Making Art in VR While Trying to Survive a Pandemic

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readApr 5, 2020
From my 2010 SL art exhibit sponsored by IBM

Second Life or SL is a virtual 3D environment but it is not, as some have assumed, a computer game. SL users enter this space as avatars and they can visit sims (simulations) or interact with other avatars. The last time I created anything in SL was in 2010. The last class I taught using SL was in 2012 when Andy Warhol protégé Bibbe Hansen was a guest speaker. I met Bibbe in 2009 when I interviewed her for Art21 magazine. Bibbe is the daughter of Fluxus member Al Hansen and the mother of the award-winning musician Beck.

Rezzing a “prim” (object) in Second Life

The face-to-face 2020 MuseWeb conference went fully online due to the pandemic. When the MuseWeb organizers asked me if I would be willing to show my work in SL as part of their event I was reluctant, at first, but curious. I re-entered SL after eight years and, minutes later, I was given permission to “rez” or create virtual 3D objects (also called “prims” for primitives) and my pop-up gallery was finished an hour later.

Adding images as “textures” to prims.

The next day, I met some conference-goers in SL and gave an impromptu artist talk. Wagner James Au blogged about the show and for about a day or so the news went kind of viral. From a later blog post by Wagner:

It’s fair to say her art is being seen in Second Life now by more people (or at least a far wider range of them) than if she had just showed them off in Los Angeles. So while the Coronavirus is among the worst things to happen to humanity in a long time, it is also leading to some wonderful creativity and new connection.

I gave a keynote with Cory Doctorow (also online but in MS Teams). Recently, my response to Doctorow’s essay, “Affordances,” caught the attention of MuseWeb’s Nancy Proctor. Doctorow addresses technology such as A.I. among “powerless people” and my essay looks at efforts by these people to reclaim it. Many of the examples I mentioned are highlighted in my upcoming book:

An excerpt from my upcoming book.

I talked about the Deep Dream artwork on view in SL as part of a longer presentation about the A.I. ethos in Afrofuturism, including the funk aesthetic (see Pedro Bell’s P-Funk album cover art) and generating funk- and hip-hop inspired imagery through machine learning and computational action. In machine learning, art-based computational systems can take apart elements of artists’ work and improvises in relation to what machines learn to do. Machine learning — that uses deep neural networks — can be used in ways that give learners agency in the use of computation to make things.

Visual perception such as object and face recognition was used to develop systems that use neural representations to separate and recombine content and style of arbitrary images, providing a neural algorithm for the creation of artistic images. It was great to be able to share this knowledge as well as how I use Second Life to create art pop-ups. Also, I got the equivalent of a real life art show review:

Just how stunning these images are can be seen on the inner walls of the auditorium, where a total of 12 of her pieces are offered for appreciation — marking the first time Dr. Gaskins has exhibited in Second Life since 2010. Certainly, they make a visit a visit to the MuseWeb island.

Giving an impromptu art talk in SL for MuseWeb
Greeting guests in the SL pop-up art gallery

Amiri Baraka once called for the development of technologies that represent human striving: that are “obsolete only because nothing is ever perfect, the only constant is change.” While there are very few instances where “the people” apply knowledge to create their own digital tools, platforms and systems, they can act upon technology to serve their needs and interests. Our survival depends on this action.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.