Benefit auction

•December 30, 2008 • Leave a Comment
Heya – this is from Gary Kohime, who asked me to pass on this info to you about a benefit he is involved with…

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As announced in last weeks post on “This Week’s Great Events In SL” for the American Cancer Society special benefit called Raina’s Gift. I have started a 2nd Auction due to the number of great contributions from many of the top creators in SL. Such as, Aloah Oh, Elros Tuominen, Glyph Graves, Sasun Steinbeck, AM Radio, Damanios Thetan and many more.

The auction will be different this time in that its an auction by proxy, so everyone can bid, and need not be present to win at the awards ceremony and dance event.
Furthermore, you can “Preview” and “Bid” at the beautiful, and thought provoking sim of AM Radio’s Welsh Lakes, here>>> Welsh Lakes sim

Bid Awards/Dance Event Date: January 3, 2009
Time: 1-3 PM SLT
Location: SS Galaxy, Zodiac Ballroom here>> Zodiac Ballroom

Dress: Formal

All Auction Details can be obtained at the Preview area at Welsh Lakes, or from posters that are being distributed across the grid.

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Kitsch and SL, part two

•December 29, 2008 • 3 Comments

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

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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:
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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:

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…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…

“The Quiet” to disappear?

•December 26, 2008 • 13 Comments

My favorite piece of SL art ever is set to disappear in about a week if it doesn’t get a new home.  AM Radio’s magnificent The Quiet – the artist’s most personal and, in my mind, important piece to date – is losing its home due to the impending price increase. Of course, the weird irony here is that AM’s work was recently featured as the start page for SL – a terrific move on the part of Linden Labs to endorse and support a work of SL art that I was thrilled to see… except that it would be even more terrific if they could help the guy out by giving him a sim to host this really major work.

LL most likely won’t, so are there any kind benefactors out there who would be willing to contribute some land to the cause? It kills me to think that we’re losing this piece. It’s one of those perfect examples of SL art that can’t be reproduced in photographs or machinima or the like – it must be experienced in world, as it makes use of so many of the features of SL that are specific to the medium.

If SL has anything resembling a cultural history (and I believe it does, and the need to preserve its history will become more and more important as we try and get this field to receive the credit and attention it deserves), then this piece is definitely right up there in the canon. Losing it would be devastating.

Christmas show link!

•December 25, 2008 • 3 Comments

You can access my Christmas show here.

Also, Neb and Arahan’s shows make fantastic family listening as well, while you’re gathering around your pheasant or roasting marshmallows or whatever the hell normal people do on Christmas. You can access their shows here.

Kitsch and SL, a first try

•December 24, 2008 • 14 Comments

(This is an essay I started some while ago, assumed that I published on this site when I didn’t – doh! – and have updated a bit to reflect the current conversation. I will keep on working on it and adding to it… consider this Part One of at least three parts.)

I think that in many ways, the various voices that seek to critique and historicize SL art have (for the most part) ignored or misunderstood the role that kitsch plays not only the constructing of those works, but the entire architecture of SL as a medium.

Tomas Kulka, in his phenomenal book Kitsch and Art, does something that I haven’t seen any other author do: He sets out to give an actual definition of kitsch, rather than assume that he and his audience are all thinking of the same thing. I hope you’ll excuse my rather lengthy quoting from his book, but I think that the examples he gives will help ground this discussion. In offering advice to a painter seeking to create a kitsch painting, he writes:

“Let us take for example, the theme of the crying child that figures so prominently in kitsch depictions. Our painter should be advised to choose a nice and cute little child rather than a wicked or ugly-looking one. The cry shouldn’t be irritating or hysterical, but rather a sob of the soft and quiet variety; the child should elicit a sympathetic response. The painter should avoid all unpleasant or disturbing features of reality, leaving us only with those we can easily cope with and identify with. Kitsch comes to support our basic sentiments and beliefs, not to disturb or question them. It works best when our attitude toward its object is patronizing. Puppies work better than dogs, kittens better than cats. The success of kitsch also depends upon the universality of the emotions it elicits. Typical consumers of kitsch are pleased not only because they respond spontaneously, but also because they know they are responding in the right kind of way. This psychological aspect of kitsch was also stressed by Milan Kundera: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch (Unbearable Lightness 251).” The aim of kitsch is not to create new needs or expectations, but to satisfy existing ones. Kitsch does not work on individual idiosyncrasies. It breeds on universal images, the emotional charge of which appeals to everyone.” (Kulka 26-7; emphasis mine)

To take this apart a bit and relate it to the subject of Second Life:

