Photo by Harmon Leon

Cyborgs, Hallidonto, and the Continuous Line

Hallidonto's foray into metaverse opera goes beyond virtual reality.

Mar 27, 2023 Art

11 months ago
Cyborgs can easily be seen as a metaphor for modern humans, as we find ourselves plugged into our smart phones on a 24/7 basis.

“We are already cyborgs,” declares Scottish visual artist Hallidonto. “It’s all mutations and extensions. The computer is literally the representation of the human brain.” 

Now based in London, a large portion of Hallidonto’s work centers on the ‘Cyborg Manifesto,’ a concept that explores the contemporary (in)human condition and dystopian imagery of the cyborg. And just like cyborgs, who use technology to evolve the notion of human, Hallidonto is using Web3 to evolve his creative vision. His latest artistic endeavor is Sanctum Cyborgia – an immersive, cyborg, post-human opera that will take place both IRL and inside the metaverse. 

Hallidonto’s cyborg opera is a progression of ideas built upon the shoulders of his past projects. And, as far as cyborg-themed metaverse operas go, it’s a perennial artistic endeavor.

“I think it’s one of the first,” he stated with intrepid modesty. “The opera is all about the phenomenological, the senses, and what it means to be human. It’s going to be this focus on how we sense,” he said. “And the senses that someone might’ve lost.”

Hallidonto speaks from experience. In 2006, he suffered a brain injury that impacted his hearing, and through that he developed tinnitus. “My senses have changed how I sense the world and how I feel about the world,” he said. “In the opera I wanted to really install that— how is it to experience the world as a human from this disabled viewpoint?”

“Sanctum Cyborgia” focuses on sensory input and alternative ways of experiencing the world. For Hallidonto, who was also recently diagnosed with severe ADHD and on the spectrum, that’s constantly changing. “I know now that my superpower is my creativity,” he said. “So, would I want that to be fixed? That made me ponder about these things.”

Photo by Harmon Leon

Enter the cyborg

“This kind of robotics has always been there; the idea of other human,” said Hallidonto, regarding his cyborg artistic theme. “We are desperate to recreate something in our own image. And we can’t even control our own society’s instructions, so how are we able to handle this other being?”

He points to the concept of ‘robot’ embedded in our lexicon stemming back to Talos in Greek mythology and Golem in Jewish folklore. And the concept goes far back in Hallidonto’s life as well.

“I’ve been obsessive with cyborgs since I was probably about five years old,” he stated. Growing up working class in Dundee, Scotland–during the Thatcher-repressed ’80s– was a catalyst for shaping his artistic work. “Everything on the TV was futuristic–but everything around you was horrible,” he said. For escapism, Hallidonto saw life through the lens of cartoons, which lent itself to shaping his universal design.

“I started with the Transformers. I was fascinated by Optimus Prime. I was fascinated by his duty to do good,” he said. “He worked to save the life of others; there was a humanism with him. He embodied the cohabitance between different species. I started to see man’s fear of his own technology.”   

Enthralled by this man/machine conflict, cyborgs became an outlet for Hallidonto’s cultural image. As a Dundonian child, he recalled putting covers over his face and thinking of it as some sort of armor, turning himself into one of the Transformers.

“A cyborg made me feel powerful,” he said. “I was obsessed by that – because I was never comfortable in my own body.” For young Hallidonto, cyborgs became a universe he could design. “I would always draw this and create stories – so it was always this kind of narrative.”

The futurism of ’80s TV also cultivated another fascination – an obsession with grids, which can be seen woven through Hallidonto’s work. “I really loved the idea of the continuous line, in the philosophical dimensions of the continuous line,” he explained. “Life is continuous and constantly evolving. And through these continuous lines and gestures, how can you capture the essence of something?”

I really loved the idea of the continuous line, in the philosophical dimensions of the continuous line. Life is continuous and constantly evolving. And through these continuous lines and gestures, how can you capture the essence of something?

— Hallidonto

Photo by Harmon Leon

Evolution of the cyborg

Hallidonto sees the continuous line leading humans to evolve because of technology. “It changes the human mind. It changes how you see the environment,” he said.

