Category Archives: media

The truth and memories

Memories may light the corners of our minds, but where there is light there is sure to be shadow. The truth about memories lies less in the past than the present and the projected pasts of futures not yet realized. Memories are often more about the things we desire than the facts we observe or the things we’ve done.  In this sense, (re)membering is something we do in the struggle to be present, a constant process of building a useful world out of bits and pieces that survive in our minds from experience or hearsay. Thus it is that memory has two lives in this world, one a utilitarian form determined by the present and the future, the other a matter of art and emotion in the afterglow of things that are gone forever.

The apple and the tree

One of the great memories of my life is my father singing to me a song that I knew only as “The Kodak Song.” However dim that memory may be, it’s held steady for forty years now, changing little and always bringing a sense of warmth and comfort regardless of the circumstances of my life.

Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two,
Turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young [man] going out of my door.

The song is called “Turn Around” and was written by Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reyonolds and Alan Greene, originally sung for a “young girl going out my door.” Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the song, after its haunting melody, is the way it captures the essential act of remembering the future by filling it with the desire of the present.

It must have been 1967, when we stayed at my grandparents’ house in Monessen, Pennsylvania. He sang the song to me in the bedroom my mother had slept in as a child. That was right after my father left the military service. He always said that the main reason he left the service was that the Army was coming between him and his family, and I believe this is true. Yet it’s also true that 1967 was a very good time to leave the US Army if you could, since the war in Viet Nam was heating up and the rumor among officers was that Viet Nam was a deathtrap. In any event, his commission had expired and he had served all the time the Army had asked of him, so there we were in Monessen, staying with my grandparents while my father figured out what to do with his new civilian life.

He was (and still is) a singer, my father. The Kodak song is my earliest memory of his soothing tenor voice, a voice that I inherited but readily admit is not as good as his. The way he sang the song captured both the marvelous awe of a man watching his three year old son get ready for bed and the inevitable sadness of knowing that the boy would one day walk away to live his own life. I’ve heard that voice from him so many times, and I hear it from my own mouth as well, for as apples go I didn’t fall very fall from the tree.

What we choose to remember

William Faulkner famously wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s because the past is useful. We remember what we want to remember, and we use those memories to shape relationships, to win or survive struggles, to create things both new and old. What we call the study of “history” itself is little more than a formally willful consciousness of past events, and the fact is that regardless of one’s academic training or intentions, we all do “history” from time to time in order to fix up the present the way we want it to be.

As useful as memories are, however, our capacity to remember is ironically limited. In an essay about the meaning of contemporary art in relation to time and history, the Raqs Media Collective sketched the problem like this: “As time passes and we grow more into the contemporary, the reasons for remembering other times grow, while the ability to recall them weakens.” For this simple fact alone, we must choose what to remember and what to forget. Not to choose is not an option, whether we admit or not. For Sigmund Freud and generations of psychologists since (and even some before), what we choose to remember says a lot about who we are. Even if our choices about memory are mostly unconscious, our constructions of memory have consequences.

One effect of how we remember is that some people are left out of history. Others have their stories changed in ways that are damaging and unjust. Memories and histories can turn lies into truths and elevate the emotions of the moment into reasons to cause others great harm. Memory, as it turns out, is as easily an act of violence as it is a beautiful and heart-warming thing.

The story

Not all damage to memory (or history) is bad, however. Thinking about how art contends with the loss of cultures and places, Raqs wrote, “We could say that the ethics of memory have something to do with the urgent negotiation between having to remember (which sometimes includes the obligation to mourn) and the requirement to move on (which sometimes includes the need to forget).”

In this light, any single memory carries with it layers of desire and competing emotions that give it texture and depth. Side by side, our memories impact each other, changing the past again and making it even more difficult to pinpoint true events from times gone by. How I remember my mother’s death affects how I remember my grandmother’s death, even though they happened thirty years apart, and this will affect how I experience death in the future, be it the death of a relative, a friend, or a stranger. When memories fit together with a certain complementarity, they reinforce simpler, more general impressions of past events that become a shorthand for experience and truth, frequently shortchanging both while at the same increasing our capacity to “remember.”

To remember, which seems to us like no work at all, is no such thing. And yet here it is, our memory, providing for us the threads that connect each piece of our lives together into a story. Eric Kandel, reflecting on his life as a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning biologist and pioneer of memory studies, says that memory “gives us a coherent picture of the past that puts current experience in perspective. The picture may not be rational or accurate, but it persists. Without the binding force or memory, experience would be splintered into as many fragments as there are moments in life.”

Those fragments would be impossible organize without stories, and we write those stories every day of our lives, writing and re-writing not so much to make our lives perfect as to make them livable. In the end, the stories that knit together our memories become the memories themselves, completing the transformations of past into present, present into past, desire into reality.

Notes and Credits

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic.  It was originally my grandmother’s, and she gave it to me when she got a new one.  I was in the fourth or fifth grade and remember taking pictures of the French Quarter with it on our field trip there.  Somewhere in my house, among my things, are a set of old photographs taken with that camera, but alas in my many moves I have either lost the photographs or have packed them away in some old box stuffed somewhere in a corner of a closet or under my bed.  I looked around for some time, but to no avail.  Likely I will find them not long after publishing this post.

The photograph of me and my father was taken by my mother in 1966 when I was 2 years old.

Faulkner’s “past is never dead” quote is from Reqiuem for a Nun (Random House, 1951).  The Raqs Media Collective is a New Delhi-based multi-media contemporary art group founded in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. They operate across varied media and are active in the international contemporary art world.  The quotes above are taken from an essay, “Now and Elsewhere,” in the e-flux journal What Is Contemporary Art? (New York:  Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 49.  For the Kandel quote, see p. 10 of his In Search of Memory:  The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2006).  An interesting post on the Kodak Song, which helped me gather context for the essay, comes from “Nicholas Stix, Uncensored,” in which he sorts out some mysteries about the song’s authorship and speculation as to who is singing the song in the commercial.

Selling memories is big business. Kodak used the song “Turn Around” to create an iconic television advertisement that itself is a classic memory for many in my and my parents’ generations. Kodak sold their cameras as memory machines, using the flawed but commonplace idea that memory is an act of freezing the present and keeping it, like frozen leftovers in Tupperwares, for some date in the future. A recent advertisement by Disney features families videotaping themselves in the theme park and finishes with the tag line, “Let the Memories Begin.” The time that rewrites every line of our lives is the present.

As I had was collecting ideas for this posting and putting together the initial paragraphs, news broke that that Eastman Kodak, Inc., was filing for bankruptcy.  On June 22, 2009, Kodak stopped making Kodachrome, its legendary film that has filled so many memory books and inspired the classic song by Paul Simon.  The power of Kodak’s product in our society can be seen in the comments on the company’s blog – quite stirring and heartwarming.

There are an endless (or seemingly endless) number of Kodak-related videos on Youtube.  In this one, a woman demonstrates how to use her grandmother’s Kodak Brownie box camera from 1922.  After the company filed for bankruptcy, Time Magazine collected 10 of the most memorable Kodak commercials on its Website.  The memories have piled up, and its striking to consider what a major force Kodak was in the forging of memory for three or four generations of Americans.  At the height of its run, Kodak created a remarkable pavilionfor the New York World’s Fair in 1964.  The photo below was taken by Doug Coldwell and can be found on the Wikimedia Commons.

And now, at long last, I give you Dick Cavett giving you Barbra Streisand.

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The truth and oral history: The Double Life of the Interview

BROOKLYN READING WORKS

org. Louise Crawford
guest curator John A. Guidry

THURSDAY, JANUARY 20, 2011
8:00 – 10:00 PM
Where: OLD STONE HOUSE at J. J. BYRNE PLAYGROUND
5th Avenue in Park Slope between 3rd and 4th Streets
(718) 768-3195

The idea

Stories do not tell themselves. Even once they are told and recorded, stories need some help to be heard and to live in the world. This month’s Brooklyn Reading Works will look at the processes by which people collect stories and use them to tell stories. We will have panelists who use oral history practices to document our world and the lives we lead, and the conversation will explore the work it takes to make stories interesting and give them legs to stand on, as it were. Panelists will represent and explore several different genres and styles of the oral historian’s craft, from traditional first-person historical storytelling to the mediations of photography, academic writing, marketing, multimedia, and social advocacy—as well as stories of how collecting stories ultimately affects oral historians as authors and curators of the human experience.

The panel

Brian Toynes and Luna Ortiz, with Gay Men’s Health Crisis, who have developed innovative community-level interventions that use personal stories about change and resiliency. Luna is one of the few people documenting the “House and Ball” scene that came to general public prominence in the film, Paris is Burning, and in Madonna’s “Vogue – but which has also had a much more complex and international history over the last 100 years.

Michael Garofalo, a producer with StoryCorps, who will talk about the work of StoryCorps and the importance of collecting and listening to the stories we can tell each other about our lives.

Mary Marshall Clark, Director of the Columbia Oral History Office. Mary Marshall will concentrate on the stories of 9-11 that her team collected here in New York and the process of working with these kinds of interviews in order to create a tangible and personal history of these events.

Jason Kerstenauthor of “The Art of Making Money,” a true-crime story of a young counterfeiter and his life. Jason’s interviews with Art and his family reveal a host of issues that a writer must confront when getting so close to the subject while trying to tell a true story that is compelling, informative, honest, and in the end protective of the subject’s own history and privacy.

John A. Guidry, who has used oral history and long-interviewing techniques in academic writing (community organizing and children’s rights in Brazil), community development research (all over the US), and public health promotion (HIV health and social marketing).

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Without truth you are the looser

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a picture of words worth?

Spelling mistake or assertion about the relationship of truth to intestinal fortitude?  Martin Luther would surely disagree, for in his case getting to the truth was intimately dependent upon getting loose, and the entire fate of the Medieval Church hung in the balance.  Luther’s was one divine and hellacious struggle.

By the time Alberto Fujimori got loose and began to deal with his struggles, he was a wanted man.  President of Peru from 1992 to 2000, he defeated the Shining Path revolutionaries by resorting to atrocities that rivaled those of this enemies.  The dirty war in Peru took over 70,000 lives on both sides, and mass graves of military executions are still being found.  Peru’s Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team) has made a striking documentary of the largest grave site, If I Don’t Come Back, Look for Me in Putis.  After losing the 2000 presidential race, Fujimori fled to Japan after corruption schemes involving over a billion dollars came to light.  He returned to South America in 2005 to run for president again the following year, but instead he was arrested, tried, convicted, and thrown in jail.  With or without the truth, Fujimori was finally  the loser.

How many words is a Wordsworth worth?

Notes and Credits

All photographs were taken by the author, except as otherwise noted.

“Trust your struggle” appears on the approach ramp to the Ft. Hamilton Parkway Subway Station in Kensington, Brooklyn (zip code = 11218).

“Without truth you are the looser” was taken in Lisbon, Portugal in 2000.  The ironies of this photograph go well beyond its mispelling.  But that’s all I’m saying here.

“Fujimori Presidente” was also taken in 2000, on a trip I took to Peru with students from the college where I taught at the time.  This political graffiti was seen on a fairly desolate road in the altiplano, the high plains of the Andes Mountains.  We were on a bus on our way over the continental divide, which we crossed at around 16,000 feet, and then down, down, down to the Manu River Forest Preserve.  The Manu River is a tributary of the Amazon River which at this point has just come rushing down from the Andes and is settling into the massive river it will become with each new tributary on its 2,000+ mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean at Belém.

William Wordsworthis an image from the Wikimedia Commons of what is apparently an 1873 reproduction of an 1839 watercolor of the poet by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887).

The Importance of Place: Fort Hamilton Subway Station

The Ft. Hamilton station is beneath an expressway interchange, where the Prospect Expressway empties out on to (or begins at, depending on your vantage) Ocean Parkway, beneath the Ft. Hamilton Parkway overpass.  Ocean Parkway is a major thoroughfare running south to Coney Island from Prospect Park.  It’s a folkloric parkway lined with trees and sidewalks where people are walking every day of the week, at all hours it seems.  Kareem Fahim posted this wonderful story on Ocean Parkway in the Times on October 10, 2008.

