Senna Coronet

Senna Coronet‘s new exhibit Loss opens tomorrow at Berg by Nordan Art. We got to spend some time together planning the show and we ended up putting together this interview as well. I am so pleased that Senna will show his extraordinary photographs at the gallery and very happy we got to put together the interview too. So without further ado, I present to you the talented Senna Coronet.

~Kate Bergdorf

Interviewer

First, thank you Senna for agreeing to this interview. I know you are incredibly busy at the moment with all kinds of things, both inside and outside of Second Life. I very much appreciate you making time for this!

Coronet

No worries at all. Thank you for the opportunity to do this show in Amona’s place.

Interviewer

Let’s jump right in. You have been in Second Life since 2006, meaning you are now at least a decade old! Ten years of this virtual reality business. I remember when I first came here, in 2009, I never thought I would last longer then a week. But I did. Then I left a few times, I think I had doubts, and it wasn’t that easy coming back, but I did anyway. What is it do you think about this place that makes us somehow not take it seriously initially, but then eventually it turns into such an incredibly meaningful part of our lives?

Coronet

Well, I know from my perspective, when you first get here you don’t know what it is you’re supposed to do and then you realize you can do anything. Thereafter, you might ask yourself, should I do those things at all? I started taking images early in SL, back in 2008. That was also a time when I was just starting to revive my RL art skills, which I hadn’t used in a long time. SL was just another way to explore creativity. I was pretty raw back then. Very few controls and objects weren’t that great, but still, you could play with forms and color and the very basics of light to create compositions. But that all got a bit boring after a while and I was not happy with who I was in SL. I was doing a lot of magazine work and fashion shoots but that wasn’t really me. It became work, not art. So, I left SL for essentially 2 years. When I came back I dedicated myself to making images (photography) that were artistic. Now, SL is more fun and rewarding for me than ever. The talent here is amazing and my friends are just fantastic.

Interviewer

Many of us stay I think because we are drawn to and curious about the creative aspects of the virtual world. I’ve given some thought to virtual photography lately. It’s fascinating to me how much we get inspired, and also learn about technique, from our peers in our little Flickr community and how we develop as photographers there. I also think of photography in that particular context as a means of communication between Second Life residents. What are your thoughts on virtual photography in general and in the virtual Flickr setting in particular?

Coronet

The “photography” subject is very interesting and it’s a continuation of a discussion about what is art. I have been referring to this thing I do here as “image making” rather than photography lately simply because it’s not photography in reality. I’m not offended if someone calls it that, I just tend to think it’s something else so call it Image Making. Well, clearly I love this thing we do here in SL. The advent of mesh and the massive improvement in general of textures of objects, clothes, and skins/shapes, it just gets more fun every day to create images. I don’t say this enough but I really appreciate the people who create the viewers that we Image Makers use most often. They give us the features and tools that make our curious hobby easier to do (thanks guys!). Then, of course, you have the people in the community that just add all their talent in so many ways to make the experience so much better. I laugh sometimes when I shooting images I’m all by myself, yet think of all the hours that were invested by so many people to let me do this. It’s mind-boggling.

At the end of the day, all these improvements let us explore our individual creativity and express ourselves through the images we make. That process and the resultant art is as valid as any other art created today. It’s not second class art, not by any measure, it’s true art. That doesn’t mean everyone outside of SL (or inside SL for that matter) understands what we do or likes what we do, but it is a serious artistic endeavor none the less.

Interviewer

It seems that some of our virtual world photographers are also creative outside of Second Life, but not all. I am not, the virtual world is my only creative outlet. I am curious about if creativity is part of your life outside of Second Life as well. And do you think that it matters when it comes to quality of work produced in-world if a person is creative outside of Second Life or not?

Coronet

I went to fine art school (college) for classic art studies – drawing, painting, printmaking, and I worked in the commercial art world for about 10 years after getting out of college. But then got involved in other things professionally and my art laid dormant for many years. I don’t think it’s necessary to have prior art skills in order to be successful (whatever that means) with your work in SL, in fact, I tend to like to see when people “discover” their creative side through SL. It does not come laden with preconceived notions of what art is, and can be refreshingly raw. I love it.

I’ve started doing my own RL work again, and that will get more intense in the next few years. I owe that all to my renewed interest in creativity which came from SL. No question about that.

Interviewer

Let’s talk a bit about your photography style. You mostly take portraits, some are self portraits, but many of them are of female subjects, some of them with an erotic undertone, and in my humble opinion, all of them sublime. There is simultaneously something elegant, decadent, raw, and modern about your pictures. There is emotion and depth. Tell us about your work and how did you go about getting to where you are today?

Coronet

My artwork and style are just basically what I tend to like in the world. From a “style” perspective, while I like realism and even some “hyper-realism” (think Chuck Close), I also like to see that blended with surrealism. They are not mutually exclusive, so that works. As I mentioned early, the improvements in all areas of SL have made making images just better all the time. Even still, I’ve long given up the notion that I can do everything in world to get the images that I want so I spend many hours working on images in Photoshop after a shoot. Basically, my philosophy and advice to anyone creating images in SL is to create the best raw images you can, you can’t make bad images much better in Photoshop. I am very picky about images that I take to completion. For every image I finish, I probably shoot 10 to 20 that don’t make the final cut. This is a lot like RL photography. Which is basically to say, be a good editor of your own work, you are the best judge of whether it is “good” or not.

I do shoot a lot of Female subjects mostly because I found Female AV’s more interesting to shoot in SL (textures and clothes were better) and eroticism/sexuality comes across better with Female subjects. I do like to shoot mildly provocative images but not overtly sexual ones. My primary interest has been and remains to try and draw out some humanity in the AV’s. It’s not easy and it doesn’t always work but it’s a constant struggle. The one thing that I love about this effort in SL is watching the changes in my work and the people I follow on Flickr. It’s absolutely fascinating to look at someone’s image stream and literally see where they made a change or a jump in creativity in their images. Try it sometime with your own stream or someone you know, you can see the progress. It just means its not getting stale and boring and there’s more work to be done.

Interviewer

Clearly, and not only in Second Life, but in general, the creative process becomes a means to process feelings and experiences, which are then in turn reflected in the finished work. I have a feeling that the work you did on your new Berg by Nordan Art exhibit, Loss, will illustrate this. Can you share with us what that process was like, what were some of the hurdles and some of the triumphs, putting together that show?

Coronet

That’s a big question. This show is very important because now that it’s done, I’ve finally been able to put the hurt to rest following the death of my good friend Amona Savira back in February. It wasn’t just her passing that was at the root of the emotional storm I’ve been in for more than a year now, there are many other factors in RL contributing to that, but Amona’s passing was the straw that broke the camels back, it was just too much to deal with. She was just a very very good friend but I cried for 2 days when she passed. I was totally distraught and I couldn’t stop seeing her (SL) image in my head. As I said in my message on flickr, on the day I heard the news, Amona had transitioned from being just an SL friend to becoming a RL friend to me, as is true of other friends of mine in SL. I just didn’t know the depth to which she meant to me and that’s what was coming out in those days after she died. But it was more than that, I was leaving a home that I’d had for almost 2 decades, that event was coming and it became clear that I was far more emotional about that event than I realized. So in the end, the notion of Loss is very strong and not simply about Amona but just generally about the experience in general and how it messes with your mind, your emotional stability, and how you recover from it in the end.

Creating a show from this is a challenge, I didn’t want it to be trite, and I didn’t want it to be too depressing. In the end, it’s a story, shown as a series of vignettes, expressing the engrossing nature of Loss. Stepping back from the hundreds of images i made for this, in the end, I had to pick the ones that told the story but were also beautiful art as well. The final edits and image selection is a difficult process. I’m pleased how it came out but like all of us, we finish something and start seeing all the faults, but I’ve been through that so many times, I just ignore it now!

Interviewer

Thank you very much, Senna.

Coronet

Thank you so much Kate!

Photograph by Kate Bergdorf

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Serene Footman

Serene Footman is known to many of us as the owner of Furillen, the virtual world interpretation of a place with the same name in Sweden. I was immediately drawn to Furillen, partially due to my Scandinavian heritage perhaps, but also because of the raw and unusual beauty of the environment. Serene, with his somewhat grumpy exterior (he will be the first to admit to this), but kind heart and welcoming demeanor, has  succeed in creating an unusually intriguing minimalist environment with a unique atmosphere where people return to visit. An academic in real life, living in London, England, I know he is busy so I was so grateful to catch him for this interview. It is such a pleasure to introduce to you here the talented Serene Footman.

~Kate Bergdorf

The Serene Footman InterviewPhotograph by Kate Bergdorf

Interviewer

First, thank you very much for agreeing to meet with me for this interview. I remember visiting your sim Furillen sometime last year. You had just opened the place then and it was not quite done yet, but a few visitors had found their way there regardless, myself included. It was a quieter time there then, but I think we already had a sense of what kind of magical place it would ultimately become. Tell me please what it was that inspired you to put together Furillen and what were some of the challenges you came up against initially.

