Twenty Five Women: The Art of the Individual in Second Life

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The other day at the invitation of the new Duchess of Kintyre, Autopilotpatty Poppy, I stumbled onto a most extraordinary art installation which she was acting as impresario for in Caledon Oxbridge. A group of 25 female avatars, arranged in a gazebo, each unique save for the fact that there were in the exact same pose, each wearing the same shoes, and each nude save for jewelry. The exhibit, entitled Veinticinco Mujeres (Twenty five Women) was developed, conceived and executed by SL-based performance artist Vaneeesa Blaylock.

At first just the sight of 25 nude women in a PG orientation Sim like Oxbridge was enough to bring me up short, but the more I looked at the exhibit and considered it’s various meanings, the more enchanted I was by it and the artist’s intense personal vision. To see my review of the exhibit, some photos of the work and an exclusive interview with the artist, read on after the jump

The statements inherent in the work on individuality in a virtual world, where we are all by nature based on a limited number of templates were intriguing enough. Add in the commentary on feminism in SL, on conformity, on the superficial yet intensely personal nature of our avatars and how they reflect on our fantasies and on us as people, individuals, and personas…and you have a heady mix of questions being raised by the work indeed.

The more I looked at these twenty five women and mulled the philosophy behind their performance the more I was struck by the sheer beauty and symmetry of it. As most regular readers of these pages will know, I am something of a fan of the female form…and here was a great deal of it, au natural, en masse, in all manner of shapes and sizes and styles, carefully arranged and displayed. The sight was, first and foremost, simply beautiful (though slightly marred by typical SL performance problems, unless a few of the women intended to depict nude alien gas clouds).

Past the sheer beauty and philosophical complexity of the work, it was also just flat out sexy. Somehow the sensuality of the display was increased by the sheer number and the rigid conformity found in the women, standing stock still, as if on display or parade. After the show speaking to the artist Miss Blaylock, she seemed surprised I found the display sexual at all, having viewed it herself as neutral. Of course, in designing and preparing the display I am sure she had become somewhat inured to it, plus there were gender realities at work. I am a man after all, give or take a few war wounds. No doubt a great number of the other men in attendance were there simply because the only time most men are allowed to behold twenty five beautiful nude women in one place, he is the only one not holding a tazer.

The crowd in attendance, however, were not behaving the way I am used to Sl crowds responding to such a display of pixelated flesh…there were no idiotic comments, no griefing, no attempts to disrupt, no one asking the women in open chat “U prety will U sehx me upp?”…it felt very much like a group of people attending an art installation in rl. The crowd was interested, thoughtful and respectful to the performers, the artist and their fellow viewers. As this was my first real venture into Caledon Oxbridge, I must admit I was favorably impressed.

All in all it was a tremendously successful installation, both artistically and popularly and had a good crowd throughout, often topping 50 people in the Sim.

The day after the exhibit, the artist Miss Vaneeesa Blaylock sat with me for an hour in The Fortress of the Dark Hope and was kind enough to answer some questions about her work.

BardHaven: I would like to start with a couple background questions…then ask more specifically about your highly impressive latest work.

Vaneeesa Blaylock: Yes.

BH: Tell me a bit about your experiences as a performance artist in SL

VB: Well, they are few… as you might guess from the designation, VB03 is my third…

I was extremely pleased with VB01 and VB02… and yet, I must say, yesterday took things to a completely new level… VB01 and VB02 sort of launched everything… but VB03 was an injection into a new, higher orbit.

The cast has started posting images to the Vaneeesa Blaylock flickr group (which they made me create) and I’ve seen at least one YouTube video already… so things are beginning to take on a life of their own. This is very exciting and could perhaps only happen in this network moment. Only happen in SL and only happen with the web2.0 tools like Flickr & YouTube that we’ve all flocked to. So many bases… but integrating into an exciting zeitgeist.

BH: I agree completely about the tech all falling into place… what themes have you been exploring in your work…and why?

VB: Well… I haven’t really been exploring determinism, but I really love what Dan Dennett says about that… and I think it perhaps parallels my perspective on Identity and Individuality.He believes that it is an absolutely determinist universe… yet that in no way prevents free will in any form that’s truly meaningful.

As you look around — we all have such powerful senses of self-awareness, of our uniqueness, our individuality, yet I’m very skeptical of that. Partly in the sense that our Western egos may prevent higher forms of integrations… of emergence… like the Zen of all the leaves making beautiful patterns on the ground of the park… that happens because the leaves *don’t* have a Western ego. They don’t feel the need to express individuality by leaving the tree too soon… or never leaving… or doing a flashy cannon ball on the way down…

The leaves are "happy" to just do their small part in the greater whole…SO… our yearning for individuality does come to some degree at the price of a greater organismic experience… but beyond that aspect I’m simply not certain that we are or can be so unique as we feel that we are.

