The Curious World Of Bryn Oh

I’m about to say something and you might be tempted to head back a page at my hackneyed sentiment but bare with me for a moment, because I have a point and I’ll get there shortly.

Art can be found anywhere. From the whorl of a fingerprint to cloud formations across a clear blue sky. The world is a canvas and creativity abounds. So, I don’t know why I was so surprised to find that stunning works art also exist in virtual reality. Yes, obviously it makes sense in hindsight – computer programmers have done some amazing things with technology.

But I’m not talking about perfectly written HTML (although, a totally compliant script can be a thing of beauty), I’m talking about an artist who, stepping away from his physical canvas, has developed a cult like following for the work he exhibits under his persona on the MMORPG, Second Life (SL).

Bryn Oh (he won’t tell me his real name, which I think adds to the mystique) is a Canadian kid who, like most of us, started from humble beginnings – building little things in the snow (“winter clay”). Before heading to the Ontario College of Art and Design to work on his God-given artistic talent (and spending a requisite semester abroad in Florence, Italy), he tried his hand at studying Psychology in Montreal. He dropped out (to his parents dismay). After OCAD, Seneca to study computer animation, then the Toronto School of Art for Zbrush (a digital sculpting tool that combines 3D/2.5D modeling, texturing, and painting). It seems like such a technical leap from wielding a paint brush, but the end result – whether tactile or purely explorational – is an exceptionally crafted piece of fine art.

“Building in Second Life can be a very social experience with regular feedback from people wandering about, whereas the studio artist often spends months alone in their workspace creating a series of artworks with the social aspect and feedback being mostly just the opening night,” Bryn explains.

Apparently, there are somewhere over 25 million inhabitants world wide wandering around SL. I had only heard of it in passing, so if this is the first time you’ve encountered it, or the mysterious artist Bryn Oh, don’t beat yourself up. He’s something of a phenom in the virtual world, but his creative successes are also garnering international recognition in real life. Case in point? He was recently featured in an issue of Italian Vogue. How’s that for impressive? For the anonymous guy who likes to keep a low profile, even he found the experience “a bit bizarre, to be honest.”

“I have the magazine at my home now, and when I opened it I began to go past page after page of high gloss fashion spreads or articles on celebrities and I had a hard time imagining that an article with reference to my work could be in it,” he says.

“I guess it is a bit strange doing things anonymously because you can’t really tell anyone about it. It is almost as though it doesn’t really happen if you don’t share it. People ask me what I have been up to lately and I say, ‘Oh, you know, same old, same old,’ but in my mind I am thinking I could say, ‘Oh, well, my artwork was in the World Expo for the Spanish pavilion, and I worked with the director Peter Greenaway. I was put on the syllabus for several universities worldwide…and I was in Vogue magazine last month.’ So, it is rewarding and exciting, but at the same time, anti-climactic.”

At this point, it would help to have a bit of a visual. Here’s a video of Cerulean, a side story within an exquisite corpse build done in Second Life.

Or the story of Gretchen & Teddy.

Now you’re getting an idea of the complexity. In SL, Bryn is creating what he calls, “Immersiva”, or immersive experiences. He builds landscapes that allow viewers to become engrossed in an experience to the extent that they forget about everything around them.

“I begin by taking an experience of my own and converting it to a narrative. It might be a hope, dream or regret from my life but it must be something I am connected to in order for me to properly understand and convey it,” he says. “Often I will convert the narrative into poetry and hide them as written notes in an environment that may or may not be found. My focus is also on the joy of discovery. Knowing you have found something that most others have missed, being able to show your friends the hidden secrets or meaning in an artwork. It harkens back to my childhood when I enjoyed turning over stones to find worlds of insects underneath or digging up buried keys or bottles in my back yard. I love that feeling so I try to recreate it.”

Imagine arriving in the middle of a winter storm of his design. It’s hard to see and you hear the sounds of howling wind. As you walk, you hear your feet crunch over snow, and ahead you can make out the faint impression of a road. You decide to head down the road, where you come across a car in a snow drift. You open a door and, inside the glove compartment, find a hand written note with a bit of a story. You leave the car, heading out into the blizzard amongst the rime and graupel. The scene features carefully chosen ambient sound that affects moods in a subtle way, there is an element of mystery and discovery, and interaction with the environment itself. The composition and colour encourage feelings of anxiety and cold. It all comes together so, as the viewer, you are drawn into the work by discovering a narrative and your desire to learn more.

Not planning on exploring the land of Second Life anytime soon? Bryn is hoping to bring his virtual magic into the real world, thanks to a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, part of which will be used to create a gallery show he hopes will incorporate wind and scent with virtual reality headsets.

“Imagine being in a virutal space where you walk past a lilac bush and in the gallery a timed spray releases a very subtle lilac scent? Or you hear wind and a fan in the gallery activates a cool breeze,” he ponders. “These would all be things that are below the viewers consciousness though, nothing too obvious.”

What he likes most about the concept, though, is the idea that people will show up to this real life gallery only to discover the artist doesn’t really exist as a person, but rather as an anonymous virtual character.

“Sometimes I explain it as similar to going to a Ronnie Burkett marionette show. When the lights go down and a play begins, you forget the marionette is made of string and wood and see them as a living being. If the lights are suddenly turned on and you see someone controlling them, the magic is broken and they revert back to being just wood and glue.”

Getting back to his talent with the paint brush (which he still gets a chance to play around with), his real life work has its own ethereal, haunting quality, not that much of a departure from what you might find in SL. So I was still curious, why the switch?

“It is not really a switch from one to the other. I still paint, but SL offers me some very unique tools that other mediums do not,” he explains.

“For example, if you were to go to a gallery to see my paintings you would stand five feet away and interact with them on a certain level. At all times you are aware you are in a gallery looking at a static two dimensional work. I can create a ten foot painting to block out your peripheral vision a bit, but you will always be aware of others in the gallery, of people talking, or you might see a light switch on the wall which breaks the sense of immersion. In cinema, they turn down the lights so you are not distracted. The screen is huge to block out your peripheral. They turn the volume up loud so the immersion is not broken by unrelated sound. In movies like Avatar they also incorporated 3D, which deepened the feeling of being there. But in the end we are passive observers being told a story. We are not part of the medium, nor can we interact with it. If we watch the movie again it will always be the same.

“The potential for virtual worlds, from my perspective, is that it allows me to create a painting you can enter and explore. It is open ended meaning that the user decides what to do or where to go. The user is an active participant. In my virtual environments I can create a narrative that has ambient sound and 3D space combined with duration and interaction.”

He really touches on something here. A thought that every artist in any medium has had at least once in their creative career – the dream to be a part of a movement, a style, or a school of thought. A part of something bigger.

“We read about the Cubists, Surrealists, Impressionists, Minimalism, Art Nouveau, Dada and so on, but the odds of being there at the right time to be a part of one are extremely unlikely,” he says. “I like to dream that I have stumbled upon the frontier of a new art movement and I suppose time will tell if it was only my imagination.”You won’t find Bryn in real life, so when you’re ready to look for him, find him in Second Life (or, more easily… reach him through his blog).

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