issue 11 digital arts and culture conference (perth) issue
Art and (Second) Life: Over the hills and far
Otago Polytechnic, Dunedin, New Zealand
I must admit a general unease yet
compulsive fascination towards the emerging social environments in Second Life.
Partly I am wary of the time commitment associated with learning and developing
the necessary skills for a full community participation in Second Life. By this
I am referring to both time to develop both the technical proficiencies as well
as the time to develop and maintain friendships and community connections that
combine to actualize a socially participatory experience appropriate to a
resident rather than a tourist or visitor. Here time becomes a currency, and
while every artist and researcher must invest time, it is the consideration of
extra time at a networked computer that must have as its consequence less time
in the grounded experiences at ‘home’, with my immediate and very physically
located friends and family. In this sense I confess that my observations and enquiries
are more grounded upon my occupying a position of academic researcher (an
outsider or tourist), than a fully participating member of the Second Life
This paper reflects my introduction
to one particular artist while we were both exhibiting at the ISEA 06/Zero One
digital art festival and symposium in 2006, and examines his recent work in
online world Second Life. At this stage, DC Spensley (and through his avatar
Dancoyote Antionelli) had been receiving attention for his contribution towards
a definition of art in this popular online world.
This paper will document the ideas
and philosophies of the artist DC Spensley, who has an extremely prolific
practice across media that we may consider as an explosion of art production
and use of Second Life particularly as an exhibition context. In some cases the
artist is showing work that developed from a personal practice of digital
image-making well before Second Life appeared online. In other cases his
creative work is entirely produced by using the Second Life scripting language.
His intensive research has resulted however in a substantial oeuvre and many
In some ways this examination is
fuelled by my personal research interests surrounding the rhetoric of
decontextualized communication within online worlds such as Second Life, that
suggests that we leave much of our local context behind when we enter into the
mediated spaces of Second Life, and adopt ‘new’ names and roles. It is my
hypothesis that we drag with us much of our attitudes and intents from our
local material context, but this is a research proposition in its very early
Rather than unpacking a case study
to make claims about what art ‘is’ or ‘might be’ in Second Life, I aim to not decontextualize myself as a researcher, and art viewer. Rather I will consider
the development of identity, value and art in Second Life, while keeping my own
position and material context grounded in New Zealand. It is my aim that through negotiating a relationship
between the contemporary art practice of DC Spensley and art histories within
the settler culture of New
Zealand we may finds
links or useful precedents that may help contribute to a developing
understanding of art in Second Life.
To discover these links, some of the values surrounding DC
Spensley’s artistic success will be explored, particularly questioning the role
and position of Spensley’s work in this managed social software experience
designed to enable creative play and interaction. These will be compared
briefly to other kinds of online art and also to some art historical practices
I have divided the paper into two
sections. The first part of the paper will examine the artist, his philosophy
and achievements. This has been developed from interviews with the artist as
well as additional web-based research. Dancoyote Antonelli is the name and form
of DC Sopensley’s avatar. Malia Ventura is my own avatar. The second section will consider the
context in which Spensley’s art is produced and read. This will begin with an
examination of the role of representation, contexts and methods of art history.
A further examination of context will be developed through a positioning of art
and environment, particularly addressing the environmental metaphors of Second
Life. Here I will consider colonial precedence and use examples drawn from New Zealand art histories to consider the role
of art in new environments.
Discussion will draw upon contemporary research frameworks
as well as contemporary art strategies that question specific relationships to
site, to examine whether established art historical models can be transposed
into digital worlds and their emerging art histories in useful ways, or whether
other methods need to be developed.
PART 1. THE ART OF DC SPENSLEY aka Dancoyote Antonelli
Hyperformalism: the artwork of DC Spensley
DC Spensley, or as he is known in Second Life, Dancoyote
Antonelli, is a relative newcomer to Second Life, but his work in digital media
began many years ago. A graduating student completing a traditional art
training at San
Francisco Art Institute, Spensley has been working with pixel-based art since
Photoshop 1.0. It has taken more than ten years
however for the appropriate exhibition medium to evolve for this current work.
Second Life has become the home and proper place for his digital imagery,
animations and conceptual forms. Spensley however has also found a very real
market in online art collectors trading, Spensley says, in scarcity and
authenticity. In one interview Spensley positions his art in terms of market
Most art in SL until my entry was sold as copies like shoes. I
found that there are real collectors in SL who love the chance to have an
original and trust me to guard their investment. It is a pact between me and
each collector (McCaw and Spensley, 2006).
Further to this Spensley explains his carefully crafting of
I am cultivating an 1980’s style art boom in SL and attempting to
define value of fine artworks in a virtual medium (McCaw and Spensley, 2006).
Image 1: The artist avatar Dancoyote Antonelli stands next
to a sign for his large-scale work Modernist Marvel. Photograph by Ellen
Spensley's personal philosophy outlines three developmental
stages of online art as it has evolved rapidly in Second Life. The first
generation involves imported images ranging from imported digital paintings to
scans of paper-based images and even reproductions of photographs. Second
generation work is made entirely in Second Life, using available materials in the
world: the free, off-the-shelf textures, scripts and objects are available to
any user or available free on the Second Life grid. Third generation work is a
hybrid of the first two. In the following excerpts from an interview Spensley
outlines his terms:
Venture: what is a
digital painting in terms of first generation work?
digital painting is native to the digital format, it is not a photograph but
made with math inside of a computer for this medium, like hyperformalism, in many
cases it is native to digital, which makes it original when uploaded (McCaw and
Spensley describes his art philosophy, devising his own terms ‘hyperformalism’
and ‘opnetics’ as a way to theoretically position the abstract digital art he
creates with software tools. His work incorporates both 2D ‘paintings’ and 3D ‘sculptures’
and incorporates static, moving and fly-through formats, architectural design
and production and performance direction.
