Ive Been To That Club, Just Not In Real Life
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Ive Been To That Club, Just Not In Real Life

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Ive Been To That Club, Just Not In Real Life

Ive Been To That Club, Just Not In Real Life

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Ive Been To That Club, Just Not In Real Life Ive Been To That Club, Just Not In Real Life Document Transcript

  • January 6, 2008TELEVISIONI’ve Been in That Club, Just Not in RealLife We’ll take them there in High Def.By DAVE ITZKOFFIT began as a typical night on the Lower East Side. A few weeks ago acrowd of young urbanites gathered in the bowels of Cake Shop, thepastry cafe cum music club on Ludlow Street, to see a performance byan indie-rock band, the Virgins. A couple of minutes into the show thesubterranean space was already packed to capacity and smelling of stalebeer, so I left.I walked a few blocks to my apartment on Avenue A, turned on mycomputer, directed a small, pixelated representation of myself to enter asmall, pixelated representation of Cake Shop, and rejoined the show.There were no imperious bouncers or foul odors to contend with, and nofluids of any kind expectorated on my shoes. Except for a slightly choppyvideo feed, it was by my standards a pretty successful evening on thetown. QoS?Despite knowing that its real-life inspiration exists right outside mydoor, I have spent the last few months making such visits to the VirtualLower East Side (vles.com), a three-dimensional, Internet-based socialnetwork fastidiously modeled on a small but influential swath ofManhattan real estate. IP is just the White Pages and Yellow Pages.Like their flesh-and-blood counterparts, the computer-generatedresidents of VLES (which opened to the public last week) are free towalk a familiar gritty strip between Houston and Rivington Streets,befriend one another, watch music videos, hang out at rock shows, formtheir own bands and get into as much after-hours miscreancy as theWeb site’s programmers will allow. 1
  • If that concept isn’t weird enough, the effort to recreate the hip, artisticspirit and distinctive geography of the tiny but creatively fertileneighborhood is the brainchild of MTV, an entertainment brandsynonymous with populist fare and mass appeal.It might also be the most innovative and blatantly cynical project thechannel has hatched in a long time: an unambiguous attempt to leveragethe cultural cachet of the Lower East Side to bring new consumers andcuriosity seekers into MTV’s sphere of influence. BEC will be real-timeFor more than two years the channel has been building a collection ofSecond Life-style virtual reality Web sites with the goal of competingwith popular two-dimensional social networks like MySpace andFacebook. It’s a bet that the future of online interaction won’t be built onflat, static Web pages but rather in traversable 3-D spaces.In the fall of 2006 MTV started Virtual Laguna Beach, a 3-D worldmeant to simulate the Southern Californian beach community of itssemi-reality show “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County”; in shortorder it added virtual worlds based on its shows “The Hills,” “Pimp MyRide,” “The Real World: Sydney” and “Kaya.”At the same time it was quietly developing another online property thatwould be based not on any of its television shows but on a real-worldenvironment with decades of creative history underneath its grimyfingernails and an elusive character that is constantly in a state of flux.“It was a way for us to get back to our core virtues around musicdiscovery and passion for new, underground subversive bands,” saidVan Toffler, the president of MTV Networks’ music group and a 20-yearveteran of the company.The result is an experience that feels like a mash-up of Facebook andGrand Theft Auto, with a dash of the indie-rock Web site Pitchforkthrown in for good measure. 2
  • The world of VLES (which I visited during an early testing phase, whenthe site was open to a limited number of users for a few hours a night) isan idealized, Smurf Village reduction of the real Lower East Side, andyet instantly recognizable to anyone who’s logged more hours at Pianosthan he cares to admit or ducked out to Rosario’s Pizza for a late-nightslice. Our concept includes a production/post production sub-system;an on-line nightclub with a ‘cover-charge’ to watch and content for sale.On its avenues it is always twilight, slightly foggy and free of cars;simulated traffic appears in the distance but one can wander its streetswith abandon without the risk of getting hit by the MUD Coffee truck.Not every business and storefront is represented, but several landmarksare there, from the neon-lighted exterior of Katz’s Delicatessen (where Icould press my digital nose against its salami-stocked windows, though Icouldn’t go inside) to a fully explorable model of the club Max Fish,complete with a framed photograph of Julio Iglesias hanging above thebar, a “Pirates of the Caribbean” pinball machine and familiar messagesscrawled on the bathroom wall.To fill these knowingly grungy environs VLES’s creators turned to JudiRosen, the fashion designer and proprietor of the downtown boutiquethe Good, the Bad & the Ugly, to photograph real-life denizens of theLower East Side. Then they created a variety of avatars using herphotographs for fashion reference. “You can’t just have generic skaterboys,” Ms. Rosen said, “because there’s punk skaters, there’s hippieskaters, there’s graffiti skaters, there’s square skaters. All those littlenuances mean a lot.” The Business Entertainment Channel (BEC) is notgoing to be make-believe… it’ll be real… and in High Def.It took me several weeks before I was bold enough to dress my avatar inanything more daring than the white T-shirt and blue jeans he wasissued; only recently I added a magenta sport coat, hip eyeglasses andan angular haircut called the Crispin to his ensemble. (“He looks like thecool version of you,” my girlfriend told me.) 3