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Photograph from Furillen Website (http://www.furillen.com/images/uploads/slideshows/furillen-hotel-gotland-utsikt.jpg)

Footman

I saw pictures of this place in Sweden called Furillen around two years ago. I was doing up a beach in SL – somewhere in the Fruit Islands, I think – and wanted a look that was a bit different from the usual tropical thing you get so often on the grid. I knew that Furillen could make an awesome sim, but was pushing it too far at that place, so I opted for something a bit more North Atlantic instead. Then I took up a sim on the New England estate, which is connected to all those wonderful sailing sims around Blakes Sea. Here, I was if anything more restricted – in order to keep everything in theme there, owners aren’t allowed to terraform, and they have to use only builds that are recognizably ‘New England’. I liked it there, the people are nice and sailing in SL is fabulous – and because of the strict rules, the estate looks pretty good. But after about 18 months I began to feel a bit restricted – getting permission to use certain buildings, changing season at set times, etc. – so I moved to the sim I have now, which is free-standing, so I can do what I like. After a week or two the Furillen idea came back into my head. I took a more serious look at photographs of the real Furillen, checked Google maps, and felt that I could make it work. I envisaged a setting that combined the cold, hard brutalism of an abandoned quarry, with the (very Swedish) minimalist style of the hotel that is situated there. I liked this contrast, and felt that it could bring something really quite new to Second Life. The first thing I did was to work out where everything should go, using maps and ariel photographs and taking a few liberties along the way. The second thing was to decide on the land texture. This was all fine. The third thing – and this proved the most difficult – was finding the main buildings: the hotel itself, and the house next to it, which sits more or less at the centre of the sim. Every building I tried looked wrong, to my eyes – too cute, I guess, or in some cases too urban. Then I found the Junk house, and the Soy building – on the same day, as it happened. Once they were in place, it seemed clear to me that I could get the atmosphere I wanted.

Interviewer

As time has passed, Furillen has become an incredibly popular Second Life destination. It still remains a great place to just linger, for thinking and daydreaming, but it is now of course much busier compared to the way it was initially. Please share with us what it is like for you presently to manage this sim. I suspect that the challenges and rewards may be quite different now than they were in the beginning.

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Photograph by Serene Footman

Footman

It is busier, with around 300-400 visitors per day – and over 13,000 visits in total, now – and although I sometimes think back to the early days when there were just a few people around and the place was empty, I wanted it this way. Too often during my eight or so years on the grid I’ve seen great sims pretty much die because nobody visits them. We all have our theories about why this happens, but I hoped that it might be possible to sustain a livelier sim. People attract people on the grid, we all know about the network effects – so with the sim always looking busy, it would inevitably stay busy. I’ve gone about doing this in several ways. The first is simply to be around when I can. You don’t have to talk to everyone – lots of people come to Furillen for peace and quiet – but being on hand to answer questions can make a difference to whether or not someone feels welcome, or whether they feel like they are intruding. The second way was to tap into the interest generated through Flickr. But if you want interest to be sustained, this is actually a bit more involved than simply making a sim photogenic. Once people have their pictures, they move on, so I tried to keep interest high by changing things, particularly in the hotel rooms, where there are these little ‘installations’ – but also in the outside spaces. You also need an active Flickr group, with people commenting. My good friend Laura – Mrs S –  has helped greatly with that. The final bit of the Flickr puzzle is the competition. I don’t know how this will turn out over time, but initially it has created a good buzz. I avoided making it too big a deal by having no significant prize (the winner gets to choose the next theme and has their picture displayed on the sim) – but I also made it democratic, people vote on the winner, I have no say. And it’s fast – a two-week turnaround, so a theme won’t go stale. We’ll see how it turns out I guess. Then there is the blog, which is quietly building up a readership with short daily posts about the sim and a daily feature picture from the Flickr group, Then there is the music stream, which I tailor and tweak to keep things relevant and interesting. This sounds like a lot of work, but really it isn’t. I’m busy in my regular life anyway, so the Furillen stuff just slots into this. And I really enjoy hanging out at the sim – there are very few problems, and the people who visit are great, I have made some nice friends. Many are photographers, some are bloggers (who appreciate being told they can rez stuff) – many are just tourists and dreamers, or people who want to listen to music while going AFK. So the rewards speak for themselves, and the challenges are minimal. I guess I’ll have to wait and see what happens if and when visitor numbers go down, but that’s not something I worry about right now.

Interviewer

The simple beauty of the Furillen environment inspires people to become creative and astonishing photography has been produced there. You have three Flickr Furillen groups, one of them is used for a photography competition that you started this month. While the sim inspires and challenges new and experienced photographers alike to continue taking photographs, I think the taking and posting on Flickr of these pictures may also represent a form of communication between the Second Life visitors themselves. Please talk to me about your thoughts about the meaning of photography on Furillen.

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Photograph by dolletjes

Footman

It was inevitable that the sim would become a place for taking pictures, because that has been a big interest of mine throughout my time in Second Life. But like many people I know, I do have some reservations about how Flickr can work, with people obsessing about how many favourites they get, and so on. So I had several aims with Flickr at Furillen. First, make it open, positive and welcoming to people who might be inexperienced picture makers. The group is accessible to all, and I try to comment on everything – as does Laura. Second, make it about the pictures, not the popularity – encourage people to try new things, or to recognise what they are really good at and improve on that. Third, make it a bit of a community thing – SL Flickr people know each other, and Furillen has become one of the places they like to hang out. Fourth, and like the sim itself, keep it busy – the turnover of pictures is high, there are over 2000 pictures in the main group now, with nearly 300 members – which is pretty astonishing given that it started only three months ago. Finally, make it fun – so the competition has been designed to give people a focus, set them challenges, not decide who is the best. Most people – everyone I’ve spoken to about it, in fact – have entered in this spirit. So to sum up – photography at Furillen is about capturing the beauty of the place in as creative and social a way as possible. My role has simply been to encourage that.

Interviewer

The people who visit Furillen are an unusual and intriguing crowd of noobs and long-time Second Lifers; fashion people, art people, photographers, bloggers, grid-travelers, dolls, animals and more. People come to take photographs. Many come to just watch people or explore. There is also a friendly atmosphere on Furillen, which I think compels people to come back. Please share your thoughts on the value of making people feel welcome, specifically as it pertains to Furillen.

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Photograph by Revan Jinn

Footman

Second Life is a strange place, we all know that – lots of different needs, agendas, real life problems and constraints, lots of different reasons for being here. I have always enjoyed the variety, and have liked moving between activities and groups – I lived at Wastelands for years (just about to celebrate its 9th birthday – awesome place, wonderful people, and the brilliant Neo running it all), enjoyed the sailing, move in and out of Flickr, and so on. So it feels perfectly natural for me to have a variety of people moving through Furillen, from the AFKers to the noobs through the regulars and dreamers to the photographers and bloggers we already spoke about. The only real constraint I imposed was to make the sim ‘moderate’ (not ‘adult’), so this cuts out some traffic that might put certain people off from hanging around. Otherwise, my aim is to provide an environment where people can do their own thing in peace, whatever that might be. If anyone threatens that in any way I kick them immediately, but otherwise I think visitors feel welcome and relaxed there. They aren’t bombarded with notecards or requests to accept group membership or landmarks; there are donation boxes but these are placed around the sim rather than hitting you in the face when you land – people are left alone. I have gradually gotten to know some of the more regular visitors, and I may say hello to anyone who comes by and looks interesting – so I guess it builds over time that a fairly large number of people (several hundred by now) consider Furillen to be a bit of a home spot, where they are likely to run into someone they know or where they can simply watch the traffic – because as you rightly say, there are some great characters around most of the time.

Interviewer

I am sometimes silly and call you Mr. Furillen, but there is also a more serious reason I think to why I do this. Your passion about the place is recognizable in all you do there; the research you have done on the actual non-virtual Furillen and conscientious planning and replication of your findings then in the virtual world, the consistent and careful changing and replacing of objects on the sim, the well-thought-out music stream, the Flickr groups, then more recently the blog and there is probably much more that does not immediately meet the eye. To many of us you are the glue that holds Furillen together. Please expand if you don’t mind on your passion about this place.

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Photograph by Tutsy Navarathna

Footman

This was not something I necessarily expected or planned, but I have found myself enjoying the role of talking to visitors and keeping the Flickr groups going, encouraging people to become involved, and so on. This evolved naturally, most of the things I have done have seemed quite logical – ways of keeping momentum going and making the sim interesting for people who visit. Underlying it all is my own enjoyment – if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t do it. I also know my limitations. I’m not a great builder or artist like Cica Ghost or Bryn Oh. People aren’t coming to Furillen to see what great thing I’ve made, they come because they like being there. I like being there too – it is a social space, as much as anything else, but having said all that, my reason for putting the sim together in the first place was the challenge of capturing some of the appearance and spirit that I sensed in the real Furillen – and this is still a huge motivation for me. So I took time finding someone with the skills to build the pier and make it as close as possible to the real thing – KT Syakumi has done an awesome job. And right now I’m talking with her about making one or two other structures that closely replicate what exists in the real Furillen. So besides the social stuff at Furillen, there is this fascination that I have – and some visitors share it – with replicating something that really exists. My personal view is that this correspondence makes the sim even more magical and intriguing.

