ArtA surrealist Second Life designer on the role of pure play
We talked to Second Life fashion innovator Elif Ayiter about seeking refuge in her own fantastical cyberspace.
Professor, designer, and writer Elif Ayiter goes by many names in the virtual world Second Life, where she designs everything from clothes to museums. With 1 million regular users, Second Life has its own cultures and communities that are not restricted by the limitations of reality. Essentially, if you can dream it, you can build it, and Elif does just that. With authority and concision, she talks about the world of Second Life and her experiences there within. The world is, as they say, what you make it. It can be as wholesome as apple pie or as eccentric as the human mind will allow. What matters is not winning, what matters is making.
Elif spent years building personalities to capture different facets of her own creativity. She entered this world as part of an academic pursuit but soon became enamored with the possibilities of building your own world from scratch and finding pieces of yourself that were thought lost. Some of her clothing designs reflect the type of playfulness she exhibits when talking about her early days in the world of Second Life, while others showcase parts untapped by the human mind. Inside Second Life, all are valid.
Professor, designer, and writer
Elif is the chief editor of the journal Metaverse Creativity with Intellect Journals, UK and has contributed to the Journal of Consciousness Studies, IJACDT, and Technoetic Arts. She lives and works in Istanbul.
She creates clothes that allow her to express her own creativity in order to keep building. But Elif doesn’t talk like someone who is trapped in her own virtual world; she plays because Second Life allows her to create things that no one has ever seen before and to play like she did when she was a child.
↓ Image from Volund's Tale, Stage 12 series
Avatars, clothing, alt-personalities,
and breaking from the
norm of Second Life
HF: What drew you to Second Life, why did you dive in, and how did you get started?
Elif Ayiter: It was 2007, and I was working on a PhD, developing an educational methodology, which was going to be online and was going to be extremely unorthodox. It was based on a real-life art educational system that had happened in the 1960s in England. Roy Ascot developed it, and I wanted to translate that educational system into some kind of online domain. Someone told me that I should look at Second Life, because a lot people were doing educational things there.
Sure enough, I became fascinated with it for entirely different reasons at that point.
HF: After the project, did you stay because you wanted to play?
EA: Yes. I stayed because I wanted to play.
HF: I’ve never played Second Life, but it seems like you really have to discover your niche inside of the world to make it your own. How did you discover yourself inside of Second Life?
EA: Well, you don’t really discover yourself. In the beginning, I didn’t really look for myself. I was myself. I created an avatar called “Alpha Auer.” Alpha looks like me, of course, she’s much younger looking than me, but she looks like me. Her first name is “Alpha.” My first name is Elif. Elif is Alpha in Arabic—and Auer is very similar to my last name, so I didn’t really look to find some sort of fascinating alternative identity. I wanted to be there as myself. Second Life is not a game. It’s too unstructured to be called a game. It’s like real life.
I wanted to be there as myself. Second Life is not a game. It’s too unstructured to be called a game. It’s like real life.
The best example I could give you is, if you were to move to Argentina, and you don’t know a soul there, you wouldn’t need to set up a whole life in Argentina, right? You would need make friends. You would need to hook up with people. You would need to build a social existence. You would need to bring some meaning to your life in Argentina. And that’s what you do in Second Life, essentially. It’s like different country, where you don’t know anyone, where the customs are different—they are based on real life but are nevertheless different—and you just define yourself a purpose. The system, Second Life itself, doesn’t give you anything. There are no rules, so there are no levels. All of that you have to do yourself.
What a lot of people do, is they start to build things, because that’s the big beauty of Second Life: it’s a builder’s world. Inside the viewer, there’s a whole 3-D editing system, which is very easy to learn—much, much easier to learn than 3-D software—no comparison, really. So even people that have never used 3-D software can learn to build with it very, very quickly. Then you just basically start making stuff.
There’s an economy, which works with a virtual currency that you can transfer into real money via PayPal. So whatever you earn in Second Life, you can put on your credit card in real life. There’s a marketplace, so the stuff that you build you can sell and buy from other people. That, for a lot of people, tends to become a goal: to build things, to make things for themselves. When I say build, I don’t mean this in an ambitious sort of way. You can build flowerpots. You can build a bicycle. You can, you now, build animals. You can build your home, your sailboat. You can also buy your sailboat, and then, modify it. You can change it. You can re-texture it, make it bigger.