The painter should avoid all unpleasant or disturbing features of reality…
Ok, well – this one is almost too easy. SL, as a corporate environment, is set up so that any kind of truly transgressive activity is grounds for banning – whether it’s choosing a child avatar, doing anything that could be construed as attacking another avatar, or just generally behaving in such a way that is against the rather arbitrary “community standard.” But even if this weren’t the case, the environment of SL inherently denies everything unpleasant or disturbing about being alive. Your avatar never dies, gets sick, or even has to take a shit; one of the most hilarious things I think I’ve seen in SL is the the specter of SL “birth” – in which a “pregnant” avatar “gives birth” to an object resembling a baby, and the whole thing is handled without any trace of pain, blood, or fear.

This leads me to my first contention about SL and kitsch, which is that: Second Life is inherently a kitsch environment.

“Kitsch comes to support our basic sentiments and beliefs, not to disturb or question them.”
SL is primarily an environment policed by the community with occupies it. If I created an unbelievably offensive avatar and interacted with absolutely no one willing to turn me in, chances are Linden Lab would never find out and I could go about my business with my avatar intact. However, all it would take for me to be banned for some length of time is for someone to make an official complaint to LL, which undoubtably would happen sooner or later. LL would most likely err on the side of banning me rather than risk offending the person filing the report.

“Typical consumers of kitsch are pleased not only because they respond spontaneously, but also because they know they are responding in the right kind of way.”

This sort of knee-jerk reaction to banning “offensive” avatars (or actions, speech or artwork) reinforces the idea that there is some sort of consensus of ethics within SL, which has been arbitrarily chosen by LL but pretty much adopted in a wholescale way by the SL community.

So, contention #2: SL is inherently a kitsch environment because the majority of its community members accept and reinforce this.

“The aim of kitsch is not to create new needs or expectations, but to satisfy existing ones.”
One of the most stunning things about SL to a new user is how much a world in which “anything” (more or less) can be created looks so much like the world that we currently occupy. Add to that the numerous avatars you can buy which replicate RL celebrities, not to mention “bling” in countless iterations, cars/houses/clothes that are duplicates of RL cars, and so on, and it becomes clear that SL functions for a majority of its community members as a kind of wish fulfiller, satisfying the desire of its players to consume more things than they have the ability to in RL.

Contention #3: SL is an inherently a kitsch environment because the majority of its users accept and reinforce this, because it’s what they believe they really want.

So… SL is kitsch, before the artist even sits down to do anything in its environment. A good comparison would be if you could imagine an artist creating a serious work of art in the midst of Disneyland – how on earth would one do such a thing and not have the surrounding environment/context inform their work?

Bear with my example for the moment, because it raises some interesting issues I think are relevant to this discussion:

If the artist in question uses imagery within the work they’re creating that is kitschy, or heavily loaded with symbolism, or cute, or pretty, how does the environment it’s in (aka Disneyland, which is saturated by kitschy, pretty, cute, “meaningful” things) inform those images?

How would an artist, creating work in the midst of Disneyland, come up with something that makes his/her audience forget their surroundings and view the work as if it were in a gallery? (Is such a thing even possible, reasonable, and desirable?)

Given that the majority of the artist’s audience will be in Disneyland because they want to be surrounded by kitsch, what are kinds of expectations should the artist build into the piece to assure that it is interpreted as the artist wants it to be?

How does the artist’s complicity of working in such an environment fuel the interpretation of the piece? If they’ve agreed to be there and to play by the rules, how does the artist create something that isn’t kitsch?

More soon.

Christmaspectacular!

•December 24, 2008 • Leave a Comment

YAY! The Amy Freelunch Hour Christmaspectacular is airing Wednesday night and will eventually be linked here (once it’s archived) is linked HERE. It contains a disturbingly heartfelt begging for my favorite charities (Depilex smileagain and maps.org), an interview with Nebulosus Severine, singing cats, Bibbe Hansen bashing, and a dedication to Neb that probably isn’t nearly cool enough.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYBODY!!!! woot and all that. yay.

The raw and the cooked.

•December 21, 2008 • 46 Comments

Based on some conversations I’ve had recently, I’ve been thinking about this idea of how being an “outsider” figures into SL art.

A little background: The term “outsider” sort of assumes there are two distinct groups of people who make art – those with formal training in the subject and those without. On the surface, this seems fair enough. But it gets a little tricky when you start to consider who has been dumped into that second category, which then breaks down into categories of its own. You have, among the leading lights of Outsider Art:

  • Martin Ramirez, who lived much of his life in a mental institution.
  • Ray Materson, a former inmate, who began creating obsessive works made from unraveled socks while incarcerated.
  • Rev. Howard Finster, who claimed to create his work with the intercession of God.

