The Drax Files: World Makers [Episode 12: Ole Etzel]

Before the digital age, I used to run around with a big VHS camera on my shoulder; for simple interviews in the city I already needed a second person for sound, and then the cutting afterwards… It was terrible! I have a lot of footage, but I never finished a movie.” These are the words with which machinima creator Ole Etzel opens his interview with Draxtor Despres for the twelfth episode of the acclaimed series The Drax Files. The rest, of course, is history. He got sucked into the virtual world of Second Life and became yet another dweeb with no life. Right? Not at all. He got married (who’d suspect that SL users have a personal life in RL?) and became an independent machinima film maker.

Ole Etzel - Image courtesy of Draxtor Despres

Ole Etzel – Image courtesy of Draxtor Despres

So, Ole Etzel is an SL artist – and he’s certainly not alone in this; previously, I have covered Draxtor’s interview with Eshi Otawara. In-world, there is the Linden Endowment for the Arts (LEA), a foundation that enables artists to exhibit their creativity using the tools provided by this platform; from there, I had covered Nino Vichan’s beautiful exhibit “When The Mind’s Eye Listens” in the past. It would come perhaps as a bit of a surprise to those who only know Second Life from its sporadic, sensationalist coverage by the media, but this platform’s potential for artistic expression is immense, and numerous artists have chosen it as a medium. In this, Ole’s story does not differ that much from the many other people who have found in SL a means through which they can be creative and even excel at what they decide to do: art, virtual product creation, game-building… Ole is a typical example of a person who is involved in Second Life and has a life outside of the virtual world, uses the virtual world as a creative medium and also does not use it as an escape from the pressures of real life (although I must say I personally don’t see much wrong with a little escapism every now and then).

Ole is successful in what he does – he defines success as being able to do what he want. By this, he does not mean that he’s become so wealthy that he can indulge in whatever whim he may have at any given moment, but that he has created a setting that allows him all the creative freedom he needs for his artistic work, as well as complete control over the creative process.

Getting back to the subject of whether using computers and virtual worlds is escapism or not, Ole offers an approach that could raise an eyebrow or two, but actually makes a lot of sense: “I don’t think working at the computer is escapism. Perhaps it was escapism when my grandfather went down into the basement where he had a little miniature train and he built his world there. It’s really not very different. But it’s not escapism. It’s creativity.” Common “wisdon” has taught us that miniature train building, coin and stamp collecting, obsessing about football, basketball, motor sports is somehow more normal and acceptable than channeling one’s creativity and self-expression through digital media.

Now, machinima in general is still in its infancy. Most machinima you’ll find on Youtube and elsewhere are unedited gameplay sessions demonstrating various people’s gaming skills. Well, power to them, but I’m not sure anyone would classify these bragalicious fragfests as art even in the widest sense. Of course, this does not invalidate machinima as an art form in any way – it’d be like saying that photography isn’t an art because most people only use cameras to take snapshots of their families.

That said, Ole’s creative work is not “ars gratia artis“; instead, he also uses the creative power offered by Second Life to convey a strong political message, since he views it as an excellent platform for this. He actually notes that many users of Second Life are quite political: “They use the tools to build little artworks with a political message; things that matter in the so-called real world.”

Image courtesy Draxtor Despres

Image courtesy of Draxtor Despres

Ole’s drive to create art that carries messages that touch upon the real world (i.e. political and social topics) requires freedom – and this freedom goes beyond merely having powerful creative tools. We’re talking about freedom of expression as well. For this reason, Ole has chosen the “Eastern” approach of representing himself online through his avatar, keeping his real-world identity separated from it. Don’t forget that working anonymously or with a pseudonym is among creators’ moral rights. According to Ole, there are two approaches w.r.t. one’s internet presence. One is what he calls the “Western” approach, where someone signs up on Facebook (or another anti-privacy platform) with their real name and starts uploading a lot of pictures. The other approach is the “Eastern” – the avatar.

In the beginning of this article, I quoted Ole’s comment on what it was like to work with RL video recording equipment – Second Life and machinima have freed him from all that hassle. In the virtual realm, he can control and direct his creative work from the initial idea to completion, without he obstacles (technical and otherwise) imposed on him by the traditional, real-world workflow. And as for the learning curve, Ole says “Try using Blender. THAT’s a hard learning curve.” This is a view that many people are not likely to share – in our time, with people having been conditioned to have the attention span of a yogurt pot, the brief says that even the most demanding and complex applications are as easy to master as the use of a Fisher-Price toy telephone. And even oldbies in Second Life expect newcomers to be as knowledgeable about the platform, its capabilities and limitations and the viewer’s UI as they are themselves, with years of slowly-accumulated knowledge.

Once again, Draxtor has stayed true to the style, tone and format he set for The Drax Files, presenting the creative, constructive power of Second Life and similar virtual worlds and inviting outsiders to reconsider their opinion that was formed by years of sensationalist, scandal-mongering coverage. Personally, I believe Ole is one of the best choices Draxtor could make for this purpose.




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