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Virtual Memory

N.B.: This is post originally written in January 2009.
A recent article in the PrimPerfect blog has brought up the important issue of the ephemeral nature of creative activity in the virtual worlds.  As one who has worked in libraries and government agencies, I am reasonably conscious of the idea of records retention and archives. In SL there are now over 600 documented art galleries. The work being done in world is not all great, but some of it is truly extraordinary and should be preserved. The loss of important exhibition spaces at Princeton and elsewhere highlights the urgency of creating a cost-effective means or archiving works and installations.

Argument can be made that ephemerality is the nature of this work, but that rather depends on the intent of the creators. I think a lot of artists would like the opportunity in 10 years to do a retrospective show. We can save copies in inventory and, using certain software, we can even download and back up the work to some extent and place it on an open sim. That works for small, discrete pieces with full permissions. But what of large installations like those of AM Radio with lots of unlinked objects? AM’s installations “Beneath the Tree That Died” existed on the University of Kentucky’s Art Department gallery space for a few months, and then went away. AM is accustomed to moving his environments aound and recycling them into revised versions in other places, so they aren’t necessarily lost forever. But the configuration, the context, will be different and that makes it a different work. A different vision. When I see an amazing show close, like the installations at NPIRL’s Garden of Earthly Delights, I can’t help feeling sadness at losing so much creative work. Just because a work still exists in someone’s inventory doesn’t mean it can ever be reproduced. (Another example is Sue Stonebender’s remarkable Zero Point installation extending several hundred meters into the sky that took two years to create and was inadvertently returned to her inventory one day. It was so vast and complex, there was simply no conceivable way to archive the whole thing. I am happy to say that she has made great progress in rebuilding it.)

Gallery spaces like the University of Kentucky can provide a place to recycle some of the best work that has been removed from their original locations. AM Radio’s installation was new, but used recycled objects from previous works. Similarly, the next show will feature a reworked version of a remarkable piece by the innovative SL sculptor/story teller Bryn Oh. (Bryn’s work features layers of detail and meaning that encourage spending time to discover. )

But what of the long-term archiving of creative work? I would like to see an opensim foundation dedicated to keeping large digital works in perpetuity. I doubt such a thing would work. As the technology advances the rendering engines will change and the current technology will become obsolete. I fully expect that most of the content in SL will not exist in five years

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