Potent with possibility, in the early 1990s virtual space was c/sited as transcendent and utopic, offering ‘new contexts for knowing/talking/signing fucking/bodies.’1 Like many before them – saints, witches, phone sex workers, writers and coders, VNS Matrix invoked the power of the word to both inhabit and extend their physical bounds into ethereal mind space. With essence condensed to text and introjected as binary code into the machine, they set forth to play with, to interrogate and to activate other coded bits and bytes.
Today, complex persistent virtual worlds are commonplace. Games such as World of Warcraft have communities and economies larger than many geographically based countries. But when text-based, real-time multiplayer adventure and role-playing virtual worlds appeared at the beginning of the 1980s, they were only for a select, mostly male, few with computer access and specific knowledge. Known then as Multi-User Dungeons/Dimensions/Domains or MUDs they were geek run and often localized. It was the addition of graphics in commercial ventures such as LucasArts’ 1985 Habitat which popularised the genre with non-technical players.
Interestingly in virtual space, when one would imagine that anonymity and/or liberation from fixed identity would suggest gender mutability, plastic fictions and new alliances, MUDs most often replicated the basic structures and morality of embodied realities. Sandy Stone’s studies of Habitat indicate that although there was a significant amount of gender switching; love, marriage, capitalist accumulation of wealth, property development, criminal activity, police surveillance and sex-work were all firmly rooted in cyberspace2.
Already users of interactive virtual modalities like mailing lists and Bulletin Boards, VNS Matrix choose to inhabit MOO worlds rather than prescriptive adventure environments. The purely text-based MOO (MUD, object-oriented) architecture, with its written descriptors of labyrinthian connected spaces, appeared around 1990. Designed to be expanded from within, its users were encouraged to not only role-play but given agency and resources to program on the server, to alter the MOO interface and to author new objects and rooms.
You see before you a walking pincushion, hardly a piece of flesh that hasn’t been pierced. The jewellery is a cross between Cyberdada circuitry and fishing tackle, useless, meaningless with a strange retro allure. The three breasts are a turnoff, mostly because they are eyeing you nastily. There is a permanent scowl on her face, and her pupils are the size of bowling balls. VNS Matrix 1995
In cyberspace (then) the body was not generally seen to exist. It was a fantasy avatar construct which muddied conceptions of, and relations between, real or ‘meat’ space and virtual space. While William Gibson’s ‘fictional characters of Neuromancer experience the computer matrix–cyberspace–as a place of rapture and erotic intensity, of powerful desire…’3, there was a clear division around the sexuality of online bodies along binary gendered lines.
While not denying that ‘data compression works very well in constructing desire and erotics’4 many feminists took a cautionary position on virtual sex. Liz Grosz suggested it a ‘disavowal of femininity and maternity’, a ‘fantasy of a 1960’s style polysexuality with none of the nasty consequences: a high without drugs or the hangover, sex without pregnancy or disease, pleasure without the body’5. Alice Jardine saw virtual sex as only an anti-coupling ‘bachelor machine’ logic, that embraced eroticism but turned love into death6.
Yet this transcendental anti-procreative Eros can be traced through millennia. Michael Heim philosophically grounded virtual sex by referencing sixteenth-century Spanish mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila who conveyed spiritual divinity in ‘the language of sexual ecstasy’ and Platonic notions of ‘escalating spirituality of the erotic drive’7. Sandy Stone took a different route in her performance at Sydney’s 1995 Biennale of Ideas8 describing virtual sexuality, such as the phone sex experience, as ‘freeze dried sex’. A few coded words are sent down the phone line, add a body at the other end, and magically a real embodied sexual experience occurs. So too online.
The sociological and political aspects of virtual sexuality had been brought to the attention of a more general public by Julian Dibbell’s article on the LambdaMOO rape case of 19939. The ‘cyberrape’ was enacted by a player named Mr. Bungle via a program that falsely attributed descriptions of sexual acts to other unsuspecting users. Avatars appeared to perform mostly oral sex on each other in the MOO’s public living room for several hours. One character stuck a steak knife up her own arse against her will. Later users posted on the in-MOO mailing list, *social-issues, about the real trauma caused by this text, and idealistic, self-regulating virtual communities were forever changed.
Wandering Womb Matrix: You slide into deep spongy space nine, your embryonic smartskin protecting you from the ubiquitous clots. A debate is flaming. Kris Teva is in abject mode, she can’t get enough of the blood. Irigary is on a soft crimson cushion doing some post-structuralist scribbling. Her pen just ran out of milk. Obvious exits are w to the Renal Rest Room and out to the Appendix Paradigm.
