Art, Virtual Worlds and Augmented Reality 2002–2013

Myself Inworld

My first experience with a virtual world was in 2002 when I worked as part of my MA program on the Virtual Weddings Project in HUMlab, a humanities-led, interdisciplinary digital lab at Umeå University in Sweden. My project for Virtual Weddings was Strategies for Golden Realities (linked to the written component of project) as part of the theme ‘Creating Realities’ with a focus on Stonehenge as Chronotope, using the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin to analyse this unique cultural/social/political ‘sign’. I also wrote about one group who appropriate Stonehenge; New Age Travellers, specifically the concepts of authenticity and the carnivalesque (again with Bakhtin). For the literature component of the work I chose a novel written by a countryman of mine, David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life (London Picador 1990), as a text which articulates a discourse of Sign as Self, specifically “the reality of the inner psyche is the same reality as that of the sign” (quoted from Bakhtin’s associate Volishinov 1927). Finally there was the linguistic component which dealt with a semantic model of Earth as a discursive concept, drawing on Bakhtin’s discursive model for Earth in Rabelais and His World (1965), and the work of English scientist Dr James Lovelock, formulator of the Gaia Theory. I received a top grade for this project and an invitation to do more work in HUMlab. I accepted the offer. We used Active Worlds to build 3D representations of the ideas and arguments in the written component of the project.

Active Worlds project Creating Realities (2002)
Active Worlds project Creating Realities (2002)
Active Worlds project Creating Realities (2002)

Using Adobe Atmosphere in 2003 I built a large structure that combined ideas about landscape, temples and theater as a virtual meeting, seminar and teaching space for ITAS, a language elarning network. Here is a diagram of the structure:

My rendering of a meeting space for language learning in Adobe Atmosphere (2002)
Me at work, 2003 ITAS world HUMlab pavillion (Australian landscape)

I then went on to begin working in Second Life, after Adobe closed down Atmosphere in December 2004. I was actually so distressed by the closer of Atmosphere that I stopped working with virtual spaces for 18 months. But then in 2007 I led the commitment to Second Life by HUMlab, establishing our first base inworld that year.

HUMlab’s presence in Second Life started small with a prefabricated house on a small island. For people not familiar with interacting in virtual worlds, the sense of place that can be achieved with the medium is astounding. I concluded it took 3 months of interaction and one began to feel that it was a ‘real place’ that one was in when one beamed into Second Life.

The first HUMlab in Second Life

It took time for other people to understand what was possible using virtual worlds.

Early days on the HUMlab Sim, showing a live stream of Steina Vasulka performing in HUMlab in 2007 (middle image)

I worked for the Swedish Embassy in Second Life, the Second House of Sweden for several months in 2007. This is me sitting at the desk, probably early in the morning.

My avatar Didge Burroughs at work in the SL Embassy of Sweden, House of Sweden (2007)
Garrett Lynch — HUMlab’s Second Life Yoshikaze “Up-In-The-Air” Residency

Between 2007 and 2012 I managed two large SIMs (island) in the virtual online world of Second Life for HUMlab. We hosted both artists and their works on the SL HUMlab Island for constructions as well as organising exhibitions at HUMlab’s Real-Life multimedia venue.

In 2007–08 HUMlab hosted Goodwind Seiling’s (Sachiko Hayashi) “N00sphere Playground” on its Second Life SIM as part of the Virtual Moves exhibition at the National Gallery in Copenhagen. Later, it further supported Avatar Orchestra Metaverse for their constructions and premier performances of “XAANADRuul” and “The Heart of Tones” before providing a home for the Yoshikaze “Up-In-The-Air” virtual artist residency programme between 2010 and 2014. Since then, HUMlab has been a host for nine Second Life artists in Yoshikaze artist residency as well as one artist talk by Kristine Schomaker on her project “My Life as an Avatar.” Another outcome of HUMlab’s engagement for the advancement of virtual worlds and art was their assistance in bringing an ambitious mixed-reality project by Sachiko Hayashi to fruition. The project “Experimentation #1” was based on the use of Kinect to control avatar movements and would have been unable to be realised without HUMlab’s support.

