Speaking Beauty to Power, revisited

Author’s Note: This is the second in a series of blasts from the virtual past, in which I revisit some of the posts I’ve written since my first rezzable moment in SL back in 2007. Published in 2008, this one recounts a series of events leading from my comfortable life as a digital artist to the first of several talks on fine art in virtual worlds at the prestigious SIGGRAPH conference.

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Whoaaa. Compared to the rest of these guys on this panel I was a certifiable, card-carrying noobie. In fact, it had puzzled me for some time why I had even been invited to participate in this thing in the first place; after all, I’m no techie, I’m just your average digital artist. But then, this sort of thing does seem to sum up a good portion of my life in the past few years.

Flashback to summer, 2007: I was having lunch one sunny day with a couple of colleagues of mine – digital earth movers and shakers, both – who asked me, point blank, in the middle of my blackened Ahi salad, to join them in an intriguing project that was about to get underway: the creation, in Second Life, of a virtual campus for the Santa Barbara City College. I was flattered, of course; but also a bit dazed and confused, since I had never even stepped foot in a virtual world.

I understood the basic concept, having read Snow Crash when it appeared in ’92; but I couldn’t have told you the difference between a prim and a sim if I had a phased plasma gun to my head; or even an IM and an LM, for that matter. Had no clue whatsoever. I knew that Superman could fly, and that Captain Kirk could be beamed up, but had no idea at the time that it was only a click away on my trusty laptop. You see, I was still a virtual virgin.

Long story short, I jumped at the offer.

Exactly one year ago today I was ushered without fanfare into my new being as an avatar, a dashing young fellow named Chrome Underwood; and thus began my virtual adventures. From that day forth I would run free with a tribe of code warriors half my age through the forests of the New Wilderness.

Fast forward to mid-August, 2008: I’m awaiting my turn to speak at the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles as part of a panel whose mission is to address the growing relationship between the rapidly expanding metaverse and the wild and wooly world of social networking. The other members of that group, btw, were some of the brightest luminaries on the virtual world scene; leaders (and in some cases, founders) of such cutting-edge companies as There.com, Multiverse, Wonderland Group, Bitmanagement, Vivaty, and Google Lively.

Being an artist, though, I decided to simply tell the story of my days and weeks wandering through Second Life with one question on my mind: What is art in a virtual world and what is its future? I really didn’t have much else to offer; it’s what I knew best. I had little inside knowledge of the business side of the virtual industry, I couldn’t read or write a single line of code, and the view from the top, for me, well, it simply wasn’t accessible. I decided to do my digging further down the mountain.

Without realizing it, though, I happened to touch upon a rather sensitive subject. The industry, it seems, was at a turning point; the burning question in every virtual boardroom was, how the hell do you duplicate the staggering success of social networking sites like facebook and myspace; and above all, how do you do it in 3D? Of course, as has been true from the beginning of virtual time, the first one into the pool gets the piña colada; and the temptation dangling in front of everyone was to lower the golden bar of quality.

In my talk, entitled Art is What Happens While You’re Busy Rezzing Other Prims, I addressed the state of ‘fine art’ in Second Life by dividing what I had seen and heard into three distinct categories, each illustrated by about twenty slides. The first, called (a bit tongue-in-cheek, I admit) Real Virtual Art, focused on what would be called art in any setting: work created by individuals or groups that, above all, consider themselves artists, and who strive not only to express themselves individually, but to further the aesthetic ideals and goals of their group or movement.

In discussing the more formal aspect of virtual art in SL, I revisited some of the exhibits I had attended in-world over the past several months: Kiss the Sky and The Garden of NPIRL Delights, both fairly large group shows; and one individual exhibit, Nested Cubes by Selavy Oh. I also touched briefly upon two artists whose work I consider to be of exceptional quality, Maximillian Nakamura and ichibot nishi, and ended this section by mentioning that the traditional method of hanging images in a gallery is, for what it’s worth, frowned upon by the virtual avant garde of Second Life.

In the second part, Good Griefers, I expressed my slightly irreverent point of view that some of the most arresting experiences to be had anywhere in SL were brought about by ‘griefers’; those who look for new and creative ways to use a game that aren’t part of the game designer’s original intent. Considered by many Second Lifers to be acts of digital vandalism, these often surprising, sometimes perplexing and occasionally even deeply moving, acts of art are perpetrated by brilliant troublemakers whose work is often so disruptive their identities remain anonymous.

