Issue 28 11.20.13

Issue 28
Art in OpenSim…

by Thirza Ember for SWITCH magazine

For the best part of a decade, Linden Labs have provided a wonderful platform where people can create, buy, sell, relax, interact, and express themselves virtually. While some Second Life Residents joined the grid with the express idea of using it as a workplace and marketplace, the vast majority signed up with the idea of simply playing and relaxing. Of that majority, some, encouraged by the supportive creative atmosphere of SL, have honed their talent in fields such as fashion, music and art, and carved out careers for themselves.

But Second Life is also the ‘Old Europe’ of virtual platforms: it is crowded, pricey, and rather decadent. Creating virtual art with prims, textures, and scripts, known as ‘building’, may not create a messy studio it would in the real world, but certain requirements are the same – space, privacy, peace and quiet, and the opportunity to experiment. For many artists, the answer has been to look beyond the borders of SL, and head out for new worlds. What awaits them there?

Taken by Vint Falken in the New Rezzable Private Sim for Open Sim.

Taken by Vint Falken in the New Rezzable Private Sim for Open Sim.

A new world means a new avatar. It is a time-consuming and frustrating business, trying to get comfortable with your new ‘self’. Objects you made in Second Life can be exported as .xtml files – provided you’re both creator and owner of all the prims and textures –  but that leaves most of your ‘belongings’  stuck in Second Life. If Second Life is the Old Europe of the virtual world, OpenSim is most definitely Frontier territory, where pioneers have to make do, or make for themselves items that in Second Life they take for granted: hair, shoes, animations, and so on. It’s a steep learning curve, and a different mindset, more neighborly, less money-minded. The pride of making your own objects weighs against an acute awareness that your efforts aren’t a patch on the nice store-bought item you own in SL. That said, like any new frontier, things are in a state of constant change, and new resources, as well as SL-quality stores, are popping up all the time.

Technical problems in OpenSim can slow down, even cripple art projects. Second Life blogs may contain horror stories about Linden Labs’ unhelpful tech support, but Second Life is a well-oiled machine. OpenSim has a series of well-known yet maddening bugs, such as weird stuff happening when you edit parts in a linked object, or try to walk upstairs, or are looking for an error in a script. Constantly having to mend or rebuild your art can sap the enthusiasm of the most inspired builder. Grids are as good as the technical knowledge of their owner; you can’t rule out total grid failure, loss of inventory, sims going offline unexpectedly, and more. They’re also only as good as the physics engine the owner can afford: none can compare with the mighty Havok used by Linden Labs. Some grids have no physics at all, which can crimp your style if your art depends on scripts.

On the plus side, Open Sim offers space and privacy. No need to hide from prying eyes on a platform thousands of meters above the ground. There is no uploading charge for pictures, sounds and animations, so experimentation is a joy.  At as little as $15 a month for a whole sim with 15,000 prims and no set-up fees, space is certainly not an issue. Avia Bella, for example, has 20 sims of mostly Steampunk environments on OsGrid. In Inworldz, artists like Alizarin Goldflake, Nyx Breen, soror Nishi, and Wizard Gynoid have been able to exploit the huge prim count to revisit and expand  on Second Life art. No need for megaprims in OpenSim!

Once, SL was teaming with Universities and private individuals alike, who were willing to host artists studios and installations. With LL’s more austere pricing policy, many of these patrons are gone, but in Open Sim it’s another story. Craft Grid’s Licu Rau hosts a number of educational and artistic sims. Jeri Rajha of InWorldz, donates sims to a galaxy of 3D artists. Miguel Rotunno organizes art openings with live tango music at his OsGrid gallery. There’s the portability of a sim-on-a-stick, or a mini-grid which can be attached at minimal cost to a bigger ‘world’, like  Zonia Capalini’s Condensationland, available via OsGrid. The mini-grid provides a layer of protection from content theft and censure. Ruben Haan’s sim Kleideraar is the classic example. Art shows in Second Life usually last a few weeks; for sim- or half-sim sized installations, a month is about the limit. In Open Sim, time is rarely a factor.

What is a big factor is exposure. Those residents in Second Life who come in-world to relax and play are the audience at virtual art shows. They vote in competitions, buy art, compliment the artists. Convincing them to make a new avatar so that they can visit your non-SL build is not easy. Log-in problems, and ‘new world lag syndrome’ often drive away even enthusiastic visitors. Like any Frontier community, those who venture into OpenSim are producers, not consumers. They support one another’s art, but the level of community infrastructure is low. Interactive groups and significant community events are rare; less rare the sense of lonely wonder one feels on a small grid, where there’s literally no-one else online.  Where groups have formed, there’s a warm spirit of collaboration and sharing; no sign (as yet) of the petty jealousies and bitter rivalries that exist in the SL art scene.

Social networking can help herd the diaspora, but ex-Second Lifers often dislike Skype, Facebook and Twitter too, making it hard to stay in touch when one has a  foot in multiple virtual worlds. Hypergridding, no longer the scary beta experience it once was, is helping, but time differences among the small pool of users make it hard to plan gatherings, and of course places like InWorldz, Avination and Spoton are closed worlds, like Second Life, so one hyper-gridding avatar for all grids will remain the art tourist’s Shangri La.

OpenSim is pure frontier, in constant flux. Every week and month it grows a little more stable, less buggy, more united, and sees the arrival of new goods, people and ideas. It’s not for the faint hearted or the attention whore, and hopefully never will be. But anyone who contemplated it more than six months ago and decided against moving should go back, and revise their view. Second Life, like Europe, will always be there, but Open Sim offers an unsophisticated, fresh alternative, a brave new world, where art is just getting started.