Eyebeam March 12 – April 6, 2008
Is Second Life merely an iconic simulation of commerce, privatization, and exclusivity or could it work as an engine for building social awareness? Attempts to awaken users to the concerns of real life by way of strife-free virtual worlds may seem counterintuitive at best. Joseph DeLappe’s latest attempt at Internet game activism, Gandhi’s March to Dandi, was performed at Chelsea’s Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, a recreation in Second Life of Gandhi’s 1930 march in protest of the British salt tax. For 24 days (six hours a day) DeLappe used a Nordic Trak Walkfit to traverse the 248-mile length of Gandhi’s original march. His steps were converted into those of his avatar, MGandhi Chakrabati, via a handily wired connection to his laptop. MGandhi’s progress through SL was projected on a wall facing DeLappe.
While journeying in SL, DeLappe tried to find other users, give them a digital gift explaining the project, and invite them to walk with him. He refused to fly MGandhi (this is the first thing you learn to do in Second Life) unless he got stuck, and he teleported only once in a while, to change islands. These limitations were a way of honoring Gandhi’s legendary trek but also resulted in interesting psycho-geographic readings of the digital terrain, which is designed more for visual appeal than real-world simulation. MGandhi was able to walk underwater, scale sheer cliff faces, and leap rivers in a single bound. He also bumped into “private zones” that took time to walk around, provoking questions about the accessibility of “owned” digital space and whether an illegal hack of the program into these spaces would be justified if more people could be reached?
During the three hours I was watching, MGandhi ran into two players, both of whom accepted his gifts, engaged him in a brief IM exchange, and then watched as DeLappe walked the avatar away to rack up mileage. It appeared as if DeLappe’s role as a performer in an endurance spectacle outweighed the political tactics inherent in the act of walking with and talking to people. This played out in the gallery as well. During DeLappe’s frequent breaks to eat, rest, or handle technical issues, a few people walked up to the Nordic Trak and hopped on. They saw nothing to indicate it wasn’t an interactive display. DeLappe was forced to explain that it was “just for him.”
Although DeLappe read Gandhi’s pre-walk speech the day before the event opened, there was no paraphernalia offered in the installation pertaining to non-violent protest, the history of colonialism, or net-based activism. His understandable fatigue and attention to the game, at least on the day I saw him, deterred attempts by curious viewers to talk with him about Gandhi. Users in SL who walked with him fared better in getting info about the project through instant messages, but DeLappe was not recruiting people for a focused critique of state power, only a general acknowledgment that protest is still important. The virtual representation of this famous act of civil disobedience and the bravura of durational performance were meant to somehow transmit Gandhi’s message of peaceful protest. Instead, any attempt to engage the socio-historical complexities of Gandhi’s actions or examine the potential pitfalls in overemphasizing his mythic status were overshadowed by DeLappe’s go-it-alone performance art heroics and SL’s modish glitz.
Online games do provide a new stage for “street theater,” as DeLappe puts it, but activities that intervene in their structure can’t depend merely on the novelty of being there; they must be compelling and subversive enough to turn the consumer’s gaze away from their avatar’s health bar. DeLappe achieved more success with Dead in Iraq (2007), which took place on America’s Army, the State Department’s multi-user first person shooter-recruiter. His character was regularly gunned down and kicked off the game by frustrated players as soon as he began IM-ing them the names of Americans killed in Iraq. His status as an interloper into their cultural terrain no doubt turned some heads. SL, however, allows members to design their own fantastic-sanctuary worlds; MGandhi, I imagine, appeared to other users as inhabiting his own.