Kitsch and SL, part two

In part one of all this, I sought to make the point that SL is inherently a kitsch environment, on the order of Disneyland or the like, and that this is something that the SL artist must work either against or toward, depending on their preference and ideology.

So, just to start somewhere, how does the SL artist, immersed in a world saturated with kitsch, create a work of art that is not kitsch?

There are many different strategies. One that I would point out is the use of the personal, or as Kulka states in the afore quoted passage, “Kitsch does not work on individual idiosyncrasies. It breeds on universal images, the emotional charge of which appeals to everyone” – meaning, when a work of art refers to a specific experience (often times, one that has happened to the artist), it cannot be kitsch; and that kitsch traffics in the (assumed) universal rather than the individualistic.

Compare for example the difference between two non-art builds: The UC Davis Schizophrenia Simulator and Virtual Darfur. In the widely lauded UC Davis project, your avatar is lead through a variety of scenarios where you get to “experience” what it’s like to be schizophrenic – by viewing the project through mouselook, you see in a “first person” kind of view what it’s like to have words rearrange themselves on posters or books, and you “hear” through the speakers of your computer the voices of strangers conspiring against you. This build personalizes the experience – it makes it happen to you – as much as a medium like SL can.

On the other hand is Virtual Darfur, in which visitors can wander through a camp made to resemble one that houses refuges in that area. Wordy signage explains the situation and tents and other images attempt to capture it, but this is an exact situation where the third person default camera angle of SL falls completely flat – somehow, seeing a fake representation of myself meandering around an utterly fake representation of the horrors of war (with all the malnutrition, rape, horror, terror, fear, life, and death removed from it) only heightens the artificiality of the environment I’m in. It doesn’t do what it sets out to do, which is somehow to make the experience of the refugee camp survivors more real. As a result, Virtual Darfur, while attempting to teach a valuable lesson, succumbs to the overwhelming environment of kitsch that pervades SL.

The difference between these two pieces is that the UC Davis work presents you with a situation that is relatively neutral – it doesn’t set out to say, “Schizophrenia is bad,” rather it shows you what the disease is like and allows you to draw your own conclusions. Virtual Darfur, meanwhile, is much more lazy – as you participate in it, you are lead to one conclusion and one conclusion only (“The situation in Darfur is bad”), with any other questions or ideas generated by the work silenced or cast as being heartless.

To return the argument to SL art in particular, I’d like to discuss two artists whose work incorporates sentiment, representation, and strong emotions. These traits put them dangerously close to the category of kitsch, but both artists avoid falling into that trap.

First piece:
Nebulosus Severine: Sorry Dad, 2008, previously installed at BiW (photo courtesy Klink Epsilon)

Second piece:
AM Radio: The Quiet, 2007; Princeton sim


Few photos seem to exist of Nebulosus’s work, but to describe it briefly: Your avatar is transported to a tunnel-like container in the sky; within the claustrophobic space, you encounter a variety of objects – text discussing the artist’s relationship with her father, family photographs, recreations of old toys, etc. In AM’s work, a small cottage is situated in the middle of a snowy field; the cottage is filled with a collection of strange personal objects (an old-fashioned pump-operated sink, a strange Rube Goldberg-like contraption attached to the wall, and recreations of several of the artist’s real-life paintings). Nebulosus’s work presents her objects in a straightforward manner, in a way in which you might actually encounter them in an airless old attic or crawlspace. AM’s work is lusher and more sepia toned; it feels dredged in linseed oil, and the palette emphasizes the “natural” light seeping in through windows in the house.

Taken as still images, these works might be confused as kitsch. But the experience of moving around them alerts the viewer that something else is definitely going on. There is the overwhelming sense that there is a gap between the images you see and the story they are conspiring to tell, and this is our first clue to spend more time with the work in order to take it apart.

