From Aestheticism to Protest – Joseph Delappe

On: March 16, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


Today Joseph DeLappe, Associate Professor of Art at the University of Nevada, Reno and the head of the Digital Media area and Chair of the Department of Art, gave us an overview of his work. One of his current projects is Dead-in-Iraq, a performance piece with a deceptively simple concept:

I enter the online US Army recruiting game, “America’s Army”, in order to manually type the name, age, service branch and date of death of each service person who has died to date in Iraq. The work is essentially a fleeting, online memorial to those military personnel who have been killed in this ongoing conflict. My actions are also intended as a cautionary gesture.

DeLappe says he is uneasy about calling this art, given the highly charged political context and the reaction such a description has generated so far, i.e. condescension and further anger from those who were already against it. To put it lightly, the symbolic insertion of dead U.S. soldiers into the army’s prize recruitment strategy tends to provoke – apparently the politics of war are unwanted in war’s virtual form. Delappe has opted to give his piece the qualifier ‘protest’.

In addition to its strength as a political statement, though, Dead-in-Iraq poses some interesting questions about online gaming in general, and America’s Army in particular. First there’s the question of affect – the obvious irony is that players are busy carrying out extreme acts of violence (though no blood is shown), but only get ‘upset’ about the text in the top left corner of the screen. This, I think, reflects the media coverage of the Iraq war pretty well: violence is rehearsed and numbing, while the latest Cindy Sheehan protest (or even a ‘botched joke’) is enough to get the blood boiling on certain news channels.

Second is a point raised by today’s host David Nieborg, who remains flabbergasted by the lack of criticism of America’s Army (with Dead-in-Iraq being the exception that proves the rule). Indeed, there’s a great hypocrisy at work when politicians and news media go out of their way to denounce the latest version of Grand Theft Auto and fail to see what is wrong about 13 year-olds being encouraged to participate in the advanced, immersive propaganda that is ‘America’s Army’.

Last is a question of possiblity. Some of Delappe’s previous works with online games (for instance Quake/Friends) prefaced Machinima‘s entry into popular culture, and it makes me wonder what is next. Online gaming, generally praised for the ‘opportunities’ it provides for playing with identity, too often advocates a view of identity as another site of consumption, where it’s a matter of the right plug-ins for the right price (i’m eyeing you, Second Life). But here I have to refrain from ranting, because such protests should occur within the game – and that’s an invaluable lesson of Delappe’s projects, especially Dead-in-Iraq.

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