Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Bodies and Builds as 'Stages' in Second Life

In this post my aim is to put forward some ideas about 'bodies' and 'builds' in Second Life. In 2007 I headed up one of my posts as: 'Missed Conversations in Urban Spaces - the Body as Stage'. Developing my ideas on Indeterminacy, I wrote: '... In a sense, I could say that the environment or 'stage' for my work, rather than a commuter-busy passageway, is more accurately the actual, moving body itself' (20.10.07). This still holds true for me in 2008 and perhaps even more so in the what I will call, real-life-extension world of Second Life.

* The images from Second Life here focus mainly on the building I have done on the Station itself in the early stages, on building tables for the Station cafe and on 'cutouts' of people in the station, (myself filming included); the cutouts are either from my own images imported into SL and made in collaboration with a designer Dura Voss, in-life, or are products (like the Station 'janitors') that I have bought from Dura. I intend to make my own in the future, together with scripted 'sound balls' which contain sounds selected from my video capture in the station. The cutouts are initial forays into populating the station with a rush hour 'crowd'. These cutouts will provide me with the potential to compose a range of crowd streams coursing through the station space in different configurations.

* In this post the letters SL stand for Second Life and RL for real life.

My ideas here are informed by texts from two writers:

Brian Massumi`s (2002) Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Post-Contemporary Interventions), Duke University Press;

Remembering Praxis';
Performance in the Digital Age, (2005) in Text and Performance Quarterly, 25:2 (p. 156-170) by Marcyrose Chvasta.

I quote here from this earlier post: Massumi suggests that the body in movement means accepting the body in its occupation of space and time, as a paradox: that there is an incorporeal dimension of the body itself. Of it, but not it. Indeterminate, coincident, but real and material. Massumi calls this echo a, ‘Fellow-travelling dimension of the same reality’, (Massumi, 2002, p. 5). A legitimate interpretation of identifiable alterity, or the 'other', I believe. Massumi points out in my original quotation, that, ‘In motion, a body is in an immediate, unfolding relation to its own nonpresent potential to vary’.

In other words, it could be said that the body in motion is never, ever, quite fully present. Or that the body is present but within its indeterminacy, the time-based embodiment of ‘body’ has already moved on. This assertion as a concept, is interesting to consider in the context of my ‘in-transit’ dominated practice and offers a framework for speculation about the reasons for what so much of the time are the expression of truncated, disjunct forms of communi
cation in the street. Perhaps speech-in-transit is itself as a result of this, indeterminate. In a sense, one could say that the environment or ‘stage’ for my work, rather than a commuter-busy passageway, is more accurately the actual, moving body itself. Massumi asserts that this disjunct in embodiment – this nonpresent potential to vary, creates a wider re-defining of ontological difference away from a linguistic differentiation which instead, becomes orientated around process, potential and event and directs this into the heart of the body. The body`s potential to vary suggests an alignment which places ‘being’ next to becoming. To re-iterate and re-interpret the substance of the above text then; our ontological existence can be defined by the idea that we are in a continual state of being/becoming – a time-based positioning.

In qualifying his argument, Massumi paraphrases Deleuze in saying that the problem with dominant modes of cultural and literary theory are not that they are too abstract to grasp the solidity or corporeal fabric of the real. The problem is that these modes are not abstract enough to grasp the real incorporeality of what we take to be real.

There are some important points here, relevant to the direction of this post. The state of 'being' which we like to use in defining our positioning in space and time, one could align with a Euclidean stance - corporeal, solid, linear, dependable - in short - 'real' and predictable. Brian Massumi makes a point of eroding this perceptual attitude. His thrust is towards Henri Bergson where he offers a counter-perspective to 'being', which he refers to as 'becoming'. Massumi above, says, ‘In motion, a body is in an immediate, unfolding relation to its own nonpresent potential to vary’. In other words, it could be said that the body in motion is never, ever, quite fully present.' This theory is one of the concepts which underpins my notions of 'Leaving' governing all our actions and encounters with people and places in life.