N00sphere Playground Machinima (2008) by Sachiko Hayashi

“N00sphere Playground” in the virtual world Second Life is an interactive sound installation in which avatars’ own movements trigger various preprogrammed sounds. With its form that imitates and modifies a playground sphere, the installation witnesses the unique inter-relation between creativity and play manifested in the dreamscape of Second Life. The work was commissioned by Tagging Art in Copenhagen for the Virtual Move exhibition at the National Gallery in 2008. The machinima “N00sphere Playground” takes this installation work to another level by fusing its core concept with machinima visuals.

N00sphere Playground by Sachiko Hayashi

The work conducted in HUMlab and Yoshikaze by virtual world artists and creators has led to a number of academic publications and conference presentations and also resulted in two self-published artist books.

An exact scale model of the Lindell Hall, Umeå University was built in Second Life in 2009 for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the university by the Student Association. I managed the project.

Lindell Hall, Umeå University was built in Second Life

In 2013 Bloomsbury published the collection Understanding Machinima: Essays on Filmmaking in Virtual Worlds edited by Jenna Ng. I helped with the production of the book, in particular with the design around the use of QR-Codes to augment each chapter with digital media. By scanning the QR-Code at the beginning of each chapter a website would open that featured the films discussed. I coproduced and shot a film inworld to promote the book Understanding Machinima in 2012 along with Jenna, who wrote and directed it:

In “Understanding Machinima” I co-wrote the article A Pedagogy of Craft: Teaching culture analysis with machinima with Jenna Ng. A chapter I wrote, Virtual Worlds and Indigenous Narratives was published in the edited volume “The Immersive Internet: Reflections on the Entangling of the Virtual with Society, Politics and the Economy” in 2013. Later that same year I published Virtual Worlds, Machinima and Cooperation over Borders in the online journal Sans Public, via collaboration with the Embassy of France in Stockholm, which included presenting a seminar at Stockholm University. Back in 2011 I had published with Stefan Gelfgren “Learning Places: A Case Study of Collaborative Pedagogy Using Online Virtual Worlds” in the IGI collection, Multi-User Virtual Environments for the Classroom: Practical Approaches to Teaching in Virtual Worlds. My first publication was also with Stefan Gelfgren in 2009, Spacing Creation: The HUMlab Second Life Project was published in “Learning and Teaching in the Virtual World of Second Life”, (Trondheim: Tapir Academic Press , 2009). My MA thesis from 2002 was entitled Chronotope and Cybertexts: Bakhtinian Theory for Tracing Sources of Narrative in Interactive Virtual Environments, which examined how important signifying agents as chronotopes (space/time convergences) were similar in ‘Naken Lunch’ by William S. Burroughs (1959) and in several contemporary digital works of interactive fiction. In 2010 I published Religion in New Places: Rhetoric of the Holy in the Online Virtual Environment of Second Life in Changing Societies — Values, Religions, and Education edited by Karin Sporre.

By 2010 it was getting crowded on the HUMlab islands in Second Life. We had a course in museum studies running for MA students that used the virtual space of Second Life as a lab space, and I was teaching it. We had The Language House, (“Språkens hus) "where distance courses in Spanish, North Sami and Finnish. We also had a group of postdocs and doctoral students (including myself) doing work on machinima, the making of animated films using virtual and game engines.