Interviewer

Lastly, a non-Furillen specific question! You have been in Second Life I believe since 2007 or 2008. Much has changed since then, especially in terms of technology. Our insights about being part of this virtual world, however, still remain fairly basic I think. It seems there is still much to learn about various aspects of our existence here and how to have it be part of every-day life. What are your thoughts on virtuality and how have you managed to incorporate it into your life in general?

Footman

I think many of us still enjoy the challenge of finding some kind of balance between the two worlds. Everyone has their own take on this – how much of their real self is reflected in their virtual self, how much cross over there is between one world and the other, and so on. As I said before, we all have our different reasons for being here, and I never judge how others deal with the connection between what they do and who they are here, and what they do and who they are in their first lives. My own experience has varied quite a bit over the years. Like many people, no doubt, I have experienced periods of over-immersion, as well as times when I pretty much leave the grid altogether. Running Furillen may have changed things a bit for me, because it gives me more of a structured reason for being here. It’s a bigger commitment, but can also be more rewarding. And interestingly, it actually feels more like my real life, where I am also very involved with other people as an academic. But the experience of virtuality is different for everyone, there is no doubt in my mind about that. If there was one thing I could change, it would be that we could feel a little bit more relaxed and open about who we really are – but even as I say that, I realise that for many people this is missing the whole point of being here. Such is the infinite complexity of this wonderful, weird and wacky place …

Interviewer

Thank you so much again for this, Serene, it was a great pleasure. And thank you for maintaining the beautiful Furillen for all of us to visit. I hope it will be there for many, many more years to come!

Footman

My pleasure – and thanks for all the support you have given me – you were one of those very early visitors to Furillen, and your report on the sim was one of the very first to get published. I remember feeling hugely encouraged by it.

Is She a He?

“I want to know if my virtual girlfriend is really a man in real life,” Begonia Bittersweet told us.

It was the fifth meeting of the Avatar Dining Club and this time it was the turn of Rainy September to bring a virtual guest to L’Albero Verde, the Italian restaurant the group’s founder, Edward, had selected as our monthly gathering place. I noticed this time that I was recognised by the waiter, who took my coat on my arrival with a friendly smile rather than leaving me to hang it up myself, and who waved me through to our table without asking me if I had a reservation. Clearly, we were ‘regulars’ now, and being encouraged to regard ourselves as such. I approved, and I made a mental note to catch his name so I could greet him by it next time.

Rainy, I had decided, was the most judgemental member of the club. Whenever I thought of her, I imagined her disapproving of something. It intrigued me that she still attended these get-togethers. Unlike everyone else, she had no real ‘occupation’ in the metaverse. Mary-Anne Middlemarch, who sat to my right at the table for seven, was a fashion blogger; Raw Concrete, who sat to my left, was a builder. Opposite me, Jennifer Bit – a man in real life (though the rule was we went by our avatar identities for these meetings) – was a photographer, and to her right sat Indigo Williams who both owned a club and designed skins. That left Edward, who had introduced himself five months previously as a role-player. Rainy, however, had no real purpose in the virtual world, no passions, no loyalties. She explored. She shopped. She went out clubbing. That said, between the previous meeting and this one, she had got metaverse married to someone she’d met between the previous meeting and the one before that. When it was decided in the pre-meeting email that she would be bringing the virtual guest this time, I was certain it would be her new ‘hubby’ to show off to us all. But I was wrong. Whilst he was present in no small measure in the talk as she set up her laptop at the end of the table, it turned out that video interaction was not a feature of their relationship. Yet. “He says he needs more time,” she reported, with more than a hint of impatience and scorn in her voice, and I wondered absently if, for the sixth meeting of the club, we might find ourselves discussing metaverse divorce.

So we got Begonia. Rainy dialled up her distant virtual acquaintance on the laptop at the end of the table, and it was an outdoors backdrop we saw behind the blonde, middle-aged Australian wearing a bikini and a headset who appeared on the screen. “Hello!” she greeted us, raising a glass of something orange. “Oh my God, Bego,” shouted Rainy in an unnecessarily loud Skype voice, “is that a freaking beach you’re sitting on?”

“Waves and wi-fi, baby!” Begonia replied. “It’s a winning combination!”

Edward said to her grandly, his arms opened wide, “Greetings, Begonia, you are most welcome at our table.”

“Bego, this is Edward,” Rainy told her friend. “He’s the boss of this group I told you about.”

“Founder, my dear,” Edward corrected.

“Hello Edward!” Begonia replied in a slightly sing-song voice. We got the rest of the introductions over with and then got down to the business of ordering food. Our guest had brought a bacon sandwich with her to the beach and she started munching on it whilst we waited for our food to arrive. “I’m really sorry,” she told us, “but this is my breakfast and I’m absolutely starving.” Several times I caught Raw staring at the screen, but I couldn’t be certain whether it was at Begonia in her bikini he was looking at or her sandwich. When he called the waiter back over and ordered an extra topping of ‘bacon bits’ on his pizza, however, I realised I had my answer. I caught the waiter’s name: it was Enrico.

The conversation at first was the usual sort of thing, all about Begonia’s metaverse life. Like Rainy, it turned out, she had no virtual vocation to speak of. She described herself as a ‘professional shopper’ and laughed hard at this. A little too hard. She rented land in a private region and had a post-modern house there, a glass and rendered concrete build of four stories, right on the edge of the sea. “What can I tell you?” she declared, waving her arm in a broad sweep across the vista of sand and breaking waves behind her. “I’m a beach bum born and bred!” I wasn’t certain that beach bums commonly lived in four-storey houses; then again I wasn’t up-to-date on the latest definitions of the term.

And then, once our orders had arrived, she told us her problem. There was an awkward silence around the table whilst everyone tried hard not to look at Jennifer. “I know you guys solve virtual world problems,” Begonia continued, oblivious to our discomfort. “Rainy’s told me all about the mysteries you’ve cracked. I figure this one must be easy for you.”

“Easy?!” Raw retorted. “You must be joking – it’s impossible!” I could tell what his strategy was: dismiss the idea instantly and we wouldn’t have to go there. I added my support to his plan by nodding vigorously.

“That all depends on how skilfull you are,” said Jennifer, a twinkle in her eye, no doubt at our expense. She waved at the laptop. “I’m a woman in the metaverse.”

“Yes I heard,” said Begonia. “I suppose an expert is precisely what I need.”

“I did mention you,” Rainy commented to Jennifer. “I didn’t tell her your whole metaverse name, though.”

“Do you tell anyone that you’re a man in real life?” Begonia asked.

“Originally no-one,” Jennifer replied, “but recently I’ve confided in a couple of close friends.”

“And how do you manage the guilt?”

“Guilt?” Jennifer repeated. “What guilt?”

“About lying to people.”

“We all lie to people in some way,” Jennifer said.

Begonia looked like she was about to say something in reply to that and, meanwhile, the look on Rainy’s face suggested she’d just that moment tuned in to the notion that this might not have been the wisest of issues to bring before this particular group. She said quickly, “Why don’t you tell them about your suspicions, Bego?”

Begonia paused for a moment and then nodded. “Well it began as nothing more than a feeling, really. I started wondering about it maybe a month or so ago.” Whilst she talked, I glanced briefly in Edward’s direction. The sixty-something man looked unhappy. “Some of the things she was coming out with… well they just didn’t sound female to me.” She sighed. “So anyway, I asked her if she’d like to voice with me and she refused, so that really set my alarms bells ringing.”

“Why?” asked Jennifer. “Plenty of people don’t like voicing.”

“For five minutes? It wasn’t like I was insisting on it there and then. If she’d told me she’d do it in a week’s time or even in a month then that would have been one thing, but to flat-out refuse to ever voice with me? Now that’s just weird.”

“Um,” said Mary-Anne, “I’ve never voiced. It’s just not my thing.” Nervously, she pushed a piece of broccoli around her plate with her fork. Mary-Anne was the quietest member of our group. “I really wouldn’t know what to say. I’d be too self-conscious.”

“Have you ever partnered inworld, Mary-Anne?” Begonia asked her.

“Twice,” she replied.

“And you never got asked to voice verify?”

“Both times,” she said. “And both times I refused. The first guy ended the relationship straight away, more-or-less. The second guy accepted it. I’m still with him now, in fact.”

Begonia sighed again. “This is what I was afraid of. I just don’t get it. What’s the big deal with a few minutes of voice just to prove you are who you say you are?”

