Issue 28 11.20.13

Issue 28
Are You There?

People sometimes ask me what I do. “I, ahhh….” “Virtual Interventionist” doesn’t fly in most circles around here. People don’t take too kindly to “New Media” artist, either. Recently I settled on “performance artist”. It’s just easier.

It all began innocently enough. I used to be in theatre. Standing on a stage, surrounded by set and lights, becoming a character and creating an illusion – this was really my first experience with the notion of virtuality. As I incorporated more and more media into my theatre creations I was compelled to surround audiences in the work so they too could understand this experience of existing in a virtual space constructed sometimes out of nothing but light and intentions. My performances began to take the shape of installations – audiences having to enter an environment and be in it with me as I projected images on the walls and ceiling and incorporated the audience into the story. It was after one of these installation/performances at the 2002 Networks New Media Festival in my hometown of St. John’s that I met visiting Vancouver artist Jeremy Owen Turner.

InWorld – a hybrid reality performance by Liz Solo. Image courtesy of artist.

Jeremy presented a talk about new online virtual spaces – places on the internet where one could simulate a presence in a three dimensional space and via that presence, interact with others. I was intrigued. He encouraged me to meet him in a virtual platform called OnLive Traveler for a demonstration. When I finally got the program to download on my horrible little PC machine (because Traveller couldn’t run on the mac) my big purple avatar head materialized on a flat plane. A box – Jeremy’s avatar – floated towards me. We came face to face and the box spoke. It said:

“Are you there?”

I was transported in that moment, and caught a glimpse of the yawning potential of this virtual space, where one could (re)incarnate one’s human self in a synthetic environment and commune with others. It was strangely immersive, in a way everything I was looking for, at least theoretically speaking. A door opened and I fell in. The next ten years would be devoted to exploring the possibilities of performance within these online spaces – fortuitous considering what was to happen to live theatre over the next decade (i.e. Death). Still, in answer to the age old question ‘How do you get the elephant out of the theatre?’ The answer remains – ‘you can’t – it’s in her blood’. Online virtual platforms became my stage.

OnLive Traveller’s greatest feature was its real time voice interface. It gave you a sense of intimacy, a real feeling of telepresence. Traveler had almost no other interactive features. Unless you could learn to create in 3D Max or some other building program there was no way to effect the world except by performance and interaction with others. Jeremy and I went about creating the Virtual Wedding Project, seeking an avatar bride for Jeremy’s avatar Count Onto von Distro. After much courting he was wed to the avatar Lady Lux Interior in a ceremony in Traveler that was simultaneously projected around an audience via RAVE technology at the Simon Fraser Institute in Surrey, B.C.. Possibly the first virtual wedding ever, the ceremony was overseen by my avatar (a high Priestess) and attended by a live audience and avatars from around North America.


InWorld screenshot. Image courtesy of the artist.

The very first virtual event Jeremy and I performed together was in a text only RPG called Achaea. Jeremy and I met in the Land of Minia at the Crossroads by the NPC Vellis the Butterfly Collector. Instead of getting our nets and heading off to collect butterflies, as per the game narrative, we invented a new religion on the spot and invited players to convert to the Cult of the Butterfly Collector. We began to worship the character with dance and ritual, using only text. As more players happened by our noob chars were soon surrounded and then, summarily executed. Kicked to death. We had become martyrs to the Cult of the Butterfly Collector. We returned to Vellis many times that day, being martyred again and again.

This theme was echoed a year or so later when the Second Front performed Martyr Sauce, one of our early pieces. Second Front, the first performance collective in the online world of Second Life, took the idea to a new level in this highly interactive new virtual environment. Our group of nine entered a user generated combat RPG sim. We arrived decked out in hippie gear with “free love” signs and peace particles, we handed out virtual spliffs. This time there were different responses to our presence, from bewilderment to appreciation to, once again, execution. We were martyred to the cause multiple times by bombs and machine guns.

Upside Down World – a hybrid reality performance by Liz Solo, photos by JUSTIN HALL

Upside Down World – a hybrid reality performance by Liz Solo. Photos by Justin Hall.

With collaborators in Second Front and the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse (a virtual orchestra) I explored the notion of virtual embodiment and the avatar body itself. I investigated the curious cultural phenomenon in Second Life of virtual pregnancy clinics where avatars can have a birth experience coded for them and deliver a full term healthy bot baby in a virtual clinic – all for a price, of course. As part of this project my avatar stayed pregnant for about two years (without the aid of any clinics) until finally giving birth (at home) to multiples, including many of my avatar friends, in the performance piece – Live Alien Home Birth, first presented at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art in Kelowna, BC..