When you look at Facebook, it feels so about you but your Facebook looks exactly like my Facebook. So even though it seems like it’s about you… it really isn’t… your Facebook is really about Facebook… And yet, the dichotomy… is that we see myriad forms of individuality in even the tiniest aspects of our being, so I think we are, paradoxically, simultaneously, more individual and unique, and less, than we perceive.

BH: *nods…Your first two installations featured individuals who were each identical physically

VB: Yes

BH: Tell me about how you changed that formula for Veinticinco Mujeres (VB03), and why.

VB: Well, the "clones" in VB01 and VB02 — we think about these ideas in RL all the time and you can work with similarity in RL but it’s only in SL where you can assemble a cast and have them wear… or BE… identical. Of course, each still had their own name floating above their head, the last tiny element of individuality.

BH: *nods… almost a sort of exclamation point on the entire effect.

VB: Arthur C. Clarke said that the most recognizable sound in the entire universe is the sound of your own name. In an episode of Buffy, they mention a character who remembers the name of a loved one, long after he forgets his own name… so those persons were crammed into "my" avatars (actually VB01 was the SL noob avatar "Girl Next Door") with just that little name thread to hang on to. Then yesterday, with VB03 I wanted to still consider a group, an emergence, a zeitgeist… but to celebrate some of those individuals at the same time.

An interesting thing about our virtual existence… I had to wear a lot of bodies to make the poses fit for height and hand position and so on for VB03… and in RL… how much food do you have to eat to be 300#… how many hours working out to get Michael Jordan’s body… but here in SL… it’s a shape that you wear — here you can "experience" anything — within the limits of your own ability to perceive/project into that existence/experience.

BH: In the new show, you required all your models wear the same shoes and to be otherwise naked…why?

VB: Well, one way of thinking about this work is to go back to the Italian Renaissance. For the last 500 years or so artists have been sitting in studios considering the human figure and for 5 centuries and more, they’ve sat there for many hours… and then brought out drawings and paintings to share with a viewing audience.

Yes, they had perceptive eyes and talented hands but essentially, whatever human truth was in that studio was now mediated by the paper or canvas it was transcribed onto. So one important aspect of VB03 was to finally free us from that studio… from that mediated experience… the viewing public normally never sets foot in the art studio… only the art museum and so here I tried to bring the visceral, palpable, aliveness of the human figure out of the shadows and present it directly to an audience.

BH: They were 25 very diverse women…what made you decide to put them all in the same shoes?

VB: The shoes… well… a few reasons… Shoes are an interesting thing for a woman…

I have to pause and note that I’d consider myself a feminist… but I’d have to say third wave feminist. A work like this would have horrified the early feminists who would have found it just more piling on to centuries of oppression and objectification but I think for a lot of women today, we still appreciate and value the insights and liberatory efforts of those who came before us.

No woman should ever feel forced to shave her legs… but she also shouldn’t feel that she can’t. That would just be trading one conformity/submission for another so to really be free and to choose… to be sexy if you feel like it… I think is a space we’re more comfortable with today.

And then we come to high heels. Objectifying / oppressive / fetishizing… all these things that we know about them but also sexy and fun and I think many women might say, empowering. History and art history are both filled with individuals who have taken labels or cultural pressures that were applied oppressively and inverted them to a form of self-empowerment.

BH: Of course…modern idiom is full of them…"Bitch", "Queer"

VB: Yes — exactly! Now in RL — heels are hard to walk in and they aren’t the best for your posture and health — but here in SL, we can have all that fun, with none of those consequences. It’s always a tricky dance, not wanting to create a standard that some other woman feels forces to conform to… in RL I mostly wear Nike’s (yes lots of politics in those shoes too, but I like to run, and I really like their cushioning!) so my RL high heel wearing is much less than SL, but when I actually do wear them in RL that only makes it a more intense and dramatic experience.

BH: So while the shoes were a way to show they were all conforming to a certain ideal, it was also an expression not only of empowerment, but camaraderie…

VB: Yes and a simple unifying element among the diversity of lived bodies. I think "lived" is an important word here. We could put on any of the shapes we saw yesterday but those individuals didn’t just grab them off the shelf… they made very explicit choices. Why is someone wide or tall? Who knows — it may be similar to their RL body… or the opposite… but either way… it’s an experience, a persona, that they’ve chosen to inhabit for some or all of their "second life".

