Just uploaded some photos of a beautiful sim I’ve been visiting over the past few days in Second Life, a place known as the Gion Project. The brainchild of SL rezident Sammy Biddle, it’s modeled after a well-known geisha district in Kyoto, Japan, which originally developed in the Middle Ages in front of Yasaka Shrine.
The original district was built over time to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine, eventually becoming one of the most exclusive geisha districts in all of Japan. It was also the setting for the recent novel, Memoirs of a Geisha.
I had just begun experimenting with the light settings in SL, following the inspiration (and downloaded presets!) of my flickr friend, the irrepressible Torley Linden, and if these pix are any indication of where my newfound photo superpowers are going to take me, I will be forever indebted to him. Can’t wait to head back there.
The SLURL is Gion (90,146,24). Head over there and take a rickshaw ride. You may even run into a geisha or two.
You can find my photos of the Gion pagoda in the architecture section of my flick gallery.
Several days ago I slipped into my virtual identity as Chrome Underwood with the click of a mouse, strapped on my invisible jetpack and headed straight up into the stratosphere to attend the opening of an art show so staggering in size that it took a sizeable chunk of the heavens just to contain it all.
The show, called “Kiss the Sky,” was curated by SL artist DanCoyote Antonelli (aka DC Spensley in Real Life), and sponsored by the New Media Consortium and the new Museum of Hyperformalism. This larger-than-real life show consisted of works by over a dozen well-known artists that have been dazzling the residents of Second Life with art installations since 2006. Collectively, their work has become a virtual art movement recently named Hyperformalism.
Put in its simplest terms, Hyperformalism is a type of abstract art created and displayed in a virtual environment. But to put it in its proper context, we should note that it is a direct descendant of the 20th Century art movement known as Formalism, or Modernism, which relied purely on color, line, shape and texture without reference to realism, content or context. In other words, in Formalism the aesthetic value of the object was based purely on its form.
Early in the 21st century, however, artists who began moving into Second Life soon realized that here they were not constrained by the laws of physics and other small annoyances, and were thus free from many of the limitations that their earthbound counterparts were subject to. In this new virtual environment they discovered that anything one can imagine can be created, as though with the wave of a magic wand. Well, not quite that easily, but it certainly has that kind of magic about it.
In a virtual environment, for instance, gravity is optional, so objects can be suspended in space,; they can be fully immersive, interactive, kinetic, and can also occur in 2, 3, and 4 dimensions simultaneously. One can even walk through walls if one knows how. So, to an artist, you must understand, this is virtual heaven. Perhaps that’s why this show took place at such a high altitude.
But all of this raises an important question. If anything one can imagine can be created out of thin air, so to speak, and the entire metaverse of Second Life is a wonderland of created objects and forms, why separate out a certain part of it and label it art? If we are now in an entirely new world – far, far, from the exhausting and boring constraints of the old – why drag all of the questions, quanderies, debates and dead ends of that intellectual world with us into this one? Why not start from scratch and redefine the entire notion of art? Even better, why not throw it away?
I hope to be revisiting this subject frequently in future posts; it’s an important subject, to say the least. A good part of my life was spent either making, exhibiting, or teaching art, and, not unlike a sibling with whom I’ve endured a tempestuous relationship over the years and yet still love him to death, I’m not exactly eager to part with it myself. I also don’t want to leave you with the impression that I’m belittling or ridiculing the artists of Second Life (or those of planet earth, for that matter).
It’s just that, having spent nearly a year in SL now, having seen many of its wonders and having talked to many of its most creative inhabitants, I’ve come to the conclusion that this may be one of the biggest opportunities – and challenges – of our lifetimes. Here we have a chance to start completely anew, to level the playing field – even become the playing field if we wish; and with the creative wattage that’s now plugged in here, we have a chance to become fellow synapses in the cosmic brain… to create without constraint. Hell, why bother to apply them now?
Here in the metaverse, since even the ground beneath us is a work of art, we have now all become artists. We don’t need chilled champagne and caviar to introduce someone’s work anymore; we just need to wander over, fly through, or take a ride on it and then sit back, pop open a beer and hang out on the back porch and marvel at it together, like we would if it were a newly pin-striped ’32 Ford street rod.
Whaddaya say we call it Hypernormalism?
