slum magazine

“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval

Why Is There Not Nothing? – An Interview with Rose Borchovski

by Jami Mills

Originally published in rez magazine.

Rose Borchovski is the in-world incarnation of the internationally celebrated RL Dutch multimedia artist, Saskia Boddeke. Here in Second Life, Rose is best known for her Susa Bubble series, depicting the sad, troubled – and always perplexed — Susa Bubble. Susa’s problems began when she “went to bed single, and woke up double.” Not until 33 exact duplicates of Susa subsequently appeared did the replication stop, but the resulting confusion, and Susa’s existential exploration, had only just begun – and continues to this day.

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You are invited to view Rose’s work (including the Susa Bubble series) at Two Fish (Cariacou (63,24,21)), which is an amazing collection of her SL creations. But be warned: set aside several hours, because her work is both fascinating and demanding. A quick scurry through the exhibit will not be nearly sufficient to absorb the power of her art.

Jami Mills: Rose, thank you for taking time from your busy schedule (in both worlds) to speak with me about your art and your experiences here in the SL art community. I’m sure those of our readers who are long-time followers of your work, and those who are just now being introduced to it, appreciate this opportunity to get to know you better. First of all, welcome back from your trip to China exhibiting your acclaimed RL multimedia theatre performance, The Blue Planet. Your trip must have been fascinating. Please tell us about it and how The Blue Planet was received in China.

I had difficulties breathing. The smog killed me. I will never forget this trip; the images of the cities and its very friendly inhabitants are imprinted in my brain.

Rose Borchovski: We have shown The Blue Planet in two cities: Hong Kong and Macao. It is a multimedia show; a big part of the show is the projections. Some of the footage has been generated in SL. Two of our main characters,God and Noah, and Noah’s boat filled with cheering and screaming animals are living in SL. The show was originally created for the expo in Zaragoza-Spain, some years ago and has been travelling since. It is the requiem of the wife of Noah (in the Bible she has no name) – we call her Joan of Arc. Joan refuses to board the ship this time. It is a performance about the environment and how we abuse and absorb the world. During the show we slowly build up the horror of our behaviour and also in China the message was clear, we screw up and destroy, we have to do better. The performance isn’t an evening of only entertainment; we try to reflect on our consuming behaviour without being moralizing. It is a fascinating mix of music (Goran Bregovic = composer), dance, projection and singing. My conclusion after the performances in China and the response of the audience is: that we basically all care about our planet and that we share the same sentiments but somehow we miss the tools and the strength to turn around what goes wrong. Hong Kong is a giant city, 7 million inhabitants, skyscraper after skyscraper after skyscraper. A stream of constant loud traffic. Big differences between rich and poor, but also the best food of the world.

Macau is like a Chinese Las Vegas. I have never seen a city like this before. The casinos are extraordinary palaces of blinking lights and weird shapes, a 24-hour continuous stream of money going around and again the BEST food of the world. I had difficulties breathing. The smog killed me. I will never forget this trip; the images of the cities and its very friendly inhabitants are imprinted in my brain.

JM: Rose, my first recollection of your work from years ago is dominated by a single image: the human eye. Eyes are seemingly ubiquitous in your work, sometimes magnified a hundred-fold and sometimes piled as high as the sky. Eyes are obviously an integral and profound part of your work. Do you subscribe to the old proverb, “The eyes are the window of the soul”?

RB: Yes, you can say that. These eyes also give focus, make us look and therefore think. In the Susa story, I used the naked blue eye, a very vulnerable and naive image which can be easily bruised. A silent witness that sucks in all that happens.

Will she make the same mistakes? I want to believe she will do better; we need to be optimistic, because to be anything else would be absurd.

JM: Susa Bubble is the central character of your best known SL work. I understand you created Susa for your daughter when she fell ill, to explain to her the darker elements within us – misfortune, hate and death, to name a few. Through the years, Susa has continued exploring these issues, always questioning why and wherefore. You don’t seem to have nearly exhausted your own exploration of these themes. There is a universality to Susa’s plight that has captured our collective imaginations. You’ve really struck a resonant chord with Susa, haven’t you?

RB: I‘m happy it did struck a chord with many visitors of Two Fish. Others still describe them as distressed naked children. The story is about the acknowledgement of our dark inner world. The side of us, which we try to keep hidden, also for ourselves. It can be very confronting. It makes it easier when you experience it through the eyes of the Susas. You can understand they do not want to harm or cause distress, but despite themselves they do, and in order to survive they commit horrible crimes. They kill each other off and have no power to stop it. I think because of the simple way I tell the story, it makes it easier to feel the dark and sad sentiments behind the images I have created.

