Joseph DeLappe, Dead in Iraq, 2007
“It may not effect change in the kind of physical sense that maybe we’ve been talking about, but I think if you can get inside someone’s head, and make the synapses shift for a second, then there’s something really valuable to that.”
Working with electronic and new media since 1983, Joseph DeLappe’s work in online gaming performance, electromechanical installation and real-time web-based video transmission have been shown throughout the United States and abroad. In 2006 he created a project called dead-in-iraq, entering America’s Army First Person Shooter online recruiting game and typing in the names of all of America’s military casualties from the war in Iraq. He is an Associate Professor of the Department of Art at the University of Nevada where he runs the Digital Media area.
Stephen & Steve: So, we have some questions.
Joeseph DeLappe: And where is this gonna go? What is this for?
SD: Well, your files. (laughs)
SL: Department of Justice.
JD: Oh, my FBI files.
S&S: Tell us some kind of story about the most effective or successful work that you made. What was it and why do you consider it a success?
JD: In terms of thinking of success as audience, like how many people might have actually experienced the work or the idea of the work, I would probably say a project called Quake Friends. It was essentially an online performance piece inside of the Quake game space.
FROM FRIENDS TO ENEMIES
S&S: Quake is an early first person shooter video game? And you could play it over the internet…
JD: Well, myself and five other gamers, my students, went into a particular server and we re-enacted an entire episode of the TV show, Friends. I transcribed the entire episode. And it took us about 3 hours. We were easy targets and we just got killed over and over again. It was total chaos. And we did it as a creative experiment. I had been doing these kind of in-game performance works for a number of years, mostly on an individual scale.
I would consider this my first work that really reached a broad audience. It got posted on Rhizome. Then a writer from the New York Times picked up on it and wrote an article about three days before we did another performance. Which was just, you know, phenomenal from my perspective as an artist, in terms of my circulation and my reach. Potentially millions of people were getting this concept planted into their head.
I was threatened with a lawsuit by Warner Brothers for copyright infringement, which is another curious way of measuring success. It was really interesting that the producers of Friends learned about the project from the New York Times. You know, that really pleased me – that they were thinking about this. Somehow it got into the mainstream, or whatever you wanna call it, I considered that a level of success.
That really informed my work from that point on in terms of thinking about how my work functions. Because in the computer game there’s maybe twenty-four other players tops, and I often get asked “is that your audience?” And it’s like well, you know, yes, in an immediate sense. But think of Chris Burden shooting himself in the arm. There was a very small group of people of watching it but the concept of it carrying on becomes a big part of the work. So that definitely informed my thinking.
EXPANDING THE THEATRE OF ENGAGEMANT
S&S: So we’re talking about a small primary audience with a much larger secondary audience. OK, so is getting written up in the New York Times your ideal of success?
JD: The next work that I think really was successful, was the dead-in-iraq project which was in a much more serious vein. I go into the America’s Army game –
S&S: And America’s Army is basically military recruiting propaganda, right? It’s a video game developed by the military and given away for free to generate interest in signing up.
JD: Yeah, and I go into the America’s Army game and my character’s name is dead-in-iraq. I go into this game/recruiting tool and instead of playing, I drop my weapon. Then I type the name, age, service and date of death of each soldier who has died in the Iraq war. This started out as a quiet individual gesture; a memorial and a protest, a kind of balance between the two. I was much more reticent publicizing this project than previous work just because of the seriousness of it. But I sent it to my compatriots, my fellow media artists, saying “hey I’m doing this project.” And I put up some images up on my website, because some of the screen shots were really pretty amazing in terms of the reactions of other players.
Then it got picked up by some blogs, mostly game blogs, and unlike the previous project covered by the New York Times, this built more sort of like grassroots. It started in game blogs and then in Wired magazine and a couple others. It just sort of blossomed from there, and resulted in interviews on CNN – National and International – CBC in Canada, some kind of National Radio in Australia, various print things. So really the internet acted as both a venue for it and then as the distribution of the idea.
S&S: So you really measure success in terms of media hits then?
JD: I also measured success on that piece by the intense level of interaction that I chose to involve myself in online. Like I started with going to Salon.com – and the reactions to it were pages and pages of people battling back and forth, questioning what I was doing. And I decided to insert myself into that process. I considered that part of my role as the artist. I would usually start out saying “Hey, you know, I’m the one doing this project and here’s why. Here’s what I’m thinking.” That was very interesting. Usually you make work in kind of a vacuum, I think as an artist you make work that is appreciated from a distance.
ENGAGING WITH THE ENEMY
S&S: Yeah, so you’re beginning to engage in some dialogue with the audience after the fact.
JD: The process was actually engaging in debate and dialogue with people who were very opposed to what I was doing on a number of levels. Whether it was politically, or saying “this is a game. We do this to escape from this kind of thing.” You know, it really, really forced me to get into a dialogue with people outside the art world who viscerally disagreed with me. And often times even threatening – you know, in type.
I measured a level of success on at least getting to a point where we could agree to disagree but be civil about them understanding my perspective: that there was a validity to question this game, through this process. Just to get them to understand my particular point of view.
