The Second Life and real art of Liz Solo

The Rock Can Roll Festival, running from October 23-26, is now in its fourth year. This time around, in addition to highlighting the independent rock music scene, the festival will spend a day exploring “virtual spaces.”

Liz Solo, best known locally for her music, has been busy over the past few years working on various performance art projects online in the internet-based 3D virtual world of Second Life.

Elling Lien got a chance to speak with Solo about her work, about her online self, and her struggle to help people understand her work.

So I want to talk to you about Second Life, and the work you’re doing there. How did you get into it at first?
This all really began for me in text-based game worlds—the multi-user games—and that would have been around 2000. What’s cool about those games is that it’s all in your imagination.

People get a little freaked out by the idea of virtual online spaces if they aren’t involved personally, but basically all these things are sophisticated chat rooms. The first virtual spaces were text-based—as in “you are standing in a room”—and they would describe everything in the room. You would have quests.

But even back then there were artists who were intervening, performing rituals, that kind of thing… disrupting the whole normal order of things.

It probably starts with just being mischievous—doing things you aren’t supposed to do in the game, and leading on from there. Goofing around, tricking people…?

Yeah, and then you organize, create events, things like that.

It was at Iron Realms Achaea, a text-based online game, where I first encountered people paying real money to buy virtual objects. And in this world, in order to get all the stuff, you needed to spend an incredible amount of time doing quests to acquire these things, so the people who didn’t have the time would send money to people who had gotten these things. And so their character could have the magic sword or magic armour or whatever. So the first time I came across that idea I couldn’t believe it!

Then did you ever come to understand why people would do that kind of thing?
Well, it’s huge now. That was a few years ago and it was sort of a new idea then, but these days, in Second Life, millions of real dollars are spent there.

Iron Realms lead me to another world called OnLive Traveller, which was more focused on community. There your avatar is a head floating around encountering other heads…

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But what was so novel about Traveller was it had a real-time voice interface, and so it became very community-focused because people would go in and talk in real-time. Face to face. And that changed the whole thing. There was more intimacy. There was less opportunity for deception, and things seemed even more human.

This appeared when the dot-com boom was happening, and when the bubble burst, the company died, but the community of users that populated that world gathered their money together and bought the software so they could continue having that community. What was neat about it was they resisted any commodification… a telephone company wanted to come in and set up phone booths so people could call. Others wanted to set up stores and sell stuff. But they resisted that, because they were focused on the community.

But these days, it’s empty. You’re a lonely head wandering around on this plane…

-.-.-

Who is Lizsolo Mathilde?
That is my avatar’s name.

I’m probably one of the very few people who has used her real name in Second Life. I have other alts, but she is, more than any of my other avatars, the virtual extension of me. She is me in Second Life.
I have other avatars who do other things and have other functions, but it’s funny how connected you become to your avatar.

But it’s not like your avatar is a part of you, it’s more like it’s your puppet. People say, “my avvie”, or “my toon”.

What’s she like?
Well, she’s better looking [laugh] which is something that happens a lot in Second Life. She has wings. But aside from that she’s probably a lot like me—probably a little nicer. [laugh]

She’s basically in there creating and interacting all the time, so she’s pretty happy all the time.

Identity is really interesting in Second Life too, because people can tweak their identity. And some people are very, very into and fulfilled by that.

I have one friend who is transgender, for example, who won’t speak on voice chat because his avatar is female. People are very protective of their identities.

-.-.-

How is Second Life different from other online worlds and games like World of Warcraft?
Second Life is fully customizable. If you’re interested in that, in creating 3D animation, it’s the place to go. It’s worth learning. But if you just want to play an amazing game and hang out with people and do quests, go to Warcraft, because it really is amazing.

The thing is, Warcraft is a stable platform. It isn’t really changing. They’ve built it, the quests are in there, the characters are in there. It’s not shaky, it’s as stable as heck, and it’s incredible.

But Second Life is constantly changing and evolving and is not stable, but that’s part of what’s exciting about it for me. Warcraft is exciting, but I can’t change anything.

One of the advantages for an artist, from what I gather, is that you can construct these objects that would in real life be way too expensive or physically impossible. Is that one of the things that appeals to you?
Oh definitely. For an artist, it’s a wonderland, because, number one: you have access to an international community of artists.

I don’t even know if I can express how incredible that has been to be able to collaborate across massive distances with really amazing artists.

Then there’s also, in Second Life, and in these other virtual spaces, you have an opportunity to surround the viewer in the work. The idea of installation is a whole other animal now. You can actually be inside what you create.

Well, it’s all in the mind really. It looks like a bunch of cartoons floating around a screen. But once you become engaged, the landscape becomes so huge. It’s opened my mind up unbelievably. Not only to the possibilities of the space and the tools, but the people.

For example, I’m collaborating with an artist in Iraq, people in Japan, China…

Iraq?!
Through him I’m learning what it’s really like for an artist living in Iraq right now. It’s unbelievable bad. You cannot conceive of how bad it is. And not only is it terrible there, there is no getting out.

So for this person, Second Life is a way of escaping?
Exactly. Not only that, but virtual spaces are an opportunity for people to design or conceive of the kind of world they want to live in. This is a big thing for a lot of artists in there.

-.-.-

What is Second Front?
We’re an online performance art group composed of seven members. We’re here, Victoria, Chicago, Milan, the UK… The artists I’m working with are just amazing artists, holy God! It’s been such a wonderful journey to work with these guys.

