Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas for a Neko

Dare Munro and Vasha Martinek are two artists who have created a multitude of amusing and clever toys, outfits and other items for cats, Nekos and their owners/friends.

For Christmas, they created a Cat Tree in which either a Cat or a Neko can lounge, sleep or play. A Neko avatar is shown here at the top of the tree, perched as an ornament next to the Star.

Another diversion for a Neko or Cat created by the same artists is the roundabout or merry-go-round, here shown in motion.

The Spirit of Christmas

The Spirit of Christmas in Second Life is exemplified by the many visual attractions created by artists as well as the gifts they offer to visitors. An amazing number of Christmas decorations are for sale throughout the world, from virtual mistletoe that includes music and kissing poses to a multitude of Christmas trees, with or without flashing lights, stars, ornaments and ribbons. There are 'live' and artificial trees in every style imaginable, from the classical Victorian trees to ultra-modern, even futuristic Christmas trees.

Gifts vary from small to large, from trivial to majestic. There are artists who give entire outfits, collections of Christmas decorations and jewelry. Others organise treasure hunts, with gifts hidden in holly sprigs or other objects. Many sims have set up skating rinks with free skates for visitors. Snow can be acquired in a number of different ways to be made to fall on land or to carry on your person so that you are surrounded by a flurry of snowflakes wherever you walk. One clever artist has designed Christmas fur-topped boots that leave an image of candy canes on the ground in lieu of footprints. The same artist created a truly adorable pair of 'pumpkin' shoes for Hallowe'en.

Decorating land for the Christmas holidays in Second Life is as fun and satisfying as decorating a Christmas tree in the 'real world'. Trying to balance time and energy in both worlds during the holiday season can be a challenge for those who are seduced by the creative potential in Second Life.

After all, any one who is drawn to magic can find it in operation in the virtual world and there is no distinction between adulthood and childhood in the world of the imagination. Every resident in Second Life is free to embrace the unbridled magic and enthusiasm of childhood... and this is particularly attractive at Christmas, a time filled with magical traditions.

My first holiday task in Second Life was to decorate the land. I created a little corner where snow lay thick on the ground and fell from the skies. Evergreens decorated with lights as well as snowdrops furthered the atmosphere of Winter. When I found a delightful Christmas Cabin created by Darks Adria, I realised it would provide the perfect Christmas haven for this little Winter Wonderland.

A reindeer created by Deborah Defarge soon joined the Cabin and an existing mountain lion who had basked on top of a rock in the sunshine during the Summer and Autumn seasons.

I waited until Christmas Eve to place a fully decorated Christmas tree in front of the Cabin. Christmas Trees in Second Life are not as expensive as those in this world and they require neither time nor energy to decorate as they usually are fully decorated at the time of purchase. I therefore was able to set a Christmas tree in each one of my castles in Second Life. My virtual cat seemed to be fascinated by the lights on the Tree and assumed a position as guard at the foot of it in the castle.

Many artists who design clothing in Second Life offered delectable outfits for the holiday season. How could one resist? In the real world, an outfit made of silk or velvet, trimmed with fur, feathers or diamonds would cost a fortune and probably not be worn unless one frequented palaces or state functions. In Second Life, any one can be a Princess. Why not indulge in total fantasy fulfillment in the virtual world in terms of fashion?

Bedazzled by flashing diamonds and glittering velvets, I decided to immortalise the fantasy in a photograph mainly for my own amusement. I created more than one avatar some time ago and slowly each has come to embody a different aspect of my personality. My Valkyrie Warrior avatar usually is winged and is a more serious character than my 'human' persona. I have a Neko or cat avatar as well... As I dressed two of my avatars for Christmas and took photographs of them, I suddenly wondered which of them was a truer representation of my inner self. All of my avatars are beautiful in a way, probably because I always have responded to beauty myself and try to surround myself with it... There are those, however, who find some of my characters forbidding, even frightening. We all have both Light and Darkness within us and in fact, without Shadow, Light would be undefined. Darkness should not be equated with Evil, in my opinion. It simply is the other side of the coin of Light. Day and Night both have their own beauty and purpose. I wonder, though, which one of my characters defines me more... but perhaps it is not necessary to make a choice. In Second Life, one is free to be many different beings at different times and places.

As far as the Spirit of Christmas is concerned, it became obvious to me that this has as many different aspects and faces as my own self in Second Life. There are some 'dark' sims decorated for the season that take one's breath away. There are heartrendingly beautiful sims and 'cute' sims. There are sims decorated with humour and sims decorated with aesthetic perfection. In Second Life, my Winter Ice Princess (with her hidden fangs) can find herself at home as easily as my Cat or my wholly human avatar in her Renaissance finery.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Where Worlds Meet: Charity in Second Life

Baron Grayson is an amazing artist with a powerful reputation in Second Life. He uses this, not simply for his own financial gain but to promote valid charitable efforts in the 'real' world.