DC Spensley’s own blog (www.spensley.com),
he defines hyperformalism thus:
Hyperformalism is an
aesthetic philosophical construct that may be employed to describe a late 20th
century, early 21st century mass art phenomena consisting of scores of personal
computer users generating abstract, often spatially unique artworks with
software tools. These spatial realities have no analog [equivalent] in the
physical world, and instead of making reference to physical reality, create a
unique continuum of reference; a rearrangement of photons to illuminate
alternate worlds of form, shape, color and space.
The term Hyperformalism
is derived from the combination of the words Hyper and Formalism (as described
by Wikipedia) and is being used here to describe aesthetic self expression
without anthropomorphic, or representative context. This separates
Hyperformalism from digital collage, aesthetic photo manipulation and other
this we may paste together ourselves a definition of hyperformalism based on ‘hyper’,
a prefix generally added to confer presence in more than usual or three spatial
dimensions (hypertext, hyper-real), and ‘formalism’, referring to an art
movement which places an emphasis on form over content or meaning. Stallabrass (2003:
34) cites an interest in form as one of two major developmental threads in
early internet art. This thread he suggests is evident particularly in the
computer games industry and the drive towards ‘the ultimate goal of virtual
hyperformalism however does not strive for a hyper-real scenario. He adds that
hyperformalism is neither anthropomorphic nor representational, though
hyperformal art may resemble natural formations or even employ naturalistic
algorithms. Spensley’s hyperformal artworks however never contain recognizable
elements like text, figures, landscapes, objects and concepts relating to
humanity. Rather we may consider Stallabrass’ conclusions relevant regarding
the relationship of early Net formalist artists to Modernism:
…the Net formalists
could not be formalists in the old way, if only because of their acute and
historical consciousness about the meaning and fate of modernism…yet the
insistence of their references to it suggest the deep affinity felt with their
predecessors, based upon a shared engagement with novel and fast-moving
technology (2003: 35).
this sense Spensley is engaging directly with his chosen material, and context,
but without reference to human action or effect, despite his highly social
engagement in the production and exhibition of works. He believes that digital
imaging tools ‘naturally’ lead from an abstractive language; the tools
themselves are mathematical abstractions governed by algorithms. One of the
unique qualities of the tools, Spensley reports, is the ‘undo’ function,
allowing ‘fast iteration and endless variation’.
In a conversation in Second Life Spensley writes
is my answer to the pathetic nihilism of postmodern theory, it is my way of
saying enough is enough! Let’s get back to basics, let’s re-enchant art
practice with wonder and de-anthropomorphize art practice, and appeal to a
different lobe, an older lobe: formalism in hyper medium (McCaw and Spensley,
curious that for Spensley, this ‘older lobe’ resides in the values and contexts
of pre-digital art movements.
What is Real?
In the curator’s notes for group show The Real (April 2006) at
Second Life’s online gallery Ars Virtua, James Morgan reflects on Second Life
as an area where we can share a common experience of the virtual. DC Spensley’s
work, he comments, reminds us of the numbers and commands that exist underneath
our visual assumptions. Spensley’s level of reality, he suggests, is drilled
down into the function of the machine: we experience the abstract beauty of the
Image 2: DanCoyote Antonelli as artist at work, photograph by Ellen
McCormick, August 2007
Reflection upon the emerging history of online and digital artworks
reveals a wide variety of approaches, among which we find other artists who
share Spensley’s concerns with the ‘material’ of digital media. The artwork of
Karl Sims, such as Galapagos (1995) also uses algorithms, creating works
that appear to grow in response to simple audience triggers. The artwork in
this case is a system, inspired by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. ‘”Genetic”
organisms seem to develop within their own environment inside the computer’
(Rush, 2001: 206). In contrast however, Spensley’s works do not respond to
audience interaction, but remain art as object. Greene suggests that the
theatricalization of data in art practice is exemplary of a wider phenomenon –
the theatricalization of all spaces, which she suggests has been developing as
a result of entertainment culture and television media, calling into question
ideas of boundaries and definitions of interface (Greene, 2004: 133-134).
Artists and writers on digital art, such as Christiane Paul and Rachel Greene,
connect other generative and software art movements with earlier precedents of
conceptual art movements including Fluxus, drawing parallel concerns between
the tools of representation and enactment (Greene, 2004: 163).
While Spensley’s ‘paintings’ are constructed using the same ‘materials’ –
software and algorithms – available to all residents of Second Life, his
construction of these works as art (and exhibited by DanCoyote Antonelli as
artist) positions these works in an economic relationship not consistent with
digital art histories. Nevertheless, we can imagine that these works, in their
attention to formal qualities, communicate the unseen in this digital
environment, otherwise highly concerned with representation (Rajchman, 2005:
Along with Hyperformalism, Spensley uses his own term ‘opnetics’.
Opnetics refers to the optical and kinetic collaborations that evolve from
Spensley’s works, where translucent ‘paintings’ shimmer and slowly move and
merge in animated layers within their surrounding environmental space. In other
cases images, light and effects surround an artwork temporarily, as
choreographed layers flowing through space. We may consider Spensley’s opnetic
features both as a cultural product and a dynamic visible process.
ZeroG SkyDancers poster, original caption: ‘ZeroG SkyDancers 15/06/06, think
aerial water ballet…’, photograph DC Spensley. Sky Dancers perform
choreographed works using specific movement commands of flight, available in
Second Life. Depicted here is also the crafted architectural space within which
the dancers perform (right hand image), as well as the more traditional seating
arena in which the audience remains seated for the spectacle (top left image).
