Hand and the art of Bryn Oh – in her own words

Bryn Oh, Hand – Sansar

Bryn Oh’s Hand first appeared in Second Life is 2016, located on her arts region of Immersiva. At the time, it proved a highly popular installation, likely thanks to its nuanced tale that straddled the light and the dark places of life and offered a commentary on the possible future relationship between physical and virtual life. More recently, Bryn rebuilt Hand  entirely in mesh for Sansar, taking advantage of that platform’s particular capabilities, before porting the mesh build back to Second Life and her home region of Immersiva, giving it a new lease of life there, using SL’s particular presentation strengths.

As with much of Bryn’s work and such is her standing as an artist, Hand has been supported by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council – a part of which has required Bryn produce a machinima of the installation; and she is offering members of her Patreon group and readers of this blog an advanced viewing of the film, which you can find at the end of this article.

Hand is the story of a time when society transitioned to living and working in the virtual space. In this society people housed their bodies in inexpensive pods hooked up to food cannisters. They discarded their houses and furniture as they were no longer needed. They evolved past their physical bodies and lived digitally as the person they wanted to be. Overseeing all of this is a singularity AI named Milkdrop, first seen in the Singularity of Kumiko, though only now revealed to be an AI.

Bryn Oh on Hand

Bryn Oh: Hand – Second Life, 2020

In this, Hand, whilst an accessible piece in and of itself, offers a deeply layered story that reaches beyond its own pages. At its core, it is the story of children who have been left out of the VR “nirvana” entered into by adults, and who must fend for themselves. largely surviving by “borrowing” the condensed food used to feed the VR “dreamers” in their pods. For these children, any understanding of life and the world around them comes purely through the ideas of fairy tales and ancient copies of Dick and Jane books. They believe that the dreamers, like Sleeping Beauty, will one day awake and rejoin them – but until that time, they must strive to maintain life and family through the simple, idealised writing found in Dick and Jane.

We follow this story through the character of Flutter, a young girl who yearns for the touch and companionship of a mother. She sates some of this need through the plastic hand of a shop window mannequin, holding on to it as though it were the hand of a mother figure with whom she converses. Through Flutter and her conversations, we are connected to the rest of this world – a place that is perhaps unpleasant to both the rational and the emotive mind, both which may recoil from the themes offered. But that’s intentional; Hand is not supposed to be black-and-white. Rather, and like all of Bryn’s work, it is intended to provide a narrative and to challenge perception and raise questions.

Bryn Oh – Hand, Second Life: Flutter and a sleeper. Credit: Bryn Oh

The layering evident in the tale is highly nuanced, some of it contained within the central story, other elements reaching beyond it. For example, within the story we have the subtle parallel of between “dreaming” adults and awake children. The former have escaped reality into a virtual existence, whilst the latter find a more acceptable order to their reality by framing it in terms of the fictional happy family ideal of Dick and Jane.

But beyond, this, Hand reaches into the rest of Bryn’s immersive universe. As she noted herself, the AI Milkdrop is actually first witnessed in The Singularity of Kumiko (2016). It is also, perhaps, the intelligence that assisted human scientists create the robots from 26 Tines (2017), while those same scientists constructed the Rabbicorn we see in The Daughter of Gears (first seen in 2011 and again 2019), whilst the laboratory they use harkens back to 2011’s Standby.

Thus is it possible to bring these stories together on a time line, one in which Hand takes place some 120 years after The Daughter of Gears was built by her grieving mother, but only 20 years after the Rabbicorn discovered her in her Standby, whilst little more than a decade has passed since the events of The Singularity of Kumiko.

With my work I build for different types of people. There are those who have followed my work and know how to search for the deeper layers; they are the “experts”. For them, the story and time line are important. But I also try to build for people who know nothing about the history of the world I have created. So I build in layers: the top layer is for people who know nothing of my work and they enjoy the story on its own; the next layer is the story and then concepts within the story and the final layers are where the story fits into the time line.

– Bryn Oh

This broader layering is also reflected in some of those we meet in Hand, such as Milkdrop. Then there is also the character of Juniper, hidden under her blankets, and whom Flutter stops to visit on her way home. She is the central character in Bryn’s 2013 poem and machinima of the same name, and who also forms a part of Imogen and the Pigeons. Thus, through Hand, we discover more about Juniper’s huddled existence and why, in so strange and lonely world, she finds such security and comfort under her hole-riddled blankets.