“It changes what you believe in.” Still, he finds the whole concept of A.I. doomsday cyborgs, a la The Terminator” boring. “In my work, there is a sense of hope.”

No Exit,” Hallidonto’s piece on SuperRare, best exemplifies the metamorphosis of his work. This formative work dates back to 2008 and conjures the continuous lines in DNA sequences. “The human form is interesting, but after a while, not interesting,” he said. “I want to see the distortion and I want to see it evolve at the same time.”

This era was also a very personal transformative period for Hallidonto. Shortly after his brain injury, he felt he had manifested a type of personality disorder and his life was altered. “You feel like you – you don’t feel like you,” he explained. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I didn’t have any help.” 

Drawing was the expression he felt fitting. As his style kept evolving into larger incarnations, he also began writing poetry: to articulate feelings he was having trouble articulating through other means. “I like that kind of problematic nature of language and poetry,” he said. “Because words within themselves don’t mean anything.”

This continuous line, and its circuitous route, led to the creation of “Sanctum Cyborgia.

“Within all of my work, there’s this universe building,” he said. “The fear of my body aging and how temporary we are. The fragility. But also, ‘What else are we going to become?’”

The team

Photo by Harmon Leon
“Sanctum Cyborgia” spawned out of the heaviness of the pandemic. Having done a couple of past performance pieces, during lockdown Hallidonto was trying to problem solve how he should bring this idea into performance.

“If you just keep repeating yourself in your work, how nauseating is that?” he said. So, in 2019, he was speaking to a producer friend in Canada and said: “I got an idea, I want to write an opera.”

That might’ve seemed left field from anyone else, but her reaction was: “Because it’s you, I’m not surprised.”

And thus, the ethos of Web3 collaboration brought the project together. “I’m a creator – but I’m not a one-man band,” he said. “Collaboration is a big thing for me.” Hallidonto reached out to his network of creatives. The subject matter got collaborators excited: an epic cyborg, post-human opera.

He filled out his roster that included an opera director based in Glasgow, a producer in Canada, a choreographer in London, as well as a composer in Florida who had previously worked on an opera called: Cyborgs Are Dancing.

His entire creative team comprised a larger vision for the opera. “To try and get people employed from socially, economically challenged backgrounds,” he said. “And people with disabilities – and that includes myself; I had a brain injury, so I know some of the struggles.” The diversity of the opera’s artistic team is a testament to Hallidonto’s vision: ethnic minorities, strong women, and working-class creatives.

“It’s fundamental to give people a chance,” he said. “Intelligence comes from anywhere. I don’t want homogenized talent. I don’t want fucking Disney ramming shit down your throat every five minutes. You want to see other things people have done.”

The meta and the physical

There are two parts toSanctum Cyborgia:” a fusion between the meta and the physical.

The cyborg opera will be an immersive theater experience in the vein of Sleep No More,” where it breaks down the barrier between audience and performer.  

“You’re not watching it –you’re taking part in it. You’re actively participating,” Hallidonto explained. “Everyone wants experiential. They want an experience.” 

The story isn’t linear; it treads through the phenomenological experiences of what it means to be human within a Post/Transhuman perspective. When participants enter the opera’s world there are two sets of paths. And each group has a different, evolving experience. The opera’s various themes are built from Hallidonto’s very personal universe. 

“The forms and performances I do, some of it is quite dark,” he said. “From the hatred of the human body to the beauty of eating. Or the madness of tinnitus; all embodied in my eclectic dialogue.” Adding, “There’s a fine line between cheese and dark; so, I manage not to fall into the category of the cheese.”

The storylines focus on a glitch in a computer in a matryoshka doll.

“I’m obsessed with Russian matryoshka doll –because that’s a continuous line; it’s genealogy,” said Hallidonto. “We’ve evolved to the point we’re not even a human anymore; we are these massive objects out in space. And there’s a glitch in one of the computers. And what it’s done is bringing back elements of humanity from different periods of time. Whether it’s the neanderthal or total human cyborg or whatever.”  

