Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Imaginary Friends

My former chair sent me a funny comic strip, as he does every now and then, and this one really made me laugh. It gets to the heart of one of the issues around computer-mediated-communication, which is the way we establish and maintain friendships and relationships in online communities and within virtual space. Certainly, one of the fascinations for me in Second Life is the social engagement; in such a rich visual and imaginative environment, where does my subjectivity end and that of the real people on the other side of their computers begin? It is a moving line, and maybe a liminal space that we share, at times, at the best times. That is my utopian vision, at least, and has been my experience sometimes, with some people, and so that is my story and I am sticking with it. It is the theme of TOGGLE, the piece I made for the Frontline Stories from your Digital Nation project, which you can see on their site here or if you want HQ, on youtube here. Mine is the top right bubble. I made the piece specifically for an audience not familiar with Second Life.

I fleshed out some of the complexities I thought I glossed over in the piece on this webpage. Basically, the "hyperpersonal" mode of computer-mediated communication that is fostered by the text messaging in SL, which allows for selective self-presentation (according to scholar Joseph Walther; see the webpage for more) means that relationships are forged between two idealized selves, with a feedback loop that tends to reinforce positives over negatives. It doesn't mean that those qualities aren't there in the actual person, because undoubtedly they are, but the selective self-presentation gives the typist more control over what is shared, even to the point of being able to erase what one is typing as you see what the other person has just said, an impossibility in voice chat or face to face communication. No matter how natural or relaxed one is being in text chat, there is always that element of control, and of the lower "emotional bandwidth," as Pathfinder Linden terms the low-cue environment.

So given that, what does it mean to be an online friend? That question has so very many answers. Are they, as the comic strip snipes, "imaginary friends?" Who can have 1000 friends? Or how about followers, as Twitter terms them? There are as many reasons to "friend" someone in SL as there are people, so that question is impossible to answer in a broad way. Everyone has a different idea about what it means to have people on their friends list, and some people edit those lists, trimming away people, and some don't. I tend not to.

To turn to another online friend-space, I do not spend much time on Facebook, don't get the updates in e-mail, etc, but I do like it , and do check in now and then. I've connected with people with whom I have lost touch, and I do feel back in some kind of network with them now. They are right there, virtually. And all of a sudden, in one virtual place, are all the different chapters of my life, from high school (because it was a high school friend who got me to actually do more than put up an empty page on Facebook to begin with) to people I only know in Second Life. It makes me feel more integrated, like all those parts of myself mingle there on the facebook page, and a narrative forms for me. I have been rotten at keeping in touch with people, not for any good reason, and so I am glad to be reconnected, to be part of the web of contacts, to see their pictures and find out what they are doing. In some way, there is a little piece of me still there in Bloomington, for example, and I suppose it is there with the people who are there. Maybe that is what is left behind when we make a choice and leave someplace instead of staying; in my mind's eye, in a flash of memory, sometimes in dreams, all of a sudden, I am right there, in Bloomington, walking down South Stull to my house. I see some pictures, some faces, on facebook and it happens then, too, and I am in both places, here and there. It is a kind of virtual experience, mediated by technology, or prompted by it.

So what does that have to do with imaginary friends? I think it is in the same category, of a highly subjective, individualized, internal experience that is also connected to something real and external. In one way, all friendships and relationships exist in the imaginary; we are symbolic for each other. I do not believe that my SL friends are imaginary friends; I do not think that I have that good of an imagination. I am also sure that I participate in creating the image I have of them in my mind, the same way I fill in the gaps between the people I knew in the past and the current photos on Facebook. But even more than that, in the way that Bloomington is still there in my mind, or rather, how I am still there in my mind, then yes, I suppose that there may be a good place for imaginary friends, extensions of connections made. Do our interactions with the people we care about stop when we are not with them? I think not; our minds, our connections transcend time and space, and that is what imagination is for.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Desert Place Clickable

This piece was really the turning point of the build for me, when some combination of the meteor gloom and unforeseen emotional upheaval reminded me of the Robert Frost poem, "Desert Places." I was inspired by Penumbra's "so much depends" piece, which interprets that Williams Carlos Williams poem in a virtual context. I also think of all the desert places, internal and external, actual and virtual, we inhabit, and how we cope with them.

There is a flower that holds the poem; click and you see it in local chat and are offered a notecard. The particle snow sparkles briefly in the night. The ice twist sculpture gives depth, and the swirling texture on the inside of the snowglobe destabilizes one's point of view. The poseball makes the avatar creep and climb around in the snow. Stand up and you will sink into it.