It was a way of, again, getting that idea out there, the concept of calling attention to this very questionable use of technology for propaganda purposes and recruitment purposes. But at the same time putting some new content into it. And from my perspective, closing the loop. You know, there are undoubtedly a number of casualties from the war who actually started their military career by engaging in the game. You don’t see these connections made. And the kids playing the game don’t think about it.
S&S: So, it is engagement on the level of the game – those twenty-four or so players. Then it’s an engagement on the level of the media sphere. And then a kind of a re-engagement with people who discovered the project and are responding to that press. What is your hope with the people in the game, those who either read or see it in the mass media, or actually are, you know, talking to you in the blogs… I guess what we’re trying to figure out is, what do you hope will happen as a result
JD: I think on a basic level it’s about building awareness. To create that connection. There’s a disconnect between what we are doing in our everyday lives and our complicity in what’s going on in Iraq. The why of it is to force a situation where that connection becomes explicit. That the game is connected to the war. That you sitting there at your computer, fantasizing about being in this virtual situation, killing. It’s not an escapist entertainment activity that you are involved in; there are serious connections to be made.
And I suspect, I mean I have no way of really knowing, but the simple act of putting those names into that space– When you play computer games you’re in a very, very sort of familiar, comfortable headspace. It’s like watching television, you’re not generally engaged in deep intellectual thought. You switch into a reactive situation. And my hope is that by putting this important content, these meaningful words, names, that are directly saying “this person died in a situation connected to where you are.” My hope is after the fact, it might still be in their head. They might be angry about it. But it’s still in their head. They are thinking about this particular issue…
S&S: Basically, that they are haunted by those ghosts. Hmm, ok. So, what do those thoughts lead to? Like they’re- they’ve made that connection. Then what?
WINNING HEARTS AND MINDS
JD: I don’t know. Maybe again, it’s awareness. I can’t quantifiably say that it’s changed any perceptions at all. It may not effect change in a kind of physical sense either. But I think if you can get inside someone’s head, and make the synapses shift for a second, then there’s something really valuable to that. So, I guess that’s why I do it.
S&S: So there’s no way to really tell if you’ve succeeded in this way?
JD: Well, I do know one example – for sure. And this was in recent exhibition of dead-in-iraq that had the projected imagery of the names typing in and the reactions of the other players at a gallery in Santa Cruz. The director told me that at the opening a student ran from the gallery weeping, and she followed after him. She tried talking a little bit. And he said well, he was just, he was crying uncontrollably, and saying “I don’t know why I’m so upset.” And he said basically that his friends play games all the time and he’d never made any connection between real deaths and this sort of virtual experience. And that he was never going to play them again.
S&S: Wow. And is that a desired outcome? For people not to play the game? Or…
JD: Well I don’t know. That part is sort of out of my control.
When you’re doing some kind of interventionist gesture or something political, it’s almost like a prototype for something, as opposed to the actual thing. And then if it has the actual result that’s maybe an added benefit. I guess if I thought of myself as an activist the failures would be really, really difficult to take. You know what I mean? But when you’re doing the art stuff you have this buffer of “oh, it’s just art,” and if it winds up being something more important, it’s, like, “yeah, I meant to do that.”
S&S: (laughter) We realize you’re joking, but “oh it’s just art” – that’s a cop-out isn’t it?
JD: I think I’ve had to learn to let things happen. I think the dead-in-iraq project is probably a really good example of that.
I sat on that idea for two years before I did it. In part because I was really wanting to be certain of my motivations. Because I would think okay, if you’re in the family of someone whose gotten killed in Iraq and there’s some asshole putting names in a computer game you’re gonna be pissed. But I got to the point of saying “OK, that’s probably inevitable,” It’s probably unavoidable.
But at the same time, there’s such a disconnection of this issue from our daily lives. It just seemed like the issue was more important, and I could probably do more good than harm.
S&S: Fair enough, you can’t avoid all risk. But, how do you know if you’re doing more good than harm?
JD: I actually had an email exchange with a guy who asked me not to put his brother’s name into the game, but I already had. I identify that instance as where I really had to codify my reasoning behind it, in detail. Eventually we were interviewed on NPR in kind of a dialogue. In the end he respected what I was trying to do, and got to a point of appreciating our positions.
S&S: It’s funny, we started this discussion talking about media hits, but it seems like you’re strength is in one-on-one conversation. Is it that personal exchange that you’re striving for in your work?
JD: When I got out of high school, I was like this close to going into the Army. I mean, I had no kind of guidance towards college or any sense of a future. I had always dreamed of going into the military since I was a little boy. But I had a pivotal life changing experience going through the process of joining. I actually contacted a recruiter who had come to our school. I had a recruiter in my living room and the next step was to take this test in the Presidio, in San Francisco. There they classify where they would have you go. This guy actually talked me out of it. The recruiter — he was a Vietnam Vet — probably just saw something in me; he said ‘You know, you really need to be sure there’s something very specific you want to get out of this because it’s not always for everybody. You may want to think about not doing this.”
It changed my life. This one person saying it maybe was not the right thing. And it wasn’t the right thing.
SL: It seems like that might be who you want to be for someone else.
JD: Yeah, yeah. Most definitely. If it does happen with a dozen kids, I can maybe call that a success, I don’t know.