Of Scissors, Candy and Conversation
The rain was unrelenting as flickers of lightning illuminated an otherworldly figure of a petite, yet supernatural woman. As she fidgeted with her scissors and sized me up... it was apparent that the line of questioning elsewhere hadn’t been to her liking, and (as I recall) she has stabbed journalists for less in the past; Or she would have liked to if it weren’t for pesky laws which forbid it. Whether by careful planning or by judicial acquittal, she claimed innocence masterfully.
Running her delicate fingers over the scissors tucked into her pocket, I could see the intricacies of her mind turning over the consequences, shifting realities internally while weighing options.
When I had asked Bryn Oh for an interview, it had slipped my mind that she (of all people) could conjure at will the depths of imagination. So, too, she had transported me that night to a bare looking room cast in shadow and light to sit with her while trying my hand at this conversation.
Far below, willing participants in her Immersiva sim were exploring the latest installation, named simply “The Gathering”, fraught with danger and hidden treasure. For those willing to brave the onslaught of giant balls rolling to their doom, there was magic and intrigue to be discovered. I imagined that Bryn took a particular delight in watching the countless souls traverse up the valley, only to be rolled over and sent back for another try.
Flashes of electrified illumination cast shadows against the surface of soaked walls on occasion, briefly imprinting eerie doppelgangers of a horn-figured paradox. Outside, thunder crackled as if to mark the time, and Bryn coughed slightly while generously offering an unnerving smile. Her eyes piercing across the room, I rustled my notes hastily searching for where to begin.
“So before the winds changed and blew us off course in our prior conversation... you were about to tell me a story.” Barely looking up from the written words, I was keen to find any excuse not to be caught in her gaze.
Bryn raised an eyebrow and smirked, “I was?”. The outline of her fingers came to rest upon the handle of the scissors momentarily as I glanced up from the pages.
“If I recall... you were beginning to explain that the premise of The Gathering, as a whole, is an exploration about Avatar Identity.”, I stammered slightly under the pressure, though quickly regained my composure, “While not connected in a story, it has a shared theme?”
Bryn smiled softly, leaning back into the chair. Her hands now both in plain sight and animated as if to pull collected thoughts from the ether. “Oh... well that is a part of what I was interested in for this one, for all of them really. How to say...?”
A few moments passed in contemplative silence before the pale figure before me sprung back to life, the lightning flashing once again as if to pull her into the present reality.
“So when we go to a gallery we stand back from a painting and look at it in a fixed position while others stand around us in a physical space we share. We are are relatively close and generally from the same area.. the local city or country.” Leaning forward, she waved a hand gesturing toward the room and, as if obeying her whim, the projectors on the walls began to display scenes of art galleries to illustrate the premise.
“When we watch cinema we are not part of that experience either.” Pointing at the projections on the wall, Bryn continued, “It tells us a story and we listen. It’s about someone else who did this or that. They might show us a street of houses and the camera takes us to one, and if we want to stop to look in a mailbox... well no, we can’t.”
One after the other, the visions upon the walls morphed as she continued speaking, her finger occasionally outstretched and pointing as she leaned forward. For a brief moment, there was silence again as the rain continued falling; The individual drops of water rolled relentlessly down the walls, each claiming innocence for contributing to the flood below.
Tapping a slender finger pointedly on the glass of a surreal octopus table, it’s tentacles underneath cascading in collusion to balance the surface above, she continued, “In this space...we arrive from all over the world. The person beside you isn’t really beside you. They may be on the other side of the world, yet you share the experience together.”
“Even if you don’t speak you still interact, and when you run from the balls cascading down the valley.. or stand in the rain room or look at the projectors, you are a part of the work as are they. So the artwork is not just what I’ve built but everything in it at that time.. including the avatars and how they were designed, etc.”
“So when I look at this build, it’s kind of play. Other works are elaborate narratives which I write and plan out for months, but every so often I just want to play and experiment. That is more what this is.. a big sketch in a sketchbook which may give me ideas for other things.”