Last Sunday, Baron Grayson and Sue Stonebender hosted an auction of one-of-a-kind pieces from the Opera House, one of Baron Grayson's famed builds. A portion of the proceeds of the auction were donated to the 'Gardens of Hope' project, a charity that provides food for orphaned children with AIDS in Lesotho in Africa. Items included the grand staircase, the original chandelier, individually numbered lights from the chandelier that was crashed into the theatre audience after the 27th October masqued ball, the domed ceilings and the golden statues.

Bids seldom were less than $10,000 and increased to sums in excess of $70,000. It was not an auction for any one who was not prepared to invest a serious sum of money both for charity and for the chance to own a piece of history.

By the end of the auction, almost $500,000 had been raised. In many cases, Baron Grayson vowed to match the winning bid with a donation of his own. Both he and his wife were indefatiguable in their determination that the event should raise a significant amount of money for the charity, but they need not have been concerned. Appreciation of the artistic genius of the Baron was demonstrated by the fierce bidding for each piece offered.

During the auction, Baron Grayson passed out gifts to each person present in the form of a special pennant designed for the sim where the auction was held: a RELIC Intemptesta Nox pennant. Later, he added music to the event, providing written notices of the songs being played, something I thought was a nice touch.

A live performance by a musician who is a member of the Tryst group followed. Unfortunately, he stood at the spot where new arrivals were teleported automatically and I therefore could not take a photograph of him that did not feature an 'unrezzed' avatar as individuals continued to arrive throughout the proceedings.

The work of Baron Grayson and Sue Stonebender can be seen at the Tryst website at:

Relic and Serendipity Studios

Baron Grayson in particular requires constant growth and change in his art and work. His sims always are 'under construction' because they represent the ever-evolving state of his own imagination and provide him with an opportunity to explore his own memories in an interactive art form. In allowing the public access to his builds, he gives others a chance to live in HIS mind. His work always is evocative and very emotionally-charged with a sensibility that he himself acknowledges to be rather 'dark'. The auction of items from his old Opera House very much demonstrated his philosophy. The Opera House was more than a 'build'. It had taken its place in the history of Second Life and those who had experienced significant moments in the Opera House were given a chance to become the caretakers of physical items that resonated with personal and collective memories.

In a dramatic and generous gesture at the end of the auction, Sue and Baron Grayson gave a woman who had danced with her beloved at the Opera House on the occasion of the masqued ball the balcony on which they had danced that night.

For those who would like to become part of the Tryst experience, Baron Grayson now is looking for literary participation.

In his own words: 'If you enjoy literary pursuits...Sue and I are looking for talented writers to help put into place an interactive questing aspect to the sim that works with a heads up display you walk the sim you interact with aspects that...'

Even if you are not a writer, you cannot fail to be enriched by any interaction with Baron Grayson's work.

My thanks to Mariner Trilling for providing some of the photographs as well as saving the text of the auction proceedings for me.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Taste of traditional Arab Hospitality

Cynthia Wilder in Second Life is the owner of a boutique and sim which she has named 'Cynthia's Heaven'. In fact, she has her own website at:

Cynthia's Site

A friend of mine took me to visit a Dance Emporium where hundreds of dances were displayed and demonstrated on platforms that resembled wine goblets turned upside down. It was a clever concept but quite frankly, I hated most of the 'solo' dances that were being demonstrated. They were the typical sex dances that bear titles like 'glazing the cherry' or 'whipped cream delight'. Movements tend to be gross rather than subtle, designed mainly to thrust sexual parts at viewers.

Dances of this sort are extremely popular, but my avatar never would be inclined to burlesque. What this place did bring to mind, however, was the ancient form of dance known in the West as 'bellydance'.

It is rather an ugly name for a beautifully expressive art form. Unfortunately, for the most part, it has been combined in Second Life with striptease. Role play based on the fantasy world of Gor has made a form of attire suitable for traditional bellydance extremely popular in the guise of 'slave silks'. Often these silks contain scripting that allow them to be 'stripped' from the wearer.

It is possible that the island devoted to dances may have included some bellydancing, but I did not see any. Instead, I performed a search and found a boutique that advertised 'bellydance' and 'Lebanon'. The inclusion of the latter made me believe that the place probably was fairly genuine in terms of dance rather than simply using the keyword of 'bellydance' to draw punters.

I was correct in this assumption. Cynthia Wilder is a Lebanese artist living in Austria who has brought some of the beauty and joy of traditional Arab dance and music to Second Life.

She has been involved in Second Life for less than a year and yet has made a name and reputation for herself not only for her fashion designs and dance animations but for her dance parties and a wonderful place where visitors can play backgammon and enjoy themselves at the beach as well as browsing in her shop.