Bryn Oh – Hand, Second Life: Milkdrop the AI and Flutter. Credit: Bryn Oh

Whilst stories in their own right, all sharing a common universe, there is something more within each of Bryn’s installations and pieces which reflects her thoughts and feelings in an almost journal-like fashion.

My work is almost a type of diary. I take things from my life or observations on society and incorporate them into the ongoing narrative. The idea is to create a parallel society we can recognise, but use very personal or emotional aspects of my own life to connect to the viewer. So as an artist if I take something from my own life, something I understand deeply and personally, I can convey that emotion to the viewer better than an idea that I have not lived. The first hand experiences let me detect the nuances that may be lost if I were to attempt to create something that I had not experienced.

– Bryn Oh

Bryn Oh in Second Life, by Jamisson Burnstein

As immersive pieces, Bryn’s works are also somewhat experiential, in that  they often involve a lot of activity on the part of visitors. This is again intentional, as Bryn noted to me: having to work for something results in a deeper attachment to an installation, a sense of achievement on gains success, together with a personal connection to the story through that achievement. It may not be something that appeals to everyone, but it is something that undoubtedly adds significantly to the ability of her work to keep people visiting and in making repeated visits.

When looking at Bryn’s work as a whole, it is not unfair to say that she has, over 13 years, become one of the world’s foremost virtual artists, and through her work in Second Life, Sansar and other virtual mediums and environments – including the use of machinima as seenat the end of this article -, she is very much a pioneer in shaping a new artistic movement.

We had the Cubists, Impressionists, Surrealists, Modernists and I see our movement as the Immersivists. I have believed in this idea a long time but now with virtual reality headsets such as Vive or Oculus, the immersion is less fragile. You don’t look at a computer screen and beyond its borders see a bill that needs to be paid or your cell phone rings… instead you are in the world I have created and firmly there. Unlike painting where you stand from a distance and look at a static scene or cinema where you are told a story as a passive observer, virtual reality artwork can offer the ability to be an active participant in the art.

– Bryn Oh

As a pioneer, Bryn herself faces many challenges, up to and including being able to finance her virtual work. In this, she is keen to note the on-going support of the Ontario Arts Council, which has been vital to Hand’s renewal in Sansar and Second Life, as well as supporting her in some of her other installations and work.

Hand took me almost a year to build; to undertake a project like this with potentially few prospects is, as you can imagine, unwise. So the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council helps enormously. But what is more important to me is the psychological support they provide through their belief in me as an artist. I work alone; few among my family and friends understand what I do, nor are they particularly curious … Recognition by, and support from, the OAC, is something that reinvigorates my confidence and says to keep going and striving in this art medium that I truly believe in. So I would like to thank again the OAC and the great work they do.

– Bryn Oh

A further reflection of the depth and importance of Bryn’s work also lies in the fact that professor Carolyn Steele of the Communication and Culture department at York University, Toronto, is putting together a new course on Bryn’s work that will be presented at the university in the near future. 

For those of us unable to attend that course, we still have Hand to appreciate in Second Life and Sansar – and, doubtless, more stories to come out of Bryn’s universe. So for now I’ll leave you with the aforementioned video, as produced for OTC, and also offer my thanks to Bryn for all of her work in Second Life and Sansar, which means a lot to so many, and for giving me the time to answer questions and discuss her work in order to produce this article.

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A return of Bryn’s Hand in Second Life

Bryn Oh: Hand

Bryn Oh first created Hand is Second Life in 2016. An immersive experience, it mixed art and storytelling with a touch of mystery and discovery.

Originally an installation that used Second Life Experience Keys, Hand recently transitioned to Sansar with the assistance of a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, and which I recently wrote about in Bryn Oh’s Hand in Sansar. That grant has also allowed Hand to once again be resurrected in Second Life.

In writing about Hand in 2016, I noted of the installation:

This [is a] journey takes us through a strange, broken urban setting with decaying, collapsing buildings; a place where adults are almost (but not entirely) absent, apparently leaving their children to fend for themselves. Technology is still active – drones  buzz around and project adverts on walls and floors for whoever might watch them – presumably as a form of currency / earning, and lights flicker and play. Walking through the streets and buildings there appears to be nods to dystopian sci-fi: a hint of Soyent Green here, a reference to rampant consumerism there. While Flit [the principal character] and the other children brought to mind shades of And The Children Shall Lead, minus the space alien angle.

