At Link TV we've always strived to connect American audiences with the rest of the world through our eclectic programming and live video feeds. As new technology constantly evolves, our ability to rub elbows with netizens from all over the industrialized world has exploded. There are still millions of unheard voices, but now we are connecting across borders through movements as diverse as rock music and Iranian protest. Some conduits are bizarre (Chat Roulette) and others strangely addictive. Second Life is a bit of both, and is the subject of Life 2.0, which chronicles the misadventures of four Second Life Residents, inside and outside of their virtual world.
Bad love in Life 2.0
Second Life is not a game - it's an online environment with shopping malls and castles, where avatars called Residents can design products, talk with each other, make real money, DJ, have sex (3D glasses?), buy a dream house, even watch a movie and participate in an interactive Q&A session with the "real" world. But stepping outside of reality can be dangerous, especially when it allows us to explore parts of ourselves traditionally left in the subconscious, and tamped down by the strictures of society.
In Life 2.0 we meet an adulterous couple, a male web programmer who has assumed the frowned-upon form of an 11 year old girl, and an African American entrepreneur from downtrodden Detroit, making "six figures" in Second Life. Over time these three stories evolve and devolve from addictive ecstasy to hard felt reality. Director Jason Spingarn-Koff seems to have mixed feelings about his subjects, loosely framing them from the outset as laughable losers on a dangerous path. It's a risky line for a documentary to take, playing with the audience's ability to sympathize with the characters, but on balance Spingarn-Koff pushes the human drama angle to the end, and the combination is a sad one.
In a short Q&A after the screening, Spingarn-Koff admitted that he didn't expect to get a positive reaction from his subjects upon seeing the film, also mentioning that some aspects of Second Life, such as the utilization of the space by nonprofits, and its potential use for cross-cultural exchange, were left out to focus on the personal stories. To his surprise, some of the participants have championed the film as a warning message to others considering plugging in and avataring any time soon.
Audience members might find it difficult to relate to a group of people so easily drawn into an escapist world, especially if it's one they've never been interested in themselves - but perhaps the booming video game industry has made the idea of virtual worlds mainstream. After the film, audience interest might be piqued, but the film also has enough of a melancholic ick factor to potentially keep them out for life.
In contrast, Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio couldn't be more rooted in the tangible world. Samuel Mockbee was a Southern architect, teacher and practitioner whose Rural Studio at Auburn University had (and still has) a social mission: to design and build houses and public projects for impoverished Alabama communities. Mockbee has passed away, but his vision thrives: students who participate in the program break free from traditional academic practice to live and work in the community, providing the labor and materials needed for special, one-off building projects.
Jay Sanders and Jimmie Lee Matthews (aka Music Man) in Citizen Architect
Citizen Architect Director Sam Wainwright Douglas (left) with Martin Ginestie (Robin Hood Gardens)
Responsible architecture in this context goes beyond sustainability, instead focusing on the role of buildings to improve peoples' lives, both practically (think running water) and emotionally (occupying beautiful spaces). Instilling this philosophy in students forces them to consider the role their work will have in the future, and its potential to do real social good beyond basic remuneration.
Also, there's nothing like actually building a house by hand if you're planning on telling other people how to do it for a living.
The documentary follows the story of "Music Man" (Jimmie Lee Matthews) and his house, as it is built by a group of 20 year old students with instructor Jay Sanders, the year after Mockbee's death from leukemia.
Focused more on interviews with Mockbee, his philosophy, and the work of the studio, the documentary chooses an illustrative small story over shifting focus to the bigger questions surrounding the ethics of architecture which, while touched on through interviews and the school itself, tend to take a back seat.
Mockbee's message and work are so powerful, they could stand the stress of a much larger context, and it's a shame the film didn't step up to be that film about architecture that some of us are waiting for.
Citizen Architect will broadcast on PBS. For more info visit the Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio website. Citizen Architect played alongside the excellent short documentary Robin Hood Gardens (Or Every Brutalist Structure For Itself), a portrait of a beleaguered housing project in London's East End.
For more information on Life 2.0, visit the Life 2.0 website.
As the focus of SXSW shifts from Interactive to Music, the film programming rolls on. Coming tomorrow: The Oath and Marwencol.