Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Jumping into Art in Second Life

When people talk about museum projects in Second Life and other virtual worlds, I'm often disappointed by the short-sightedness of the vision. Virtual worlds are a new, emerging technology, and like any new technology, overlaying old techniques onto new platforms is disappointing at best. So much energy is put into recreating physical spaces and their real-world limitations rather than experimenting with ways that virtual worlds create opportunity to do things that are impossible in real museums. These opportunities can be social--engaging with museum content with other visitors at their computers all over the world--as well as experiential--allowing visitors to jump into, smash, and manipulate content in ways that physics and conservators forbid in real space.

This week, a quick example of how each is possible.


The video below is a gorgeous example of the possibility of substantive, emotional experiences with museum content via virtual world representations.

It's a machinima (video) by Robbie Dingo, a 3D recreation of Van Gogh's Starry Night.

As one YouTube visitor commented:

A masterpiece recreated. I watched the beauty unfolding in front of me. Maybe someone once watched Vincent creating the original and felt the same way.
I hope so.
Sadly, Robbie's goal was to use Second Life as a platform to create a 2D representation of the painting--so the 3D space of the painting is not available for visitors to explore. But imagine the possibilities for a museum to take an iconic painting or artifact and create a 3D version of it for visitors to wander. Narrative information could be embedded throughout the landscape, or an entire exhibition's worth of content could be embedded metaphorically in the space. The result is one solution to the "problem" of viewing 2D art--that it's hard to figure out how to focus and be attentive to the piece if you don't have a strong art background. Creating a 3D space to explore encourages visitors to spend more time with the piece, literally getting inside it.


There have been many art events and openings in Second Life, perhaps most significantly Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings, which was recreated in four Second Life locations for a weekend event earlier this month. Giff Constable of the Electric Sheep Company had some interesting observations about the unique social aspect of this event:

Was it real (a question perpetually asked by the perplexed)? Well, I ran into some people I knew, met some interesting new folks, got into the vibe of the art, and even ended up in an art conversation chatting about interesting artists like Stephen Hendee and Joshua Davis. But was I with those people in Second Life? We were certainly making mental connections, and frankly, I probably spoke to more people than I would at a real-life art opening. It is easy to feel lonely at a real art show surrounded by people who are strangers, but I bet very few people logged into that event in Second Life last night felt that way.
I've written before about the ways that adding a layer of technological barrier can open up people to more comfortable interaction with strangers. In the same way, virtual worlds may be a more natural venue to encourage discourse about museum content among strangers than real-world physical galleries, where social norms override desire to communicate.

5 comments, add yours!:

Jim Richardson said...

The problem with gallery openings and events in Second Life is that only so many people can be in any area at one time.

I have read this limit is around 70 people, though I haven't confirmed this.

Nina Simon said...

Yes, that's one of many problems. Then again, many museums and art galleries can't accomodate many more in a given installation at the same time, and the social component (i.e. all the people around) limits or changes the dynamic anyway. Plus, unlike in real life, SL events can be open around the clock.

Scalability is a huge question in Second Life. The "intimacy" however, can be spun as a positive as well, as in the AOL bulletin boards of the 1990s, which could only accomodate 30 people at a time.

Bryan Campen said...

So the way we attempted to deal with this was opening the installs at a space which intersected 4 sims (70x4 avatars able to come in), then hopped to three more spaces on a guided tour through all the installations.
The biggest barrier, in the end, is that people fail to attend to the projects they create. You have plenty of ghost town initiatives in the form of large scale projects no one visits because the creators do not care to attend to it or, conversely, they do not make it interesting/mentally challenging enough to continue to explore and return with friends. They neglect them.
We dealt with part of the avatar space problem by having a gigantic install at the begninning to hold 280 avatars, then personally spent the weekend walking them through the other three, smaller installations. There will never be a ton of avatars if there aren't people who tend to the projects. It's a two part battle, so I agree with you both.
Bryan Campen (SL=Cyrus Huffhines)

Lynda Kelly said...

I agree with you about the short-sightedness of the museum presence in SL. There was a paper given at M&W this year that nicely summarises museums and SL to date. There is a blog post here about that paper.

There is also going to be a conference about museums and research in SL (to be held in SL) but I can't lay my hands on the reference, will post if I find it again!

Anonymous said...

This is a pattern that my colleague Mike Twidale calls the "horseless carriage" phenomena. A new technology comes along and we try to make sense of it through what we's not an automobile, it's a carriage - without a horse.

When the World Wide Web came along we saw it as a space to put documents - web "pages." It took a few years before we saw the emergence of more interactive and less document like interactive sites and a while longer before we had Web 2.0.

Museums followed this general pattern as well. It's not a website, it's an electronic brochure! We're open T-S 9-5, see you in meatspace, kbye!

The same pattern seems to have repeated itself in SL. Square walls, stairs, tombstone labels next to images, avatar-sized spaces. It's not just museums, but pretty much everyone in SL.

We're still learning and encouraging people to push the boundaries is good. We need to think about making conscious choices about what works and doesn't work. (backed up with some good ole fashioned evaluation)

At the same time I'm reluctant to poo-poo things like Vasser's Sistine Chapel. Sometimes mimicking RL can provide the most stunning SL experiences.

I think part of our agenda is to figure out what is good and different about virtual spaces without throwing out what's good about RL spaces in the process.