Aurora Virtualis: The Virtual Light of Liz Solo
an essay by Patrick Lichty

image by Rhonda Pelley

In many cultures there are sayings that are related to confidence between friends – between this and that, you and me, bark and tree, etc. – that I see in a completely different context from what is normally thought. I see the ‘me’, in the case of the artist as subject, as the body, the flesh; and the objective “other” as anything that we use to ‘clothe’ ourselves, such as raiment, technology, and society. By this, I also mean any artifice that augments the body in any social or creative way, and in so doing, enables the individual to create. This is especially relevant to our contemporary era in that the “things” that surround humanity are exploding at an exponential rate. The space between this subject and object, you and me, is where artist Liz Solo works. 

Performing in this space between poles evokes a kind of duplicity, a necessity to straddle worlds or be an inherent polymath in order to encompass the proliferation of genres and media that bombard us. The same is true of artists. Today, so many technologies and modes of expression place the artist in a difficult interdisciplinary embarrassment of riches that challenge the potential for formal and technical exploration against the conceptual. The dawn is both an exciting and difficult time for the artist, and places many in a state of hybridity. Many artists claim this ground, but few do it successfully. 

Liz Solo thrives as a hybrid. She is a technologist, rock musician/producer, theatre practitioner, performance artist, festival organizer, and more. To describe her work, it is almost like looking at Dick Higgins’ Intermedia chart that describes how various art disciplines intersect, trying to decode where the different genres on the diagram meet and intersect.  In the case of Liz, her diagram is complex; including dance, rock music production, virtual performance with groups like Second Front and Avatar Orchestra Metaverse, movie and festival production. If we step back from the individual genres of expression, what one sees is that her practice explores performance in all its forms.

At the foundation of much of Solo’s work is her musical practice in various incarnations of what is now The Black Bags project with her long time collaborators, Mike Kean and Marcel Levandier.  A Newfoundland cross between PJ Harvey and The White Stripes, Liz sings and plays drums while Kean and Levandier wield guitars. This is the definition, as rock musician and indie producer, that this writer first was familiar with Solo. Songs like Raining Hammers have a darkness born of the Canadian Maritimes, but songs like this bleed into the virtual as she has applied her sonic palette as accompaniment for virtual performances. One example is in Second Front’s Infamous Tommy Lee Incident where the band’s rendition of Michael Wade’s You’ll Get Yours sets the scene for a raucous concert, call for the band’s helicopter pilot, and subsequent apprehension by the authorities. Her sound creates a mythology for the Second Front performance, sculpting a rock ‘n roll cultural frame like none other in the group can do.

This musical aspect of performance, as seen before, emerges in the virtual and the physical. Her work as one of Avatar Orchestra Metaverse takes her experience as a rock music performer and producer and expands that to New Music, founded in 2007 to explore aleatoric music based on the real-life work, Vicky’s Mosquitos, by Harold Schellinx. The group contributes various musical pieces, performed by the use of programmed sonic devices worn on the back of the avatars on the screen. AOM follows the tradition of John Cage by questioning the nature of sound, music, and performance, but in virtual spaces. To date, AOM has performed tens of spatial sound pieces in festivals around the world.

image by liz solo

Liz’s involvement as a co-founder of the virtual performance art group, Second Front, has been essential to the development of the conception of performance in virtual worlds. Second Front was created in 2006 as a 9-person group, exploring the potentials of avatar actions in the 3D virtual world, drawing from sources like Dada, Futurism, Surrealism, and FLUXUS. Her winged blue persona has remained consistent throughout the life of the group. Her fairy-like persona is both lyrical and absurd in works like The MoFos of Invention, a performance where Second Front portray themselves at australopithecines from 2001: A Space Odyssey that first invent various objects and devices and then club their inventions into destruction until praying to the great Kubrick monolith. This presentation also worked particularly well in The Gods Play Pong,where Second Front are “The New Gods” who inhabit a Parthenon-like structure that reveals its walls as giant pong paddles when they supplicate themselves at the brazier at the centre of the temple.  And, in the group photo afterwards, her visage was an ideal virtual sylph. The continuity yet versatility of Solo’s “Lizsolo Mathilde” avatar continues to explore the boundaries of virtual embodiment and notions of virtual narrative and identity.  

This transfers to a third virtual group that Liz has been pivotal to – Third Faction, a group performing in the online game, World of Warcraft.  One of the most notable performances by TF is /hug (pronounced “slash-hug”) which questions the nature of possible actions available to players in multiuser online games.  /hugplaces TF members as a kind of barbarian Red Cross, where they roam the land, “to prevent and alleviate humanoid suffering wherever it may be found.” The name of the intervention comes from one of the key acts, hugging and conferring game health points rather than rampaging and pillaging the landscape. This action also shows a theme of humanity in Solo’s work. 

This quality of the humane is most evident in her performance where she invited Second Front and the whole of the online community to participate, called Alien Home Birth. In this performance, Liz’s avatar, Lizsolo Mathilde, went through a period of gestation after alien impregnation. She then gathered her friends and colleagues around her, and straddled a delivery couch shaped like the Earth, and proceeded to give birth to everything and everyone who wanted to be ‘born again’ in the virtual. 

This work refers to many sources in art historical parlance, especially Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde/The Origin of the World, which places the woman as the progenitor of the universe. This is also referred to in the artwork for British singer Kate Bush’s Never For Ever album, where a plethora of wonders, birds and monsters stream from beneath her dress. One last referent that could be brought into play is that of Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll, in which Schneeman read from a scroll that unfurled from her vagina. Alien Home Birth revisits the powerful narrative of woman as existential origin and returns it to question viscerality in the disembodied through Second Life.

In addition to her artistic practice, Solo also manages a virtual art centre called the Odyssey Art and Performance Simulator, and in the physical, The Black Bag Media Collective in Newfoundland. Therefore, Liz is not just a practitioner, but a director, curator, producer and administrator. She works on both sides of the fence, creating context for hers and others’ work as well as creating. This is another testament to her passion and humanity for the arts, and is an analogical double to her avatar’s gesture in Alien Home Birth.She embodies the gestures of creation and production.  

As with any intermedia artist, curators and critics may find a trajectory like hers hard to track, as it spans music, performance art, dance, theatre, and film, and equally difficult to encapsulate in anything less than a book. What is more remarkable is that she has managed to garner recognition for the work even though she is based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, a less-known area in the art world. I called this essay Aurora Virtualis as a play on Aurora Borealis – placing Solo as analogous to other women artists in Canada, like Emily Carr, who represent a light in the North.  But in this case, I believe that the light comes from the virtual, alluding to the title of the classic William Gibson novel. And this is what Liz Solo is – she is a creative light coming from unexpected spaces.
Patrick Lichty, 2013

Patrick Lichty is a Chicago-based critic, curator and artist who has been involved in media arts for over 20 years. He has worked with many collectives, including The Yes Men, Second Front, and has shown in the Whitney, Maribor and Yokohama Biennials.