Saturday night I went to see Best Practices in Banana Time at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in downtown Troy. The Sanctuary for Independent Media is run out of a repurposed century-old church building and is owned and operated by the New York Media Alliance. The cozy performance/meeting space has a grungy, intellectual coffee house vibe—a feeling that has seeped into the walls after five years of being inhabited by alternative artists and speakers. Essentially, the Sanctuary serves as an outlet for voices who do not fit into the current corporate scheme of things.
For Best Practices in Banana Time, a giant projector faced the audience, with a folding table in front of it. To the audience’s right was a corner overrun with laptops and sound equipment and busy media techs. The show began when two women dressed in costume took a seat at the table in front of the projector. One was dressed as a superhero, the other in a glittery doctor’s outfit with fairy wings on her high heels. Both looked ready to attend a comic-con convention. However, Best Practices in Banana Time has nothing to do with comic books. Instead, what these two ladies were frequenting was Second Life. Now for all of my Free Georgies who are unfamiliar with Second Life, let’s give a brief explanation before we go any further.
Second Life is an online virtual reality/world/community, active twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In it, users create an avatar to represent themselves, usually spending a lot of time and energy to get the image just right. Once created, the avatar is ready to roam around in Second Life. It can walk down virtual streets, enter virtual buildings, and buy virtual goods using the Linden, the Second Life currency. ($270 Lindens=1 US dollar.) Avatars can also meet other avatars, who you (as their creator) can communicate with (their creator) through typing or via your own voice over a computer microphone. Second Life has experienced something of a tarnished reputation in recent years, being perceived as the place where Internet creepers hang out. Best Practices in Banana Time is a show that tries to dispel this notion and demonstrate the vibrant possibilities within it.
As I sat in the audience at the Sanctuary, I watched as the world of Second Life was projected on-screen—the angular computer graphics depicting a glamorous, pearly-white TV studio, with expensive comfy chairs furnished for the audience and hosts. The TV hosts in Second Life were none other than a superhero and sexy doctor with winged high heels. Aha! The two women were dressed up as their Second Life avatars, and would simultaneously be hosting the talk show Best Practices in Banana Time in the real world while also in the virtual world of Second Life.
In the Second Life world, the talk show’s audience members were all real people scattered across the globe, tuning in from their computers to have their avatars sit and watch the talk show, Best Practices in Banana Time. At the Sanctuary, we watched both the real-life version and the Second Life version, witnessing the virtual audience’s reaction through texts popping up on screen, and laughing whenever they said something funny.
It was hard to say which was better, real life or Second Life. The bright, comfortable TV Studio on the screen looked far more perfect than the real life, poorly-lit room and dinky chairs in the Sanctuary space. In that instant I finally understood the appeal of Second Life. It’s a chance to take anything you want—whether it be yourself, your house, or your car—and perfect it so the utopian version can exist and be experienced in this virtual environment.
Personally, the graphics of Second Life and the user interface of my laptop isn’t fluid enough yet for me to engage in Second Life as a fully immersive experience. However I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before the technology can really start tricking our senses.
On the big screen, we saw the hosts welcome their first guest—a musical artist named Truellie Telling. Truellie’s avatar was a young, curvaceous, twenty-something with red hair and a giant flower on her head. Quite unexpected was when the avatar started to sing and out came the voice of an elderly female senior citizen, cheekily singing about being middle-aged and boy crazy. “No one’s too old, no one’s too young!” she declared, while her avatar strummed the guitar.
Through Second Life and her avatar, Truellie will forever be twenty, and with her avatar, she has the chance to perform in many virtual venues. Truellie makes actual money—about $30 US dollars a week—for having her avatar appear at events in Second Life and performing live into her computer microphone.
Next up on the talk show was a woman named Trill Zapatero. Trill had a dark-haired, olive-skinned avatar. Within Second Life, Trill has built her own virtual fashion clothing store named Boho Hobo, where users can buy unique outfits for their avatars. All of the proceeds from this virtual clothing store go to support a real life organization named RAWA, or the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. So far, Trill has raised over $3,000 dollars for RAWA.
Trill also built a museum in Second Life designed to educate users more about Afghan culture. Graphically, the museum is a lovely work of art, offering all the information of a normal informative website, except users can have the experience of walking around in it as their avatars. (Does anyone else smell the future or is it just me?)
Audience members in the real world (ie those sitting in the Sanctuary audience) were able to come up to a web-cam and ask questions to Trill and Truellie. Though the show was fraught with many technical difficulties, it was completely forgivable considering most people have trouble turning on a projector, let alone successfully pulling off a multilayered, real-time interaction between avatars and people.
For me, the most interesting part was the Q&A session in the real world after the Second Life talk show was over. The talk show is the brainchild of Professor Rothenberg, aka the host in the glittery doctor’s outfit with fairy high-heels. She teaches Visual Arts at SUNY Albany, and I appreciated her balanced view and insights into Second Life. In her opinion, one of the most important draws of Second Life is the avatar. That and the visual component is what sets Second Life apart from Instant Messaging or Skype. Instead of just typing with your best friend halfway across the country, you can go shopping together in Second Life.
Banana Time certainly gave me a heaping plate of food-for-thought, way more than I’m used to on a Saturday night. Yet food for thought is the specialty of the Sanctuary for Independent Media, and I highly recommend checking out their website www.mediasanctuary.org to see if you’re interested in any upcoming events. Tickets are usually around $10, an excellent price for the quality of the subject matter. I hear there’s even tea and coffee before and after the shows!
–Briavel Schultz is an Assistant Editor of The Free George.