or escapism at the level of the individual, you mean?
DD: More than that. Marketing is such that we’re encouraged more and more to think that “creativity” is linear or limited – that creative expression can be reduced to the style of underwear you choose to buy in the store. So often when we hear the word “creativity” being used, it’s being misappropriated, almost. This is something Robin and others have touched on in past episodes: that kids really are creative; they don’t limit themselves; but then the whole judgement thing comes in. Of course, this has to do with peer pressure in some part, we are influenced by our peers and that is of course a little bit inhibiting. But it also has to do with society, and what we value as a society.
IP: Or what society – be it advertising, media, social representation or whatever – determines what we should be valuing?
DD: Yes, and it’s where I am getting increasingly pessimistic, now. Because more and more, what is not immediately applicable to earning money is being dismissed. And art is obviously something that is very difficult to quantify, and so artistic endeavours are seen as not being productive or efficient. And for me, the worry here is the way in which things like art and music in schools are seen by politicians as easy targets.
DD: It’s something I recently heard said over dinner in relation to cinema, that cinema is “dead”. Not that it isn’t getting audiences, or anything – but that in many respects, it is no longer truly innovative when it comes to narrative structure, it’s really like a set text; there is no longer any exploration of the medium. And some people see this as happening to machinima as well. That it is this wonderful, immersive, creative medium, but all many people seem to be doing with it is trying to replicate Hollywood, rather than exploring it for themselves. I can actually agree with that view to a certain extent – although I’d also say there are very great and clear exceptions to that point-of-view, particularly with people like Hypatia Pickens, Tutsy NAvArAthnA and others.
IP: I can see what you’re saying. That there is still a linear element to cinema and perhaps machinima, when it comes to the mainstream, where there is an expectation for them to conform, just as we’re all, consciously or otherwise, through marketing and the broader media and corporate imaging, all being encouraged to conform. This is a topic which itself is worthy of a discussion in its own right. But I would like to come back to Rose’s work in particular. What was it specifically that drew you into it; there is a lot of interesting commentary within in about our attitude towards and relationship with our avatars. Did that strike a chord?
DD: This piece with Rose is exciting to me, because she wanted to be filmed as Rose. Not because she keeps her RL and SL identities separate, although she does, but because she wanted to make that specific point about avatar identity. Why is immersive art so powerful? Why? Because I go in with an avatar I care about, because I identify with my digital alter-ego. And we felt this was very important to emphasise, and so I don’t show her face, and just show a little bit of her in RL on the side. It was a very conscious decision, and a very important decision, because Rose does believe that immersive art needs to be explored with the avatar, to actually become a creator through the process of defining your own avatar.
IP: Which brings an added dimension to the shared experience, albeit one which is perhaps subtle and not so easily recognised, but which does go back to your point about SL democratising the creative process. Not only do we that an emotional investment with our avatar, we’ve actually participated in the creative process and as such, we are naturally drawn closer to the environments we explore, and there is perhaps a more natural willingness, perhaps subconsciously, towards accepting what we’re witnessing more openly than might otherwise be the case.
DD: You could argue what’s the point of what’s the creative act in dressing your avatar like Barbie or Ken, but I do think that in the context of rediscovering yourself beyond putting on a different pair of jeans, as people do … OK, sure, there are some people who just buy a hunk avatar off the shelf; but I would argue that a lot of people are giving a lot of thought as to how they present themselves in the world, and that doing that is a creative act. So as Rose and you have said, not everybody is a creator, but everybody has created their avatar. so that when they go with that creation into her creation and experience it, then it is a unique and individual experience.
DD: It worries me that the kind of consumerism we’ve bought into in America and Europe is really very destructive, and the only way we can get out of it and adopt a more humane approach to pretty much everything, including commerce, is if we bring back creativity. And by creativity, I don’t mean to make a clever ad to sell something, but to just do something for its own good and for one’s own satisfaction in knowing we’ve done it because we can, not just because we can sell it. And virtual worlds do give us that power; the power to create what we see in our minds.