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A&E: Altered 'State' in Muncie and cyberspace

October 6, 2008

An Alexander Calder mobile hangs above. Bronzes by Henry Moore and William de Kooning stand handsomely on the ground. The walls feature works on paper by Picasso, Pollock, Rembrandt, Miro and more.

Ball State University Museum of Art's collection is well worth lingering over. But I'm doing a lightening round because the museum is closing at 4:30 and I've spend the better part of the afternoon immersed in another Ball State Museum of Art. The one online. In Second Life.

For those unfamiliar, Second Life is a 3-D virtual world where what you see is created by you and the rest of the people who hang out there (which helps explain why people there look buffer and more beautiful than their real-life counterparts-and can fly or teleport).

You can visit it at www.secondlife.com, but be warned: You may find yourself addicted to exploring, building and even buying and selling in this alternate world. Or you may dismiss it completely as another computer time waster.

The folks at Ball State aren't treating Second Life as a high-tech game. They're treating it as a place where serious exploration can be done into art and accessibility. And part of that interest is the creation of a virtual version of the Museum of Art itself-almost every inch of it. With detail down to the texture of the stone, the soon to be launched Second Life version of the Ball State Museum of Art will include galleries where visitors can see existing shows or select paintings based on whatever tagged criteria they wish. (Concurrent with the development of the Second Life site, the museum's collection is being digitized in a highly searchable way that is garnering national attention.)

It will also be possible to offer "mixed-reality" events with openings simultaneously happening in the actual galleries and the virtual ones. Virtual lectures can be conducted in the virtual auditorium. Or real life lectures can be digitized into the Second Life auditorium. The head spins.

The virtual BSU Museum will be housed on, what else, Ball State's virtual campus, part of a group of seven islands Ball State has occupied in Second Life. There, virtual birds rest in the campus' signature bell tower (which chimes on the hour). Students (well, at least their avatars) wander the halls and interact with each other and the faculty. And all the while, as it's shown to me by one of its creators, I wonder what part of this is just a biggie-sized version of video-game series The Sims-and how much has actual applications relevant to the arts world.

Of course, it's not always the best idea to search for practical value in art. And these new media may produce interesting work. They may already have, for all I know.

For now, I'd rather spend time lost in the BSU real-world art collection rather than navigate its virtual one. But what I saw at both Ball State Museums of Art made me want to continue watching what the university minds come up with.

While at Ball State, I also took in its University Theater's season-opening production of "Violet." An off-Broadway musical that deserves a higher profile (the only other local production I know of was from Buck Creek Players a few seasons back), "Violet" tells of a young woman in the early 1960s traveling across the South by bus. Her quest: Healing. Years earlier, a loose ax blade flew off its handle while her father was working and Violet now has a deep scar across her face and believes a preacher can make her whole again.

Across the board, the BSU student actors and backstagers prove up to the show's many challenges, not just beautifully delivering the country-, gospel- and bluegrass-tinted songs, but also finding the core emotional honesty in the work. Violet is a complex character-and so are the two soldiers whose lives she changes. Only rarely does the acting fall back on repeated gestures. Only occasionally does the directing busy things up, moving actors when movement isn't needed. For the rest, though, the show was as solidly professional as anything I've seen on area stages. And the emotional throughline was true and as crystal clear as the impeccable sound design.

Granted, age plays a factor. I find ageappropriate casting much more powerful in musicals than the just-find-the-bestvoice approach. The youthfulness of the "Violet" company adds to the poignancy of the material.

Writers Brian Crawley and Jeanine Tesori, so original and strong for most of the show, are the ones who lose focus in the end. The dramatic conclusion-and the song that goes with it-are less than the rest of the show deserves.

Still, it proved an invigorating, emotional evening of theater. One that has me looking forward to future productions at BSU. (Among them: Jason Robert Brown's "Songs for a New World" Oct. 30-Nov. 8 and Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real" Nov. 13-22.)
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