People often ask me what is there ‘there’ that keep people so fixated on their screens. I briefly wonder whether they are about to launch into a tirade about how pathetic it is to see someone locked into their favorite sitcom; or how come their kids seem to run straight to instant message their friends from home after spending the whole day in school with exactly those same friends. But these days it seems that that the puzzlement is not directed at why anyone would want to keep abreast of the real, online, or onscreen lives of others, but more often than not, it’s about why anyone should want to spend their time in an immersive world such as Second Life. I suppose that in a way it’s probably a combination of both. Worlds like Second Life (SL) tend to offer both of the above; and a lot more. Not only can you track the lives of others at study, work and play, but you can also maintain a very active life of your very own in the persistent world – a world that doesn’t go away when you log off but continues exist, and even thrives in your absence. After many years of augmenting my face to face conversations with friends, family and colleagues through email, instant messaging services, image and video-sharing platforms and social network interfaces (and, no, I will not be naming names here nor will I digress to other platforms) many of these contacts have now taken up residence in Second Life. And so the conversations continue to flow – through badly spelt text chats, or earnest voice conversations in world where I am finding new ways to augment my mediated presence and catch ups with friends in the delightfully creative and resourceful world of Second Life.This Slog (SL log – as opposed to ‘blog’, the abbreviation of term or ‘web log’) will invite you to join me in my modest, ocean view home at Del Mar, will take you around the wonderful attractions that magically evolve overnight; will invite you to a front row seat to conferences and seminars that take place in world, and will prod and nudge you to move into the shoes of your own avatar and experience it all for yourself. So don’t believe that well worn chestnut by Gertrude Stein. In my modest opinion there is a lot of stuff going on ‘there’ and you are welcome to join me on these little jaunts into Second Life – to watch, listen and to celebrate what is currently going on and to discover for yourselves that there is actually something there, there.
Four conferences and a wedding
Over recent months I have been involved with in four in-world conferences. These have offered me all kinds of new possibilities; things that were not previously do-able before the Second Life platform had become robust enough for real time voice conversations, and very persuasive exchanges. Two of the conferences brought Second Life to audiences who had not yet really had an opportunity to explore what it meant to go to an island, even though they had heard about things going on there through the media, and from friends and colleagues. Other occasions were more pragmatic – acting as meetings that in essence allowed me to ‘travel’ to conferences without actually having to get onto a plane. All of the events brought together the professional museum community to a shared place and time, and allowed for meaningful exchange of ideas and experiences in and about their own practice in Second Life. Each event, in their own way, shifted the benchmark a little; all, in some way effecting how people think about presenting, and exchanging ideas, even though not all of us were actually present in the room at the time. At the EVA/MINERVA Conference on the Digitisation of Culture held in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University in November 2007 the meting was held simultaneously in Second Life and in the air-conditioned auditorium in Jerusalem . This year the annual conference hosted close to three hundred people who had come to hear how advanced technologies are currently being developed and applied in the cultural area, with an impressive range of European Commission supported projects presented during the two-day meeting. The hour and a half long session that took place in Second Life brought the physical audience together with the in-world panel of presenters, and offered an exciting glimpse about what was is currently possible in-world.
The Conference Platform, EVA/MINERVA 2008
The session took place at a round table perched on a platform 300 meters in the sky, where the in-world presenters met for an avatar-to avatar discussion about the permanency of Second Life. Each presenter in turn ‘took’ the in-auditorium visitors to their own builds; a fascinating selection of museums and culture centers, located on different Islands around the grid. The first of the projects showcased was Fred Bos from Tressis, The Netherlands (RL) / Milan Brynner’s (SL) Virtual Starry Night – Vincent’s Second Life; a gorgeous build that presents the works of the Dutch painter, gathered from all around the ‘real’ world. The project also includes a growing number of 3-dimensional paintings where visitors can literally ‘step into’ a Van Gogh masterpiece. Virtual Starry Night has become one of the more popular builds in Second Life, and has created waves far beyond the simulated world.
SL presenters meeting in the gallery at Virtual Starry Night
Aaron Collins (RL) / Xander Ruttan (SL) hosted the panel and the audience at his (SL) development, where he has attracted an international group of artists and art admirers to the Cetus Gallery District; a cultural island he created through his company, Ruttan Development. Cetus mimics real life urban arts communities such as those which often arise through the adaptive re-use of historical industrial areas, such as New York’s Chelsea, and the Pearl District in Portland, Oregon where Collins/Ruttan lived for 20 years. In Cetus residents have many opportunities to exhibit their art in galleries, coffee houses, and loft residences. The community is fostered through the collaboration of the Cetus Gallery District Association; an highly dynamic association which provides communication and marketing support for the artists and gallery owners in the district. Cetus is always abuzz with activities such as art openings, lectures, workshops, live concerts, social events, fashion shows, and community meetings. Behind the Xander Ruttan avatar is Aaron Collins, who is networked in the U.S. art world as a co-founder of a California-based nonprofit arts organization, a freelance arts & culture writer, and former associate director of a prominent contemporary art gallery.
