Wednesday, September 22, 2004


One of three final glimpses from the last Burning Life, featuring some of the most ambitious projects of the event, redolent with artistic and technical brilliance.

Blind Life by Icon Serpentine (with Casval Epoch and Spider Mandala)

I initially saw the framework for Icon's project hovering above Burning Life, and assumed it to be a maze in the sky. In later days, however, the maze was moved to ground level, and set within a large, dark chamber.

"What is Blind Life?", the project's explanation card asks rhetorically. "Part maze, part social commentary, part metaphor. Simply put, its creators feel it is the most difficult maze ever created in Second Life. From inside the Blind Life maze, you will be plunged into darkness, the only points of refference being the entrance, the exit, and your fellow explorers. Interior walls are unseen, the outside world is unseen. From the outside of Blind Life looking in, spectators will be able to see the various avatars blindly feeling their way through the maze and watch their progress.

"As a child," Serpentine tells me, recounting the trajectory of Blind Life, "I would often disappear into my own world and doodle, read, play with math forumlas, or listen to music... all of the things that usually kept me from having many friends. In this world though, one of my obsessions was drawing mazes. I would simply doodle them-- and when I really had time to build a complete one, they would be large -- spanning many pages -- and would have a complex set of rules and conditions for completing them. I'd often let the friends I did have try them out. They mostly enjoyed them, which pleased me greatly."

Years later, his passion for mazes had become an avocation. "[They] offer a complex parallel into many subjects such as logic, mathematics, geometry," Serpentine tells me, "and even farther-reaching subjects such as philosophy and psychology." So when he discovered that he'd won a plot in Burning Life, and made a few aborted attempts, his childhood obsession eventually clarified things for him.

"[A]fter several failed experiments I was sitting in a black inverted-face cube, wondering what I could turn it into, when the idea for Burning Life slowly formed in my head."

"There is no other space in the known universe in which BlindLife could be built," Serpentine enthuses later, "which makes it a unique work to begin with. Technically, it is a 90x90x90 meter maze construct consisting of 6 layers of traditional x/y plane mazes, each one inter-connected on the z plane at various points with ramps and/or pits. The maze itself is contained within an black inverted-surface cube (meaning that viewing the cube from the inside out one cannot see anything but black, but looking in you can see through the cube to the opposite face) and is entirely invisible."

Building the maze seems as taxing as trying to navigate it. "It was a complex process to map out six mazes (one of which was designed by Spider Mandala), cut each one up into nine pieces and map them out onto a 90 square meter grid of prims. [O]nce the floorplans were completed, Casval Epoch and myself built the walls, each floor being five meters in height. Once all six floors were completed, I began mapping out where the ramps would go from floor to floor, putting each one together... Once it was all assembled, we moved this enormous complicated structure inside the [black] cube -- which was no easy task itself -- and made it all invisible (we joked about how it's probably one of the most complicated builds in Second Life that no one will ever see)... A week later and after 28 hours of work, it was completed."

But the technical expertise that went into building Blind Life is just a means to an artistic end. "[T]he technology melts away into the metaphors this construct represents," Icon tells me. "[I]t lets [residents] experience something akin to a metaphor... [since] the maze represents the myriad choices we make and the confusion we sometimes feel when making them.

"[T]he 'maze' is only an element that makes up BlindLife," Serpentine adds. "When travelling inside the maze, it has been mentioned that the participant is practically blind-- they cannot see the walls or floors that make up the maze; they can only see blackness when they are alone in the maze. Being alone in the maze and trying to conquor it alone is an incredibly difficult task and is in fact nearly impossible... However, in life this is usually not the case." So too in Blind Life, where other avatars lost inside are visible to each other. "We have friends, familiar strangers, and complete strangers to help us navigate through the maze of life... and so we also have those same relationships to help avatars explore the maze of Blind Life. One may not be able to see the maze itself and may be travelling through it blindly, but they can see where other avatars are in space relative to them, and depending on their relationships with these other avatars, one may find help navigating the maze."

By Icon Serpentine's estimation, even bystanders outside the maze looking in are part of the interactive metaphor at play. "By watching this process, the observers are also participating in Blind Life and represent those of us outside the sphere of the people around us that are navigating complex choices together in life. The observers may represent those who've already navigated the maze and reached the solution and are observing others trying to follow the path they already solved. In another light, the observers may represent a distanced relationship -- perhaps by not participating and only observing, they represent those in our lives that can watch but not get involved directly with our choices."

According to Icon, only three residents have completed the maze: Kenzington Fairlight, Maxx Monde, and Toxius Stephanopolis. "It took approximately 46 minutes for Kenzington and Maxx, who was only a minute behind. Toxius finished in about 53 minutes." He grins proudly. "All of them said their brains nearly melted. Maxx claims he even nearly got dizzy from the mental power he had to exert."

Serpentine even had a chance to make some social observations, on the players who succeeded. "It was interesting," he says. "In some cases, there was some direct relationships forming where a leader emerged. In other instances, it was very subtle. You could see indirect relationships form in the maze as people used the position of others to help themselves navigate through the maze. These relationships were neat to watch because they didn't speak a word to eachother, but you could see who was following who. And these indirect relationships started forming seperate groups in the maze.... As people got to later levels, the groups started forming in hierarchies," he tells me, and smiles. "It was interesting enough that it might warrant further experiments."

Artistically, Icon Serpentine cites the works of David Anson Russo, and the science fiction cult film Cube, as inspiration. "Technically," he adds, "I'm influenced by topography, 3D geometry, and logic." And while Blind Life has disappeared along with Burning Life, Serpentine says it may make a reappearance in some other form. For now, then, it's just a matter of exploring the rest of world inside. Or, as the Blind Life notecard concludes, "In life, all that we have to go on to guide us is who we were, who we hope to become, where we have been and where we are going... All we have is where we were, where we're going, and those along the way with us."

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It was fiendishly hard. I liked the challenge. Icon left out the part where there's a tile dropping you a level *down* in the maze. That got me pretty good. Loved it though, total mental-pushups. Satisfying when you finally emerge.

Posted by: Maxx Monde at Sep 22, 2004 6:28:34 PM

oops! I see the word 'pits' in there, with the ramps. So he did have it included after all. My mistake :)

Great maze.

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