Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bryn Oh's "The Singularity of Kumiko"

Bryn Oh’s latest exhibit, on her Immersiva sim, is “The Singularity of Kumiko,” a story told in pictures and letters (in written and audio form) that unfolds as one moves through the sim. Kumiko receives messages in a bottle, as though from across a sea, from her friend Iktomi, and responds through messages of her own. (Miss Oh has an introduction and a brief video about the exhibit on her blog.)

In the arrival area, a visitor receives instructions regarding Windlight and other graphics settings, the main effect of which is to render the environment very dark. To compensate, there is a helmet-mounted flashlight, like a miner’s lamp, that allows one to see, imperfectly, in the dark.

Kumiko 002

The first scene one encounters is this accident: a car, a damaged bicycle, and a backpack, its contents strewn about the roadway. The roadway then peters out, and one is left looking for the next patch of light.

Kumiko 003

These set pieces contain objects in Miss Oh’s distinctive style. Often animal forms mix with machine parts, such as the giraffe swing set below.

Kumiko 005

Be careful, however, and do not linger in the woods. The sim is damage-enabled, and the sound of a squeaky wheel signals the arrival of a lunatic homicidal mechanical rabbit, Mr. Zippers, who will kill you if possible. You will encounter Mr. Zippers later on as well, in an abandoned, dilapidated house.

Kumiko 006

Because a visitor may encounter the tableaux in the “wrong” order, one has to puzzle together the narrative from receiving the exchange of letters between Kumiko and Iktomi out of order. Ultimately, however, one reaches a resolution of the story, even if some of the specifics remain left to the visitor’s imagination.

Kumiko 008

In mathematics, a singularity is a point at which an object is not well-behaved - for example, undifferentiable. However, perhaps a better definition of the word in this context is “the state of being singular, distinct, peculiar, uncommon[,] or unusual.” As the story unfolds, we discover that Kumiko is all that.

Kumiko 009

The darkness adds to the unsettling atmosphere of the exhibit. On my monitor everything was so dark between the set pieces that I sometimes felt as though I was stumbling blindly through the woods. I wonder if increasing the light a little would still allow the spookiness while making navigation easier. And while I’m on the subject of minor cavils, I’m not sure that allowing Mr. Zippers to kill visitors was necessary, especially as it removes one from the exhibit, at least temporarily, and breaks the atmosphere.

One interesting decision that Miss Oh made was to limit the number of visitors at any one time to 10-15, both in order to minimize the likelihood that visitors would run into one another and, more importantly, to minimize lag on the sim. I had no trouble teleporting into the sim several times (damn you, Mr. Zippers!) and experienced no noticeable lag, so this seemed to be a good idea.

Kumiko 010

“The Singularity of Kumiko” once again demonstrates Bryn Oh’s, er, singular vision and her use of Second Life to provide a multimedia form of narrative. It’s a fascinating, emotional, and disturbing journey.

For better pictures and a better description of the project, see Inara Pey’s review and Honour McMillan’s review.

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