At Play in the Cosmic Sandbox

Last evening, just before dusk, I walked onto the plains at Help Island and came upon two young gladiators practicing their deadly moves. One, a spiky flaming warrior princess, fire-hardened metal to the core and brandishing a flaming sword, stood against her opponent, a large, lightning-quick robospider, his golden whiplash tentacles splaying in all directions.

I was fortunate to be there and be able to get inside the action, armed only with my trusty Kodak Brownie. The deadly dance, as you will see, was pure art. You can join the action at my flickr set, At play in the Cosmic Sandbox.

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Chrome Joins Ruttan Gallery



Chrome Underwood, our virtual representative in Second Life, has just signed a deal with Ruttan Gallery, the premier exhibition space in the Cetus Gallery District. His first exhibit of recent digital paintings will be in December. Read the full story at our parallel site, Chrome Never Sleeps.

Photo, above: Chrome discussing his work with Xander Ruttan, founder of Ruttan Gallery. Click to see full size.

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Chrome Inks Deal with Ruttan Gallery

Needless to say, I was delighted when my good friend Harper Beresford contacted me to let me know that Xander Ruttan was interested in meeting with us to discuss my digital art and a possible exhibition at Ruttan Gallery, the premier space in the Cetus Gallery District. Digital art? How interesting. I had almost forgotten I was an artist.

Up until a couple of years ago, I had been cranking out large works of art at a pretty good clip, kind of a one-man digital Warhol factory (Andy would have loved it); printing many of them on canvas or archival rag paper, a select few chosen to exhibit in my local neighborhood, Southern California. Then it all ground to a halt.. no, actually, I should say that it was more like I jumped from one moving train to another, before the first one had a chance to grind to a halt. I became a writer.

Xander, a well-known artist, critic and gallery owner himself in RL (California, no less), was also the driving force behind the creation of the Cetus sim, now the locus of a number of galleries, home to a growing arts community and host to many other arts and media events. He proved to be a more than gracious host by welcoming us into his brand-new, mid-century modernist home, and then led us into town to check out the gallery space, where we discussed more of the details of the show and experimented with size and setup arrangements. What fun.

The first show will be sometime in December, drawing from my current body of work; to be followed later in 2009 with a show of entirely new….. well, exactly what that work will be after having spent the last few years writing and wandering virtual worlds may prove to be as great a surprise to me as it will to the patrons of Ruttan Gallery. I honestly can’t wait to see it myself.

Cetus Gallery District – Chosen , Cetus (216, 5, 37), Second Life

Photo: Chrome, standing in front of his digital painting, Origami.

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Hey! Godzilla Stole My Brand!!!

Nande sonna koto dekiru no!! Say it ain’t so, Joe!! I woke up yesterday to learn that Google has launched a new….. hey, wait a minute.. how is that even possible if I never sleep? Let’s try that again….

Nande sonna koto dekiru no!! Say it ain’t so, Joe!! I discovered yesterday that Google has launched a new web browser,and they’ve stolen my brand name!! Can you say ‘copyright infringement’? Can you say ‘personal violation’?

As you can tell, I’m more than a little ticked that this corporate Godzilla would come stomping through my virtual world, reach down into my studio, and rip this carefully nurtured, iconic logos out of my hands, dragging it off into the world to do with it what they will.

Nevermind how it might effect the sterling fellow who’s been wandering the metaverse, building a pretty colorful reputation for himself for over a year now. Who the hell cares? Certainly not Godzilla. I feel a bit like Raymond Burr as he was being carried into the emergency room, with Tokyo lying in ruins just outside the door.

It’s been clear for some time now that Google wants to rule the world (wide web); and lo, in the midst of the battle they bring forth Chrome, their latest weapon of mass destruction, in hopes of finally crushing the main competition, Internet Explorer and Firefox, under their giant, mutated dinosaur heel. Of course, on the other hand, I can certainly understand why they would want to steal from me. But that don’t make it right.

I’ll take some time off today to decide whether or not to sue for infringement of intellectual property rights; but in the meanwhile, I’ll try to keep an eye on my stats, just to see how many googlemaniacs wind up on my property by mistake. Could be good. Could be very good.

(Btw, that Japanese phrase up there at the top means, How could you!!!)

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Notes from a Concerned Citizen



Some folks say you’re never too old to be a gamer, but hey, imho, there’s a level of hormonal and emotional maturity that you can get to if you’re lucky, where this whole idea of hunting down and killing a horde of headcrab zombies is more likely to induce a few yawns and possibly even a brief episode of REM sleep, rather than evoke a bunch of Hell Yeah, Bro!‘s and a few knuckle-crunching fist bumps.

Some of us, shall we say, prefer more sophisticated pleasures; like “gamics“, for instance; and, near as I can tell, there ain’t no better gamic in town than the classic web comic, Concerned, The Half-Life and Death of Gordon Frohman, by Christopher C. Livingston. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it may be the virtual world’s first post-humanoid masterpiece, albeit in a minor key (but then, everything post-humanoid would have to be in a minor key, wouldn’t it?)

Concerned is actually a parody of the first-person shooter video game Half-Life 2, so you might assume that an older Second Lifer-type like me, a complete pre-nerd non-gamer “just wouldn’t get it.” But, you see, that is the power of a masterpiece… it doesn’t require knowledge of the subject beforehand, or even familiarity with the culture it is set in. It stands alone; it is self-contained; it is beyond genre…. it gives you all you need to get high. Hey, you don’t have to speak French to enjoy Paris, do you?



