A Glorious Bale of Virtual Hay: Second Life worlds and their visual references

My Second Life Avatar is now approaching its teens! Monster Eel is 13!?… (and Monster wasn’t even my first character). Every few years when I return to Second Life I’m delighted to find that it has its own life, going on strong. Things are even more detailed now. Who is doing all this? Who is paying for people to do this? Is it all just a passion project for people? Why does this unnecessarily detailed digital bale of hay exist? There’s a whole cottage industry of people making exquisite virtual hairpieces and billowing blouses and freckled skin and distressed furniture and plants and antiques and futuristic gizmos for sale (sometimes dispensed via some unnecessarily complicated gacha machines)!

Over the weekend Beano decided to have a long nap whilst strapped to me (WOW!!!!) so Mummy went on to Second Life to have an adventure without leaving home… and also to look at the types of interactions in these ‘installations’. If we think about the references that each of these worlds draw upon, I realised that the places I visited could be divided into 6 different categories….

1. Depicts an abstract world
Betty Tureaud’s Rooms
https://secondlife.com/destination/rooms-by-betty-tureaud

2. Replicates real world and has specific references
Paris for Ara
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Simpson%20Bay/114/79/27

3. Replicates real world but has no specific reference
Breath of Nature (Serena Falls)
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Serena%20Falls/28/82/22

4. Depicts a fictional world and with specific references to fictional works
Kintsugi
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Runaway/71/123/23

5. Depicts a fictional world with some realistic elements set in the past
Puddlechurch Rye
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Puddlechurch%20Rye/128/182/44

6. Depicts a fictional world with some realistic elements set in the future
Planet Vanargand Outpost Fenrir & Solveig Village
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Amazing%20Island/148/169/242

[Admittedly, I have been writing a lot of LESSON OBJECTIVES lately and this might be seeping into the above…]

The categories are not black and white, they blur into one another. Perhaps there are unknown references behind them all that I am not aware of. To what extent are these novel creations, or are they actually faithful copies of weirdly specific things in some specific world of the creators? I… really don’t know. Will some of these mysterious anonymous SL creators ever reveal a bit more about their own design process…? Is it recorded somewhere in the world via the odd blogger webpage or flickr group, posted online under pseudonyms that I can find?


1. Depicts an abstract world
Betty Tureaud’s Rooms
https://secondlife.com/destination/rooms-by-betty-tureaud

This is like looking into a early 2000s book on Creative Coding, or Intro to Processing, or looking at a folder of three.js’s webgl experiments. Experiments and snippets, I say, because these abstract rooms are more like raw snippets than actual stories or narratives or worlds to explore.

The iridescent rooms look empty but when you walk into the middle of the rooms (probably triggered by your avatar walking onto the slightly raised surface), this triggers different interactive animations. This reminds me of the SL in the days of yore, when interaction and realism were even more limited, so all you could write a LSL script to rezz up were a bunch of basic geometric forms that were randomly coloured whenever you entered a space, and for interaction you could move these about randomly (although to what end, this would be unclear). In fact, this is EXACTLY what happens in some of the rooms.

Whilst I love these rooms because they definitely look nothing like real life (and it seem to me that Betty Tureaud’s works over the years have been focused on creating abstract worlds that don’t exist in real life, peppered with statues of human forms), I still think that the interactions for these have come a bit as an afterthought, or isn’t as naturalistic or intuitive as it could be (based on current available technology in SL). Its just like how we don’t use marquee or iframe or mouseover or flash anymore and javascript mouseovers and css transforms don’t really impress anyone anymore. (It doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy walking through the rooms though!)

2. Replicates real world and has specific references
Paris for Ara
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Simpson%20Bay/114/79/27

Paris for Ara is a location in Simpson Bay labeled under photogenic spots, and boy is it photogenic. I’m betting that many a SL fashion shoot has been done here. Although it is supposed to be Paris, it looks a bit more like Carnaby Street in London than Paris per se with all the English signage mixed in, and with the prominent rainbow pride flags everywhere (yay!), parts of it also feel more like Soho. The vision for this is ostensibly to render a real world scene into Second Life.

Some of the details are crazy amazing even when you zoom in, like for example, these steaming hot beignets (french donut fritters) I found on a cafe table. I’m impressed!

A photogenic spot like this is probably quite universally understood and enjoyed by all, since it has a real world reference (even if its been fudged a bit by mixing elements from different countries, but you know, ‘generic european city with street-side cafes and pubs’), and some of the buildings are even faithfully rendered in their interiors, so I would imagine these to be spots designed to be rented out to residents or for retail purposes. I walked into what I think was a cream cake shop and there were 3 floors of empty rooms above, overlooking the street. There was even a torch by the stair, because you might have that in the stairway of a real stairway in reality, but I didn’t use it because I had set the environment to SUNRISE.

3. Replicates real world but has no specific reference
Breath of Nature (Serena Falls)
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Serena%20Falls/28/82/22

Next I visited another photogenic spot, Breath of Nature in Serena Falls. A beautiful flower meadow with pastoral elements rendered in loving detail – an endless sea of soft dandelions, a white horse, a windmill, an old farmhouse, some sheep, a rustic wagon… I know, people dig this shit. Can’t go outside into nature? Well here’s nature for you in Second Life. Oh and with some generic amercian top 40 alt rock country pop internet streaming radio channel playing by default in this SIM… as always. I’ve always wondered if this is the soundtrack by which the creators of these objects live by. Once in a while a SIM has good radio tastes, but most of the time, its just this not-very-interesting generic internet radio streaming through wherever I go, punctuated by the sound of my avatar thudding against things by mistake (THUNK THUNK THUNK THUNK).