Art Exhibitions, Communities and Economies
DC Spensley exhibits mainly in Second Life galleries, and is an active
developer of online art exhibition venues. The artist (at the time of
interview, August 2006) had built and was managing seven galleries in Second
Life, and working also within existing Second Life gallery sites such as Ars
Virtua, a Second Life project gallery (http://arsvirtua.com).
further communicate his work and opinions the artist maintains several websites
outside of Second Life:
solely on patronage and private sales: patronage for land to exhibit, and sales
for collectors who must have original art. My economic model is deliberate.
When I make a new piece I place as many copies for display as I want. But when
it sells, I take them all down. I have found that people want unique things in
SL [Second Life], and not copying makes the value increase if the collector
resells in RL [‘Real Life’, or offline]. I also create jobs in SL. Already I
have a team of two scripters, two builders, two sales reps and one clothes
designer to help me create and communicate my newest generation work….My goal
is to have 100 locations in SL, all with different work (http://uvvy.com/index.php/Dancoyote_Antonelli).
Spensley’s strategy and art community-building resolve have
clearly paid off. Popular with Second Life art investors and publics alike,
Spensley’s prolific art practice is making waves and attracting attention. The
artist achieved over half a million Linden dollars worth of sales (the Second
Life online currency, convertible to US dollars) in his first three months of
exhibiting in Second Life, a meteoric rise to fame unlikely in offline art
economies. Spensley does however seem to have mastered the digital languages
specific to Second Life, both for creating and marketing visual art objects, as
well as a clear and fluent grip on the background code, an understanding that
has helped him to position his work in the evolving online capitalism of Second
This involves the development of his avatar character
DanCoyote Antonelli. According to Anhinga Chaika, exhibition curator for The Bluffs Nature
Preserve and Center for the Arts, ‘…he is magnetic…His work is fresh, it is
alive, it has passion!’ (www.metaversemessenger.com/pdf/2006/06/MM-2006-06-06.pdf).
Dancoyote regards his involvement in the art market as part of his
conceptual art practice, and working within an historic moment:
Antonelli: It is a
conceptual piece, taking place in a capitalist petri dish…yes the term
‘original art’ is up for grabs and I aim to solidify it.
He goes on to talk about the relationship between his art objects and
Antonelli: I make
perform neologism, as art as well
Antonelli: I name
things and twist the metanarrative
objects have always had rich layers of meaning as well
and ideas live together in the art world, here and in the other life
and unintended, yes, however in SL there is scripting, I call scripting the 6th
finger. It is our adaptation to life in metaverse… that is where I am on fire.
(McCaw and Spensley, 2006).
These values are reflected across Spensley’s practices and sites.
Spensley is involved particularly in one development project as Lead Architect
and Producer in Uvvy Island.
According to the Uvvy 1.0 design notes:
in SL is user interface. User interface serves a purpose to guide a user to
certain content and facilitate what the user wants to do with that content.
Pursuant to this I propose that while some aspects of ‘brickspace’ may be
useful as familiar analogies, brickspace concerns should be discarded when SL
native solutions, not analogous to brickspace, provide for better user
interface design (http://uvvy.com/index.php/Uvvy_1.0_design_notes).
Uvvy Island Design Principles aim for a ‘Sense of Wonder and Confidence,
(to) Make it Fun and Intriguing, Interesting and Informative’, and these
principles are clearly echoed in Spensley’s art values and practice.
not stop with painting and architecture. Recent works have ranged from
choreography of Sky Dance performers, through to landscape art. Spensley’s
aeronautic dance troupe takes advantage of the Second Life ‘fly’ function, with
complex choreography and coded visual effects performing under the name of
ZeroG. ZeroG have performed on several occasions, including ISEA 06/Zero One in
Audience members gather for the ZeroG performance, Second Life screen shot,
photograph DC Spensley, August 2006
An example of
Spensley’s landscape art can be found in the Second Life online campus NMC’s
‘Artists on the green’ project, where Spensley created several temporary
shimmering animated and textured ‘landscapes’ for limited periods on August 12
Image 5: One of Spensley’s four contributions to NMC’s ‘Artists on the
Green’ project, August 12 2006. Spensley chose to use the 14 acre campus site
as his canvas, temporarily etching in to ‘grass’ and creating temporary
landscapes, forms and layers to existing geographies.
IP and digital culture
Within his first three months the artist encountered a range
of problems surrounding IP and digital culture, telling a narrative of deceipt
and misrepresentation. In August 2006 Spensley writes:
a SL celebrity that keeps taking pictures of my work and publishing these
photos as hers. At times (she would go as far as exhibiting the works) giving
only bylines to the artists.
The artist talked to the ‘celebrity’ twice about the problems relating
to IP, before responding through his art practice.
He discusses his reaction:
here's the art: I commissioned a script that opaques a painting when she is
within 25 meters of the work.
Antonelli: If she
takes photos of original art she needs to license the photos like anyone else,
or get permission.
Spensley retells his action as an art response, aligning it to an ‘art
action’ of the conceptual art movement:
Antonelli: Well the
script is conceptual art
Ventura: Yes the
script is yours, as well as the script that opaques a painting: a perfect
solution in this medium.
truth is there are even more damaging ways to hack into a work in SL (McCaw and
story Spensley crosses values between art historic precedents, using strategies
he aligns with conceptual art actions, as well as holding onto traditional
modernist concepts of ownership of visual art, images and IP. The question must
be considered whether digital art that is positioned within the economy of
Second Life is able to avoid the capitalist separation of original and copy. It
is precisely the copy and paste commands that Spensley cites as valuable tools
in his iterative production that threatens the terms of his ownership.
