Sometimes you tend to (or “they make you”) see the online world and the real one to be far from one another: when traditional media speaks about the “Internet world” it always seems as though users are people without a true identity within the real world, and vice versa; on the Web virtual identities are perceived to be very distant from their real life identities – at least until a few years ago.
Although changing over time, thanks to increasingly efficient technology, the digital world and the real world have come together to contextually coexist, often creating problems. Looking at the many works by american artist Joseph Delappe you can somehow trace the evolution of this dynamic.
His first projects date back to when the computer and Internet were not available to anyone, and his research has focused on the gray area in which the rules that regulate the distance between virtuality and reality have been abolished. Working with electronic and new media since the early 80’s, his work in online gaming performance, sculpture and electromechanical installations have been shown throughout the United States and abroad – including exhibitions and performances in Australia, the United Kingdom, China, Germany, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada. Many of this works undermine the invisible wall created by communities, dividing the real world act from that of the virtual world.
A professor in the Department of Art at the University of Nevada, Delappe directs the Digital Media program. He has lectured throughout the world about his work, including at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He has been interviewed by CNN, NPR, CBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and has been on The Rachel Maddow Show on Air America Radio. His works have been featured in the New York Times, The Australian Morning Herald, Artweek, Art in America and in Routledge’s 2010 book entitled “Joystick Soldiers The Politics of Play in Military Video Game”. He has written different chapters within books such as: “The Gandhi Complex: The Mahatma in Second Life.” “Net Works: Case Studies in Web Art and Design”, (New York, Routledge 2011) and “Playing Politics: Machinima as Live Performance and Document”, “Understanding Machinima Essays on Filmmaking in Virtual Worlds”, (London, UK, Continuum 2012).
Filippo Lorenzin: As stated in your bio, you started working with electronics and new media in 1983. How did you get interested in this field?
Joseph DeLappe: When I started working with electronic media in the early 80’s I was a student at San Jose State University studying for a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design. I was, at the time, immersed in the hardcore punk rock scene in San Francisco: the Dead Kennedys, Flipper, DOA, Black Flag, etc. – these groups influenced my political stance in a rather radical wayand at the same time they inspired me with their DIY sensibility. I was becoming disillusioned with the thought of going into commercial art/advertising in a fundamental way. Around this time, SJSU started offering some courses through the CADRE Institute (Computers in Art, Design, Research and Education).
I was encouraged by one of my design teachers to take a course, as we were being told that everything in the design world would soon be going digital (we were being trained in traditional hand made design, rub on letters, etc.). I really had no interest in computers, in fact I quite disliked the very thought of them – but I took the class and discovered that, what was being taught, was something quite different than I expected. Joel Slayton was the professor; he had been hired out of the Boston MIT Visible Media Lab to come start this new program. I took his first class and never looked back. Hehad a rather unorthodox approach to teaching, very collaborative and engaging, with the use of very early computer systems from the get go, but in a conceptual and critical manner. We worked that first semester with three Commodore 64’s and one Apple II.
For the class project, at the end of term, we transformed our classroom into an interactive environment featuring projects by all of the students, including motion activated video walls, a helmet mounted system that turned one’s head into a joystick, and such. I installed my first work, which was a computerized Catholic confessional made on the Apple II, modeled after Joseph Wizenbaum’s famous “Eliza” program.
Filippo Lorenzin: Can you recall what it meant to work within this field at that time?
Joseph DeLappe: At that time we had no real sense of this field of studies, being students, but eventually we were exposed to what was going on, usually through visiting artists such as Steve Wilson, who was a very early experimenter of interactive computer art within public spaces. This was very much a time when technology was very limited – there weren’t many, if any, programs used to work with, but the work would get done – photo printers did not yet exist (I was very into photography at the time).
To work on a number of early experiments, when the lab bought a couple of PC’s with Targa boards, they allowed a very rudimentary manipulation of video digitized photographs. I spent much time photographing these images from monitors/screens in order to then print them in the darkroom – there literally were no photo printers, only dot matrix printers were available at the time. It was truly an informative time for me and my work – I remained very skeptical in those years, and am to this day, towards the excessive enthusiasm and worship of computers and all the technologies that have followed…
Filippo Lorenzin: I see. So, how would you define media? When did you become aware of what media truly was?
Joseph DeLappe: I probably began to understand what “media” signified by reading about it in the 1980s. What I read ranged from the afore mentioned Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason to Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander to Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood. Media, for me, would have once simply been referred to as “the media” where we get our news and information, the propaganda of capitalism, etc. Now I think of media in a larger context, as that through which we seek to mediate our world, our experiences of each other, information, communications, etc. Our lives are largely mediated through our technologies at this juncture, whether it is through the internet, social media, cell phones, our cars or television.
Filippo Lorenzin: You have performed within online video gaming since 2001 – you’re probably the first artist who began his work using this media. Can you tell how you prepared yourself for your first work, Howl: Elite Force Voyager Online?
