I love Second Life art; the visual arts are the form for which, I believe, the virtual world platform is best suited, and most easily adapted to produce some really innovative new approaches. I have no formal, and relatively little informal, training in art criticism, but as I’ve always wanted to be an art critic, I’ve decided to role play one here. This is the first of what I hope will be a number of posts on art in Second Life.
In the course of researching my last blog post, I ran across an exhibition by SL content creator, entrepreneur, and artist Pho Vinternatt entitled Dreams. The exhibition has been around since at least the August of 2012, and has been the subject of a few blog posts (here, here, and here for instance) since that time. The exhibit was sufficiently striking that I decided to return to it, and offer this short reflection upon it, and what it may (or may not) have to say about the relationship between Second Life and First Life.
The installation consists of a single large-ish white room, mostly unornamented except for 30 panels that line each of the two longer walls, and a desk at one end. The panels are organized into sets of two, each consisting of one minimalist photograph of an avatar’s face, and accompanying text composed by the photographic subject. The 15 photographs all employ muted colours and a soft focus which contributes to rather than contrasts with the glaring whiteness of their surroundings. Quiet ambient sound, subtle white “clouds” overhead, and a gentle intermittent rain of small softly-coloured particles contribute to the effect, rather than disturbing it.
The notecard that is available on the open book that sits upon an otherwise empty plinth at one end of the room introduces the installation and its central theme:
When I started this project I had no idea that peoples dreams and wishes would be so much scarier, personal and moving than their fears.
I hadn’t realized how little we speak of our dreams, big or small ones, realistic or not, and how seldom we tell them to others.
Our dreams expose us, and opens our wounds and vulnerabilities. We choose our words very carefully when we do speak of them, because they’re frail and precious to us.
All dreams deserve to be spoken of, and they all deserve respect for making us who we are.
In this exhibition you will meet 15 people with very different dreams. Let them share them with you.
The minimalist nature of the artist’s comments reinforce the sense that we are not to expect much in the way of guidance from him; as Pho (who was kind enough to respond to some questions about the installation) told me, “I just wanted a blank canvas to let people get their own experience.” This is a rather suggestive way to put it: the large expanse of whiteness that surrounds the canvasses and accompanying text leaves room for the visitor to fill in the blank space, and encourages us to bring to our experience of the installation our own interpretations and responses. In this sense, perhaps, the exhibit itself is an articulation in small of the central appeal of Second Life, which is a vast digital sandbox, a “blank” virtual space into which we may write ourselves.
It is also, of course, a space upon which the exhibition’s subjects have inscribed themselves, and it is what they have chosen to fill that silence with that most strikes the viewer. To begin with, the texts, each of which describes the “dream” or wish of the subject, are all, without apparent exception, about real life, rather than about Second Life. In this sense, the exhibit seems to document the failure of Second Life to provide an outlet for dreams, wishes, or alternate existences; our subjects have projected themselves into a virtual space where, in theory at least, “dreams can come true,” and yet seem unable to do more than gesture back to their existence in the physical world. Pho, when I asked him whether this was a deliberate approach on his part, told me that it “came naturally” to them.
The second surprising element of the texts is the high number of these that articulate not a positive, forward-looking dream, but rather a sense of loss, regret, or pain. A review of the exhibit that appeared in September of 2013 pretty much expresses my own response to this fact, noting that it features “people dreaming of a life where they had taken different forks in the path that lead them to where they are now, so that they dreamed of a different now then the now they have.” The catalogue of lost opportunities and pain is, itself, sometimes painful to read:
“My body and mind is here, but my heart is elsewhere and I wish I was brave enough to let it win.”
“I wish I wasn’t sick anymore, It would change my life tremendously as my quality of life is so poor that I am losing myself, merely existing. My dreams and hopes have faded into a gray place, for to think of them and how unreachable they are just makes me more depressed.”
“My dream is to be free of depression and panic attacks for good.”
“I wish I wouldn’t have to worry about money and work. Live in a nice house and go back to school full time without worry.”
“I wish I could bring my mum back. She motivated me to do things to make her proud. Since she’s gone I find I am just waiting for life to be over so I can either be with her or be nowhere.”
“I wish I could have time reversed on some of the decisions and choices I’ve made. . . . I’m afraid it’s too late to change things now.”
“I’ve wasted these years by coasting along and letting everything go. EVERYTHING, and I would have them back if I could.”
“After battling depression and anxiety for many years, my dream is to be free, at peace and content. To stop hating myself.”
There are a few exceptions to this general rule: one subject expressed the desire for fluency in “every language” so as to be able to connect with everyone, another wishes to create something “which would have a cultural impact on the world,” while a third wants to live a morally meaningful life.
That said, reading through most of these texts was, for me, sometimes difficult: Wordsworth’s “Still, sad music of humanity” is to be found not just in nature. Even some of the more positive texts were coloured by a sense of incompleteness, loss, or, as one subject put it, fear: “It’s easy to see my hope is tinged with fear. I think most hope is in general, we hope, because we’re worried it won’t happen.” Interestingly, Pho told me that this exhibit was created as a counterpart to an earlier one entitled Fears: the tone of many of these deeply personal and intimate confessions suggests that “dreams” and “fears” exist not merely as oppositions, but as complements to each other.
My most visceral response to these sometimes heartbreaking texts and images was to want to connect in some way with the speakers, to commiserate, reassure, or maybe just hug them. That, alas, is not possible, for if it is true that the installation provides a blank space, it is not one upon which we can literally write. In that context, my final feeling, born from this sense of frustration, was that this exhibit tends in effect to document our own isolation, and our inability to connect: I can empathize, but I cannot touch. One of the subjects, wishing he had a place to live of his own, dreams that “This would make me less lonley [sic].” And yet, for me (I am busily scribbling on Pho’s blank canvass), this exhibit suggests that loneliness is an unavoidable precondition of being human, and dreams and desire mere placeholders for absence that do nothing more than underline our actual emptiness and isolation.
In some regards, then, this exhibit articulates the failure of dreams; it can, in particular, be read as a testimony to the hollowness of Second Life’s apparent promise. Our virtual world cannot make good our losses. If it is a blank space, it is one that ultimately signifies a blankness in the real lives from which so many of us, apparently, are seeking refuge. It offers us hope, perhaps, but hope “tinged with fear” of what we are, or are in danger of becoming, in real life.
Yet, there maybe something more here. At some level, if indirectly and asymmetrically, I have connected with these people, even if they cannot know it. And they, in turn, have been given a space, in this exhibit, and in Second Life, to articulate their loss, and to leave a mark, even if it is only an ephemeral one.
One of the subjects expressed a hope to “deal better with my creativity.” Perhaps, in becoming a part of this exhibit, that is precisely what she has done.
It might ease my own sense of heartbreak if I could believe she had.