“If that was the rule,” Mary-Anne said, “then I wouldn’t have gone into the metaverse in the first place. Talking in text is what I like about it.”

“But you’re talking in voice now! What’s the difference?”

My neighbour glanced at Edward. “I know you said we were to stay in our metaverse roles here, Edward,” she told him, “but you know I’m much more like the real me when I’m here with you guys. I’m more confident and outspoken inworld. I’m a different person there altogether.”

“My dearest Mary-Anne,” our founder said, “please don’t worry yourself about it for a second. I also said that anyone could assume here completely made-up personalities. The rule is in place only so that our real-life identities are protected, and I find your company at our table most delightful.”

“The thing is,” she continued, “it’s not like I’m pretending. When I’m online I become that person. If I had to speak in voice then that person would disappear.”

“I understand completely,” he reassured her.

“So what did you do next?” Indigo asked Begonia. “Or did you dump her?”

“I didn’t dump her,” she retorted, “I love her! But I did start trying to catch her out here and there, and paying attention to what she said to me. Rainy, do you have the printouts?”

“I do!” Rainy said, and she reached into her bag hung over the back of her chair. She brought out a wad of folded paper and flattened it out on the table. There were seven sets, all stapled neatly in the top-left corner; one for everyone at the table. “I asked Rainy to print these out for me. I thought it would make it easier.” The printouts were handed round the table. I heard Edward sigh faintly as he put glasses on to look at his copy. They were transcripts of IMs: four pages in total showing excerpts from three separate conversations.

“The first IM is from about three weeks ago,” Begonia told us. On screen, I could see she had her own paper copy. “Read it and tell me what you think.”

We read in silence. It went like this:

16:24 Begonia Bittersweet: So what bra size are you?
16:25 Trace Williams: 34b. Why?
16:25 Begonia Bittersweet: Just wondering.
16:25 Begonia Bittersweet: What type do you wear?
16:26 Trace Williams: What ‘type’?
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet: What? You don’t know?!
16:26 Trace Williams: Lace
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet laughs.
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet: I didn’t ask what they’re made out of.
16:26 Begonia Bittersweet: What *type*?
16:27 Trace Williams: Well, it all depends.
16:27 Begonia Bittersweet: Just for everyday when you go to work.
16:29 Trace Williams: Semi cup. What else would I wear?
16:29 Begonia Bittersweet: IDK… maybe you’re a full cup girl.
16:30 Trace Williams: I’m not 80, you know.
16:30 Begonia Bittersweet: Padded?
16:32 Trace Williams: Absolutely.
16:32 Trace Williams: The air conditioning in my office is bloody freezing sometimes.
16:32 Trace Williams: I don’t want my coworkers to nickname me ‘pointy’.

Indigo laughed at the last bit. Raw said, “I don’t get it.” Jennifer scratched her head and rubbed her chin.

“What are we supposed to make of this?” I asked.

“Look at the timings for each comment,” Begonia replied. “It took her a whole minute to reply to my first question. What girl wouldn’t be able to answer that immediately?”

“You think he was looking it up?” Raw asked.

“We don’t know it’s a ‘he,’ Raw,” Jennifer said to him.

“If it’s a ‘she’ then there wouldn’t be a need to research anything,” he answered.

Indigo waved her hand a little dismissively. “The time could mean anything. Maybe she was in another IM with someone else and switching back and forth between your conversation and theirs. I do that all the time.”

“And then it took me nearly four minutes to get an answer to my bra-type question. And her first answer was lace! I mean come on!”

“I do sort my bras according to fabric,” said Indigo. “It’s just the way I’ve always done it.”

“As do I,” Begonia answered. “I’d still know what that question meant.”

“I agree it’s suggestive, but you’re talking about a question posed to a person who might be distracted and which could be open to interpretation in different ways than the one you assume.” Indigo took a sip of wine and added, “For me, the ‘pointy’ remark balances it out: that’s female knowledge.”

“He still could have seen that on a webpage,” commented Raw through a mouthful of pizza. “He had enough time.”

“Okay,” Begonia said. “Now have a read of the second IM.”

20:31 Trace Williams: Not in the mood?
20:31 Begonia Bittersweet: Oh baby, Aunt Flo is paying me a visit.
20:32 Trace Williams: She is?
20:32 Begonia Bittersweet: Most definitely.
20:33 Trace Williams: You don’t have privacy?
20:33 Begonia Bittersweet: Huh?
20:33 Trace Williams: Your aunt is staying with you?
20:33 Begonia Bittersweet: hahaha
20:34 Begonia Bittersweet: You’re so funny.
20:34 Begonia Bittersweet: Look it up.
20:36 Trace Williams: ahhhhh
20:36 Trace Williams blushes.
20:36 Begonia Bittersweet: Why the blush?
20:36 Begonia Bittersweet: We’re all ladies here.
20:37 Trace Williams: Blushing at my ignorance.
20:37 Begonia Bittersweet: Different people; different terms, I guess.
20:37 Begonia Bittersweet: No worries.
20:37 Begonia Bittersweet: When do you come on?
20:38 Trace Williams: Usually around the middle of the month.
20:38 Begonia Bittersweet: So last week?
20:38 Trace Williams: Yes yes
20:38 Begonia Bittersweet: I wonder if we’ll synchronise.
20:39 Begonia Bittersweet: That would be weird.

I kept my face steadfastly neutral through this, but Raw made no such attempt. “Eww,” he said, when it finally dawned on him what he was reading about.

“Oh grow up, Raw,” Rainy said. “Women have periods. It’s a fact of life.” She sighed. “Men are so pathetic.”

“So you’re showing us this because she didn’t know what the term meant?” Indigo asked.

“Well quite! What woman wouldn’t know about good old Aunt Flo?!”

“Different people, different terms?” she quoted.

“Oh come on,” Begonia retorted. “It’s not like I’m seeing an Indonesian. She’s from the states!”

“Still a cultural term, though,” I remarked, “and not one you’d commonly hear through the traditional media. It seems to me that that sort of colloquialism is probably propagated through word of mouth. If a different term was commonly used amongst your friends growing up, then that would be your euphemism.”

“Shark week,” Mary-Anne volunteered. “That’s what we called it in college.”

“The term ‘Aunt Flo’ is everywhere on the internet,” Begonia insisted.

“Not all of us girls spend our time online talking about our periods,” Indigo countered.

The distant woman sighed. “Okay fine. Let’s look at the last IM then.”

17:22 Begonia Bittersweet: Is everything ok, honey?
17:22 Trace Williams: Oh sure, everything’s fine.
17:22 Trace Williams: I’m just a bit sad because I heard a colleague of mine died today.
17:23 Begonia Bittersweet: Oh baby, I’m so sorry to hear that!
17:23 Trace Williams: Thank you. It’s just a bit of a shock. It was very sudden.
17:23 Trace Williams: He died of a heart attack.
17:23 Begonia Bittersweet: He died in the office?
17:23 Trace Williams: Oh no, at home last night.
17:24 Trace Williams: But I heard about it today.
17:24 Begonia Bittersweet: 😦
17:24 Begonia Bittersweet: Did you know him well?
17:24 Trace Williams: Reasonably.
17:24 Trace Williams: His desk was around the corner from me.
17:25 Trace Williams: It’s funny, the last time I spoke to him he was peeing nin the cubicle next to me.
17:25 Trace Williams: You never know when your last conversation with someone is going to be.
17:25 Begonia Bittersweet: Right.
17:26 Begonia Bittersweet: Wait… a *guy* was in the next cubicle?
17:27 Trace Williams: Oh right. I see your confusion. We have unisex toilets at work.
17:27 Begonia Bittersweet: Really?
17:27 Trace Williams: Yeah. It’s not as bad as you think.
17:27 Trace Williams: The walls and doors are floor to ceiling.
17:28 Begonia Bittersweet: Ah.
17:28 Begonia Bittersweet: How can you hold a conversation if there are no gaps?
17:28 Trace Williams: Well the walls are still pretty thin.
17:28 Begonia Bittersweet: Right.
17:29 Begonia Bittersweet: Even so, I think I’d hand in my resignation if they enforced that sort of thing on me LOL
17:29 Trace Williams laughs.

On finishing this, Indigo said, “Yeah I heard about arrangements like that.”

Begonia’s eyebrows raised. “Really? I wondered if that might be made up.”

“Nope. They use it in a new senior school near where I live. Boys, girls, men and women: everyone in together. It saves space and it cuts down on bullying. Apparently the staff made a fuss about it, but the head teacher insisted, and everyone was used to it within a couple of days.”

Begonia sighed. “Dear God. Stuff like this makes me feel so old.”

“Progress bears no responsibility for those that can’t keep up,” Edward muttered.

“Is that what it is?” asked Begonia. “Progress? If you ask me, it’s just political correctness gone mad.”

“There is nothing mad about political correctness, I assure you.”

“What’s the big deal with separate facilities anyway?” Jennifer asked. “What difference does it make?”

