BY: DANIEL KORN
You make your way to the concert hall and take your seat. The performance space is a grassy field in the middle of a mountainous enclosure, surrounded on all sides by a baby blue sky filled with clouds that resemble three-dimensional brains and medical diagrams of frog legs.
The band sits in the middle of the field on benches made of tree logs. A tall, bearded man is flanked by a blue-skinned gender-neutral genie and a goth woman with teased hair sporting a leather trench coat ripped right out of The Matrix. Then there’s the thin, gangly individual whose sharp features and pastel-coloured garb make her look more like a Picasso painting than a human; some sort of fish-man; and the gargantuan red-spectacled pimp wearing a top hat.
Then, they stop talking and begin to rotate as they lightly ascend into the air as a subtle whoosh sound creeps in. In a few minutes, they’re all airborne, the sounds get louder and more intense, and the band’s first piece has begun in earnest.
This is just a typical performance from the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse, a new media collective that performs entirely within the long-running online virtual world of Second Life. The 10-plus members of the group—located anywhere from Canada to Germany—are a varied mishmash of artists, including computer programmer and linguist Andreas Muller, influential electronic music pioneer Pauline Oliveros, and contemporary composer and performer Tina M. Pearson. Pearson, whose avatar goes by the name Humming Pera, handles much of the coordinating of the ensemble. But, as she claims with a chuckle, “there cannot be a leader.”
The group has been around since 2007, but Pearson didn’t join right away. She and many of the other group members weren’t previously involved in Second Life. “It’s more from being interested in the idea of working in a virtual world,” says Pearson. “Our interest is really in what we can do in this particular environment at the moment.”
Second Life as a program is a real patchwork job; it’s a marvel of modern engineering, able to connect and support a user base of one million, but its decade-old infrastructure shows in the regularly poor frame rate and simple polygonal avatars. There’s a sense that the virtual world is seconds away from crashing at all times.
When you’re manipulating the game to play music, this is even more apparent. Second Life isn’t built to allow for musical creation of any kind, so performing involves creating instruments from scratch by uploading samples and attaching them to a HUD that the avatar can “wear” like any piece of clothing (they can include anything from basic keyboards to number-based inputs to in-game masks). Notes are also programmed to correspond with pre-made visuals, so triggering a sound will often cause a flash of colour or an enthusiastic dance move from an avatar. These intense demands, coupled with the shakiness of a multi-person internet connection, sometimes don’t play well with Second Life’s infrastructure.
“The first gigs I was at, you could count on a few things happening during the game,” Pearson says. “At least three or four of us would crash, at least five or six times…. We’ve minimized how much we use the voice chat for long tones and singing, because it just cuts out since it’s designed for speech. We also don’t play things that need a specific rhythm. We’re using Second Life as an instrument, so it’s the reality of the situation. It’s like how, if you have a piano, you’re not going to expect to play what you would play on the organ.”
The group also has to deal with the realities of Second Life culture. Members are often “griefed” while playing; individuals will come into their area and begin to build structures that interfere with the performance. While Pearson contends that they’re “always laughing” when these sorts of things happen, it causes havoc during real-life events where they project their performance onto a screen (consequently, some events have been closed off to the Second Life public). These performances also sometimes involve musicians outside of the virtual world; at 2012’s Newfoundland Sound Symposium, Pearson accompanied the orchestra onstage with her accordion.
The difficulties of Second Life performance aren’t so different from being in an ensemble in real life, though. With any collective that deals in conceptual performance art and challenging avant-garde music, an audience can be tough to find, so it’s no wonder that the Avatar Orchestra Metaverse exists at the fringes of Second Life. “We’re definitely not acknowledged by Linden Labs, the people who run Second Life,” Pearson says. “I think part of it is that we’re doing things that aren’t necessarily entertaining.”
It’s remarkable, then, that the group has stayed together for seven years, coordinating international schedules to meet for practice every week (every Tuesday in The Odyssey Contemporary Art and Performance Simulator in Second Life, if you’re interested). Credit that to the same thing that keeps most successful bands running: a strong personal bond that comes with collaborating creatively with like-minded individuals.
“There’s a genuine sense of wanting to stay connected with one another as human beings,” Pearson explains. “There are things that I can do in the Orchestra, in terms of a very deep mental connection, that I can’t do in real life, which really shocked me. I haven’t met most of them, but we all say this: We feel very connected to one another…. There’s a genuine lovingness within the group—people are really feeling affection and fondness for one another.”
And while the world may be virtual, the feeling of performance is very real: “I have the same kind of acute sense that my perceptions are heightened. I’m really in supreme performance mode. But then the performance is over, and I’m just sitting there in my office with my computer.”