Jack Whitsitt works as an information security architect for the Transportation Security Administration. He lives in Van Ness with his wife, Paivi Salonen, wears a suit and tie to work, and has a business-appropriate haircut. When he’s not working, he creates art out of digital visualizations of security breaches of computer systems. For about a year, he’s been exhibiting the resulting maps of digital bars and blips—along with his more standard pastel portraits—at small open shows around D.C.
But on Second Life, the online role-playing metaverse, Whitsitt looks a bit like Trent Reznor. He sports maroon bangs, has tattoos on his arms, and maintains 9 percent body fat. He can fly. People call him “Morning Dagger.” Ladies, he’s single. And last year, he became the owner and curator of his own Second Life art gallery, a sprawling, eight-tiered, oceanfront glass monolith in Second Life’s “Spirit Fens.” It’s called SintixErr Gallery, which he explains is “an intentional misspelling of a computer error message that usually means you’ve misspelled something.”
Steer your avatar inside SintixErr, and you’ll find digital reproductions of photographs, paintings, and sculptures from 17 living, breathing D.C.-area artists. Since March, Whitsitt has provided free virtual gallery space for member artists to import jpegs of their pieces. He displays them to Second Life artgoers and sells them for Linden Dollars, Second Life’s currency. “I really wanted to give emerging artists exposure they might not have had otherwise,” says Whitsitt. Second Life, he says, is “a good way to circumvent the usual art-world progression.”
“Hanging” in Whitsitt’s gallery are photographs by Centreville’s Angela Kleis, animations by Gaithersburg’s Michael Auger, and paintings created by a real-life “autonomous painting robot” named “Zanelle” engineered by District-based artist Pindar VanArman. Your virtual persona can hang their virtual artwork in your virtual home for 500 to 2,500 Lindens a pop—about two to ten bucks from your real-world wallet.
Whitsitt and his District-area member artists aren’t alone. In addition to Second Life’s well-publicized escapist elements—its pixelated prostitutes, simulated drugs, and unregulated gambling—the metaverse is also home to a burgeoning virtual art scene with its own online art journal, SLART. In a paper presented at last year’s Second Life Community Conference, artist and self-described “leading expert on Second Life art” Richard Minsky places the number of Second Life art galleries as high as 1,000. Whitsitt has some real-world ambitions for his space. The traditional art scene, he says, is often perceived as “a closed-off space for academics and collectors. That’s sad. Art should be artists creating what moves them and individuals buying what moves them. Second Life might be able to help lower that barrier of entry for casual buyers and make it easier for artists to present and sell their work.”
Since launching the gallery, he’s organized several events occurring simultaneously in real life and on Second Life, including a show in an empty Crystal City office building in conjunction with Artomatic, and an international Macromedia Flash film festival simulcast at the Warehouse Next Door. During the events, the SintixErr Gallery was filled to capacity, holding about 80 avatars at one time. Musicians in four different countries streamed live music together as a virtual band. Artists from around the world competed for sculpture-making prizes that reached 10,000 Lindens (about $37). Virtual waiters circulated with trays of complimentary tequila. Back in “First Life,” real-world attendees watched the avatars chat in acronyms and down shots that didn’t get them drunk.
The Second Life art universe, Whitsitt admits, isn’t for everybody. “At one point, there were giant penis banners floating around everywhere,” says Whitsitt. “If you can’t accept giant penis banners floating past your peripheral vision, maybe you shouldn’t be in Second Life.”
While piquing artists’ interest in free gallery space is easy (well, usually: One New York City gallery offered real-life exhibition space to nine Second Life artists, all of whom turned it down), getting them to embrace their inner nerd can be a bit more difficult. Even those D.C. artists who have incorporated personal Web sites, MySpace profiles, and art-networking Listservs into their marketing schemes have been skeptical about Second Life. Kleis (Avatar: Doktorr Maertens) says that Second Life is something she wouldn’t normally be into. When she first heard of Whitsitt’s offer for virtual gallery space through the local art blog artdc.org last spring, she says, “all I knew about it was the online porn and virtual casinos.” Still, she agreed to meet Whitsitt—and Morning Dagger—for a test run. “It was a nice Saturday in March, about 70 degrees outside,” recalls Kleis. “So why not spend a few hours inside a Starbucks playing a video game?” After uploading some jpegs into Whitsitt’s gallery, she says, she was able to observe avatars from around the world peering at her virtual art and noted an increase in traffic to her Web site.
Kleis admits that her avatar rarely takes a spin around Second Life anymore. Many of Whitsitt’s gallery members never even created Second Life avatars; those who did haven’t become the most proficient of users. Auger admits he’s still a little shaky with his avatar, who goes by the name “Arty4Ever Auer.”
“I’m old-school Pac-Man guy: Give me a joystick and I can move,” says Auger. Not so with Second Life. “Jack made his gallery near a body of water,” says Auger. “I kept falling into it. At Jack’s events, I would go to the gallery and fall straight into the ocean. I’d have to turn around and fly out, but then I’d just fall back in.”
Part of the enthusiasm for the Second Life art scene comes from the possibility of artists making real money. As many as 300,000 users log on in a typical week, and according to Reuters Second Life News Center—the news service has two reporters on the beat—last week nearly 361 million Lindens changed virtual hands in one day alone. Last week, the exchange rate was 266.5 Lindens to the dollar; each day, people spent more than $1.3 million in real money on virtual land, sex, clothing, skin, and, perhaps, artwork.
But working as a virtual gallerist isn’t all fun and RPGs. “It takes as much work to run a gallery in Second Life as it does in real life,” says Whitsitt. “You have to go through all the same processes.” Whitsitt has had to fight real-estate developers, fend off vandals, and eighty-six unruly guests, including a three-stories-tall, recklessly dancing virtual robot with a serious English deficiency. Whitsitt also worked to refine his avatar’s image. At first, Morning Dagger was “a bit punk”—Whitsitt says he sported a leather jacket and a shaved head, save for one raven-haired side-ponytail. “Over time, the avatar evolved to look generically friendly and pleasant,” Whitsitt says. “If you’re going to be in front of people networking and running events, first impressions go a long way.”
To recruit area artists to his fledgling gallery, Whitsitt advertised on Craigslist, networked on D.C. art blogs, and racked up chat logs with other gallerists within Second Life. Whitsitt estimates he spent up to four hours a day and 133,500 Lindens (about 500 bucks) building the gallery. By the close of 2007, he had sunk another $500 and devoted two hours a day on average to maintaining SintixErr and planning events. That money went out to fellow avatars—real-estate developers, musicians, contest winners—as well as Second Life for classified ads and property taxes.
At $1,000, setting up a 13,000-square-meter space in Spirit Fens is a hell of a lot cheaper than renting gallery space in Dupont Circle. But Whitsitt’s Linden income—a jpeg downloaded here, a virtual tip jar there—has been negligible. Late last year, he decided to scale back SintixErr Gallery to focus on First Life demands like home and career, selling all but 512 square meters of Second Life property and swallowing most of the cost of the land.
For now, the ocean waves crash up against Morning Dagger’s empty Spirit Fens lot. But Whitsitt still spends about two hours a week on Second Life, attending concerts, dyeing his hair, and formulating plans to reopen the gallery in March. This time around, he’s looking for a virtual grant that would allow him to hire some gallery workers and rent out some space on an island. For six months, the land alone will cost him about $1,700.
For Whitsett, it’s worth the cost. “Success in Second Life depends on reputation, so if you do something, you’ve got to do it well,” he says. “People remember when you pull off something half-assed.”
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