In addition to the brilliance of its goofy dystopian riff, though, there are a number of interesting aspects to this work which set it apart from other graphic novels. For starters, since Mr. Livingston was not a comic book artist, and couldn’t afford to hire one, he decided to created the image entirely within a virtual world – a very shrewd move, since it is, after all, a virtual send-up of yet another virtual world.

Furthermore, it has lived out its entire existence on the world wide web (remember that?), where, to this day it remains the only way to access it. Unfortunately (for me and many fellow book lovers), it never made it to the printed page, because the original image resolution was simply too low. Finally, it was pretty much created single-handedly by someone who was a mild-mannered administrative assistant for a plumbing company by day, and a mad comic book genius by night. One for the books, I’d say.

The first issue was released on May 1, 2005, with subsequent issues published three times a week, completing its run on November 6, 2006 with a total of 205 issues. It had been put together using Garry’s Mod, a game without a goal; an almost infinitely malleable virtual environment within which users are free to create realistic scenes using their own imagination, highly expressive poseable avatars, and an amazing array of tools and special effects… in short, a poor man’s movie set.

It occurred to me while reading this that tools like Garry’s Mod, available for purchase on the cheap, are already playing an important role in the further “democratization’ of media arts by putting once exotic, esoteric and highly expensive tools into the hands of your average everyday ‘citizen with an idea.’ This will not only apply to the creation of comic books, but also lends itself nicely to the making of machinima films and other cutting-edge media, even 2D digital art. As the author of Concerned himself said in a recent interview,

When I was a kid and wanted to make a movie, I’d have to get all my friends together, get them to agree to what I wanted to do, borrow a camera from someone, maybe use the editing bay at my high school… it took a lot of coordination between all the different elements I’d need just to get something done, and a lot of relying on other people. With machinima, if someone wants to make a movie, they’ve got digital actors. They can download editing software. They can make their own soundtrack, record their own dialogue. You can make a movie, by yourself, on your computer, using tools that are often free to download. And that’s amazing.

Aaah, wish I was 25 again.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .

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In the Midnight Hour

Being one of the lesser gods – that is, one with a full array of superpowers who chooses to use them in the service of exploration, observation and discovery – I spend a good deal of time wandering in the dark. You see, there are surprises waiting, in the midnight hour, for those who have eyes to see… . There is the magic of moonlight, of course; stars dancing among the clouds, the earthy radiance of an occasional wood nymph or satyr – but what often goes unnoticed are the little things… once the sun has faded and that rich darkness descends, otherwise ordinary objects begin to display their magical qualities; qualities hidden by the harsh light of day.

I was diverted to an unknown sim on my way to meet a friend recently, and, since I love surprises and consider no event coincidental, I decided to stick around and have a look-see. It was a small island with little evidence of any living, breathing avatar activity; it appeared to be a docking facility of some sort for a fleet of airships and sailing vessels. Several dirigibles, for instance, could be seen scattered across the sky, gloriously decked out in the best Steampunk style I had seen in some time.

After close inspection of one of these weightless beauties, I descended to the deck of an immense three-masted schooner sitting dockside below, and upon landing, noticed a full-sized swimming pool on deck. Under a pitch black sky, I slipped beneath the surface of the glowing pool, swam underwater to one of several colorful floating tubes, and drifted up and into the center of a perfect circle. A moment of solitude, a perfect meditation, a brief encounter with the center of the universe.

My virtual friend didn’t mind a bit. She, too, was delayed; she had been deep in conversation with several dolphins she had met while wandering the bottom of the ocean.

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What Big Fins You Have, My Dear

Avatar-shopping at Tekeli-li!, the main source for the ingenious work of Tekelili Tantalus, a Second Life artist and designer specializing in bizarre and intricate wearables inspired by dark fantasy themes. Beginning several Linden years ago in a small gallery, she continued to expand her artistic empire, recently culminating in her magnum opus, the Hollow Earth sim, where this, the main store, can be found.  <Tekeli-li! Hollow Earth (67, 197, 41)>

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My Appearance on Metaverse TV

I recently appeared on The Late Show , with Angelico Babii, to discuss my controversial presentation at the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles in mid-August. Controversial because, as the only artist on a panel dominated by CEOs and engineers, I introduced an aspect of the burgeoning virtual world industry that no one else seemed to be focusing on: the powerful, almost magical, effect of the aesthetics of a virtual world on its users.

This seemed to present a challenge to many of those present, since the goal from a business perspective is to haul in greater and greater numbers of people with an eye toward profitability, which seems to be leading to lower and lower standards of visual sophistication – or, dumbing things down simply to achieve ease of use.

Second Life, however, has a different business model, and as it happened, one of the members of the Linden Family, the inner circle of SL, was in the audience that day, and posed an interesting challenge to the members of the panel. You can read the entire story at mikimojo.com.

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First Birthday Now Virtual Worlds Day

I took some time off to celebrate my first birthday at Help Island on August 20 (a day now universally known as Virtual Worlds Day) with a friend who, thoughtfully, showed up as a glowing space alien. After a few choruses of Happy Birthday, I blew out my flaming friend, who disappeared in a cloud of pixel dust.

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Speaking Beauty to Power

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.

. . . . . . . . . .

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

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