In world footage of a student project for a museum studies course at HUMlab, Umeå University Sweden 2010. The students created installations in Second Life that were 3D interactive symbolic spaces dealing with particular themes and ideas. The project featured in this video dealt with Power, as a concept and a critical tool for analysis. “Det allseende ögat. — Vi valde att jobba med makt ur ett historiskt perspektiv, allt från kungens makt till dagens mer osynliga makt. Det svåraste var att spegla platsen eller nationen. Second Life är en bra miljö för att bygga framtida utställningar i, tycker Cecilia Douzette”.
Språkens hus i Second Life
Teaching with Machinima from 2012 in the Lindel Hall of HUMlab Second Life
CONSTRUCT day 38. by Selavy Oh (2011) part of the Yoshikazi residency

In 2014 HUMlab and Yoshikaze presented a group exhibition with all the artists worked and exhibited through the Yoshikaze project. This include, besides those mentioned above, Alan Sondheim, Juria Yoshikawa, Garrett Lynch, Selavy Oh, Katerina Karoussos, Fau Ferdinand, Pyewacket Kazyanenko, Oberon Onmura, Alpha Auer, Maya Paris, Eupalinos Ugajin and SaveMe Oh. We would also like to acknowledge the following SL artists for this show: Machinimatographers Marx Catteneo, Mab MacMoragh, Steve Millar, and Evo Szuyuan, as well as Puppeteer Jo Ellsmere.

I worked with this project for seven years, along with Sachiko Hayashi, the HUMlab technicians, poster makers, and HUMlab director Patrik Svensson. The project was run by Sachiko Hayashi (Yoshikaze Curator), James Barrett (SL Humlab Sim Manager) and Carl-Erik Engqvist (RL HUMlab Artistic Leader).

The Augmented Plateau: Art and Virtual Worlds in HUMlab 2007–2013

One of the last things I did in HUMlab before moving to Stockholm was the mixed reality performance, ‘A Place of Play’. This was a performance between the digital humanities research space HUMlab X that had just opened on the new arts campus at Umeå University and in Second Life.

My short abstract from the program for the Arts Campus Open Day was: James Barrett is a researcher and teacher in HUMlab working with digital narrative and the spatial. James’ presentation at the opening of HUMlab X will focus on the dimensions of digital space. As an avatar Jim will perform in the virtual world of Second Life while performing in the space of HUMlab X at the same time. The performance will consist of live music and a screen running Second Life. Thanks to Beatrice for shooting the video and HUMlab for everything.

A presentation of some of the work I conducted in HUMlab, made in 2013. The film is arranged according to three themes; Making Space, Media Places and Narrative as Interface. I present some projects I have been involved with and some of the thinking that goes into them. As well as suggestions for considering digital media and pedagogy in the future.

Images from the first 5 years of virtual worlds work in HUMlab 2005–2010

This final video us the keynote presentation I gave at the conference; “There and Back Again… Cultural Perspectives on Time and Space” — Umeå University, Sweden 22nd May 2013. Entitled “Bodies, Space and the Virtual: A Narrative of Becoming” was a short examination of the nature of virtual space.

Virtual space is becoming less virtual everyday because we live in it. From the online and shared spaces of massive multiplayer games, to GPS and the augmented and networked technologies of iPhones and wireless connectivity, the peoples of affluent economies realize virtual spaces everyday. What do these spaces mean for our understandings of the body? How can we imagine the body, with its associated territories of gender, sexuality and cognitive awareness, in this time of virtual space? This presentation examines these questions in conjunction with selected examples and proposes a conceptualization of the body based on the virtual as a narrative of becoming. Many of the ideas and analytical concepts expressed in this paper come from my doctoral dissertation work, which will be publicly defended in Autumn 2013 at Umeå University. What is virtual space? Virtual space is codified space. How I elaborate on this answer in relation to bodies, expressions of identity is related to contemporary discourse. What are the Codes of Virtual Space in relation to the body?

Freelance scholar. Humanist. Interested in language, culture, music, technology, design & philosophy. I like Literature & Critical Theory. Traveler. I am mine.

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James Barrett

James Barrett

Freelance scholar. Humanist. Interested in language, culture, music, technology, design & philosophy. I like Literature & Critical Theory. Traveler. I am mine.

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