by Jon Lebkowsky
Computing in this ergonomic chair
An oracle confronts me there
My heart is weak, my back's aligned
My mind confused, my life, confined
Seeking refuge from my postmodern intellectualized scorn
found in a cyberspace without physical shape or form
shaped by my projection so immediate and exact
my heart and soul transformed in a single act
by the virtual tao that so strongly beats and flows!
infinite, interconnected energy from computer's glow!
Honoria en Ciberspazio is a traditional-form opera for which a non-traditional libretto was created collaboratively in cyberspace by Austin artist Honoria and her community of correspondents. When these denizens of cyberspace and academia said they were creating a cyber-opera, your humble author envisioned an abbreviated work, a short-form exercise like Malcolm McLaren's Fans. Certainly not a real opera, a full-blown two- or three-hour extravaganza, with costumes and scenery and an original score. But you can never underestimate the power of an artist, especially an artist with a decent social operating system....
Honoria is an artist, and her medium is social. When I first met her she was dedicated to the highly collaborative discipline of mail art. Mail artists engage in remote collaboration, sharing and creating art long distance through the mail. When Honoria discovered cyberspace, she saw it as an environment conducive to the same kind of networked social art.
I've never done mail art, so my understanding of the form is limited. When I was writing reviews for the zine of zines, Factsheet Five, the mail art reviews were driving the editors a bit nuts. One editor told me that she was gonna scream if she opened one more envelope filled with a million pieces of colored paper spilling everywhere on her desk. I thought that was the essence of mail art, people making weirdness through the mail with bits and pieces of scrap, but mail art is more than material. It's about collaborative process and the way it brings individuals together, merging diverse sensibilities. Honoria represents this kind of social construction of aesthetic representation. And she was real the real thing, doing mail art with a fierce passion and dedication. She threw herself into cyberspace with the same passion, and found there, in e-mail and MUDs and MOOs and conferencing systems, whole communities forming, the members of which were finding relationship, profound union with each other. Artist John Held, Jr. notes the significance of mail art and its relevance to cyberculture: "Mail art is changing the way we think about art and about living in the world," he says. "After four decades of erecting a worldwide structure of global interaction, mail art and now e-mail art continues to evolve as a stimulus for increased understanding and cooperation among a global constituency." From understanding and cooperation a collaborative art emerges.
Emerges from where? Various shelters from entropy are constructed here in Austin, and Honoria found her way to one such community operating under the radar at the University of Texas: Sandy Stone's Advanced Communications Technology Laboratory, fondly known as the ACTLab by students and adherents. The ACTLab has the right combination of heat and light to incubate an embryonic opera. Somehow through ACTLab and e-mail lists and MUDs and MOOs and the World Wide Web, Honoria found the right combination of synergies, and started creating what's now, after much tweaking, the final libretto for Honoria en Ciberspazio.
photograph by Jon Lebkowsky
Austin Chronicle: Are these words that people posted, and then were later adapted for the opera?
Honoria: Most of them were collected with the knowledge that they would be used in an opera. All the ones we solicited from the Net were sent to be part of an opera, then more recently we needed to focus on telling the story, so we've edited the stuff that we got from the Net and put it into a context, and then written around it.
AC: How did this transpire?
H: I just looked at what was happening, mostly in MOOs, and I thought it looked like an opera. It had that kind of classic opera-ness of mistaken identities and a lot of power plays, shifts in control and power and government kind of things. Sabotage, deceit, in various electronic venues, especially MOOs.
AC: Did you ever work on an opera before?
H: No. As a matter of fact, most people said "You can't do an opera, you don't know how to sing."
AC: That's funny.
H: (Hearty laugh.) I know. But it's just fallen together since the initial idea three years ago.
AC: So you had the idea to do the opera, and were sort of spreading the word, and other people just came into it?
H: My idea was to do a collaborative writing of it, using the Net as a source, to talk about itself, with the end product being an opera. So people got really inspired to write poetic things, and express their dramatic personal experiences in a poetic way.
You are, sister of mine, gone all horny
from an Internet interlaced with porny
concoctions of chipped-out brains and grid-dipped
voltages where some of the connections slipped.
Across the Internet and on commercial systems like AOL, private BBSs, Usenet, IRC, etc. there's talk of sex, but beyond that, gone deeper, talk of relationship. Lonely wannabe lovers looking in disembodied virtual mode for the right connection, the one that transcends flirtation, transcends sex, leads to the penultimate union of souls, the holy grail of relationship, True Love, where self becomes other becomes self.
The benefits of computer-mediated communication -- business folks fuel commerce with the power of e-mail and intranets, activists build political organizations in cyberspace, retailers sell their warez over the World Wide Web -- but how about finding love en ciberspazio? Love and enlightenment, I should say, because in finding the other you find yourself, and the infamous cybersport of identity hacking has as its nontrivial goal the revelation of hidden aspects of one's own personality.