Between Two Worlds
Spensley is working across platforms and is aware of the crossovers and
what there is to be gained and lost in the digital translation. On one hand
Spensley has been working in pixel-based images for many years, and an online
world such as Second Life has the potential to offer so much more than a
website as an online exhibition context. On the other hand he notes that
offline experience offers riches too.
‘I am a
fine artist in real life and Second Life, but digital fine art is NATIVE to SL’,
says Antonelli, who has taken to being an established resident in an
astonishingly short time. ‘I was born to be here. I have been making art since
Photoshop 1.0 and have many digital generations iterated into the bodies of
work. Each time I take the work out into RL by scanning and photography and
bring it back into the digital world, it gains’.
Spensley defines art value in this sense as ‘transformative’.
Interestingly his aspirations remain focused upon traditional offline centres.
A modern art historical relationship of artist to audience is alluded to with
his intentions to see his art find a place in traditional fine art
sitting on a computer, this work is trivial, just files in the eyes of many,
not respected as fine art yet. But displayed and viewed in SL, it transforms
magically into the fine art I intended it to be in the first place. I fully
intend to show the SL art in the MOMA [Museum of Modern Art], Whitney, Tate and
So what is the proper place for art?
PART 2: ART IN ITS PLACE
The second half of this paper will consider the emerging art
practice, environment and economy of DC Spensley and Second Life. It will
consider possible connections between the values and methods of Spensley’s practice
with some Western art historical traditions, some internet and online art
traditions and colonial art histories as they have been documented in New
Zealand over the last 100 years in order to consider what has changed and
possible emerging features of new spaces for art such as those developing in
Representation, context and methods
At least since Plato the theory and
practice of visual arts have been founded almost exclusively, upon the
relationship between the real and its copy. This duality has shaped the writing
of art history as a story of the conquest of the real… and has helped to define
modern art movements, like abstraction, that consciously rejected iconic
resemblance (Camille, 1996: 32).
art histories have traditionally valued representation. Artists’ abilities to
create images that were illusory and could tell stories highlight the tension
between illusion and truth, genuine and copy, that are among the core values of
early Western visual art. But art has not always been evaluated solely on its
ability to create a likeness. Vasari, writing during the Renaissance, is
credited with writing the first extensive art history of this period. He also
sets out the ground rules for methods of evaluating art. Vasari includes connoisseurship
and humanist principles as well as visual likeness and visual illusion (which
help to define the boundaries of beauty) as important qualities for evaluating
Renaissance art (Fernie, 1995: 11). In contrast contemporary Art Historian Eric
Fernie defines art histories in terms of methods, which he claims are in turn
defined by their historic and social contexts (Fernie, 1995: 9).
art historians of the early twentieth century abandoned some of the earlier
methods of evaluation and understanding art (including the importance of
likeness and illusion), some aspects of these earlier methods and values have
pervaded. On the whole artwork was still perceived as the successful production
of individual genius and twentieth century art history is still considered as a
canon of great names. Other interpretive languages such as pschychoanalysis
were added to these earlier methods, but remained techniques of
connoisseurship. Art appreciation for much of the first half of the twentieth
century remained firmly a part of ‘high’ culture, and institutions, such as
museums and galleries continue to protect the kinds of knowledges that surround
the visual languages of art, as well the artifacts themselves.
points out that even art movements such as abstraction, where Spensley
positions himself as aligned with Formalism, (an abstract movement that
rejected pictorial representation) is nevertheless positioned within a
dichotomous relationship surrounding representation (Camille, 1996: 42).
context and methods
first discovered online worlds in the early 1990’s in the form of text-based
MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon) and MOOs (Multi Object Oriented online games). These
very evocative and imaginative shared social experiences continue to intrigue
me. As the graphic capabilities of networked personal computers accelerate and
technical literacies become common languages, online worlds are becoming
increasingly visual. MUD worlds were once descriptive texts, personal and
shared storytelling environments more related to fiction- or script-writing.
And yet 3D worlds such as Second Life through their visual allegory, are
evoking different relationships to these performative sites, and draw from
different histories, communities and evaluative languages.
issue of representation then does not only relate to art and its emergence as a
defining term in Second Life. All citizens and visitors in this world must (as
a part of their logon procedure), engage in making visual choices, in the
initial creation of their avatar. Avatars are visual representations of our
online characters. They are how we see ourselves, as a constructed identity in
Second Life, as much as they are how we present ourselves to others. Yet these
avatar images are not based upon values such as likeness or authenticity. When
we choose our visual identities from a range of (initially) predetermined
options, some likely roles come with them. From the colour of our skin to the
size of our nose we are choosing costumes that have been associated with other
mediated stereotypes. The question of the relationship between the original and
the copy is always present in our shared interface, its connection both
attractive and troubling. Through our avatars we inhabit two locations, and we
are able to cross between them using visual and textual cues.
6: avatar selection window, screenshot from Second Life
a recent technology of visualization, game genres differ from earlier art
technologies such as photography or painting, and have different histories. The
evolution of social networked media, from MUDs and MOOs though to Second Life,
has required a major shift in the literacies of users. At one time in the 1980s
and early 1990s a good word-per-minute typing speed and a lively wit were the skills
required to gain respect and contribute to many and multiple running
conversations in a MUD. As technology developed, the use of hypertext and
embedded images added scope to how we might navigate or traverse connections
between offline and online personas, and between synchronous and networked
Life, like other 3D game genres, is still low in terms of resolution and
likeness. There is no convincing relationship to illusion. However we are
required to relinquish our ‘consumer’s relationship’ to these images and, as
literacies develop, we may begin to associate all 3D graphic scenes as
landscapes that may be navigated from a first-person perspective. As online
worlds such as Second Life grow in population and architectures, we also begin
to see these architectures and forms as ever-evolving and constructed from an
infinite combination of primitive shapes. While technically anything is
possible in this toybox of our imagination the combinations people do choose to
create, regularly rely on representations of that which is already familiar.