*View the entire collection of photos taken by Chrome Underwood at the Kiss the Sky exhibit on flickr:
That doesn’t speak well of the Author of this play, of course, unless there’s a higher purpose behind it all. Our task then, in the midst of our pain, is to somehow suspend our disbelief and attempt to discern His intentions – not an easy thing to do while being buffeted by the blows of The Great Heavyweight Champ Himself. If you have the right spirit, though, you’ll go the distance and come out smiling, even though you’ll never win the fight.
I’ve learned anew some of the basic lessons of suffering myself in recent weeks, including the fundamental but jarring realization that no man is exempt from it. While it is true that it does always happen to the other guy, you must never forget that to everyone else, you are the other guy. This past few weeks it was my turn. Again.
While I prefer not to go into the details of my suffering, I will allow that it is the suffering of a father for the fate of his daughter, and that every day, every hour, every minute has inflicted a new wound, a new and unexpected source of pain; a kind of “death by a thousand cuts.” But for me, surprisingly, it has gradually become more of a “renewal by a thousand band-aids.” Let me explain.
At moments like this, of course, there’s no way to escape the searing fire; nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Not to be overly dramatic, but I’m reminded of the poor soldier in the midst of a long forgotten battle who, having just had his foot shattered by a cannonball, is given a swig of whiskey and a twisted rag of cotton to bite down on as they saw off his leg. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
I don’t mean to imply that I’m the poor fellow on the table, though; more like the one lying over there on a nearby pallet. Unable to escape, unable to avert his eyes, unable to plug his ears, and ultimately, powerless to do anything whatsoever to stop this horrific scene – he grits his teeth and bears it, knowing all the while that, ironically, this incomprehensible pain is somehow necessary for his friend to survive.
Nearly three weeks have gone by since this roller coaster ride through hell began, and there are now signs of light beginning to appear here and there, and they’re clearly not coming from the flames. The false veneer of what once seemed so important in the routine of everyday life has been stripped away, and the real feelings of love and remorse, buried deep within the hearts of those inside the circle of pain, are becoming visible in the bright light of day. Healing has begun
The real, the true, the deep love of family and friends pours forth like water from the rock, and quenches that thirst in all of us that nothing else can ever quite reach. Look around you and consider anew the love of those within your circle. Life may present us with much suffering, but in suffering there can also be found great joy. Remember, The Champ is rooting for you.
I was in San Francisco on the final leg of my journey back from Chicago, where I had spent the weekend assisting in the preparations for, and then attending the final showing of, our son-in-law’s MFA thesis exhibit at the University of Illinois at Chicago – which, I must say, was a resounding success. The flight from San Francisco to Santa Barbara had been delayed; first, because it arrived late, and then a required maintenance check prolonged the agony. It was not a good hour and a half.
As I sat in the lounge area, I noticed an odd-looking woman sitting opposite me several seats down, intensely absorbed in a book. No, that doesn’t quite do it justice; she was more or less carrying on a passionate conversation with the author; in fact, exclaiming from time to time, “Oh no, that’s not possible!” or “He was there all the time! You just didn’t see him!”
She had on a big, black floppy hat – one of those affairs that an older woman might hide beneath while working in the garden – firmly fastened to her head by a thin strap tied under her chin. Didn’t think much of it at the time, though; people like this pop up all over California, and I was a seasoned observer of The People Who Live On the Edge. Odd was somehow normal here.
Finally, our moment arrived and we were all herded onto the plane, a restive group, to be sure; hot, grouchy and tired. It was a small twin-engine prop with two rows of seats down one side and one row on the other. I knew I had a window seat somewhere near the middle and, last time I checked online, the seat next to me was still empty. I was all set to relax, read, sleep; whatever it took to recover from the annoyance of the delay.
Everything was looking pretty good until the very last moment, when two women boarded and, after reaching the back of the plane, announced with some dismay that they were holding tickets to seats 11C and 11b. Their dismay was caused entirely by the fact that there were only 10 rows of seats. Some joker yelled out: Must be the bathroom! They weren’t amused.
