Augmentology"...is a concise manual of reality for our digital age."

Mark Hancock,_Augmentology: Interfaccia Tra Due Mondi_

[Sponsored by The Ars Virtua Foundation/CADRE Laboratory for New Media]

Post Reenactment – “Don’t Kill Mr. Gandhi!”:

The 240 mile march across Second Life with my treadmill powered Gandhi ended on April 6th, 2008. At the conclusion of the walk, I had a great sense of accomplishment – feeling content and quite frankly looking forward to a much needed rest! I had completed a rather fascinating journey – both in the physical and conceptual sense. In the days that followed the end of the reenactment, this feeling of euphoria was slowly overtaken by a sense of melancholy – I found myself both saddened and conflicted for the march to be concluded.

One of the avatars who walked with me the most was named Gyovanna. She told me she was from Brazil. She had the endearing habit of referring to me as “Mr. Gandhi”. Several days after the conclusion of the walk, I received a message from Gyovanna pleading with me “Don’t Kill Mr. Gandhi!”. In the days after the reenactment, such sentiments were expressed to me by many others. I logged in once or twice as Gandhi after the march but it was just not the same. The layered factors necessary to conduct the reenactment were crucial to creating a symbiosis between the treadmill, me, and my avatar – these could not be replaced or duplicated by merely visiting SL in the traditional keyboard-based manner.

Over the course of the march I had been thinking about how best to document and, in a way, process the experience of the march into a series of artefacts and objects. As a way towards further exploring my connection with my SL avatar, MGandhi, I worked to extract the 3-D model from Second Life and process this information into several sculptural renditions – the first being an 8” 3-D print made using the rapid prototyping equipment at Eyebeam. Working with my intern, Lenny Correa, we extracted Gandhi using an open source application called OGLE developed, oddly enough, at the Eyebeam Open Labs.

17’ tall Gandhi Reproduction

As an Eyebeam resident artist, part of the award was to have an exhibition onsite at the end of the residency period. At some point during thinking about the exhibition and processing the 8” figure, I envisioned the creation of a monumental sized Gandhi figure. Most statues of Gandhi, including the one in NYC at Union Square, are roughly human scale. The thought of creating a larger than life representation of my Gandhi avatar seemed quite audacious and oddly appropriate. I settled upon using another open source application, Pepakura Designer, which is a popular papercraft program used by enthusiasts to create some rather amazing – albeit generally tabletop scale – reproductions of everything from anime figures to airplanes. I adapted this program to create a 17’ tall reproduction of my Gandhi avatar out of cardboard and hot glue. The entire process has been described and documented, in detail, on instructables.com – my first instructable which I see as an unorthodox but highly effective way to further disseminate the project. The resulting 17’ figure is a monumental physical representation of Gandi created from very simple materials. The figure was made to be the same height as Michelangelo’s David – a fitting conceptual connection to this iconic work of art history depicting the Biblical figure of David just before slaying Goliath.

Most recently, I have completed a second 3D print of the Gandhi figure that stands 12” tall. For this piece, I have treated the figure in genuine gold leaf – creating a rather contradictory sculptural representation of my avatar as a shining, fetishized object.

3D Print of the Gandhi Figure in Gold

I’ve also created a 6000+ frame stop action video created from screenshots recorded automatically every 60 seconds documenting the entirety of the reenactment in SL. The 9 minute long piece is compiled at 12 frames per second. I showed this piece at Eyebeam in an installation featuring the original treadmill; it includes an LCD panel laid upon the treadmill showing a looping segment shot from above, and in front of, my legs walking during the reenactment. For the exhibition, the re-installation of the treadmill, the 17’ Gandhi and the 8” Gandhi were complimented by six screen shots shown as large formatted prints. Also included was a mural size print of my recreation of the famous image of Gandhi making the salt at the beach at Dandhi.

The entirety of the Gandhi work is to be featured as part of the Guangzhou Triennial 2008, entitled Farewell to Post-Colonialism in China this fall. For this exhibition, the museum will be working with me to build a second 17’ Gandhi – a way of having a local connection to the creation of the works for the show. The first Gandhi was, btw, designed to allow for disassembly into parts for shipping – he is now on his way home to me in Reno in two very large cardboard containers, big and bulky but very light ;-) .