Sinking further into my chair, I continued to take notes. The cushions underneath me were exceedingly comfortable, and somehow despite the torrential downpour inside this room, we remained dry.
“When I built it...”, Bryn paused momentarily to softly close her eyes, “I imagined how it would be used by the avatars who came. But it was built with nobody here... so you really do have to try imagining [all of the possibilities in advance]. Now that the installation is live, filled with participants, I kind of cam around and look at what happens. I might see a few people rushing across the field avoiding the giant balls... and then along the walls people walking up every surface.. then the odd person flying a chair. The fun is seeing people do things I didn’t expect.”
It was in this moment when my interest was further piqued, and I took the opportunity to lead in further, “What sorts of things do you notice them doing which you didn't expect?”
“Well often just little visual things.”, setting a cup of tea onto the table she continued, “Like the other day I saw a giant dragon on its hind legs running like a maniac across the valley, which was hilarious. I don’t even think the guy who used it knew it could run. And then I saw another person walking up a tiny pole.. and they went up it like a corkscrew circling and circling until they got to the top. I saw people with the wall walkers on trying to walk through the house that builds itself. I hadn’t thought of that when building the installation.”
“That must have been... awkward to attempt.” I mused.
“Yeah, but they seemed to enjoy it...”, I could see the gleam in her eyes as she delivered a reply. It was the dynamics of the situation which interested her the most and it showed through Bryn’s enthusiasm.
“I wonder how the walker poseball would handle that? Walking up walls that haven’t even fallen into place yet.” I continued.
Bryn laughed, “It looked pretty crazy. It’s also interesting to see how many people get naked publically in the projector room, and who is modest. That comes back to identity and how we project onto our avatars. Anyway, to me it’s fascinating to just watch the whole thing... not sure if anyone else shares this interest, but I like to watch.”
Her laughter broke the tension, and so I joined in with my own quip to lighten the mood. “And here I thought you just were looking for an excuse to get everyone to take off their clothes. I can see it now, ‘Ok, for this next exhibit... everyone has to get naked... C'mon... off with it...’”, I joked.
“Well, the projections do work best with the nude body... or white clothes.”, Bryn leaned back into her chair again, a wry smile crossing her lips. “Did you get naked, Will?”
Without hesitation, I responded, “Nope.”
Bryn feigned surprise, “Oh? Why not?”
“Avatar identity of course. My avatar is a projection of my real life self in here and so it shares the same idiosyncrasies and quirks. My own sense of morality and modesty is imbued in my persona.”
Playing Devil’s advocate, Bryn leaned forward cunningly, “It’s just pixels...”
“In much the same way as your Bryn Oh avatar doesn't moonlight as a stripper in a night-club, I’d imagine there are two trains of thought for avatar identity.”
Bryn leaned back into her chair. Sitting crossed legged she feigned confusion for a moment as she rested her chin to her hands, “And how do you know she doesn’t?”
“If you did, God knows my pixel ass would be there in a heartbeat because it would be a once in a lifetime event.” I continued jesting.
“Well that what’s interesting. Many of us cherish our avatar... identify with it as an extension of self. It carries with it the same sort of behaviors, morality and social restrictions that we carry in real life.”, Bryn smiled again. She knew she was toying around as a devil’s advocate, but it helped for her to clarify the situation and get us thinking.
Shifting my notes, I found similarities in how the conversation was progressing and those which I’ve had before with others.
“There was a similar minded conversation between myself and Dr. Gilbert over at Loyola Marymount University a few years back. He heads the P.R.O.S.E. project; Psychological Research On Synthetic Environments.”, I continued.
Bryn piped in, “Oh, he liked virtual strippers too?”
I couldn’t help but smile, “Well there is a reasoning there but I'll get to it in a moment. He and I discussed that a lot of the time it comes down to two trains of thought for the virtual world participant.
1. Avatar as entirely generated persona. It's just pixels.
There's not attachment or solid identity... no emotional connection to the avatar. In that case, a lot of those avatars as "persona" become expendable.
2. Avatar as extension of persona.
You get an attachment and personal empathetic investment in your avatar.”