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JM: Susa brings out such a strong empathic response in your viewers. Susa is in obvious pain – “tortured” is probably not too strong a word to describe her life. While Eastern mystics teach that “life is suffering,” we here in the West seem more directed toward happiness and pleasure. Do you see suffering as being more central to our existence, as it is with Susa’s?

RB: I also think in the West suffering, punishment and forgiveness play a major part in our lives and we have made them important values. They are also the basic elements of the story. An important question is: what is the result of all this suffering? What do we do with the things life is teaching us? We all do wrong, that is part of being human. Right and wrong also change in the light, which is shone upon them. But do we face and acknowledge what we do wrong? It needs a lot of strength, courage, forgiving, selfless and education to be able to do that and to change our behaviour. When Susa has tumbled back inside herself and is one again, will she do better the next time around if she doubles up? Or will she make the same mistakes? I want to believe she will do better; we need to be optimistic, because to be anything else would be absurd.

 SL has become a basic tool to create, explore and develop my concepts. I have grown technically in using SL as a tool.

JM: I couldn’t help but notice that your RL initials are the same as Susa’s. Is this mere coincidence or are there autobiographical underpinnings to Susa’s struggles?

RB: That is nice observation. It has never been my intention, but I enjoy the coincidence. I think like with every artist, the biggest source of inspiration comes from myself and my surroundings. But Susa’s struggles are universal, and therefore probably she speaks to many people. Susa has become a character I care for. When I write her poem or make an installation/image about her emotions, it is as if she is telling me. I speak her voice, but after the recording it is not my voice anymore, it became Susa’s. This sounds maybe silly but the story became stronger then me and is telling itself.

JM: A s if dealing with petty jealousies among her 32 “sisters” weren’t enough, Susa asks perhaps the most profound existential question of all, “Why is there not nothing?” She gets right to the crux of things, doesn’t she?

RB: There are actually more questions: Why is there something? Why is there not nothing? We would like to know: why we are here? What it is all about and where it is going? Humankind is struggling so badly finding the answers, we seem to need all kinds of structures and religions to give ourselves a basis and a reason to just simply exist. And we are battling each other with the answers and solutions we have found. A major one: My God is better than your God, and so much blood is spilled over this annoying assumption.

Rose 8JM: Rose, you have been very effective bringing your art to the SL public. Your visual imagery and storytelling is deeply affecting, troubling and provocative. And yet, art in the virtual world seems not to receive the respect it deserves, perhaps because gallery owners haven’t figured out a way to make money selling it. You and other talented artists here in SL are doing some truly extraordinary work. What do you think it will take for the virtual arts to make inroads into the RL art world?

RB: An interesting question but difficult to answer. I have integrated Susa in my RL art. I make prints, Susa was the centre of the inauguration shows of the science museum in Warsaw last year. At this moment we are preparing a music/theatre performance around Susa and a short animation film “The Falls”. My sim in SL is my studio to create and get inspiration. SL has become a basic tool to create, explore and develop my concepts. I have grown technically in using SL as a tool. I have decided to take my Susa story temporarily down in SL for the public, and will rework parts of it before showing her again, and finish the poem. I have taken the art I make in SL very seriously. For me that was an important and essential decision: It is not just play! I fought to make my SL art to be part of my RL projects. I have been successful with that and I still have the ambition to use SL animation in future projects combined with other 3-D programs.

At SL’s 7th birthday celebration, SLB7, Rose displayed “The Kiss”, a piece featuring Susa and several of her “sisters” in their natural state – naked and puzzled. Although there is nothing sexualized or prurient about the piece, monitors from Linden Labs shut it down unceremoniously, with little explanation, other than to say “The images on your build are in violation of our general rating, to be clear: Nudity is not allowed at art events with a general maturity rating.” This prompted immediate and vehement objections and heated accusations of censorship. Rose said in response, “My Susa is a caricature, a cartoon, she is naked like Donald Duck is naked. She has no genitals, and has a flat chest. ..When I hide my Susa’s nakedness, I stop telling her story.” Her collaborator, Peter Greenaway, sent an open letter to Linden Labs, stating “It seems to me incredible that you are enforcing censorship concerning nudity in public forums on Second Life. Traditions of nudity in Western Art have for centuries been legitimate, honourable and creditable.” The storm brewed for months, with picketing demonstrators denouncing the heavy-handed way in which little Susa was dispatched. Years later, the controversy still reverberates.

Artists should be independent. No censorship, certainly not in this extraordinary virtual world without borders and immense possibilities.

