Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Conversation with Jayjay Zifanwe

I’d logged into Second Life early one morning, as I normally do before I leave for work. Ostensibly, it’s to collect messages along with any group notices all of which provide me a list of places to visit or people I would like to chat with when I return later in the day. While doing so on that particular day, I received an instant message from Jayjay Zifanwe who’d suggested that I relook at one of the entries from the recently concluded UWA III Machinima contest, “Twinkle’s Journey”. He’d simply said, “look for the hidden meaning”. I did and was surprised that I had missed the message. I felt badly that I had and doubly so for the creator Bay Sweetwater as the hidden meaning was a heart wrenching one. Jayjay and I chatted briefly afterward and I thanked him for calling my attention to it and then logged out. The next day, while I read through the blogs that I follow, I came across a post he’d written titled, “The Most Important Thing I Have Done in Second Life”. Early in the post he writes;
“I think these days, it is very hard to get below the surface with anything, to really know something or someone beyond the superficial exterior. News, happenings with acquaintances, friends, relatives sometimes go by in a blizzard of email, facebook and twitter posts. Many times we look, we read, we post, but we do not really see, we do not truly understand, nor do we really communicate. Sometimes though something happens that allows me to break through this fog... ”
I’d been introduced to Jayjay by White Lebed shortly after the University of Western Australia (UWA) formally became a part of the arts and educational community of Second Life in October of 2009. I do try and make frequent visits there to view the art submitted as part of the challenge, cast my vote and chat with friends and colleagues. Jay Jay Jegathesan (SL Name JayJay Zifanwe), is a Manager, School of Physics at the University of Western Australia and a winner of the Google Earth Build your Campus in 3D Competition. In Second Life, he manages the five SIM’s that comprise UWA’s virtual presence and of course which include the site of the UWA 3D Art & Design Challenge. Over time, UWA has hosted many special builds, including the works of artists such as Glyph Graves, Soror Nishi, Silene Christen and most recently Wizard Gynoid. Beside the promotion of UWA, Jayjay also works tirelessly at promoting the arts in Second Life through collaborative efforts with several of the major art houses in Second Life and he is also a member of the Linden Endowment of the Arts (LEA) committee.
A few days later, we exchanged messages once again and made arrangements to meet for this interview. I’d arrived early and ported over to the UWA sandbox. The Winthrop Clock Tower is right next to it and so I arrowed my virtual self in that direction. I checked the map and noted the presence of a dozen or so avatars scattered about the five UWA SIM’. I flew up and hovered near the clock. It all looked very familiar as I had seen it many times when I’d viewed the machinima that had been submitted. I had been asked by Jayjay to be part of the judge’s panel and while it had been a fair amount of work, I enjoyed it immensely. I was about to fly around to other parts of the SIM, when Jayjay had arrived in world. He messaged me and sent a teleport request. We met for this conversation at the platform which serves as the 3D Art Challenge. It was here that we’d often talked on most of my prior visits. We were surrounded by the art on display and it struck me that he stood amongst them much as a shepherd would his flock. We exchanged pleasantries and then began.
Nazz: I’d looked at your profile earlier and saw that you’d passed your second rezz day recently. I’m curious as to what is it that keeps you coming into Second Life every day?
Jayjay: Well, it’s the fact that the presence of the University of Western Australia has succeeded beyond what I had originally envisioned for it. We really wanted to build the campus initially, just a recreation of the plan and that’s what it would have been. But through serendipity, we’ve had successes in teaching with ongoing under grad and post grad programs, art, machinima, architecture, and a little bit of research as well.
Nazz: So it’s been a combination of things, your successes and experiences that have led you to grow the presence and take it forward into areas that maybe you hadn’t thought possible when you first came in to Second Life?
Jayjay: Yes, definitely. I mean like I hadn’t really walked into a an art gallery, well apart from the gallery at UWA itself in ten years or something like that … before agreeing at the drop of a hat to run the art competition, not having any experience at all in SL, not really knowing the art scene … and then deciding to do what has turned out to be the UWA 3D Art Challenge.
Nazz: What was your initial impression of the art scene in Second Life?
Jayjay: I've always had an interest in art because I'm a Pisces … I see in my profile that Pisceans really are supposed to have an affinity for art and I never found it before. So I guess it's finally found its voice. I mean you have a natural liking for art things which are beautiful and are able to capture the imagination. You're able to do that here … it's hard to explain to someone who doesn't kind of feel it … like you know it’s not like I'm an artist myself or feel like I'm a supporter of the arts or a patron of the arts or anything … in a sense though that's what's been happening.
Nazz: In the nearly two years since it began in Second Life, UWA has established itself as one of the premier venues in Second Life for showcasing art and artists. Was that what you were thinking when you first started the art challenges … to create a venue that entices artists to come here to learn, grow and experiment?