BH: Looking at the work, it reminded me strongly of the work of photographer Spencer Tunick

VB: Ha, yes Spencer Tunick… the funny thing about that is… here I am, claiming to consider.. and perhaps even debunk… our sense of individuality… and yet I always recoil when people compare me to him!

When I was casting VB03 I was describing the work to one of the cast members and she said, "Oh, like Spencer Tunick" — and I recoiled and then I wondered… well… if I’m cracking the myth of individuality, why do I bristle at this comparison. The funny realization is that… I guess it is that "determinism AND free will" sort of sensibility… but I feel like I really love my cast and that they are powerfully, palpably, living, breathing individuals — even as we negate Western egos or anything else…

With Tunick the work is formally attractive but I feel like the human body is just his paint. Smear a big swath of them over here… more there… lets paint up some interesting geometry… He sort of puts me to the fires… because if I really want to be that Zen leaf fluttering down to the forest floor… then I shouldn’t mind being a pixel in Tunick’s HD video… but… I DO MIND! :P

BH: By his own statement, he feels that the individuals are without meaning, that they form something en masse. I felt there was more at work here regarding diversity within similarity…both conformity and individuality at odds with each other forming its own tension.

VB: Yes, thank you — I hope so

BH: I know there was some controversy when this exhibit was being set up in Caledon Oxbridge, a PG Sim…do you feel there was a statement in the work concerning Linden’s new Adult content rules?

VB: Oh that… ugh. Well, I can comment on Linden Labs and on the USA Congress and all that if you want… but let me back out a bit and say a little more about perspective… Whether LL is the "bad guy" in all this — as so many of us feel they are or whether they’re actually saving people from a USA Congress "McCarthy Investigation / Hollywood Blacklist" sort of tragedy I don’t really know but it is all very upsetting and it just doesn’t feel like the sort of invasion you’d expect in the 21st century.

Some artists make work because of these kinds of frustrations and it can be exceptionally compelling political work. The trick with "Political Art"… is that it’s always a balance… is it more politics or is it more art? Is it more speech than creativity or insight?

If I make political art… I’m trying to convince you of something important and compelling. This is very important work but I’m trying to prove/force a thesis on you.

What I hope I do in my work is create an environment that lets many viewers bring their own lives, histories and insights to the work and come away with as many different experiences. So, in a time of war… abstraction is a big luxury… if people are dying, you sort of must address that… and some say all art is political… because abstraction assumes that other political issues aren’t more burning. None the less… I’d like to make work that isn’t so nailed down, that doesn’t try to convince you of my one point but that opens up a dialog, a consideration and lets you take whatever many and varied experiences you can from the work.

BH: I admit in the hour I was at the exhibit, I was impressed there was no griefing or flippancy, save for one somewhat boisterous hippo….I think people understood that there was a message there and they were parsing it out for themselves.

VB: Wonderful!

BH: my last question for you is quite simple..what’s next?

VB: Well, things are going very well! We’ve booked a performance on 07-07-09 at St. Leo University. They’re an SL university and also an RL University in Florida since 1889. We’ll be in their main art gallery, again from 2-4pm SLT

Then I’ve been talking to an SL Argentina Art Museum and an SL Germany Art Gallery about future works… and the Vista Hermosa Art Center which hosted VB01 and VB02 has invited us back for another work.

Actually, VB02 was a collaboration at VHAC with a amazing sound sculpture by Daruma Picnic. I’ve seen her new work… which is similar but even more amazing so I’m hoping the next VHAC piece might be able to collaborate with this new sculpture by Daruma.

BH: It sounds like you have a lot of very exciting work ahead. Thank you again for taking time out so soon after your last exhibit to speak with us.

Adam and Eve ban

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7 Comments

  1. I sit here and am enthralled, and also astounded that she gained permission for this installation at Oxbridge. There is nothing inherently adult, as the Lindens are iffily defining it, about the naked form, and yet the mere idea of nudity in a PG-rated sim is shocking.

    Weirdly, the hippo ties in as well–while many people now have that avatar because it’s a free offering, I and others gained it as part of ongoing protest efforts against the Labs’ stated plans to kill deformative animations–the limb-distorting animation overriders that are possible for the builds of dragons, feral animals (four-legged, in other words, as opposed to two-legged anthropomorphic furs) and Tinies. Struggle within struggle.

  2. I was a cast member in VBO3 and enjoyed the entire experience immensely. Vaneeesa was fantastic to work with and made me a special pose just minutes before the show was to start (my Avi being squarely at one end of the size spectrum). She treated the cast with honesty and respect and that lead me, at least, to consider the performance that much more seriously. Kudos to Vaneeesa, my sisters in the cast and the proprietors of Oxbridge. Art and fun on a Saturday in SL…Perfect!!!!