The stewardess, after surveying the situation, said,”Ma’am, would you mind moving to that seat over there?” The next thing I knew, the woman in the floppy black hat plopped herself down next to me and loudly proclaimed: “I’ve been praying for the last hour and a half that Jesus would use me in some special way during this flight, so it’s no accident He moved me over here to sit next to you.” Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Trapped by the hand of God. I had nowhere to go but up.
The engines – one mounted on the wing just outside our window – suddenly roared to life, and the floor beneath my feet began to throb. “I was saved eleven years ago when the Lord healed me. I had three fused discs in my back and He replaced them with new ones. Haven’t had a bit of pain ever since. Do you dream at night?”, she shouted out to me over the sound of the engines. “Good for you,” I shouted back. “You won the spiritual lottery. My dreams? They’re secret, even I don’t get to know what they’re about. Don’t remember a thing.”
“My brother’s mission is to save all the Muslims in the world; he’s been in the Middle East for over 40 years. He’s been thrown in jail twice.” “He’s still alive?” I asked, incredulously. “The Lord watches over those He loves,” she said. “He told me recently that I wouldn’t die in a plane crash, which was one of my worst fears. Do you know Jesus?” “Thank God for that,” I said, with some conviction. “I know Him fairly well, actually; in fact we’re on pretty good terms, but we don’t feel the need to talk every day.”
She rattled on and on as loudly as the engines required; in fact, the engines never had a chance. She reminded me of nothing so much as a child trying to explain how wonderful her imaginary friend was. From time to time someone’s head would turn and direct a knowing glance my way, communicating their sympathy for my plight.
I didn’t dare tell her that I had once been a born-again Christian myself after I had gotten out of rehab, kind of like the follow-up after surgery, for fear that it would unleash an even greater wave of evangelical fervor – as though that were even possible. I never let on that I knew a great deal about what she was telling me; far more, in fact, than she herself apparently knew. There were stories of miracles and healings, of numerological studies of the Bible (which I knew had already been discredited), of the many visions and dreams she had, that she and her husband were interpreters of dreams, and on and on. I merely nodded my head, which only made the pain worse.
Though I was rapidly descending into a migraine, I let it all wash over me as though listening to a child reciting nursery rhymes. In truth, I respected her beliefs; or perhaps I should say: I understood her need to believe them. I was once in the very same place; I was in no position to judge, and had no idea what lay buried deep in her past which may have led to her leap of faith. In fact, I appreciated her childlike qualities and her deep, unwavering passion. But man, the price I was paying for my kindness. My head was killing me.
As we approached the end of the flight, she probably began to realize that there would be little time left for me to be saved, and that she would probably never see me again. At last, she confronted me directly: “Would you like to have a personal relationship with the Lord and be born again in His Spirit?”
Then a strange thing happened. I don’t know exactly what came over me, or why my mind turned in this direction – perhaps it was the migraine – but I told her that I already had been born again and had even been filled with the Holy Spirit. I said that I had discovered a place called Second Life, that I had entered into that world and was given a new body, clean and untarnished; a body that would never die. That I had wandered the length and breadth of that land and had met many of my brethren who had come before me, and, lo, they taught me many things. Once I had reached a place of some maturity, I said, I began to help those who had come after me, those who were newly born, those who could barely walk or talk.
I told her of my experience one day as I sat on a stone wall in that world talking to a group of initiates, when a sudden surge of electricity and joy went through the crowd around me. “A Linden is here!” someone shouted. “A Linden is here!” I explained to her that Cory Linden was the creator of this world I now inhabited, and that a group of higher beings now known as The Lindens were his helpers.
Suddenly someone flew up from the grass below and settled on the wall behind me. In this new world, I explained, my being was more spiritual than physical, and that it was not unusual for objects to pass through me, or I through them. I looked behind me and saw that Cory Linden himself was seated behind me, and that our bodies had merged – that we had become one. I had become one with the creator of my universe! That meant that my being had been infused with the spirit of his being, and his with mine.
At this point, just as the plane landed, I noticed she had a rather strange look in her eye. She had grown quiet, and I could tell she did not want to hear another word. Judging by the expression on her face, she seemed shocked and dismayed; in fact, she never said another word and began to quickly gather her things together, and once the plane taxied to a stop, she bolted into the aisle.