“The ladies is where you do girl talk,” Begonia replied. “You wouldn’t understand.”

That remark brought about another uncomfortable silence. It was broken after a few seconds by Raw, who was picking at the onion on his pizza and frowning. “The gents is where I go if I need to fart,” he said.

“Raw!” Rainy exclaimed. “If you please!”

“What?” The young man looked confused. “We can talk about periods but not about farting?”

“You go right ahead and talk about it,” Jennifer told him.

“Oh, and another thing that’s odd about this,” Begonia said, “is I thought guys hate having cubicle conversations.”

“That’s true, definitely,” Raw said.

“You hate it?” Indigo asked.

“Totally.”

“So do I,” I said, “but so what? Perhaps a new norm gets established if you become used to unisex toilets.” Begonia and her by-the-way attacks on Jennifer was starting to get on my nerves. I wasn’t about to let a stereotype lend weight to her argument.

“It’s a different rule when you’re at the urinal though,” Raw added, still frowning at his onions.

“I would have thought you’d be even less likely to talk if you there was a woman on the other side of the divide,” Begonia said, dismissively. “Oh well. That’s all I have, really. So you’re saying none of this is evidence?”

“None of it’s conclusive evidence,” Indigo stated. “Does she dress well?”

“Oh yes. A new outfit every week. She reads all the right blogs.”

“Again,” I commented, “so what if she doesn’t? Not all women follow the latest fashions.”

“Alright.” Begonia made no attempt to conceal her disappointment. “And you’ve got nothing to add, ‘Jennifer’?” She didn’t make the quote marks with her fingers or anything, but I could hear them in her tone of voice.

“No no,” Jennifer said, tight-lipped.

“Well don’t declare it a lost case just yet,” declared Raw. “We haven’t asked Edward what he thinks. He’s the one who always solves our mysteries.”

“This time,” Edward said gruffly, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you all. I have nothing to add to this deliberation… except to say that perhaps we should not be pursuing it in the first place.”

Everyone went silent. Mary-Anne, asked, “Why not, Edward?”

“My dear,” he told her, “you told us yourself that you become a different person in the metaverse. That is one of its functions: to allow us to explore new identities and all the thoughts and actions which spring forth from them. It is not for any of us to judge which are the correct and incorrect identities for people to assume, nor their reasons for doing so.”

“I think I have a right to know if I’m being lied to,” Begonia said flatly.

“As a matter of fact, you don’t. Check those terms and conditions you ticked when you first signed up to the metaverse. No-one has a right to know anything. Disclosure of real life details is entirely voluntary. But even if it were the case, what exactly constitutes a lie? Is Mary-Anne lying when she becomes her avatar personality? Is Jennifer lying when she talks and thinks and notices things as a woman? What if those identities come alive when they are enacted? What if they are real things? I will say one thing about these messages we’ve read tonight: they show you two to have a close and caring relationship. Does anything else really matter?”

“I get what you’re saying,” Begonia replied. “But Edward, I’m a lesbian woman. If this is a guy I’m with then it’s a waste of my time.”

“Are you hoping to meet in real life?” Indigo asked.

“No way. I have a partner in real life and I have no intention of leaving her. Trace knows that. Real life is real life; metaverse is metaverse.”

“In which case,” Edward asked, “why not let love just be love?”

“Because it’s not that simple.”

“Isn’t it a shame,” he said sadly, “that it can’t be.”

After that, there didn’t seem to be much else to add. Begonia excused herself and ended the video call, and those of us who wanted it ordered dessert. The conversation was strained. Rainy in particular was very quiet. Eventually, she said, “I’m sorry, Edward. On reflection, I’m not sure it was all that sensible of me to bring Bego this evening.” Edward smiled in reply and said, “On the contrary, my dear; I formed this group for us to discuss metaverse matters and that’s exactly what we’ve done tonight. Disagreement is a bona fide conversational element, and sometimes quite necessary.” He wagged a finger. “Its presence alone shouldn’t be taken as some sort of indicator that the conversation should not have taken place.”

When we left the restaurant about twenty minutes later, I walked with him to the nearby multistorey where we were both parked. “Purely as an academic exercise,” I said, “do you think it’s possible to tell if someone’s a man or a woman in real life?”

“Thinking about plots for your latest novel, are you?” he asked with a chuckle. I replied, “I’m always doing that, Edward!”

“You know as well as I that it’s never a question of just one thing to look out for,” my white-haired friend told me. “It’s the details you have to be alert to when you suspect someone of constructing a falsehood. All of them! Most people will give themselves away in time. The question is, will anyone notice when they do?”

I stopped. “You know, don’t you? You did work it out!”

“Oh yes,” he said. “But it wasn’t the right thing to reveal it. If he will not say then that is his choice, Leonard. Begonia is quite free to leave him if she so wishes. He has no right to her love, but neither does she have any right to his details.”

“But how did you work it out?” Conveniently, we were beneath a lamp post. Edward took out and unfolded his copy of the IM transcript. “This is strictly between you and I,” he told me. I nodded.

He pointed to the following line:

17:25 Trace Williams: It’s funny, the last time I spoke to him he was peeing nin the cubicle next to me.

“Ah,” I said. “So you weren’t convinced by the unisex toilets excuse?”

“That is neither here nor there,” Edward replied. “It’s the error that gives him away.”

“Error? What error?”

“Look more closely. See here: he typed an extra n. ‘Nin’ instead of ‘in’.”

“A typo. How can that mean anything?”

“An edit, my friend. Not a typo, but an edit. He wrote something, then he edited it, and then he hit return. We do it all the time, don’t we? Except in this instance he didn’t quite edit it completely. So now we must ask ourselves, what was it he wrote in the first place?”

I looked at the sentence again. My mind was a blank. “I have no idea.”

“Well here’s what I think he wrote: ‘the last time I spoke to him he was peeing next to me.’”

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed. “Yes! You’re right, you must be!”

“And why did he edit it? Because he thought that might arouse suspicion. Except if he had left it as it was then that would have been just something else that could have been put down to the different ways in which different people talk about such things. ‘He was peeing next to me’: why shouldn’t a woman say that about someone in the next cubicle. Do you see? It is the edit which gives him away. It’s that which tells us he was actually standing side-by-side with him at a urinal. As young Raw remarked, conversation between two men there is nothing out of the ordinary at all.”

We walked on. “And you worked all that out from a single letter,” I remarked.

“Clues are rarely big and brightly coloured, my dear fellow,” Edward replied. “Sometimes, it’s just as well that they’re not.”

Written by Huckleberry Hax

Still Life

Still Life

Everyday you pose,
stripped, clothed,
identifying, mystifying
you submit to the exposure,
resenting attempts to iconify your soul.
Now just a static blur stamped out of nature,
Abused blues dyed in your melancholy.
Try to add colour to your desaturated self,
It’s only a matter of time
before you fade into someone else.
Just a matter of life-forming into a lost cause.
Step out the lines you’ve been drawing,
And away from a mesmerizing paralysis;
Becoming your own canvas,
Reaching outside your frame,
Still-life is worth it.

Written by Artistik Oluja

Arianna – Chapter 3: First Insights

Arianna’s hometown seemed to be a peaceful, almost sleepy one. There was little the local constabulary seemed to have to do to maintain a modicum of order. The majority of criminal cases that were reported in the local press were victimless crimes, such as illegal gambling. Murder cases were few and far between, and were covered in a rather sensationalist manner. On the other hand, white-collar crimes and domestic abuse cases were usually covered up, often at the behest of local MPs, so that balances in the Town Hall and within families wouldn’t be upset.

“Inappropriate allocation of scarce police resources, my ass,” thought Stevens as he read Arianna’s suicide note again. “They never bother to investigate anything, unless a body riddled with bullet holes or brutally slaughtered is involved.” It was already ten o’clock in the morning and very little in the way of work seemed to be happening at the station. He asked McMahon to join him on patrol. It would be a good excuse for him to mingle and ask questions. After all, there were other officers to handle citizens’ bureaucratic needs.
“Have you contacted any of the schools Arianna went to?” he asked Sally.
“Yes. Some of her old teachers are still in town, one of them retired.”
“How come none of them spoke to the media?”
“No idea. Perhaps they’re wary of appearing on TV,” Sally replied.
“Can’t blame them.”
“So, where do we start?”
“St. Mary’s High School. It’s the last school she attended before leaving town for her higher education, so perhaps they can tell us more about her formative teenage years. It also seems its headmaster is still the same as when she was a student there,” said Richard as they fastened their seatbelts.
“Who’s that?” asked Sally.
“A man named Philip Hendricks. He also ran that school when Helen went there.”

Sally’s mobile phone rang. It was a journalist friend of hers from Dagenhull.

