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Babel Swarm Babel Swarm
RICARDO PEACH IS THE PROGRAM MANAGER FOR THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL’S INTER-ARTS, OFFICE. PEACH IS AN ENGAGING MEDIA ARTS ENTHUSIAST WHO HIMSELF ENJOYS A SECOND LIFE. WE MET TO DISCUSS HOW, IN 2007 THE AUSTRALIA COUNCIL FOR THE ARTS BECAME THE FIRST NATIONAL ARTS FUNDING BODY TO FUND AN ARTIST RESIDENCY IN SECOND LIFE. THE WINNING TEAM, WRITER JUSTIN CLEMENS, VISUAL ARTIST CHRISTOPHER DODDS AND SOUND ARTIST ADAM NASH CREATED BABEL SWARM, A NETWORKED PROJECT LINKING PEOPLE IN REAL LIFE WITH AVATARS CREATING AN IN-WORLD, REALTIME 3D SCULPTURE BUILT FROM THE SPEECH OF PARTICIPANTS. THE MEDIA RESPONSE AND PUBLIC INTEREST WAS WAY BEYOND EXPECTATION.

Although the Australia Council doesn’t have any Second Life property, it has ‘borrowed’ space from the likes of the ABC and the Australian Film Television and Radio School, allowing it to conduct an in-world media campaign, in-world client meetings, in-world artist matchmaking and the first in-world grant assessment meeting. The virtual gets real-er all the time.

What made the Inter-Arts office take up the Second Life challenge?

We’re keen to support those practices that would otherwise fall through the funding gaps between the artform Boards, and interested in what Adam Nash calls “post-convergent” art. I’m not quite convinced about the term yet but it’s about spaces opening up room for practices to flourish that are not limited to the physics of the natural universe.

Getting past conventional representation must be a challenge for artists making work in Second Life?

Yes, it’s a kind of parallel ‘real’ world for many people, and it’s cheaper: you can buy virtual Gucci shoes for five cents rather than paying a million bucks. But in terms of aesthetics, there’s a huge potential to shift things. So we thought why don’t we support the emerging practices that are already testing Second Life and other spaces. There was already a cluey and energetic art culture happening there and Australians seemed to be engaged in it from the beginning.

So Inter-Arts has played a triggering role?

That’s what we aim to do, to make potential practices visible and then other artists become more aware of it as well. So it’s about finding ways, with small amounts of funding, to support emergent practice.

Because Second Life is cheaper than real life, does this mean you don’t need to invest quite so much money?

It’s a helluva lot cheaper. But in fact it was the largest grant that artists have received for such a virtual platform. It was $20,000 for up to three Australian artists to develop a project that used the disciplines of literature or writing, sound art or music and a digital visual practitioner. The Music and Literature Boards and the Inter-Arts Office funded the project collaboratively. It was an interesting collaboration within the Australia Council itself.

Were there funding criteria beyond making the work, for example how it might be exhibited or broadcast?

One we built into the grant itself was for the applicants to create some form of mixed reality showing or event where people who weren’t necessarily conversant with these virtual platforms could experience the new spaces for themselves. It was about making people aware of the potential of the platforms and assisting those who might be technologically phobic, or just not into these spaces, to at least have access. The artists collaborated with Lismore Regional Gallery so that a regional centre had the first mixed reality showing of the Second Life initiative. Lismore farmers mixed with the directors of Eye-Beam [new media arts centre] in New York as Babel Swarm evolved in the gallery.

Virtually and actually.

Well, you know, there’s no difference. There were people in the gallery and people online from various places interacting, avatars ‘flying in’ from wherever and the people in the gallery space with access to a few generic avatars. They could access an avatar and then interact with the other avatars from Tokyo or New York. The artists cleverly developed the event in three stages. The first was like a traditional gallery approach with images, photographs and text. The second space, on screen, was machinima: a filmic version of the artwork. The third space was where people were engaged interactively in real time with Babel Swarm and with other avatars.

The people at the opening were creating Babel Swarm in the process of interacting with it. This is something very interesting about the project—it’s user-generated. The words people spoke or typed into the space were the same words that create the work’s sculpture as the letters fall from the sky in the Second Life lansdcape. It’s beautiful metaphorically as well. There are many layers and I’m sure I haven’t touched on all of them yet. After the letters fall, they start searching for each other but avatars can destroy them and once destroyed they have no chance of becoming whole again, becoming one with other letters.

A strange kind of ecosystem. You’ve described Babel Swarm as “sculptural.”

Others would call it musical because there’s a very complex sound aspect to it and the sounds are triggered by the letterforms. So, depending on people’s preference—I’m very much visually oriented—but people who have a sound or literary orientation would perhaps read it in a different way.

What might the literary people get out of it, do you think other than the joy of seeing letters?

There is a growing understanding that literature is more than poems or novels, that literature is a practice that’s living and that people interact in other interesting ways through words. There are probably writers watching their text fall and interacting in a dialogue about the ways words and letters can impact on each other.

The gallery audience loved the experience and so did the in-world audience and participants—there were more than a thousand visitors at the time.

What do you think is the future of this initiative?

