Ekphrasis: The Loveliness of the Virtual Art World

Revolt of the Mannequins by Silene Christensen. Photo by PJ Trenton.

The notorious British art dealer/patron Charles Saatchi wrote a piece for Saturday’s Guardian entitled The Hideousness of the Art World. Aside from the disturbing conclusion that I think I may have just become a fan of Saatchi (the man who launched Damien Hirst on the world; my love/hate affair with Hirst’s work is long-standing), I found the article to be revealing, by way of contrast, as to one of the reasons I am a fan of virtual art.

I miss writing about art in SL, the business of ‘first’ life has taken me away, I hope only temporarily. But Saatchi’s article has moved me to break my needful silence, and as well gave me an excuse to share some of my favourite selections from the UWA 3D Art Challenge finale, which I am privileged to judge (along with many others including our intrepid editor Saffia).

Venustrap by claudia222 Jewel. Photo by PJ Trenton.

Saatchi’s article begins “Even a show-off like me finds this new, super-rich art-buying crowd vulgar and depressingly shallow,” an observation born not just out of his years of being at the centre of the contemporary art market, but specifically out of his recent experience attending this year’s Venice Biennale. Venice’s biannual ‘world’s fair of art’ has a special place in my own heart, as it is where I first learned to love contemporary art back in 1990, at a tender young age, after I was blown away by Jenny Holzer‘s display in the American pavilion (the first woman to show there). I’ve only experienced it one other time since (1993, in which another favourite, Nam Jun Paik, represented America, and I saw an incredible installation by Peter Greenaway, who as we know has been so wise as to recognise the machinima as a cutting edge New Media artform, and was himself a fellow UWA judge for the machinima competition). If I had the means, I’d certainly go every chance I had.

However I’m certainly not in Saatchi’s league, and could probably stumble through guileless of the tragic display he witnesses there:

Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard… Venice is now firmly on the calendar of this new art world, alongside St Barts at Christmas and St Tropez in August, in a giddy round of glamour-filled socialising, from one swanky party to another…

Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth.

Without deconstructing the inherent irony in his rant (as he has certainly played his part in crafting that scene), it made me think about the virtual art world, and our own version of the Biennale: the UWA 3D Art Challenge. Well, ok, that might be a stretch, but it IS the place where we may see the widest range of virtual art, and, in my opinion, some of the very best. In fact, with perhaps the exception of AM Radio, all of the greatest virtual artists who come to mind have participated, some of them regularly. I’ve had the pleasure of being a judge for the final award these past two years, and it was NOT an easy task.

Paranormal Frottage by Misprint Thursday. Photo by PJ Trenton.

Like Venice, one can wander the UWA and see some of the freshest and most innovative contemporary art – in fact, art which would be very difficult if not impossible to display at the Biennale. Art so cutting-edge that most of those vulgar art buyers wouldn’t even know of its existence. They wouldn’t deign to. Forget about the taboo of Second Life: the art at the UWA isn’t for sale. And even if it was, the reproductive nature of virtual art (not to mention the economic system of SL) makes the market for it ‘virtually’ non-existent. And I say this as an avid collector of it myself. How would these people display this work? How would it hold it’s financial value, particularly when it lacks both potential rarity and physical accessibility?

One + Four Timeboards by L1aura Loire. Photo by PJ Trenton.

This has a bang on affect for virtual artists, of course, for whom creation can only ever be a labour of love, and if they are very lucky, might pay tier. Some have tried to tackle this via selling limited edition versions, usually of rezzed repros of their physical world work (something which for me isn’t actually virtual art anyway), or creating books of their work to be sold (often at too high cost). The only artists I know who are actually self-supporting in SL are those who have commercial sides to their businesses, or those who have external funding for their work. And here lies one of the key problems in giving credibility to virtual art: what market there is for it is unstable at best. Because the sad truth is, to quote a Jenny Holzer Truism, ‘Money creates taste.’ Or rather, perhaps, it drives it.

Believe me, I HATE what I’m saying here. I do, in fact, have a lofty dreamy goal that I will some day curate a very serious exhibit on virtual art in a very serious institution. I’ve thought long and hard about how to do it, and had conversations with some of my readers, no doubt. And I’m certainly not the first to try it, we know it’s already been done.

In Dreams by Blue Tsuki. Photo by PJ Trenton.

