This current work-in-progress steps deeper into immersive realms, exploring an approach to visualization that is indigenous to synthetic worlds, and developing a form of narrative composition enabled only in this environment.
Bronzeville Sketches is an immersive narrative, a 3D graphic novel in a style of exploded collage. The visitor avatar enters a three-dimensional environment, dynamic with activity, and responsive to the visitor’s presence and interaction. The setting is an impressionistic rendering of South Side Chicago, 1935 -1955, and the neighborhood will be populated by character avatars (both live and scripted), interactive objects and tableaux. Bronzeville Sketches is not an attempt at precise historical replication of the “real” place and time. It is a work of fiction, of imagined memory. It is also richly embedded with media elements that are the social/cultural/political context in which the drama unfolds. The visitor discovers and layers the narrative through navigation and interaction with the characters and environment.
The matrix of themes, narrative threads and characters in Bronzeville Sketches is being derived from the work-in-progress, Any Monday, by Dorothy Mallory Jones. My artistic collaborative relationship with Dorothy Mallory Jones, poet, novelist, historian, and my mother, is a work-in-progress spanning over three decades. We have collaborated on several major projects including The Trouble I’ve Seen (1976), an impressionistic video/broadcast portrait of black life in rural Georgia; LISSEN HERE! (2005), a print portfolio of image/text compositions published in limited edition; and In The Sweet Bye & Bye: An Immersive Memoir (2007), transposing her text into the 3D immersive realm of Second Life.
Our collaboration is intensely gratifying and stimulating for me. We have, in Teshome Gabriel’s phrase, “shared language and retained secrets”. Our individual works inhabit different worlds, yet our visions and understandings intersect and converge. When we collaborate, we approach the subject from distinct points-of-view of age/generation, gender and experience, yet know common ground. This is fundamental to my commitment to migrate and transpose the wisdom and insight of the elders into contemporary and future expressive realms. This long-term collaborative relationship is also critical to me in that it provides vehicles through which I can assist in bringing her insightful and highly crafted work to wider audiences.
The distinctive visual style of the environment is intended to evoke, in the visitor, an experience of exploring an exploded and animated collage world. This aspect of the environmental design concept begins with the complexity, coherence, and precision of Romare Bearden’s 2D collage works. Moving this to the Second Life immersive environment adds depth, duration, navigation/choice, interaction with the environment and other avatars, and multiple points-of-view. This is the temporal terrain of magical realism. This dimensional expansion of the visual also expands the possibilities and challenges of the narrative composition. How the story is told, and the meanings conveyed, are integral to the design of the environment.
In Bronzeville Sketches, street scenes, building facades and interiors are richly detailed hybrid forms and surface textures, composited from inworld 3D sculpted objects, digital graphic images derived from archival sources (photo/film/print), and high resolution renders of 3D characters, objects and scenes imported from other 3D modeling and animation environments (DAZ 3D Studio, Maya, Unity).
The visitor avatar can, indeed must, interact with objects in the environment. Newspapers, magazines, radios, televisions, and cinema clips are woven into the scenes, and are triggered by avatar movement and/or touching. The embedded media might impart elements of the narrative, or provide a bit of the social/political/cultural context of the narrative. Also embedded in the environment are links to external websites that elaborate on subjects in the contextual material. These links can be accessed directly inworld, so the visitor can follow a line of thought or curiosity, without leaving the environment.
The nature and capabilities of the avatar are central to the design of the environment and the narrative. Unlike installation/exhibition design in First Life (proximal/physical realm), where the visitor has one point-of-view (pov), the avatar in Second Life and other synthetic worlds can choose from three points-of-view: 1st person – thru avatar’s eyes; 2nd person – default over-shoulder view watching avatar; 3rd person – camera view, independent of avatar. (How one looks determines what one sees.) Elements of the environment, and thus the narrative, will be accessible and/or perceptible through a particular pov, and not an other(s). The avatar can also navigate vertically as well as horizontally and, and teleport almost instantly to any other location inworld. (Everywhere is the same distance from anywhere.)
