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.