“Yes, I think in Second Life many are like that.” Bryn replied. “But let me ask you: If they take off their clothes in public in the projector room... are they more immersive or less?”
It took me a few moments to really mull this question over. It’s a complex and layered situation to really take in... quite a profound rebuttal from the pixelated spectre sitting across from me.
“I believe neither.”
“Maybe it just comes down to their personality type?” Bryn continued.
“I believe it says more about their perspective on the representation of self in a virtual world than it does about how immersed they are. Either way, you are immersed... but in what direction of perspective scale defines what is different.”, I elaborated further. “Whether we are immersed or not wasn’t necessarily the question”, I continued. “The manner in which you approach your avatar identity only defines how the experience is translated to your particular situation. Each is just as immersive in it’s own way.”
Bryn took a few moments to really let what I had said sink in. As the dust settled in her mind, it became apparent that the purpose of such a question was merely to explore an outside perspective. “Hmm, that’s interesting. I was curious in a way...”
“I put out a note saying to take off their clothes... so they are given permission. ”She paused mid-sentence, “I can’t seem to frame this...how best to explain?”
“You set up a Bryn Oh nudist colony?”, I laughed.
The lighting in the room cast an ethereal hue on Bryn’s smile as she continued, “For some, they might never do that... but they might long to. But with permission and encouragement they can bypass their identity as modest and do something they want to...”, she paused momentarily, the look of subtle disappointment crossing her face. “Yeah, I didn’t explain that well...”
Nodding in encouragement, I offered my own insight.
“I understand. It's sort of like...”
A few moments passed as I paused to collect my thoughts.
“Yoko Ono did that once to Conan O'Brien. It was many years ago, so my recollection may be a bit foggy, but he had her on the show one night and asked if she had anything interesting to show off... a project or whatever. So she had this very large silk bag which she said was big enough for two people. And asked him to get inside it with her. It was an exercise of trust, as she put it, and one of the performance pieces she would do.”
Bryn laughed out loud. The relative absurdity of the situation coupled with the inevitability for what was about to happen in the story began to take shape in her mind.
“Of course, he did... but was like ‘I don't know why I got into show business...’. So they both get in this giant silk bag and they are both kneeling in it together. You can't see them, but you can see the shape of them in the bag together. Conan goes ‘ok, now what? and Yoko says something like ‘Now we take off our clothes’.”
It’s at this point, Bryn is genuinely amused at the situation unfolding. Leaning onto her hands in a cross-legged fashion, she listens intently.
“So Yoko just starts stripping inside the bag, and tossing clothes out of the hole onto the stage. Each time, asking Conan to do the same. The entire premise, according to her, was what he would be comfortable doing while inside that bag with her.”
“Oh, that’s great!” Bryn exclaimed.
“Throughout the process, Yoko Ono and Conan are stopping to negotiate what he’ll take off next, and while he puts on a great show with bravado, you know full well he’s really nervous whispering with Yoko about what he’s going to take off - So it turned into this negotiation of what Conan would take off in the bag each step of the way.”
Laughing, Bryn questioned, “Did he?”
“I think Yoko got him down to his pants when he stopped and they left the bag.” I replied.
“I really like that idea...”, Bryn mused.
“So your projector situation... and premise.. reminded me of that.”
Reaching for her tea, Bryn sat back again in the chair and stretched out her legs playfully. “To release inhibitions when there is permission, and "art" is a great excuse. To term it art...”
“See... now I'm just imagining you running around buck ass naked and throwing an orgy - ‘It's not obscene... it's ART... now moan harder, ladies!’” I offered. The thought of being able to get away with pretty much anything so long as you called it “Art” was compelling, and often rang true.
For a moment or two, Bryn paused in reflection as if grasping at an association floating through the air, “There have been some people... art crowd bloggers... asking if the gathering is ‘Art’...”, she trailed off.
“Is the Gathering... Art? That's a good question.”, I began. “But maybe it can be answered by asking other questions. ‘Did it make you feel something? Did the experience invoke emotion or contemplative reflection?’”
