Sunday, 27 July 2008

'Real' and 'Second' Life?

I am including in this post two principal intentions. The first is to make public my questioning of a definitive abstract for my project. I am constantly re-assessing it as my work develops and consequently modifies my thinking and vice versa. So far I have kept the wording generic to allow for my consideration of a number of aspects which may evolve and be included appropriately under the intentions expressed in the abstract. This latest version is slightly more specific and so may not be sufficiently inclusive of the wider notions I am exploring, so I view it as an interim statement. While the abstract is a statement of intent/project proposal in essence, and I do not intend to subvert this role, I recognize that it can be seen as a barometer signifying the development of my thinking, the modifications as they occur reflecting this evolution. I am leaving the wording of the abstract on the Blog page as it is so a comparison between that version and this one can be made.

The second intention, as the title of this post suggests, is to communicate that part of my Masters work that I have been developing in the virtual online world of Second Life. This post is a version of a notecard written for publication in Second Life of my intentions and brief summary of work done to date in Real Life. I will be explaining and critiquing these images under each image and in subsequent posts.

The latest dance work carried out in Wellington Railway Station from 7 to 9 July is relevant to the thinking in this text and the edited video footage of this work will be included in my post for August.

Please scroll up for the images of my building work in Second Life. This work is ongoing and I will be exploring a range of possibilities to introduce the feeling/sense of rush hour crowds and our dance work within the station concourse (which was originally the main ticket office). Please see my critiques of the individual images for more information about the details of this work.


In the Company of Strangers
Negotiating the parameters of meetings, exchanges and conversations in urban spaces


This performance-based project critically explores the dynamic of the ‘stranger' – that personna which is always leaving - in meetings between people in designated urban locations. Interventionist dance strategies will be used to prompt, negotiate and interrogate the formation, nature and parameters of these encounters. Experimental movement frameworks employed will be informed by the disciplines of Contact Improvisation Dance and Authentic Movement modes. The working process will be documented using a range of edited video narrative.

Process - Recap:

The main location for my dance and video work to date has evolved from back-alleys and disused, redundant commercial spaces into a focus upon the internal/external spaces of Wellington Railway Station in Wellington, New Zealand Aotearoa. Urban environments were chosen for this work because from my observations, meetings and encounters in these locations occur regularly between people and the nature of the exchanges frequently tend toward the more cursory. I am dividing my time between Real Life work and Second Life work through a process of filming my dance enquiry in the ‘real’ world and then projecting the edited footage onto ‘virtual’ surfaces. This work here, in Second Life is for me, not so much a replica of the real life Wellington Railway Station, as the setting of a scene that is not fixed in time and space; an assemblage or montage of sensed movement-almost missed, sights, sounds, smells (?) and intimately played out dramas … I have been invited to build and present my work in Second Life on the island of Koru. This sim or virtual location is owned by Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, Nelson, NZ Aotearoa, where I lecture full-time in Art and Design. NMIT has invited a number of tertiary providers in NZ to join with us to create a fully immersive, virtual/real teaching and learning environment. Other providers on the island so far include, UCOL, Massey University, Weltec, Otago Polytechnic, the Open Polytechnic, CPIT and SIT.

In this dance work I am exploring the tensions implicit within engagements between people on the street, (strangers, friends, lovers) seeking to define the parameters of what may define ‘conversation’ within meetings. I am convinced that ‘conversation’ covers a multitude of communication modes . Not all of this communication is effective. Some is missed, may cross, may be ignored, genuinely or intentionally misunderstood or not heard. Verbal modes are usually accompanied by kinesthetic intentions; delivered through body language as well as verbally and received subliminally as well as in an open fashion. ‘Virtual’ moments of perception abound in these exchanges. I am curious about ways of defining the real and virtual in Real and Second Life and through this, possibly adding to that existing body of theories which suggest that our realities are neither real nor virtual, but closer to ‘mixed-realities’, [Hansen, M. (2006) bodies in code, Routledge, NY and London].

SIMULACRUM (simulacra): Something that replaces reality with its representation. Jean Baudrillard in "The Precession of Simulacra" defines this term as follows: "Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.... It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real" (1-2). His primary examples are psychosomatic illness, Disneyland, and Watergate. Fredric Jameson provides a similar definition: the simulacrum's "peculiar function lies in what Sartre would have called the derealization of the whole surrounding world of everyday reality" (34).

It is interesting to note that of those avatars/people I have questioned in Second Life about the real/virtual reality of this online world, many of them have insisted that it is not a virtual environment at all but simply an alternative defintion of the real. It is not, after Marc Augé, an example of 'non-lieu' or 'non-place' (See non-places introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity Augé, M [2006] Verso, London and New York) . It is home away from home to many, supported amply not only by very real states of belonging, but also the trappings of personal blended-reality 'belongings' - the objects and forms with which we inevitably surround ourselves which enhance our sense of fitness in our world, through ownership.

Hansen maintains and I am inclined to agree with him (see the February 2007 post in my blog mentioned at the bottom of this text) that we move constantly, in and out of real and virtual moments, all the time on any given day creating what amounts to a lived, mixed-reality. It is not a state which is created by or in the province only of online virtual games or worlds like Second Life. Hansen suggests that this state is resident in each of us and and that it is directly due to this already existing facility that we possess, that communicating and functioning fluently in these so-called virtual worlds comes so naturally to so many of us. Clearly, some people spend so much of their time on-line in SL that their second and 'first' lives become meshed. There are cases where people have thought they were using 'Linden dollars' (SL currency) in real life during transactions, almost undressed to change clothes in public (happens all the time in SL) and unconsciously begun to type an imaginary keyboard (SL communication method when voice is not enabled) to talk to someone in the street.