Bryn’s Hand in Second Life, December 2016

Bryn Oh: Hand

This is still true, as is the use of Experience Keys to assist visitors, instructions for which are provided at the landing point. What is different with this iteration is that rather than using a teleport to reach the actual starting point of the story – Flit sitting in an underground station – visitors must find their way through a tunnel from one station to the next, where Flit is waiting.

From here visitors once again travel up the escalator and out into the the run-down setting of a city well past its prime. Here the story will unfold by finding, and following Flit as she appears at various points in the installation, either pointing the way through the story or ready for a chapter of it to be told. As you approach the latter, you should hear the narration (assuming you have local sounds enabled). However, if no audio is obvious, make sure local sounds are on, and touch the microphone alongside Flit.

Bryn Oh: Hand

Aspects of the path through the story do require some care – making your way over tightrope-like planks and fallen towers for example, or climbing up piles of the detritus of humanity. Also, cleverly woven into the story are hooks to several other elements of  Bryn’s work – so don’t be afraid to touch things as you explore. Take the scene of the girl with the golden crown and her little entourage waiting to be found whilst exploring the rooms of the main building in the installation: touching the girl or the insects and creatures will offer you the chance to watch a video about The Girl with the Paper Crown.

Hand, whether visited in SL or Sansar – and a visit to both shows some of the core differences between the two – remains a captivating story, one that encourages us to fill-in the blanks through our own imaginations, adding to the richness of the tale Bryn tells through character, setting and the words of her narrator.

Bryn Oh: Hand

SLurl Details

  • Hand (Immersiva, rated: Moderate)

Bryn Oh’s Hand in Sansar

Bryn Oh, Hand – Sansar

Three years ago, in December 2016, Bryn Oh unveiled Hand, a full-region installation offering visitors an immersive experience mixing art and storytelling with a touch of mystery and discovery. I visited that installation on the occasion of its opening – see Bryn’s Hand in Second Life – so I was delighted to learn via a Tweet from fellow traveller Wurfi that Bryn has opened Hand within Sansar.

The original Hand was an interactive experience, utilising many of Second Life’s capabilities, notably the use of a HUD as a guide tool and storytelling device. Sansar currently lacks any real ability to provide an HUD-like capability, but this doesn’t lessen the impact of Hand in Sansar. Instead of the HUD, this installation make use of dynamic objects within the installation to tell the story, notably in the form of the principal character in the story, Flit – or Flutter, as she is also known.

 

Bryn Oh, Hand – Sansar

 

I won’t dwell on the story in great depth, given I did so in my original piece on Hand, but I will repeat something I noted in that article:

This journey takes us through a strange, broken urban setting with decaying, collapsing buildings; a place where adults are almost (but not entirely) absent, apparently leaving their children to fend for themselves …  Walking through the streets and buildings I seemed to come across nods to dystopian sci-fi: a hint of Soyent Green here, a reference to rampant consumerism there. While Flit and the other children brought to mind shades of And The Children Shall Lead, minus the space alien angle.

Bryn Oh’s Hand in Second Life, December 2016

Bryn On, Hand – Sansar

What is particularly impressive with this build – which Bryn has specifically built around the use of VR headsets to gain a full sense of immersion that the original in Second Life perhaps couldn’t achieve – is the richness of colour, sound and sense of presence, the latter being fully appreciable even when visiting in Desktop mode as I did.

This edition of Hand, as Bryn notes in her blog, has been made possible through the support of the Ontario Arts Council, an organisation that has – to the benefit of us all – long supported Bryn’s work. In that post, Bryn also muses on art within virtual spaces, and how the capabilities of VR headsets coupled with creative environments like Sansar can help to bring a new artistic movement to the attention of a wider audience:

We had the Cubists, Impressionists, Surrealists, Modernists and I see our movement as the Immersivists. I have believed in this idea a long time but now with virtual reality headsets such as Vive or Oculus, the immersion is less fragile. You don’t look at a computer screen and beyond its borders see a bill that needs to be paid or your cell phone rings… instead you are in the world I have created and firmly there. Unlike painting where you stand from a distance and look at a static scene or cinema where you are told a story as a passive observer, virtual reality artwork can offer the ability to be an active participant in the art.