Finally, in a section called The Sublime, The Surreal and the Unforeseen, I cover the virtual waterfront. It is my view that in a world where everything, including the very ground you walk on, could be considered a work of art, it is virtually impossible to define anything as being art. This is not a bad thing, imho, since defining art in the real world by the end of the 20th century had already become as difficult as nailing jello to a tree. Second Life has now given us the opportunity to redefine the entire notion: in a universe where we are all virtual gods in possession of virtual superpowers, what need is there for something as outdated and unnecessary as art and artists? (The programmers looked out over the expanse of all that they had made, and saw that it was very good.)

Within a few minutes of finishing my talk I began to notice that most of the other speakers on the panel were business leaders; they were there to represent their companies, to introduce their newest products, to describe their latest achievements. Some of the biggest players in the virtual world scene, in fact. I, on the other hand, was there simply to explain the profound beauty of this magical wonderland I had fallen into, and to try to convey to the audience what a deeply enriching experience it had been. That’s it. No more, no less.

I wasn’t sure what my talk meant in that context until the Q&A session, when one of the audience members stood up and addressed the panel; it just happened to be one of the Lindens, the inner circle of Second Life. He posed a challenging question to the other panel members: How could they discount the element of quality content, as illustrated by my presentation, in their business models? I nearly fell off my chair. An extremely lively debate was underway.

A few days after the event, an email was sent out to all the presenters by Dr. Chris Thorne, the driving force behind the panel, thanking everyone for their contribution and suggesting we change the subject of next year’s panel to a discussion of how virtual worlds might effect the hearts and minds of future users, and what role the quality of the content might play in that process.

As I said earlier, before all this began I was quietly making the most of my freedom by pursuing my personal passions: writing, painting, blogging, photoshoplifting, digital shape-shifting – that sort of thing. It’s not like I needed something else to do; hell, I was already running full tilt within my own creative little universe. But once you go virtual, I’ve discovered, it’s always a good policy to stay open to the unpredictable, serendipitous nature of living in two worlds.

Author’s note: Looking back on this  from 2011 it is now clear that a number of projects introduced that day never even made it more than a few feet out of the starting gate, dumbed-down virtual communities like Google Lively, for instance. Second Life, on the other hand, although it has had its share of problems and mismanagement, and will apparently never become a virtual facebook, is still a magnet for some of the finest creative minds on the…. ummm…. planet? As for the viability of its business model… well, to that I still dare not speak.

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Second Life photos, from the top: a scene from the collaborative group exhibit, The Garden of NPIRL Delights; Chrome Underwood visiting a group show at Art Center, Avignon; Chrome standing on a magnificent ’59 Gibson Les Paul guitar at the home of The Greenies

All Second Life photos by Chrome Underwood

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2 Responses to Speaking Beauty to Power, revisited

  1. Karima says:

    I enjoyed this flashback of yours Chrome, and being a “real virtual resident” in Second Life, one who is soul-infused, I found your focus and mine once again so similar. In our in-world experience we are inspired, overwhelmed, and dizzily amazed on a weekly even daily basis, by how the artistic community, grows, and interacts, innovates, and delights. It is from a place of wonder we log in every day, not as business people, or the new visionaries of marketing, but as artists, poets, builders, musicians, and yes even our basic resident who decorates his or her first Linden Home, rezzes a prim to make a coffee-table, is crafting and beginning to do the first dog-paddles in the ever changing world of virtual art. My mind still boggles at the possibilities here in this area, as limitless as the human imagination.
    I don’t think Second Life will ever be a virtual FaceBook, nor will it be the virtual boardroom for the Multi-nationals, and that is fine with me. For those of us who create, who feel comfortable and grateful with our muse, Second Life is like a blissful After-life that we can live right here…right now.
    Great talk Chrome..and here in 2011 your words ring out, true for our day too.

  2. Chrome says:

    Thanks, Karima. Childlike wonder comes to mind: the artist within sees the magic of it all, perhaps as the world first appeared to us as children. Nice to be re-awakened, though, huh? Best of all, we’re at the dawn of a new decade, headed into the future for even greater adventures. :)

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