significant shift occurs as consumers of game cultures become increasingly
invited to take the role of producers. The opportunities for audience-members
to redesign themselves as creative participants in the environment and culture
of Second Life is a popular and accessible example of this shift. And while
this is not a shift for MUD players, who have regularly taken on the role of
producer, the tools of visualization have changed. The entirely visual content
of Second Life draws upon histories and behaviours that are not necessarily
drawn from prior game technologies, and we witness a convergence of media and
art histories and literacies from the sparkling blue eyes of our permanently
new tools of visualization offer the potential to develop a visually democratic
agora, offline, the role of aesthetic judge and arbiter has traditionally been
negotiated between architects and designers, artists and town planners. As
noted historic and sophisticated systems exist to ensure that aesthetic
education and decision-making is circulated through the portals of high
culture. Offline ‘experts’ govern the design of our cities and habitats, our
entertainment and certainly our art. This leads inevitably to the question of
‘what makes art different’ in a visual, creative and participatory environment
such as Second Life? The example of DC Spensley suggests in part that it is
these offline systems, at least in the emergence of this art economy, that have
served to define the role and position of art and artist in Second Life.
Spensley’s language and training have offered him the perspective of a visual
expert and this is the role he plays as DanCoyote Antonelli - a highly crafted
persona of a traditional artist.
Spensley regards his hyperformalism as ‘the art movement that the art
world missed - a broad proletarian explosion of art’. He characterizes this
proletarian aspect as
personal computer users generating unique artworks sharing technical and
aesthetic discoveries specific to their medium with each other on the World
Wide Web. Their material is the pixel, their medium is the electronic display
delivered to the viewer via the Internet, and the occasional visionary art
the terms of economic value surrounding Spensley’s art rely on there being ‘scores
of computer users’ but not that they all must consider themselves artists. As
Spensley himself points out, scarcity and authenticity are the conditions if
then seems inevitable in this context that traditional offline notions of
connoisseurship, patronage and ownership related to art are being conserved.
And yet Spensley’s art is not something you might buy in order to make your
Second Life living spaces a little prettier. The scale of Spensley’s 2D and 3D
work in most cases would require a hefty investment in land purchase and the
construction of large scale architecture. Walter Benjamin’s renegotiation of art after technology
predicted that advances in technology would eliminate authenticity, as a
criterion of value (Schneider Adams, 1996: 63). We are seeing the opposite
propogated in this Second Life art practice and economy. Spensley has
commissioned code to protect his authenticity from particular
characters/players who challenge this notion. This action emphasizes the
traditional art historical values of individual artworks as an act of creative
genius, by an authentic producer. While any visitor can capture a screen shot
of Spensley’s work, it is his desire to control the reproduction and
distribution of that image, not only as source code, but as an art object.
what might potentially unique aspects of art in Second Life be, if as Spensley
claims the term ‘original art’ is still being defined?
Spensley’s success can be measured in economic terms, it is more difficult to
evaluate in terms of its social and theoretical contribution. To understand and
negotiate the role and potential definition of art in Second Life, we will need
to acknowledge the omnipresence, not just the availability, of the tools and
materials of art in this context. The theoretical approach of second wave Marxist
art writers such as Ernst Fischer may be useful, encouraging the creative act
of work. For Fischer people gain control of their world through the use of
tools. ‘A subject-object relationship [that] only occurs through work’
(Schneider Adams, 1996: 61). All building in Second Life, from objects of art
to building and personae requires an engagement in creative processes.
Landscape: the environment visually perceived
Landscape is a way of seeing that
has its own history, but a history that can be understood only as a part of a
wider history of economy and society (Appleton, 1984: 11).
For us to
consider Fernie’s approach for understanding art through the context in which
it is produced and seen, it is necessary to acknowledge the environment and
emerging economies of Second Life as this context. An online ‘world’, Second
Life, like many of the terms of the internet, references geographic metaphors.
Second Life is built upon, and relies on our fundamentally familiar
relationships to landscapes and social interactions that occur within them.
Cosgrove’s argument that habits of perception (‘ways of seeing’) of societies
can be constrained by various combinations of circumstances of social, cultural
and economic kind (Appleton,1984: 12), and this can be said to apply equally to
both the reading of art as well as ways of seeing landscapes.
towards landscapes (as well as intuitive responses towards art) are ‘transformed,
overlain and mediated by social, cultural and economic as well as personal meanings’
(Appleton, 1984: 12).
A useful 19th century example of this relationship to landscapes can be seen through the cult
of the wilderness, a profoundly social and nostalgic consideration for
landscape that is not inhabited by humans. Also emerging out of times of huge
technological change, namely Britain during the Industrial Revolution,
wilderness can be seen as an idealization of particular landscapes in terms of
leisure and tourism, retreat and refreshment, pure and ‘natural’ in comparison
to impure urban environments that is maintained in our contemporary
imagination. Not coincidentally this was also the era in which New Zealand was
being settled, a far away wilderness for consumption. More generally
countryside becomes constructed as an antithesis to the city and it is not
surprising that this countryside metaphor was the initial visual metaphor
employed by the designers of Second Life (Aitchison et al, 1995: 51).
suggests despite this socio-cultural molding that we in part recognize landscape
as an archetype, and he uses the example of the widespread attraction which
people feel towards ‘parkland’ as an idealized, contrived arrangement. I am
suggesting that Second Life is constructed more as a parkland than a
wilderness. Its natural features include benevolent green rolling hills atop
islands, and sea you can fly through. Conveniently this modeled rural landscape
is empty and pest-free when purchased, ‘homely, stable and ahistorical’
(Aitchison et al, 1995: 50). It is free from environmental concerns, the grass
doesn’t need to be mowed. We are visitors-as-residents and we rely on the
controlled stasis of the environmental metaphors, more similar to a holiday
house we may visit regularly than the neighbourhood we return to after work.
