baker b.: We’re back with artist Mike Casey for the second part of our interview, the original of perhaps several celebrating the opening of the Pietmond Art Crawl galleries virtually located within the the online game called Second Life. More information can be found at my Second Life art galleries page here:
Speaking of games, I’d now like to talk about a site much older than Second Life even, this being SITO, and found at www.sito.org. According to the wikipedia article on the subject, SITO opened in 1993, making it one of the oldest, Internet-based art organizations. Mike, I know you’ve been a SITO contributor for many years now, and it’s the place you’ve chosen to locate your online art gallery as well. Can you tell us how you got involved and about the magical qualities that keep you going back?
Mike C.: The Artkive is a massive collection that includes contributions from many artists that don’t participate in the collaborative projects, and some that do. As you have mentioned, I have an Artkive gallery, but it is a very small fraction of the images that I have created over the years. PANIC is a very open-ended callaborative project where someone uploads an image, someone downloads it, modifies it and uploads it again, and the process repeats. PANIC was great from the perspective that there weren’t any real rules, so it was easy to participate and fun to see the directions that people would take an image. The main downside was that the images were purged regularly since disk space wasn’t the abundant resource it is today. Even so, there were some very fun series of PANICs and I wish it had maintained its popularity.
Hygrid is a cool project that shares some features with Gridcosm, but I think it was ultimately too open-ended and difficult to grasp. Like Gridcosm, it is made of individual grids that were permanent additions to the project. The shape of the project is interesting, but difficult to visualize. Each 100×100 square grid has 4 neighbors that can be reserved. When an image is reserved, it can be made to connect to other points in the Hygrid, which is where the mind bending topology comes into play. So you could connect your new grid to the top of one grid and at the same time to the bottom of that same grid, making a loop that sits flat in the viewer as a repeating series. But rather than trying to explain all of the strange possibilities of Hygrid, here is a pointer to the project: http://www.sito.org/synergy/hygrid/
PANIC and Hygrid participation dropped off quickly once the Gridcosm came online. Unlike PANIC, gridcosm entries were to enjoy a more permanent existence on SITO, and the collaboration was more constrained than Hygrid. Briefly, there are 9 150×150 grids on each Gridcosm level that create the final image. The center grid is made from the previous level, and the 8 surrounding grids are available to be claimed by individual artists. The general idea is to blend with what exists when adding a new grid and to allow other artists to participate on each level rather than “hogging” a level by completing it as a solo effort, but there is only the potential wrath of the community to keep someone from violating these laws. Another fun aspect of the Gridcosm is that each grid offers the opportunity to contribute some text to a “random” poem that accompanies each level.
As far as what it is that keeps me going back, sometimes I have a bit of text that I want to put out there, sometimes I feel like trying to see what happens with some grid art. There are several levels of challenge on the art side. First, being able to blend visually can vary from easy to very difficult depending on what the other artists have left at their edges. Second, there is a challenge of trying to blend on a thematic and symbolic level with what exists – to try to continue the visual story and take it in a productive direction. Finally I would say that there is a challenge involved with fitting in on a social level. Creative group efforts generally run into all kinds of clashes, and with almost 13 years of collaboration on the grid, there have been many flame wars. So there is an effort to be part of the solution, not the problems.
baker b.: Great, thanks. I was going to attempt a summary of what the Gridcosm is all about using a paraphrase of wikipedia’s information on the subject, but I think you did a considerably better job than the latter, even. Yeah, it’s easy to see how this SITO game became a focus the way you describe it, the basic design so simple and eloquent with the collapse of a 3×3 grid back into a 1×1 square to become the seed of a new 3×3 after its completion — 8 squares surrounding a central (seed) square at all times. And with *3498* levels so far!
I was personally unsuccessful at finding a full animation of the Gridcosm online, which it seems would work best with the ability to control the speed of the fly-through. What are your opinions about the various ways the Gridcosm can presently be experienced in parts and as a whole? It’s such a massive undertaking now that I can see those who are not directly involved easily getting bogged down in the complexity. Perhaps some stories about the dominant artists and their attempts to blend creative efforts would help.
Mike C.: There have been a few different tools developed for Gridcosm fly-throughs, I think the best of them was done in Flash a few years back. Trying to wrap your mind around the entire project seems like it would be a huge task at this point. Giving each level 30 seconds would mean about 29 hours of attention. Fly-throughs are cool, but I prefer to use the “random level” feature to explore, and then go up or down manually from there.
One of my favorite things about the Gridcosm is the potential for synchronicity. With the broad variety of inspiration that goes into it, and the losely connected jumps from one symbol to the next, there is a lot of potential for meaningful conjunctions with other parts of life. At times when the sync is strong, it has always been a fun source.
