Erik Mondrian: master of fine arts in and beyond Second Life

A still from Empty, the 9th video in Erik Mondrian’s [MFA] Thesis video series, filmed in Second Life
Erik Mondrian is a writer, artist, and scholar who makes work about place, belonging, love, longing, and madness. He holds an MA in Mass Communication & Media Studies from San Diego State University, focusing on virtual worlds as new media, and is close to graduating with Interschool Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Voice Arts & Creative Writing and supplemental concentration in Integrated Media from California Institute of the Arts.

He is also a Second Life resident, and someone I’ve come to know, albeit indirectly through social media, and I’ve  been enriched by our acquaintance.

For his thesis work at CalArt, Erik has produced a series of eleven videos to illustrate his writing, and filmed within Second Life. Each of the first ten videos offers and examination of an aspect of life or identity, or of emotions or feelings, personal reflections or desires; each narrated by Erik, words and images combining into a series of stunningly moving and deeply eloquent visual poems (even those presented as prose) which are quite breathtaking in their breadth and meaning.

Making: the first video in Erik’s Thesis series

As companions to Erik’s words, these are films which are fabulously unique and perfect in reflecting and amplifying his words; each marvellously frames his thoughts and the emotions of each piece without ever intruding or distracting. Through them, Erik displays that not only is he a master of words, but he is also deeply visually creative; the composition, framing and presentation of each video is utterly captivating.

Since my MFA at CalArts is three-pronged, I wanted (with the support & encouragement of my mentor on the Creative Writing side, Jon Wagner) to do a thesis project that blended all three of my areas of study in some way [written word, voice and media] … The project also came about in part because of my years spent in virtual worlds of all kinds [and] the experiences I’ve had there and the people I’ve met …  I’ve been “on-line” for close to 25 years, and almost as long in virtual spaces from IRC and MUDs through to worlds like The Palace, Active Worlds, and of course, almost fourteen years in SL.

– Erik in discussing his thesis video series

What I personally find engaging in these films is the rich, allusive timbre evident in Erik’s writing. Together with his sheer lyricism, he produces wordscapes that are beautifully attractive. Through a crafted choice of words, he encourages, suggests, points – but never blatantly leads or cajoles. He sets out path of thought, complete with potential branches or turns, where allusion and suggestion lies as much within each word as within every passage. He invites us listen and allow our imagination to take whichever route it may choose through prose and verse. Thus, while there may well be a destination Erik has set for our journey, how we reach it is entirely left in our hands – or rather our thoughts and our mind’s eye.

Escape: the second video in Erik’s Thesis series (and her favourite)

These are also unmistakably deeply personal pieces. By his own admission, Erik is reserved, quiet, introverted. Yet he has the gift of observation and the power of expression, These combine to resonate within each of us and find fertile ground within our thoughts. Thus, while personal to him, the ideas, feelings, emotions, questions, desires, ideas and images he creates are equally personal to those who listen and watch. And this is something that he is himself aware of, as he appears to note through the eleventh video in the series, which stands as both a conclusion and an artist’s statement.

Place without belonging. Longing without love. A special kind of madness that comes from hiding in plain sight, seen but not yet recognised, heard but not yet understood. I move through time and space, observing all, saying far too little. What do you make of this? The lives you live, the memories, the moments—where do they go? Who do you find there? I’ve tried to make that journey here, tried to reconcile my circuitous wandering, outwardly aimless, with a destination that remains forever a step ahead, an optical illusion that pulls away even as it draws me forward.

– From video 11: Artist Statement

It is through this final piece that Erik is most revealing about himself and by extension, each of us. As such, and while billed as an “artist’s statement”, it is integral to the whole series and should be watched and absorbed as a part of the whole.

I could wax further on the subject, but really, the best way to appreciate these films is to see and savour them. So instead, I’ll close with a quote from my fellow Second Life writer and traveller, Ricco Saenz

These videos are brilliant, powerful and thought-provoking. They create an intriguing atmosphere – and udoubtedly deserve to be called art.

– Ricco Saenz, January 11th, 2019

You can see all of the videos back-to-back in their intended order via Erik’s Thesis playlist. And be sure to read the accompanying notes for SLurl to the SL locations featured in each.