Ruttan, Ruttan hosting his guests in Cetus Gallery District during the conference
The next two visits took place in Swedish builds, where Olle Wästberg (RL) / Olle Ivory (SL) introduced us to The Second House of Sweden where the Swedish Institute’s director, Stefan Geens (RL) / Belmeloro DiPrima (SL), the Manager of Sweden’s virtual embassy in Second Life and his team have created Sweden’s official representation in Second Life. It is a project conceived, directed and funded by the Swedish Institute, a government agency with the mandate to “share Sweden with the world”. The design of the building in Second Life was adapted from the real-life House of Sweden in Washington, DC, designed by the Swedish architect firm Wingårdh AB. Second House of Sweden was built by Electric Sheep Company, with design by Söderhavet. The project was originally conceived in January 2007 and inaugurated in May. It exists to showcase Sweden for Second Life inhabitants, but above all it allows their staff to experiment with the new immersive medium, allowing both them, and their many visitors to discover what works and what doesn’t. Second House of Sweden houses a number of permanent exhibits, including paintings from Stockholm’s National Museum, an exhibit on Linnaeus, and a reproduction of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s office. To date, special events have included Swedish lessons, gallery talks and inauguration parties. A short film festival for Swedish films is planned. .
The Second House of Sweden
The second Swedish trip was organised by Marie Rytk?l? (RL) / Kaja Lurra (SL) who invited the audience to her build; Stockholm‘s Old City, Gamla Stan. Kaja is a SL terra-firma who specialises in sims that create specific cultural ambiance. From the auditorium at the Jerusalem located conference, Kaja took us to the pre-launch of Stockholm’s Old City, Gamla Stan, that attracts Swedes to listen to music, dance together, wander around the gorgeous sim, get a massage, order pizza or beer or simply hang out together by the port and the magnificent ships moored there.
Kaja Lurra (SL) build; Stockholm‘s Old City, Gamla Stan
The last panelist invited visitors to Exploratorium Island, Sploland, and Midnight City’s The ‘Splo where Rob Rothfarb (RL) / Pepto Majestic (SL), Director of Web Development at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the Exploratorium, San Francisco introduced the audience to their official presence in SL on Exploratorium Island, located adjacent to Sploland. This multi-purpose space features both indoor and outdoor exhibit areas, a large amphitheatre for Webcast and other programs, as well as teaching spaces for different audiences. Both Sploland and the Exploratorium Island are part of an archipelago of science-themed educational places called SciLands, and, as this Slog’s host recognises, the team at the Exploratorium have been one of the leaders in the museum community to use collaborative multi-user environments, such as SL to further engage its audiences and to extend more of its programming and educational resources into highly interactive, networked places.
Exploratorium Island, Sploland, and Midnight City
The Second conference in this Slog took everyone, speakers and participants alike to the New Media Consortium Conference Center (NMC) on March 8, 2008. This pioneering conference was organised by The Virtual Worlds: Libraries, Education and Museums Conference, and was held exclusively in Second Life. The day long conference, thoughtfully encompassing as many times zones as humanly possibly, took place in several locations on the conference center. As most sims have obvious traffic limitation, the cut off for this conference seem to have been around 80 attendees and there were clearly many more people interested in attending the conference that was possible in spite of the $8000 Lindens (US $30) registration fee.
Keynote address at the New Media Consortium Conference Center (NMC)
The demand was so great on the day that, in fact, some people coordinated their leaving the sim with others so that their friends could get access. Barbara Galik (RL) /Puglet Dancer (SL) and Kitty Pope (RL) / Kitty Phillip (SL) presented the keynote discussion: “Virtual Worlds: Libraries, Education, Museums, and More” in the main auditorium and the breakout parallel sessions took place at number of locations around the build. The animated auditorium was packed with avatars, all watching the slides on the stage and listening to the presenters over voice. The audience was a mixed pack – with not all attendees recognisably human, but just as engrossed in the proceedings as their human-shaped participants seemed to be. I have to admit that I was engrossed with my own direct chat with another participant during the keynote; luckily, and unlike traditional conferences, nobody noticed out intense chatting on our keyboards.
