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A Critique of Conscience in Joseph DeLappe’s Video Games

DeLappe’s public-spirited Internet creations are a rebuke to colonial power — and to the hegemony of an art market run by billionaires.

By Scott Beauchamp


Cowardly Drone, one of DeLappe’s many image interventions. (Image: Joseph DeLappe)

The American philosopher John Dewey wrote that philosophy “recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method … for dealing with the problems of men.” The same could be said of art. Contemporary art has a reputation — not entirely undeserved — as a fetish for the one percent: big, gaudy, absurd, or meaningless objects meant only to signal extreme wealth. Indeed, art is an investment, a mini-economy, and an entire money-making apparatus has formed around it in the form of shows like Art Basel, which are almost solely moneymaking ventures. Art has, of course, always been both product and investment that helps project the power and taste of the ruling classes. But the recent massive influx of capital is unprecedented in its scope. Former art reviewer Sola Agustsson writes that “investing in art can sometimes prove more lucrative than the stock market; a recent study shows that works by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst have been appreciating at a higher rate than the S&P 500.”

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, an artist and aficionado in his own right, laments this development, saying:

I realize that I have begun to view the work itself as being either intentionally or unconsciously produced expressly to cater to the one percent. I go into a gallery now and — rightly or wrongly — immediately think, “inoffensive tchotchkes for billionaires and the museums they fund.” I can’t see the work or any ideas behind most of it anymore — if there even are any. The ideas might be there. The artists might be holding on to their integrity and be maintaining their distance from the dirty business of buying and selling, but I can no longer see it. The money and our distance from it is so much in the forefront now.

It’s a solipsistic trap, art as pure commodity; an echo chamber in which only a single monotonous message can resonate: money.

Of course, not all art is preoccupied with creating baubles for our billionaire overlords. Some art redeems itself by taking on the problems of man. Joseph DeLappe’s art, which he describes as a combination of “online gaming performance, sculpture, and electromechanical installation,” addresses one of today’s central moral issues: the systemic violence perpetrated by Western military powers.

As DeLappe explained to me in an email exchange last month, there are “definitely similarities and differences” between a performance artist and a protestor. DeLappe’s own work combines elements of both, almost dissolving the distinction while complicating what it means to be either. And while his work has covered broad ground, it all shares a few things in common: 1.) it’s very difficult if not impossible to commodify and sell as a product; 2.) it rebuts a political or social status quo; 3.) it uses methods of expression that are populist or communal, or require some sort of participation. This as about as far from Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange)as you can get.

“Ghandi was to protest what Marcel Duchamp was to contemporary art.”

The Salt Satyagraha Online: Gandhi’s March to Dandi in Second Life is probably as good an entry point into DeLappe’s work as any other. For the performance, which took place in New York City in 2008, DeLappe recreated Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March by using a treadmill synced into the online virtual world Second Life. It took DeLappe 26 days to walk the length of the original march — 240 miles. The origins of the project are pretty funny. While DeLappe was working on a performance video-game project to protest the Iraq War, a commenter accused DeLappe of having a “Ghandi complex.”

“I thought this odd in that it was intended as an insult!” DeLappe told me. “I was, while makingdead-in-iraq, reading up on the history of protest in the 20th century as I found myself constantly being challenged about utilizing a computer game space as the site for my actions. In doing so, one soon discovers all roads lead to Gandhi — he was to protest what Marcel Duchamp was to contemporary art.”

While DeLappe notes that he wasn’t “necessarily protesting anything” in recreating Gandhi’s march, the performance illustrates what sets his work apart from the Art Basel world. First, no one can “own” the performance. Sure, documentation is a vital aspect of any performance art, but in DeLappe’s case, the documentation is proliferated and passed around so often that it’s sort of impossible for it to become a status symbol for an eccentric billionaire. I’m reminded of the Grateful Dead here, their performances sharing a similar ethos of “when we’re done with it, it’s yours” — hence those free tapes of the shows being traded ad infinitum.

