Saturday, November 13, 2010

Enjoying Cao Fei's Artistic Vision in Second Life

I came across an article this weekend by RM Vaughan about Cao Fei, a Chinese artist whose work in Second Life is now on display at A Space gallery in Toronto. Two of her 2009 machinimas, People's Limbo in RMB City and Live in RMB City, will be shown at the exhibit, which is being co-presented by A Space and the Reel Asian International Film Festival.

I'm likely one of the last Second Life residents to hear about Fei, as she is one of the original creators of the RMB City sim (SLurl here), and previously produced a three-part machinima there in 2008, entitled i.Mirror, that's available on Youtube (links here: Part IPart II, and Part III). The New York Times has also reported on her work as well.

My curiosity piqued, I watched i.Mirror this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it as a deeply reflective and exquisitely sensitive exploration of the virtual/human connection. The film not only presents familiar (the more cynical may say, trite) real-life dystopian themes of over-commercialization, hyper-sexualization, and angst about the future of humankind that seem to permeate modern thought, it also deftly explores post-modern themes of virtual identity, virtual relationships, and human connection within newly emerging realities.

Its most endearing quality, though, as Vaughn also pointed out, was that it unapologetically embraces the Second Life platform, warts and all. Avatars movements are stiff and clunky, panning is jerky and uneven, spaces within SL are presented as sometimes cluttered and unappealing, and moving structures and animations within SL don't necessarily function as designed.

In discussing this with a friend, she thought Linden Labs could increase their truth in advertising by adding a tag line to their brand, which might say something like "Second Life...It Doesn't Always Function as Designed." A funny and fundamentally true understatement; Second Life is a tempermental, frustrating, and often cumbersome environment.

Fei manages to transcend this quite beautifully, however. And, as Vaughn wrote, Fei uses the the obvious flaws of Second Life to create a "bold and obvious" difference between the real and the virtual. To me it's akin to water painting; the free flowing paint creating serendipitous moments of beauty that represent, but don't necessarily reproduce, the vision being explored.

After watching the film, I also spent some time exploring the RMB City sim itself. I actually found it disorienting to move through the places shown in the film, to occupy the space virtually, and to consider the bewildering array of choices Fei faced in constructing her vision. But, doing so after having experienced Fei's film gave me a new appreciation for Second Life as a creative medium, and for its potential as a mirror for the self, be it virtual or reality based.

"People's Limbo" statue in the heart of RMB City

Others can probably expound upon this more eloquently than I have, and I'd be interested to hear other's experiences of machinima generally, and your specific reactions to Fei's film, the sim, or both.  

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