[On Saturday, I was fortunate to be granted the opportunity, along with other bloggers in the Immersiva group, to attend a preview of Bryn Oh’s newest installation, The Singularity of Kumiko. The new exhibit opens to the public on 14 February, 2014. The SLURL can be found at the end of this post.]
Bryn Oh, who is arguably Second Life’s best known and most admired artist, is notable for her employment of a dark and occasional grotesque visual style punctuated by moments of fleeting beauty.
Arguably, however, what she most excels at is storytelling. At their best, her stories are mythopoeic: they function as compelling moral fables built upon a sometimes surprisingly comprehensive vision of an alternate reality that mirrors and comments upon our own, and that underwrites what, on the surface, seem to be a simple narrative. Skimming across the surface of “story” in one of Oh’s installations is never sufficient: the visual and textual images force us to drill down deeper, reconstructing in the process the “backstory” that informs her narrative and themes.
The Singularity of Kumiko presents us with a story in this mode, a seemingly simple narrative that we construct through a series of “stations” that provide access to a correspondence between the tale’s protagonist, a young girl named Kumiko, and her shadowy and increasingly alarming correspondent Iktomi (the latter name alluding, perhaps, to the Lakota trickster spirit).
On the surface, this is a simple story of a lost soul and a friend who is trying to help her find her way back, but as we venture further into the narrative we are also compelled to burrow downward, a process that reveals that we are not where we think we are, and our protagonists not all that they seem. Gradually, we construct a vision of a dystopian future that exists both in a future elsewhere, and in the here and now.
The narrative skeleton upon which hangs these large themes and meanings unfolds, as narratives mostly frequently do, in a linear and time-bound fashion: the correspondence between Kumiko and Iktomi is numbered by the day of its receipt, from “Day 1” to “Day 14.” The to-and-fro exchange of letters seems to insist upon a linear reading, but the layout of the installation is open, and the individual pieces of correspondence that construct the story can be encountered, and read, in almost any order.
More than this, however, Oh’s Singularity does not merely enable a postmodernist readerly reconstruction of the narrative timeline: it compels it by constructing a virtual environment that makes it all but impossible to follow the story line in a straight-forward, linear way. The landing point for the installation provides instructions for a recalibration of Windlight settings that cast the visitor into almost complete darkness, alleviated only occasionally by small lit areas that mark each “station” in the narrative, and by a headlight attachment provided (for free) that illuminates only small patches of the landscape at a time.
As a result, we find ourselves from the very outset groping through the darkness for clues and for meaning in a fashion that parallels Kumiko’s own attempt to reconstruct her memories and forgotten self. “Where I am and what happened to me are mysteries,” Kumiko writes in her first letter to Ikomi. “I walk the island and it feels like a memory box fallen from the shelf, its contents strewn across the floor.”
The letters from Kumiko and Iktomi can be retrieved from message bottles scattered around the sim; in places, clicking on a microphone nearby will play an audio recording of Kumiko reading her letters, a nice touch that adds much to our growing emotional connection to, and identification with, the story’s protagonist. The enforced nonlinearity of our progressive acquaintance with her, and her story, means that, like Kumiko, we must reconstruct the story and her identity from fragments out of time and place. It also ensures that no one experience of the installation is ever quite the same as another: each of us experiences the story very differently, and arrives at our conclusions by very different routes. Every visit to The Singularity of Kumiko is, in fact, a singular one.
The most immediate signification of the “Singularity” of the installation’s title is, in the context of the unfolding narrative, the notion of the “Technological Singularity,” that moment in the future when the artificial intelligence of our technology exceeds our own, and the nature of what it means to be “human” changes forever. The impact of new technologies upon the human is a recurring theme in Bryn Oh’s art, and this installation is no exception.
In a less specific sense, Oh’s work is also referencing what we have come to call the “Posthuman,” the notion that technology can extend, and at the same time destabilize, human nature and capabilities. Posthumanism has been explored over the last 20 years by a number of thinkers, of whom two of the most influential and brilliant have been Donna Haraway, in her 1991 paper A Cyborg Manifesto, which deconstructs the distinctions between the organic and the technological from a feminist perspective, and Katherine N. Hayles in her How We Became Posthuman (1998). One telling articulation within the installation of Oh’s own ambivalence about this idea is “Mr. Zippers,” an organic/robotic hybrid dog programmed to “love,” and that in fact randomly attacks (and kills — damage is enabled in the sim) visitors.
A seminal articulation of an early version of the posthuman of particular relevance to Oh’s piece, with its continual challenging of organic memory by the data archive (a USB memory stick, and digital memory encryption figure prominently), is Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article in The Atlantic, “How We May Think.” Bush imagined the future development of a mechanism he called the “memex,” which extended the human memory and functioned as an electronic library or archive. Man, Bush argued,
has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important. (Emphasis added.)
“Forgetting” is important here, for to integrate with the machine the human being must “forget” a great deal, including much that makes us human, makes us, as individuals, singular. As Kumiko insists,
If we converted a memory into digital 1’s and 0’s or some other form of language then it would only be a matter of time before we began to manipulate it. We would cut our sorrows and manufacture outcomes in order to create a shiny surface to our lives with nothing behind them.
The Singularity of Kumiko frames the visitor with its protagonist’s perception: our ignorance is her forgetting, and our growing understanding the analogue to her reconstruction of memory, self, and, ultimately, liberation. That liberation is not, cannot be, a simple repudiation of the technological: Bryn Oh is, after all, perhaps the most important artist working in the new digital fields of virtual art and machinima, and Kumiko’s own apotheosis into herself at the conclusion of the narrative parallels in suggestive ways the remediating power of technology that enables our own experience of the installation. The installation’s attitude to technology is complicated, shifting, and multi-faceted, and it leaves us, ultimately, with more questions than answers.
And it is this characteristic element of Oh’s work that is ultimately most interesting and worthwhile. Comparisons, they say, are invidious, and I likely won’t be thanked for this one, but they can also sometimes be illuminating. I was a great admirer of AM Radio’s installations when he was still active in Second Life, and spent, in particular, many hours happily writing while sitting lost in the grass of The Faraway. His art was evocative, and thought-provoking, but mostly I found its mixture of realism and nostalgia soothing and restful. AM Radio’s sims asked questions, but they were more often gently melancholic than disturbing.
Bryn Oh’s work, by contrast, is most often deeply disturbing or even upsetting. It insistently prods us with an interrogation that it simultaneously denies is answerable. In particular, Oh’s employment of strikingly immersive environments and stories seduces us into the electronic medium even as it alarms us with intimations of the peril that can ensue from digital illusions. Her characteristic aesthetic is both realistic and slightly grotesque in a manner that foregrounds the artifice of the digital medium even as it envelops and engages us in its immersive grasp.
And it is this central paradox — the tensions and interplay generated by her simultaneous exploitation and critique of technology — that perhaps most truly constitutes what we might call the Singularity of Bryn Oh.
Bryn Oh’s The Singularity of Kumiko opens, as noted above, on 14 February. Only a relatively small number of visitors will be permitted on the sim at any one time. You can reach the landing point for the installation here: