There is something wrong with contemporary art. People have gotten killed for saying less, but I’m saying it anyway. And I have been thinking this way for ages too; in endless wanders around Biennials, taking in video loops imprisoned in an endless “now”, grainy documentational photographs, badly cobbled together installations, accompanied by reams upon reams of text – all about what exactly? And also of course, my job as an instructor. How difficult it seems to be to get my students to invent stories. At conferences, with colleagues from all over the globe, there tend to be these endless moan sessions: Our students seem to find it very difficult to become involved, indeed to even muster any kind of enthusiasm for the creative process itself. A lack of imagination. A big howling empty space where you would normally have expected to find a bubbling up of wild ideas from a 20 year old. What you get instead is agonized constipation, a writhing around socially anxious truisms and politically correct platitudes.
My father was great. We used to play a game where I would be a lost rabbit and he would be a good hearted bear helping me to get home. All kinds of magical adventures we had. And here I am again, this time with Roy, who got his students to invent stories: “Imagine you wake up one morning to find that you are a sponge. Describe visually your adventures during the day…. Invent a typewriter bird and show the kind of tree within which it could most successfully hide… Create a world on paper with major and minor structural systems. Show a fault occurring in the minor one; design a repair centre to put it right…” (from “A Groundcourse for Art”, Telematic Embrace).
The Garden has shown me that gutsy forgers of narrative have found a home in Second Life. Admittedly, not too many of them it seems, but they are out there alright: Nonnatus Korhonen and the “Little creatures that tend to follow you around with strawberries”, Madcow Cosmos and “Hetorotroph”, Truthseeker Young and “The Singularapture is Near” and Bryn Oh and the “Steam Bath”.
This is not really about form. If I had been in search of aesthetic formalism I would maybe have picked out other examples as well, maybe not even picked these at all. What I am looking for is a “story”. Not a “concept”, mind you! Please, I am really getting very tired of “concepts”. It is the sacredness of the “concept” that has brought us into this constipated mess in the first place. What I want is unselfconscious narrative, someone getting totally carried away with the story that is inside of them and spilling it all out as visual form. Something that is not just of the “now” but carries embedded in its being a “past”. A personal mythology. Stop hitting me with ideas for God’s sakes, tell me something instead. Anything, something – make it up!
Nonnatus Korhonen tells a very quiet whisper of a story. The heroes are shy white creatures of a hard to describe soft reticence. Looking at the white flecked landscape I get a sense of the child that brought these creatures into this habitat. One quite different from Madcow Cosmos that’s for sure (hh). The way those dragons spew out into the sky. There is a cruel, humorous story there – I make it up as I go along. After all, the artist is not the only raconteur in the game.
Truthseeker Young does sneak in the teeniest bit of conceptualization into his story of the decapitated head by telling me how the process is painful but necessary. But this is a concept that I go along with anyway and it is so subtly phrased that it ends up becoming something more along the lines of “and the moral of the tale is…”, which again, makes the whole thing a very funny story indeed. And Bryn Oh’s steam bath, with its peeper at the door and the beetle bathing inside is so endowed with ominous narrative that I stand in front of it completely spellbound.
These are master story tellers and all is safe in their hands. But unfortunately stories do have a way of turning maudlin, of becoming cute, if not downright banal. So the trick would be to tell your story, plaster all of your teddy bears onto your steeple so to speak – and then work the magic whereby they transcend their teddybearness and become part of something that will be quite hard to describe and almost impossible to dissect. Art, one would call that, I guess. Definitely not a game for those faint of heart… And these artists whose work I saw in the Garden today are so not faint of heart.
Are they part of the “serious” art enclave in Real Life? I tend to doubt it. A lifetime habit of self important conceptualization does not get shed overnight, or if it does it is usually only through a very painful process of moulting. But then again, who knows? They very well might be… The creator of the church has certainly had his share of “serious” acclaim in past years. (Which makes the whole teddy bear syndrome even more remarkable in its gutsiness). So, more power to anyone like that who landed themselves here in Second Life to play. The roots of narrative reside in childhood. But children are not yet completely separated from the larger whole, the archetypes snatch at their little heels. Joseph Campbell tells us that in all the world, no matter where you go there are very few basic children’s game matrices and they are always the same ones. We must be bringing this knowledge with us from somewhere then. Therein resides the “Abyss” and its ruler, the “Shadow” guides the child. Play is cruel.
The Garden is remarkable. The work mentioned here is remarkable for my purposes in that it relates to narrative. But almost all of the garden is remarkable in its spontaneity. And yet, I fear that soon it may all be over. The “serious” brigade is already making its way in. And then there will be art exhibitions that look quite different from the NPIRL Garden of Delights; ones where the likes of Madcow Cosmos and Nonnatus Korhonen and myself (of course!) will be laughed straight out of the door. Cold, sterile shrines dedicated to intellect. No imagination, no unselfconsciousness, no color, no bizarre associations. No Gestalt even. No narrative, no play. Certainly no teddy bears. Everything brittle on shiny floors. Surgical. Or on concrete floors, virtual spaces made to look like factories. The artist as proletariat. All verrrry verrrry politically correct. Very humorless. Certainly not under a benevolent virtual sun. Certainly not sprouting forth from a rich, humus ridden virtual soil.
Ouch! I hope I am wrong. Of course, I am wrong! The law of attraction tells us that this type of pessimism can lead only to perdition. So, yes: “Play” lies at the heart of the matter of the metaverse. Which means that in the metaverse “play” and the “story” will always always always win – hands down.