All of that has to do with play. It’s like children, you know, when you’re a child and you’re building with building blocks and having tea parties for your dolls. It’s that kind of life.
HF: Of all the things you could have been working on, what drew you to start designing clothes for Second Life?
EA: I love clothes. I mean, I love them in real life, also. One of the things that I noticed form the beginning of Second Life is that most people in Second Life, most avatars in Second Life, dress very, very normally. They wear jeans and t-shirts and the kind of clothes that you would see in real life. From the very first day, I started to wonder about that. In a world, where you can look or wear anything you like, even things that would be completely impossible to think of wearing, in real life—for example, you could become an airplane, an avatar doesn’t have to look like a human being—why would you run around with jeans and t-shirts and Adidas shoes? That’s something that I could never get my head around. That’s kind of the first take on Second Life. When you first join and go to the public areas that everyone goes to, one of the first things you notice is that it’s a very conventional look, in terms of appearance.
As you delve in, you start to notice it’s not all like that. There are a lot of people that create very, very fantastical clothes or things that you wouldn’t even be able to call clothes in the conventional sense of the word. Wearables, not just clothes, but attachments.
The first year that I was in Second Life, I didn’t build anything myself. I bought a lot. I bought a lot of stuff from these fashion designers, whose work I started to admire, which was very, very fantastical. It had nothing to do with real life apparel at all. From that, I started to modify the things that they were making. From modifying them, the next step was start making things of my own.
In the beginning, I made them to wear myself, but I had these friends in Second Life, and they started saying to me, “Why don’t you sell this stuff, because this is really wild. I bet you a lot of people would want to buy it.” Sure enough, that’s what happened. People started to buy my things.
Roy Ascot developed it, and I wanted to translate that educational system into some kind of online domain.
HF: The designs that you have, from my mind, resemble a kind of cyberpunk, William Gibson world. What is it about these cyberpunk outfits that you find so appealing?
EA: Well, I don’t think what I make is really like that. First of all, I should tell you how the fashion store works. There are five fashion designers.
If you look at my flickr, there are five different albums in this collection, and they are designed by five different avatars. One of them is Alpha Auer, who is my main avatar. One of them is called “Amina Diablo.” The other “Alpho Fullstop.” The other one is called “Grapho Fullstop," and the final one is called “Xiamara Ugajin.” These are all me. They are alt-personalties. They are alt-avatars, which means it is an alter-ego, if you will, of my main avatar. All of these five avatars design clothes under a specific concept. None of these concepts are what you were just talking about. They don’t really have anything to do with cyberpunk. Sometimes they may end up looking like that, but that’s not the main concept.
In a world, where you can look or wear anything you like, even things that would be completely impossible to think of wearing in real life, why would you run around with jeans and t-shirts and Adidas shoes?
Some people don’t like to be forced into doing different things, but it was something I really enjoyed
Those are the five concepts that these five avatars work with. I've never hidden the fact that these five avatars are me, that it’s just one human being that designs under five different fashion identities, but a lot of people still think that it’s five different people who have started a joint fashion store.
The reason why I ended up creating five different identities is because I’m a graphic designer, originally. Before I became an academic, I was a graphic designer and I worked as an art director for almost 20 years before I started teaching, and graphic designers always have to work with different styles. You can’t be a graphic designer and impose your style upon a product, especially in advertising. I was an advertising art director, so if you’re designing something for luxury cars than there’s a style that you have to adopt for that or if you’re designing baby diapers then that’s a different style. If you’re designing a food product, that’s a different style. And things change, colors change, fonts change, a lot of things change.
I had spent a lot years designing in very, very different ways with different clients when I was in advertising, and it was something that I always enjoyed. Some people don’t like to be forced into doing different things, but it was something that I had really enjoyed. So I said to myself, “Why don’t I do it here? Why don’t I design things that have different concepts?" But then, you know, I don’t have to just be ‘me.’ I can be a lot of different creative ‘me’s. That’s how the shop started.
I was doing different things as Alpha. You know, I was designing a flora outfit, then I was designing a geometric outfit, then a dark outfit. But then, I said, “Don’t have Alpha do all of this stuff. Get different people here. Get different identities.” So that’s how it took off.
HF: You had different avatars to express different facets of your creativity without it being linked to just one person.