JM: Linden Labs has long been under fire for not doing enough to support the arts in SL, but in the case of “The Kiss”, many accused LL of actually undermining the arts. As upsetting as it must have been to have your work censored, you must have been gratified by the outpouring of support and the lengthy, spirited debate that ensued. You said at the time, “The worst part of censorship is not that which is censored, but the climate of self-censorship it imposes on all artists.” Now that you have some distance, do you think Linden Labs’ attitude about the arts has matured, or do you see little progress since “The Kiss”?

RB: I regret that the Lindens do not have a warm heart for the Arts and their Artists anymore. The tier (rental) prices are for most artists and curators too expensive. Linden has started the LEA, which is primarily a group of sims cluttered together for artists to work on for a period of 5 months. These sims are controlled by a group of volunteers and it is lacking freedom. The committee in general has a very conservative and administratively controlling approach. For an artist it is important to be independent and also have the possibility to meet and collaborate. To scratch edges. To be over poetic or extremely harsh and not afraid to hurt. To be able to show your work and have an appreciative but also critical audience. Virtual art is relatively young; there is a lot of fast development and growth. History teaches us that art brings innovation, it is an immense research and discovery. Essential it is to share knowledge and to educate colleague artists to make virtual art grow and taken seriously. We can grow faster on each other’s shoulders. SL art suffers by the fact that there is no division between art as a hobby and art as a profession. In SL, holiday snapshots, Sunday afternoon paintings and my “first machinima” are shown and promoted as serious art, but I’m confident that time will put this straight. I can already sense a more critical attitude from bloggers who review the SL art installations. Artists should be independent. No censorship, certainly not in this extraordinary virtual world without borders and immense possibilities. The best solution would be that it is possible for artists and curators to be able to rent a sim for a reduced price so they can flourish under their own conditions and circumstances without a judging committee and conservative censorship. (I’m sure the LEA committee members have good intentions but most of them do not have the right skills). The artists do need a shared place like LEA but with the vision of a RL professional curator who is able to build a bridge between the SL and RL art scene. Although I criticize the LEA, it also gave me my best SL experience. I was asked by Bryn Oh to be part of a project called “The Path”. It was successful thanks to Bryn’s interesting vision, patience and professional attitude and I’m sure not because of the fact it was an LEA project.

JM: Teaming with British artist and filmmaker, Peter Greenaway (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover), you’ve brought us a fascinating breadth of sounds and imagery in numerous RL projects, including a profoundly moving multimedia installation, “A Survivor from Warsaw” (featuring music by Arnold Schonberg), you’ve populated a restored 17th century Dutch castle near Utrecht with 21 life-like cinema projections in Castle Amerongen, and you’ve created another stunning stage presentation – replete with a visually captivating overflowing bathtub – in Wash & Travel. You have also collaborated with Bryn Oh (featured in the December 2011 and January 2012 issues or rez) and other SL artists in the very successful and highly-regarded installation, “The Path”. You seem very comfortable collaborating with others. How do you approach the collaborative process in RL and SL, and how different or similar are the processes in the two worlds?

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RB: Each process is different. I’m working as a multimedia artist for about 25 years at many different places around the world. I have been very fortunate with the many projects I have been able to create. But each project is like a new beginning and the more experienced I get, the more I do understand the necessity of that approach. I can never rest on my laurels; it is a continuous process of improving and educating yourself. Over the years we gathered a wonderful creative team, which basically formed itself. We share the same interest and hunger for new adventures and the feeling that we always should try to get better. At first they thought my SL adventure was an insane trip, but they are now convinced of the beauty and its potential. SL is a special experience for me. It emancipated me as an artist. It gave me a tool, which made me more independent during the concept phase of a project. For example: I work now on a new story: “Angry Beth and Lot”, a story about war. Eventually this will become a short feature film, we are not sure if it will be animation, but the style will be surrealistic. I work now for seven months on this new concept in SL. It gave me sleepless nights, a lot of soul searching but also inspiration and a clear idea about the final concept. It will be impossible to show all and maybe the story is too heavy to show in its full depth in SL. But I try to set up a part for the public after I have taken down the Susa story. I’m curious about the reactions, but also understand the risk that it might be too ambitious. But that is also the beauty of this virtual world and its art. The boundaries of it are still to be discovered. Collaboration in SL is a big learning exercise. It is more difficult than in RL and that is because of communication. Written words sound and feel different when they are spoken. I find it easier in RL, less guessing (and much better coffee).

JM: Rose, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your generosity. I think I can speak for all of our readers when I say you are truly one of those artists that enriches all of our lives here in SL. We are looking forward to hearing from you (and Susa) more in the future. Thank you.

RB: THANK YOU!!

rez magazine, May, 2012

Photographs by Jami Mills

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About slummagazine

slum magazine is about all things Second Life: art, music, news, reviews, shopping, love and life.

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