The piece also makes use of an experiment I've been playing with: using friends' rez dates for the numbers in particle scripts to make different colors and effects.

Desert Places

by: Robert Frost, 1936

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast

In a field I looked into going past,

And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,

But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it--it is theirs.

All animals are smothered in their lairs.

I am too absent-spirited to count;

The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness

Will be more lonely ere it will be less--

A blanker whiteness of benighted snow

With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces

Between stars--on stars where no human race is.

I have it in me so much nearer home

To scare myself with my own desert places.

The Future of Virtual Subjectivity, or From the Gloom Meteor

Here are some pics from my installation at SL6B, and here is the website I made, with the notecard info from it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


L1 has been clicking from poseball to poseball to get around the SL6B build, sort of swinging on virtual vines. This time she went from the waternap chair to the snowglobe, and ended up just lying down in the snow instead of creeping around. She worked hard at the presentation/discussion event tonight, so I just let her be.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


My build, "The Future of Virtual Subjectivity," which could also be called, "Greetings from the Gloom Meteor," is seen from afar in the above snapshot; it is the one with the spheres in the air and the marvelous dome on the ground (built by the talented and ever-patient Cinco Pizzicato). I took this snapshot at 2:50 am my time, just as the group notice went out that said: pencils down, and will get some better ones today when the exhibition reopens. The build time was over, and what is there will be my first virtual installation. Yes, there is EduGolf, but that has a practical purpose different from this piece, which really is my attempt to participate fully in the inworld virtual art making I have been around and experimenting with in various ways.

I learned a lot in making this piece. I banged my head against the limitations of my knowledge and skill constantly as I tried to figure out how to make the things that were in my head. I asked a lot of people for help, and they were really generous with me. That is one of the best aspects of SL, of course, and my friends are talented and patient. When the fourth skilled builder/artist I know came to my land, took a look around at what I was doing, and told me to simplify, that I was making things needlessly complicated, I really heard it, and so that became the thing I worked for this project when I got stuck, stepping back, remembering the focus, going for simplicity, and then of course ramping up the ideas and complexity again, because that is my nature. It was an interesting process, and maybe a dialectic I can play with inworld, with particles, textures, and other kinds of scripting and movement.

So, here is the short version of the narrative of my piece:

Here on the meteor, it is 2499 and we hurtle through space, bereft of sun, with barely enough water to keep us being civil to each other. Sometimes I think if I bang my head on the edge of the dome one more time when I'm cleaning up, I'll really scream. The gloom persists. But not too long ago, we found some fragments from a non-quite forgotten past, and they ignited our imaginations. Images, a poem, some sounds, a fragment of video, pieces of text, pulled off an ancient disc that somehow survived in space and floated to us.

What an archeological find! The motifs invigorated our design, infiltrated our dreams, shaped our virtual environments. The sun, the flower, the ripple, the snow. A poem that speaks to our experience here on the gloom meteor, my own desert place that I call home. But then of course I toggle into the virtual, and my eyes drink in the water, my skin sears with the heat of the sun, I am enveloped by the petals of the flower, and I turn my face and part my lips to taste the falling snow.

Part of what we found has made us think about the long ago past, how quaint it must have been when the virtual was so split from the actual, when it was not so effortless to shift between, when not everyone was moving between realities. On that disc, maybe corrupted because it doesn't all make sense, were some ideas about virtual subjectivity written by someone named Lori Landay in the year 2009, a primitive time of computer screens, something very bad called lag in an early virtual world named Second Life, and also I think a time of great hope and invention.

LINK TO SECOND LIFE LOCATION http://slurl.com/secondlife/Dimension/215/182/22

The installation has two parts, really: the part on the land, which is mostly Cinco's dome and Alexith Destiny's fantastic glowy thyme and meteor flowers. The domehouse is decorated on the inside with the images and video "found" on the disc, which I imagined as a back up CD or DVD I might make when working on a project, that somehow ends up floating through space. Yeah. The images include photographs from my garden, a photo of the sun from NASA, a picture of a peony from an online bulb catalog. These are the designs on the chairs, on the walls, the floor, in the dome.

A teleport object (with a super clever script by Cinco) takes you to an approximation of some of the experiences the meteor people have when they toggle into the virtual, immersive sensory experiences that provide them what they sorely lack on the gloom meteor. The images you saw in the dome as design motifs are the virtual environments themselves.