On the cyber-opera's webpage, http://www.cyberopera.org, is this legend:
The first and most wonderful opera about love on the net composed of rhymed couplets written by cyberlovers like you. The many authors of Honoria (over 60 contributors listed, at least one of which is a whole online community) have stewed in the juices of cyberspace experimentation and know all the inside and out of the couplets they've rhymed. They've hacked their deepest emotions using transcendent consciousness technologies mediated by cyberspace; they've lived as source and clone in one; they've participated as online communities spun off in fleshmeets, finding the hyperreal behind the hypertext. They've labored to distill from the essences of their experiences an opera that conveys the transreal impact of cyberspace technologies. Says Honoria to the creators and vendors of Internet technologies variously labeled groupware and mindware and Web, "This is what's growing out of what you're selling and developing and playing with."
And the character Honoria says:
Worldmaking starts from worlds already on hand
when our assembled forms and multiple selves band
together upon towers of promise and danger seeing the convexed
dawn-defined virtual vistas' curves without context.
Though cyberlife aches from more than the ills which cyberstrife makes
My dear friends and online lovers in your darkest hour
the words you write will give you power.
we duplicated data streams
(Honoria points to the clones)
to reify unfulfilled daydreams
Honoria posted the following in the Art_Space conference at Electric Minds:
"Operatic themes are all over cyberspace -- deceit, transgender, powershifts, political intrigue, mythmaking, drama, tragedy, comedy... all elements of opera are found in communities on the net, and a number of artists have found these colliding and evolving themes to be literary or visual and even operatic inspirational material.... Much of the writing [of the libretto] is playful but there are underlying ideas that we hope come through as artistically fueled serious comments on the chaotic and emotional environment of the Net (and of opera plots). All the writers (and there are more than 60 of us) have had significant experiences with time online and with fleshmeeting virtual attractors."
Honoria is the catalyst, but Honoria en Ciberspazio is a collaborative project the likes of which could never have been attempted before so many fevered souls were wired to the Internet. Echoes of Honoria's mail art background: inherently collaborative, the product of a group aesthetic. Collaboration is also an essential activity within cyberspace, which is a community construct, dependent on consensual hallucination. And here we have just that, a consensual hallucination or community brainstorm that produces at least the raw material for art, material that is then refined by a smaller but still quite collaborative group. Then the composer, George Oldziey, having witnessed the community construction of a cyberspace mythos, creates musical notation to reflect the flow of energies, emotions, and ideas that supported the building process. The resulting score is the soundtrack for an ascendant virtual community.
As the libretto was completed, Oldziey began the composition of a singable performance score, voices floating on musical fiber, foundation for a traditional performance. Next step is to find bleeding-edge opera companies to impose their vision for the actual performance of the piece, a vision which will honor the traditional aspects of the piece while expressing the avant-garde and communal aspects. And of course they're seeking technology providers to contribute Net interactivity to each performance.... As Honoria posted to Electric Minds, "...the opera potential is to bridge the traditional art form of opera with technology in creative, evolving ways that are structured by artists in update-able design to be interactively viewed by an increasing Net-audience." She adds: "The story is of the Net. The writers are from the Net. Shifting ongoing writing is about lives in virtual communities in which all the opera writers have stakes."
H: ...So the clones were in scene 5. Honoria has a revelation that the clones are unreal. That humans are desperate, and the clones are only duplicated data screens. But that's just a minor revelation. It used to be that was supposed to be the big part of the opera.
AC: That the clones are the duplicated data screens?
H: Yeah, that they are not real, and that the humans should reject them. But it turns out that we are also very attracted to our kind, so we're just going to keep them.
AC: Not just keep them, but embrace them?
H: Yeah, we are, we are. So the cyborg ends up saying in the Puking Blob Aria that the humans are being too simplistic, and to wholly reject their downloaded choice of communication. They're a bunch of idiots, in other words. And in scene 6, we have The Fleshmeet, where the clones get together and the humans are all meeting together and the other humans in cyberspace...
The final revelation that Honoria has, which is the point of the whole opera, is the abstraction becoming real, and the real becoming abstract... it's okay. And she represents the awakening female virtue of enfolding experimentation, and the shifting power of women on the Net is important here, because that's why she is deliberately the star of this opera.
It's deliberately made after me because I'm a middle-aged, nontypical user, a secretary.
And as the revelation goes on we are depositing codes of value on the Net right now, this is what future generations are going to be building on. And it's really important that we have developed cyberculture values that are lasting, in the midst of all this hype that's been coming. There's a number of theorists out there, and their work is really valuable. It's those people that we want to sing about, or sing to. These are the shifting concerns of humans using cyberspace as an environment. And the struggles that are going on have gone on in other art forms, and are represented by other art forms. Changes in government and power and communities and leadership are distilled in these stories. The narrative of any opera is a mythological distillation of the same kind of concern.
So we want ours to be a classic opera, a continuation of that kind of storytelling, as well as positing a cyberculture level that is a platform for multimedia and other forms of new media to jump from. And not just high ASCII...high multimedia, high art... high aspirations.
AC: In other words, elevated humanism and spirituality...
H: Well that's the point of all the sex. [Laughs]. Then the final thing is the cyborg, who represents the ultimate connected entity. He's moving closer toward humanity, and humanity is able to reach out in the form of Honoria, fall in love with the cyborg, and rise up with this beautiful love song into the matrix of color, truth, and beauty. At the end of every previous performance, the audience -- usually a knowledgeable audience, trained beforehand to yell at the end, and I want it to go like The Rocky Horror Picture Show -- at the end of every performance, the whole audience will rise up and scream "Color, Truth, and Beauty!"