How it works with Second Front is we come up with our own ideas then we collectively work on them, using whatever skills we have. Some of our members are incredible builders, some are scripters, some are idea people…

I’m going to premiere my first real piece with the group at the [Rock Can Roll] festival. I’m afraid to tell you because if you print this its going to get totally misconstrued. [laugh]

Well, when I found out there were pregnancy clinics in Second Life I couldn’t believe it. I started investigating… Anyway, for this piece my avatar is pregnant, and she’s going to give birth on Thursday, October 23rd at Eastern Edge Gallery as a performance. It’s called “Live Home Alien Birth.”

…The back story is my avatar got abducted by aliens and she’s got multiple things in there. It’s not going to be an ordinary birth. It’s sick, but I couldn’t resist fooling around with that idea. It’ll be hilarious!

-.-.-

For a lot of people, this stuff is seen as something that is nerdy. It’s seen as something that’s escapist. How do you explain it to people?
When I first started doing this, a lot of people seemed to think it was all about sex or something, which it definitely isn’t for me. For some people it is.

But I’ve actually stopped trying to explain it. For a while I was saying “you have to check this out! It’s amazing!” but I got a lot of negative feedback. So I said, all right, I’m not going to bother telling you about it and you’ll catch up when the time comes.

I mean, look at the kids and what they’re getting used to, say in World of Warcraft and Second Life. Your perspective is 360. You can look at anything from any perspective. People are going to start wanting that in their televisions, in their movies. They’ll want that kind of interactivity and immersion, and once it becomes popularized, it’s going to take over.

The interfaces and the devices still have to be invented yet, of course. They’re not there yet.

I think appreciating Second Life expects a real quantum leap from people… What has the reaction been locally to the stuff you’re working on?
There’s a lot of resistance. I think a lot of us encounter this a great deal. We’re in there going, “this is fantastic!” and we bring it out into the world.

I screened a bunch of really amazing machinima at a bar recently, and there were drunks going, “you’re a nerd! This is crap!” From talking with other artists online I find there’s a lot of resistance everywhere to this. I’d say it’s partly because in the mainstream media there’s a real prejudice towards it.

How do you get people into it?
When it works out best is when people come by the studio.

What we’re trying to achieve at the Rock Can Roll festival by devoting one day to virtual space is to show people, so they understand. If you don’t understand what’s happening, it just looks like cartoons on a screen. But when you understand that each cartoon is representing a real person with their own ideas, interacting together, that’s when I find I get the interest.

People are resistant at the moment. I think it’s the idea of interfacing with machines.

There was a South Park episode called “Make Love Not Warcraft” with these giant masses sitting there playing the game, their bodies disappearing. People are afraid of that. Sure, yeah, if you spend too much time at your computer you have to consciously say “no, go for a walk.”

But I think part of the resistance is that there is a fear—people think we’re losing our humanity.

Do you think that fear is unjustified?
Yes.

-.-.-

The release show here in town for your solo CD alien was simultaneously broadcast in Second Life… is that something you do often?
Yeah! I’ve been doing that a lot. I just did a concert the other day.

How does it work?
Basically, I sit in front of my computer, and occasionally a few musicians are here in the room playing along with me. I play to a microphone, and there’s an audience there, and my avatar is singing to them in real time. We did a concert recently where it was me and three of us all huddled around the computer, playing…

At the concert we did the last time, people gave us money—people can give you Linden dollars if they appreciate your music.

How much?
I think I made 100 bucks. In real dollars.

[laugh] It was actually comparable to a small bar gig. I had as many people listening and made as much money. So it’s something to think about. Some people make a living doing things in Second Life—I’m not there yet.

I’ve heard people say that they miss you making more music. You haven’t been playing as many shows in town as you used to, and they don’t really believe in the work you’re doing in Second Life. So some people might think you’re turning your back on them…
Oh no. Not at all.

The last year, 2007, I didn’t play much. I will say I did get pretty disillusioned with things here. It all started with the Symes Bridge thing [a building leased by the city to the Independent Artists Cooperative which they were eventually ordered to vacate] and then there was a cascade of shit which continued for two years. So I did get pretty disillusioned and jaded because of that.

Then, at that time too, Marcel Levandier, my main musical collaborator—who plays in the Lizband and the Black Bags—had a new baby and wife, and so we took a musical hiatus.

But then I felt a bit rejuvenated with my solo record, and this year I’ve been doing a lot more playing.
I find if you want to do anything here in town, you’ve got to build it from the ground up.

But that said, a lot of what’s working for me in the virtual spaces is going to get pulled out into the real world again. Because really, I’m a performer first. I’m not a programmer, I’m not a visual artist, I’m a performer. So I do see this leading me towards merging what I’m doing in there with performance in real life. Hybridity.

I think in the last few years I became really frustrated with having no space to work, having no space to present, having very few resources to work with, and then I really got into these spaces online where I have unlimited space, unlimited resources, and access to incredible artists from all over the world who are famous… I was like, “fuck this! I’m going to do this.”

But as a performer, I do ultimately want to get out there.

It’s like the old joke: “Why can’t the elephant leave the theatre?”

“Because it’s in his blood.” 

The Rock Can Roll Festival will take place from October 23-26. For more information and a detailed schedule, check out their website at www.rockcanrollrecords.com.

To read more about Second Front, visit slfront.blogspot.com