March 28, 2020

Taking Art to a Virtual Level: The Arts in Second Life

Snapshot_004It goes without saying that most artists dream of having their work exhibited in a gallery, although the road to achieving this dream can be long and disappointing. With the dawn of the virtual world, a new opportunity presented itself to struggling artists; the three dimensional virtual gallery.

The virtual world of Second Life, launched in 2003, was a pioneer in 3D worlds. With free access via downloadable software and free membership, it unleashed a realm of creative possibilities for artists and other creative individuals throughout the world.

The content of Second Life is created by its residents. In its simplest form, a resident has free building blocks, called primitives, or prims, that can be manipulated to create nearly anything, from a simple box to cars, boats, buildings and beasts. An artist can log into Second Life and for a small amount of money, upload images of their artwork and apply them to appropriately proportioned prims. Voila! Their art is now virtual!

Snapshot_006Within the Second Life community there are dozens of groups dedicated to supporting the arts, sharing and promoting events and artists. A new resident can quickly connect with these groups and start to explore galleries and meet artists and gallery owners within a relatively short amount of time.

Gallery owners in Second Life are as diverse as in “real life”, coming from all walks of life. They are art patrons, art lovers, curators and frequently artists themselves. Using the same system of manipulating prims, they can build a gallery at a relatively low cost, or purchase one pre-built. Through the same network of art groups, they connect with artists to exhibit their work, as well as showing their own.

In 2006, resident Sasun Steinbeck began to build Art Galleries of Second Life, a comprehensive list of virtual art galleries, featuring kiosks located at each gallery and a central, searchable website database of the galleries participating. Participation in the list is voluntary, but over the years has become the most widely used gallery network in Second Life, featuring more than 500 galleries, studios and art communities. Joining the list has become one of the first things a new artist is advised to do to help promote their gallery.

The physical appearance of the gallery itself has nearly unlimited possibilities; from elegant contemporary and historical architecture to gravity defying, fantastic structures. The design of the gallery space is limited only to the creativity of its architect. Even the elements and availability of materials impose no constraints.


The art exhibited, of course, expands beyond the simply application of art to a virtual canvas. Artists can scan or photograph their work and upload it to Second Life much the way they would to a website. In no time, however, residents began manipulating prims to create 3D sculpture inside the virtual world. Snapshot_003Over the years, development of new methods, including sculpted and mesh prims created in programs such as Blender, have expanded the versatility of the basic building block and made it possible to build beautifully rendered and incredibly detailed sculptural works.

Those with the skill to create scripts, or with talented scripting friends, began to add them to their virtual art creations. Scripts allow artists to create kinetic works with moving parts, animated textures; even music and video. Artists like resident Feathers Boa created reactive art that moves and changes on approach or by touch. Snapshot_007 The possibilities presented by scripting, original textures and the physics, or lack thereof, associated with virtual worlds has generated what some would say is a completely new genre of art, including works that would be impossible, or extremely difficult, to recreate in the physical world.

Other virtual worlds have begun to appear; though few have yet reached the size and scope of Second Life, with its nearly one million active users. More than just a high tech way to display artwork, many artists have benefitted from the international audience, making art sales across the world and finding opportunities for exhibits in the “real world”.

Snapshot_017Of course in the virtual world, as well as the real world, art is relative and the quality of work varies widely, perhaps due to the ease at which artists can exhibit their work. There is relative anonymity with which one can start out, although it might seem counterproductive if you’re trying to make a name for yourself in the art world. It gives an artist a safety net with which to test the market, see what the response is to their work, before they bring it out in public in the physical world.

On that same note, however, there are several widely Snapshot_015known artists within Second Life who choose not to reveal their real identities. For many, they feel that the avatar, their persona within the virtual world is part of their art. Their work tends to take extreme advantage of its virtual existence and is often considered on the cutting edge of creativity.

However you look at it, and whatever reputation Second Life or other virtual worlds may have at large, they have become an important venue for the arts, inspiring experimentation and unimaginable creativity. Take a walk through the vibrant virtual art world and you may just find yourself inspired.

3 Comments on Taking Art to a Virtual Level: The Arts in Second Life

  1. I loved this article, it’s really interesting to learn a little bit more (from the perspective of an insider!). I recently interviewed Philippa Found, curator at the ROLLO Gallery who had included Gazira Babeli (Second Life Performance Artist) in her current exhibition. You might be interested to take a look at my article:
    It’s always fun when interests overlap on the magazine!

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