It will depend on the type of artists and their interests. I think there’s probably a lot of room for performance art as well, which doesn’t necessarily require the huge technical skills which artists like Nash and Dodds need to code the letters in Babel Swarm and make sure they connect. A key thing is that this practice engenders a collaborative approach. If artists are not necessarily confident within the virtual space they can collaborate with somebody who knows more about it and maybe thinks about that space in a different way. That can be very productive. One of the processes we developed for this initiative was a matchmaker or collaborator blog where we put artists in contact with each other, not just the technically proficient. So it’s an ideal space for collaboration.

Has there been a new phase of the initiative?

Another one emerged from the Second Life initiative called MMUVE IT!, a Massive Multi-user Virtual Environment Initiative. There was a recognition that the next step would probably be an embodied computer-human interface, a little bit more complex than, say, the mouse or the keyboard. There are a lot of new interfaces being developed in areas like gaming: alpha waves or 3D motion-tracking cameras allow people to move their bodies and therefore their in-world avatars.

The successful artist team for MMUVE IT! is Trish Adams (RT84, p31) and Andrew Burrell who’ll be working with the Queensland Brain Institute to develop a project called Mellifera (http://mellifera.cc), working with sound and with bees to help people manipulate, interact with and develop ecosystems in a virtual space via their avatars and their bodies. It will explore cognitive processes and bodily interaction and their relationship to virtual environments. They’ll use Second Life and the work of an Australian start-up company called Vast Park where you can have your own virtual world and connect to other virtual worlds.

More parallel universes!

So rather than having your own island, there’ll be a galaxy of virtual worlds. What Inter-Arts wants to encourage in our next round, closing December 1, is work that can engage with mixed reality settings but also more locative media based works—mobile phones, GPS—different ways of interacting in public spaces. It doesn’t always have to be technology based but some of it will be. And we’re also interested in user-generated content, a growing area, that reduces the audience-artist dichotomy with the audience being involved in the creation of the artwork. The Second Life and MMUVE IT! initiatives are designed to generate interest and activity, but our key focus is still on the grant rounds where artists apply with great ideas for works.

How successful was the promotion of Babel Swarm?

It was extraordinary. It took us all by surprise. It was great to be on the crest of the wave. I think it’s to do with the social networking phenomena that has emerged over the last few years. People are now more comfortable with being in these virtual spaces. They’re like 3D chat rooms—3D MySpace or 3D Facebook. There are people who say these spaces are destroying social skills but these are places where you can blossom and you’re not going to be killed or become a social pariah, not for long anyway. You can always come back in another avatar and make new friends.

The media and public response to the Babel Swarm launch was extraordinary. It got the highest hit rate of any initiative that the Australia Council marketing team has developed to date. I think one of the keys to its web success was that there was international interest. It was an interesting to see the potential of social networking sites in terms of art practice. In hindsight I’ve labelled these practices Social Media Arts—a combination of Media Arts and Social Networking. It’s not just the form of the art and the new means of expression but the huge networks they’re connecting to. That’s new, I think.

What have the other artform boards of the Australia Council taken on in this area?

The Literature Board, through Stories of the Future, had some great Second Life and other digital initiatives in its promotion of digital publishing over three years. It included the mixed reality event Mix My Lit at Federation Square where V-Jays and Lit-Jays were mixing their sounds and images and texts that the public were texting them onto the screen and their little stories were being mashed. So there is no distinction between “this is what literature is” and “this is what visual art is.”

The Visual Arts Board funded dLux Media Arts to do a whole range of machinima and Second Life initiatives, including tours in Second Life. The Music Board and the Literature Board were already on board with this. The MMUVE IT! initiative was a collaboration between the VAB and the Inter-Arts Office. I think that’s one of the most successful aspects of these initiatives. You have emerging practices, collaboration across artforms, breaking down barriers and giving artists the opportunity to seek support for work they may not be able to apply for in one particular board.

Post-convergence funding. What about the issue of facilitating participation and development in regional areas?

We’re learning from artists, as we did with the Babel Swarm-Lismore Gallery collaboration, where they saw a need to develop these projects in regional Australia. We’re not developing specific initiatives here yet but we are looking at how we can facilitate it with other boards or initiatives to incorporate regional possibilities in the projects they’re developing.

The Inter-Arts Office part funded a project with urban and regional dimensions called A-lure by Visionary Images completed this year in Melbourne, Shepparton and Richmond where socially disadvantaged young people worked with media artists to develop locative media games within the City of Melbourne.

Is Council looking at the potentials of multiplatforming?

At the international Urban Screens event that’s happening in Melbourne (Oct 3-5) Council supported a focus on the re-purposing of interactive work, perhaps initially staged in a small space, so that it can be made public in a large urban context. We also assisted MEGA (Mobile Enterprise Growth Alliance) to develop some projects to teach artists how to link with business to get their content out there on the mobile phone platform—a huge market’s emerging and one of the most lucrative markets as well. We also have a major partnership with the ABC to assist in the broadcasting of work made by Australian artists.

As technological developments in media continue to accelerate and arts opportunities multiply, the Inter-Arts Office’s R&D alertness is a valuable resource for artists working on landscapes real and virtual and, not least, un-signposted.

RealTime issue #87 Oct-Nov 2008 pg. 36

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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