Here’s a video, working hard to be experimental, on the Parkway …

And this one, with a bowling theme, which is big here.  In summer camp they take the kids at least once a week, from age 5 on up.

The Prospect Expressway links Ocean Parkway to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the BQE as we call it.  This interchange is a concrete manifestation (literally) of Robert Moses’s dreams for New York.  Moses served in various posts involved in urban planning and development, and from the 1930s to the 1970s he managed to thoroughly remake the city and Long Island’s highway system, housing agencies, and parks, which we have taken up before in Truth and Rocket Science, in The truth and change, 2: Technoredemption Goes Pro and The truth and set theory: more on Mr. McNamara.  The Fort Hamilton interchange is one small of Robert Moses’s living legacy.

The photograph above is found on the Wikimedia Commons.  To the right is the beginning of Ocean Parkway, where the Prospect Expressway empties out.  The person walking away in the photo has just passed “Trust your Struggle,” to the left, on the side of another retaining wall, as is obvious from the way that he (or she?) is contemplating the solipsism of passengerless cars rushing by on the expressway.  I do not know who put this particular graffiti there, but I smile a little every morning as I walk by it.

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Truth and Rocket Science – guest stenographer

Photograph courtesy of  Visual Stenographers: Atiba T. Edwards + Emma Raynor

The Scoop

Photographs from Truth and Rocket Science—some already published on this site and some from my archives—are now being featured on the blog “Visual Stenographers,” which is published by Atiba Edwards and Emma Raynor.  The photo above is one of theirs.  The blog is a delightful visual tour as much through the world as the minds of their photographers, and TRS is honored to be invited.  My photos will run for about two weeks, give or take, along with any others they are posting.  Do visit the site and while you are there, enjoy the archives.

The Stoop

This came about as a result as my involvement in the Brooklyn Blogfest, which I had been advertising along the sidebar of TRS (and still am even though it’s over).  The Fifth Annual Brooklyn Blogfest took place on June 8, 2010, at the Brooklyn Lyceum.  Absolut sponsored this year’s event as part of the launch of its limited edition “Absolut Brooklyn,” which they created in collaboration with Spike Lee, who spoke at the event.  It’s vodka with “an invigorating blend of red apple and ginger replete in a specially-designed bottle reminiscent of the ubiquitous ‘Brooklyn Stoop Life’.”  Okey dokey.

For the Blogfest itself, TRS was the “panel wrangler,” responsible for helping to ensure that the panelists would show up and do their thing.  The panelists this year were:

Faye Penn of Brokelyn

Jake Dobkin of Gothamist

Heather Johnston of So Good:  Food and Wine with Heather Johnston

Petra Simister of Bed Stuy Blog

Atiba Edwards of Visual Stenographers

The panel was moderated by Andrea Bernstein of WNYC.  A theme (among many) for the evening was Brooklyn’s capacity for conversation and discourse and the possibilty that blogs could take the dynamic of good old-fashioned stoop conversations and amplify, broadcast, hone, and narrowcast them across both time and space, in Brooklyn and beyond.

The Day After

Apparently, there has been some controversy in part of the blogging community here (i.e. Brooklyn) about Absolut’s sponsorship, provoking a bit of righteous ire across these stoops.  Heather, one of the panelists wound up having an extended exchange on Atlantic Yards Report, and another Brooklyn blog, Brownstoner, claimed the Blogfest had “sold out.”  As one who has been a community organizer in different places around the country and was happy to help with the Blogfest, I could run on with platitudes about getting up and doing something, and maybe this time Louise, Blogfest’s organizer, was trying something new, and so on and on and on.