She exemplifies all the traditional warmth for which Arab hospitality is known. She immediately invited me to a dance party at the 'Alhambra' in Andalusia.

The sim of Al-Andalusia deserves an article of its own. It is an incredibly beautiful, detailed reconstruction of medieval Moorish culture and is becoming a sim where Muslims can perform salat (prayer) at mosques as well as meet for social gatherings. True to the spirit of old Andalusia, however, it is a sim where Christians and Muslims both are welcome, as well as any one who eschews religious affiliations of any kind. The entire philosophy of the sim is based on harmonious co-existence between all religions and all people.

The dance party at the Alhambra was a wonderful opportunity to dance in traditional Arab style while listening to popular Arab music. Cynthia provides dance balls at her parties as well as offering live 'streaming' of Arab music. Her dance balls cleverly are designed to allow more than a dozen individuals to use them at the same time. For individuals who wish to control their own dances, she has designed a HUD that is simple to operate but allows the owner to choose which dance to perform at any given moment. I myself purchased the HUD and found it truly added to the versimilitude of the event as I could match my dance moves to the rhythm and words of the songs.

Cynthia herself is the centre of the performance, although she does not covet the limelight in any way. She has her own special dances that are not included in the dance balls or HUDS that she sells. As an artist, she combines dramatic outfits and dance moves to create a personal performance that commands attention. At the same time, she always is conscious of every one who attends a function, drawing the shy or reserved individual into the group and with her own infectious enthusiasm, making certain that a 'party spirit' prevails.

At her own place, she has created a magnificent venue for dance parties on the beach. Her own shop is located there as well, and she has rooms that are devoted to dance, clothing and furniture, including tents.

A detail that I found particularly endearing was the inclusion of backgammon at the sim. Backgammon is central to Arab culture and social life and Cynthia's determination to bring the spirit of Arab hospitality to Second Life is exemplified by her attention to details like this.

On display and for sale in the furniture section of her bazaar are wonderful traditional Arab tents as well as 'igloos' with sleeping bags. She has created tea and coffee services, traditional Arab tables and beautiful beds with Arabic calligraphy of 'Alf Laylah wa Laylah'. In English, this translates as '1001 Nights'.

Cynthia has created a line of cradles for infants as well, inspired by a friend who had a baby in Second Life. Creating a virtual family has become a popular trend in Second Life. Weddings now often are followed by an annoucement that the happy couple is 'expecting' a child. The woman's avatar actually can develop physically and proclaim all the traditional symptoms of pregnancy, including swollen ankle and and aching back.

For an artist who has been in Second Life for less than a year, Cynthia has created an incredible array of items. Unlike other artists who tend to specialise in one area, Cynthia appears to have no fears of the unknown. Her husband has helped her, in particular by creating the scripts used in her dance pose balls and HUD.

A fashion show she orchestrated was the subject of an article in a Second Life publication. One of the most spectacular events she organised, however, was a wedding. Photographs of both wedding and fashion show are included here, and more can be found at Cynthia's own website in her Gallery.

She can create a lavish traditional Arab wedding similar to the one shown in these photographs. The Arab styles appeal to a Second Life sub-culture based on a fantasy world named Gor although Gorean philosophy does NOT emulate traditional Arab values or behaviour. The wedding shown here actually was a Gorean wedding in SL.

In terms of clothing and fashion, Cynthia has created many traditional Arab outfits both for men and women, from desert to urban styles. She has created outfits in contemporary fashion as well. Dance outfits include some with disrobing scripts, otherwise known as 'strip silks' that allow another individual to remove specific items of clothing with the owner's permission.

I myself was most interested in the outfits that included a traditional abayah, jalabiah, thob and hijab. Although Goreans are attracted to Cynthia's designs, many of them would appeal to devout Muslims in Second Life as they are modest and offer an optional head covering as well as face covering in the form of a burqa.

The international aspect of Second Life is one that has unlimited potential. If a resident can 'travel' to the Alhambra or a French Canadian village instantly by teleport to become immersed in another culture without leaving his/her computer, this only can contribute to a wider understanding of the world. At this point in time, unfortunately, one may travel to another 'country' in SL only to find it devoid of any human presence. This is changing, however, as international cultural organisations attempt to foster a permanent presence in the virtual world. In the same way that Universities and other academic institutions are beginning to utilise Second Life in education, cultural institutions and organisations have started to take note of the potential that this virtual world offers.

Cynthia Wilder in her own way is bringing traditional Arab culture to Second Life, not with any overt political or social agenda, but simply by being herself. She is a warm-hearted, attractive and intelligent woman with traditional Arab values in terms of hospitality and friendship. Her talents as an artist, coupled with her social energy will contribute to her growing reputation in the world of Second Life.