Whoa. Compared to the rest of these guys on this panel I was a certifiable, card-carrying newbie. In fact, it had puzzled me for some time why I had even been invited to participate in this thing in the first place. How the hell did I get here? 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 July, 2007: I was having lunch one sunny summer’s 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 (and if you don’t either, see the glossary on How to Speak Metaverse). 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.)
As I thanked everyone and walked away from the lectern, I began to sense a distinct shift in the emotional dynamics in the room. Until that moment I had been blissfully unaware 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. I, on the other hand, was there simply to explore 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 it all 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 Holy Family 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.
Some days it’s a hell of a lot of fun to be an artist.
Since that amazing day nearly a week ago, a number of interesting things have happened. One was the email sent out to all the presenters the following day from Dr. Chris Thorne, the driving force behind the panel, thanking everyone for their contribution, and suggesting that 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.
The beat goes on. Within the past few days I was contacted by the in-world television network, Metaverse TV, and asked to appear on their program, The Late Show, to discuss my views on virtual art and the possible impact of my presentation at SIGGRAPH. Fortunately, that job will be passed on to Chrome; I’ve caused enough trouble for one week. Let him deal with the paparazzi.
You know, before all this began over a year ago, I was a retired college professor, quietly making the most of my freedom, 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, rocking my socks off. I just didn’t know what I was missing.
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To see the slide show, follow this link to my flickr gallery.
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