“Yes? Uh-huh. Yes. I see. Yes, yes, thank you Mike. I’ll tell my colleague. Perhaps this will give us greater freedom to act. Thanks again!”
“What did he say?” Asked Richard.
“Dagenhull aren’t ruling out foul play yet.”
“How so?” said Richard, surprised. “It’s as obvious a suicide as they come.”
“Obvious it may be, but are we sure she wasn’t driven to suicide by parties that wanted to silence her?” asked Sally. “Harassment, bullying, threats, intimidation… These things can drive someone to suicide, and it’s happened before.”
“Still, she wasn’t an investigative journalist. Who and why would want her silenced?”
“Even opinion columnists and non-investigative journalists can get in trouble. It happens often. Hell, it’s even happened to ordinary teenagers who’ve been bullied on the internet,” said Sally, as the car reached St. Mary’s.
Richard stopped the car.
“Arianna was known for her feminist perspective, and this caused her to be harassed by online trolls and MRAs,” she told Richard.
“MRAs?”
“Men’s Rights Activists,” replied Sally, her speech becoming quicker. “They’re loudmouth misogynists, usually posting on the internet about how women have all the power in the world and men are disenfranchised. Some of them, however, in collaboration with ultra-conservative circles and the far right, have gone beyond their usual whining and have orchestrated campaigns against women in various industry sectors, such as computing. Their attacks can get pretty nasty and obsessive. And they can keep it up for many years.”
“And what do these people want to achieve?”
“In a nutshell: They want women to shut up and accept being inferior to men. Among other things, they’re pushing the line that rape is acceptable and a way to show women how much they’re appreciated.”
Richard cringed.
“And there are people taking them seriously?” he asked.
“Apparently. There are many conservative pundits ready to pamper them.”
They exited the car and entered the school’s premises.

Back in Dagenhull, Sergeant Amanda Bennett and her partner, Police Constable Anthony Cavers had gone to the Dagenhull Herald’s offices in search of information. The Dagenhull Herald is a newspaper with progressive leanings and one of the few led by a woman. The Dagenhull Herald was the highest-circulation newspaper in its area, and even nationwide it was remarkably popular for a newspaper not based in the capital.

Arianna’s death was a great shock to everyone at the paper. Everybody in the offices had words of praise for her writing and her supportive, compassionate, but also determined personality. Her writing focused on gender issues and, in particular, how women from disenfranchised social classes were affected by central and local government policies.

Bennett was a seasoned police officer, who had successfully worked on numerous mysterious criminal cases in the past, including cases of sexual abuse within families. While it would seem odd that she, a policewoman whose main strength was solving cases where much was going on beneath the surface, would be appointed to investigate what was obviously a suicide, the chief inspector had not ruled out foul play. Arianna’s outspoken writing had attracted violent threats from various people associated with the far right and the MRA movement. Furthermore, while Bennett was politically more moderate than Arianna, she still admired her writing and shared her dream of a society that would be safe for women.

The Herald’s editor was an affable, balding man in his late fifties, with a round head, sporting a short, grey beard. His name was Henry Sanders. A veteran investigative journalist, with many successes under his belt, he was now running the Herald as Dagenhull’s largest progressive news source, and was quick to adapt to the capabilities offered by new technologies, from a full-featured portal to web radio, including a successful subscription model. Under his management, the Herald was going from strength to strength in the internet era, while other newspapers faltered.

“Arianna has been with us for six years until her death,” he told the officers. “She joined us as an intern when she was twenty-five and was an intern for… ” He paused for a bit to remember, and continued. “Five months, I think, and then she was hired as a regular columnist. Her death shocked all of us here, because she was one of our best contributors, she was deeply appreciated and we never thought she’d end up like this.”
“What did she write about?” asked Cavers.
“Gender issues, mostly. She wrote a lot about how various policy decisions made by the central or local administration affected the lives of women, especially those in more vulnerable situations. You know, single mothers, women working in low-income jobs, women in the LGBTQ community, domestic abuse victims, sex workers… Her advocacy pieces for sex workers and domestic abuse victims frequently caused the ire of the conservatives, but what can you do?”
“Had she ever received threats for her work?” asked Bennett.
“Yes, many times. Each time it happened, we advised her to ignore them and to not give the abusers the pleasure of knowing they can influence her actions in any way. She took our advice, but I think she was still affected. She often complained about how no one in the newspaper would say a word and how this gave others the impression that she was really alone and exposed.”
Bennett wanted to dwell on this subject for a bit.
“Were her feelings on this justified?” she asked.
“With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps they were. Each time these attacks on her person were happening, or resuming, she seemed depressed. Or, I should say, more depressed than usual.”
“More depressed than usual?” asked Cavers.
“Yes… Arianna was never a particularly happy person. She rarely smiled and I could see something was bothering her.”
“What was bothering her?” Bennett asked.
“I’m not sure. She never complained about her pay, so I’d say it must have been something personal, and it must have been running pretty deep.”
“Such as?”
Sanders took off his glasses.
“I’m not sure. Family matters? Personal issues? Clinical depression? She didn’t open up.” He paused for a bit, sighed and continued. “Whatever it was, it must have been eating her up from the inside for years. Now that I think about it, I’m beginning to wonder if her complaints and her requests for a few words of support when she was attacked were a cry for help that hardened investigative veterans like me didn’t listen to.”
“Did she have any support network that you know of? Anyone she could turn to?” asked Bennett.
“Here in the newspaper, she was closest with another columnist, Emma Rowlings. She handles music, theatre and movie reviews, and also writes on social issues occasionally. There were also rumours that they were together romantically. She’s also the one who wrote her obituary.”
“Can we talk to her?”
“Yes, she’s here. I’ll take you to her office,” Sanders offered.

Emma Rowlings was one of the Herald’s shining stars – in fact, she was the Herald’s most famous columnist and was considered as the leader of a trio of influential progressive writers, and Arianna was one of them. Her knowledge of music, cinema, theatre and literature was vast, and her reviews were extremely influential. Her collection of movies and books was a movie buff’s delight, and her personal library was always very well-stocked with fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and even included a sizable collection of scholarly books and articles on various subjects. She also wrote, from time to time, very poignant and well-received articles on social issues. She was admired by many, and Arianna never hid her own respect and admiration for her. Even in her own articles, she frequently referenced her with great reverence. Sanders led the two officers to Rowling’s office. He knocked on the door.
“Come in!”
Sanders opened the door and showed the officers in. Emma was sitting at her desk; she was a very elegant woman in her early forties, with a cosmopolitan air. Her hair was black, straight and cut shoulder-length, with two white streaks; intense, almond-shaped brown eyes gazed gracefully, if a bit distantly, at those around her. Her nails were cut short and featured a perfect french manicure. Her black, three-piece outfit was very elegant, and, although the furniture in her office was the standard fare purchased by the newspaper, she had brought her own style to it, with books on architecture, oriental culture, classical and jazz music, various decorative pieces from her travels around the globe, and mementos from friends and loved ones. Despite the rumours about a romantic liaison between her and Arianna, no picture of hers was to be seen anywhere; instead, there was only a picture of Rowlings with a pale-skinned woman with long, straight blond hair.
“Emma, the officers here would like to ask you about Arianna. Do you have some time?”

She rose from her chair and offered her hand. Introductions were made, and she asked the officers to sit.
“How may I help you?” she asked.
“Ms Rowlings, Mr Sanders told us that, of all the people here, you were the one who’s most likely to know enough about Ms Smith to help us in our investigation. Is there something you could tell us?” Bennett asked.
Emma sighed.
“Arianna was…” she paused for a few seconds, trying to consider her words. “A valued and trusted friend. She confided in me, and I did in her. We spent many hours together, discussing topics which later found their way in our articles. We also opened up to each other, sharing much of our life stories. She was by far the most intelligent columnist I’ve ever worked with, although there were many issues that got in the way. I wish I could have prevented what happened. To be more honest with you, I wish I could have seen it coming.”
“What issues are you referring to?”
“From what Arianna had told me, she was coming from a very dysfunctional family that never gave her the affection and support she needed while growing up. This made her extremely insecure and hesitant to reach out and make friends. As far as I know, in this whole newspaper, I was the only person she approached to befriend. Even as she gained acceptance and respect through her writing, she still didn’t believe in herself and her own worth, as a writer and even as a person. She didn’t have much of a social circle, either. She was known by many, but it seems I was the only one she ever got out with and, I dare say, the only one she felt close to. This, unfortunately, caused frictions between us.”
“There are rumours your relationship with Arianna went beyond the confines of a mere friendship.” noted Cavers.
Emma paused for a bit. She gulped, and continued.
“That’s true. Me and Arianna had shared some intimate encounters a long time ago. It was a rather stupid mistake on my behalf that I’d made when I should have said no. Afterwards, she kept wanting to get back to the way we used to be, although I tried to keep things as friends. But I’m not sure how information on this could help you.” She had started feeling more uncomfortable with the conversation.
“Were these intimate encounters just what one would call ‘one night stands’?” asked Cavers.
“What do you mean?” Emma asked, turning her annoyed gaze at him.
“Was there any emotion in these encounters? Were they just all about sex, or was there a deeper connection?” he insisted.
“I don’t see how this is relevant, or how it could help your investigation.” Her speech had become abrupt.
“Ms Rowlings, we’re trying to determine what caused her to jump off that bridge,” intervened Bennett to calm her, seeing that her partner’s upfront approach was angering Rowlings. “No one makes such a decision lightly. There are factors that lead someone to it. We need to find out what influenced her. What caused her to end her life. From possible harassment problems that may have been brought about by her articles to personal issues, we need to find out. You told us earlier that you valued her as a friend and a confidante. Don’t you think she deserves the truth to be told about her? Don’t you think you yourself deserve the truth about what caused your friend’s death?”
Rowlings paused for a bit, her lips slightly parted. Her stern expression slowly became softer, then what looked like a shadow of sorrow set over her eyes. She looked at the officers and reached to her calling card holder, picking up two of her calling cards. She offered one to each officer.
“I’m sorry for overreacting. This is my card. Please call me so we can talk in private.”
Bennett and Cavers thanked her and gave her their cards in return.
“Thank you. Also, please give us a call if you think of any information that might help us,” Cavers said.
“Oh, and… Before we leave. Since you seem to have been the closest person to Arianna in this city, I think we should give you this copy of her suicide note. The original has been sent to her parents,” Bennett said and, producing an envelope from her bag, gave it to Rowlings, who reluctantly took it with trembling hands.
“Th… Thank you.”
The two officers got back in their car to return to the police station.

