Artist Joseph DeLappe creates a memorial by playing Army
Patriotic theme music that could be straight out of a Fox News broadcast introduces the opening scene of the online videogame America’s Army. A 43-year-old art professor in jeans, tennis shoes and a Bob Ross T-shirt is sitting down at his home computer and waiting while the words, “Empower Yourself. Defend Freedom,” flash across the screen. The sound of a clicking gun finishes the introduction. He logs in his character name: “dead-in-iraq.” A desert scene swallows the screen: Three soldiers with guns stand beside a Hummer. He enters a deserted city landscape, with shooting from rooftops in what looks like a desolate, war-torn Middle Eastern city that’s all tans and washed-out colors. The world is rich with sound, though desolate: dogs bark, the wind blows and gunfire blasts.
He unloads his gun. He’s not here to kill anyone. His soldier is almost immediately shot. There’s no blood, no screams. Just an eerie, light quivering of the body as it releases its last breath. While his soldier lies dead, he types in two names of real soldiers who died in Iraq. This pops up in the upper left hand side of the screen:
[US Army] dead-in-iraq messaged: ERNESTO R. GUERRA 20 ARMY JUL 29 2005
[US Army] dead-in-iraq messaged: JASON D. SCHEURMAN 20 ARMY JUL 30 2005
His soldier is dead, but in this game, a player just needs to click a button to be reborn, so dead-in-iraq, a.k.a. Joseph DeLappe, chair of the art department at the University of Reno, Nevada, keeps playing, and he will play until the real war in Iraq is over.
What’s a middle-aged art professor—chair of the department, no less—with a wife and twin daughters doing playing online videogames?
Protesting. Performing. Memorializing.
He thinks it’s his most important work yet.
The official U.S. Army game
More than 3,000 U.S. soldiers are now official fatalities in the Iraq War. DeLappe, who spends 1-3 hours per week on America’s Army, has typed in nearly 1,900 names so far.
America’s Army has been available for anyone to download at www.AmericasArmy.com since July 4, 2002. The game is “the official U.S. Army game,” produced and promoted by the real world Army as a recruitment and public relations tool. It now has 7.85 million registered users.
Not surprisingly, DeLappe’s use of the game has upset many of those users, as well as some non-players who’ve heard about it. One comment from blogger “TimeDoctor” on www.gizmodo.com said, “Not only is this uninteresting. Dead in Iraq for america’s army was genuinely offensive to those trying to play the game. I’d even call it griefing. The appropriate place to honor the dead isn’t in a video game, nor does anyone seriously join the army after playing america’s army. If I get out of my car and stand in the middle of a crowded highway and start shouting names of dead soldiers it would do about as much good.”
The U.S. military seems to think the game enhances recruitment. They’ve spent nearly $10 million of taxpayers’ money on it.
“One of the most troubling aspects of the game is if you logically follow the reasoning of it—you know it’s a recruiting mechanism—if you follow through with it, you could either kill or be killed,” says DeLappe, whose voice is so soft it can be difficult to hear. “There’s no other game that does that.”
He’s also disturbed by how it portrays a sanitized, fantasy view of warfare—free of carnage, post-traumatic stress disorders, dead civilians or even death itself because players can just start over. Its designers purposely left out the gore in order to receive a “Teen” rating that would allow 13-year-olds to play it.
“The images of war have been so censored,” says DeLappe. “To me, this becomes an apathetic version of what’s happening.”
A glimpse of reality is inserted into the game with a section called “Real Heroes,” with short biographies of living members of the military. There is no “Fallen Heroes” section.
There are pop-up reminder messages for no spamming, (which is technically what DeLappe is doing), no “clan recruiting” (getting other players to join your team) and no profanity. The implied message, says DeLappe, is just play nice and kill each other.
“It’s a propaganda tool,” says DeLappe. “It’s what’s feeding this mess.”
DeLappe is a man of average build with short salt and pepper hair who walks and talks quietly and slowly, but one senses his mind is flush with ideas. He was raised Catholic in San Francisco, where he attended an all-boys school that offered only one art class. Taking it, he says, was a pivotal life-turning point. He remembers asking his teacher, “Do you think I could be an artist?” She said, “Yeah, Joseph. I think you could.”
He was nearly 18 years old at the time and seriously considering joining the army. He’d fantasized about it for years. He’d always loved war movies and, as a boy, would build miniature military models. But his romantic military notions had begun to wane in high school, when he read books like All Quiet on the Western Front and Born on the Fourth of July.
He decided instead to go the City College of San Francisco, a community college with a strong art department. He went on to study graphic design at San Jose State University leaning toward a career as a commercial artist. In 1985, SJSU hired Joel Slayton, who was one of the few professors then dealing with computer and art. It was a time when “New Media” meant little to the mainstream art world, and many weren’t yet convinced that computers were the direction of the future. DeLappe was rather technophobic then, but he became absorbed by Slayton’s computer program. It was experimental, combining art, science and theory. He was learning about interactivity and simulation while the larger artistic community was just beginning to talk about it.
