The original and best

i’m not really your arty-farty type – you won’t find me knocking around art galleries every weekend or expounding to friends on the relative merits of Hirst in comparison with, say Rolf Harris, although pin me down and i’d have to say Rolf has the edge… i reckon every artist should have a catchphrase and a wobble board. Even so, i do appreciate art in all of its many forms and there are some works that inspire and resonate with me.

Recently i had the opportunity to visit an exhibition of photographer Eve Arnold‘s work – the second time i’ve had the chance to view the work of this incredible documentary photographer, who died earlier this year, aged 99. There was one photograph on display that was wholly unexpected and which i was totally unprepared for. It’s an image that i’ve admired for years, which to me, sums up the genius of her work – and suddenly there i am, stood in front of the original, which is for me one of the great photographs of all time.

Bar Girl in a Brothel in the Red Light District, Havana, 1954. (Photo: Eve Arnold/Magnum)

It was one of those moments that is difficult to describe – quite emotional actually, and although i’ve seen countless reproductions of this photograph, nothing has ever captured the nuances and subtleties, nor the solid reality, of the original work. The feelings that coming face-to-face with an original work by someone who inspires you and whom you have admired, or with a piece that has always moved you, are as unique as the work itself – it is a privilege and a special moment that occurs only rarely in everyday life.

i’m fortunate that i’ve had this experience on a number of occasions and each one stands out in my memory… times that i’ve stood and gazed in awe at the original work of Van Gogh, Dali, Bosch, Michaelangelo, Arbus, Kupka: No matter how accomplished or close to the original a reproduction is never the same and can never capture the spirit of the artist.

However, art is not my theme, although it provides a useful introduction for it – i really want to consider the reasoning behind replicating real world locations in sl. The more that i think about it, the less sense it makes. To my way of thinking there are three distinct types of sl user – the ‘techie’, who views sl as simply a platform and who doesn’t really figure in the equation. Then there are the ‘romantics’: those for whom sl is a world of unbounded opportunity, where the laws of magic are more relevant than the laws of physics and for whom the virtual world represents an opportunity to explore the bounds of imagination. Finally there are the ‘pseudo-realists’ who see sl as a space in which to create a world that resembles, to some degree at least, the real world. There is, of course a degree of crossover between all these types, however most of us will fall more or less into one of those camps which will colour the way in which we relate to sl.

There’s a bit of the pseudo-realist in most of us – as a rule, we feel more comfortable being surrounded by trees, roads and conventional buildings, even in a virtual world, that’s understandable, but less understandable is the desire to create virtual replicas of real world places and familiar landmarks inworld. That’s not to say that i don’t appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into creating these places; i’ve visited many of them – sometimes both the real and virtual versions – and i’ve marvelled at the attention to detail that goes into creating such places, i’ve even said ‘Wow! Look at that!’, on occasion. Here’s the ‘but’… why, when faced with the awe-inspiring and groundbreaking possibilities that sl offers to us, do we so often revert to the familiar and ‘safe’; attempting to reconstruct the real world within our virtual environment?

Sure, i understand there’s some good arguments that can be proffered to support such projects: they can bring together artefacts that are disparate and distant in rl; they can present historical information in an easy to follow way; they can provide interactive models to explore; they can give us access to places that we may be denied in rl… But, let’s face it, that’s nothing that can’t already be done far more effectively by other means. When the whole of the world wide web and a vast range of information and resources in a multiplicity of formats is available at our fingertips in far greater detail and depth that sl can ever provide, there seems little point in bothering with such niceties in sl. There’s possibly one exception to the rule, where relics from the past have been reconstructed in sl and which border on the fringes, or wholeheartedly embrace roleplay – a category that can include everything from Shakesperian theatre through to re-built dance venues of the sixties but even these are heavily reliant upon the engagement and interaction of those who visit them, if they are to reach their full potential.

Not so long ago, i discovered that there’s a sim that showcases a couple of the historical sites in my home town. Naturally, i was curious, so i paid a visit – i’m sorry to say that it was rubbish… built as a university project, it was a curious and ill-advised attempt to create a virtual reconstruction of rl features. It felt like a poorly designed museum, full of noticeboards and instructions; the ‘exhibits’ still felt like things to be looked at, rather than explored. To me, it was indicative of the way in which many people are unable to achieve the fundamental change in mindset that sl requires in order to flourish in a way that is challenging, cutting-edge and extraordinary.

Take a look at the video below in which, Rhonda Lowry looks at what she calls the ‘industrial age’ mentality – one which works against us when we try to apply it to the ‘network society’; she equates it to being on the wrong side of a half-silvered mirror. Is this where we ‘enlightened’ members of SLociety, despite our protestations, still very much find ourselves?

Much as i’d like to think otherwise, i think that many of us are still to realise the full potential of sl and approach it from the position of the industrial age mindset – we attempt to impose real world values and limits to an environment where they just don’t fit. Perhaps our desire to re-create the real world in an environment where it has no place is symptomatic of the way in which we are trying to hammer home our physical square pegs into virtual round holes?

To return to my original theme; a reproduction, no matter how good, cannot possibly hope to evoke the same feelings, response or possibilities as the original work. Any reproduction will necessarily be lacking in something, will be out of context and separated from its intended environment and audience. The same is true of the real world – the place for real things is out there in the real, physical environment; that’s where they belong and that’s where they come into their own. The more of the real world we try to force into the virtual environment, the more it will consume the virtual possibilities. What point would there be in logging into a world that looks no different from the one outside the screen?

s. x

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