“So, we have our first two leads. One: Smith was most likely trying to cope with depression. Two: She was romantically involved with Rowlings,” Bennett said as they were waiting at a traffic light.
“An unrequited love, if Rowlings’ words are anything to go by,” Cavers noted.
“Unrequited? To me, this looks more like a regretted affair that caught Smith off-guard and kicked her out of balance and deeper into depression, with other factors adding up and making her situation worse.”
“Could be. Now we’ll have to wait until we can compare notes with the guys that went to her place. And we’ll have to talk to her again, of course.”

In Sunford, Stevens and McMahon waited at the lobby of the headmaster’s office for about ten minutes before he could see them. The secretary stood up, went in the office and showed them in.
“Police Constables Stevens and McMahon,” said Stevens. “We are investigating the circumstances of Ms Arianna Smith’s suicide, and we would like to know if there is anything in her background that could perhaps help us explain what happened to her.”
The headmaster, Philip Hendricks, was a greying man nearing his sixties. Conservatively dressed, with tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses, he paused a bit and thought.
“Arianna Smith… Yes, I remember that name. She was a student of remarkable performance. She never failed a single exam or test, and her grades were always among the top three or four. However, she never participated in any extra-curricular activities at all. And several teachers also expressed concern about her complete lack of friends.”
“Let’s start with what you mentioned first. Why didn’t a student of such extraordinary performance participate in any activities?” asked McMahon.
“When asked, she used to claim her family couldn’t afford it, but that certainly wasn’t true,” answered the headmaster.
“How do you know it wasn’t so?”
Hendricks took off his glasses, opened their case, which was lying on his desk, cleaned them and put them on again.
“I know they could afford other things that were more expensive than a student-grade guitar or a melodica. And her older brother, Kyle, was always dressed in upmarket clothing, in stark contrast with Arianna, whose clothes always were on the shabby side and looked like hand-me-downs from other kids.”
“What did her parents do for a living? questioned Stevens.
“Her father was a farmer and gardener. Not the most successful one, but he never seemed to be in dire straits or have trouble finding clients. Her mother was a housewife.”
“So, at least financially, there was no reason why she would be unable to participate in activities. Is that correct?” Stevens wanted to confirm.
“Correct. While they were never particularly well-off, they had no problem keeping the wolf from the door. Or at least that’s what outsiders were allowed to see.”
“You also mentioned she didn’t have any friends. That’s very strange for a child anywhere, isn’t it?” asked McMahon.
“Oh yes. Very strange. She was very isolated. During breaks, she would just sit alone, either studying for her next class, or just waiting silently,” answered Hendricks. “We tried to get her to mingle with the other students, but it never worked.”
“Why?” asked Stevens.
“She was often ridiculed for her clothing by some of the richer, and more influential girls. You know how peer pressure works and how the ‘cool kids’ can influence others to isolate someone. We tried intervening when we saw it, but we didn’t get the desired results. She was further isolated, and I think we might have done more damage. And, even when we tried to introduce her to other students, we could feel she was uncomfortable. She soon reverted back to her isolation. I feel rather angry with myself and my school. We failed her, because we never managed to make her feel welcome here. We saw the signs, but we just failed to act accordingly.”
“What signs?” McMahon asked.
“Well, her parents never came to take her grades. They were ‘too busy’ or sick or any other excuse you could think of. They never had any time to come over and ask how their daughter was doing. If she had difficulties. If she had any problems. Nothing. We even called them from time to time when we saw she was given a hard time by other kids. They never seemed to care.”
“Have you ever tried to contact child protection services?” asked Stevens.
“I and a colleague had contacted them, but, with the laws being what they are, as long as a child is fed, clothed, doesn’t miss schooldays and shows no obvious signs of abuse, there’s nothing for them to do. Dealing with a kid’s loneliness isn’t part of their job description.”

After Bennett and Cavers left the Herald’s offices, Emma went to Sanders and asked to depart early, promising she’d continue working on her piece, which was scheduled for the end of the week, from home. She could barely hide her upset. He agreed, and she left.
On the subway route back home, she stared into the dark tunnels through the window, paying no attention to her surroundings. She almost missed her stop. She went on the street, and absentmindedly walked to her home.

Once there, her cat, a black-and-white moggy named Sonny, greeted her, wanting his lunch. “Oh Sonny…” she said, with her voice breaking up. She knelt, petted him, and proceeded to feed him. After feeding Sonny, she went back to the coat hanger near the entrance and opened her bag to take the envelope with Arianna’s suicide note. She opened it and began to read, walking to the living room. Emotions started overwhelming her. She sat on the sofa and tried to finish reading the note. She couldn’t. She let it fall to the floor. “Arianna… I’m sorry. I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m…” she said, sobbing, and burst into tears a few moments later, covering her face with her hands.

Back at the police station, Bennett and Cavers met with the officers who had gone to collect evidence from Arianna’s apartment. Among other things, they had brought back her desktop computer, an external storage system, two portable hard drives, six USB sticks, a few notepads, a careworn, leather-bound organiser, her tablet, and her laptop.

“We’ll need to have our personnel look for the passwords for these devices. Perhaps she’s written them down somewhere. Or we could have the passwords cracked, but I don’t know how successful that could be. In the meantime, would you like to visit her place, to see if you can find anything else now that you’ve been to her workplace?” one of the officers asked Bennett.
“Yes, I think we should do that. In the meantime, I want a warrant to have a look at her belongings, her email account and her computer in her office at the Herald. And witness summons to be sent to her blog’s ISP and to the providers of any webmail accounts she had,” she said.
“I’ll handle that,” said Cavers.

Written by Mona Okiddo-Eberhardt

This is the previously unpublished third chapter of Mona Okiddo-Eberhardt’s fictional story Arianna. The previous two chapters have been published in her Second Life© blog Living Virtually (Chapter 1 – Bridge and Chapter 2 – A Cold Response).

Tutsy Navarathna

Tutsy Navarathna immediately struck me as a visionary, as someone ahead of his time. A virtual world film maker extraordinaire, he consistently intelligently questions the meaning of the virtual world as we know it. Tutsy is about film, photography, art, psychology, philosophy, language and, of course, the internet. He is also about sensuality, sexuality, nuances, symbolism and metaphor. A former resident of Paris, France where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, Tutsy now permanently lives and works in the beautiful Pondicherry, India. For a few weeks, we communicated via email and IM across the oceans to put together the interview that follows below. It is my great pleasure and honor, really, to introduce to you here the immensely talented Tutsy Navarathna.

     ~Kate Bergdorf

Interviewer

Congratulations again on winning the University of Western Australia (UWA) MachinimUWA VII Transcending Borders Challenge. There have been seven UWA Machinima challenges so far, you have won four of them. To what do you attribute your success?

Navarathna

The techniques used when creating Machinima are still in the early stages and require the Machinima-producer to have plenty of experience. But regardless of this fact, I notice new and emerging talents every year which, of course, offer new challenges for me to overcome. There is a healthy competition preventing me from resting on my laurels. 🙂

Interviewer

Let’s talk about your MetaPhore Machinima. In this work aspects like music, voice, location, avatars and plot seem somehow to magically come together to create a coherent whole. Addressed in this Machinima are not only issues surrounding gender, but also the notion of what it means to be an avatar in a virtual world in general. What was going through your mind when you created this particular Machinima?