Righteousness is like certain kinds of spicy foods that were wonderful in youth yet with age tend to bring on a bad feeling in the stomach and thereafter when consumed prodigiously.  Righteousness has its place, of course, but at this point in my life I rather like the way Heather Johnston put it, “I like Louise and what she does.”  Of course there was controversy, but there was also a really great event and some momentum for the future.  Perfect?  What is? It’s like they always say, If a tree falls in the forest …

Stomping Grounds and Old Haunts

So that is how I met Atiba, who shares with me not only the stomping grounds of good ole Brooklyn, but also the University of Michigan, as is obvious from the photograph of VS’s creators taken in front of the Graduate Library on the campus in Ann Arbor, our old haunt (and we have the paper to prove it).  At the Blogfest, Atiba suggested I send some photographs over to VS and here we are.  A very good idea.

Thanks

At the end of the day, thanks goes out to Louise Crawford, the force behind the Brooklyn Blogfest and keeper of Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.  Louise’s dedication helps bloggers and writers of all stripes to become a community in spaces real and virtual, keeping both honest and focused on talking to each other.  Louise has been a cherished mentor and supporter of my own blogging, and I try to repay her with thanks in action, whether panel wrangling or curating sessions for another of her community-building projects, Brooklyn Reading Works, for which I organized “The Truth and Money” last April.  TRS will be curating another Brooklyn Reading Works event in January 2011 – The Truth and Oral History: The Double Life of the Interview.  Stay tuned …

art is … what unites us!

In the meantime, please enjoy all the photographs on Visual Stenographers and stop over for a look at Atiba’s other projects.  Check out FOKUS, an organization Atiba helped to found that uses “the arts as a tool for education, entertainment and empowerment.”  FOKUS publishes Insight, a quarterly magazine of interviews, articles, photography, poetry, and more.  Atiba’s work merges old fashioned community organizing and the technologies of our time to take community-building to a new level, both in scale and in accessibility.  As the FOKUS website puts it, “art is … what unites us.”

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The truth and the still

Parintins, Brasil 1993

The still photograph is not so still.  The photograph asks questions.  It suggests a story.  It presents an idea in a language without words.  It is even as it signifies. Video killed nothing, and the still photograph survives (even as the radio star carries on).  Unlike video, you can take the still photograph in.  You have a role in your experience of the photograph.  It speaks to you at a speed that you can handle, that doesn’t overwhelm, that invites your participation and imagination.  You can look into its nooks and crannies and seek out all it has to offer.  All this at your own pace, and for your own reasons.

Snow on Sterling Place, Brooklyn 2005

The still photograph is a water that runs deep.  If it seems to sit there, that’s its charm.  The still makes you active, because it’s impossible to just look.  Indeed, that’s the point, and all the while the still is not nearly inert.  It just moves differently, at a different pace, like a tree.

Detail of a rock on the beach, Long Island Sound, 2009

You fill the stillness with motion, the silence with voices.  You hear these people, feel the breeze come across the flowers, sympathize with a long face or smile with happy eyes.  Or you imagine the immediate suspension of all motion and noise and concentrate on only the image and the miracle of capturing time itself.

Intensity . . .Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 2009

Video?  Its harsh, grating noise, the motion too fast to keep up with – video steals your ability to think about what you’re seeing and replaces your mind with its own images.  The difference between the still photograph and video is the difference between democracy and dictatorship.

Fixing the sidewalk, Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Brooklyn 2009

Notes and Credits

On December 15, 2009, I had the opportunity to hear two award-winning photographers, Lynsey Addario and Damon Winter, discuss their work at the Museum of the City of New York.  After the panel discussion, one member of audience asked them if they were experimenting with video, given the prominence of video on the Web and current developments in social media and journalism.  Of course they were interested, but they were still committed to the still photograph.  That’s what got them aroused in the first place, and the still continues to drive them today.  Moderater Kathy Ryan, photo editor for the NYT Magazine, chimed in that photos are still much more popular than videos on the Magazine’s website, perhaps because the photos allow the viewer to control what they are seeing.  So that got me thinking . . .

Sidewalk fixed, December 2009

All the photos featured in this post were taken by the author.  Go back and double-click them to see a larger view.  Enjoy.  If you want to see some interesting and incredible photos by others more talented and adept with shutters than I, check out the work of some friends at T’INGS, Chloe, and the No Words Daily Pix on Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn.

