“Virtualism” – A Movement for a New World

I find it fascinating that many homes have kitchens while grocery stores are few. We shop for clothing with a vengeance and yet have no closets. We have no weather, but have roofs. No gravity, but these roofs rest on (apparently) weight bearing walls. We have no privacy, yet we have curtains.

“Form follows function – that has been misunderstood.
Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”

Frank Lloyd Wright

At the turn of the 20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright fused the flexibility of materials like steel and concrete with a philosophy of unity between form, function and setting to revolutionize architecture. I can’t help but wonder what he might have done as a builder in Virtual Worlds. The rules are different here and the functional requirements a profound departure from RL.

aQuatria Gallery at Sunset

aQuatria Gallery

An example of how the new rules affect architectural philosophy is pictured above. The purpose of the build is to display art – so walls become frames. The absence of gravity enables concrete to float on water, glass floors in mid air. There is no need for protection from the elements, so it is wide open. There are no stairs. Visitors don’t drown, so visit the mermaid level as long as you like.


In RL a home has a purpose – to shelter us from the elements, provide a place to interact, sleep, cook, eat, attend to our hygiene, pursue our interests, store our goods and park our car.

What are the requirements of our SL homes? A place to rez and open our packages. Sit and talk with friends. Maybe dance? Hang art and set out some belongings. A space for your cat? Perhaps a place for romance.

Is a bed for sleeping? Do we actually sleep here? (At our keyboards, perhaps, but my AV continued to dance cheerfully anyway.) Is a kitchen for cooking? A chair for resting? What is a road for when you can teleport and fly?

It’s a New World

In SL we are free from the constraints of disease, physical threat, disabilities and many of our first life’s societal constraints. We are free to chart a course and decide what we want to be. We express and realize some aspect of ourselves (often that our first life denies us). Our avatars are projections of our psyche and personalities.

Yman Juran

Yman Juran
Fire Dancer

The function of a resident created virtual world is to enable us to discover and express ourselves, and to enable residents to interact and exchange these inner realties with each other. Stripped of the physical it becomes an entirely psychological and social reality.

We may not require a kitchen, chairs, stairs, roofs, walls, curtains and roads, but many builds and homes include them all the same. That they do raises an interesting question – why? The answer is simple – we require them to fulfill some psychological or social function.

Psychological / Sociological Functions

The insight that all things exist in virtual words to fulfill a psychological or social purpose creates an interesting vantage point from which architecture, fashion and art can be analyzed and evolved.

Why do we have items in SL that fulfill physical functions in our first life? We have a need for the familiar to orient us. We need up to be up, down to be down, homes to feel like homes, stores to feel like stores. They put us in a frame of mind to rest or shop.

CocoaJava Cafe

CocoaJava Cafe
A Sense of History

CocoaJava Cafe owner Ceejay Writer explains how her builds address another psychological need. “For me, it’s not at all important to have a kitchen or bath or such. It IS important that a building have a sense of history. I need it to have roots.” She goes as far as to give the building a back story, which influences the build.

As I explore SL, it’s architecture and art, I have been increasingly aware that when something “works” (or doesn’t), it is because it is effectively hitting one or more psychological or social “buttons” that are appropriate to it’s purpose.


Virtual Art was originally described by Frank Popper as a fusion of technology and art in which a person was immersed in art in an interactive way. His observations were based on the technology of the 80s… and we’ve come a long way baby.

Resident created virtual worlds are the ideal platform for the definition, examination and evolution of Virtual Art. With thousands of active architects, landscapers, artists, designers, photographers and machinimatographers experimenting with the new rules, we are seeing a new art movement emerging, affecting all these disciplines.

vir·tu·al·ism [vur-choo-uhl-izem] – An art movement which exploits the relaxed physical rules and enhanced capabilities of virtual worlds. The primary considerations are psychological, aesthetic and/or social. The physical is used to provide and orienting frame of reference.

Abstraction doesn’t necessarily follow from Virtualism. Yes, there are a great many swirly, glowy works of art in SL, but virtualism can often be very concrete.

Let’s check out some examples.

Museum of the Globe

Museum of the Globe

There’s not need to worry about weather, gravity or how to move around. The structure is the statement, freed from the bounds of much of the earth’s limitations.


Lionfish by Tekelili Tantalus
Hair by Helena Stringer

Mermaids, Nekos, Demons, Bunnies, Furries and Vampires. Avatar design spans a huge range from supermodel hot to mobile cardboard boxes.


, by Eshi Otawara

What is a sim but an adorned sculpture, as fabulously illustrated by the Rouge sim (photographed from high altitude, above). A club lies beneath the hair, a gallery in the boa and a store in the base of the restraint post.

Fairy Fashion

Winter Flame by Nicky Ree

Departures from the real in fashion range widely from customizable fabrics to fantasy farie wings, from objects that circle the wearer to gravity defying hair.

Miso Unleashes

Animation and Effects
Miso Susanowa cuts loose

We can dance in the sky. While we’re at it, let’s kick up our own personal special effects unit.

Primgraph - Pirate Ship Cover

Pirate Airships in Caledon Sound

The steam punk community is a great example of how form and function and the rules of virtual space are twisted to fabulous effect to create entire environments. Imaginary steam powered typewriters, pirate airships and elaborate mechanisms devised to fulfill an imagined purpose.

42, Photo by PJ Trenton

42, photo by PJ Trenton

You might think photography (and by extension machinima) might simply record virtual realities, but the creativity enabled by being able to edit the light conditions of the environment (and indeed, shoot up through through ground, as pictured above) creates far more opportunity for the visual artist than merely capturing a record.