As far as the main artists over the years, there are several that have been at it since the beginning or near the beginning. I started on level 12 in April of 1997, and rank 2nd for number of grids added and number of levels worked on. Mark Sunshine (SNY) also started on level 12 and ranks 1st by a fair margin on both grids and levels, with a more consistent contribution. SNY and I butted heads several times, but there were many highlights of collaboration along the way as well. For example, the bottom row of level 194 http://www.sito.org/cgi-bin/gridcosm/gridcosm?level=194 shows a spot where I was impressed with SNY’s grid and made an effort to blend nicely with it. Afterwards he wrote me to say that he knew I would follow up on it and enjoyed what I had done. Other contributors that were more active early on include Ed Stastny (OED), the mastermind behind SITO, and Jon Van Oast (UWI), whose programming genius has kept everything alive as the artists found new ways to break things. Another artist who has been at it since very early is JER (JER), who started on level 18 and is still going strong. JER is #4 on the list of contributors, with almost as many levels as I have, but behind a little on the number of grids contributed since he has stayed more true to the collaborative spirit over the years by avoiding “gridhogging” which is the act of reserving many grids on the same level. JER did, however, create an alter-ego named Moxie who was an extreme gridhog and usually considered a “hostile” player according to his high “Hogfactor” a numerical measure of non-collaboration.
Gridhogging, also called hogging, has been one of the main incendiaries in the grid world. The only other issue that would compete for the dubious distinction for top point of contention is blending. When everyone blends their grids to their neighbors, the resulting levels appear to be a single effort. When they don’t, the grid looks “quilty” and the grids appear as discontinuities in the overall flow. When actively participating, hogging and non-blending can both feel like betrayals of the community spirit. It is a real rush to see everyone working with a single mind, level after level, each artist rising to the challenge of those who have gone before and challenging the next. When someone comes along and starts plastering the grid with cheap and unrelated images, it’s always a disappointment that is usually felt strongly by one or more of the artists that have been making an effort.
But to counterbalance the difficulties, there are many playful characters and lighthearted individuals who keep things nice. I would include major contributors Eva Hochreutener (EHO) and Nata Lukas (NLT) in this category. I would say that EHO is most famous for her odd creatures and playful scenes painted from whatever colors and textures she was left to blend with. I feel like NLT and I share some artistic sensibility as he works in a broad range of styles that I sometimes confuse with my own. I don’t mean any offense to NLT by that, since I think he is a more talented artist, but sometimes I look at a grid and have to double check whether he created it or I did. Any discussion like this is going to inevitably leave out artists that should be included, and for that I apologize, but before I wrap up this segment, I have to mention Thomas Armagost (TCA) who is ranked as the third most prolific contributor and recently celebrated his 10 year mark as a gridhead. It’s appropriate to include him in this part of the discussion since he has always remained positive as he brought his unique contributions to the gridcosm. I think it would be safe to say that TCA is most famous for his political grids, but he often branches out into many different styles and topics.
And as you know, Baker, TCA also exists in Second Life as a character called Bacon, whom I hear you have run into on several occasions in different contexts. I recently visited his floating art gallery of line drawings in SL and enjoyed the trip 🙂
baker b.: One of the things that struck me about what you just said is that many of the long term and high volume participants in the Gridcosm experience, started in 1997, were already locked in at a very early date: you/MKC, Mark Sunshine/SNY, and JER. About TCA, who came along a couple of years later, yeah, I’ve run into him a number of times now in Second Life. His chosen SL name, Bacon, use to be listed alphabetically right before mine (Baker there as well) in a long list of gallery owners found at avatar Sasun Steinbeck’s influential “Art Galleries of Second Life” blog (http://sl-artgalleries.blogspot.com/). So, just practicing a bit of sideways logic myself, or synchronicity logic I suppose, I popped over to his gallery one day to see what my “next door neighbor” was up to. I remember the landmark was screwed up at the time, and we exchanged a couple of im-s on this subject. Then I went back later, maybe days maybe months — can’t remember — and Bacon was there this time and graciously showed me around his gallery and neighboring grounds. Even offered to sell me some land, as I recall. Then later on, our paths directly crossed not once but several times when I rented land near the spiffy Second Life community called Chilbo. And he also had a gallery in what I always called Yapland as well, headed by artist avatar extraordinaire Kelly Yap, a SL mentor of sorts for me. But it was only recently that I did enough digging to make the Bacon-TCA connection, and find his work on the Gridcosm. So I shot him an im — “Hey, you might know my old mate Mike Casey.” I still didn’t have any idea that you and he were the 2nd and 3rd most prolific contributors to the Gridcosm, a fact which Bacon/TCA relayed to me later on as well. I found it all quite peculiar.
Actually when you speak of the Gridcosm, there are several aspects that remind me of Second Life itself, like the idea of starting from an original square and working out and away — just like Second Life began in a 256 meter x 256 meter, original “sim” named DaBoom in 2002. There are now over 30,000 such sims on the Second Life grid.