What pleases me most about the entirety of the reenactment experience, and ongoing exploration or processing of this Mixed Reality performance, is that through this work I have, for the first time, unified what have previously have been two different threads of my artistic practice. For years, my work in physical installation, sculpture and kinetic art has been separate from my work performing in computer games and online communities. The synthesis of the real and the virtual during the reenactment, and the resulting physical explorations post-reenactment have proven to be a revelation to my creative process that will surely inform my activities for years to come.

On the March:

The reenactment of Gandhi’s Salt March in Second Life began on the South Western edge of the largest mainland on April 12, 2008. Gandhi’s basic navigational strategy in SL was to walk towards other avatars (represented by green dots on the map), greet them, describe the project, offer to be “friends”, share a copy of his walking stick, and to invite others to join him on the march. I set very specific rules for my travels online, including a strict avoidance of the typical SL transportation methods of flying and teleporting from one location to another.

I set out on this “journey” for a variety of reasons – to pay tribute to the vision and creativity of Mahatma Gandhi, continue to explore the nature of protest, investigate notions of physical and virtual embodiment, challenge the expectations of avatar representation, incorporate bodily exertion and durational constraints to an online performance – and to simply do something that has never been attempted previously in a combined online and real world context. What I discovered was that, while the reenactment certainly touched on the aforementioned ideas, I found myself, unexpectedly, to be profoundly transformed and engaged by the experience.

Gandi + Other Avies Interacting

For the month of the performance my life revolved entirely around conducting this reenactment. The engagement in this performance involved what became a daily ritual of walking on the treadmill to guide my Gandhi avatar in Second Life, commencing at 12 noon each day for 26 days, walking six days a week, six hours on average each day. My daily regimen was essentially totally dedicated towards walking on the treadmill and interacting with the world of Second Life. My immersion into Second Life combined with the physical exertion of my body necessary to engage in the work created an interesting symbiosis of the virtual and real.

By the end of the reenactment I had become so engaged with and attached to my Gandhi avatar that my ability to clearly delineate between the online and the real world had become temporarily muddled. On more than one occasion I found himself wanting to “click” on people and experiencing brief instances of déjà vu during off hours in NYC where my mind’s eye was briefly confused as to my physical location. The action of walking on the treadmill further reinforced this confusion of physical and virtual space – it became a daily occurrence to find myself nearly falling off the treadmill during the walk as Gandhi stumbled either due to connection lag or when he would invariably stumble off a mountain or otherwise take a virtual misstep.

TreadMill/Laptop Running

At the start of the journey, I was not sure if I would be bored or find myself disinterested by spending such extended periods within the confines of Second Life – this online environment had failed to secure my interest in the past. Contrary to my expectations, the walk across SL became a daily fascination – the sense of discovery and wonder was very intense. As I was only able to walk, and only able to move my avatar by physically walking on the treadmill, an odd synthesis of physical labor and exploration ensued that was quite rewarding. Gandhi believed wealth without work to be meaningless – I found the walk to be fulfilling in part due to the combination of my physical activity and the need to find my way on foot – I began to appreciate the fact that I was earning this particular online experience through intense physical exertion.

The interactions with other avatars in SL and with people in RL stopping by to watch me at Eyebeam were as well significant to the overall experience. The typically private act of engaging in online activities from a home computer was transformed into a public, physical spectacle. I stopped along the way to chat with hundreds of avatars, informing each one as to the nature of my “walk across Second Life” telling them that “my human is on a treadmill making me go”. Many stood next to me or sat behind me in easy chairs at Eyebeam, watching transfixed and talking with me as I navigated through SL – one spectator who watched me for over an hour said it was curious, as Gandhi was my avatar she was starting to think of me on the treadmill as being her avatar.

Gandhi Meets Nixon

It is perhaps more difficult for me to write specifically regarding the “why” of being Gandhi than to describe to effect of the overall experience – I could go on about this for quite some time – the excitement of others in greeting my Gandhi avatar, how easily he disarmed strangers in the online world, how shy I found myself the day after the conclusion of the reenactment upon joining an actual Gandhi walk for peace in NYC.

In my third and final posting next week I will detail my ongoing efforts to process and further explore this performance project – including the creation of a 17’ cardboard replica of my Gandhi.