Navarathna

What does it mean to be an avatar today? What kinds of feelings does an avatar have? With your question you have certainly put your finger on the core issue. This is exactly the purpose of my Machinimas, trying to identify and show the different aspects of being an avatar. How and in what way has the radical and rather brutal intrusion of virtuality taken hold of our daily lives? How do we evolve from passive spectators into active participants and content creators? What are the implications of these new forms of relationships? How will our brains manage the effects of these new “virtual extensions?” When Mark Zuckerberg speaks of the Oculus Rift, he does not hesitate to speak in terms of teleportation and notes that “[p]eople will develop and construct interactive connection models, with remote locations and it will be almost equal to teleportation.” But in contrast to the prevailing opinion I belive that virtual life does not isolate us. On the contrary, I think it has significantly increased our options in the areas of  interaction and communication. For instance, we often feel closer and more intimate with an avatar that we never have met (or with a virtual FaceBook friend) then with our next door neighbour who we call real. I do not believe that this excitement will pass; this is just the beginning of a phenomenon that will gain power and expand rapidly. But we have much to learn in a short time. And, importantly, we need to ask the right questions in order to fully grasp the phenomenon of our transition into an augmented reality.

Interviewer

In all of your Machinima you beautifully capture the essence of what it means to be in Second Life©. Your work is a great representation of the virtual world to someone who has never visited. Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process when it comes to actually creating a Machinima? Do you have a plot in mind from the start or does it all fall into place as you go along?

Navarathna

I am particularly attuned to and quite sensitive to things generated by the metaverse. Before a film project I’ll usually hang out in different places. I am on the lookout for a clicking sound, for something to get me started on my story. I am looking at avatars and their profiles. I am very curious about this great need that so many people seem to have here, namely the desire to express and share their inner visions by creating their own worlds. Thanks to the internet this is possible. I often have a simple idea about a Machinima that develops further as I visit places in Second Life. I am also very focused on creating characters; the look of the avatar and what he or she may be wearing are important. These factors will eventually all contribute to the change of scenes in the Machinima itself. In fact, the character of an avatar alone may be a reason for me to make a film. I find that the collage technique that I used as a painter in the past now is a big part of my virtual world filmmaking. Machinima, unlike traditional cinema, is mostly graphic and pictorial. It is really altogether a different mindset. Production and filming of a Machinima are also totally different from traditional filmmaking. For example, one can easily go back and forth between the editing timeline and the virtual world and change scenarios while editing. Besides the time that is actually spent creating the Machinima, production costs are minimal. YouTube and Flickr have become to Machinima channels to “reality.” These are small windows that are wide-open to the world, offering snapshots of what is happening in the metaverse. Keep in mind, that all virtual worlds, creations, installations, exhibitions, sculptures and photographs are for the time being only being seen by the residents of Second Life. Thus virtual art is still very much confidential. Yet in my view, there is a true revolution going on here in terms of observing and sharing creativity. We find in the virtual world a profound change in our relation to the art object, which is expressed in its weightlessness. The object loses its materiality and allows for interaction and immersion.

Interviewer

So many of us find purpose in being creative in Second Life. Some of us bring with us experience from outside the virtual environment and others just learn about creating as we go along in Second Life. Did you have any prior film making experience or were you creative in any other way before you joined Second Life? If not, how did you go about teaching yourself how to make virtual world films?

Navarathna

I graduated from the Beaux Arts in Paris, which was followed by a lot of painting and exhibitions. Then I became curious about electronic images, video and computer. This area fascinated me right away. I did not have to dip my brush in the pot anymore. 🙂 As I gradually abandoned painting to explore these new mediums, they quickly started to fill my life, both artistically and professionally. I have worked for TV and for the institutions. When I first entered Second Life, around 2007 or 2008, it was like stepping into a childhood dream. I experienced the same emotional state as when I was a kid looking at my first remote-controlled car. Totally magical; I could remote control a character that was me!!! I very quickly became aware of that this was a fantastic tool for creating and communication. Around that same time, I befriended a well-known noo-cyber movie maker who told me it was possible to film in the virtual world. And the idea of making films inside the internet excited me. In fact, at that time, to me, it was almost unimaginable! There was an abundance of images and inventions in Second Life, great for use to to make films. However, there was still very only few Machinima that had been made and no tutorials available at all. Becoming familiar with the tools and catch every little trick was not a simple achievement. Ultimately, my experience with video, computer and especially film editing helped me a lot.

Interviewer

I am curious about what kind of films might inspire you outside the virtual world. A few days ago, I watched the movie I Am Love (2009), directed by Luca Guadagnino and starring Tilda Swinton. There was something about that movie that made me think of your virtual world films. Have you seen it? And can you tell us about some of the movies outside of the virtual world that have inspired your machinima making in Second Life?

Navarathna

I have not seen I Am Love but you make me wish to do so. 🙂 As a cinephile I have an eclectic taste and I am driven by the passion for either a film, director or movie style. I like to watch or re-watch all the works of great directors. For example, I watched all films by Akira Kurosawa in ten days. I am also captivated by some French filmmakers with true cinematic style, like some of the films by Robert Bresson. I recently re-viewed his A Man Escaped. Above all, it is the originality of creating a movie that I love. I would like to say that for me cinema is neither radio, nor theater, nor a series of pretty pictures. I have a weakness for non-linear narrative structures such as in 21 Grammes by Iñárritu. The clever structure feels very chaotic to us at first, but forces us to be creative and in the end makes us feel completely immersed in the story; it is like a collage. That being said I don’t think I am being influenced by any director in particular. My inspiration is linked to a set of things, painting, cinema and literature. My real culture is the image. Sometimes a single image can be the trigger of a story. I can even suddenly change an idea that already is being edited because I am captured by a picture, experiencing it as a scene that speaks to me. Strictly speaking I am not a filmmaker, I prefer this definition: I switched from painting with fixed images to moving images, to tell stories.

Interviewer

Over the past years the interest in virtual world filmmaking has grown tremendously in Second Life. Both beginners as well as more established film makers produce compelling work. What do you think are some of the most important things to keep in mind when starting out making a virtual world film in Second Life?

Navarathna

In some ways we are pioneers because we still are traveling blindly into virtuality. The main idea throughout the works of Herbert Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory and a public intellectual, can be summed up in one sentence, namely, the medium is the message, meaning that the communication channel used is in fact a true message. Nowadays, the internet is undoubtedly the medium provided a new extension to our senses. In regards to Machinima, I would like to say that it’s important to research and try to discover the specificity of this medium. I wouldn’t use the Machinima in Second Life for something than can be done better with another medium. For instance, making the movie Avatar as a Machinima would be like making Apocalypse Now with black and white 16mm, a completely wrong choice of medium. This does not mean one cannot create masterpieces in 16mm, it’s just different kind of medium! Another example, A Trip to the Moon, by Georges Melies, was created with very limited techniques, yet it still affects us. Virtual worlds such as Second Life underwent a huge graphical improvement during the last years. And even though the avatars are becoming more and more sophisticated, they unfortunately still lack expression and smooth movements.When you are immersed in some average unimportant action, the brain can somehow compensate and invent what we need to make us feel less average. We function through metaphors. From a movie spectators point of view it is very different. People who are unaware of the current virtual worlds will encounter many difficulties to connect with our graphic universe. They are used to see great images in superb 3D productions or animations, made by major studios. Compared with that our Machinimas offer really pale figures. I think we need a different aesthetic vision to achieve an approach that will represent virtual reality in a good way.

Interviewer

Not only are there more virtual films produced lately, there are also different types. Some are more mainstream, while others contain complex plots and are more like independent films. One quite sophisticated virtual world filmmaker who comes to mind is Hypatia Pickens. I think one of the things the two of you share is the ability to in your films draw a connection between the virtual and the real. Can you speak more of this, the boundary of the virtual and the real and how they merge in the machinima that you create?

Navarathna

We’re back to reality and virtuality duality, which actually is close to my heart. Hypatia Pickens approaches this issue with talent, not to forget Draxtor Despres with the series The Drax Files: World Makers is at the heart of the matter, as well as some others. But it always takes some time before new talents will emerge in something as complex as expressive strength in a film. Virtuality nowadays allows the mind to speak without borders or limits. Exciting and breathtaking! But is it not a human’s reason/need/drive to live their dreams and incarnate fantasies through mental projection? This notion has always has existed. I am thinking of the epistolary love affairs that existed in the past centuries and of two sometimes for years separated lovers, writing passionate letters to each other. Is and was that not virtuality?

Interviewer

You have made many beautiful Machinima over the past years. This is probably not easy to do, but, if you had to pick a favorite one, which one would it be and why?

Navarathna

MetaPhore as the youngest of course. 🙂 But I also like MetaSex because it’s analysis of avatar feelings. Or Welcome To The Other Side, which is almost only made from artistic creations in Second Life.

Interviewer

Thank you so very much for agreeing on such short notice to be interviewed. And thank you for the beautiful virtual world filmmaking you consistently produce. We are very fortunate to have you in Second Life.

Navarathna

Merci à vous. 🙂