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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!”
Bowtox is a low-level World of Warcraft character located on a USA PvP Server. Bowtox has just placed 7 items up for sale in the Ironforge Auction House. He now needs to check his mail at the Bank mailbox. As he runs over the Auction House bridge towards the box, he sees multiple character corpses arranged in a pattern.
While stopping to get a better look at the corpses, Bowtox realises that the pattern is, in fact, a Swastika. On closer investigation, it becomes obvious that the corpses have been deliberately arranged in order to form this shape. As a group begins to form around the symbol, local and general chat channels fill with character speculation regarding the symbol’s meaning.
Several characters gathered around the symbol engage in a discussion regarding its potential meaning[s] – does it indicate spiritual intentions? Or could it be a Nazi symbol seeking to provoke racial hatred? When realising each of the corpses have names with racist overtones, Bowtox sees the symbol as sinister. He decides to encourage a spontaneous mob-based action to counteract any negativity involved.