Character avatars in Bronzeville Sketches interact with each other and with visitors. Some of the characters are scripted, and perform set elements of the narrative. Other characters are live, with a living mind on the other side of the interface. These characters are guides for the visitor, as well as actors in the drama. They interact spontaneously with visitors, giving information about the piece, and suggestions for following narrative paths. The live characters enhance the immersive experience of the visitor with real-time, and spontaneous engagement. The live and scripted character avatars have custom appearance and behaviors. Each character’s facial features, body and attire is unique and appropriate for the period and place. The character avatars have custom movements derived from original motion capture sequences and/or animations created in other 3D modeling and animation environments.
A distinctive element in the synthetic world design palette is the ability to control perception of scale and perspective. By controlling the visual references of field of view and background, scale, perspective and distance become plastic, creating optical illusions, and a new temporal terrain. My work on In The Sweet Bye & Bye: An Immersive Memoir opened, to me, this critical perspective on perception in Second Life with the creation of the miniature replica. The piece is an exact replica of the full-sized installation, scaled down to tabletop size. The miniature is viewable through the avatar 1st person & 2nd person pov from the exterior only. The avatar cannot climb into the miniature container.
view of In The Sweet Bye & Bye: An Immersive Memoir miniature replica
Dynamic access to the interior, to the piece itself, is only possible in 3rd person pov, through the independent camera. The camera can maneuver into and through the interior space with fluidity and precision, creating the same sense of presence, interaction and scale as the full size piece.
view from inside In The Sweet Bye & Bye: An Immersive Memoir miniature replica
This miniature, with its specific pov characteristics, has implications for the development of narrative genre unique to this environment. In Bronzeville Sketches, elements of a narrative, certain scenes, interactions or information, for example, are contained in miniature components that are only accessible in the camera pov. For example, from the avatar pov (1st and 2nd person) the entrance to such a miniature component might appear as a framed picture on a wall. Moving past it reveals that it has depth, and possibly movement and sound within, beyond the threshold. Using the camera pov to penetrate the threshold literally opens new realms of exploration, discovery, and meaning.
Another mode employed in this design to enhance the immersive experience is the soundscape. The visitor moves into and out of areas with particular compositions of voices, effects and ambience, with elements triggered by visitor movement, manipulation of objects, and interaction with characters. The soundscape is an analog of the visual.
My intention is to compose visual analogs, in qualities of light and shadow, shape and motion, to the cord progressions, tonal changes and rhythms of Mingus’ composition and performance of the solo piano composition, Orange Was the Color of Her Dress: Then Silk Blues. Junior Walker and the All-Stars’, Cleo’s Mood and Cleo’s Back sound like home.
Bronzeville Sketches creates a temporal labyrinth, a dimensional world in which the visitor is immersed in simultaneous intersecting narratives. Through navigation and interaction, the visitor experiences surprise and discovery as s/he encounters characters and scenes, finds stories within stories, and follows paths discerned through pov.
The first resident character avatar in Bronzeville Sketches is June Parfort, created by Katherine Milton, PhD.
June is a guide for visitors and also a character in the narrative, with her own role in the drama
Workshop(s) / Seminar(s):
Bronzeville Sketches is a vehicle for investigation of creative and design possibilities in synthetic worlds, and the nature of the immersive experience. Areas include: video / audio / animation / 3D model & render / custom avatar appearance & behavior / scripting SL objects & environment / writing.
Bronzeville Sketches is also a platform and context for discussion and experimentation around new narrative genre indigenous to synthetic worlds, interdisciplinary collaboration, and interdisciplinary teaching/learning.
Initial development of Bronzeville Sketches is underway at The Aesthetic Technologies Lab site, on the Ohio University Second Life campus. I anticipate opening Bronzeville Sketches in 2011.
SL Landmark (215, 147, 74).