Conference attendees at New Media Consortium Conference Center (NMC)
My own presentation, Persistent Worlds: Will They Ever Go Away? took place in voice at the Muriel Cooper Coliseum and argued that these kinds of worlds are far from being a fringe fantasy land for pure escapists and have long since developed into a persistent world for play, commerce, creativity and exploration. My own focus, as always, was on cultural institutions, museums and historical simulations. I was thrilled at the lively conversation that took place as my slides came into focus (I have since learned to pre-load them as one would when caching a website you want to present) and the audience contributed almost as much as I did. At some point, during my hour long presentation, I did suffer a brief lapse in my own suspension of disbelief (in the Mel Slater term), when my projection of me was jerked into the reality of my own living room when the (very real) family popped in for visit – it was a normal Saturday afternoon after all. In spite of this very tempting distraction, I was able to refocus – much like one would for a phone call – and continue my presentation to the avatars attentively sitting in the Coliseum, waiting for my next slide – I don’t think they noticed the kids trouping in for tea … All the presentations are online on the NMC website.
Just before the breakaway session at New Media Consortium Conference Center (NMC)
The next in-world meeting was the Crit Room at the (very real) Museums in the Web 2008 conference, which took place in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, April 2008. Unable to travel to the conference the Chairs and organizers Jennifer Trant and David Bearman agreed for me to present the critique of the three museum websites from an in-world location, the Exploratorium amphitheatre; the successful location of previous MW events. Setting up the extra screen and audio feeds proved to be worth the effort, as the session went smoothly, with the participants in the hall watching to Jennifer Freund (my avatar) and listening to my voice in real time. By now I had learned to preload the slides, and the three sets of screen shots moved smoothly throughout the session. While I could hear some of the discussion going on in the hall, specifically those voices located to the microphone feeding into the SL platform, the key comments were being faithfully relayed to me by chat by my colleague, Rob Rothfarb who was physically present in the room at the time, allowing me to be able to respond to questions and comments. The email responses I received after the conference indicated that what was important not that the whole thing took place embodied by a moving animated character in a synthetic amphitheatre, rather that the content and message was pertinent and evidently useful.
Crit Room at Museums and the Web 2008
And now the wedding
When people come together in Second Life, whether in a professional conference, or round a table for a quick chat, it is usually driven by a desire to remain connected. Second Life is a highly social place, where commerce, learning or play takes place in a shared space. Friendships, as in real life, often blossom into long term commitments and what better a way to consolidate that commitment in the synthetic world than with a real time, Second Life wedding. Over the coming months this Slog will, introduce you to the community of Del Mar; the island where I have built my own modest house. In spite of the fact that many of my neighbors are on different time zones, and we don’t actually meet up as often as we might like, we do look forward to catching up with the island gossip and keeping up to date with ongoing lives of its residents. As in real life, couples come together; and split up from time to time in Second Life, pronouncing their ‘couplehood’ after the nuptials in their online profile.
Over the months that I have ‘lived’ there, I have been invited to a number of weddings; some highly extravagant, while others more modest; all driven by the basic human desire to ‘perform’ watershed moments of ones’ life as a collectively celebrated spectacle. In order to protect my neighbor’s RL identities, I will not be using either their RL or SL names, neither will I be sharing the wedding photos here in my Slog, but needless to say, this was one of the more spectacular of weddings that was celebrated in Second Life in recent months.
The wedding took place in a specially constructed wedding chapel, floating high up in the clouds over our Island. The couple took their vows in the presence of all their friends; some of whom I knew from Del Mar, while others teleporting in from other more distant islands; but all there to support their friends in their special moment and to witness the changing status of the wedding couple.At the crucial moment the groom took his windlit bride in his simulated arms and embraced her lovingly – the especially written script flowing out from the blue and pink balls on the stage. At the auspicious moment a flock of white doves flew out behind them, and the delighted guests sitting on the pews greeting them with cheers and blessings of their own. I have to admit that I didn’t even mention that I had just attended a SL wedding to my own family; they would, no doubt scoff at the very idea. But those guests and friends who attending this particular wedding, knew something that others, outside of the persistent world knew. They had all come together to be there at this specific moment, to support their friends; and they were there because they recognized that after all, there really is something there, there.
Ahhh yes – I had promised you a fourth conference in this first of my Slogs. Well you will have to come back for that one – it is due to take place on May 18, 2008, when ICOM celebrates International Museum Day. This year ICOM is celebrating their special day as Museums: agents of social change and development, and what better place to celebrate than on The Tech Island in Second Life. But make sure that you register before hand, because this sim can only hold 50 avatars at a time! … and if you are a little curious about what a SL wedding looks like I would suggest you Google ‘wedding+Second Life’ you would amazed at how many results you get … and don’t forget to Google the images too…
Susan Hazan / Jennifer Freund