Related links


Future Shock: the machinima continues

Future Shock: sci-fi machinima

I first wrote about Future Shock, an ambitious Second Life Machinima series produced by Pryda Parx, in September 2016, when the first part in the series was released, and then revisited the project at the start of 2017, once the entire first season was available on You Tube.

In August 2017, a special “Director’s Cut” version of the first season was released, bringing all eight parts (plus the initial trailer / introduction)  together into a single 32-minute film which included previously unreleased footage, even as Pryda was working on the second season of 9 episodes. The new series was released over a period of several months in 2018, although sadly, the scheduling of things (coupled with other matters) prevented me for covering them at the time.

However, on December 27th, 2018, Pryda released another Director’s Cut, which brings all eight parts of this second season together into a single 23.5 minute film, which as with the first series version, includes previously unreleased footage. So this seems a good time to catch-up on the series, with apologies to Pryda for only now getting to it.

In short, Future Shock is a story of a somewhat dystopian / semi-cyberpunkish world where technology infiltrates every part of people’s lives, watching over them, seemingly providing both a protective blanket and providing various means personal gratification and escapism through the intertwining of their physical and virtual lives. But all is not as it seems. Rather than guiding / guarding / assisting, technology has come to dominate, defining everyone in terms of their net worth, or IP Credit (draw your own conclusions from the use of “IP”). So long as this remains positive, a person has little to fear – not even death; technology allows them to augment / redefine / rebuild their own bodies to suit their desires. But should a person’s net worth zero-out or entire a negative value, then things can become uncomfortable, and survival less-than-certain, with those in debt clinically  – if harshly – dealt with; as is also the case for those perceived to be a threat.

Tracy Grayling: protagonist – but innocent, or self-obsessed mole / agent?

Thus, this is a world of questionable moral and ethical values. people’s lives are determined by what is effectively a line on a balance sheet, while the people themselves are driven by baser instincts: greed, desire, avarice, envy, determined to raise their credit value, wanting to make themselves better physically than their peers through surgery / augmentation, or to be able to have sufficient value to escape into the virtual realm – a place reached not in the home, but within life support centres, the body fed and cared for while the mind escapes – and the all-important credit balance ticks down minute by minute.

Life in this world is very much factionalised; not everyone may approve of the way technology is all-pervading, or the way in which humanity has come to rely so wholly on it. Others simply seek to exist not caring for anything more than the next opportunity to become immersed in the virtual, while some seek to improve themselves, whilst also seeking a means for self-expression.

What made the first series engaging was both the visual style used throughout: the physical world is a dark, cold monochrome place for the most part, where colours are minimally used – blue to highlight technology, for example; red as a negative. Conversely, the virtual realm is a place vibrantly alive with colour and imagination, warm and inviting and far removed from the physical. Also, the storytelling is richly layered. This opening drops us into the middle of things, roughly 19-20 years hence. We’re quickly introduced to a number of the core elements – particularly the idea that humans are regarded as little more than constituent parts of the whole, to be recycled as required, plus the main protagonist for the story, Tracy Grayling, but the overall context can only be understood and the pieces fitted together by watching all the segments in turn – and at times returning to a previous segment in order to gain further insight.

Being in sufficient credit means you can afford exotic changes to your body – such as wings. But there is still the mystery / threat / salvation hidden within the Dark Grid …

This approach is continued through the nine episodes of the second season, which adds a further layering, in that the series records the events of the first, but from the perspective of a another group of characters, the “rebels”. Slightly shorter in length overall than the first season segments, the second series also lifts the production values seen within the production. In this, Pryda made no bones about the fact that in filming the first series of Future Shock, she was also going through a learning curve in terms of machinima production – and the second season shows that she has learnt a lot, and has a very definite approach to style, nuance and overall production.

Future Shock is an engaging series, one that tells both a story and raises questions about the future and our increasing reliance on technology and what it may mean for personal freedoms – including the freedom of expression. These questions have perhaps become more salient over the course of the two years in which Pryda has been working on the series; as such it is worth viewing from this perspective as well. For those who wish to see more, Pryda has also produced a series of short pieces providing insight into the principal characters. However, I would recommend only watching these after seeing the entire series; they contain significant spoilers!

