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Friday, February 25, 2005

THE GATES COME TO SECOND LIFE

The thing that people seem to love most about The Gates in Central Park is, it brings people together. Stockbrokers and artists, working class families and socialites in Prada, everyday people of New York all come together and share the same experience, as brought to them by the mad vision of Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude.

After Aestival Cohen and her friend Lex Neva launched their own Gates project in Second Life, the everyday people of Second Life showed up too: a samurai warrior, a little girl with Margaret Keane eyes, a space commando and his dropship, an industrial designer with two adjustable chairs in his pocket, a transformer robot, a half-naked man with massive pecs, a furry in a flying vintage automobile, and so on.

And this is more or less what inspired Aestival to bring her tribute to Christo's Gates here.

"It's not about a message or an idea," she tells me. "It's a thing that we all share in doing that then makes an experience. An experience that's bright, beautiful, loud, garish, occasionally buggy, awesomely big, and a real group achievement." (And a first-person video capture of that experience is available for download here.)

All this is why I'm standing with Ms. Cohen and Ms. Neva on the highest hill on the island simulator of Briarcliff Manor, surrounded by dozens of orange arches with saffron sheets billowing in the wind. Aestival looks like a tiny schoolgirl with wide eyes, which is disconcerting in itself, because when I last saw her, she was a giant fur beast of indeterminate gender publicly advocating for George W. Bush.

"We want to set them up everywhere!" She enthuses. "Christo covered Central Park-- we'd like to extend his achievement to cover an entire WORLD!"

Creating the Gate frames wasn't difficult, but creating a fabric that would respond in real time to the wind currents of Second Life was (and those who can do without the technical explanation may want to skip the next three paragraphs):

"We started with Aestival's idea to just have them appear to flap by cycling transparency," says Lex, but "it just didn't look very good. So I made one that was just a flat curtain that swayed in the wind, and then I had the idea to combine the two methods. [Each arch] chooses which prim to make visible by checking the rotation speed. So each one has five prims, and depending on how fast it's swinging... it changes the shape accordingly, so that it looks like it's billowing in the wind."

"So the effect is sort of like a persistence of vision trick," I interpret, "with versions of the curtain displayed according to how the prim is being affected physically?"

"Yeah," Lex answers. "While you see what looks like a flexible piece of fabric bending in the wind... what's actually happening is that it's just a simple object swinging back and forth, and changing its shape to look like it's bending. And really great prims!" she adds, grinning at Aestival. "She did the prims."

Aestival says the in-world audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, though she was surprised by the rancor which followed, when she announced them on Second Life's conference forums.

There, she says, "The response was mostly negative, [but] focused on the real life Gates! Honestly that surprised me (and made me sad, even though the criticism wasn't at us directly)-- I would have thought they'd be more supportive and open-minded. Folks I've seen defend controversial art before really seemed to have it in for the Gates!"

Aestival thinks the contrast of reactions is due to the "in person" nature of people communicating in-world, versus the text-only back and forth of a discussion forum.

"[B]ecause in Second Life," she says, "the folks who didn't much care for the real life Gates were always much more open, willing to discuss and respect other points of view and just generally be polite."

In another Forum topic, some members of a democratically run artistic community voiced their support for hosting the Gates in their public space-- then debated whether this could be done according to their existing constituional regulations, or would require a new provision to be drafted and voted on.

"[I]n this little part of Second Life it's gonna take more 'red tape' than it did for the real life one!" Aestival muses. "I've heard people complain about how we keep building in real life terms (roofs, floors, walls) in Second Life-- now I realize it's not just our houses, but our groups and relationships."

For their part, Aestival Cohen and Lex Neva continue to distribute copies of their Gates to residents who will take them, in hopes of spreading them across the world. (For example, they sent one to the owner of an island called New York City, a replica of Manhattan which does not, as yet, have a Central Park.)

"This is just a start," Aestival promises.

"Basically," adds Lex, "my hope is that they begin to spread themselves."

For now, though, the Gates are most pervasive on the private island of Briarcliff Manor. For now, as it turns out, but not for long.

I found that out when I was taking photos of a knight in shining armor and a transformer robot, posing near a circle of Gates near Briarcliff's shore. On the foothill behind them, I noticed, were two statue copies of themselves, holding up protest signs.

"So what's the story about the sign up there with you two?"

"The SOS sign? Well, Briar is the place we've hung out a long time," explains Zekeen Phoenix, shifting in his metal carapace, "but tomorrow, it's being sold to Anshe Chung. So we're losing the place we've been for months. So we got the Save Our Sim signs just because we're so distressed... just imagine a small town getting demolished. Same principle here."

"They are almost as beautiful as some of my Sale signs," Anshe says of the Gates, grinning. I've invited her over to Briarcliff, to get her side on the purchase of the island, which she already surveys with a proprietary air. She's a delicate Asian woman, somewhat resembling Hong Kong film star Maggie Cheung. She also happens to be one of the most successful real esate speculators in Second Life, and she's planning to turn Briarcliff into a themed community.

"What about the Gates, Anshe?" I ask. "Will you get rid of those too, after you take ownership?"

"Mmmm, maybe I replace them with For Sale signs," she replies, then chuckles.

"Seriously," she continues, "I plan to have the sim reformated before I take ownership... and I don't see how Briarcliff [as it exists] could be continued in a viable way."

"But how about a work of art like the Gates here, Anshe? No room for that in your plans for Briarcliff?"

"No," Anshe Chung answers, grinning. "I am evil business girl who forces sims to finance themselves."

Continued next week...

Second screenshot in left column by Aestival Cohen.

2/25/05: By request of the resident, Lex Neva's gender designation corrected.

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Comments

Thanks for the article, Hamlet!

If your readers want a copy of the gates, they can get one from me or Aestival, or they can click an existing gate's frame to get a notecard which has a landmark to Aestival's store. Also, YadNi has them available as his freebie of the month.

Posted by: Lex Neva at Feb 25, 2005 11:38:36 AM

Very nice. When I get the chance I'll get one and drop it in my Memorial Gardens, Tavarua.

Posted by: Alan Kiesler at Feb 25, 2005 2:22:49 PM

Totoro is *not* indeterminate in his gender! ^^;;

Posted by: Aestival Cohen at Feb 25, 2005 6:21:56 PM

Hey Everyone, I just put about 100 Gates In The Bavarian City of Neaultenburg! (Anzere) Have a Look!

Posted by: Eugene Pomeray at Feb 26, 2005 2:56:03 PM

I've installed a set of gates in Kamba (3, 186) drop by and see!

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