World Builder
by Bruce Branit

Virtualism isn’t limited to SL of course, or even virtual spaces per se. The idea of virtual reality bleeds out into first life art renderings as well (particularly film). Take the time to watch World Builder, above.

What’s in a Name?

We’ve been doing this, in virtual worlds, for some time. Why give it a name? Why define it?

For my part, it focuses my thoughts, enables me to explain some of the things I do inworld. It sparks reflection and discussion with my friends and collaborators. Sometimes it inspires. Friends are experimenting with virtualist ideas, following a gab on the back porch. Their efforts are spurring me on.

I’m looking forward to such further discussions as might be kicked off, so feel free to comment or get in touch.

Thanks for help and feedback go out to CeeJay Writer, Saffia Widdershins, GM Nikolaidis and Kell Babenco. Also posted at ravenhaalan.com


  1. Yeah, architecture in SL is kinda fun, what with no gravity and all.

    It’s too bad that “modern” buildings like that are so frigging *ugly*. That build looks like somebody’s dentures left out too long. Or some sort of giant claw or something. The cadaver-like colour of the walls doesn’t add to the effect.

    I don’t know why it is these wikitects have to bludgeon us to death with the message that, um, yeah, concrete floats.

    There’s nothing delicate about this stuff. Nothing really aesthetic. These people are all just too heavily, heavily ideological and doctrinaire, and it shows.

    These days, I can appreciate a nicely decorated suburban tract home in SL better because it doesn’t come with the armour-plated precious arrogance.

    Fashion seems to succeed a little better at this stuff.

  2. Excellent post! So beautifully said.

    Back in the days when MUDs and MUSHes were popular, one of the chief architects of that genre wrote something for an academic journal that suggested he’d encountered the same phenomenon, only in text.

    For those who have never been on one of these text-based games, you were simply given a description of a room, a list of contents and/or people, and a list of exits. This author discovered that, no matter how many people could virtually fit in that room, the description of the room affected the moods and reactions of the occupants. A room described as small and generally claustrophobia-inducing made everyone uncomfortable and encouraged them to leave. Rooms described as open, or garden-like, or other beautiful places encouraged lingering and positivity. He suggested that it would be a really interesting subject for a real paper, but I never saw that he wrote one on the subject.

  3. Thanks for the comments 🙂

    @Prok: It is, of course, hardly new, nor rocket science that concrete can arbitrarily float only to transform into a balloon and fly away if you bump it. That there are some good and many bad uses of the technique is hardly surprising either… any more than embracing impressionism guarantees you’ll pull it off. Hear, hear on moving things to a higher level.

    @Myn: “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike” … I confess to having gotten a “B” in COBOL and I blame the original Adventure game. It’s always been in the imagination in the end, we just have richer environments to trigger it, now I guess.

    I’d love to see more examination of Virtualism as a form. I did a literature search and most hits applied to theology. 🙂

  4. Wonderful thoughts Raven. Its interesting to take them back a step further.

    The idea that continues to flabbergast me is not that concrete can float, but that there is no concrete. There is no glass. There is no stone. And, despite the case we can make that everything in SL is just plywood decorated to look like something else, there is no plywood.

    Everyday in my RL job I take materials and figure out how to put them together to make places. As I figure out how the materials want to go together, I look for how they make 5 things: entry, passage, orientation, hierarchy, and small/medium/large spaces.

    I still think those 5 things are valid in SL to create architecture (as different from art, which I acknowledge is a highly debatable point,) but when you take away the necessity of material, what do we build with?

    I have not yet been able to free myself from working with “materials,” but every now and then I go to Cetus to see the work of DB Bailey, and remind myself that it can be done.

  5. I am so with you Jodi – I wrestled with that myself, the “There is no spoon” problem. It’s why I think the need for familiarity needs to be on the table – we aren’t psychologically equipped to be formless motes in n-space, or to exist day to day as some kind of morphing abstraction (yet). Who knows what virtual worlds will be like as, in time, we become less reliant on familiar forms?

    You do raise something I hadn’t considered though that of how texture evolution relates to the perception of the materials a prim is made of. Hmmmm.

    Isn’t DB Baily’s work at Cetus fabulous? I ran to see 🙂

  6. Hi Raven,

    I really enjoyed your article about Virtualism.

    I am currently writing my MA thesis about “Neo-Modernist Visual Design of Avatars in Second Life” and I intend to quote you.

    When I quote you, can I also use your RL name or would you prefer to keep the citation 100% SL?

    If it is ok to use your RL, please email it to me.

    Great post,

  7. Jeremy – I followed up with you via email, but I’m honored, and happy to extend permission to quote me as required. My RL self has been quoted often as saying “If it ain’t virtual, it ain’t real.” … begging the question – is Raven actually my RL me, and the other merely the server host system? lol.

  8. Naming an art movement has advantages and disadvantages, but I’d be willing to try naming what we do to see what can be gained.

    However, Frank Popper’s idea of “Virtualism” included Net Art, multimedia, digital sculpture, etc., therefore I don’t believe it is appropriate to appropriate his term for our purposes.

    Rather, I believe a qualifier is called for. Just as art history had “Expressionism,” and then it developed, “Abstract Expressionism,” we can say art history had “Virtualism,” and now it has developed, “[fill in the blank] Virtualism.”

    What that blank should be, I throw open to discussion. A few thoughts that come to mind: “Metaverse Virtualism,” “MUSE Virtualism,” “Hyperformal Virtualism,” etc.

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