Spensley’s cultivation of an 1980’s style art boom, where art is seen in an
economic continuum following from real estate and pornography suggests
historical precedence. Screenshot from the Second Life website explaining land
inferred here is highly colonial. Second Life is positioned as a Terra Nullius
and this applies layers of colonial meaning and association.
term ‘terra nullius’ is from Latin origin, meaning ‘no man’s land’, or empty
land, not possessed already by people. It has a close relationship to the term
‘res nullius’ which denotes objects that are not yet owned, such as wild
animals, or abandoned property. The two terms form the legal the foundation and
justification for colonial enterprise, whereby the act of ‘finding’ and ‘occupying’
land was justification for claiming ownership of that land, and its occupants:
generally defined as fauna (res nullius). The relationship is primarily based
upon the principles of economics. If land is not producing economic value then
it is un- or under-utilized. Land and its use value become synonymous with
may easily recognize the abuses of these legal concepts through cursory
examination of South African and Australian histories, where nomadic indigenous
peoples were considered not to be occupying land because their land value
systems contrasted with those considered economic. Second Life is modeled on a
highly metaphoric and endlessly extendable landscape also viewed in economic
terms as real estate.
Danny Butt in his essay on Local Knowledge (2005) proposes
three impassable contradictions, related to settler culture, indigenous culture
and location. One of these Mapping – the most basic function of the colonial
process – Butt writes, functions by turning a profoundly social relationship
with the land characteristic of indigenous culture, into data.
while the designers of Second Life created a land conveniently without
indigenous people, its first owner (the Linden Corporation who establishes initial
trading rights for each ‘new’ island) and the Linden inhouse building tools
frame the world. I suggest that the way that we construct the formation of
culture in this empty land draws upon a colonial model and precedents. The
research question that follows from these initial considerations is: is it
possible to have new empty land that allows for a different model of
colonization, or will older models prevail? And how can we consider art in this
are of course fundamental differences between the colonization of material
geography and the relationship we have to the metaphoric landscapes of Second
Life. The first major difference begins with our relationships to our avatars
as body-metaphors, which online have no material needs other than a broadband
connection to our keyboards, requiring neither food nor shelter. The laws of
sustainable land usage, and the effects we may have within an environmental
ecological system based upon material relationships therefore may be abandoned.
New systems evolving in Second Life are based upon social relationships and
economic models, with a limited range of tools (‘native’ proprietory software)
accessible to all. As noted earlier, time becomes a currency as it enables
users the opportunity to master these tools and social languages. This is also
evident in the artwork of DC Spensley, whose prolific art activitiy is enabled
through many hours of education and practice. What we experience within this
emerging and participatory culture is the realisation, or potential
realisation, not of needs but of desires. And we witness increasing numbers of
inhabitants in Second Life realizing their desires in traditional off-line
ways. According to DC Spensley, the first economies to develop in Second Life
were real estate and followed closely by pornography. It is Spensley’s
prediction that an art economy will follow.
Image 8: From Second Life homepage February 2007
To return to the subject of emerging art histories, I am attracted to
make a comparison to art histories that have emerged in other colonial
settings, specifically looking towards New Zealand colonial art histories,
which have been dominated by landscape painting.
For the sake
of simplicity, I suggest that there have been several periods of artists in New
Zealand in the last 150 years that have been acknowledged with the role of
contributing towards colonial understandings of place and belonging. I will
choose examples from two of these periods.
The first wave
of European artists sent to New Zealand may be illustrated using the example of
the work of Charles Heaphy. Heaphy was appointed
artist and draughtsman by the New Zealand Company, based in England and joined
Colonel William Wakefield in a preliminary expedition to New Zealand in 1840.
His initial role and duties while traveling around the country was as artist
and surveyor, though his entry in Te Ara, an online New Zealand encyclopeadia,
also lists him as ‘explorer’ (http://www.teara.govt.nz/1966/H/HeaphyCharles/HeaphyCharles/en).
the purpose of these original British artists was to document new territory,
their resulting images tell stories of a new place, more based on desires and
economies than on mimetic or documentary representation. Heaphy’s energetic
role went on to win him political status and employment. Te Ara however
identifies his chief successes as an artist.
Heaphy is remembered mostly for his neat maps and for his
paintings and drawings of the New Zealand scene. These are more than the
accurate topographical illustrations the New Zealand Company employed him to
produce; the best of them are illuminated by some poetic insight; most of them
indicate his struggle to come to grips with the savage landscapes so alien to
one brought up in the milieu of the traditional English water colourists.
Heaphy’s ‘tidied up’ landscapes were intended to create
desire and a sense of the exotic in order to please his employers and encourage
more immigrants to join him in this tamed landscape. The painting (below) of
Mount Taranaki, also documented online in the Te Whenua me Nga Tangata, Land & People Project
at Otago University is accompanied by the following caption:
Heaphy's spectacularly symmetrical Mount 'Egmont' painted in 1839 aimed to
attract settlers to the New Zealand company's 'beautiful' New Plymouth
settlement. His deliberate omission of the heavy rain forest between the coast
and mountain represented an early form of real estate 'spin' (collection of the
Alexander Turnbull Library) (http://www.otago.ac.nz/nzpg/land_people/index.html).
