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It is the role of a contemporary artist to remind us of our capacity for wonder. Wonder is an affirmation that our being holds experiences that transcend practicality and cut through ideology in such a way as to make wide eyed innocents of us all again.

And while the creation of wonder is far from the only role of the artist, it is the one that has always enchanted me personally and the core reason I still engage in the “art “mode of cultural production. I feel it is important to make a distinction between practical matters: what is required and aesthetic matters: what is desired. I think “what is desired” reflects more truly the nature of being, than the requirements of material existence so I support the distinction between modes of production and call some art and some modes other names. I choose to believe (and to demonstrate) that art exists, and support the assertion that this is an important distinction in the minds of people.

Of course “art” is everywhere. If art is a way of seeing often attributed to artists and art appreciators, then anything can be viewed in such a way as to be imbued with whatever it is that makes a thing art. However everything is not art, no more than everyone is an artist. Just as we need plumbers to deliver the water we need to live, everything containing water is not plumbing. Also, just because someone replaces a few pipes and does a little plumbing does not make them a plumber.

Art like plumbing requires some intent on the part of the plumber or artist to provide people with water or art experiences. Just as there are different orders of plumbing from the massive regional water distribution reservoirs to the small sink in your bathroom, there are different orders of art experience and creation. For instance the “art” created by someone “seeing” a thing in an “artistic” way is one order of art. The deliberate creation of artifacts that inspire or contain coherent “art” experiences as such are another. Still another order is ephemeral performance based art experiences and endless collaborative combinations of sensory and conceptual experiences made with the intent to provide cultural or aesthetic value, well out of the limitations of what is practical and necessary to sustain life.

But both the water the plumber provides and the art the artist provides sustain us, just different facets of life. A plumber might impress you with great work or low price or restore drinking water back to your home, the measure of art is the impression it makes, an impression that hopefully adds richness to life that would not be there otherwise. I believe this “richness” to be the capacity for wonder referred to in the first sentence.

In this way artists diverge from plumbers in that in order to encourage wonder, an artist must explore some region of experience themselves and bring some part of that experience back to tell us about it. This makes the act of discovery close kin to wonder, and also central to the role of the artist.

Sometimes the artist explores another place and sends back pictures, or maybe a map, sounds or impressions from a location that result in an art experience. Other times discovery is the result of a line of intellectual inquiry instead of being locatable in physical space. So it is with art experiences created in what has been called virtual realty. Experiences that exist both as lines of inquiry at the same time as discoveries in locations are not really “virtual” reality, but as theorist Paul Virilio says a substitution or alternate for reality. “The splitting of reality into two parts is a considerable event which goes far beyond simulation.”

So called “virtual reality” has been with us for years in the form of flight simulations and later as video games. These technologies vary widely, but share one thing in common: the creation of alternate inhabitable space. This alternate space has no need to adhere to the same rules of gravity or other physical laws as the world we were born into. [In fact to do so, to conform an alternate technologically generated space to the limitations of this world is practically useful but unnecessary, even undesirable in the creation of art experiences within virtual space.] Nor is this space limited to a physical address any more.

I see the lack of physical constraints in virtual reality, combined with its network transportability as an amazing opportunity for the artist to create wonder. More like dream space than ever before, virtual reality offers the artist a space like a gallery or museum, but not the viewer limitations of a space fixed in physical reality. So not only is the artist free to break the bonds of physical limitation in terms of what can be made, the result can be delivered in a shared context anywhere a network exists. In this way virtual reality is the new art venue of the 21st century.

My personal explorations as an artist in virtual reality are mediated by an application called Second Life []. Second Life (referred to as SL), is technically a MOO in internet jargon, means a multi user domain object oriented environment. [] This is a fancy way of saying it is a way that many people can connect and share the same virtual space using a client software similar to an internet browser. The difference here being that web browser material has no depth dimension, is not 3D by nature whereas MOO environments are by definition “virtual realities” that allow a viewer to create and explore content spatially.

