In a stylized world where taste is often found below deck, bound and gagged, you sometimes wonder “why bother?”. In a place where social pornography is the breakfast of champions, you don’t often run into anything of consequence. What’s below the surface, after all, except more surface? Certainly nothing special.

Tonight, however, I had the good fortune to be given a tour of something particularly special in a place just like that.

This evening, during one of my brief visits to Second Life (opening an island takes a lot of planning – not much time to socialize), I asked my good friend Eshi Otawara how the opening of her collaborative project, Parsec, had gone Saturday night. Apparently it had gone quite well and she almost immediately offered to teleport me over to the installation area. After briefly tweaking my headphones and mic (which I had been warned were required!) and a couple of other technical difficulties, I was whisked over to a dark room with a couple of other individuals.

This, apparently, was a waiting area of sorts while everyone got themselves in order for the experience. Eshi handed me some animations and told me to activate them. Seven people were normally required to “operate” Parsec, I was told, but we were going to make do with 3-4 and the animations were a critical component of the piece.

Finally, we eventually all touched the grey teleport sphere and were taken up to the feature presentation. At this point I still wasn’t sure what it was about, other than there was some interactive tie in between voice, music, and visual imagery.

We found ourselves standing on a transparent floor inside of a giant white sphere, the inside of which was textured in a way that reminded me of hundreds of CD’s. Around us were seven black balls, each with a unique pattern of dots on them. Eshi essentially then turned us loose and just told us to…talk. So we did. Not sure, at first, of what was expected of us (what DO you say when someone asks you to just ‘talk’?) we wandered around vocalizing somewhat arbitrarily. What we found was that, as we spoke the balls moved. As the balls moved, we heard the sounds of instruments.

What we were experiencing was the first installation in Second Life where the environment responded to the sound of a voice. Each person in the sphere was linked to one of the black spheres around them. As an individual spoke, a certain behavior by the sphere – and thus a certain set of sounds – was triggered depending on how your voice sounded at the time. There were 10 (or 16? I dont remember the exact number) of “ranges” that each person could trigger from his or her sphere.

The sum effect is that, as 7 or more people have a conversation in the installation, the environment reacts visually and audibly and creates a multi-sensory symphony written just for those people in those moments in time. The visuals were minimalistic, at that point, but effective. (And they got better, I found out later!)

Another particularly interesting facet of Parsec is that there is a piece of it (pictured below in an image from their Flickr pool) which can only be unlocked through the unguided collaboration of the participants! As you “play” the Parsec instrument/exhibit with others, you apparently might find that there are patterns or connections embedded and that, if you speak in cooperation, this new visual component is revealed and you find yourself immersed in something akin to a starbursting eye of horace.

parsec.jpg

As an artist, I’m intrigued by this cooperation required to complete the artwork. People have to figure out the problem and then work together to solve it. Rather than just being something built with the mathematics of music and aesthetics in mind, a human element and the human mind if required to make it “work” completely. For all of the traditional art out there with NO connection to the human condition, it’s cool to see a virtual one that manages instead to stay true to (what I think is) one of the primary roles of art in society – exploring ourselves.

For those naysayers who get visibly -angry- when they found out people spend time in Second Life and that there’s nothing there “to do”, this kind of art not only unequivocally proves that not only are there things “to do” that you don’t find anywhere else, but also that the it has been and is continuing to evolve as an art medium in its own right.

Congrats to the creators of Parsec for creating such a cool contribution to art and technology:

Concept, Music and Sound by Dizzy Banjo
Virtual Architecture by Eshi Otawara
Scripting by Chase Marellan

More info and a video can be found here: http://eshiotawara.wordpress.com/2008/01/19/41/

Eshi, thank you so much for the on-the-spot tour. It was fun to hear your voice for the first time and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to you in the role of a tour guide! I also am still smiling at the thought of you, alone, standing in Parsec singing to the machine.

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