There are some gems here though. A bale of hay with an ingenious way of seeming real. I know, these tropes of construction must have been devised years ago, and I admit I have never been deeply involved in building things in SL (and more of a tourist in SL), but there are some cool tricks to be found here. Its not hair particles which gives our hay bale its realistic appearance, it is a few strategically placed strands which do the trick.

I’m all like, who decided to build this in such detail? How many hours did it take? For them to construct the chicken coop with its wires, its distressed wood texture, to decide on its form. Is it a person with a chicken coop just like this? Did they HAVE to design a chicken coop first or did they use a reference from somewhere? I mean, this is not even a normal chicken coop. Its a set of shabby chic drawers converted into chicken coop. With a pile of rustic bricks by its side.

Finally, this bucket of ducklings with a duck about to jump into the water with mother duck looking on. This item even chirps. Yes, the ducklings, they are chirping. The water is cleverly done with just a partially transparent alpha layer on top with a translucent white pattern that makes it look like a reflection on water (not a true reflection of anything, but it doesn’t have to be in order to look real enough from a distance!)

4. Depicts a fictional world and with specific references to fictional works
Kintsugi
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Runaway/71/123/23

This parcel is named Kintsugi (the japanese term for repairing cracked pottery with gold) but really it is a tribute to Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, which I will confess that I can no longer remember the story line for. It is supposedly based on the fictional world in the anime, and this plot relies a lot on notecards and the chat system to distribute information about the world to the user. Personally, I am not so much a fan of notecards, even though I like words – because all these notecards fall into my inventory and become a big mess over time.

A magical house on an island….

A series of red torii shrine gates… because why not, if you already have made one beautiful torii gate?

The water isn’t really Second Life water, but some other object which has these obviously faked water ripples on them which look realistic from a distance but then when close up, start to look very artificial. You can walk on the water, which I think is the point of this magical world (in most of SL, you can walk into the water and ocean and even have a rather long walk into the ocean although it might be quite boring).

The mist and atmosphere is nice, but once again, like with any role play environment, the reverie of being in a mystical forest is sometimes punctuated by other SL residents walking by. Yeah one thing I don’t get is why there are so many SL residents dressed as ladies with big bosoms and big hair and big butt in a tight dress…

5. Depicts a fictional world with some realistic elements set in the past
Puddlechurch Rye
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Puddlechurch%20Rye/128/182/44

Another photogenic spot, Puddlechurch Rye is an event space which is reminiscent of a warehouse space, dressed up as a 1920s parisan speakeasy cigar lounge with plush carpets, stacks of antique books, delicate chandeliers, a stage for performances, and a gallery space. Reminds me a bit of when I visited the Museum of Everything in Paris (a travelling museum for artwork by outsider artists).

How much of a world like this is actually created entirely from scratch by one person (or a small team of people)? How many man hours goes into designing a world like this? Or, is this in part a very clever curation of well chosen objects from different creators to paint for us this speakeasy ambience?

What’s interesting is the detail to which the exhibition has been set with draperies, with conventional framing and unconventional framing. Can’t do a real world exhibition? Well this is pretty close, although the artwork is also the world which has been rendered for us in such detail.

An exhibition space for flat 2D artwork, shown in several different ways…

Conventionally framed artworks…

Along with some unconventional framing…

And finally, some moving louvres to display 2D artwork. Not entirely interactive, but some ideas here on different ways to present a work in a virtual space…

6. Depicts a fictional world with some realistic elements set in the future
Planet Vanargand Outpost Fenrir & Solveig Village
http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Amazing%20Island/148/169/242

The thumbnail for this outpost on the SL destinations board was a huge “alien” mountain. But really, mountains are just boring old mountains like the ones on earth unless you say… ITS A SPACE BASE FROM THE FUTURE and here’s a space outpost to go with it! I landed in this space outpost floating in the sky (no biggie, not a hard thing to build) and immediately was overrun by other residents rezzing on top of me, skimpily dressed ladies dressed in tight dresses and high heels running around over small old me. Yeah so much for the scifi vibes…

I enjoyed walking around this space base until I went through a door which said “NO ENTRY” which I assumed was written specifically to entice me to enter anyway. A few metres further down they must have not finished building the space station because I hilariously walked into a big hole in the floor, immediately falling about 3000 metres down back to ground, landing noisily on a giant geodesic dome…

Finally I found myself in an empty carpark in this alien world admiring the detail of the snowflakes blowing past me. No detail has been spared! The snowflakes are not just circles, they are images of SNOWFLAKES.

At this point Beano woke up so I had to terminate my adventures in SL…


Why haven’t I made an ‘art’ project on Second Life before?

Last year Linden Endowment for the Arts closed. For many years now I have always wondered if I should apply for the land grants in the past, but I never got around to it because Second Life was something I enjoyed as a game, exploring without a specific goal. It simply wasn’t high on my priority, since it requires quite an investment of time to build this all, and I’ve got a lot of real world projects to finish. Second Life was leisure and enjoyment for me, not work, the same way one might enjoy a pleasant walk through nature without the desire to reshape it all. I suppose if you were just dabbling and not too sure on whether you would commit to building such a project, it might have been useful to give you a nudge to go and do it without any financial startup cost. Land tiers aren’t cheap after all. And if this is not art per se, then, is this all a ‘vanity’ project?…

However, the closing of LEA is not as much a loss as one might expect. I suppose if I am really motivated to create art in SL, I would continue to make it regardless of whether I had a land grant or not, and even with the closing of LEA, there continues to be lots of art on SL. To be honest I never really got into the community for SL artists. Besides a run in with some people in Singapore building an amazing Sikh temple several years ago (what happened to it I wonder?) I don’t know what happened to other SL makers in Singapore…. Or maybe if you are out there, give me a holla…?

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