Related Links

A world first for Second Life Machinima?

via the UWA Second Life website

I’m “borrowing” the title of this article from a UWA blog post by Jay Jay Jegathesan (Jayjay Zifanwe in Second Life), who also e-mailed me about the forthcoming Eugene International Film Festival and the special place Second Life machinima has within it.

In short, Metaphor, a film directed by Basile Vignes  and produced by Jay Jay, has won the Best Animated Short Film at the festival, in a competition that included the internationally acclaimed animated short iRony, which has already won 120 awards world-wide, and has been short-listed for 5 Academy Award Qualifying festivals.

It is believed that no other Second Life machinima has previously won the top prize in open competition against ‘conventional’ animated short films from across the spectrum. As the winning Animated Short Film, Meatphor will be shown at the festival, which takes place over the weekend of the 9th through 11th November, 2018, in Eugene, Oregon, USA, along with all the other selected entries.

Commenting on the announcement that his film had won the award, Basile stated:

I am very proud and honoured that Metaphor won this award for best animation. This in competition with a selection of films each of which could have had the first prize. A big thank you to the jury who chose my film and congratulations for your excellent movie Festival.

Metaphor excerpt

The film, which Jay Jay and Basile bill as French-Australian co-production although Basile is currently based in India, is a story about identity – the faces we wear in life, both public and private, with the synopsis stating:

The protagonist in this film, uses the avatar and handle ‘Fallen God’ when accessing social media and virtual worlds. In his virtual journeys, he comes across the mysterious, beautiful and enchanting ‘Encre’. Will this encounter turn into a relationship touched by the spark of the infinite? This animated French-Australian film, based on true events that happened 2017 explores the many masks we wear along with the question of identity and relationships in the modern world in all its shapes and forms.

Also responding to the award, Jay Jay paid tribute to Basile’s work, noting:

Over the years as Festival Director for numerous UWA machinima film challenges, Basile proved to be among the finest exponents of this genre, along with his chief animator, Tutsy Navarathna, and when the thought came to me to try to take Second Life machinima across the globe on the international film festival circuit, I could think of no one better to partner with on this endeavour.

This is the very first win for Metaphor, and I do hope that it’s not the last. I also look forward to the film’s Australian premiere next month at the Perfect Light Film Festival in Broken Hill, New South Wales.

Congratulations to Basile, Jay Jay and all involved in the project on winning this award.

I’d also like to point out that iRonymentioned above, is in fact an animated short by Jay Jay’s son, Radheya Jegatheva (it is also narrated by Jay Jay). Radheya is fast emerging as a talented film-maker, and I’ve been fortunate to cover some of his work previously in these pages (see here and here for more). This being the case, I’d also like to pass on congratulations to him on also having iRony accepted by the Eugene International Film Festival and featured as one of its selected films, and on his film having already achieved so much internationally.

Arrivals and Departures in Second Life

Erstwhile Station: the setting for Arrivals and Departures, a new Second Life machinima

Arrivals and Departures is a new machinima from CEH Productions, a collaboration between Caledonia Skytower from  Seanchai Library, Elrik Merlin of Radio Riel and Designing Worlds, and Honey Heart of Elite Equestrian.

The 15-minute film, premiered in-world at a specially constructed theatre setting on Sunday, July 22nd, 2018, takes the audience into a moment of time in the lives of two people who come together for one last, shared moment. It reveals how their individual journeys have become intertwined, and the essential role each has come to play for the other. Though the word is never uttered in the film, it essentially addresses aspects of our attitude towards death.

He has accepted the journey on which he must now embark. His last act is to pass along that which has been most important in his life to someone who is remaining behind – requesting their commitment to carry on the work. She is dropped without warning into loss, grief, and accepting his legacy with no warning or time to become accustomed to its inevitability. She must choose to be present for him in this moment, accept the commitment with which he tasks her, and be prepared to continue on – while at the same time dealing with the shock and weight of it.

– Caledonia Skytower on Arrivals and Departures

Arrivals and Departures: Him and Her (via Caledonia Skytower)

The story was inspired by, and performed in, the superbly imagined Erstwhile Station, a Steampunk-inspired space port created by leading virtual world creators Sharni Azalee and Marcus Inkpen of The looking Glass fame for Fantasy Faire 2018. The build was generously donated to the project by Sharni and Markus, with Technical Director Honey Heart re-erecting it as a film set, using path-scripting techniques within the build required to realise the film’s action. For the premiere, Honey also provided a special theatre setting based on the film set, and which remains open for further viewings of the film.

