With over 7m registered users, Second Life—an online virtual world complete with land, residents and a growing economy—is developing one of the largest art communities on the internet. The site’s money-making and marketing potential to reach a new, younger audience is already being tapped by major corporations such as BMW, Adidas and Sony, which all have a presence there. Entire countries have also established virtual outposts. The Maldives was the first nation to open an embassy on Second Life’s “Diplomacy Island”, where visitors can consult an ambassador about visas, trade and other consular issues. It was quickly followed by Sweden, while online embassies for the Philippines and Macedonia are under development. Museums, universities and non-profit organisations are getting involved as well. In the art world, the Andy Warhol Foundation has helped fund exhibitions and projects in Second Life, such as “Mixed Realities”, an annual juried competition set up in 2004 with Turbulence.org, a group that has supported art on the internet since 1996, to commission five new online art works. Each winning proposal receives $5,000.
So how does Second Life work? Once you’ve registered with the site, you can use free design tools provided by the developers, Linden Labs, to create and customise your own avatar (a 3-D character that represents you online), buy land, construct buildings and buy and sell products.
Second Life allows people to meet and talk online, but it does so in a 3-D environment. Instead of setting up a profile with digital pictures or posting comments on a forum, visitors can use text or their own voices to talk to people in real time. Putting aside the obvious appeal of setting up shop with relatively little financial risk, Second Life’s real attraction for artists is the opportunity it gives them to interact with other artists, curators and collectors around the world. They can display scans of real works or create wholly virtual objects. This is especially useful for emerging artists and curators who can set up galleries in Second Life and show art at a fraction of the cost of organising an exhibition in the real world (all transactions on the site are made in Linden dollars, with the exchange currently around $1 = L$267).
The virtual art market
Having spent the last six months with my own online avatar, talking to artists and seeking out galleries and dealers, the sheer number of spaces displaying art and the amount of work produced online is overwhelming. There are now hundreds of galleries in Second Life selling art, both virtual and actual, from computer-generated images and three-dimensional sculptures, to prints, photographs and drawings you can buy online and have shipped to you in real life. One of the most prominent is the Art Tower, run by the Dutch team Roy Irwin and Karen Zohari, which organises regular exhibitions and sells work by artists working in Second Life and the real world—and like real dealers, Mr Irwin and Ms Zohari receive a generous (30%) commission.
Around 200 avatars visit the gallery every day and Mr Irwin says they have collectors who are interested in specific artists. “Some even request exclusive virtual works of art in Second Life so they are the owner of the only edition. We have some collectors who spend several thousand Lindens on a specific work of art,” he says. The Art Tower also has an art rental programme where you can buy a work of art for 10% of its actual price and have it for only a week. If you like the work, you can extend the rental period, if not, it will automatically disappear.
There are also museums and art centres you can visit with rotating displays, performances and events. Second Life has the capacity to become something like a biennale or an art fair, but without the prohibitive costs of travel or accommodation. As part of her work for the Chinese pavilion at the current Venice Biennale, Cao Fei has created an avatar called China Tracy and reproduced the pavilion on Second Life; in both her Venice work and her online presence, videos of the virtual world are projected on the interior of an inflatable bubble-shaped structure.
Showing art online
This cross-over between Second Life and the mainstream art scene has been gaining momentum in the last few months. Filthy Fluno is the avatar of Jeffrey Lipsky, an artist from Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, who creates abstract drawings in charcoal and pastel based on people and locations in Second Life. Through his contacts in the virtual world, Lipsky has set up exhibitions in the real world. “The Adventures of Filthy Fluno”, a display of his drawings, was first shown at gallery 555 in Porto, Portugal and is travelling around Europe and the US. Lipsky says he has made over $10,000 in sales and commissions in the last few months through the people he has met on Second Life. He has helped develop the virtual island Artropolis where a group of artists have set up galleries and studios. At a recent talk about exhibiting art in Second Life at the online campus of the New Media Consortium, an organisation that promotes the arts, culture and education, he said: “Second Life can be used to connect to people in the world…to art enthusiasts, art collectors, gallery owners. It’s a way to get your art work out there.”
For some artists, Second Life has helped expand existing projects. John (Craig) Freeman, associate professor of new media at Emerson College in Boston (which has its own island on Second Life) has been working on a massive virtual reality project called Imaging Place since 1997. Using satellite and panoramic photography and hours of digital video, Professor Freeman has attempted to create a fully navigable landscapes of real cities and locations, including the US/Mexico Border, Taipei and São Paulo. When exhibited, the installation comprises a large-scale projection of images and videos in a dark space, with a pedestal and a mouse placed in the centre so the viewer can explore each scene. He has now recreated some of the works in Second Life, where instead of a dark room, avatars actually enter each video or image, which is wrapped around them as a sphere instead of viewed as a flat screen. Professor Freeman says: “It was a natural [move] for the Imaging Place project. It allowed the work to become inhabitable.” His US/Mexico border installation was shown earlier this year in one of Second Life’s main art spaces, Ars Virtua, and there are permanent installations on different islands in Second Life of his Miami River, Kamloops, British Columbia and São Paulo works, among others.
A new medium
Some artists are using Second Life itself as a medium. In a world where everything is created by the users, everything has the potential to be art. Jeremy Owen Turner, also known as Wirxli Flimflam, has been an online performance artist since 1996. He is part of Second Front, a group that stages events and art performances in Second Life. Their work mainly focuses on the experience of being in a virtual world and what can be done with computer code to simulate or subvert reality. “The avatar itself I find to be the most effective art-agent in Second Life…Also, scripted sculptures and bots [objects that perform automatic actions] are great for questioning the agency or power of the art-object. For example, Gazira Babeli [a member of the group] has these Warholian Campbell’s Soup cans that chase after avatars and chomp on them like some kind of cynical Pac-Man. The best art in Second Life is art that has some ‘bite’ to it.” In the true spirit
of performance art, most of Second Front’s work is spontaneous or surreptitious. A recent performance, Spawn of the Surreal, was inspired by a piece of computer code accidentally written by Babeli which would stretch and deform the avatars of the unsuspecting audience, turning them into twisted grotesqueries.
Of course, the downside for artists on Second Life is that its intrinsically democratic environment means is has little appeal for the millionaire elite who spend big bucks on art. There is no sign of dealers like Larry Gagosian, Matthew Marks or Jay Jopling in its virtual world. Or maybe that will turn out to be Second Life’s real strength, as a haven for artists, writers and curators that the art market barely penetrates.
o For video tours of exhibitions and performances on Second Life, go to: www.youtube.com/theartnewspaper.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Art makes a scene on Second Life'