Bryn nodded gently, “I believe the term ‘art’ has lost all its meaning really...”
“I think.. a lot of the time.. art is simply what makes you feel.”, I offered.
“Well, some want to see something that looks like "real life" art. That’s then how they will know it is art.” she continued.
Shrugging and taking a sip of my juice, I replied, “That's a very limited scope for art then. In the virtual world you can do so much more... without the constraints of real life.”
“Yes, and the virtual space need not follow those rules.”, Bryn added.
“Your self-building house just isn't possible in real life. It's kinetic art and it is magnificent. It plays on the very reliance of the dynamic personal experience to work. I believe that art in a virtual sense... can be far more empowering and fantastic than traditional space. But maybe it has to be... to make up for the loss of tangibility? Virtual worlds cater to an emotional type of tangibility. The experience is all psychosomatic, but it's just the same as powerful in many respects (if not more).”
“Yes, and there are many types of art here too... For me, I am interested in the immersive abilities of the medium. What I kind of like about virtual spaces, is that people come here and fall in love with other minds. How to explain...”
Tapping her fingers on the table, the glass echoed throughout the room. It was plain to see that Bryn was really struggling to put this into perspective.
“In real life...”, she began, “We go out on a Friday, hoping to meet someone. We go to a club...It’s dark so we can’t see others very well. It’s loud with music so we can’t talk to others we meet. We drink, smoke pot or whatever so we are not quite ourselves and this is where we try to find people to share ourselves with. But in a virtual space we don’t see each other or know even what gender we speak to... we just talk and listen. It’s poetic, really...”
“Well... I've long since given up fighting pronouns with you... I just chose female for the sake of sanity in addressing and writing about you.”, I smirked.
Without missing a beat, Bryn replied, “I am pretty sure you are a muffin...”
It was at this moment that I noticed very keenly how Bryn had begun fidgeting with her scissors again.
Suffice it to say, the conversation went off the record and the issue of avatar identity took a personal turn for a few minutes.
Changing the subject quickly, and saving my own skin from a fateful visit from the scissors, the conversation (however ironically) pivoted to that of the Scissor Moth.
“Where was the inspirational spark for the Scissor Moth chapel, and the moths in general for this?”
With a gleeful grin, Bryn’s hand glided gently from her scissors and back within eyesight as she began to expound upon the details of a topic which she so loved.
“Well, to start I love moths. They fly like they are broken and that appeals to me. So the story is essentially, and this is just how I envisioned it as I built it, but I imagined a town where suddenly these giant balls started to appear and smash everything along the valley. The side streets survive and people continue. The balls become a part of their life, and then over time they begin to worship them. If you checked, you would find each ball has the name of an angel. Across the way is a chapel with the Scissor Moth...”
“I believe I was too busy running from them for my life, like everyone else...”
“Yes, wise not to stop..” Bryn smiled.
Eager not to allow the conversation to idle, lest her wandering hand return to the comfort of her scissors, I continued forward. “Ok, Scissor Moth... This intrigues me. How does that work itself into the the overall thinking?”
“If you click the moth priest, there is a machinima inside called Scissors which is related to the theme...”
“I must have originally missed the video link while taking pictures. I did find quite a lot, however, even what seemed like... a giant fossilized prehistoric moth skeleton on the top. At that point, with all of the moths, I just assumed it was a prehistoric mega moth skeleton.”, I gently chuckled.
“I did also see the tiny Juniper toy ... and as a kitten I was all like ‘Yay! A tineh Imogen play set!’ But I was adulting that night, so I resumed the photoshoot.”
“Yep, that was by the hidey hole.”, she nodded.
“I see Milkdrop made an appearance in this installation as well... walking a giant moth.”
“Yes he did. I am still slowly flushing out his character, putting in various spots and kind of feeling out his personality I guess.”, The pale figure shifted her position on the couch.
“I find it curious - at least from my personal perspective. I mean with...”, I trailed off.
It’s then that I noticed Bryn fondling her scissors again lovingly. Casually snipping away at the air at some unseen fabric and humming a soft tune, swaying back and forth with her eyes closed before snapping her gaze into my eyes intently.