Arrival and Departures is a transatlantic production; Caledonia Skytower, as writer based in Washington State, Honey Heart, who also developed the in-world animations used within the film, is based in Michigan, and Erik Merlin, who edited the film from footage he and Caledonia shot, is based in Scotland. Both Caledonia and Erik voice the principal characters.

The story itself is beautifully told. As noted above, it is a tale of passings and also of beginnings. It also highlights the vital importance of storytelling, harking back to an earlier time when tales were woven into a verbal tradition that was handed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next. Delicately folded within it is a reminder that while those who leave us in this life may physically pass beyond our reach, we can nevertheless continue carry them within us, breathing life into their passions and ideals by inspiring and teaching, loving and caring for those around us.

The Arrivals and Departures theatre setting, while will remain in place for several days after the July 22nd Premiere of the film, and where visitors are invited to watch it in-world

Eloquent and poignant with an elegantly told story, Arrivals and Departures is an outstanding film, and not one to be missed. You can see it on-line via the following links, or if you prefer, in-world through until 16:00 SLT on Tuesday, July 24th, 2018 at the Arrivals and Departures theatre in-world (Silver Sands, rated: Adult):

In addition, and with the producers’ permission, I’ve embedded the film at the end of this article.

About CEH Productions

  • Caledonia Skytower is an artist and storyteller with over 30 years of experience as a theatrical designer, production manager, and non-profit administrator. Since 2008 she has worked as a volunteer presenting literature live in virtual worlds, logging in over 1000 hours to benefit a variety of charities, and develop engaging experiences to promote reading and literature, as part of Seanchai Library. She continues designing for the stage, works as project specialist, a small non-profit consultant, and has self-published ten titles of fiction, poetry and reflective essays.
  • Elrik Merlin has been in Second Life for over a decade. Virtually from the beginning, he has been involved with in-world media, as a DJ, a presenter (and Technical Director) on Radio Riel, and on Designing Worlds, the popular weekly TV show on design and designers in virtual worlds, which he films and edits, and co-hosts. He is also involved in Fantasy Faire Radio and his voice can often be heard on promos and sponsor messages, and on several of the “Tales from the Fairelands” stories that are broadcast on FFR. He has frequently taken part in in-world and radio drama over the years, with groups including the Radio Riel and Fantasy Faire Players.
  • Honey Heart is the owner of two award-winning in-world companies, Ladies’ Pleasure and Elite Equestrian, where she heads a team of highly talented designers and scripters specialising in developing innovative horse avatars and accessories for equestrian enthusiasts. At the same time, she also has a design practice in real life. She originally began designing in SL because she couldn’t find tack and accessories for her and her first horse, Dancer, so she started making them herself. Then others wanted to buy what she made, and it grew from there. She finds growing a business with her partners to be the best fun in SL.


A poignant Second Life machinima for Christmas

Jenny’s Holy Night

Nikira Naimarc is a budding machinima maker who contacted me about her first film, Jenny’s Holy Night, asking me if I’d like to watch it.

When most of us would consider entering machinima cautiously, perhaps with a piece of a few minutes duration to test the waters publicly, Nikira went for something far more ambitious. At little under 20 minutes in length, Jenny’s Holy Night easily qualifies as a mini movie.  And it is a moving piece.

“It is a Christmas video, Nikira told me, when she contacted me. “It’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Little Match Girl. We premièred in November, and I’ve had very positive feedback.”

First published in 1845, The Little Match Girl is the sad tale of a poor little girl attempting to sell matches on New Year’s Eve. Ignored by the passing people, she is too afraid to go home lest her father beats her. Instead, she sleeps in the cold, dreaming of better times – times she may never see.

For Jenny’s Holy Night, Nikira has updated the story to a modern setting and has moved it to the days leading up to Christmas, with the little girl now an orphan trying to sell little Christmas wreaths she has made to unsympathetic shoppers, concerned only with their own needs.

Made with the support of Die Villa video, who have also made available on YouTube through their channel, Jenny’s Holy Night is a poignant tale. It is a reminder that “the season of giving” can be especially hard for those who don’t have the luxury of having the money to give in order to receive what they need; that that all too easily exist unseen and outside of the excitement of the holiday season – until it is too late.

