Our Digital Selves: living within a virtualised world

Coming to a screen near you in 2018  – and not to be missed. Via: Draxtor Despres

In 2016 I wrote about the work of Tom Boellstorff and Donna Z Davis (respectively Tom Bukowski  and Tredi Felisimo in Second Life). Since 2015 Donna – a strategic communications professor at the University of Oregon specialising in mass media & society, public relations, strategic communication, virtual environments and digital ethnography – and Tom –  a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine – have been engaged in a National Science Foundation funded study formally entitled  Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Selfand more informally referred to as Our Digital Selves.

Their work, which will continue through into 2018, focuses on the experiences of people with disabilities – visible and invisible – who are using immersive virtual spaces to represent themselves, possibly free of the shadow of any disability, engage with others and do things they may not be able to do in the physical world.

Donna Z Davis and Tom Boellstorff (Tredi Felisimo and Tom Bukowski in Second Life), co-researchers in Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self, supported by the University of California, Irvine; the University of Oregon; and the National Science Foundation.

The work encompasses many aspects – physical, mental, technical, for example – of occupying both a physical space and a digital environment when living with both visible and invisible disabilities – the benefits that can be enjoyed, together with the potential risks / fears. Some of these aspects, particularly the more positive, are perhaps familiar to us: the power of being defined by who we are as a person, rather than in terms of a disability; the freedom presented by the ability to embody ourselves within an avatar howsoever we like, and so on. Other may not have been fully recognised for the fear they can create; while the “new era” for VR system may well be liberating for the able, it can be a frightening / debilitating threat for some with disabilities.

Given the extent of the study, it obviously crosses the physical / digital divide.  There have been experiments and discussions in-world. And there have been real-world interactions between Tom and Donna and those participating in the study.

One of those who has been following the study closely is Draxtor Despres. He has featured Tom’s work in The Drax Files World Makers, and is now engaged in producing a documentary  – also entitled Our Digital Selves – about the study, travelling with Donna and Tom to meet some of those participating in the work. While not due for release until early 2018, the first official trailer for the documentary was made public on Tuesday, October 11th, 2017.

Members of the study meet in-world. Credit: Draxtor Despres

“I’m not sure how long the finished piece will be,” Drax informed me in an exclusive one-to-one about the trailer and the film. “I’m aiming for around 40 minutes, but am currently editing an hour-long cut. It’s a massive project. We’ve been travelling across the United States and across the Atlantic meeting with people and interviewing them.”

It’s a massive undertaking; Drax goes on to note that there are around 15 participants in the study who have been involved in the filming, and he has around 3 hours of recording with each. Some of this was necessary simply to get to know people and overcome perfectly natural barriers – shyness, nervousness, and so on – and establish trust; however, it still means there is a lot which needs to be synthesised into a cohesive whole, whilst also doing justice to the stories of all of those volunteering to participate in the film.

Part of the study has involved participants being provided with a 32m x 32m parcel on Ethnographia Island which they could use to share their experiences, insights, and thoughts on their disability. Shown here, Jadyn Firehawk sands before her exhibition space (May 2016).

Nevertheless, the first public trailer does much to establish the structure of the documentary and present an accessible framework against which the broader story will naturally unfold.

This promises to be one of the most engaging, moving and informative documentaries on virtual living, embodiment and personal expression since, perhaps, Login2Life, and something that should not be missed once available. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the trailer  – and the hope that, subject to feedback from Donna, Tom, Drax and those involved the work, I’ll be able to bring more on the documentary and the study in the run-up to the release of the completed film.

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For Max and Lyrric: L$ one million raised in Second Life

For Max – October 3rd through 10th, 2017 – Over L$ 1,000,000 raised

The For Max event closed its doors on Tuesday, October 10th having broken through the L$ 1,000,000 barrier of funds raised to help Maxwell Graf and his partner in the physical world, Lyrric Fei.

The event was rapidly put together by Charlotte Bartlett, Sophia Harlow and Blazin Arubet with the assistance of Apple Fall and Shiny Shabby, at extremely short notice after Max reveal he and Lyrric were facing a heartbreaking plight thanks to a physical world situation (both have been on an overland journey to start a new life after the situation forced them out of house and home).

Writing on the event’s Facebook page, Charlotte Bartlett said:

I am literally shaking as I write this, as the level of love, help and generosity of the Second Life Community has shown us what true spirit means. The amount raised has topped across the donations/raffle and creator items over 1,000,000 Linden. This hopefully gives our Max a safety net for the short-term so he and his family can start to plan their new chapter. A list of all sales is already available to Max for audit (locked script) and donations/raffle in addition.

The total equates to just over  US $4,000, which will help Max and Lyrric in starting their new life. Nor is that all.