EA: Yes, exactly. Because, you know, it’s play. Ultimately, this world, Second Life, only makes sense if you look at it as play, as nonsensical, as not bound by your physical body.
HF: Do the traditional models, like the people who wear jeans and Adidas shoes, bump up against the world of Alpha in Second Life? Could someone just stumble into an area and be surrounded by an avatar that’s part airplane and part human?
EA: It’s unlikely, because Second Life isn’t laid out like a city, like New York or Istanbul, where you could just walk and go through these different neighborhoods and see different things. There are a lot of cities in the United States, for example, where when you leave your home you have to know where you’re going, because you’re going to be getting into a car.
I was in Austin, last year, which is a really, really nice city, but unlike New York or Istanbul, you can’t just leave your house and start walking. In New York, you can wander from one neighborhood to another and things can change very dramatically. When I lived in Brooklyn in the 1980s, you could start walking through a black neighborhood and transition into a Jewish neighborhood, and then you transition into an Italian neighborhood, an Irish neighborhood, and it’s quite seamless. We have the same thing in Istanbul, too, where you can just change your environment as you walk.
But Second Life isn’t like that. Second Life is a bit like Austin: you have to know where you’re going. The way you get around is by teleportation, so you don’t actually walk or fly or whatever—you just do that over very short distances. When you’re roaming the world, you have to have a destination in mind, you have to teleport. Second Life used to have these big continents. They have shrunk. They still exist but they are nowhere near as big as they used to be. Instead, there are thousands, tens of thousands, I don’t know, maybe hundreds of thousands of islands and these islands are in discreet locations. They are not joined to each other. So you really have to know. You have to have a landmark, and then, use that landmark to teleport to a specific island.
Second Life, only makes sense if you look at it as play, as nonsensical, as not bound by your physical body.
The jeans crowd will go to the kinds of places to which they have landmarks, and the sort-of crazy guys will go to their destination to which they have landmarks, so you can’t accidentally end up somewhere that you did not intend to be, unlike in NY or Istanbul. So there are these discreet worlds inside of Second Life that have their own things going. For example, there are a lot of role playing communities in Second Life. In a lot of cases, their islands are closed, so you couldn’t even enter unless you were part of the role play group. There are locations in Second Life where people play games. Games in the sense of World of Warcraft. Games with goals. And then there are communities like "Goreans." They are a sort of Medieval-inspired community that enslave their women, for example, and there are tens of thousands of women that take part in this, that are in these communities and who want to be enslaved. There are people who spend their whole life, practically, in Second Life being part of this Gorean community.
Now, I have never been there. I just know this from hearsay or what people have told me. There is a very big community that is into Steam Punk. They have land, islands, shopping malls, bands, groups, discos, music events, you name it. And if you go to one of these places, and I have been to these places, to Steampunk islands, everyone is dressed like the 19th century, except in a Steampunk kind of way, so they have gears running around in their heads and stuff like that. It’s these discreet lives that don’t usually touch each other.
Of course, all these communities have their own blogs, Facebook groups, Facebook pages. They know each other on Twitter. They know each other on Instagram. The world spills over into social media.
There are communities like "Goreans." They are a sort of Medieval-inspired community that enslave their women, there are tens of thousands of women that take part in this, that are in these communities and who want to be enslaved.
HF: How did you find community?
EA: I don’t know that I have a community, to be honest. Also, I don’t spend that much time in Second Life anymore. I used to spend a lot of time in Second Life, up until about 2010. One guy, whom I actually knew in real life, and who I knew had gotten into Second Life, I looked him up, and so he and a few friends of his, we started to hang out together, and we were playing. We were playing like crazy. We had this, well, it could be described as a game of sorts, except it didn’t really have any rules. One of us had set up this society inside of Second Life, which was called the “Search and Rescue Operation in Second Life,” where we were rescuing avatars in need, which is, of course, a completely asinine concept, because an avatar is never in need. If you were ever in need, you log off. If you end up somewhere, and you’re getting into some kind of trouble or something, all you do is log off, and then log in at a different location. It’s not like real life, you don’t have to be there. But we played this very, very seriously. To rescue avatars in need, but we couldn’t really find avatars in need, so we ended up rescuing each other, and we did this with planes and helicopters. We had a whole paramedic team. You know, the works.