Astor Place, New York 2009

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From Life on Mars to Linden, addendum

In the last few weeks, the post “The truth and change, 3a:  From Life On Mars to Linden” has been getting a lot of hits.  Its spike in the data has pushed it to the most-hit post of all time for me, past the old standards of “The truth and us” and “The truth and unicorns, parts 1 and 2.”  I am really interested to know how and why this spike is occuring from those visiting.  Feel free to email me (jguidryDOT7ATgmailDOTcom) or Twitter (@truthandrockets) or leave a comment here.

I started to put this addendum together right after fininshing the Life on Mars post a few months ago.  I had uncovered so much interesting stuff and, as it always happens, realized how much I had missed once I had published the posting.  In spite of all my good intentions, I let the addendum lay in the to-do tray whilst writing up other things of interest to me.  I continue to be fascinated by the way that virtual spaces and so-called “real life” affirm each other’s essential meaning in our world.  I’ve also begun to write a longish story about organic/avatar relationships and welcome any interesting comments or links from people about their own stories or interests in the phenomenon.  So here are some fun things . . .

The Arch is a blog about design and architecture in Second Life that goes into great detail on the kinds of Houses of Tomorrow that can exist today in the virtual world.  They’ve posted a great short video on YouTube, and if you follow the “related videos” you can drop into a whole new world virtual vouyerism.  Enjoy!

Elle Kirshner’s Second Spaces is an interior design blog that highlights the newest designs for your home in SL.  Elle is a designer herself, and by just clicking through her site you can see a lot of the interesting concepts and designs about space that are important to virtual life.  From Second Speaces, you can also link to Elle’s friends and other businesses, learning a lot about SL’s economic and social life.

One of the interesting and most wonderful consequences of my original post “From Life on Mars to Linden” was that I picked up a new Twitter follower (and presumably blog reader):  Botgirl.  Botgirl’s Tweets (@botgirlq) are a veritable library of hyper-current thinking on storytelling that have become a great source for me as I write and think.  Should you Tweet and link through Botgirl’s world, you’ll realize that this Avatar and her RL typist brings into focus a whole world of multiple and parallel ontologies that really do get at (what I see as) the really important things about life.  If you’re a storyteller then you need to become friends with Botgirl.

Virtual existence brings into high relief the way in which storytelling truly becomes part and parcel of being.  Call it an auto-ontological environment, in you will, in which stories become magically real.  Lanna Beresford’s blog “Avatars in Wonderland” takes up these themes and helps us see how to live on these parallel planes.  In “All the virtual world’s a stage” she interviews role-player Salvatore Otoro.

Finally, the interest in the economics of virtual worlds is something I find truly captivating, not so much from the standpoint of getting into biz myself but rather from the perspective of learning how we create value.  Intrinsically, there is no value in nature, and then we come along and begin to create value.  Sometimes we create value out of scarcity, sometimes out of thin air.  Eventually, it always comes to scarcity and control, however.  With the Virtual Economy Research Network, you can keep up with a group of people doing some pretty serious study of virtual economics.

There’s much more to see.  Much more to look at.  Many more stories to create.  We’ll keep writing . . .

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The truth and change, 3a: From Life on Mars to Linden

The House of Tomorrow, 200x

The House of Tomorrow, now

The third post in this series, The truth and change, is split in two, 3a and 3b.  They provide different outcomes for the multi-part essay on change and the future that I began a month ago.  It wasn’t how I planned the posts, nor are these the only two ways things can work out.  They are, instead, the unintended surprises at the end of a long chain of lateral thinking that has also suggested a set of follow-up postings down the line.  It’s always nice to pile up things to do.

From Life on Mars to Linden

Avatars are nothing new to the human species, from the caves of Lascaux to the virtual worlds of Second Life and other large web-based games.  These (brave?) new worlds carry out the same primeval urge that led people to create paintings of their daily lives 35,000 years ago.  What began in the caves has become a massive wall written on by millions of people, together, sharing a world that they have imagined out of the very world in which they live.