Before she got away, though, I called after her, “But wait, wouldn’t you like to have a personal relationship with Cory Linden?” She never looked back. As the rest of us shuffled toward the exit door, the guy who had been sitting in front of me turned to me and said, “I have to hand it to you for tolerating her for the entire flight without telling her to shut the hell up. I certainly couldn’t have done it.”
“I didn’t dare insult her until the plane had landed safely; God, after all, is her co-pilot,” I said, smiling weakly. He looked at me for a brief moment, then turned and merged into the shuffling crowd. I would soon be safe on solid ground.
Last night, upon returning home from a typically great dinner in Palm Springs, I stopped by my computer to tuck it into bed for the night. The drill is to check the news, my email, and then drop by Second Life to see if there are any instant messages, any virtual emergencies to deal with, or anything else of interest that may have happened while I was in real life, or ‘meat life,’ as some call it. Of course, the obvious problem with this last task is that you actually have to go into Second Life. Always a risky proposition. Especially at this time of night.
Since I have it set to open at my last in-world location, I soon found myself standing on the beach in Bora Bora just as the sun was setting, not far from where Liz and I had spent the afternoon surfing our blues away. Unable to resist spending just a few more minutes in paradise, I decided to stroll along the beach and watch that fiery red ball sink into the Pacific; it cast such a warm, almost other-worldly glow, transforming everything around me. But then, this was another world, after all, and I was viewing it in high definition.
After strolling the sandy beaches for several minutes I came upon a rickety, hanging wooden bridge, apparently leading to another part of the island where there appeared to be some sort of tiki-styled village. Naturally, I crossed the bridge.
It was a ghost village. There was not another soul around as far as I could tell, but as I wandered among the bungalows I suddenly turned a corner and found myself face to face with an impressive-looking dark-skinned native in bright blue surfing trunks, a mountain of dreads knotted in a twist on his head, ala Basquiat, and a bone piercing his nose. For no apparent reason, he began hurling insult after insult at me – words and phrases that don’t bear repeating here – some were that vicious. I stood there, stunned.
Not sure what else to do, I reached deep within me to what was once a standard part of my soul and my behavior: my Lower East Side street savvy, some of it learned the hard way, back in the day. I leaned into his fierce bronze face and said, “Who the fuck do you think you’re talking to, you sun-roasted asshole? If you can’t behave nicer than that when you run into a stranger, my man, you got some deep fucking problems! Some real problems. Just don’t dump ’em on me. Got it, Rasta boy?”
We went at it eyeball-to-eyeball like that for a while, and then I stepped back and took off my shirt, revealing the extensive Samoan-style tattoos covering my own rippling muscles. (Of course, we were only avatars, so the muscles were actually hollow; but this was a psychological smackdown, and the imagery, just as in real life, has a powerful effect. Trust me.)
“What’d you take your shirt off for, man? You gonna do somethin’?”
“What the fuck do you think, brother? I was just going native? Just frontin’?”
At that he laughed and offered to shake my hand, saying he was just kidding around; his buddies had put him up to it, he said; betting him that he couldn’t break me down and send me running back over that bridge like a whipped dog.
“I like you, man. You stood up and dished that shit right back at me. Just what I would have done. I like you for that, man. Respect. They call me Shark. Hey, you wanna come see my crib?”
WTF? Is this guy nuts? I know there are griefers around who can do you bodily (and mental) harm, but this guy is out there somewhere; he’s on a whole new plane; spinning in a different orbit. This could be the Godfather of griefers. Nobody I know in Real Life or Second Life would exhibit such extreme changes of behavior; there was something mighty strange going on here. If I accepted his invitation, I could be walking into a trap; who knows what his game is? Naturally, I accepted his offer.
“You gay or somethin’?” I said.
‘Hell no, man. C’mon, let me show show you around my crib.”
Suddenly he disappeared in a cloud of pixel dust, and soon a little blue teleport offer to his ‘crib’ popped up on my screen. Now, I’ve always been pretty much of a risk taker, and it has sometimes led me down the wrong path and gotten me trapped in some deep, dark corners, but that was long, long ago, and I had lived to tell the tale. But, hey, this is Second Life, so I get to do it all over again. I hit the teleport button.
