Imogen and the pigeons - some musings on virtual art

Imogen and the pigeons

     For the next few posts I will be doing a walk through of my new build Imogen and the pigeons.  If you have not seen it, yet plan to, then I would suggest not to read the posts.   This post will just be about some visitor metrics for those who find it interesting.
    People often question as to whether virtual worlds can succeed as a means to bring in that global awareness.  IBM, Caldwell Banker and others came hoping to tap into a worldwide audience yet stumbled and left weeping uncontrollably.  For companies of that scale perhaps  virtual worlds, at this time, really can't produce what they require.  But let me compare my experience from a much smaller scale. 
       As a painter I have one or possibly two large art openings a year within the gallery.  Each show lasts a month and has that dreaded red carpet and wine style opening reception.   The opening night reception is essential to attend and do well at as there are literally hundreds and hundreds of artists waiting in the wings always trying to take your spot within the gallery.  If you have bad sales for a show then you are suddenly on shaky ground.  The opening night is where the vast majority of sales or future sales come from.   A few years ago Toronto, remarkably, had a Tornado.  I mean Toronto doesn't have fucking tornadoes!  I don't know if we have ever had one.. anyway that was on my opening night... yay!  Others artists get scheduled during the bitter cold and snow of February and deal with winter storms etc.   
     Quite a bit really rests on that opening night and you just pray for sunshine and warm weather.  The opening reception might get, I am going to guess, around 300 people over the course of the night.  All with their backs to the paintings chatting.  Then each day for the rest of the month there is a trickle of people popping in.  Again I will guess and say around 30 people a day?  I really am not sure but for the entire exhibit the vast majority are residents of Toronto. 
      With Imogen and the pigeons, there have been just under  20,000 visitors attending from all over the world since its opening January 13th.  Some days saw 1000 and the average was about 350 a day.  Visits have ranged from an hour, five hours to actual days in length.   I am in a guessing mood, so now I will guess that nobody has ever stood and looked at one of my paintings for an hour solid.  I think it is safe to say that nobody has stood for a half an hour either.  Think about it.. what is the longest you have ever been immersed with an artwork?  Could you lose yourself in the Mona Lisa for 5 hours?
     For a while I have suspected that the virtual medium, as an immersive art form, can easily complete against other strong mediums such as traditional 2d and cinema.  For example, a gallery or museum would be ecstatic if they could keep their guests entertained for five hours inside a structure housing centuries worth of masterpieces.  Or in regards to cinema, I recently saw the Hobbit movie and it was 3 hours long.  And it felt like it too.  Few movies would dare attempt to go longer than that, and I don't blame them, watching a three hour movie is pretty much the ceiling for me.  So why can someone potentially spend more time in a virtual art environment than in some of the other mediums? What are the differences? 
     Well there are many, but one, I think,  is the challenging nature and rewards of interaction combined with immersion.  We need not be passive observers in a virtual environment.  We are a participant within the artwork rather than a visitor separated and left sitting inactively while being told a story.  I believe that a degree of difficulty is effective in order to create  a bond between the viewer and the artwork.  It creates a sense of direct connection and achievement that is lacking in the interaction between a viewer in a gallery looking at a painting or someone watching a movie.  The difficulty is finding the balance between the artistic environment  being frustrating or else wise rewarding.  

      I recently did a talk for York University whose students came to Immersiva as part of their course syllabus.  The talk was about whether the artist should challenge the viewer with the understanding that viewers facing a difficult creation may leave, and the question is should we, as an artist, care?  Is there an acceptable loss rate that we can deal with if we are attempting to push the medium into areas which we are not quite sure if they will succeed or not.  I recall an American artist once complaining to me that he didn't want to do "work" to see art.  He essentially wanted art placed in front of him to view in a more subservient manner much like traditional forms.
     My perspective is that with a new medium such as virtual art, don't focus on the lazy or unwilling as there are multitudes who will cherish your work elsewhere.  Know your audience and build for them as they will appreciate it. Help those who request it but ignore those with a sense of entitlement.
I personally don't see myself in a role as having to create art which is simplified to a degree whereby it is accessible  to every single person who comes to visit my virtual art experiments.

Because really that is what artists should be doing here.  Experimenting in a new art form.

     Figuring out what makes this medium unique over other traditional mediums such as painting, sculpture, cinema or performance.  What can our virtual space be used for that sets it apart as a unique form of art?  Does it have the ability to excel past the strengths of other mediums?

     I have said in the past that I think of my artwork here in virtual worlds almost as paintings you can enter and explore.  The beauty of a painting, the immersion of cinema and then meshed in with a new type of open ended freedom of movement combined with interaction.  There are many new and interesting techniques to experiment with inside the virtual artform.   The one which I brought up at the beginning, that ties into my new build Imogen and the pigeons, is creating immersion within the artistic environment by creating scenarios which challenge the viewer.  I generally don't put out text or arrows to tell the viewer where to go or what to do.  I feel this can break the immersion so I let the viewer discover on their own. 

This is how Imogen was designed.

     The visitor enters the story by passing a crumbling store called Rebirth Life Encryption.   Before the collapse of this society,  it was a service which recorded the life of a person at the moment of their death.  They save this memory onto a machine, waiting for the day when that stored life could be transferred into a new vessel thus allowing for a form of immortality.
     The store has been in ruins for centuries with all the machines failing as they become saturated with sand and debris.  The viewer may discover that one machine still functions.  If they use their camera and go inside they will see a nameplate fallen down... Imogen. 