– Bryn Oh

Bryn Oh, Hand – Sansar

Hand is proof of this. Within it, we can not only follow Flutter’s story, but we can look elsewhere. Spaces that can only be hinted at in a painting or seen as a passing background in a film can be turned to and explored. Of course, this has always been the case with Second Life, but the personal immediacy of VR does take this personal involvement within a an installation like this adds a further layer to the narrative within it.

As captivating as the original – Desktop users note that some free-camming might be advised – Hand remains as an engrossing story in Sansar as it did in Second Life.

Bryn Oh, Hand – Sansar

URL Details

Bryn’s Hand in Second Life

Hand - Bryn Oh
Hand – Bryn Oh

Hand, Bryn Oh’s latest full region installation officially opens in Second Life on Saturday, December 10th at 12:00 noon SLT. It offers visitors an immersive experience which mixes art and storytelling with a touch of mystery and discovery.

On arrival, visitors are asked to accept the experience HUD (which will initially be blank) , and which can be minimised by clicking the dancing figure icon. As there is a lot of text to be read as one progresses through the experience, the HUD can also be further enlarged by clicking the Extra Large Text button on the HUD.

Hand - Bryn Oh
Hand – Bryn Oh

Instructions for viewer settings are also provided at the landing point. These are geared towards Firestorm and specifically the use of Phototools. Those on other v4-style viewers will find the settings under Preferences > Graphics and the Advanced Settings… button (Advanced Graphics Preferences floater). Bryn also uses Firestorm’s client-side windlight by altitude capability, so those on other viewers may need to manually change windlights (listed in About Land) as they move up through the installation.

From the landing point and instructions, a teleport sphere carries visitors to an underground tram station, and their first encounter with the principal character of the piece, Flit – or as she is sometimes known – Flutter. It is her story we are invited to follow, the narrative (and the way through it) indicated by Flit herself, as she stands within certain scenes or points the way along the route we should follow – such as walking a collapsed aerial mast like a tightrope walker, or standing on a stairway as if waiting for us to join her and continue up them.

Hand - Bryn Oh
Hand – Bryn Oh

This journey takes us through a strange, broken urban setting with decaying, collapsing buildings; a place where adults are almost (but not entirely) absent, apparently leaving their children to fend for themselves. Technology is still active – drones  buzz around and project adverts on walls and floors for whoever might watch them – presumably as a form of currency / earning, and lights flicker and play. Walking through the streets and buildings there appears to be nods to dystopian sci-fi: a hint of Soyent Green here, a reference to rampant consumerism there. While Flit and the other children brought to mind shades of And The Children Shall Lead, minus the space alien angle.

Whether any of this was Bryn’s design or simply my over-active imagination, I’ve no idea – but Hand’s narrative naturally invites you to fill in the blanks: what has happened here? Why have the adult withdrawn? Why is the city so ruined? Lack of maintenance because there are no adults  – or something else (there are hints to be found pointing to a fear of nuclear war). Thus, in experiencing Hand, we also extend it, by exploring carefully and letting the hints  – posters, objects, etc. – suggest things to us.

Hand - Bryn Oh
Hand – Bryn Oh

There are also links and hooks into Bryn’s other work to be found here as well. Some are present within the story, others may be harder to find. As Bryn states, don’t be afraid to touch things as you explore. Take the lacewing beetle, for example; touching it will introduce you to Scissors a machinima by Bryn. Elsewhere, a broken cellphone lying on the kerb might lead you skyward to poignant piece of art based on an equally poignant image; and so careful exploration is required.

Byrn produced a trailer machinima for the installation (below), featuring music specially composed by Phemie Alcott. Phemie was due to perform at the opening of Hand, but Bryn reports that as Phemie’s mixer decided to commit suicide, the performance will now not take place until 14:00 SLT on Sunday, December 18th. Bryn isn’t sure how long Hand will remain in place – so be sure to visitor sooner rather than later, and please consider a donation towards Immersiva’s continued existence.

SLurl Details

  • Hand (Immersiva, rated: Moderate)