“I’m sorry, Will... you were saying?”, her lips curling in an evil little smile.
“Nothing... not a damned thing. You know me... I'm always spotting details and making connections...”, I laugh nervously as Bryn laid the scissors squarely on the table with a hollow clink where I could see them. A subtle reminder not to venture too far for the public.
“I came up with the name for the character on a whim. Just sounds nice... a little drop of milk.”, Bryn smiled broadly as she gazed first to the scissors, and then to me. She had made her point crystal clear.
“M..M..Milkdrop...isn't that... some sort of drink? Korean or something?”, I stammered.
“Oh, no... but actually... someone told me it is a candy... an old one. Kind of like a Milkdud.”
“See that ... makes sense, and also makes me want to find that candy. Of course I had the same problem with Petri Wine. After listening to Sherlock Holmes on radio shows in the 1930s... and so forth... their sponsor was Petri Wine. I ended up eventually going ‘Ok, I feel like I need to try some of this wine now’”
Bryn tilted her head slightly to the side before a look of understanding crossed her face, and in a moment... she was pulling the top off of an antique candy dish set on the table. I hadn’t noticed it before, but then maybe I had been preoccupied with the scissors and the petite woman sitting across from me to have... or more likely it seems that, (like everything else), Bryn had taken it upon herself to materialize what she desired.
“Care for a Milkdrop candy, Will?” Bryn smiled. “I’d hate to be a terrible host...”
“Oh, that’s quite alright. You’ve been nothing but gracious, Bryn... I couldn’t possib-”
“I’d hate....”, Bryn began as she deliberately eyed the scissors, “to be a terrible host. I’d feel quite badly if I were, and you wouldn’t want that... right? Now hold out your hand.”
I shook my head slowly and held out my hand as Bryn requested, in which she placed a single Milkdrop candy. It was when I placed it in my mouth that the candy dish disappeared and Bryn smiled warmly before continuing.
“People won’t let you play... There is pressure to always create a new work that is bigger and better than the last one. From Rabbicorn, Standby, Anna’s Many Murders, Virginia Alone, Imogen and the Pigeons, Singularity of Kumiko, Obedience, Lobby Cam and so on. The Gathering is kind of playing, learning and experimenting.”
“There's always a pressure though in a public light. They expect you to constantly be doing bigger and better things... one-upping your last thing.”
Bryn nodded in agreement, “Yes, which is not so easy.”
“It gets tiring trying to keep up appearances...”, I added.
“Well the sensible ones understand, I find. They understand the process.” Bryn settled back into her seat before smiling warmly and patting the cushion next to her on the couch. “Why don’t you come over here for a bit? It’ll be easier that way.”
Slowly, but surely, I rose to my feet and shuffled around the octopus tentacles to the couch before finally settling in next to her.
“Please, continue...”, she smiled.
“I mean.. for me.... I couldn't even fathom how to outdo stuff I've done. I think that's why I sorta fell back into the obscurity and enjoyed it. There's only so much I could do... and the constant spotlight and expectation was too much.”, the tentacles on the table continued shifting the weight of the glass surface elegantly from one to the other before us.
Bryn leaned a little closer, her gaze carving my mind to pieces, “Yes, I can imagine...”
“At one point I was like... juggling constant interviews, Metaverse TV once a week, making all sorts of appearances, talking with students... trying to write the blog consistently and so forth. It got to be totally overwhelming.”
“What kind of tea do you drink, Will?”, Bryn offered as she began pouring.
“Well, I’m not really a big tea drin-”
“Have some tea...” she smiled, graciously handing me the cup.
Taking a sip of my tea, I continued, “Sometimes you need a break to let your mind rest. Just be normal for a while and not trying to beat expectations. Time to putz around with what things interest you... and not because it is part of some bigger master plan.”
The lights in the room made their way around again, casting our shadow against the soaked walls as Bryn continued to smile. Nodding in agreement, she added, “Oh, I mainly do that... just experiment whenever I can.”