The House of Tomorrow, 35,000 BCE

The House of Tomorrow, 35,000 BCE

One of the interesting things about the virtual world is that it does create a “place” that didn’t exist before, uncovering new spaces in life that are hidden beneath the physical dimensions we take for granted.  In the world of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs, or MMOs) such as Second Life, people leave their organic beings and create virtual selves, societies, and places in cyberspace.  These worlds are a social version of the extra-dimensional physics of string theory, “brane worlds,” and high energy model building that physicist Lisa Randall has written and spoken about.  In MMOs, we are building new worlds in very small spaces inside the world of everyday experience.

The key thing about these virtual dimensions is their connectivity to real life, which engenders much greater imaginative potential than the escape to the “silver screen” that left the sad girl in David Bowie’s song wondering if there was “Life on Mars.”  Ours is now a world of both cultural production and absolute reflexivity, in which the virtual world is like a magnifying mirror we hold to our organic lives.

In a fascinating example of this reflexivity, organic journalist Marcia Stepanek reports on Second Life journalist Draxtor Despres, who himself reports on the goings-on of the organic world for the people of Second Life.  Their dialogue is like an 8-track tape, or a Möbius Strip in which one side is organic, the other side virtual, both surfaces effortlessly sliding into each other when they are attached in just the right way.

Stepanek has also profiled the work of Douglas Gayeton, a multimedia artist who “creates immersive story experiences for virtual worlds and social networks.”  Gayeton’s documentary, “Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey,” was the first documentary produced entirely in Second Life.  For a while it was the highest rated video on YouTube.  It’s been picked up by HBO and begins to make clear how “real” the virtual world really is.

Already, the virtual economy is derived from, reflects, and ultimately contributes to the organic economy.  In July of 2009, Second Life creator Philip Linden spoke to BOSL (Best of Second Life) Blog about how Linden Labs is creating various supports for crossover services involving both businesses and educators, who will use the SL platform to provide services in real life.  Within SL, “Linden Dollars” are the basis of a vast economy of virtual goods that can be converted, ultimately, into organic dollars.

The virtual world embraces an entire crossover economy.  Hermione Watanabe is a “virtual wealth coach” whose blog provides advice and information on the SL economy and how to grow income there and in the organic world.  Perhaps the most compelling confirmation of the virtual world’s “real” existence is that the Federal Government is thinking about how to tax virtual economic activity.

The crossover continues in the amateur machinima that is becoming an art form of its own, sprawling across YouTube, Vimeo, and other video networking sites.  Aenea Nori’s SL video for Kafka Dinzeo’s remix of Lily Allen’s “Littlest Things” brilliantly takes us through the wormholes that connect virtual dimensions to the organic and back again.

LauraMW12345 created an organic-virtual mix in which “Second Life Meets Real Life,” in which the green screen existed in SL and the “real world” had to be inserted as fictional background for the avatars. The video is set over the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner,” which was one of the early, pioneering events in remix history, on the borders of different dimensions of musical creation and imagination.

This sliding between organic and virtual lives has inevitably encompassed the most ubiquitous and equalizing of human emotions:  sex (and its correlate emotions).  Love is in the virtual air, as people in Second Life and other MMOs mix, mingle, fall for each other, become married (virtually, but quite really), pledge love, cheat, cry, break up, and try again.  For a while, people started to create real-world-like porn magazines on-line (in Second Life, Slustler was a phenomenon in 2005-07), but these have been displaced by other virtual services and games that better fit the medium, such as Red Light Center (which creates a very real organic economy for itself as well) and SL meeting places and adult parties.

Eventually, however, we come back to the connection between the virtual and organic worlds.  They cannot function without each other.  “If This is Second Life Why Is My Heart Breaking In Real Life?” is a machinima video created by Kirk Lancaster and Sandra Holyoke that explores the crossover of desire and heartache.  The relationships we create in other dimensions reverberate in the organic world and behind them all lie one, beating, very organic heart.

The future, it seems, is not out there in the world, some place distant in either time or space.  It’s in our minds, already, right now, and available for our scrutiny.  This isn’t the future I imagined as a youth, or even when I began writing these postings.  In this future, much of the world is simply brought to life from our own minds with the help of technologies that enable millions of minds to communicate in tandem, synced together to build a world that is every bit as real as the organic world even as it vanishes before us to live in our minds.