VNS Matrix 1995
Francesca da Rimini recalls: ‘the net was much smaller then, villages and towns rather than today’s mega-cities… A contemporary Chaucer’s Tale would play itself out night after night amongst a group of strangers who were making individual pilgrimages through foreign lands.’10 VNS Matrix not only engaged in liberatory playfulness at LambdaMOO, but built VNS HQ to facilitate work meetings across geographical and time zones. Located by typing the command @go #9101011 its text-described spaces included the Slime Palace and Ovoid Office.
The Matrices took their virtually embodied lives seriously. It was material labour for da Rimini, GashGirl at LambdaMOO although she didn’t realise it at the time12. She, Josephine Starrs/Connie_Spiros or Feind?, Julianne Pierce/Overborg and Virginia Barratt/Monstrous_Gorgeous, led multiple simultaneous lives at Lambda as they wrote homeworlds, secret caves and frolicsome passages to adventure. Mistresses of their domains, they invited others to work and play in these (then) new territories, and many including myself and Jamaican-Canadian digital artist Camille Turner, attribute our first experiences of MOO worlds to VNS encouragement.
Described as ‘one of the most intense experiences of my life’, English author and founder of trAce Online Writing Centre, Sue Thomas, ‘fell into cyberspace’ in September 1995. Thomas received an invitation to Spiral Space which took place over a number of sites including a ‘fleshmeet’ performance of the artists at YYZ in Toronto; LambdaMOO; and globally online. ‘My imagination was infected that day by the realisation that ‘place’ is not just a tangible area, like a house, or a beach, or the inside of a car, but it can be a programmed virtual space too, where nothing is actually real, and yet the sense of ‘being somewhere’ is a powerfully realistic sensation.’13
This compelling kinaesthetic immersion within the soft realms of virtuality that Thomas sought to define and validate was her interaction with CorpusFantasticaMOO, a VNS Matrix project activated with Canadian artist Michelle Gay. Like many VNS ventures it was a recursive vapourware project of world building – an online performance and scripted MOO interaction which fed back into their concurrent work Bad Code. The double virtuality of the fantastic corpus was that it existed only as a textual performance rather than being built (coded) into the MOO architecture. Barratt amplifies the project logic:
There was a natural correlation between the MOO world and the script, based on their shared features of textuality and performativity. To performatively embody the avatars and to textually meander between spaces *as if* we could actually inhabit those spaces with our meat bodies (because we could, and we did, and there was no distinction between the real and the virtual in those times) – was the point of the script i think, to cross the border and bring MOO into the world of flesh (for those who had no experience of it).14
Almost three decades later LambdaMOO is still run by volunteers. VNS Matrix can be found there sometimes, deep in the labyrinth. So, if reclining in the Lung Lounge, chilling out in the Thymus Bar, conversing with the likes of Oracle Snatch, Ir-replicunt, Psibapussy, and sociopathic cyberslut is appealing, please log in. It’s free, and anyone with an email address can join.
You feel your neurological synapses vibrating as the doors of perception open to a vision of utopian voluptuous abandon.15
- VNS Matrix, “< . S P I R a L . S P a C E . >>>>,” news release, September 16, 11 am – 5 pm, 1995
- Allucquére Rosanne Stone, “Sex and Death among the Disembodied: Vr, Cyberspace, and the Nature of Academic Discourse,” The Sociological Review 42, no. S1 (1994)
- Michael Heim, “The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace,” in Cyberspace: First Steps, ed. M. Benedikt (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991)
- Allucquére Rosanne Stone, “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?,” in Cyberspace: First Steps (1991)
- Elizabeth Grosz, “Lived Spaciality; Insect Space/ Virtual Sex’,” Agenda: Contemporary Art Magazine, no. 26 (1992). p8
- Alice Jardine, “Of Bodies and Technologies,” in Discussions in Contemoporary Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1987).p153
- Stone, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, July 23, 1995
- Julian Dibbell, “A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society,” (1993), http://www.juliandibbell.com/texts/bungle_vv.html
- Francesca da Rimini, “Tales from the Flexitariat: The Sadness of the Scientific Lampmaker,” (Adelaide: da Rimini, Francesca, 2008)
- This instruction typed in theLambdaMOO interface would relocate a player to VNS HQ
- da Rimini.
- Sue Thomas, “Imagining a Stone: Virtual Landscapes,” in Ensemble Logic + Choragraphy http://ensemble.va.com.au/enslogic/index.html1998
- Melinda Rackham and VNS Matrix, “The Vns Matrix Interviews 2018,” (2018).
- VNS Martrix, “Corpusfantasticamoo,” http://krcf.knowbotiq.net/PRINT/nonlocated/nlonline/nonVNS.html