I soon found myself standing in front of what was, to my reckoning, the largest personally-owned mansion I’ve ever seen in SL. Since he’s standing right there at the front door to greet me, we step inside, where he offers to take me on a tour. Sure, man; why not? Seems he really wanted me to see the place… the billiard room, the library, the indoor pool, the greenhouse, and then, the master bedroom. Is this the play?, I’m thinkin, Is this the play?
Breaking the tension of the moment, he says, ‘Let’s watch a movie, man. You wanna catch a movie?’ I could hardly wait. Just what I want to do after getting my head ripped off by this pitbull; sit around his air-conditioned doghouse and watch a goddam movie. He leads the way downstairs to his home theater, which actually looked a lot more like… well, you know – a theater.
He sat down in the second row of seats.
I’m just standing there, scratching my head at this turn of events; a possible mindfuck of astronomical proportions which happened so quickly it would have given the average person whiplash. Still trying to figure out where all of this is going, and yet dying to find out, I walk over and take my place in a huge, plush seat directly across from him in the darkened theater. A movie begins on the vast screen above us, in all its wide-screen, high-def, surround-sound glory. There’s no place like home.
A few minutes into the film, another muscle-bound Adonis materializes off to the side of the theater.
‘Hey, Jet. What’s happenin’, dude? This here’s my new friend Chrome. He and I got it on over in Bahia, but we came through togetha and now we’s buds. Chrome, this is Jet.’
‘How ya doin’ man?’
‘Cool enough, man. Cool enough.’
‘Hey, man,’ Jet says, ‘let’s head over to Majini; they got some epic waves over there, and I got a new board I want to try out.’
Shark turns to me and says, ‘That cool with you, Chrome? Do a little surfin’ while the sun is still up?’ Of course, this was an inside joke, since in Second Life, the sun is always up. Or down. Or whatever you want it to be. In virtual worlds, you pick up where God leaves off. He hands you the dimmer switch. You can even place it anywhere in the sky, for that matter, like a Japanese lantern, which comes in very handy when you’re taking photographs.
‘Hey, why not, man? I don’t have a board, though, so I’ll just tag along.’
‘Don’t worry. We have plenty of boards. I’ll loan you one of mine, dude.’ Damn, this was turning out to be one hell of a weird night. By this time, I really had no idea what I was involved in. I had to follow this to the end; too many unanswered questions. Besides, I wanted to take some photographs; I had to record this thing, just so I’ll know it really happened.
Shark tp’d me into Majini, and there it was: pure white sands stretching as far as the avatar could see; and there, just a few hundred yards across the expanse of brilliant blue sea… the epic waves. They were rolling in, one after another, had to be at least 20 feet high. Shark and Jet hit their boards, yelling back to me as they paddled out: That last board’s for you, Chrome. Hit it!
I jumped on the board and began to paddle out after them. I lay on the board for a while, trying to catch the moves they made (in spite of the fact that I live in Santa Barbara, I had never been on a surf board in my life), and then stood up and raced headlong into the next monster wave.
It was a breathtaking experience. With my headset on, I was fully immersed in the moment; shooting up the inside of the curl, racing back down, curving up again as high as I could go as the wave raced toward the shore. The sound from inside the wave was deafening, adding to the adrenalin kick as I shot in and out of this rolling thunder.
At one point Jet and I, heading in opposite directions deep inside a curl, collided head on and launched one another right into the deep blue sea. We came up laughing, and jumped right back on our boards and waited for the next big one. We stayed out there for what seemed like an hour or so, then slowly paddled in together to hang out with several luscious looking babes in bikinis, who seemed to be waiting for us to return. They were part of Shark’s posse, apparently.
I was lying on the sand, deep in conversation with one of them, when someone suddenly tapped me on the shoulder from behind. Whaaa? Who’s that? I turned around to see my wife, apparently trying to tell me something. I took off the headset. Aren’t you coming to bed, honey? You aren’t going to stay on that computer all night, are you? It’s getting late and you won’t be able to get to sleep.
In a state of complete confusion, I said, uh, yeah, just give me a minute.
Returning to the beach, I stood up and said to my new surf buddies, Hey, guys, gotta run. I’ll catch you in a few; thanks for a great evening, even though it didn’t start out on the right foot. Shark laughed and said, C’mon, man, stick around. We’re goin’ to hit some heavy clubs and do some dancin’. You don’t wanna miss out on that action.