When I first entered Second Life I was instantly put off by the consumerist nature of the space. So many shopping malls and sports cars and porn star avatars. But its dazzling customizability won me over in short order and this platform has yet to be bested in terms of users’ ability to generate content. Further, any content created by a user belongs to that user. Over the years Second Life has evolved an artist’s playground, housing a diverse and sophisticated creative community. It is a natural fit – an artist can create any space or object and script it to perform almost any action; the work is immersive; an artist can comment on the space, its nature, push its boundaries, make it crash. Then, streaming technology was introduced, becoming more and more sophisticated so that now any object in Second Life can stream any website or media feed. The real world has entered the virtual space.

In Second Life I have met artists from all over North America, Europe, Australia. I have connected with artists in China, South America and the Middle East. Through my collaborations with these artists I have performed, via the Internet, in corners of the globe I may never have accessed in several lifetimes of producing work. Through virtual spaces I have made meaningful connections with like minded artists everywhere. The overwhelming urge, now, after ten years working in virtual space, is to bring this virtual space back out into the real world, back to meat space. To merge realities. Hybrid- reality performance – bringing the real world in to the virtual and vice versa, is the current trend in digital performance. The merging of the metaverse with real space is quite inevitable, especially considering how quickly the technologies are advancing – only a few years ago we were constructing worlds with nothing but text. From the inside it has become clear that it is only a matter of time before the real and the virtual become inextricably intertwined.

What began as an investigation of the virtual game space as a performance platform has become something much bigger. I am a member of a community of avatars, avatars operated by human beings who are located all over the world. Deep friendships and working relationships have formed. Many of my online friends are more of a daily presence than many of my real world friends. Over time the urge to meet has seen many of us travel great distances to collaborate face to face. The world’s problems have become more immediate, more personal. Places that were once far away are now next door. There are no borders between us in virtual space. Virtual space is a free space. In some ways it is the wild west, the unknown territory. Its boundaries are shifting, they can be pushed, breached, hacked. For some people in the world these virtual spaces are the only places anywhere for envisioning and experiencing a peaceful world.

Third Faction's “Demand Player Sovereignty”

Third Faction’s “Demand Player Sovereignty”. Image courtesy of artists.

My virtual horizons expanded into World of Warcraft in 2009. I joined the Third Faction, a cabal of artists working to interrogate and expose the narratives and structures of gaming environments. We developed the /hug project and formed an NGO in the game to further ideas of tolerance and peaceful gameplay. Our most recent project Demand Player Sovereignty focusses on exploring virtual spaces as a medium for political resistance and social awareness. Our interventions and marches in World of Warcraft encourage real-world social change through in-world political action. We have been exploring ways to bring in-world action out into meat space with dual-world quests, some as simple as making a new friend or starting a conversation about peace.

A few weeks ago a group of artists converged in the new online environment DC Universe Online and we became the Super Art League. On March 3rd, 2012, the Super Art League, as well as the Second Front, will participate in the Low Lives: Occupy! event – an international platform for artists and others who support the Occupy movement. Low Lives: Occupy! will transmit live performances and interventions as they happen around the world. These events will happen simultaneously in real and virtual spaces and be projected and broadcast into venues all around the globe.

Upside Down World – a hybrid reality performance by Liz Solo, photos by JUSTIN HALL

Upside Down World – a hybrid reality performance by Liz Solo. Photos by Justin Hall.

Now is the time to be raising our voices within online virtual domains, these communities that we have built, (albeit upon corporately owned entertainment products), before our freedom to navigate within them is gone. Terms of Service, which must be agreed upon in order to enter any virtual environment, exist to protect corporate interests while controlling the social structures within which users must operate. Like the Third Faction’s quest to subvert the factional conflict inside the game of WoW, we all inherently desire to control our own destiny and to exercise freedom within our communities, wherever those communities happen to exist.


Liz Solo is a cross-platform interventionist specializing in performance.


Related Links revolution.html


Images from the Third Faction’s “Demand Player Sovereignty”

Images from InWorld – a hybrid reality performance by Liz Solo

Images from Upside Down World – a hybrid reality performance by Liz Solo, photos by JUSTIN HALL

Image from the Super Art League in DC Universe Online