  3. I also was a cast member of VB03 (red bunches and lots of tattoos) and have found myself as much the target of Vaneeesa’s art as its performer. I’ve found the experience of both the performance itself and it’s pre-/post-production phases to be full of personal insight and self-discovery. I feel privileged to have been part of Vaneeesa’s art and honestly believe she has an amazingly bright future in which her work will continue to grow and inspire :)

  4. I had the honor of booking this performance which came about after being part of the VB02 performance. During the VB02 it became quickly obvious that this type of performance art was going to be taken quite seriously in SL. It was wonderful to watch this performance all come together as certain obstacles came into play and overcome. The performance itself was flawless. I had an idea that Lord Bardhaven would enjoy this performance art for several reasons, one being the art itself… It appears he was not disappointed and for that I am very pleased.

    I do have to say one thing, however. Through the years Caledon has had some of the most influential artists in music, 2d and 3d booked into Caledon galleries. It always amazes me as to how few Caledonians actually attend these wonderful performances and/or art openings. A lot of people go through a lot of work to bring these to our nation and to have them overlooked time after time is seriously depressing. Come on Caledon residents, let’s get out there and enjoy some of the truly wonderful art that is brought your way!

  5. You know, you’re absolutely right. I need to get out more and landmark Caledon galleries; it’s shortsighted of me to maintain an art gallery folder in which only your gallery in Tamrannoch (and that likely an old link) is present for Caledon.

    Though to make it more general, I am surprised and pleased that art is so revered in Second Life in general. In a sense, the technology exists to interface art with direct ‘lived’ experience as avatars; and I have discovered more than one art exhibit in world from reading reports of their work in RL. I think it’s a good thing: not everyone can travel to the Louvre; but just about anyone in world can visit any gallery they choose and experience art.

  6. Emily.. Tam was a million years ago at least… I now own Kintyre and the gallery is there – only since last week though. When I get in-world I’ll send you a LM to it…:)

  7. I felt compelled to post a reply for various reasons.
    I am the participant, referenced in the text, who brought up Tunick’s work to the attention of Veneeesa Blaylock, the artist.
    I am a bipedal green female avatar (amongst many other hues and bodies) that did not meet the specifications of human identity sought out for this particular piece.
    I am also the hippopotamus referenced above. The other one is a friend of mine.

    So in essence, I am an oddball who loves dress-up (dragons, rats, bunnies, hippos, humanoid) and feels rather comfortable in all of my SL identities including the archetypal one, pre-Raphaelite hair and all, presently found in my profile. But that is just in SL. In RL, I love art and seek out performers who do more than entertain, but who make me think about our socially, albeit arbitrarily, constructed roles in society, in our habitus, and in that infinite universe which is our mind. I am entranced by the likes of MacArthur Foundation fellow Guillermo Gomez-Peña (I swear, I am like a groupie around him), and remain fascinated by the homegrown commentary of Anastacio Palomo’s ability to transform, to slam, vernacular jargon into poetic mental games. So yes, I love performance art in its many forms and can appreciate it from different perspectives.

    As a human-like avatar with green skin I can couple my creative side with an orthodox view of humanness. I never gave a second thought to being green when I agreed to meet with Vaneeesa as a potential participant in this show. My green skin is just a skin I find exquisite; what that says about my identity remains to be analyzed. Not until that point did I come to realize how constrained we are by our own limitations of what identity is in SL. To me, flesh-colored skins are as much a mask as any other skin found in SL. The way I see it, SL is fertile territory for exploration, for stepping outside those RL parameters that no longer bind us inworld. Yet I find that oftentimes even here, we side with experience rather than play with untested theories in avatar design and confection. We are human after all: something so aptly described in Tunick’s work with nude bodies.

    As a hippo in an art exhibit…well, I intended no social commentary in defense of deformers, which quadrupeds utilize, but the semiotic elements of my action were assigned meaning by someone and I can appreciate that in retrospect. I simply chose to try something I could never do in RL: be a hippo in an art exhibit. And be quite comfortable doing it even if it implied going beyond most peoples’ comfort zones. I meant and did no harm, but perhaps did spark a conversation somewhere…

    My friend Zola invited me to volunteer for this event. I consequently met Vaneeesa, the artist, we talked for a while, but due to RL constraints I could not offer my undivided time and attention to this particular project as anything other than an alternate or audience member. Had I been able to participate, I would have been a rich dark chocolate, another one of my favorite skins by the same maker as the green one. Maybe next time.
    I look forward to Vaneeesa’s upcoming shows.


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