Marcy-rose Chvasta, in her essay, Remembering Praxis: Performance in the Digital Age, where she questions the current demarcations between live and mediated performance, states that Pierre Levy defines four ontological elements: the real, the possible, the actual, and the virtual. Each of these elements—or ‘vectors,’ in Levy’s terms—operates ‘almost always’ in conjunction with the others. Levy is interested in these vectors as unstable modes of existence. I am interested in these vectors for their potential to determine transformative embodiment. How they may offer a way of understanding how the virtual or ‘possible’ may have a symbiotic role with the real, rather than one which is clearly differentiated. Chvasta asserts that Levy is interested in ‘the process of transformation from one mode of being to another’ (Levy, 1998 quoted in Chvasta, 2005, p.165) which perhaps is the enactment of that symbiosis.

I am also interested in these vectors as descriptors of the ‘possible’ – states of a present which is not passive but dynamic, the present as a state which is always becoming.

Specifically, according to Levy, he engages in the
‘study of virtualization that ascends from the real or the actual toward the virtual’ (Levy, 1998, quoted in Chvasta, 2005, p.165). While the real is orientated in the present, in the temporal and spatial sense of the term, the virtual is orientated in the future. This speaks to me of the virtual residing neither ‘here’ nor ‘there.’ It lies in-between and mediation within performance can be viewed as an instrument which allows us to perhaps more readily recognize embodiment in the virtual in our respective realities. Massumi uses above, the phrase, '... immediate, unfolding relation ...'. This phrase is also appropriate for addressing the questions about the presence in Second Life of both, our bodies (Avatars, as surrogate extensions of ourselves) and those objects with which we surround ourselves in life/in-life. For me, because I believe that the real and virtual are inseparable; two states under the same embodied umbrella, the Euclidean 'real/being' is insufficient. Instead I can clearly relate to Massumi`s 'real' being comprised of so many micro-moments of 'virtual/becoming' manifesting in a constant state of 'unfolding'.

In the following passages, Massumi makes a compelling argument for our occupation of a non-Euclidean
/non-linear state of being/becoming.

The Argument from Inner Space

'The body is composed of a branching network, decreasing in size right down to the level of molecular tubes at the mitochondrial scale. Geometrically, a body is a "space-filling fractal" of a "fourth" dimensionality, between a two-dimensional place and a
three-dimensional volume.

"Our skin obeys the laws of three dimensions ... but our internal anatomy and physiology is living in a four-dimensional spatial world" ... A body lives in three dimensions only at the envelope of the skin. The "Euclidean" space of the body is a membrane. The membrane isn`t closed. It folds in at the mouth, ears, nostrils, eyes, anus, urethra, vagina and pores. The mouth connects through the stomach and intestines to fold back out of the anus. This is one leaky 'box'. It`s closer to a Klein bottle; a two-dimensional topological figure. Even the skin isn`t really three-dimensional. It just acts as if it were. It creates a three-dimensional closure effect by regulating movements into and out of the space-filling fractal it twistedly envelops. Biologically, it`s all an act, a complext nutritive, excretive act: circus of the body.

We do not live in Euclidean space. We live between dimensions". These lines are signal for me. Not only are we enveloped it seems, by theoretical/practical constructs which reflect our movement-based existence in and between time and space but we are also faced with the science of our own physiological makeup presenting a biomechanical exemplar of this construct. To extend this idea, one could say that naturally enough, we build in real life fractal extentions of our bodies - where architectural resolutions used to be so compartmentalized, we have for some time now been constructing 'seamless' environments to promote and cater for flexible living; artificial membranes which lend themselves to human navigation and negotiation with more than osmotic ease. Massumi continues:

Might it still be argued that even if we do not live in Euclidean space, we certainly build in it? Fair enough: we build in Euclidean space in the same sense that we eat in it. To build is to produce a closure-effect by regulating movements in and out (and fractally all around). A building is a membrane.