So for quite a few years, I was very active, hanging out with these guys. They were Austrian, but then, one of them got banned by Second Life, which was a hugely unfair thing, but they banned the avatar, so he couldn’t come back in. He created another avatar, but it wasn’t the same. Somehow the magic was gone. At that point, we were all getting a little bit bored with Second Life. One of these guys is still very active in virtual worlds, but he hangs around in the Open Sim, which is the open version of Second Life. It all sort of fizzled out. If you want to say, like a community, there’s a big art scene in Second Life. Like I said, everyone in Second Life builds, but not everybody makes art. But then there’s people who make art, and I’m sort of loosely associated with the art scene. I have some good friends from the art scene, whom I know from real life. Other than that, I don’t really have a community that I’m very heavily involved with.
I have a few very good friends in Second Life, but not really a community.
There’s a big art scene in Second Life.
Art and commerce, falling into Second Life, virtual wellness, and learning to play again
HF: Since you started designing clothes, has Second Life become a market place or a medium or a place to share your ideas or all three?
↑ Find more images from this project on cargocollective.com
EA: All three. The marketplace thing, it’s important to sell, because land in Second Life costs money. It’s not free. It’s not cheap. And I have an island that I want to keep, because I don’t just design clothes. I also do a lot of architecture, and I even get commissioned to do architecture. Recently, I built a museum that’s not in Second Life, but it was in “Open Sim.”
So I want to keep the island, and in order to pay the fee for the island, I need to keep making money, which is why I’m pretty obsessive about selling the clothes. I mean, I have been known to pay for the island out of my credit card, because sales have been low. That’s happened a few times, but usually I make enough.
The marketplace is that. It’s not really very crucial whether I sell or not. Yes, it’s a very good platform to express and also have people accept very eccentric ideas, and by accept, I mean use. For example, when I make these weird, sometimes very strange avatars, people actually buy them and wear them. They take photographs with them and video with them and all this stuff, so when I say acceptance, I mean it in that sense. Not just in a lip service, but in the sense of really using the stuff, living with it.
The architecture is not architecture like real life architecture. It’s really eccentric stuff.
I was probably using it eight hours a day, every day, which was between 2008 and 2010.
HF: Is the overall goal for the architecture primarily to build and not necessarily inhabit?
EA: Oh, people inhabit.
HF: But for you personally? When you’re building your island, is it primarily just to build?
EA: I keep changing it around. Yes, I build it, and then, I hang around in it. I have parties. I said that I’m not really part of a community, but I know enough people that I can invite over and have a party. But then I get bored and I tear it down. It’s been around now for about a year, the latest build of the island. I’m probably going to rebuild soon.
So the play for me is very much about building, very much about making stuff. But, you know, you can do crazy things. We had a whale of a time about three years ago setting up a psychiatric institute. It’s called “The Dr. Nax Institute for Virtual Wellness.” We had a whole spiel. We wrote all these texts. We had a manifesto for how this institution works. But the thing that happened, which was wonderful, was that people came in droves to get therapy. We had these group therapy sessions, where we had 10, 12 avatars sit on these cardboard boxes, abjectly miserable, and conducted group therapy.
HF: I have never seen anything like this.
EA: You know, it’s pretty crazy. So you use it. You do use it.
HF: At your height, how much were you playing Second Life?
EA: At my height, I was probably using it eight hours a day, every day, which was between 2008 and 2010.
HF: How fast did you fall into it?
EA: Well, once I met Max, the Austrian guy I was telling you about, I fell into it very quickly. But a lot of that has to do with him, because he’s this hilariously funny human being, who had this very funny avatar. Then his friend, who was called Wolfie and was also Austrian, he was this absolutely brilliant, inventive player, like a child. Playing like a child. It hugely appealed to me, what these two guys were doing. And also, this idea of creating multiple personalities. That is something that I also learned from Max. Not Wolfie, he only had one avatar. But Max, he had hundreds. I mean, literally, hundreds. He had hundreds of different avatars that he would log in. All kinds of really, really interesting personalities. Each one was really different than the other. It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had as an adult. But once Wolfie was banned, the whole things sort of fell apart. And also, you can only sustain that kind of high for so long. There comes a time when you just simply can’t do it anymore.
We had these group therapy sessions, where we had 10, 12 avatars sit on these cardboard boxes, abjectly miserable, and conducted group therapy.