Please take the time to watch the film below, and if you appreciate it, do consider leaving a comment for Nikira here or on the film’s YouTube page.

Revisiting Future Shock – sci-fi machinima in Second Life

Future Shock: sci-fi machinima
Future Shock: sci-fi machinima

In September 2016, I previewed a new machinima series, Future Shock, by Pryda Parx. At that point in time, the first episode had just been released, and Pryda was kind enough to allow me see the next two in the series. What I saw was intriguing in terms of story, setting and production values. Given the final episode was released just before Christmas, it seemed a good opportunity to watch the episodes back-to-back and talk a little more to Pryda about the work.

When we first discussed the series in September, Pryda told me her aim was to produce a series which could entertain, but also provoke debate on technological and social trends; to explore what the future might actually hold.

To achieve this, she presents us with a world where technology infiltrates every part of our lives. It watches over us, seemingly for our own protection, as well as providing various means personal gratification and escapism. It is also a world where everyone is defined in terms of their credit and net worth. So long as both are in good standing, then you are (reasonably) safe – not even death needs be an impediment; while if there is something about your body you don’t like or feel it lacks, you can have it modified / augmented to suit your desires. Should credit evaporate or net worth show every indication of becoming negative, however, then things can be  – uncomfortable.

In a world where everything is defined by whether or not you will remain in credit, even legal judgement on your acts become a clinical binary decision equitable to life or death
In a world where everything is defined by whether or not you will remain in credit, even legal judgement on your acts become a clinical binary decision equitable to life or death

Thus this is a world of questionable values, both in terms of technology and the people – who may be driven by their baser elements of self: avarice, jealousy, the potential for violence. Thus this is a world of questionable morals and ethics – a fact cleverly reinforced through the use of predominantly monochrome and grey scale settings and characters.

But there is more here as well; everything appears to be run by the “state”, against whom some have rebelled, seeking sanctuary – and more – from within the technology intended to watch over them. Thus, the story is layered, which the fully arc designed to progress over a total of three series of episodes. For this, the first element of the overall arc, we follow a central character by the name of Tracy. As much enmeshed in moral ambiguity as everyone else (she is perfectly willing to betray a lover to gain credit, and potentially go further), her character is as grey as the world she lives in.

Future Shock: Tracy

Future Shock: Tracy

By introducing us to Tracy first, Pryda effectively drops us into the middle of things. This both adds to the mystery of the series – but also makes the narrative a little hard to fully comprehend. The intent here is obviously to raise questions and encourage us to follow the story as more unfolds through the remaining two series.

“There is a complete arc,” Pryda told me. “But it will unfold slowly. The second series covers the same time period as this one, for example. But telling it from the rebels’ point of view. You get to understand more about the relationship Tracy’s boyfriend has with them, and so on. Then in the third series you discover what the state is really about.”

While the narrative might seem a little uneven in places, one thing that more certainly isn’t is the quality of the production. To put it simply, Future Shock is extraordinarily well done. Considering this is Pryda’s first foray into episodic storytelling and machinima production, it is a polished production.

Being in sufficient credit means you can afford exotic changes to your body - such as wings and the ability to fly. But there is still the mystery / threat / salvation hidden within the Dark Grid ...
Being in sufficient credit means you can afford exotic changes to your body – such as wings and the ability to fly. But there is still the mystery / threat / salvation hidden within the Dark Grid …

“Before this I’d practice making videos in Second Life with a couple of fairy/music videos, but the story with those is minimal,” Pryda informed me. “I’ve always been creative, but my writing and drawing isn’t strong, so I have been very inspired with the idea of story telling with machinima techniques. But it has all been new territory for me, and I’ve been learning as fast as I can.”

Given that her learning curve has also encompassed GIMP, Audacity for audio, and even Blender – Future Shock is an even more remarkable debut series, and there is more than enough in these first series to engage the curiosity and leave one wanting to know more about where things are going.

Sadly, it’s going to be a while before we get to find out: the second series is currently slated for a late 2017 release. But in the meantime, you can catch up with the first series on Pryda’s You Tube channel, and I’m embedding the introductory prologue to it below.