So I ask, when in Second Life, are we 'living' and building in Euclidean space? Are the foundations of our lives and builds based upon linear, tangible laws? Are the visual manifestations of the Internet based upon Euclidean constructs or are there other possible descriptions and definitions at work? Is Second Life different because it is visually orinentated? Certainly most builds in SL are governed by rectilinear shapes and constant angles. Another description of space, the Riemannian manifold, is a space constructed by deforming and patching together Euclidean spaces. Such a space enjoys notions of distance and angles, but they behave in a curved non-Euclidean manner. There is a murmur here, of pathways around the linear in terms of our ability to operate in this environment - objects, shapes, builds in Second Life can all be constructed in different degrees of transparency so you can see through them and they can also be created as 'phantoms' - you can walk straight through them. 'Virtual' effects in a virtual world. However, the ability to build is still governed by a fixed visual construct in-life. Even though a great deal of building is based upon the importing, application and editing of visual images (Textures in SL) and many of these images are of curvilinear, organic forms, in SL these images adhere and conform most easily to flat, rectilinear planes. Everyone must conform to this construct - as far as I know ...

Massumi tells us that Euclidean space is, '... the relative concreteness of the abstract ...' It is a kind of hingeing interface, a way of managing incorporeal space. He says that, 'To build in Euclidean space is to build in predictability'. But he maintains that, 'A building is a technology of movement - a technology of transposition - in direct membranic connection with virtual event spaces. It functions topologically, abstractly, even though it may have been built under Euclidean laws of the 'real'. He goes on to point out that he is suggesting new paths which might be found to aid the dispelling of what he calls the, 'sterile opposition' between the abstract and the concrete - the subjective and objective. He cites Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari: "Look only at the movements" and they will bring you to what really matters with 'matter'. Massumi asserts that movement in this context allows us to arrive at a type of 'backdating' which in turn supports an argument that there is no essential difference between perception, cognition and - hallucination. He creates a mantra at this point: 'involuntary and elicited'. The involuntary and elicited no-difference between perception, cognition and hallucination he says, can be summed up in a single word: imagination.

To accept this meld arriving at imagination requires the appropriate technology. Selecting an effective tool with which to design means that one can recognize certain modulations not only in the forms one is designing, but also how these may stand as signifiers of the designer/builder`s lives. This can be witnessed extensively in Second Life, where the tools for building enable everyone to create (unconsciously or not) reflectors of their own personnas/lives in ways which are far more accessible than in real life. Second Life itself becomes a tool - a vehicle for the imagination, by enabling the blend of perception, cognition and even (perhaps particularly) hallucination to be realized in a myriad of descriptions, counterfeits and simulacra.

Massumi asks, "Is it possible, in addition (to Euclidean building) to build for newness, for the emergence of unforeseen experiential form and configuration, inflected by chance? (There are numerous examples of chance-dominated approaches to expression and problem-solving in the Arts: One well known example is the work carried out over years of collaboration between the avante-garde musician John Cage, the multi-media visual/performance artist Robert Rauschenberg and the choreographer/dancer/director Merce Cunningham.

These artists for many years created works based upon chance - upon not knowing, upon improvisation, upon interrogating accepted norms of managing time, sound and space. The very reactionary and in some cases openly scornful responses from some of their international audiences are also on record. It seems that these audiences were held in thrall to Euclidean understandings of time, sound and space ... These three artists were anything but Euclidean in their approaches to art-making, MB). We know that it is possible to design topologically. This essay has argued that we live topologically. But can we also build topologically? To build topologically would be to accept that the body`s ultimate innards are as effectively incorporeal, as really abstract, as the atom`s. As vitally as food, a life feeds on habits, memories and tropisms.

The living body`s "ultimate" innards are the proprioceptive habits on a level with muscle fibre ... The body is the holding-together of these virtual innards as they fold out, recursive-durationally, in the loopy present, in determinate form and configuration, always provisional because always in becoming".

Returning to the title of this post, as a reflection once again of that real/virtual/blended, unfolding perception construct, one can look around both Real and Second Life and see not only buildings, but bodies as 'builds' and builds, as 'stages'.

Perhaps nowhere else more than in Second Life do people wear their hearts and personna, not only on the sleeves of their avatars, but in their personal builds. So in SL when we build/communicate (these in many ways are one and the same. Both are interactive requiring decision-making and an open, responsive attention) with others, are we simply using a glorified
Photoshop/Email/Skype hybrid? Or is there more that could be said?

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