Jayjay: I had no idea what I was getting into or what I wanted. The very first event that we had was the launch of an astronomy art gallery in real life and in Second Life actually … of the space photographs of John Goldsmith. It was also the simultaneous launch of the first structure put on UWA land in second life, it was the physics building. We had that launch but two days prior to it, Professor Ted Snell asked what I could do for art to go along with the launch. He said he'd give us a small amount of funding for it … and I just said I could organize a yearlong art competition without thinking about it.
Nazz: I remember coming to one of the first competitions. It was a small space and it seemed like there were only twenty or so entries. What is the average number of entries now? 
Jayjay: At the moment, for the month of May it was seventy-eight. The average for a month is about seventy but it can range from fifty something to seventy something. We've also limited entries to two per artist. When we first started, the very first month I think there were twenty plus entries but one of the participants had eight art works in and another had six … so I think the actual number of artists for that first challenge was about twelve. I was really lucky I had the time and managed to get really prominent artists sending in works … like Alizarin Goldflake, Oberon Onmura  and Soror Nishi. 
Nazz: Where do you see the art challenge going and I'm leading you just a little because I did see where you're now collaborating with several of the leading art houses in Second Life … is that what you see as the evolution of the art challenge?
Jayjay: The collaboration was the evolution of the first year. We had the UWA 3D Art & Design Challenge and it was just UWA and we only had a UWA panel at the time. What I thought was that by the end of the first year we had grown big enough I guess to be noticeable to the art scene overall in SL. I didn't want the situation whereby other art groups were feeling that they were in competition with the UWA. The art groups really to be a force need to collaborate … that’s why the idea for it to be a collaboration came about. We're supposed to be gaining symbiotic energy from all this, as opposed to trying to outdo each other. That’s why this happened for the second year … whereby there are prizes given by these groups for whatever they've selected … and the interesting thing is almost all the time there is a whole range of different things being selected and that's what I saw in the first year as well. Each person … each artist and each judge has a different idea of what's the best and that’s why there are so many prizes as well. I'm going back to the question … what's the evolution. The 3D Open Art Challenge ends this year really. I don't know what I'm going to do beyond it. I don't think I have the capability or capacity to continue indefinitely … it was never the idea to continue the art challenges every month as a monthly challenge in perpetuity so it will end this year. What I do beyond that I'm not sure. We will have a major art event next year, it’s probably not going to be a monthly art challenge … maybe one larger art challenge in the middle of the year … and something like one large machinima challenge. What I do know is, we will definitely have and we've already started is the Machinima IV Challenge which is the Art of the Artists one. It's in a way a companion to 3D Open Art Challenge. There will be a Machinima V somewhere in the middle of next year. Beyond that I don't know. 
Nazz: On the topic of machinima, where did your interest start in that medium as art?
Jayjay: I didn't know anything about machinima except for seeing like one or two. I actually saw one by a UWA student as part of a class project he did for a second year school of business unit. Everyone was supposed to give a presentation at the end of the semester. The whole course was about business in second life. Everyone else was doing a powerpoint presentation … he did his presentation in the form of a machinima. I guess I saw that one and I thought it would be great if it was more focused … it started out really well ... It was just this kid who was doing it with no real experience. It had really great music and it started off showing the ability to learn in a virtual space and then it started to focus on free tee shirts and peacocks. It could have been so much more ... he did show a bit on education and a little about the arts.
Nazz: How did that evolve to become a machinima contest?
Jayjay: I had kept that idea in the back of my head and then White Lebed said I should run a machinima competition. She in fact contributed a small amount ... she didn't want me to tell people about it. But it's been long enough since then that I can actually say that she put in 5000 L$ for it and I added 5000 L$ and that’s how we started … 10000 L$ was the first prize pool for the UWA Machinima Challenge. For me to run it, I had to run it as a way to break through the real life and second life barrier. There is a difficulty with bringing second life to real life in a university setting and making people sit up and take notice and interest. So the first year challenge had the theme of showing off the art, architecture, research and teaching on the UWA SIM’. That sounds like an extremely exciting topic for a machinimatographer and that was the challenge for the 10000 L$ prize pool. I had no idea what it took to make a machinima and I found out through this … to make one minute of machinima takes 10 to 12 hours of work … so I realized the prize pool was completely inadequate … there were people telling me that we were trying to get a free advertisement for the university as opposed to running a machinima competition. I spent a lot of time with each of the machinimatographers for that round and to show them personally all the areas that I knew were important to be filmed and the reason why we were doing it … the background and the future. It was, I explained to them a weapon to actually bring in more funding to the arts in general and machinima ... and that was the hope and vision … the first challenge as a