HF: Playing eight hours a day, did it affect your first life?
EA: Oh, are you kidding? Sure. My friends—my real life friends—were extremely pissed off with me, my family was pissed off with me, work fell behind. Academics have to write, and I write about virtual worlds, but back then everything fell by the wayside. At the time, I didn’t mind very much because I kind of had a sense that I was getting a lot out of it and I would continue to get a lot out of it and that this was only for so long. I knew that somethings are simply too good to last and that it would somehow end in one way or another but I would have that inspiration with me for a lifetime.
It’s very difficult for grownups to learn to play like children. We’re terrible at it, unfortunately, and I was terrible at it, too, which I didn’t even realize until I hooked up with these guys. I relearned how to play like a child. Most of us can’t do that. There are some people who can, but our grownup games are, in one way or another, goal driven or there is an expected outcome. We play because we want to achieve something or we want to get better at something. Even if you’re doing a solitary sport where you’re not competing with someone, you’re still competing with yourself. We play a lot of games as adults, but I don’t think we play like children play. In Second Life, I was very lucky to hook up with people who were very special in that way, they re-taught me that. At that point I was 55-years-old, and it was a very precious thing to learn.
H&F: Currently, how much are you playing Second Life?
EA: Very little. I just go into build. I’ve spent a lot of time there over the past two or three weeks because there’s this fashion fair coming up and last year I made a killing in sales, and I paid for six-months worth of land fee, so I have been making a lot new outfits just for the fair. I go in if I’m doing something, actually building something or making an outfit. But other than that, I don’t really go in very much at all, unfortunately.
At that point I was 55-years-old, and it was a very precious thing to learn.
HF: When you say “make a killing,” does all the money that you make in Second Life go right back into Second Life or do you add to your own personal income from it?
EA: I started making clothes in late-2008 and in 2009, I started to sell them. I should tell you that before I started selling the clothes, I was already fairly well-known in Second Life, and that had to do with a blogging activity that I was involved in. Second Life used to have an amazing blog, which now no longer exists. It ended in 2009. The person who started this blog, who ended up becoming a dear and close friend in real life, invited me to be a co-blogger. When this blog was around, it was one of the most-read blogs in Second Life, like one of the top three really, really well-read blogs in Second Life. You’d have 50,000 people reading everyday. Maybe more.
Being a blogger, I was already quite well-known in art circles, because this blog has to do with creative activity inside Second Life. When I created the store, word spread very fast. The first two years, I was also making a lot of clothes. I made very, very good money out of that. I made enough money, not just to pay for land, but I made enough to put really big sums of money into my credit card. I was probably averaging $1,500-$2,000 a month. And that went on for about a year and a half, two years, but then it stopped. One of the reasons it stopped is because I stopped producing as much. It’s like in real life, if you want to keep selling, you have to keep making. You have to keep coming up with new collections. You have to always update and change your inventory. You can’t have the same merchandise hanging around the shop for years, which is what I have been doing. You have to keep on changing it. You also have to somehow be socially active as well. You have to attend meetings and go places, and, hey commerce is commerce.Real life, Second Life, it doesn’t really make much difference, and I’m not really good with any of that.
For the past three years, I have basically only been able to make enough to cover the land fee with a little bit left over.
Being a blogger, I was already quite well-known in art circles, because this blog has to do with creative activity inside Second Life.
H&F: What’s next for you? Inside Second Life? Outside Second Life?
EA: Fantasy Fair is coming up. It’s a very big fashion fair for fantastical clothes, so it’s very good for me. I mean, it’s just the sort of thing that I do. So that will go for two weeks, and hopefully, it will go as well as it did last year. As I said, I will rebuild the island over the next two months or so. There are things that I get invited to. Art exhibits that people want to participate in, like the museum that I build, sometimes people invite me to build things.
One of the things that I do is that I write, and I’m the editor of an academic journal on virtual worlds, so I will keep working on my journal. I have two academic articles that I’m planning to write. One of them will be on the museum that I built on virtual museum architecture and the other I’m writing right now. In Second Life, I collaborate with a Norwegian writer named Heidi Dahlsveen and last year, we did a very big project in Second Life, which we are co-authoring into an academic article. So, you know, there’s always something to do.
ALL IMAGES Courtesy Elif Ayiter