This brings me back to the Shetland Islands of the late 1940s, where Erving Goffman gathered observations and data for his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  It was published in 1959 and became a classic of American sociology; it’s still widely read and has never been thought out-of-date.

Immersing himself in the world of the Shetland Islanders, Goffmann looked at their everyday interactions through the lens of drama – people were actors in their own plays, as well as each other’s audiences.  “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare famously said, and Goffmann set out to prove it.  People work hard to create settings and situations in which they can enact a specific, intentional script.  They have certain behaviors for their audience, as well as an array of backstage behaviors.

Goffman’s point of view was revolutionary at the time and cemented the foundation of a whole school of social thought.  We construct our own worlds in the same way that we construct plays and dramas.  The representational activity that started in places like Lascaux and ends up in MMOs is pretty much the same.  The attractiveness of gaming and MMOs is clear:  it’s what we already do in regular life, only in the MMO we get a greater degree of control over what we hide backstage.

This begs a question.  Is the change we experience with this technology really anything more than a change in the venue (now virtual, created) for the same old desires we’ve always had?  A vanity of vanities in which there’s nothing new under the sun except for the bottles that are filled with old wine?  Does the virtual world of love and sex and desire change any of the fundamental emotions or relationships that constitute what it means to be human?  When and where does the virtual world go beyond reflections and extrapolations of the organic?

When is the virtual world for-itself?

Notes and Credits

The opening photo is from the Flikr site of rikomatic.  The photo shows a house for sale in Second Life, where participants engage in an extensive economy that has several dimensions – purely virtual, combined virtual and organic, and mainly oriented toward organic profit.  In Second Life, people create their own houses by using virtual money (Linden dollars) to purchase land and materials in the virtual world.

Much thanks to Marcia Stepanek for introducing me to the world of machinima in her writing on Cause Global and Pop!Tech.

The photo of the Lascaux cave paintings is from Prof. Saxx and can be seen at the Wikimedia commons.

Aenea Nori’s machinima for the “Littlest Things (remix)” carries us through many layers of time and space.  I would have embedded the video in the blog for people to see, except that WordPress (the free version, anyway) isn’t communicating with Vimeo.  You should go to her site, however, and check out her video work. There is no recent activity on the Vimeo site or on her blog (the last activity is September 2008), but perhaps she’ll be back.

Lily Allen uses a lot of mixing, overdubbing, and sampling to build her songs, which are themselves an aural hypertext calling forth a multitude of associations and images.  “Littlest Things” recalls Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” morphing time across 35 years of cultural production. Listening to Allen’s work is stimulating – and now Aenea Nori and Kafka Dinzeo transport the music and associated images into another world altogether, sliding along a “brane” between the virtual and organic worlds.

Regina Lynn has written in Wired about the growth of the virtual sex world found in MMOs all over the web, some of which are lucrative businesses. WebMD posted a balanced article on the advantages of cybersex and “teledildonics,” which include a safe place to try out new ideas (both in terms of disease and in terms of emotional control), as well as the problems – it can become addictive and affect real-life relationships.  The article quotes Regina Lynn, who brings the issue down to earth:  “Does your partner know, and does your partner consent? Lying is cheating.”  Over at True/Slant, Todd Essig writes about the cutting edge developments in the world of cyber sex – now, cyber-touch with lasers across world’s distances.

Taunt is a blog devoted to SL economics and SL sex life.  SL and other MMOs feature escort services and erotic parties to cater to every taste, including many that are all but impossible to enact in organic life.  “Second life guys can have it all, as long as they’re willing to pay,” according to Elle Kirshner, a Second Life designer and voiceover artist for Kirk Lancaster’s SL video, “Second Life Man.”

Overall, sex is actually the cutting edge of machinima and virtual reality.  Why?  Because it’s what we want so much in real life that our urges push the limits of technology so that we can pursue desire in every possible corner of existence, from dreams to waking life to virtual reality.

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