This spatial dimension brings into play some key potentialities for sculptural and contextual art experiences. It is now possible to have complete control of the context in which an artwork is presented and easier than it has ever been to manipulate the scale of an artwork in relation to the viewer, or the viewer’s representation within the virtual space called an avatar. An avatar is essentially a camera connected to a virtual body that a viewer can move around in virtual space in any direction to perceive things in virtual space. Generally the size of the avatar is fixed relative to the world. This allows the artist considerable freedom to manipulate scale relationships when situating artworks relative the environment and viewer. It is now possible for the artist to fill up the entire skyline with a sculptural artifact, or create a massive fine arts museum to display “paintings” within that architectural context.

Within virtual reality, architecture takes on its true nature as user interface. Since its inception architecture has been both functional shelter and navigation of space to serve the needs of people. If you want to sleep, walk down the hall, open the door and climb into bed. If you want to eat get out of bed and walk down the hallway into the kitchen and access the kitchen interface to make yourself a meal. In Second Life there is no need for shelter, therefore architecture’s practical utility becomes one of navigation, user interface to access content and provide some scale of reference. Architecture’s other utility in the virtual world is aesthetic.

Shortly after arriving in the virtual world Second Life it became clear that there was something wrong with the scale relationship between avatars, architecture and visual artworks on display. Architecture within SL for the most part closely mimicked real life (RL) structures in scale and usability. This approach became immediately problematic for me since I had been invited to display visual art in this world by a curator working in both worlds. Of course the context of visual art display is always an important concern in any visual art exhibition. A cursory investigation of virtual galleries within this virtual world reveled that in most cases the common context for visual work was cramped into needless enclosures and limited to a RL scale relationship between the artworks on display and the viewer avatar.

While this makes perfect sense in RL, it is simply wrongheaded thinking in SL. Since there is no weather in virtual reality, the only reason for enclosures are to create a sense of defined space and to create the illusion of privacy. Since my intent was to display artworks to the public, privacy was not a concern, however there is some practical value in the defining a space/context advantageous to the viewing of my work. Another concern about enclosures in virtual space is what I have determined to be a low grade anxiety created by the claustrophobic combination of the camera view (the user’s real window) and the avatar’s scale inside space. While difficult to describe, this means that viewing and movement inside an enclosure in SL is difficult, tedious and detrimental to a pleasant viewing experience.

The common scale of displayed visual artworks within the virtual space is also detrimental to the viewing experience. Avatars in this space do not have articulated fingers and hands and all visual exploration is achieved by the user piloting their proxy (avatar) within the virtual space. This can be highly advantageous because while the limitations of avatar dexterity are very real, the viewer can literally fly and also has control of the virtual camera. This virtual camera allows the viewer a range of viewing options not available in RL such as the ability to move the avatar camera to any point around in a space and view anything object from any angle imaginable. This wonderful ability however, is most often hobbled by the unwise use of tight enclosures.

The lack of articulation of avatar hands and fingers reduces interaction in the virtual space to single points of input activated by the viewer with right of left mouse clicks. This gross articulation is comparable to the lack of fine motor skills in younger children. Sometimes this is solved in RL by designing items to be used by these children to be larger and easy to grip with a whole hand such as oversized crayons or pencils. This was a clue to the problematic sizing of objects in Second Life, I immediately began experimenting with large open spaces with oversized artworks more in the proper scale for the combination of avatar and virtual camera. This resulted in a much improved viewing experience and the unexpected side effect of something similar to viewing monolithic artworks in a grandiose RL public museum space.

While simply my opinion, I consider the state of architecture in Second Life to be significantly errant to inspire me to re-envision the context in which art is displayed in Second Life and invent a new more appropriate architectural approach to display my artworks within this world. This has lead to a very fruitful and rewarding interest in architecture within the virtual world and significant notoriety as an artist in that realm. I had never really considered the ramifications of architecture before because it was never an option to make change in that area. However in the virtual museum the artist has ultimate control of context, scale and ultimately the entire viewer experience providing a much richer palette to communicate with the viewer.

In addition to the ability to manipulate scale and context, the virtual studio and display space (become one unit for better or worse) offer the possibility of not only manipulating awe inspiring scale, virtual reality also offers the possibility to easily apply scripted reactivity and interactivity to objects and experiences. While this possibility does exist in the physical world, it is problematic and difficult to attain fluency in. Interactive/reactive artworks in RL tend to be technically rarified, expensive and limited by physics. While these limitations make for great boundaries to work within in RL life, the virtual studio offers an expanded set of possibilities I have just begun to tap into.