battering ram to break down this wall between RL and SL. Several of the judges … like the vice chancellor for the university … saw the entries by Cisko Vandeverre … ColeMarie Soleil … Chantal Harvey ... Iono Allen. The prize pool jumped up to 230000 L$ and so it succeeded in a spectacular way in breaking down that barrier. After that funding was provided for the second and third round … based on what happened with that first machinima challenge. It’s kind of freed me so we don't have to focus on UWA ... for example the third machinima challenge was journeys and they could do any journey they wanted but they had to incorporate Winthrop Clock Tower as part of the journey. They didn't have to focus a lot on it or didn’t even have to mention that it was part of the university … it just had to be part of the machinima and I think they did a brilliant job in bringing that forward and so the future challenges will have some aspect of UWA in it … but not having to do some song and dance about UWA to get it in.
Nazz: I do want to talk more about the recent contest, when you'd messaged me to have another look at Twinkle's Journey. I did and then a few days later I read your blog post which I thought very moving. One of your key points and one I think we can all relate to is how we don't often get to know each other as we're all so busy in our own lives. When you did recognize the message and in your conversations with Bay Sweetwater what was your reaction to that?
Jayjay: It makes you realize … it makes things real. Sometimes in second life you paper over the real life aspects. You don't really know the people and you don't know peoples motivation and I completely missed it. The first time when I saw that machinima, I didn't think Twinkle's Journey was Twinkle's Journey. It started out with a star, you got beautiful scenery and stuff then you didn’t see the star and I wondered why for a few seconds … why I didn't see the star … but I didn't really relate to it at all. I thought it was okay, but it was like a kids movie. In fact when I commented on the machinima I commented more on the art work within the machinima. Actually I thought the creations were good and that was the thing I could relate to. So when she won a prize for being a participant in the viewer’s event, a four way tie for 3rd place, which was good, I could have decided … should I only give the Lindens or should I give four books ... what would be good to do? I decided I would send the books. So when I said I would send the book, “100 Treasures of UWA”, she said donate it to a primary school. I was half thinking maybe … just in my mind as I was already preparing the packages … that it would have been just as easy to slip it in an envelope and send it off, as opposed to looking at how to donate a book to a primary school. But something in the back of my mind said that I should. I then called the school and I managed to get the principal straight away. I told him that there's been a donation … So I wrote to Bay that I'd organized donating the book to this school and if you'd like to give a message … and there was something strange about the message … it didn't sit right and so I asked if she'd like to give a different message, about why you're donating the book and that's when I went back to have a look at those words … “A childs journey to the stars, told by those of us who are left behind”. That's when the penny dropped, I did a search on Bay Sweetwater and that’s when I found the blog and she'd written on the blog that yes she had lost a child. I felt thankful that I had organized a school to be receiving this and thankful for the message and the way she wrote it and making me realize the background to it … from one of what was fifty machinima and one that in the end didn't win a prize, it became the headline in my mind almost as a post script to the whole challenge.
Nazz: After I viewed the machinima the second time, the thoughts and emotions stayed with me throughout the rest of the day. Then when I saw your post, I thought it was very moving. Thank you again for calling all of our attention to re-look at the machinima and the underlying story. 
Jayjay: Sure, that’s why the title of that post as well was the most important thing I've one in second life. Some people might look at other achievements or something of the overall university and it would be true I guess, but then to me I put this as the most important thing I've done. Because the blog is UWA's in SL, whenever I write for it, I never write like that … that was how I normally write , that’s my style … but I generally suppress it and write in an official kind of tone or official inflection … but for that one I had to drop all of that and write as I naturally would. 
Nazz: It was obvious that it came from your heart. Before I go, I wanted to thank you as well for asking me to be part of the judging panel. It was an enjoyable experience. When I looked at the twenty plus names of the panel members, I felt quite honored to have been included in such a distinguished body.
Jayjay: We’re glad to have you Nazz. It may be curious that there are as many on the panel and people may wonder why I do that. Like I’d discovered from the 3D Art Challenge last year … there is such diversity of opinion in arts … at giving a top ten list, it's really hard to award a winner. However, by doing it as an aggregate of all these judges the winners … the top two or three come out so easily out of the whole mix that its absolutely incredible for me to watch as the one who puts it together. 
Two days after we’d met, he’d messaged me in world with, “Sharni Azalee has made an artwork in tribute of Twinkle & Bay Sweetwater”. I stopped in the next day to see it. There’s a small plaque on the piece, it says; “Love’s Eternal Inspired by Twinkle and Bay”. Do stop in to see it when you can.


Miso Susanowa said...

I'd echo Jayjay's post title with this one, about him: "One of the most important and good people I have met in Second Life."

sororNishi said...

..../me nods.