Sunday, February 1, 2009

Finally Tuned to AM Radio

Second Life plays host to some folks who create virtual environments purely for artistic and aesthetic purposes. It's true that most of SL is devoted to malls and stores and silly dance clubs and tacky pre-fab "houses," but there are a few places that exist purely to explore the use of Second Life as a medium. Can SL be an artistic medium? For the oodles of strip malls and strip clubs, the answer is absolutely not. Second Life is a commerce or entertainment platform for those people, and little else. But for the folks who assemble these intricately detailed places and objects…the answer is yes. I don't think there's another world that describes what these people make as anything other than art.

And what they do can't be cheap. A private sim—a 256×256m region in Second Life separated from the "mainland"—costs $1,000 USD to set up, and $300 USD a month to keep running. And these environments (installations?) pretty much have to be separated from the mainland because they exist as their own little universes. It won't do to have people flying, walking, driving, or sailing into a completely arbitrary environment from next door, they'd just be horribly confused. Plus mainland sims have more-limited options for shaping (terraforming) and texturing ground. You want control, you need a private sim.

Perhaps the best-known of these creators is an avatar named AM Radio, who creates immersive, sim-wide environments that are kind of a mix of American rural nostalgia crossed with bits of mystery and whimsy. I'd long heard of AM Radio's work—he's even been featured on the Second Life login screens—but I'd never gotten around to checking it out because…well, the first time I tried, I crashed. But I tried again, and I'm glad I did.

AM Radio uses a remarkably consistent palette of colors and textures, and has an ingenius way of making a sim seem larger than it is—he often encircles the whole thing with a cylinderical "megaprim" (one larger than you can make with SL's building tools anymore) and paints it with a backdrop that resembles faraway hills, sky, and buildings. The result is fuzzy—just like a real-life horizon viewed through a little bit of haze. The result is that AM Radio's builds are one of the few places in SL where you get a sense of hills and mountains that aren't cartoony, and he uses that sense of space to create evocative, uncluttered builds that are remarkably different from almost anything else in Second Life.

AM Radio's lake-bound radio station at the NMC Arts Lab

There are a few signature elements that serve has a bit of a unifying motif/puzzle. For instance, inside the radio station:

…are some simple wooden chairs and a tiny tube radio. These turn up elsewhere…you'll see. But check out the textures—the sunlight on the floor, the glow of the stove and the radio tubes…the perhaps-toxic mold creeping up the wall.

One of AM Radio's most famous builds is The Refuge, which features (among other things) the hulk of an abandoned, rusted out locomotive in a wheat field, and an old-time Texaco gas station and garage. Both are full of surprises.

5¢? Doesn't it take Lindens?

"Let the Midnight Special shine a light on me…"

Just down the highway, you'll find an hangar with a cropduster and a house, straight out of rural Illinois. Upstairs at the house, AM Radio's mysteries begin to congeal: a home science lab consumes the second floor (check out the blueberries on the bench behind me, and the hangar visible out the window, across the road):

And what should we find up in the attic?

Another AM Radio build—simply titled Radio—seems more symbolic than evocative of a particular place or time (although it certainly summons up the sort of dry lake bed that can be found in the U.S. west)…and it has a few elements that will seem familiar:

Lou left her pilot's license at home

Radio is a pretty plain invocation to look to the heavens, from a tips chair that puts a visitor staring up at the sky to an enormous telescope that invites folks to take a look and ignite their imaginations.

Plus…there's a mysterious door in the middle of the desert that takes visitors to—what else?—a radio telescope array.

The array animates over time, and the same scrim technique AM Radio uses in other builds is particularly effective here—the build is singularly crowded, yet also stunningly empty.

Oh—and in the trailer at the center of the array? Something else familiar:

..and also another mysterious glowing door to get you back to reality.

Anyway—the point being: Second Life might be full of stores and malls and stupid clubs and griefers and 2m tall amazon barbies…but it also hosts work of genuine beauty and depth. And anyone can tune in.

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