Like any programming environment the Second Life programming language (LSL or Linden Scripting Language) has a unique library of off the shelf scripts that anyone can use and an extensive database of information on how to create original scripts for almost any scenario possible. While the use of scale and context are great things for the virtual reality artist, it is scripting that provides the greatest possibilities for aesthetic and conceptual exploration by far.

Scripting provides the ability to envision and create reactive and interactive environments and artworks with a strata of viewer involvement unheard of in physical artifacts. Artworks can change size, shape, color, location, interactive and reactive states with very little trouble on the part of the artist. This increased ease of use creates a potential for fluency not nearly as possible in physical systems. This fluency can allow the artist to go beyond the simple 1 to 1 button pushing, sensor triggering interactivity so prevalent in reactive/interactive artworks in the RL display context.

Another layer of possibility available to the artist in this virtual world is the ability to easily work collaboratively with other persons with completely different skillsets. When an artist exhausts the range of things to do with off the shelf scripting, it is (at this time) very easy and inexpensive to acquire collaborators who have are specialists capable of implementing almost anything imaginable from voice text activated paintings to flocking behavior sculpture. The mode of virtual space and the artifice to communicate within it provide a natural medium for collaborative efforts facilitated by instant messaging, easy document object transfer and the capital exchange ethos of Second Life in particular. While instant messaging and easy document object transfer will likely remain in the virtual world, the capital exchange ethos of Second Life is changing fast and the space is professionalizing at a frightening rate. Corporations are establishing a foothold and driving up prices for contract labor. Soon the honeymoon may be over and it may become more costly to engage skilled collaborators.

This remains to be seen, but if the World Wide Web is any example, and I think it is, there will be a full range of skilled help available in every price range because of the constant influx of people into the virtual environment. New people will need to prove themselves before charging high prices and the idea of doing so in the future will encourage them to seek a certain level of excellence. The non-corporate nature of the individual artist envisioning projects resulting in wondrous experiences provides a perfect opportunity for the budding scripter to show what they can do. This is a win/win situation because the artist gets good scripting and the scripter gets a good portfolio piece to prove their worth in a commercial development market that does not (may not) impinge on the artist’s domain. Just as the development of commercial robotics is beneficial to robotics artists because industry pays for research and development and creates a demand for the manufacture of parts not within the reach of most artists engaged in that work.

Second Life in particular is growing at an astounding rate. When I was invited to show at the Gallery Ars Virtua in April of 2006 there were just shy of 250,000 residents of this virtual world, as I write this in early December there are nearly 4 million. This incredible growth has created a demand for quality experiences in a world that is already filled with retail, gambling and pornography. Retail, gambling and pornography are weeds, or modes that people tend to create wherever they go. Combined with real estate, these modes fuel the economic engine or Second Life as they do in real life so any value judgement I may have personally is irrelevant.

However this “virtual strip mall” condition combined with the expanding population in Second Life has created a sincere and ravenous demand for other modes of expression and made art viewing experiences a viable and (at this time) rare quantity. In a world of weeds, people want roses! In fact art and music experiences are the only things of transferrable value in virtual reality. Again this is an ideal situation for the artist since every person who joins the virtual world must do so on a high performance computer platform connected to a broadband internet connection. This rarified demographic tends to have a high mean level of cultural education and it is no wonder that as the population increases in SL, so does the demand for art experiences not connected to retail, gambling and porno. Nowhere in physical reality is such a confluence of affluent and cultured viewers available to the artist 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from all over North and South America, Europe and Russia. There are also very few artists doing professional level work in SL which, but this is changing as more people realize the potential of this new museum/gallery context.

Other cultural roses such as music, dance and theater are also in demand in this world. The possibilities provided by lack of RL physics, the power of scripting and communication oriented medium are also incredible boons to cultural performance in Second Life. While there are technical limitations like how many people can be in the audience (only 30 at this time) these limitations will be solved over time and the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. It is no longer necessary to move massive sets into place, or warehouse costumes or props. A venue can be anything the artist can imagine with nearly limitless context and functionality. Even Cirque du Soleil does not have the power of scripting or null gravity at their disposal!