     This part is what I call a pre-hint.  A layer of the story that becomes apparent upon the second time they explore.  The first time through, the story may seem like Imogens dreaming, but the ambiguity often has people go through a second time and pre-hints now become apparent and a new perspective on the narrative emerges.  The vast majority don't notice the detail of Imogen being a recorded memory of a life or forget later on in the build.  Some explore the ground level, never realizing that there is a story above to discover and to reach it they must find a way to get to the beginning.

     There are four ways up to the start of this build.  A relic of the past in the form of a flying chair,  a difficult series of stairs that appear and collapse as the viewer moves along them and two easier methods.  There is a range for different skill levels and anyone can get up there if they wish to.
Personality types are filtered through this area where the easily frustrated or indifferent give up while those who appreciate the challenge or are just determined continue.   Thus as you explore deeper into the build you are often around like minded people and there is a sense of community.  
      People have told me for years how they met their best friends or partners while exploring one of my narratives.  Virtual artworks can also be social experiences, Imagine trying to socialize with a stranger during the Hobbit?  It would be annoying but perhaps not in a virtual environment.
All those whom I have spoken to who pass the climbing part of the story talk about having had clammy hands or feelings of a fear of heights when navigating.   They talk about being nervous and truly anxious for fear of falling, their body reacts and they are physically invested in the story.  And when they do finally reach the top there is a feeling of achievement and for some exultation.
The visitor is definitely part of the narrative now.  They are not watching someone climb but rather doing it themselves.  A misstep could result in a fall and at worst the actual death of their avatar.           There are repercussions for mistakes, but the challenge for myself was to find a balance where it was meaningful rather than frustrating for the viewer.  Letting the impatient leave and customizing the experience for a particular audience who know and appreciate the work I create, while also helping those new to the experience who find it difficult but are intrigued.  
     Trying out new ideas that may push the medium forward rather than worrying about alienating a segment of the population who don't like to "work" to see art.   You can compose  artwork that everyone find acceptable, but which won't potentially move the medium forward.
People spend a long time in my work for a variety of reasons.  It is the challenge, the emotion and narrative.  The interaction and sense of discovery of secret details.  The layering and because parts are often social.  You can go with a friend and help each other navigate or discuss the narrative.
At the beginning I usually am around the build to help people with the difficult parts if they need it, but what always happens is a form of social guide emerges in the community.  People who overcome the obstacles in the narrative, finding little secrets along the way, who then bring others to share their discoveries... who in turn bring others and so on.  They discover elements of the artwork which they know the majority have not uncovered, and this makes the build special to them.  The more difficulties they overcome or layers they uncover connects them deeper emotionally to the artwork.
     Anyway, I find this stuff interesting to think about and thought I would share it.  The next few posts will be about the story for Imogen and the pigeons and also I have a great announcement to make.  I have finally finished a 38 min movie combining The Daughter of Gears, the Rabbicorn story and Standby into one long machinima, and I am also creating a real life book for it which can be purchased.  This was all part of my new media grant from the Ontario arts council and I am so happy to have it almost complete now.  I hope to upload it to youtube soon if they will accept something that long.


Unknown said…
you narrative speaks to the power of exploring art in a new medium ... i think what the painters of old must have felt when they could cover ceilings.. or show their works to millions instead of a select few...
you (the artist) and us (the fans) actually combine to become the art... sitting in front of a collection of pixels.. walking away to cook dinner.. play with the kids.. come back.. and still have that part of ourselves immersed in your creation.. speaks to the new medium.. great article Bryn.. love what you do
Anonymous said…
This post strikes a bit of a chord with me. Just last weekend, I was at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, where they are exhibiting some of the terra-cotta warriors found at the tomb of the first emperor of China. One of the things I noticed is that, while we spent several hours at the museum looking at many different, interesting things, I really only spent an hour and a half or so in the room with the terra-cotta warriors and much of that time was spent looking at other things in the room (posters, secondary objects and what-not). I was thinking afterwards how little time I spent with these roughly 2,200 year old objects that I had gone to San Francisco to see. On the one hand, it felt like they required more respect and contemplation. On the other, how much time can you really spend with an object, especially one that was made for a specific, functional purpose (and not just to be gawked at by Americans 2,000+ years later)?

The rest of the visit to the museum consisted of wandering the other exhibits pretty much at random. We would rush through one room, leaving me breathless and wondering about all the work and care that went into the objects in that room but would then land in another room and be entranced by something and spend a while there. It got me to thinking about how a work of art can arrest us or not and how we decide what we want to spend time with and what not.

One of the things I often think about with Second Life art installations (yours in particular) is this feeling that I can walk into the art and become, temporarily, a part of it. I can stand on or in something, look at it through an unexpected angle, sit on a chair, or interact with some active component. In a museum, there is so often the velvet rope or glass case. The art is here; you are there. Don't touch! I so wanted to touch those terra-cotta warriors—one of them had these remarkably detailed soles on his shoes that I wanted to rub my hands along—but of course that would have been inappropriate. By contrast, in a virtual world, there need be no such boundary and the art can more readily incorporate the viewer into it (and I suppose vice versa).

One of the saddest moments I had in an art museum was when I went to see an exhibit of some of Alexander Calder's works. They had several mobiles and even some of his little wire toys. The sad part was that the mobiles were up high, out of reach of hand and breath, so they weren't moving… and the toys were locked away in display cases, with few exceptions not even motorized. So here was all this art that was meant to be interactive and alive, sitting there static and dead. I understand the reasons for that, but it made for a sad memory… like seeing what had been a beautiful, living bird stuffed and mounted in a display case.

I guess in the end what I'm saying is that virtual world art can live and breathe. Art in a museum setting ends up just sitting there, nothing more than a precious object that must be protected from oils, and breath, and flash photography.

Popular Posts