Next time, I said; next time. Thanks anyway. Then I disappeared in that familiar cloud of pixel dust. Little did they know that I was a retired college professor, and it was way past my bed time.
When Marcel Duchamp submitted his work, Fountain, a urinal signed “R. Mutt,” in the Society of Independent Artists (SIA) exhibit in 1917, he simultaneously obfuscated the longstanding role of the artist as high priest in the religion of art and removed the distinction between the “sacred,” or precious object and the common object. Although its true impact wouldn’t be understood until much later in the 20th century, it would prove to be almost as earth-shattering as Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, thus lighting the tinder box that would become the Protestant Reformation. Well, to us artists anyway; to the rest of the world it was just another urinal.
The role of the Church in European life would be battled over for over a century following Luther’s challenge and culminate in the revolutionary humanist ideals of The Enlightenment, shattering at last the liturgical chains that bound mankind – at least in Europe. Freed from the iron grip of a corrupt church, modern man was thrust into the world, kicking, screaming, and beheading; and began to make his own, individualistic way in the quest for meaning. Eventually science would attempt to fill that void; an attempt which for many would prove to be less than successful, being limited to the merely materialistic side of things.
But back to Duchamp. The SIA committee running the exhibit made the same mistake the Church did several centuries earlier, and decided that Fountain was not, actually, art, and rejected it from the show, causing an uproar first amongst the Dadaists (Marcel was a charter member). He promptly resigned from the board of the Independent Artists, and, wittingly or unwittingly (he was a master chess player), threw the art world into chaos, eventually leading to the intellectual atomization of PostModernism and all that followed – that is, to an unsettling situation wherein to attempt to define art would be akin to grasping a handful of water.
As you can see from these two key events in man’s recent history, neither art nor religion was ever the same once these ideas took wing. In fact, they both have all the elements of the Butterfly Effect in Chaos theory: that is, the idea that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings could conceivably create tiny changes in the atmosphere that could, possibly, lead to the conditions within which a hurricane could be born. Hurricanes were certainly born of these two butterflies.
It is a wondrous thing to contemplate the notion that pivotal moments in history can hinge on the ideas and actions of a single person. It is also worth noting, though perhaps not quite as wondrous to contemplate, the fact that to this day I can’t stand in front of a urinal without thinking of Marcel Duchamp. It is conceivable, I suppose, that I would similarly be reminded of Voltaire if I ever found myself standing in front of a guillotine.
Photo, top: Marcel Duchamp playing chess by Kay Bell Reynal, 1952; below, Duchamp’s Fountain.
I sit down to write this, my first post, in a dusty little town in Southern California, a desert town, a place that felt oddly familiar to me the day I arrived here almost five years ago. Though I’d been born and raised in upstate New York, I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that I had been here before.
As I began exploring the rugged mountains surrounding the high desert – a moonscape where enormous boulders lay scattered about like fallen planets; where canyons spiked with cholla cactus suddenly opened out onto vast, waterless plateaus dotted with Joshua trees as far as the eye could see – it began to dawn on me why I felt so at home here: these were the very same hills where the cowboy heroes of my boyhood – Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy et al – shot many of their films, along with a few hundred bad guys, way back in the 1950s.
On any given weekend I could be found in a darkened theater catching a Saturday matinee, sitting on the edge of my seat with all the other rough riders, stuffing my face with popcorn and jujubes, breathlessly riding the trail with these guys, week after week after week. Now, here I am, over a half century later, giving it up to the ether, to all the post riders in the sky. Hats off to you, Hoppy.
You’re probably wondering what, if anything, this has to do with the photo above – as well you should. If you look closely, you’ll notice there are a few other heroes in that room. Churchill and Roosevelt, for instance, who joined forces to defeat the guy with the Charlie Chaplin mustache in World War II; and, though he isn’t in the picture, the Evil Empire ruled by the man dressed in white would one day be brought down by another hero, himself a cowboy – Ronald Reagan.
The photo, by the way, was taken in a wax museum somewhere in London, which I hear is somewhere in England. Weird enough for prime time, seems to me. I know, I know, there aren’t any cowboy pictures up there. Maybe next time. We’re headin’ into non-linear country here, folks, so keep your hat pulled down and hold on tight to them reins.