As I reported when For Max opened, Kylie Sabra also launched a sale of her art in support of Max and Lyrric, which ran for the same period as the shopping event. I’ve reached out to Kylie with an enquiry on how things went, but have yet to hear back. When I do, I’ll update this article.

Don’t forget as well, that even if you missed the For Max events, you can still help Max and Lyrric by visiting Rustica, their fabulous in-world store and purchasing one or two of Max’s range of furnishings, apparel, accessories, building kits and more.

Also benefiting Max and Lyrric, Kylie Sabra raised an additional L$ through the sale of her art

This is the second time this year a respected, liked and loved creator in Second Life has encountered a major life-impacting crisis, only to see the community in which they have so long played a role rally around, unbidden in support – and with remarkably similar outcomes.

In April 2017, I was privileged to work with Saffia Widdershins on Filling the Cauldron, an event aimed at helping and supporting creator Elicio Ember and his family. held over a near-identical period, that event  also raised US $4,000. The speed of response, support and outpouring at both these events again shows not only the generosity of all those involved, whether as organisers, participating creators or artists or entertainers, or as attendees shopping and donating – but also the depth of caring for one another inherent in the Second Life community.

Thank you to Charlotte, Sophia, Blazin and all involved in For Max.  To Max and Lyrric: stay safe and stay warm – and see you in Second Life soon!

Exodus: A Trip for Life in Second Life

Exodus: A Trip for Life

Art can be expressive in many ways. It can be an outflow of creativity, a reflection of moods and emotions, a cathartic release of hopes, fears, wants or needs; or an echo of joy or contemplation or endeavour or of life itself. And it can be a voice of conscience commenting on society, culture and politics.

Exodus: A Trip for Life is a full region installation which falls squarely it that last bracket: offering a voice of conscience in response to our societal and political outlook. In doing so, it touches – invokes – something we can so easily lose sight of – even when it might appear we are trying to empathize.

Exodus: A Trip for Life

Designed by Kicca Igaly and Nessuno Myoo, Exodus: A Trip For Life deals with the discomfiting issue of the world’s refugee crisis, which became a hot button topic on several fronts of the past couple of years; one in which some essential truths have perhaps been lost in the clamour of angry voices, political posturing, and perceived threats to security, jobs and income.

“It almost seems,” Nessuno says in introducing the installation, ” As if all the evils of our society, unable to find effective solutions to the problems which from time to time appear, have found, in the dark threat of the foreign ‘invader’ , the perfect scapegoat.”

Exodus: A Trip for Life

And yet the simple truth is, these feared ‘invaders’, these people risking life and limb and family, do so not because they’re seeking to exploit our vulnerabilities and our way of living. They do so because they already are vulnerable; their war of life has already been destroyed through war and / or political / religious upheaval and oppression. Everything they have known has been torn apart in ways we cannot understand; far from coming here as exploited, they arrive as the exploited, preyed upon in their journey by criminals and traffickers; people more interested in taking money and possessions than in saving lives.

All of this, and more is brought forth in Exodus: A Trip for Life. It starts out at sea, where a battered hulk rides a heavy swell, figures crammed into its rotting hold or crawling desperately up to the main deck and clinging in fear to anything looking remotely solid. The vessel is tossed by waves of money – a reference to the physical price those aboard have paid, while strings rise from the hull to a puppeteer’s controllers, a further reference to the exploitation inherent in trafficking the desperate, as they are time and again forced to travel in vessels unfit for purpose (and it is no coincidence that the bows of this ship bear two names, again underlining the dire circumstances faced by so many).

Exodus: A Trip for Life

Ashore, the imagery continues. New arrivals walk along a road, watched from a distance by locals, the gap between the two groups as telling at the walls that constrain the refugees to that single, lonely road. A camp sits close by, but again separated from  the locals as if in quarantine from the rest of the land, by walls and iron gates. Both the road and the camp stand as metaphors of how we see refugees; they may not be so alien, they may appear more human – but they are still “others” to be kept at bay. And we are far more comfortable when they can be moved from our sight and thoughts, as symbolised by the line of arrivals slowly vanishing into a white mist. They pass and are gone – to where does not matter, nor does the fact their plight still goes with them; we can resume our lives.

Poignant, pointed, provocative, richly nuanced and threaded with a wealth of observation and commentary, Exodus: A Trip For Life may not sit well with some; it may not even by easy to entirely decipher on a single pass. But it does have a voice; one that reaches into our conscience to whisper a stark reminder about the realities of the world around us even as sound bites, posturing and the fickle lens of the media would distract us and divert our thoughts and feelings.

Exodus: A Trip for Life

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