This is a brief but current summary of statistics compiled on July 24 2008 from:

‘Economic Statistics

Reflects data through midnight, July 23.
Residents Logged-In During Last 7 Days 462,769
Residents Logged-In During Last 14 Days 610,830
Residents Logged-In During Last 30 Days 842,054
Residents Logged-In During Last 60 Days 1,196,363
Total Residents 14,518,940’

Allowing for the fact that these statistics are in a constant state of flux, the information still indicates a significant total of residents in Second Life who are displaying empathy and investing real time in a ‘virtual’ environment and the numbers are growing rapidly. I believe that these statistics and those of other on-line gaming/virtual worlds, suggest that Hansen`s theories are worthy of consideration.

I quote here, text from an earlier post I made on this blog in 2007 under the title: 'Dance Exploration in Mixed Realities? Investigating Second Life as a virtual platform for duality within identity'. In this post I quoted:
'Mark Hansen, in Bodies in Code, (2006) sees the embodiment of function manifesting through the human body, acting as a kind of seismographic wand - ‘ a vehicle of being in the world’ (Hansen, 2006:5-6 after Heidegger). He maintains that: ‘All virtual reality is mixed reality … all reality is mixed reality’, (Hansen, 2006:5-6) Hansen quotes Brian Massumi who talks about the existence of the analogue as a transformative entity: "Always on arrival a transformative feeling of the outside, a feeling of thought” sensation is the being of the analog. (sic) This is the analog in a sense close to the technical meaning, as a continuously variable impulse or momentum that can cross from one qualitatively different medium into another. Like electricity into sound waves. Or heat into pain, Or light waves into vision. Or vision into imagination. Or noise in the ear into music in the heart. Or outside coming in. Variable continuity across the qualitatively different: continuity of transformation.' (Massumi, Parables for the Virtual ... 2002:135 ) Like Real into 'Second Life' and back and ...

Through our internal analogue therefore, we possess the innate capacity, to transform, continuously, the many real and virtual realities with which our existence is constructed and constantly deconstructed, reconstructed and re-affirmed.'

My dance structured improvisation ‘scores’ are comprised of many of these ‘mixed-reality’ moments for us, where the dancers are focussing upon one another – ‘listening’ through touch while also receiving ambient signals, sights and sounds from the surrounding environment; Just as a commuter crowd is comprised of individuals who could be termed transponders, (as are we all) simultaneously sending and receiving signals and witnessing in the station our dance behaviour out of the corner of the eye; in the same way, we dancers cannot entirely shut out inexplicable PA announcements, muttered crowd conversations, children laughing or complaining, muted train and traffic noise, snatches of other disparate movement taking place which, because we are not actively involved with it, it may appear surreal or disconnected or 'virtual'. Just as surely as we do in a public place when having a conventional, verbal conversation, while dancing, (not wanting to lose the thread of our moving conversation) we choose not to follow up these distant communiqués. Nevertheless, our perceptions are still subject to them, experiencing them as the duality of what I will call simultaneously experienced, intimate distance.

I am populating my dance compositions with evening rush-hour commuter crowds. These serve as a backdrop of contrasting movement and intent into which I can insert my interventionist movement strategies. It is frequently this contrast which allows our perception, while involved with one task, to encounter and sense another wholly different set of sensory signals. This in itself creates a tension all its own, the two perceptions of what is taking places immediately in front of you and yet, the messages received from a distance about another event equally compelling. Which is real and which virtual? Just because we tend to dismiss communications or sights we have witnessed in passing and attend to what is in front of us does not make that distant activity less real – does it?

I am concentrating principally upon the dynamics surrounding moments of departure – leaving engagements – and seeking to interpret the poignancy and pathos which naturally, is usually missed by everyone except those immediately touched by the event. I want my work to address such questions as: What constitutes ‘engagement’ between people when they meet? What constitutes or defines in a conversation, the moment(s) and acts of ‘leaving’ that exchange? How does the leaving occur? Is there a ‘virtual’ leaving and a real leaving? Sometimes the act of leaving is not simple or ‘clean’ and unsullied by indecision, occasionally requiring more than one attempt.

There is an urban myth here, in the making: my belief is that all our exchanges, whether they be engagements or casual encounters with people and places in life, are governed by the leaving of these exchanges. I am suggesting then, that ‘leaving’ is a phenomenon. Movement away - from people and places seems to be inexorable and inevitable and this ensures that there are constantly present, small dramas with their attendant poignancies expressed within the simplest, most mundane, everyday descriptions of exchanges between people/places. I am suggesting that this behaviour is involuntary, colours our respective realities and occurs everywhere in some shape or form. Yet it is perhaps most easily witnessed (and most easily overlooked) in the weight of humanity in urban societies. I do not consider this condition to be negative so much as compelling, even aquiring at times notions of nobility, capable of transporting us into re-evaluations of who we are as sentient beings, conducting our lives through a perceptual reality composite, caught up in a perpetual state of becoming - of being drawn away rather than 'being'.

I suspect from my observations, that ultimately we are always ‘leaving’ some kind of engagement or connection and that this contributes to the condition – that business of being human – in which we unavoidably find ourselves; that all of us are in fact, ‘strangers’ in one form or another to someone or other outside ourselves. That this description is relative not only to us personally, but to the changing perceptions of others in the exchanges we share with people, places, or even perhaps (in mixed-reality times like Second Life) in the notion of people as ‘places’. I maintain that there is real pathos to be found in a lifetime of leaving engagements with people and places and that this condition will keep us forever defined by some, as strangers.