  • My earliest explorations were like starring in my own personal versionof “I Am Legend.” The streets were mostly empty and I found myselfwandering cavernous, depopulated simulacra of the Dark Room and theMercury Lounge. A built-in music player provided a steady soundtrackof David Bowie, the Smiths and TV on the Radio. Music videos playedon flat, two-dimensional screens on the stage of each club, but the clubsthemselves were utterly devoid of concertgoers or bartenders. (Even ifthey could serve me a virtual Jack and Coke, what would I do with it?)Then, little by little, I started meeting fellow explorers and having shortinstant-message conversations with them, contained in word balloonsthat appeared over our avatars’ heads. One night I chatted with a youngwoman in oversized granny-glasses who called herself Slim Morrison;we began by commiserating over our lack of New Year’s Eve plans, and Iended up telling her about the time I got violently ill right before a Wilcoconcert, a strangely intimate confession to offer someone I’d just metfive minutes earlier.On another evening, I ran into the avatar of Annie Ok, the multimediaartist and self-described “metaverse evangelist.” (She’s on every virtualworld from Gaia Online to Neopets, and even helped Brian Eno designhis Second Life avatar.)A few nights later I sat across from the real Ms. Ok at the Life Cafe onAvenue B, where she explained to me that the interaction we had overthe Internet was just as valid as the one we were now having over a plateof French fries. “There’s no way that you’re going to go onto a flat Website or message board and instantly strike up a conversation withsomebody who works for MTV or I.B.M. or the president of Harvard,”she said. “But these things are possible in virtual worlds. You’veexperienced it as if it were real, because, in fact, it is real.”MTV is hoping that its VLES experiment will help break down thedistinction between real and virtual events. Sure, it wants individualusers to create personal pages on the Web site, link to each other, sharetheir musical playlists and attend in avatar form prerecorded concerts 4
  • by, say, the Arcade Fire and Hot Chip. It is also encouraging musicalartists to establish profiles, upload their songs and videos and competein a kind of online battle of the bands, ascending a ladder of virtual clubsfrom Arlene’s Grocery to the Bowery Ballroom as their group’spopularity increases. (Beginning this month six unsigned acts chosen byMTV will duke it out in this arena for a chance to cross over from VLESto its television channels.)And that’s where the cynicism begins to creep in. For starters, many ofthe authentic downtown bars and clubs that are duplicated in VLESwere not invited to participate in the project by MTV directly; rather,they were approached by Virtue, the brand-management division of Vicemagazine. And some of the people who run these clubs acknowledgethat they were won over more by Vice’s bohemian bona fides than by theopportunity to collaborate with MTV.Normally MTV is “all Spring Break-y and blah blah blah,” said JenniferLyon, the creative director of 205 Club, a Chrystie Street nightspot thatappears in VLES. “At 3 o’clock in the morning we do not look like theydo on ‘T.R.L.’ It’s not cute.”While MTV is seeking to trade on the street credibility of thesedestinations to build its MySpace competitor, the clubs receive in returnan online platform to promote themselves, a place where new, in-the-know patrons might get turned on to their events, and where aspiringhipsters who live impossibly far away from New York might be able toattend them in the virtual world.But the infancy and unfamiliarity of the virtual-reality medium bringsup another problem: Who gets to program the events in these digitalspaces, MTV or the promoters and managers of the clubs? And whathappens if a virtual space is the host of an event that’s fundamentallyincompatible with the spirit of the real-world establishment? (In otherwords, what happens when the avatar of Rihanna or Celine Dion wantsto perform at the virtual Dark Room?) 5
  • “It’s someone’s hard-earned money that built this place,” said Ms. Lyonof 205 Club, “and you don’t get that curatorial moment. That’s still ours,because we put in the sweat equity.”This gives rise to perhaps the biggest dilemma underpinning VLES: Fordecades, the Lower East Side has derived its coolness from at least aveneer of danger and inaccessibility. Venturing there for the first timerequired risking the disapproval of the locals, whether they were theimmigrants who once populated its tenements, the drug dealers whoshouted from rooftops to warn of unfamiliar faces, or the bartenders andbouncers who didn’t recognize you as a regular. How can the area retainits mystery if anyone with a computer can experience some fraction ofit?“It takes something that was a neighborhood, and now it belongs toeverybody else,” said Clayton Patterson, a photographer who has beenshooting in downtown Manhattan for more than 25 years. “It’s thecomplete denial of your space, a complete theft of what it was that youlived in for years.”Some longtime members of the community, however, said that VLESposes little risk to a district whose iconoclasm they feel faded away longago. “The flavor’s already gone,” said Dick Manitoba, the frontman ofthe punk-rock group the Dictators and the owner of Manitoba’s, a bar onAvenue B. “The Second Avenue Deli’s a bank, the Fillmore East is abank, and you’ve got to pass by 12 restaurants and coffee shops just toget to the couple of places that still have character.”While VLES might be a fantasy of fetishized dirt and muck (to the pointthat its official logo is a big fat rat), it’s also a neighborhood without animpending sense of gentrification, exorbitant rents or luxurycondominiums sprouting from every street. “It’s not an accuraterepresentation,” Mr. Manitoba said, “but it could be a fun, entertainingthing, and if I guess if I lived in Nebraska, I would love to see it.” 6
  • No one expects VLES to replace the experience of visiting the real thing,nor can it possibly keep up with trends in music, cuisine and clothingthat the scene is inventing in real time.The residents of the Lower East Side are “dictating the style to agazillion other people, and by the time this comes out, they’re going tohave moved on,” said Ms. Rosen, the fashion designer. “They’ll berocking some whole other look that’s going to blow people’s minds ayear from now.”Though it may cloak its long-term aspirations in the cracked-asphaltchic of downtown Manhattan, VLES was destined to become a totallydifferent proposition from the moment it made itself accessible to amass audience, the first step in a give and take between what its digitaldenizens want and how much its administrators will let them get awaywith. As for me, I’ll probably keep visiting VLES as it evolves but secretlyyearn for the days when I had its streets all to myself, and complain thatit was a whole lot cooler when I knew about it before everybody else.Where’s my horse and buggy? 7