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@ Exhibition

E. Marie Robertson
Visual Artist
Berkeley, California

Figure 1: Portion of the exhibition space at the Southern California Institute for Architecture, showing part of the installation and the Second Life projection.
Photo by Paul Catanese.

New Media Caucus this year offered up a juried exhibition entitled “@”, concurrent with the 2009 College Art Association conference in Los Angeles and in conjunction with the Southern California Institute of Architecture.  The show sought to “challenge artists to consider place & placelessness from within the context of networked culture.”  Key to this effort was an emphasis on the 3D virtual world, Second Life (SL) as both a primary element in many of the artworks and location for a concurrent parallel exhibition featuring work that could not be presented in “real life” (RL).  The call for entries noted,  “The intent…is to exploit the philosophically rich mirroring between RL and SL, as well as the paradoxical condition of being the observer and observed.”

Figure 2: The view of the real life space from Second Life. Image by E. Marie Robertson (Asimia Heron, SL).

The physical organization of the show furthered this overall concept. The Second Life-based gallery, containing unique works presented only in Second Life, was projected in real time in a fixed view against one wall of the real world exhibition space.  At the same time, a small camera mounted near the center of the room beamed real-time images from the Los Angeles location into Second Life. Visitors to either location could see one another and had a limited view of the work in each space, but they were otherwise unable to interact. A large installation in the real world gallery by artist Ian Trout created a unique “privileged” space; Second Life patrons could see a small segment of the installation and tent that was at its center, but were unable to see inside the tent or get a closer look at the other small aspects of the installation just outside camera range.  The choice to offer only fixed views into either space from the other emphasized the “placeness” of each locale and underscored the separateness of the experiences.

Figure 3: The full view of the Second Life gallery space for real world viewers.
Image by James Morgan.

Video Work

Ten video pieces were featured in “@.”  Curated by Vagner Whitehead, the works ranged from the intensely personal to the sociopolitical.  Six of the works documented projects that were either Second Life/Real Life hybrids, or fully contained within Second Life.  Only two were entirely focused on real world locales.

Among the SL-based works, Socks the Caline’s energetic  “BASE SL” occupied the lighter end of the spectrum. Set to a driving Stone Temple Pilots soundtrack, it showed the artist’s avatar base-jumping from a variety of recreated famous landmarks (Mt. Rushmore, the Empire State Building) and unique-to-Second Life landmarks, layering notions of the thrill found in physical risktaking onto a world where physical risk is nonexistent.

Other work struck a more serious note.  Stephanie Rothenberg’s video, “Double Happiness Sweatshop,” documented  the creation of Double Happiness Jeans, a full-fledged sweatshop in Second Life,  which in its performance phase created customized jeans at the request of the consumer.  Produced in Second Life by avatar workers, the jeans were then output in the real world with the help of a large-format printer.  Rothenberg notes that the project addresses “critical issues around the future of capitalist production within the framework of new technologies…Through the creation of a mixed reality virtual sweatshop that engages the viewer as participant in the production process, the viewer is able to witness both the fruits of innovation as well as the potential for exploitation.”

Figure 4: Video still from "Invisible Threads" by Stephanie Rothenberg.
Image courtesy of Stephanie Rothenberg.

Joseph DeLappe’s “The Salt Satyagraha Online: Gandhi’s March to Dandi in Second Life” recounted his live/virtual recreation of Gandhi’s 1930 march to protest the British salt tax.  Using a treadmill specially set up to drive the forward motion of his avatar through Second Life, DeLappe completed the 240-mile walk in 26 days, taking more than 200 Second Life “photographs” and having countless conversations with curious onlookers in both worlds along the way.

The video pieces located entirely in the real world emphasized a dramatically surreal point of view and suggested that we question whatever it is that we “know” about a place.  Italian artist team Lemeh42 offered up “The Korsakoff’s Syndrome” in an effort to establish a non-ordinary relationship between time and landscape by examining 1440 minutes in a modern airport.  In reference to time on an even larger scale, the gray and hazy look and abrupt editing style of “The Korsakoff’s Syndrome” is heavily reminiscent of early news-reel footage. 

Tizrah Even’s “Icarus” is a surreal portrait of a single place, the city of Cartagena, Spain.  Despite the initial appearance of a straight-forward panoramic style, seamless blending of reverse-pan and standard footage creates a mysterious world where the normal stands side-by-side with the bizarre and unexpected.

Figure 5: Video still from "Icarus," byt Tirtza Even.
Image courtesy of Tirtza Even.

Second Life-based Works

The show’s Second Life-based pieces, co-curated by James Morgan and E. Marie Robertson, were for the most part highly experiential in nature and required avatar participation to be fully appreciated—a further conundrum for visitors to the real world space, whose experience of the virtual gallery was limited to a single limited point of view without interaction.