Then there’s the communal/participatory nature of Second Life. As DeLappe says: “The rhetoric surrounding such online communities as Second Life is that you can be whoever or whatever you choose — so I thought … that there would be some kind of power in a middle-aged white guy creating a Gandhi avatar and literally/physically walking to re-enact his salt march in this context.” It’s important to note that, on Second Life, other people can interact with DeLappe’s avatar from within the identity of their own avatars, arguably allowing for more freedom of interaction with the artist than if he had recreated the march in the real world.

Second Life plays a prominent role in other areas of DeLappe’s work. The interactive online space has played host to The gg hootenanny: Gandhi’s Release Party and Global Gaming Singalong, the world’s “first-ever Internet-wide gaming voicechat singalong” to celebrate his Gandhi avatar’s release from prison; the project included daily “readings,” in the form of tweets, from the Bush torture memos. It’s almost an inverse of the celebrity-centric “high art” of the Basel set: an anonymous artist behind an online avatar, interacting with the public in a community space and with overtly political motivations.

DeLappe’s art makes our politics real to us.

DeLappe came to this gaming/performance art/protest mélange by way of the West Coast punk and technology scenes of the early 1980s. While an undergraduate at San Jose State University, DeLappe began taking courses in the school’s computer art program. CADRE (Computers in Art, Design, Research, and Education) classes, DeLappe told me, “were pivotal in drawing me toward becoming a contemporary artist. What we did in these classes was rather radical for the time, exploring critical expression using new technologies — engaging in interactive art, installation, and truly exploring groundbreaking work as an undergraduate student.”

DeLappe’s first project as a student was a Computerized Confessional, where users knelt before an Apple IIe computer and went through a process analogous to a Catholic confession. He’d go on to receive an MA and MFA from San Jose State University, along the way becoming greatly influenced by such frankly political art as the feminist photography of Barbara Degenevieve. “The unapologetically political nature of such art,” DeLappe said, “was liberating in that it embraced themes and approaches to art that were just not generally embraced by the larger art world.”

DeLappe’s emphasis on the political has been especially pronounced in the past 15 years, as the United States reacted to the 9/11 attacks with a proliferating global war on terror. Indeed, his political focus has only intensified since his college days. His work viscerally connects people to political events that the U.S. government is engineering, or at leas overseeing, in far-flung locations: DeLappe takes things that the average American citizen only experiences as headlines or data points and grounds them in immediate experience. His art makes our politics real to us. Hence the use of participation, interactive online forums, and video games. DeLappe told me that he took early inspiration from a quote from The Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra: “Don’t fight the media. Become the media.”

Becoming the media can take many forms. DeLappe has used stamps to link the violence of drones with the innocuously patriotic images on our currency. He’s altered online images of drones to feature the word “cowardly” on the fuselage in order to skew Google image searches. He took an online game, developed for training by the U.S. Army, and re-jiggered it to memorialize soldiers killed in Iraq. Most recently, he’s paired up with some Scottish game developers to create his own original video game: Killbox. A kill-box, in military terminology, is a three-dimensional partition of space in which American aircraft engage “enemy combatants.” In the game, players chose to be either drone operators or humans on the ground — a choice between very casually dishing out violence or very passively being a victim of it.

It’s a simple game, with a simple interface and graphics, and of course it wears its political points on its sleeve, but the most interesting thing about the game is that it isn’t fun. It’s actually quite boring, from either perspective. Each time I played as the victim avatar — a little ball bouncing around a rural compound — I tried unsuccessfully to avoid death. I ran as far as I could. I tried to position myself behind walls. But I died each time. As the drone operator, I killed many more people than the intended target, every single time. It’s like being locked in eternal return with some single, banal, and unavoidable act of violence. It’s like a video-game version of a Franz Kafka short story. It’s brilliant.

In 2005 a catastrophic flood destroyed DeLappe’s home studio. He lost most of his work: slides, documentation, projects he was working on. Since then his work has embraced the physically ephemeral and the socially communal. “I am sure that losing so much all at once taught me … not to focus on the longevity of my work but to function in the now,” DeLappe told me, admitting that such an attitude carries implicit political freight. And this is how DeLappe’s work redeems itself as art: It moves beyond a preoccupation with the creation of sellable objects, instead using technology to connect us to the most important events happening in our world. It isn’t about art; it’s about us.