But to get back to the original point, the failed art market of Second Life actually has a wonderful byproduct: a space in which art is created and enjoyed truly for its own sake. We immerse ourselves in the beauty and strangeness of these creations not for investment purposes, but because we derive pleasure from it, whether that is sensual or intellectual. The UWA is by no means the only place to see this; it exists across the grid in every beautiful build (really labours of love) from landscapes like Alirium (who of course also sell their fantastical plants) to cities like New Babbage.

The Superheroes Breakfast by Typote Beck. Photo by PJ Trenton.

I don’t mean to suggest that we have crafted some kind of artistic utopia; SL is plagued with galleries of very poor ‘art’, run by owners who don’t know the first thing about curation or the art world (sadly, we seem to get group notices from these folks ALL THE TIME). But there is a way in which we avoid one of the key problems Saatchi points out:

Few people in contemporary art demonstrate much curiosity. The majority spend their days blathering on, rather than trying to work out why one artist is more interesting than another, or why one picture works and another doesn’t.

Now it could be argued that I am, in fact, blathering on. But I can tell you I do spend a lot of my time considering why some artists are more interesting than others, and why some virtual art ‘works’ and other is utter crap. Close friends can verify this, but I often don’t discuss what I think is crap in print. I’m not a brave enough critic. Instead, I choose to write about what moves me and what I see to be important work.

Theatre of War by Miso Susanowa. Photo by PJ Trenton.

But in SL, curiosity drives us. We explore these worlds as a pastime, and the artists who build immersive installations provide spaces for our curiosity to frolic. For me, the very best virtual art engages multiple senses (smell and taste are of course not yet possible, which in some ways might be a blessing!). I do include touch here because, although we often think of this work as being non-physical, we in fact must interact with our computers to access it, and in some cases our dexterity is engaged to experience work.

The Suicide Forest Infested by Harpias by Rebeca Bashly. Photo by PJ Trenton.

In many ways, though, this works the same way as visiting a gallery or museum. The work is physical, but we do not usually smell or taste it; and we usually don’t touch it either. In fact, virtual art is even MORE interactive–we can ‘touch’ is and be part of the work. And we don’t have to worry about caretaking and conservation in the same manner as physical work (although virtual works opens whole new problems in these areas). One of the machinima from the UWA challenge that I absolutely loved played upon these ideas was ‘Artwashers’ by 2sense Productions.

By introducing us to the fictive cleaners at the UWA, the parody cleverly highlights how such a space is so much less complicated that a real museum, allowing the administrative energy to be focused on creativity and education. And that freedom to focus on the creative work has created a wonderful, happy accident. When I interviewed the UWA in SL founder and director Jayjay Zifanwe (Jay Jay Jegathesan, Manager of the School of Physics, University of Western Australia) at last year’s SL8B Prim Perfect stage, I asked him, ‘Do you realise the amazing collection of virtual art you are building? Have you thought about what you will do with it?’ He replied that it hadn’t at all been his goal to create a collection, but rather to simply drive creativity; that he wasn’t a curator. However, I could see FreeWee Ling, the UWA curator (and winner of last year’s challenge), nodding her head along. Jayjay’s wonderful idea and lofty goals have this incredible byproduct of an unintentional but incredible collection of virtual art. What’s to be done with it? We’ve got some ideas… watch this space. As well, I’ll be interviewing Jayjay at the Christmas Expo this coming Friday, so do come along as I’m sure we’ll chat about this!

Shattered by Gingered Alsop. Photo by PJ Trenton.

There is so much more I could say on this, but I’d rather bring this oversimplified ramble to a close by simply stating that the final awards ceremony for this year’s UWA Challenge will be a week from today (Sunday the 11th) at 6am SLT. Meanwhile, you can visit the finale exhibition and see the winners from this year’s monthly competitions, direct slurls can be found here. The images in this post are of some of the works that I have selected for my top 10 in the overall and unscripted categories. But I’ll close with a slideshow that includes some others, taken by the talented PJ Trenton (you can see the full set more clearly at his flickr.)


  1. Wonderful article Rowan, and makes me once again feel very lucky to be a privileged Sl’er..who can roam the ample banquet tables of our virtual art world sampling the best, and walk away feeling so satisfyingly full.

  2. An outstanding statement, Rowan, echoing many of the thoughts I’ve been having as we wrap up the UWA Challenges for this year. As you know, I’m very concerned for the legacy of this ephemeral work.

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