All of the Second Life works were founded on conceptual underpinnings from the analog world, though in some cases the influence was subtle or implied. Misprint Thursday’s “Feather Field,” while at first glance appearing to be a representation of an abstractly-colored grassy field, was in fact constructed of small feather-shaped forms turned on end, with the “quill” creating the Baldes of grass—a feature that required a significantly closer inspection than was permitted by the real world view to ascertain.  Misprint Thursday’s other Second Life offering in the show was the enormous golden components of “Orbs,” which rose and fell independently and breathed in a unique rhythm that was at once familiar and strange.

Figure 6: The Second Life work "Feather Field" by Misprint Thurdsay.
Image by E. Marie Robertson (Asimia Heron, SL)

More literal in its reference to the real was Oberon Omicron’s “Beacon,” a massive abstract tower that conjured up thoughts about urbanization and decay as it continually built, dismantled and rebuilt itself.

Figure 7: The Second Life work "Beacon," by Oberon Onmura.
Image courtesy of Oberon Onmura.

“Storm Eye,” by Douglas Story and Desdemona Enfield, combined a wealth of real-world stimuli in completely unanticipated ways—sound and image of burgeoning storms, a topographical terrain overlaid with a flower—and layered them all into an undulating, writhing tunnel into which avatars could journey to experience standing at the heart of a storm.

Figure 8: Interior of "Storm Eye" by Douglas Story and Desdemona Enfield.
Image courtesy of Douglas Story.

The “mixed reality” piece “Flickr Gettr,” by Mencius Watts and Taggert Alsop, performed a complete loop between the worlds.  When activated by an avatar visitor and given a keyword, the work used its custom webserver to query the popular photo-sharing website Flickr and present images associated with that keyword in Second Life as a shifting, transforming wall montage.

Figure 9: The Second Life work Flickr Gettr by Mencius Watts and Taggert Alsop.
Image by E. Marie Robertson (Asimia Heron, SL)

Micha Cardenas’ documentation of her “Becoming Dragon” performance used recorded conversations and objects that had been given to her during her 365-hour immersive stay in Second Life. “Becoming Dragon” explored the possibilities for transformation offered by contemporary technology—in this case, transformation from one avatar “species” to another, as something of a metaphor for the artist’s own preparation to undergo sex reassignment surgery.

General Observations

Despite the “window” between the worlds and the initial call’s emphasis on interplay and synergy between them, in its final form “@” read as two distinct shows with two distinct energies.  The real life space had a somewhat sterile feel and strongly emphasized the visitor’s role as “observer.”  This was in part due to the un-malleable nature of the physical space.  For example, adjustments to create a more integrated or immersive presentation of the video work or the projected Second Life “window” were simply not possible given the space’s layout.  This atmosphere, combined with highly experiential nature of most of the Second Life works, which visitors could see but not interact with, forced the show to walk a delicate line between intriguing and alienating visitors to the Real Life space.

The Second Life space, on the other hand, bore a warm, almost meditative quality.  And whereas visitors to the real world exhibition gravitated almost immediately to the large Second Life projection, those who came into the Second Life gallery frequently didn’t even notice the camera feed from the real life space.

This raises the question as to whether the Second Life experience felt more engaging simply because there was more to do, or because of its placement in this fully immersive alternate world. One wonders how the total experience might have been changed had some mechanism been provided for real world visitors to get more of a sense of the complexity and function in the Second Life works —an inworld avatar “docent,” for example, who could have served as a guide, or some way for real world patrons to move the inworld camera to achieve different views of the gallery space.  Such features might have made the “window” a bit too transparent, or might have heightened the tension between the spaces by giving real world visitors a better sense of what they were missing.  Ultimately, however, all of the elements of “@” lived up to their promise to examine  “the nature of space, place, and the observer, the interplay between the observer and the observed, and the way in which location and placeness define or control experience.”

“@” was curated by James Morgan, Leslie Raymond, E. Marie Robertson and  Vagner Whitehead. Artists featured were Lily & Honglei Media (Lily Yang and Honglei Lei), Tirza Even, Garrett Lynch, Henry Gwiazda, Micha Cardenas, Brad Kligerman and Jamil Mehdaoui, Lemeh42, Ian Trout, Misprint Thursday, Joseph DeLappe, Stephanie Rothenberg, Oberon Onmura, Socks the Caline, Mencius Watts and Taggert Alsop and Douglas Story and Desdemona Enfield, with live theatre during the opening reception provided by Be Johnny and Potter-Belmar Labs (RL) and a special opening reception performance in Second Life by jon rafman and the artists of Second Front.