9: Charles Heaphy ‘Mount Egmont from the Southward’ 1840
of place and creating an art true to Pakeha (European settler) culture
independent of Britain became a primary concern of early twentieth century New
Zealand-born artists. One of the most recognized for his contribution to this kind
of art knowledge was painter Colin McCahon. McCahon
(1919–1987) is credited as New Zealand's first painter of international
significance, but is interesting here for the role he played in helping an
emerging colonial nation state help to see itself. Colin McCahon might
best represent the second wave of New Zealand artists.
10: Colin McCahon, Mapua landscape, 1939, medium: grass stalk 'pen' & ink,
'finger-pushed' on paper. Collection of Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki
Early work of
McCahon’s such as Mapua landscape (1939) shows the artist developing a
visual shorthand for recording his relationship to the landscape, using the
materials of the land (grass stalk, pen and ink) as well as his own fingers to
physically integrate this relationship of people and place. Literally pushing
ink upon the surface of his painting and scratching the surface with grass
stalks dipped in ink McCahon’s shorthand reveals a deep study of the landscape.
McCahon’s later paintings however that became iconic, and represented a shift
for McCahon, but also for settler culture in New Zealand. Landscape and
religion combine to communicate McCahon’s humanist message. Often generalized
abstract New Zealand landscapes were used as contemporary settings of religious
events, and increasingly landscapes became employed for its symbolic content.
Large painted fields, and hand painted texts are well recognized elements of
McCahon’s paintings, upon canvas, board and large scale panels. The iconic
value of this work was a collective social recognition of the landscape as a
visual trope. Perhaps most significant however was the promise that despite
much imported (colonial) content in New Zealand culture, meaning may be written
and read in local settings and environments.
11: Colin McCahon, As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the
pure land, 1965, medium : enamel paint on hardboard. Collection of the
Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch.
painting with text and landscapes uses two of the visual communication devices
employed in Second Life.
McCahon the landscape, while depicted as empty, was already full of God, a
spiritual connection to the land borrowed from (or perhaps recognized in)
traditional Maori worldviews. Nicholas Thomas writes that
the deep association between
indigenous people and the land provided strong and condensed reference points
for a colonial culture that sought both to define itself as native and to
create national emblems (Thomas,1999: 12).
is both the realization of the auratic nature of the landscape, and its
potential role as a theatrical set in which richer meanings can be played out
that informs McCahon’s particular vision. In this sense the landscapes, usually
empty of people, may be seen as a local ‘Garden of Eden’, and a site from which
embodied (self) realisation emerges, an omnipresent and invisible creator
casting texts towards us. There is some analogous relationship that can be
drawn here between McCahon’s landscapes and/as texts, and the function of land
in Second Life. An omnipresent and invisible creator (the Linden Corp) lies
also behind the tools and metaphors of our emplaced interactions. The Garden as
theatrical set is also a model we can recognize, although the religious message
to the children of the garden relies more upon the promise of economic gain and
McCahon, new forms of travel and communication technologies have changed our
geographic and cultural horizons. A recent illustration of the use of
simplified messages fusing these changes can be seen in a current Air New
Zealand marketing campaign set to be released on television, in cinemas and
within the urban landscape, on billboards. The campaign values the importance
of ‘being there’, and associating this national airline as the way to
accomplish this, with close metaphoric association with New Zealand’s
landscape, but also drawing upon our familiarity with flying over landscapes in
Second Life. One television commercial depicts a person
working in a cafe in the northern city of Auckland. He walks outside to a jetty
looking sad and doleful. He then jumps into the air and flies the length of New
Zealand to land outside a landmark building in Dunedin (a southern city, some 2
hours away by air) to kiss his girlfriend. The key visual analogy however is
that he flies over empty land and at the same level above the earth that he
would fly in Second Life. In an online press release Air New Zealand
marketing manager Steve Bayliss says the 'Amazing Journeys' theme exemplifies
the heart of Air New Zealand's brand.
Central to our brand
promise is a set of beliefs that include our belief that 'the only way to truly
say I love you is with a hug', and that 'we live in the most inspiring place on
is characterized by an attitude typical of McCahon’s spiritual relationship to
the landscape, but with a Second Life perspective.
‘The campaign showcases
New Zealand's stunning landscape through breathtaking aerial shots. It creates
powerful dreamlike sequences and encourages viewers to have a romantic
connection with, and sense of pride in their country,’ says Mr Bayliss.
just like Second Life the actors are everyday folk:
In keeping with previous
Air New Zealand campaigns, staff were involved in the creative process by submitting
their personal 'amazing journey' stories (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU0701/S00234.htm).
and cultural production
tools and strategies need to be investigated as possible alternatives to assist
and enlargen the current framing of art and its role in Second Life.
Contemporary art theories that may provide useful alternatives to traditional
models include site-specific methodologies and decolonial methods.
researcher Claire Doherty writes that contemporary art is no longer produced in
a studio in isolation
…we have witnessed the convergence
of site specific, installation, community and public art, institutional
critique and political activism (Doherty, 2004: 10).
