work 16

Virtual Performance Spectacles, by SECOND FRONT:
Jeremy OWEN TURNER (Vancouver, Canada),
Doug JARVIS (Victoria, Canada),
Tanya SKUCE (Vancouver, Canada),
Gazira BABELI (Italy),
Penny LEONG BROWNE (Vancouver, Canada),
Patrick LICHTY (Chicago, USA),
Liz SOLO (St. John's, Canada)
and Scott KILDALL (San Francisco, USA),


by Patrick Lichty

For the past year and a half, I have been a virtual performance artist in the online virtual world, Second Life as one of the co-founders, principal writers and machinimists of the virtual performance art group Second Front. Even after having worked in performances with a number of great artists, like Sprinkle, Gomez-Pena, and members of Fluxus, I find virtual performance troubling, and it puzzles me. Why? Perhaps it comes from what has constituted performance art in the past forty years, and how it is evolving. For example, the common lexicon of performance is built on the immediacy of embodied experience that came from the implosion of the object with the rise of Conceptualism. This includes empathy through observed pain, endurance, risk, intimacy, attention, and spectacle. In that the tradition of performance art since the 60's seems centered around the first five, this will lead me to a personal insight that seems to be at the core of many of the works of Second Front. But first it also leads to a number of questions…

Why perform in virtual worlds, or what is virtual performance? What engages the viewer and artist in a real-time aesthetic interaction through a sense of mediated embodiment? Since I began thinking about this in 1992, after hearing about the first CAVE VR system at SIGGRAPH, trying to play with VREAM, REND386 and Superscape beginning in 1994 and a conversation with Jaron Lanier in 1998, asking what "performance" is in virtual spaces has been a challenge. And although I have been talking with these specific instances about the dialogue between communication and media technologies, the emergence of virtual performance is part of the discussion of the future of performance art.

I'll paraphrase the title of the seminal Richard Hamilton collage to ask (wryly), just what is It that makes today's virtual performance so different, so appealing? I ask this because there is a conversation about re-performance of works as reinterpretations or theatre, as well as the abstraction (again) of the artist-as-object made manifest through performance. Conceptualism's dematerialization of the object signified a shift in sensibility that, in that turbulent era, created a desire for an Artaudian "cruelty" of immediate experience through embodied art. However, there seems to be another equally profound shift towards abstraction of the body as site of immediacy to panoplies of postmodern "bodies", even redefining language in vastly visceral terms - such as the subtle difference between the terms "personnel" (20th Century) and "human resources" (current). Virtual performance artists like Scott Kildall 1, Gazira Babeli 2, and the Mattes 3 have explored the stripping away of the visceral in their Second Life work. They ask us, intentionally or not, what "experience" will consist of in an era when the last site of "truth", the human body, is held circumspect, or even held askance. What is truly at risk in the posthuman era, when you can hit the reset button and respawn?

This brings me back to the initial meditation of the six aesthetic/affective qualities (and be assured that this is a cursory set) in performance art in context with the work of Second Front. The issues of performance art's future as a virtual site has well been represented by the previously mentioned artists, as they translate, through remediation, the "strangeness" of recontextualizing the most embodied work into the least. However, I feel that Second Front's cultural functions are not as related to visceral terms, and perhaps only tangentially to the issues of attention and interpretation so central to forms such as the Fluxus "score". What is more evident through SF's absurdist "happenings" and grand events is that at the heart of group's work are two things: chance and spectacle.

The element of chance as an intrinsic part of performance in virtual worlds became evident in the first public performance by SF at Ars Virtua, Border Patrol 4. In this piece, Second Front would "appear" in the online space through symbolic teleportation, virtual objects were to be placed in the space, and a series of visual effects were to be employed. What resulted was a relatively orderly beginning, as this writer in his alter ego of Man Michinaga announced the work and that everyone would materialize immediately. But immediately after that, the group realized that the Second Life grid was in system-wide malfunction. The functioning of the entire system was erratic, leaving going by a scripted plan nearly useless. We were left with an audience who watched us wrestle with digital angels in real time, littering the environment with digital detritus, spewing virtual chaos, and eventually crashing the space itself, ejecting everyone at the "end" of the performance for nearly an hour. This taught us two things: first, that the system could not be relied upon for any reason, and second, that these technical difficulties could be exploited for formal, aesthetic, and conceptual means, much like Duchamp, Cage, and others. Anyone performing in virtual worlds was embarking on a trapeze act without a net, and ever since, probing the virtual space's idiosyncrasies has been part of almost all SF performances. While some of SF find this nerve-wracking, others like Gazira Babeli and myself find it a source of challenge, excitement, and (almost) joy. Perhaps the failure of the system is part of where the physical reasserts itself in the virtual, and where disembodied performance art could retain its vitality. The time when the machine is most interesting is when it malfunctions, perhaps that is when it seems most "human".

The last of these qualities I mention in the initial set of qualities is that of spectacle, and I think that this is where Second Front has found its niche. This sense of spectacle has many poles, like the Performa 2007 piece, The Wrath of Kong: A NeoPop Opera 5, in which a Gazira/DonkeyKong ascended a virtual Empire State Building clutching a La Cicciolina/Princess Peach, through a hail of images of Super Mario, scaling like a scene from a 60's Batman episode. The other extreme is the spectacular ennui of the eternally empty Reuters virtual news facility in Breaking News, where the boredom necessitated their invading the center and acting like town criers, shouting out their own (presumably better) headlines. In either case, what is highlighted is the surreal quality of virtual worlds. From this, many of Second Front have come to find that what is engaging about performance art is not a translation of embodied art into the virtual, but the strangeness, and perhaps even absurdity of these worlds, and amplifying these qualities.

In the title of this short essay, I allude to Tinguely's seminal self-destructing installation, and I would like to close by using it as a metaphor for Second Front's continual position of what I like to phrase as hanging "200 metres and 7 seconds from death." These are metaphors for what Second Front has found in the virtual; the fact that if they perform, there is a very high possibility that the machine will falter or catastrophically fail. Where risk reemerges is when the weft of the net is tested to the point where it frays, socially, technically, or otherwise, and tests its own "mortality". Personally, the experience of performing in virtual worlds is all about the kilometer-tall gorilla hovering over you, or seeing the self-replicating device you have just encased your avatar in during the performance begin to dilate virtual time, and trying to guess exactly how long it will take before your performance space, audience, and possibly even computer, implodes into the virtual black hole. Now, that's a curious thing.

1 : Scott Kildall's website.   

2 : Gazira Babeli's website.  

3 : Eva & Franco Mattes' website.   

4 : (4) Second Front, Border Patrol, Ars Virtua Performance, Ars Virtua, Second Life. January 2006.  

5 : Second Front, The Wrath of Kong: A NeoPop Opera, Performa 2007, Nov. 3, 2007, Locusolus, Second Life (virtual), projected at Artists' Space, NYC and Society for Literature, Sciences, and the Arts conference, Portland, Maine.  

N.B. Second Front's performances can be viewed online at :


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