The reaction which Hallidonto wants to get from people is something between confusion and redirectionWhat is this? What have I just listened to? What have I seen? What have I just smelled? What has this just done to me?”

“It’s not about making sense, it’s about that experience,” he stated. “Opera, at its essence, is an epic poem. You go through these experiences from the opera, and you’re in this epic poem.” he said. “You’re part of the glitch – but you don’t know it as you’re going through it.”

Photo by Harmon Leon

Tech poverty

Another problem to solve for Hallidonto was how can someone take part in a metaverse opera if they don’t have the tech? 

“I’m conscious of tech poverty,” he stated. “Everyone talks about access and stuff, but do people actually have access to the tech?” he said. “If you’re trying to get people from all these backgrounds, the opera has to come to them.”

This was the catalyst for creating a real-world adaptation of the opera along with the metaverse version – to bring the opera to people who might not have access to the needed tech to experience it. 

“It’s not contained within a theater, so there’s no scale. It could be anywhere. We have abandoned buildings,” said Hallidonto. “So that way it’s accessible.” 

Conversely, the metaverse version will play out like a game, which allows for people to experience it in different ways.  

“Somebody’s singing to you in the opera, they’ll be saying it in sign language as well. So, there’s multiple ways of how it’s been interpreted.”     

For the metaverse, Hallidonto has also brought onboard a friend that works for the company Cyborg Nest – which manufactures sensory perceptive augmented devices – to help build out technology that will allow blind people to have a sensory experience with the opera.

“You’ve got touch in VR. You got new developments in VR, you’ve got stuff you can move with your mind,” he explained. “There are not any games for people who are in the disabled community. And that’s why I think VR is a powerful medium.”

NFT space

NFTs and Web3 are also Hallidonto’s muse. Before the pandemic, he had a basic understanding about the blockchain and Ethereum – but it wasn’t on his radar. Now: “It’s coming on like a fucking steamroller,” he said. “All this stuff is making my brain go on fire and exciting me.”

For “Sanctum Cyborgia,” Hallidonto wanted to create work that would be relevant to the NFT medium. “I sat back to watch, and spent the time developing something, to see what this space is all about,” he said. How NFTs interplay with the opera is allowing people to buy skins for the metaverse version – and deploying NFTs for funding of the project and membership in building a community. 

“DAOs and utility can generate new types of ways of infrastructure and create jobs,” he said. “To have the utility for the physical and the Meta, not just from a conceptual idea, but seen from an investor point of view, people are going, ‘Oh, this is something I’d invest in’ – because it has legs. It has value.” 

Hallindonto added: “Opera is the theater of the world. So, it makes sense how opera itself is tied to finance. NFTs are tied to finance,” he said. “Creating financial literacy by using the NFTs by seeing the value in the creative arts.”

Photo by Harmon Leon

Continuing the continuous line

“The opera is one thing, but everything else around it is bigger.” 

Hallidonto sees “Sanctum Cyborgia” evolving like one of his continuous line drawings. He’s written the first incarnation of the opera – but there will be a continuum, leaving room in the future for other creatives to come and continue the story in their own way.

“This story can continue without me,” he said. “So, it evolves. It becomes bigger, it becomes a continuous line, it becomes this emotional thing.

For Hallidonto there is always that constant evolution of thought and how we experience the world as we create our own stories, our own narratives and our own universes.

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Harmon Leon

Harmon Leon is the the author of eight books—the latest is: 'Tribespotting: Undercover (Cult)ure Stories.' Harmon's stories have appeared in VICE, Esquire, The Nation, National Geographic, Salon, Ozy, Huffington Post, NPR’s 'This American Life' and Wired. He's produced video content for Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Timeline, Out, FX, Daily Mail, Yahoo Sports, National Lampoon and VH1. Harmon has appeared on This American Life, The Howard Stern Show, Last Call With Carson Daly, Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, MSNBC, Spike TV, VH1, FX, as well as the BBC—and he's performed comedy around the world, including the Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Vancouver and Montreal Comedy Festivals. Follow Harmon on Twitter @harmonleon.

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