Miwon Kwon’s understanding of site which has shifted from being a fixed,
physical location. Rather Kwon and Doherty concur that site is constituted
through social, economic and cultural processes. A new vocabulary (Doherty,
2004: 10) bound with social engagement marks the ‘new-ness’ of this
participatory art. While these two researchers are in fact referring to
material geographies, their re-construction of site as fluid and culturally
engaged and responsive may offer useful clues toward a new definition of online
contexts. It is perhaps through these concerns that we can re-imagine the role
of art in Second Life as a part of a constructed social and economic field,
rethinking colonial relationships to site through engagement with representation
and context, not in opposition but through a necessary and negotiated tension.
suggests that new technologies demand a shift in the way that we observe,
absorb and respond to technology. She notes that:
technology is a material force:
while social, cultural and economic structures shape technology, technology
also acts back on social, cultural, economic and physical bodies. The
materiality of technology and of the image (which acts not only on language but
as a language on us) are in constant tension (Diamond, 1996: 134).
sentiments are echoed by Judith Mastai who adds that digital technologies
signal a deep suspicion of a single truth and that contemporary curatorial
practices must reflect multiple communities and therefore consider multiple
ideologies (Mastai, 1996: 152).
methods may assist us to consider landscapes, people and belonging in ways
outside of colonial thinking. Writers such as Edward Said among others have
drawn attention to the link between imperialism and high culture (Thomas, 1999:
7). Subsequent art writers such as Nicholas Thomas claim that the way to
include a presence of indigenous art in the contemporary art world, is to
refocus on meanings which are examined from a distinctive, local vantage point
(1999: 8). Colonial relationships emerged not only from governorship from afar,
but also through direct contact and local interactions. Thomas claims that the
settler relationship is a particular discourse, claiming both utopian visions
and antagonistic intimacy (1999: 10).
To return to
Spensley, while his art is neither representational, nor concerned with
landscape, we may recognize an engagement with the forms and materials of a new
environment. His contribution to a growing definition of art in Second Life
relates particularly ideas familiar to traditional offline art. Spensley’s work
can help us to consider a bigger picture of what art is, and what art might be,
and how art may be located in emerging online worlds such as Second Life in
other ways. It is perhaps curious that Spensley’s work does not sit easily
within, or develop from the emerging traditions of internet-based, or online
art histories, but rather reflects the dominant model of Second Life as a
capitalist simulacrum. Spensley’s personal positioning within this world
reflects this economic model ahead of cultural or art historical concerns. And
will further and future research in contemporary art and art movements in
Second Life reveal other references and directions artists forging these
connections in a world where everybody has access to the tools of art-making?
the context of Second Life helps us to position artwork within a landscape
(cultural and metaphoric) that artists’ works emerge from and within which they
are read. While currently we see reflected the centrality of the relationship
of value, art and ownership, art has the potential to reach outside of these
economic concerns. As with offline settler cultures, art will play a role in
the development of a tenuous cultural distinctiveness, explicit and visible in
Second Life. The risk is to not create a too narrow definition of art and
culture that could encourage or support existing homogeneity.
It is clear
that we will need to sharpen the tools passed on from previous disciplines
(such as traditional art histories), and to develop new tools where necessary,
to navigate this new territory and to avoid following false trails observed
from our offline histories, acknowledging that there remains a risk of
suppression of cultural diversity, and of cultural simplification.
If we are to
acknowledge that art is effective in defining social relations and meanings,
then art may radically redefine them. In order to do this the languages and
avenues for art criticism will need to inform artists, collectors and publics
alike, and not just a market economy. Fora for discussion and exhibition also
must evolve, that are open to forms of art that are not-so-traditional and
invite people who have not yet tried the ‘role’ of artist so that they may help
to stretch definitions in useful ways.
Caroline McCaw is a Senior Lecturer and Academic Leader in Communication
Design at Otago Polytechnic, in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her research
interests include examining situated creative practices, participatory
art and design, and particularly the relationship between material
location and networked culture drawing from examples in the fields of
both art and design. Her design and art practices perform these research
interests, through work in publications, mixed reality, and
multi‑location art events. She is actively involved in the Aotearoa
Digital Arts network, and contributes to a wide range of community
activities. Caroline is a PhD student at Queensland College of Arts,
Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. She has published papers,
curated and exhibited digital art internationally, most recently
exhibiting work at ISEA06.
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1. Digital screen shot in Second
Life. Dan Coyote Antonelli stands
in front of a sign promoting his work ‘Modernist Marvel’, August 2006 http://blog.ellenmccormickmartens.com/2006_08_06_ellecoyote_archive.html,
accessed 20 Feb 2007.
2. Digital screen shot in Second
Life. Dan Coyote Antonelli stands
in front of a digital painting, August 2006 http://blog.ellenmccormickmartens.com/2006_08_06_ellecoyote_archive.html,
accessed 20 Feb 2007.
3. ZeroG SkyDancers artists poster. One of four contributions to NMC’s
‘Artists on the Green’ project, August 12 2006. http://spensley.com/hyperformalism accessed 20 February 2007.
4. Digital screen shot in Second
Life, DC Spensley http://uvvy.com/index.php/Dancoyote_Antonelli,
accessed 25 February 2007.
5. ‘a mesmerizing
landscape of vibrantly colored glacial fjord like canyons’, photograph by CDB
Barkley (aka Alan Levine) http://www.nmc.org/sl/2006/10/23/dancoyote/ accessed 23 February 2007.
6. Avatar selection window for new
characters. http://secondlife.com/whatis/avatar.php accessed July 2006
Promotion of Real Estate on Second Life website. Accessed July 2006
Second Life homepage, http://secondlife.com accessed 23 February 2007.
8. ‘Mount Egmont from the
Southward’ 1840. Watercolour on paper. 37.7 x 60.7cm signed Charles Heaphy,
collection of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Purchased 1916, published in Charles Heaphy by Briar Gordon and Peter
Stupples, Pitman Publishing, Petone New Zealand, 1987.
9. Colin McCahon, Mapua landscape,
1939, medium: grass stalk 'pen' & ink, 'finger-pushed' on paper. Collection
of of Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki, New Zealand. accessed 23 February
APPROVAL (permission kindly granted by the Colin McCahon Research and
Publication Trust to reproduce this image).
10. Colin McCahon, As
there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land 1965, medium: enamel paint on
hardboard. Collection of the Robert McDougal Gallery, Christchurch New Zealand,
PENDING APPROVAL (permission kindly granted from the Colin McCahon Research and
Publication Trust to reproduce image).