I wanted to have a ride take the avatars from one sculpture to the next, but I could not get that damned thing to work right. Misprint used it for the suck train at Brooklyn Is Watching, and I was over there with her when she was installing it, and it gave her problems too, I remember. She of course, fixed hers, but I ran out of time and patience, and so simplified, and people will have to fly around my build.

I am having an event, a short talk and then a discussion, at 5PM Pacific Time on Thursday, June 25. http://slurl.com/secondlife/Dimension/215/182/22

Sunday, June 7, 2009

New Art Shows in SL

There are two promising art exhibitions opening today, Sunday June 7, at 4 pm EDT, so L1 will be a busy avatar later today after scooping up some actual world sunshine before then.  The Evolution Gallery, at http://slurl.com/secondlife/Cassowarry/89/111/61 and DanCoyote/DC Spensley in the actual world's Museum of Hyperformalism at http://slurl.com/secondlife/PiRats%20Art%20Network/129/127/29 are the places.  

I haven't seen any of the Evolution pieces yet, but I snuck over to the Museum of Hyperformalism yesterday for a peek and ran into the talented Selavy Oh, who was putting the finishing touches on an as-yet untitled piece that really blew me away.  See the pic below and check out the rest of Selavy's installation, as well as my friend Oberon's and Comet Morigi's s work.  These three artists, all involved with Brooklyn Is Watching, are working in the most evocative ways with what virtual art can, might, and must do.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Virtual/Actual: Nose to Nose, L1 & Lori Go for a Spin in Lowell

As part of my ongoing explorations of the boundaries between the virtual and actual worlds, I went up to Lowell last night to Filthy Fluno's gallery, where we had a good laugh standing next to our avatars in SL projected on the wall . . . and I just had to take L1 for a spin.

New Brooklyn Is Watching Podcast

L1, encaped, on the new BIW podcast. Video here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Actual/Virtual Gazebos, Memories, & Home

I've had this gazebo as the entry point to my virtual land in Boga for some time now, and on my computer desktop, a different picture of my family in this gazebo in the little beach town where my grandparents lived when I was a kid, which we visited last summer.  They are both "home" in the spatial metaphors through which we inhabit technology: the desktop picture, and the teleport point in SL. 
But it took me a while of having both as "home"--in the ways that we make the impersonal technological spaces we inhabit our own, infusing them with meaning and resonances--to see that they were the same.   I knew I had replicated the one in my memory from my childhood by putting my kids where I was at their age for the photograph; that was deliberate and conscious.  But that I  had already put that gazebo in Second Life eluded me, until I saw the desktop behind the SL window one day, finally saw they were the same, even though they had been juxtaposed so many times before.   How does something like that escape someone, especially when they are so consciously in SL to explore issues of virtual experience?  I am quite aware that my virtual couch is the same as my actual couch, the one that is now on its last legs, literally, after being such a proud purchase when I bought the floor model on my way out of Bloomington and to Macomb, IL.  First I made one in SL, then bought a nice one with sitting animations, same teal color, and it will remain pristine, long after the kids and cat have really done the actual one in.  
I am sentimental in SL, or nostalgic, perhaps, infusing my house and land with little references to my past and my virtual experiences that are meaningful only to me.  Those visual cues pepper my machinima and pictures, blending memories of both realities, and are private, at the same time that they function as imagery and background, like any artist.  That is inescapable, but I have embraced it, mostly consciously, but, as the example of the gazebo shows, also subconsciously.  There is something evocative about the virtual space, about building within it, that necessitates a dip into memory even when it seems like that is not what is happening.  In shaping one's land, it is not just land, but an extension of the self, in the way that anthropologist Jason Pine talks about "self-design" (An Emergent Second Life, Video. [28 min] Paper Tiger TV.  Co- Producer and Director, Bianca Ahmadi; Associate Producer, Juan Rubio; Editor, Juan David Gonzalez; Content Director, Jason Pine.  Watch at http://papertigertv.blogspot.com/2008_12_01_archive.html).  
The actual gazebo is still in the town center, but even as a kid, it wasn't actually being in the gazebo even though it was the place to eat cotton candy, but its locus in my girlhood imagination, first of fairies and the like, then of romance.  Now that I think about it, I see the gazebo as a symbol of possibility, of where fabulous things could happen, and it is interesting to me that when I was hurriedly getting my land ready for my first group of students, I chose the gazebo as the gathering place before we headed back to the EduGolf course.