…and on and on and on. What they have in common is that the creator of the work – beyond just this very simple definition of being “untrained” – has some sort of, shall we say, slippery relationship to the traditional notion of mental health. As a result, while it certainly has its admirers (I’m one of them), “Outsider Art” is a rather dubious category to get dumped in. Even efforts to save it, which seem to inevitably involve the argument that the work of “Outsiders” is somehow “more pure” than those of us who went to school for art and take our medication, because (as the argument goes) the Outsider is creating art which ignores the marketplace and influence of art history and instead privileges that which expresses an inner, emotional, private world.

I’m an eternal optimist, so I generally think that the invention of the category of “Outsider” was well-intentioned; it sought to bring to the fore the work of people who might otherwise be dismissed because of their lack of training. Unfortunately – and this is just the way things go, I suppose – the term is now almost fetishized by collectors and dealers who rally to the cause of this “pure” art and use the term as a marketing tool. And as someone who has an MFA, I find it sort of disheartening to think that my work is considered somehow “less pure” because I chose to take that route.

All of this – the popularity of the term “Outsider,” the reconsideration of “Outsider Art,” and the underlying current of distrust towards “Insider Art” – feeds into these conversations I’ve been having with SL artists about their work. And while SL artists (and their supporters) may feel a well-intentioned affinity to the work of Outsiders, that connection is extremely limited at best.

SL seems to draw to it its own two, distinct categories of artists – those who are artists/academics/MFAs in real life and those who are not. For a couple of years now, the two groups have more or less peacefully coexisted but more and more I see them bumping up against each other. In private conversations, the MFAs are branded (by those who don’t have that background) as condescending, patronizing, and arrogant, whereas the un-MFAs are considered anti-intellectual and a detriment to the wide-scale acceptance of SL art by the RL artworld.

Neither of these charges is really all that untrue, but they’re unfortunate. And I see what’s being proposed as a kind of middle ground (and I’ve done this in conversations as well as I’ve heard others do it) is to recast the unMFAs as Outsiders – totally outside of some sort of mainstream conversation about art, immune to the marketplace, and somehow therefore more pure. While I see this sort of compromise as being well-meaning, it also conjures up some of the worst stereotypes of people who spend a lot of time in SL (mainly, that we’re all a bunch of weird and mentally unstable types) and despite its best intentions, it comes across as both demeaning to the artists it attempts to describe as well as to those that it excludes (the idea that AM Radio’s work is “less pure” because he went to art school is silly, at best).

So maybe the best comparison to draw is not to compare SL artists to Outsider Artists, but to think instead of an example of (for instance) the Quilters of Gee’s Bend. The story of the quilters is legendary to anyone who likes to root for an underdog: A group of women in the deep South, without any knowledge or exposure to Modernist art, created a vast collection of beautifully designed quilts which – and this is the fun part – engage color, shape and abstraction in exactly the same way those Modernist artists would… only they did it with cloth and thread and either did it before their contemporaries in the artworld did it in oil paint on canvas, or concurrent to that work. You’d have to be pretty heartless to look at their work and consider it to be anything but a legitimate work of art, even if it’s taken a little while for the canon to catch up with them.

I think that coming up with this entirely separate category – like “craft” or “design” just as examples – could really be the answer to all of this. I doubt anyone thinks of an Eames chair as being more or less “pure” than the work of Damien Hirst – the two are simply in completely different categories. And while you might go to the American Museum of Art and Design and see an embroidery that specifically refers to a work of contemporary art (this is not rare: more and more MFA/classically trained artists are embracing these sorts of techniques while also not abandoning their training), it may easily be hanging next to a similar piece that has no such connection to “high art” but instead references the history of craft (or something else entirely). Each piece has to be taken individually; in interpreting it, bringing in and referencing outside trends in fine art, design, popular culture, and the like is not frowned upon. Which is to say that the conversation about this kind of work generally isn’t only about other works of art, but the culture in which it exists as a whole – which frankly seems to me to be a better, more reasonable way of discussing just about any kind of art.

Taking this strategy will be most threatening to the SL MFAs, as it suddenly makes them not the prevailing experts on the topic. I’m personally ok with that; others won’t be. But I like it as an acknowledgment that in this field, none of the rules are set and it’s impossible to be an expert on the topic. It’s what makes SL art criticism tough, but also what makes it fun.