Moving back for a moment to your SITO artwork currently displayed in the SoSo West gallery of Pietmond, I’m curious about the story behind “Spineprints in the Sand”, since it was the first picture of yours that sold after the opening. Bacon bought it. 🙂
Mike C.: That’s cool how things came together with the small worlds of SL and the gridcosm. I knew that you had a presence in Second Life, but I didn’t know that TCA was involved until you told me. To find out that the two of you were SL neighbors in a sense was strange coincidence, in a good way 🙂 The structural connections between SL and the gridcosm are also interesting now that you point them out. There must also be some effort to “blend” from one area to the next as the Second Life world expands.
“Spineprints in the Sand” is a little different than the other images in my collection, but also shares some similarities. I had some text that I had written for some other reason, and during some transformations the backwards GoD and sideways 8 became noticable as the result of random conjunctions. I thought that was interesting, so I created an image where I emphasized them. The original image was bright yellow, but as I was emphasizing the letters, I toned the color down to the leathery brown and noticed that the jacket seemed to form and GoD (still backwards) made it look like a kind of letter jacket. At first though, there was only a dark mass that looked like a crater where the head should be. I cut the jacket out as an object to be placed on different backgrounds and started experimenting with the background. In one of the early experiments, I saw a metallic shape starting to form as the head, so I went with that and refined it. The first sign of the metallic head was in an image I called RatGot.jpg, and I will include that.
So one similarity with the other images is that I didn’t start with the intention of creating anything in particular, I let my subconscious do the work. The main difference is that I broke the image up into several distinct pieces that I intentionally tried to construct into something. In this case, a kind of anthropomorphized image of God.
The first image, called BackwardsGodSideways8Made.jpg was saved at 11:17pm on 8/27/2000. The last image during this session, UsedToBeIDontKnowin.jpg was saved at 2:39am on 8/28/2000. I stopped, but I wasn’t totally happy with the background or overall presentation.
A couple of months later, I created an image called SphinxHadFirstHit.jpg. I’m not sure where that one came from, but it’s one of my favorites. Remembering the other image, I decided to try SphinxHadFirstHit as the background, and was happy with the results. I especially liked the way the shape that looked like a hand in a lazy salute matched up with the skull. So it looked like this image of GoD was standing in front of some graffiti in such a way that his “third hand” was apparent and matched the look of disdain he held towards an observer looking directly at him. To improve the overall balance I added the ghostly spine patterns flowing out of the top of the jacket and SpineprintsInTheSand.jpg was finished at 4:49am on 11/1/2000.
I incorporated this image into the gridcosm on level 583 later that day, quickly adding some leather pants and black feet, giving the impression that he was peeing on the graffiti wall. http://www.sito.org/cgi-bin/gridcosm/gridcosm?level=583 It’s crude, but life is sort of like that, I think.
baker b.: Thanks for that answer. It sounds like for this particular piece the process is almost as important as the final product. Cool that it also found its way into the Gridcosm.
In checking Gridcosm stats, it seems you created more pieces for it in the early 2000s than any other, relative time period, if I’m interpreting this report correctly, http://www.sito.org/cgi-bin/gridcosm/cosmost?id=MKC, “Spineprints in the Sand” comes from late 2000, near the heart of this intense, grid activity. I believe this was also the era that Mikecosm emerged from, which I find really fascinating — kind of a bite sized, personalized version of the Gridcosm. Can you tell us about Mikecosm, then, and how it came to be?
Mike C.: Yes, you are reading the report correctly. Early 2000 was the beginning of my time in Chicago (late 1999 to 2005) and I had a lot of free time and energy, and enough focus to try to do some art. My enthusiasm for contributing to the grid elicited cries of “gridhogging!” and that was probably the main inspiration to create Mikecosm. I wanted to try to create art in the gridcosm format, but I didn’t want to step on the collaborative nature of the gridcosm itself, so I did a little programming to create a basic framework for a gridcosm like project, without the ability to reserve grids, upload grids and all of that sort of thing.
I could have (and maybe should have) spent more time planning the content, but I let Mikecosm evolve in the same unconsciously inspired mindset that I employ for most of my gridcosm participation. There’s room to plan out multiple levels in advance, and have a lot more overall flow, but I generally let each level inspire the next and then dealt with the forms that I left myself with when I got to the following level. Mikecosm started with a copy of the original image for the gridcosm as an hommage to Ed Stastny, and made it to 24 levels before I felt that it was complete. Mikecosm II only made it to 6 levels before I stopped.
I should still have the code somewhere, so there could be other Mikecosms and I offered to share it with anyone who was interested in a *cosm of their own, though nobody took me up on that. I started a Mikecosm III, but haven’t worked on it in several years.
baker b.: Thanks for that explanation. It’s a shame that no one took you up on your offer to create their own *cosm. Seems to me that projects like Mikecosm only add to the creative depth of the Gridcosm in the long run, and allow the creators of such to see the advantages, through contrast, of working within its shared framework as opposed to a separate, self created grid. And vice versa, of course.
I wish you much success in Gridcosm and SITO projects in general, Mike. Although I may never be a regular contributor myself, I’ll always be a supporter.