But to examine what might be misconstrued as kitsch, I’ll return to Kulka. Further in his book, he gets even more specific about his definition, stating:

Condition 1: Kitsch depicts objects or themes that are highly charged with stock emotions […]
Condition 2: The objects or themes depicted in kitsch are instantly and effortlessly identifiable. […]
Condition 3: Kitsch does not substantially enrich our associations relating to the depicted objects or themes.

Both AM and Nebulosus flirt with kitsch by recreating objects in world that are “instantly and effortlessly identifiable” and that are “highly charged” – a New England home, a snowy landscape (in the case of AM), a toy airplane and a picture of a teenager (in the case of Nebulosus). And yet they avoid the trap of kitsch by imbuing in their work a sense of personal importance and meaningfulness. The images they recreate are actually not as universal as they first seem – they respond, in fact, to specific moments and emotions within the artist’s experience, and it is clear upon looking at them that you aren’t being presented with the whole narrative, neatly tied up, but rather that the work needs investigating. In order to decode them, you must suspend what you know about these objects and see them as the artist proposes – you must internalize the story that the artist is telling in order to read the work (in AM’s work, your avatar is manipulated to become part of the piece – so in his work, this functions literally).

So that’s one strategy of the SL artist to avoid the taint of kitsch – to bring in references from the real world experiences of the artist. By switching around the point of view – either literally or figuratively – the artist involves the viewer in their work, bringing them into this confidence, and showing them something so personal and idiosyncratic that it defies the kind of universality that kitsch depends upon.

Another would be to bring in references from the RL art world. As in the example of a work by Dekka Raymaker:
No one would accuse this work of being kitsch because of its association with RL “high culture” – clearly the artist is nodding and laughing along with his audience, employing irony and a historical reference that shows that he knows better than to be caught up in the silly sentiment that defines kitsch.

Another more troublesome artist to consider in this context would be DanCoyote Antonelli.

His use of abstraction seems to remove him from the dialog. And yet, is this true? Is his work really not “identifiable” simply because it’s abstract?

No – DanCoyote’s work remains “instantly and effortlessly identifiable” because while it can’t be identified as a rockinghorse or a paper airplane (or whatever), it can be identified as a piece of abstract art – by now its own category of thingness.  The viewer has a connection and a history to abstraction just as they would any object laying around their home.

But DanCoyote’s work fails on the other two conditions Kulka puts forth, and is therefore not kitsch: By creating a body of work in the context of a critical dialog the artist has provided, the work does substantially enrich our associations. And by creating work in a way that is methodical, measured, and very thought out, the artist steers clear of stock emotions, investigating his terrain of light, color, movement, and sound, much more like a cerebral and careful scientist than a lovesick teenager trying to explain how they feel. (I’ve felt for a while that DanCoyote is a Conceptual artist in Formalist clothes, but this is a topic for another day.)

But the use of imagery that is “instantly and effortlessly identifiable” becomes most problematic in the case of the work of an artist like Ichibot Nishi and his collaboration with Arahan Claveau for “Beyond Human.” In this piece, the artists incorporates elements in other situations would be easily characterized as kitsch:


…and then juxtaposes them with objects that are more curious and troubling:
arahanichibot_0041In a white cube gallery situation, this work would be easier to interpret – of course he is using irony in quoting kitsch, because it is assumed that anything in the white cube environment is not kitsch, so any mention of the subject must be ironic.

But positioned in an environment where kitsch – and not “good taste” – reigns, how do we distinguish this installation from any of a number of other weird, wacky “artworks” that litter SL?

That’ll lead us to part three, which is all about camp…


~ by amyfreelunch on December 29, 2008.

3 Responses to “Kitsch and SL, part two”

  1. totally brilliant. Can’t wait to read more.

  2. This continuing essay is a most compelling and accurate insight into not only kitsch but also the entire SL art scene. There’s a lot I want to respond to, relating to all this and last weeks BiW podcast, but I’d prefer to wait until the article is concluded before I comment further.

  3. I follow your posts for quite a long time and should tell that your posts always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.

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