“That's why I play around with the arcade machines and stuff now. It's interesting from an intellectual standpoint... to learn about them... but it's not a part of anything officially... just me enjoying an intellectual curiosity and learning.”, I added.
“Yes, almost relaxing...” Bryn once again closed her eyes and leaning back into the cushions, took a sip from her tea with a smile.
“So tell me about the sketches. Being a sort of independent thought process... that seemed to kick start it all. I remember when you were starting with it... and you wanted to show me the sketches, get my opinion. Was it just a sort of ... musing at the time... a little short story?”
“Well those began when I was commissioned to create pen and ink drawings for a coffee table book. They liked my paintings but wanted pen and ink. So I was like.. ‘Yeah, I can do that’, not really ever having done it before. It’s quite different from conte, pencil or charcoal etc. So I began researching master pen and ink people. George Cruikshank, John Tenniel, even drawings by Van Gogh, and discovered illustrations from Edward Gorey.”
“By researching, you mean ‘Finding them and absorbing their talent’?”, I smirked.
Bryn laughed, “You make me sound like a creature from space. A 1950's horror movie.”
“If I'm gonna imagine you as a mystical pandimensional artist... might as well give you magical abilities while I’m at it...”, I chuckled.
“Well I just really studied how they created space. So with pen and ink.. well traditional pen and ink... you buy nibs.. which are metal ends you stick in holders. You dip them into an ink jar and get a bit.. then take it to the paper and draw until that little blob runs out... and you dip and so on back and forth for hours. Then after two hours, a big blob of ink falls on your drawing and you swear and throw it away, then start again. For me it came from being ink greedy... I wanted to draw longer so I would try to load up the nib with a big blob of ink. Comes back to haunt you eventually...”, Bryn laughed.
“Is it wrong that I'm sitting here imagining you pouring over a page for hours and suddenly screaming ‘DAMN IT!’?”
“That’s not far off. Perhaps more foul language than that, though...”, she laughed.
“Birds flying off in the distance as your cursing echoes through the alleyways?”
“Yeah, it’s super annoying. So those drawings were studies, learning how to do it. And the poems were influenced by Edward Gorey as I was studying his work too. So then I did the coffee table book but had these studies that really came out well and didn’t know what to do with them... So I thought I would bring them into Second Life and make them into 3d scenes that felt like crosshatch drawings. It’s essentially just a little whimsical story that reflects how I feel when I am at my art openings...I am the bird creature.”, Bryn laughed softly, a smile caressing her pale face in the lighting.
“Poking the ham? That's really interesting actually...”
“Yep .. they spoke of religion and politics quite heatedly.. while Bryn Oh poked the ham repeatedly.”
“I won’t even make a lewd joke out of that one... you walked into it. But that raises an important premise. One would think that you are not invisible in your own installations...Or that people try to ignore you? Maybe they do.... I do notice that. For all the people who show up in here... Few really strike up conversation with you or approach.”
“Yes, not often. But it’s more than people posture...”, Bryn replied.
“Strangely enough, I can sympathize. I've actually had that quite often in real life too and people... well they have this internalized notion about you. You're on a pedestal of sorts and unapproachable to them and even when you make it a point to show them otherwise... they can't see past it. It's always been a fascination to me to see that. Persona and circumstance overshadows the reality of you as a person, I believe.”
“That’s very possible...”
The hours wiled away through the evening as Bryn and I continued our discussion, talking about things like we normally would. Occasionally poking fun at each other, or just musing about different things going on in life. The one thing I can say for certain about Bryn Oh is that – while we can project the sort of person she is onto her avatar... we can produce an internalized ideal of who this person is, we often forget that behind the avatar is just a person...
Nothing mystical or magical about Bryn... but there is a bit of humbleness, a reluctance to brag, and overall... I get the impression she is a very kind person who enjoys humor (sometimes dark and twisted). There is a certain level of brilliance involved, a creative genius at odds internally with ideas and implementations.
So I’ll leave you, my dear reader, with a final thought:
Fame is millions of people having the wrong idea about who you are. Sometimes people forget... you’re only human.