From March 12th to April 6th, 2008, I created a durational performance work entitled “The Salt Satyagraha Online: Gandhi’s March to Dandi in Second Life”. The performance coincided with the 78th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s seminal act of non-violent resistance, The Salt March to Dandi. The original march was made in protest of the Salt Act of 1882 and has been considered the historical turning point in Gandhi’s struggle against Great Britain’s rule of India; the reenactment took place at Eyebeam Art and Technology in New York City and in Second Life. The reenactment involved a 240 mile (386 km) walk using a customized treadmill that translated my forward steps to the foward steps of my avatar, MGandhi Chakrabarti, as he/I/we journeyed throughout the territory of Second Life (SL). The live and virtual reenactment of the walk took place over the course of 26 days, averaging 6 hours and 10 miles a day (three rest days were taken that coincided with those taken on the original march).

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I began “playing” computer games as part of my creative practice in 1999, creating an appendage to my desktop mouse to hold a pencil that allowed me to physically draw/map sessions of playing early FPS games such as the original Unreal and Quake. I first engaged online game spaces as locations for interventionist performance in 2001 - as an experiment, I entered the Star Trek Elite Force Voyager Online game as Allen Ginsberg and proceed to type, in it’s entirety, his seminal beat poem, Howl in one six hour performance. Since that time, I have sought to further explore the possibilities of textual, performative, interventionist actions, including such works as the Quake/Friends 2003, The Great Debates 2004 and more recently dead-in-iraq 2006-ongoing.

Are you memorializing...

The latter work involves an act of memorial and protest by typing in all the names of US military casualties into America’s Army, the popular Defense Department funded online recruiting and marketing Tactical First Person Shooter. While my previous online works share in common a conceptual and critical stance towards engaging popular culture, this most recent work, and another ongoing project iraqimemorial.org, are much more overtly politicized. Over the past few years, I have evolved as an artist, reflecting a shift from works that critically and humorously “played” computer games, to those that seek to use the Internet to more directly address issues of war – specifically through the creation of online works that call attention to military and civilian deaths from the Iraq conflict.

Gandhi Saying Hi to A British Sci-Fi Fan

I mention these two ongoing projects as they are both formative towards the conceptualization and creation of “The Salt Satyagraha Online”. These two works involved intensive research into the history and context of both memorials and protest. When researching the history of protest over the past 100 years, all roads lead to Gandhi. His creative and innovative ideas, actions and beliefs have been profoundly transformative to the very notion of protest. For some time I have been thinking about the performance of a “walk” across game environments – when reading about Gandhi’s 1930’s Salt March, the notion of re-enacting his walk online formed as a basic idea. In an earlier blog posting debating the dead-in-iraq project, a comment had been posted accusing me of “having a Gandhi complex”. The resulting work, I suppose, is, in part, a way to say, “if you say so!”

[tbc]

Twitter is a microblogging service that is currently experiencing continual outages. Users are encountering a range of Twitter functionality issues including scalability and stability problems. These outages are provoking debate regarding the future of Twitter as a primary microblogging vehicle for user-driven content.

Twitter engineers are aware of these criticisms regarding software reliability. They report on the status of Twitter through official channels and utilization of novel error messages. One such error message that has developed beyond its intended use is _The Fail Whale_:

The Twitter Failwhale

The Fail Whale [FW] is an interesting example of Synthetic Presencing. Initially, the presentation of the FW graphic resulted in a dispersal of negative reactions provoked by technical failure; his appearance softened an otherwise irritating user experience. This base intention has now been magnified and reappropriated by a growing Presencing population.

This FW demographic is loosely defined by expressive affection of, and interest in, an emergent persona. They embrace the FW as an example of a seemingly innocuous/juvenile attempt to distract, disarm and amuse a community user-base. This affective redirection – whilst still engaging the target community in a type of awareness-byproduct that results from meme development – allows users to feel connected even when experiencing software dysfunction.

FW has also evolved from a single image selected to cushion error evidence towards a synthaptic construct. FWs basic graphics, simple colour scheme and brief soundbytesque messages blend together to guide followers with a type of cartoon palatability. This synthetic assemblage now has a generating history, a fanclub, multiple representational variations, a theme song, merchandise and associative characterisation. This FW entity-threading has ballooned past Synthetic Presencing while venturing into deliberate Branding territory. Is this FW Branding strangling potential user projections? Does this activity shift Presencing towards economic ratification? When does Presencing morph from an authentic synthetic-driven [re]vision into the corporate?