Joseph DeLappe: The first performance I did in video games was really an experiment. I had been using my “Artist’s Mouse” to make drawings while playing computer games (and all my activities using my computer). I became intrigued, at the time, with the emergence of online shooter games and by the way players would communicate with each other through the text messaging systems built into such games, like in the earliest online editions of Quake and Unreal.
I’d been reading a biography of the comedian Andy Kaufman – who was famous for a number of performative acts that were really quite extraordinary. One of which was when he was invited to perform as a comedian at a college, he showed up, sat in a comfy chair on stage and proceeded to read from start to finish the book, The Great Gatsby, finishing early the next morning (I was told that by the end of his reading, only one person had remained in the theater). This was, in part, the inspiration for my performance for Howl: Elite Force Voyager Online. I went into this Star Trek themed shootout as Allen Ginsberg and read his seminal beat poem Howl, word for word – well, I didn’t “read” it, I typed it and it took me over 6 hours to finish.
I didn’t do much preparation except for coming up with the idea and just doing it – really to see what it would be like – I had no idea whether this was interesting and I had absolutely no knowledge of any other artists working with computer games in their art at that time. It just seemed like something interesting to do – to think of this new online gaming space as a new type of public square, to take some of the hype surrounding the Internet and try something that might test the boundaries of this new electronic network of communication and interaction.
Filippo Lorenzin: Which of your performances was the most difficult?
Joseph DeLappe: By far the most difficult of these performances was the reenactment of each of the three presidential debates between Senator John Kerry and George Bush. The Great Debates (2004). It involved an enormous amounts of typing – generally each debate took approximately two 7-8 hour sessions of typing to complete. As these were topical and really time sensitive performances happening directly after the debates, I believed it was important to get them out there and online into their various games in a timely fashion. Each debate went into a different game space, first Battlefield Vietnam, then Star Wars Jedi Knight Outcast, followed by The Sims Online.
Filippo Lorenzin: In these last years you haven’t done any new online performances… why?Nowadays the number of online video gamers has definitely grown from when you first started…
Joseph DeLappe: dead-in-iraq (2006-2011), the performative intervention into the America’s Army game, proved to be a pivotal work for me. I think since then, I have become as much an activist as an artist. The reenactment of Gandhi’s Salt March in Second Life in 2008 could be thought of as a transitional work, as it began a process of moving my online actions into real life. As such, the works I’ve been involved with since that time have largely been that of developing works that move beyond the online context to engage real world issues in more tangible environments and contexts. I guess I find the online space of computer gaming to perhaps be a limited one in terms of the reach of potential activist and/or creative gestures.
This is not to say I have totally abandoned online games or virtual environments so as to create space for such new actions. I suspect that if a good idea within the right context arises in the future I will have no hesitation to create further online performances. That said, I do see some of my current work as being very connected to these past works in gaming. I am just about to release my first computer game – I’ve been working collaboratively with two Scotland based game artists, Malath Abbas and Tom DeMajoe to create a new game, entitled Kill Box, which is being released this coming Monday as a Turbulence.org commission. The game explores the complexities of drone warfare in the form of a two person, online gaming experience.
Filippo Lorenzin: In regards to your activism, you pay a lot of attention to politics and the idea of privacy and security within many of your works. When did you start working and focusing on these ideas and why?
Joseph DeLappe: I would say it was 9/11 and the resulting reaction of my country to such that truly moved my work towards a more direct political action. I’ve always had an interest in engaging politics within my work but much of my earlier practice before 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq tended to be more oriented towards media criticism (Gulf War Memories in 1992 and Quake/Friends in 2003) or questioning our engagement and worship of technology (Masturbatory Interactant, 1996). It is hard to pinpoint a particular experience that moved my work further into politics – it really has been an ongoing evolution of my person and my work engaging such ideas.
Filippo Lorenzin: A lot of your new projects are about drones, their mechanisms and effects on the way we understand and see the world – I’m talking about The 1,000 Drones – A Participatory Memorial (2014), Me and My Predator (2014), Drone Shadow: Prototype (2014-15) and many others. I assume you’re both fascinated and scared by them, am I right?
Joseph DeLappe: Yes indeed. I became fascinated with weaponized drones while conducting research for Project 929: Mapping the Solar (2013). The Nellis Air Force Range in Southern Nevada, where 929 took place, includes the Creech Air Force Base, one of the main command and control centers for American drones around the world. I find these systems for surveilling and killing anywhere on the globe to be beyond problematic – horrifying and fascinating at the same time. Drones seem to be the perfect result of our fascination with remote technologies, robotics and computer gaming. They are devices of power that allow for a kind of disconnect in regard to what they really do that is profoundly disturbing.
Filippo Lorenzin: This is the last and probably the toughest question: do you think artists have to take a stand within society or are they more like commentators who see everything from a privileged point of view?
Joseph DeLappe: That is a tough question. I can’t really speak for other artists – although I do find the cliché of the disconnected created by artist hiding away in their studio to be a dangerous one as it so infects our cultural perceptions or how artists function in the world. I have been working towards trying to find a way to be an artist who is truly engaged with the world. This definitely involves working from a position of privilege, whether as an American or a university professor – one must be conscious of the context from where one operates.