Estimated reading time: 6 minutes —
Douglas Story & Desdemona Enfield are virtual reality Environment Designers. Environment Design was the fascination of the 20th century and is the career of the 21st century.
We’ve wondered about the environments of other worlds, of other planes of existence, for a long time. In 2010 Avatar probably sold more tickets than Inception, but no creative work sparked more discussion and debate than Inception. Twenty-six years earlier Dreamscape also explored entering the dreams of others.
In our world there is always the debate of whether the “fake” world of Second Life can give rise to “real” human experience. Perhaps it is the opposite question we should ask, whether reality is composed of anything other than dreams and projections. Or as the Buddhist teacher Atiśa suggested a thousand years ago, “regard all phenomena as dreams.”
Perhaps even more frequently than dreams, our fiction has pondered living in the matrix. In films like The Matrix (1999/2003), Tron (1982/2010), and the William Gibson episode of The X-Files, Kill Switch (1998), characters live in and/or upload their katra to the matrix.
In films like Lawnmower Man (1992) and Brainstorm (1983) users wear really cool VR helmets and have really immersive experiences. Like what Second Life will be like in another couple of years I’m sure.
Works like Altered States (1980) and Flatliners (1990) consider the physicalization of experiences from other, dream-like states of being.
As our conscious existence spends ever greater portions of time in virtual experiences, and as those experiences become ever more immersive, who designs these dreamscapes? Where is the balance between the joy of Impossible IRL and so far out as to lose all human referent? In literature, the best works of fiction contain more human truth than works of non-fiction. In contemporary advertising we find imagery that is incisively photo-real, yet filled with lies, whereas surrealist imagery is wildly distorted yet somehow seems to connect to deeper truths, existences, and perceptions within our beings.
I believe that Environment Designer and Avatar Designer are the careers of the 21st century. There will be “fine art” ED’s, “Commercial” ED’s… “Documentary,” “Corporate,” “Pop” and you-name-it ED’s. More and more people will design environments, more and more people will consume them. Each successive generation will laugh at the parochial way their predecessors compartmentalized “real” and “virtual” experiences.
Second Life is home to many pioneering Environment Designers with wildly different aesthetic sensibilities. They range from the ethereal landscapes of Comet Morigi, to the mindscapes of Bryn Oh, to the linguistic abyss of Adam Ramona. and beyond.
http://www.koinup.com/comet_Morigi/work/283644/ – Super SIM-Wide Landscape
Among these emerging Environment Designers of SL are Douglas Story & Desdemona Enfield who currently have 3 works online for experiencing. Obviously experiencing these immersive 3D works on a 2D blog is but a shadow on the cave wall, but lucky you, you can go there now!
Installation by Douglas Story & Desdemona Enfield currently online in Second Life:
Er… can go there as soon as you finish reading this sensitive, insightful, deeply nuanced, profound blog post, I meant to say!
Er… yeah… good point… just go there now!
I do feel almost silly trying to write about this work, not only do these 2D images not have the depth, motion, interaction of the piece, but THE SOUND… standing in this “tube” the sound is a “simple” ambient drone, but it creates such a feeling, such a presence.
It’s interesting, Machinima can be useful in trying to convey these works as it offers spatial and temporal qualities not available in 2D images. But it too misses the experience in many ways. Even a short machinima can sometimes feel tedious for me… yet in the immersive experience itself I’m often content to move little and linger for an extended period. There really is a quality about being in these environments that you “just have to experience!”
The important distinction here for me, is that when one says that Virtual Sistine Chapel is not the “real” experience and you have to physically go for it to “count” as seeing that place, that for me is an utterly elitist move. Realistically very few of earth’s nearly 7 billion humans have any chance of visiting Physical Sistine Chapel in their lifetimes. So if you want to call the virtual fake, then you’ve just marginalized the cultural opportunities for the bulk of the human race. Even if the billions could somehow find the resources for such a trip, burning jet fuel is a very unsustainable activity. The carbon footprints of frequent continent hoppers are horrific.
By contrast, for the 25% and growing portion of the human race that’s wired, these experiences are easily accessible.
I mentioned briefly at the beginning the real-vs-fake, isomorphist-vs-immersionist philosophies. But by striving for “real” in a literal, mechanical, Western sense… are we missing something? Are we missing everything?
