August 14, 2007

Personal essay: Oh Lord, CCLaP enters Second Life

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

(You can click on any of the images in this entry to see much larger versions.)

So for those who don't know, one of the last creative projects I did before starting CCLaP was a blog last year called In The Grid, which covered the goings-on of this strange little videogame called Second Life; think of it as any other 3D real-time videogame like World of Warcraft and the like, except with no pre-determined point to it all (no dragons to slay, no planet to blow up, no hookers to run over). Instead, it's the players of Second Life themselves who create all the content and "reasons" for being there, using a variety of ingenious tools that Linden Lab (owners of Second Life) have granted to players: the ability to own virtual land, to create anything they want using a series of open-source tools and scripts, to buy and sell these objects using an in-universe currency (which you move real money in and out of through Paypal accounts or credit cards), to retain complete ownership of any intellectual property you create there.

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

As a result, micro-business entrepreneurialism has flourished within the persistent universe of Second Life (a virtual world now bigger than real-life San Francisco, known as 'the Metaverse,' 'the Grid,' and a host of other names), with the arts being an especially robust industry; two of the most popular types of venues to open there, in fact, have been art galleries and live-music clubs (see, you can stream in live music on top of everything else); such businesses compete quite well there against the casinos and bordellos and malls that usually garner all the press about Second Life. That's what "In The Grid" covered, to tell you the truth, not the mechanics of the game itself but rather the culture that was maturing inside of it -- the gallery scene, the cutting-edge programmers, those there to explore sexuality in a way they were uncomfortable doing in real life. That's my character you're seeing above, in fact, named Miller Copeland and known there as an 'omnisexual' -- that is, I actually exist as both a man and a woman there, and flip between the genders based on personal whim, although both should be considered two aspects of the same person. Yeah, I know; it's just one of the multitude of silly videogamey things about Second Life that quite quickly become puzzling sociological and ethical questions when thought about too much. Which is the whole reason I used to love playing every day, of course.

But alas, the software running Second Life finally became too complex for my piddly little Mac Mini at home, to the point where I can no longer even attend popular events there or move in real time when traveling by vehicle. Sigh! That's the hidden cost of Second Life that no one talks about, since it's almost exclusively middle-class people with large discretionary incomes playing; that to have the optimal experience there you can have, something even approaching console-quality, you must not only own an expensive, high-end, Windows-focused "gamer" home computer, but then upgrade the video cards in that computer every six months as well. And besides, it was time to open CCLaP by then as well, which is why I put "In The Grid" into a semi-permanent hiatus last June and also stopped going by the in-world headquarters I had been maintaining for the blog.

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Ah, but as I get closer to finally opening the Flash-based virtual photography gallery here at the CCLaP website that I've been teaching myself how to do this summer (and which was supposed to be open July 4th, but whaddya gonna do), I've been thinking more and more about that virtual 512 square meters I own within Second Life, which after all is paid up through this coming December and is just sitting there. So yes, it's true -- I've decided to build a 3D version of the CCLaP virtual photography gallery there, and to host shows of artists' work there at the same time their show is being exhibited at the website. It is...a gimmicky thing, I will grant you that. Yes, mostly done so that I can announce in the sidebar of this website, "Hey, CCLaP has a virtual headquarters in Second Life!" But also kind of a cool thing as well; a way to interact with the show in three dimensions, a place to hold "virtual opening-night parties" that others around the planet can attend in real time together, even a way to sell 3D "framed" JPEGs of this work to other Second Life residents for a dime or quarter apiece, so they can hang at their own virtual home on their own virtual space. Yes, we are all dorks in Second Life, thank you very much!

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Anyway, I was fooling around with the space this weekend and thought I'd take some photos (er, screenshots) of what I've gotten done so far; the images above, for example, are of the first floor of the virtual center, although it's still awaiting things like the underwater Asian-style landscaping that will be installed along that curving front (bamboo shoots, underwater plants that poke through the surface, animated fish, etc). You can pretty much get the idea of what I'm going for, though -- basically as large a blank space as my beginner (or "newbie") plot can afford, giving me plenty of space to hang large 3D editions of the images for that show. And just because I couldn't resist, I also decided to make the back wall a giant 60-foot (20-meter) waterfall, rushing its way into the ocean my land is under in the first place. (In fact, over the last year I've come to call my little area of Second Life a "Virtual Martha's Vineyard," in that it has remained mostly a showcase for tasteful but expensive large private homes this entire time, a virtually unknown thing for a place with no zoning laws and instantaneous construction/demolition of buildings.)

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Okay, so on to the second floor we go, which when finished residents will be able to access through an animated elevator back near the waterfall, or simply by going outside and flying up a floor. (Oh, and notice that I've switched over to my male persona now, which is roughly modeled after how I look in real life, except with better hair and more kickass tattoos.) And it's more of the same, basically, which will allow exhibitions to spill upwards into a whole other space, or maybe hold a second exhibition instead or show off the CCLaP permanent collection as it gets larger and larger. And this floor also has a large outdoor patio overlooking the Vineyard, because how can you be in Second Life and not have a large outdoor patio?

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

And since I could, I went ahead and snapped a couple of photos of the center under late sunset conditions, just to show those who have never tried Second Life exactly what kinds of sophisticated and subtle changes are constantly happening to your environment there, even while logged in and playing in real time. There's a reason, after all, that habitués of the Grid are as intensely into Second Life as they are.

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

And of course, what's a CCLaP project without a chance for a little dramatic self-branding? Of course! And that's one of the things that I love the most about Second Life, of course, is that you can do very grand-looking things with almost no budget at all, since it's all virtual and exists only as pixels and bits. This rooftop billboard, for example, was done simply by being smart in Photoshop beforehand, then importing the files into the Metaverse for about 3 American cents apiece (covering the blip of bandwidth those importations each cause on that server); when seen in the right context, though, it looks like one of those grand outdoor branding projects that only major museums can usually afford. It's for these reasons that so many people have flocked to Second Life to open art galleries and music clubs in the first place; and then for another, of course, there's always the chance to wear utterly fantastical outfits to these places like what you're seeing above, my female aspect with blue alien skin, platinum-blonde hair, an elaborate Victorian-era dress, and working dragonfly wings. That's the thing that makes Second Life so unique and fascinating, in my opinion -- that far from being a realistic virtual recreation of our real world, it is instead an intriguing combination of reality and fantasy.

Virtual CCLaP in Second Life

Anyway, hope you liked this little sneak preview of CCLaP's coming virtual center; and if you're already a resident of Second Life yourself, you can of course go visit the space by teleporting to [Yongdong 185/179/21]. Free your inner nerd, my little arts-loving friend, and let your geek flag fly proudly!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:33 AM, August 14, 2007. Filed under: CCLaP news | Second Life |