13 February 2014

The Singularity of Kumiko

Opening tomorrow, Friday, February 14, is a new installation by Bryn Oh, The Singularity of Kumiko, on her sim Immersiva. Like the artist's other builds, most recently Imogen and the Pigeons, it stands as evidence of the power and potential of art in virtual spaces, and is an exceptional creation that should be visited multiple times to fully appreciate. The Singularity of Kumiko presents a narrative, although it's one that the visitor must piece together from non-linear material gathered from locations throughout the sim: we detect messages being sent back and forth between two characters, Kumiko and Iktomi, that need to be read and considered as one traverses the build. (Indeed, parts of the story, related to me directly by Bryn, don't appear anywhere, at least not yet.)

There is a central conflict, a moral dilemma, between the characters concerning memory: can editing memories be justified in order to alleviate pain or suffering? "Would you use memory encryption, like what is offered by that company Rebirth?" asks Iktomi of Kumiko. "You know it's been on the news and net shows. I know, since the Singularity so many amazing inventions are now just blips in the media and forgotten so soon. But this, well this is essentially immortality Kumiko. They have learned how to record your life and then convert that data onto a machine. They say they will soon be able to install those digital memories onto our vat grown organ banks, and upon our death we can start anew or rather...continue. What this means Kumi is that we can now be immortal like the gods in those fairy tales people used to follow."

First, a note on the environment. It's dark—very dark. (Click on any of these images to zoom in—I'll also be adding images to my flickr stream.) And it's not a darkness that can be achieved by simply changing the environment to midnight, but is more complex and really requires that your computer be able to enable advanced lighting model. If you can't, unfortunately you won't really see the artwork in the way Bryn intended. There are also special settings for shadow resolution and shadow blur. The viewer that can manage all of this fairly easily—although you'll still need to make some manual changes (and don't forget to unset them when you leave)—is Firestorm. At the landing point, Bryn has posted comprehensive directions for Firestorm users, and also for Singularity and the official Linden Lab viewer, but users of the LL viewer, which is quite limited with respect to these settings, will have the most challenging time.

With your environmental settings in place, you'll set out to explore. It's not easy to see sometimes, but usually you'll be able to spot a sliver of light in the distance, and, thanks to the headlamp you're wearing, you can illuminate small areas. (The headlamp, by the way, intentionally doesn't function in certain locations, such as the house.) Take your time: while you might easily find some locations, others are challenging to locate, and on repeated visits over several days I was still discovering nuances and even small spots I had missed. The scenes, little vignettes, are highly detailed and exquisitely crafted—and somehow because of the lighting there were many occasions when I felt I was very much part of the scene itself, especially at the culmination. At 14 locations, you'll see a bottle or microphone on which you can click to read or hear bits of the narratives, and clicking on many of the objects will change your camera focus, pulling your view in toward the objects. (Be sure to have sound turned up.) It's as if we're exploring disjointed pieces of a memory, and we might not be quite certain we're ever going to fully piece it together.

The place is not without dangers: you can die here and be transported home. It's most likely to happen if (or more likely when) you get attacked by Mr. Zippers, a toy bunny that seems to have developed anger management issues (image above, just about to try to kill me). ("He is her [Kumiko's] Power Pet toy," says Bryn. "After her dog died, her parents got him for her. It's a genetically mutated pet, or enhanced, I guess.") A word of advice if you encounter him: run. After about twenty meters he should give up, at least for a few minutes. The more people on the sim, the lower your odds of encountering him will be. (To keep lag to a minimum, only 10-15 people will be allowed on the sim simultaneously.) If you do get teleported home, I would encourage you to return, as odds are you've still got plenty to discover.

I asked Bryn which came first, the darkness or the story: "I originally thought about what it would be like to be in a coma," she cheerfully replied, "what it might feel like if you were made aware while in it. I read that vegetative people actually have brain activity, and that they were aware in some cases, which I found horrifying. And so I imagined how it would be if we could create an environment for them." Some of that might not make sense until you've come to the end of The Singularity of Kumiko, and there is a concluding scene—you'll know it when you arrive. "One thing i always liked as a child," Bryn remembers, "was finding things that I thought nobody else had found for decades—like a clearing in the woods far out, or buried bottles, etc. I try to do that with my builds too if I can."

Bryn acknowledges the support of several key people for assisting her in the creation of The Singularity of Kumiko: scripters Caer Balogh and Wolfur Windstorm, and voice artist Jenna Stillman/Akonia Resident (whose voice you'll hear throughout the build). Immersiva is supported by patrons Peter Greenaway, Selby Evans, Lovers Lane Studios, ENTERMETA and by many other individual donors. Bryn has also received support from the Ontario Arts Council—Le Conseil des arts de l’Ontario (OAC) through a media arts grant. To view Bryn's machinima trailer for the installation, visit my blog post here.

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