I, obviously, have no real idea what it might have been like to leave the Medieval world and enter the vision, spectacle, and ocular grandeur of a Gothic Cathedral… but, uh… since you don’t either… I’m going to say that standing in this tube… this abyss… this liminal vortex… feeling at once as tiny as Turner strapped to a ship’s mast in the awesome, sublime power of a massive ocean storm… and also… one with and enveloped by this world, perhaps this is something of that Middle Ages Gothic Cathedral experience.
And was that architectural and religious manipulation “fake?” Perhaps the experience of a Gothic Cathedral was “fake,” perhaps the Enlightenment that the Buddha thought he experienced was “fake”… and perhaps all in SL is “fake”… but if the powerful, palpable aliveness I feel standing in, being a part of, this strange otherworldly corridor is “fake”… then “reality” might not ever be good enough again.
So set your environment to midnight, you sound to high, and come experience.
NOT your SL environment and sound, your MENTAL settings! Sheesh — you can be SO literal sometimes!
kk — actually Story & Enfield do want you to put your SL settings there too! 😛
I would write more, but I can’t move, I don’t want to leave this place. Have I grown roots in this corridor? Perhaps not… but I’m not ready to leave it… so… please… give me…
— a moment —
…each of the panels that make up the large cylinder interacts with your movement… thru your presence they are manipulated in space and sound…
I like this interactivity in that it increases your sense of presence and immersion… but it may be a little too aggressive for me, at least in this moment, I feel the most sublime power just standing still and feeling this place.
ha ha ha — from the Gothic Cathedral… to the Surrealist Landscape!
And finally… from the Gothic Cathedral… to the Surrealist Landscape… to the “hip hop beats” and contemporary urban culture of 21st century Remix Art!
All of these works are interactive and immersive, but with Ripple we begin to feel the effects of post-internet remix culture. That’s me, near the center of the image, looking at a series of images on the wall, by touching one, I, the DJ of my virtual experience, change the terrain to that texture.
Again, I can’t really convey this experience to you, I can only cheerlead, “Go See It!” The sound once again is so enveloping. I have lots of theories on the unique immersive qualities of sound, but we’ll save those for another day… let’s go inside already!
As with the introductory taste at the beginning of our Wizard-of-Oz-Walk, here the walls, the ripples, of your world are remixed by you the user.
I love Richard Stallman’s story of the day passwords first arrived at MIT. He hated them because they were a way for someone who was sitting there yesterday to have control over what the person sitting there today could do.
Remix follows exactly that democratizing, empowering impulse that Stallman felt. Remix breaks the 20th century hegemony of top-down, 1-to-many, read-only culture. Second Life is the land of User Generated Content (UGC) It is a world where Story & Enfield can freely create these works. And now in Ripple we see them paying it forward, empowering readers to become authors in a read-write culture where the world we experience can be shaped by our own hands.
As the brief film history at the beginning of this post suggests, we’ve been thinking about and doing environment design for a long time. Our films do it. Our cultural narratives do it. Our shopping malls do it.
The inventor of the fully-enclosed shopping mall, Austrian-American Victor Gruen, was a socialist who considered the evolution of shopping malls a bastardization of his ideas. His Utopian Environment Design had been perverted into a vehicle of pure commerce and consumption devoid of the community and culture elements that dominated his original vision.
I once analogized Theme Parks and Social Networks. My point was different then, but it seems true that compared to the immsersiveness of Disneyland, Facebook is as shallow and brittle as it gets.
The cost, the labor, the tonnes of glass, steel, and concrete, the hectares of land, all mean that shopping malls and theme parks can be envisioned and created only rarely and only by a few people. Blue Mars apartheid aside, in virtual worlds Environment Design meets the same democratizing ubiquity that transformed media from the top-down elitism of 20th century conglomerates to the diversity of blogs and other online media today.
Our own Lyssa Varun is a champion of packaging “scenes” or “environments” or “worlds” in a “Rezzer,” a little “box” from which can spring forth a thousand different experiences, a thousand different realities. A rezzer is the DVD player or YouTube of virtual experience. One day soon neurobiologists will marvel at how consciousness was able to emerge in the days before the rezzer. Perhaps the philosophers will riposte that the human mind is among the oldest and most robust rezzers in the known universe.
Where Story & Enfield and a growing number of others pioneer today, countless more designers and experiencers will increasingly travel in the coming years.
She’ll be back. Her reality won’t be good enough for her ever again.
— Cobb / Inception