“I fell into it at the ground level,” says DeLappe.
He got his MFA in pictorial arts in 1990 and found himself floating between the worlds of traditional art and new media. He joined the staff at UNR in 1993 to head up the “New Genres” art program, which later evolved into the New Media program.
As news of the “Dead in Iraq” project has spread on gamer sites and in more prominent places like Wired magazine and Salon.com, some bloggers have called it “stupid” or dismissed it as “chat spam.” DeLappe has been called an “attention whore,” a “self-absorbed jackass,” someone disrespectful to dead and living soldiers and their families, and a propagandist.
This from blogger “Hapless Boy,” a member of the military, on notsuchapatriot.livejournal.com: “Seriously, it’s cool if you want to exercise your freedom of speech, it’s cool if you want to discourage a war you are against, it’s even cool to tell potential recruits of the dangers they are about to face. It’s Constitutionally protected, no arguments. But when you start bringing in fallen soldiers into the deal, that’s when I get fucking pissed to no end … Anyone who enlisted after September 11, 2001 knew the risks, and were most likely more than willing to take the risks to serve their country. DO NOT TAINT THEIR MEMORY WITH YOUR ANTI-WAR PROPOGANDA.”
Some also argue that they shouldn’t have to be interrupted by politics when they go to a game to escape, but DeLappe views entering this particular game as a political act in itself.
“That they get upset tells me that they’re thinking about it,” says DeLappe. “It wouldn’t be an effective protest if there weren’t people getting upset.”
He’s been kicked off the server a number of times but not restricted from playing. According to the Army’s policy, “The Army does not limit participation unless there is a negative impact on other players’ experiences.”
A blogger called “destruk,” responding to the Wired article wrote, “When he runs out of american soldiers’ names, is he going to type in all the names of the innocent iraqi citizens that have died too? no? limited vision, no purpose, forcing his own agenda into a free diversion from reality, well good for him. Most people have a goal in life, his is just to waste it.”
But actually, he plans to make an online memorial to Iraqi civilian casualties.
While memorial sites in New York City for 9/11 were being discussed, DeLappe remembers thinking that there would never be a memorial for the thousands of civilians dying in Iraq. For one thing, the names of those civilians aren’t really recorded.
The Iraq Interior Ministry, in what’s considered to be an underestimate, reported a total of 12,320 Iraqi civilian deaths in 2006 alone, the majority unidentified. There is a list of about 4,000 actual names from IraqBodyCount.org, which were compiled from news reports. When DeLappe goes on sabbatical this coming year, he plans to start there to create an evolving memorial. Tentatively titled “Generative Memorial: Collateral Damage,” it will take into account Muslim traditions for memorials.
“It comes from a truly sincere place that communicates the reality of civilian casualties and makes visible what’s totally invisible to us,” he says. “A system that allows the consideration of the cost of this war.”
Drawing from traditional art and New Media, DeLappe has long raided Silicon Valley warehouses for discarded computer equipment to create sculptures: a sprawling mandala of computer mice, joystick sculptures, a Buddha made of the balls inside computer mice. Referring to online porn and love, he created a vivid “Mouse Vagina” which he connected to a phallic joystick. Then there was the “Mouse Heart"—two mice shaped into a heart, which he gave as a wedding present to a friend who met his wife online.
But he didn’t become interested in online gaming until he made “The Artist’s Mouse” in the late 1990s. It was a regular computer mouse with a pencil attached to it and a sheet of paper replacing the mouse pad, so every mark made while working or playing on the computer would be chronicled. He found that the most interesting, frenetic, even elegant marks were made while playing first-erson-shooter games. Some of these he made with a sumi ink brush, resulting in works that look like Asian calligraphy.
All the original mouse drawings were destroyed a year ago, when the New Year’s Eve flood of 2005 rudely invaded his basement studio with about 20,000 cubic feet of water. It also wiped out an intense project he’d been working on for two years, which involved live video and miniature dioramas that were to function as tiny movie sets for a work called “War Movie.” The dioramas were inspired, and sometimes copied from, infamous images from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “War Movie” was poised to go online in early 2006. It was all destroyed, his morale was abysmal, his studio space gone. His laptop and a clean slate were all that remained.
In March 2006, coinciding with the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion, DeLappe began typing in dead soldiers’ names into the America’s Army message box. It was the first creative thing he’d done since the flood.
He’d done similar work before—performance art by using the instant message interface on online videogames. In the spring of 2001, he logged in as “Allen Ginsberg” on the Star Trek Elite Force Voyager Online game and typed the entirety of “Howl.” In March 2003, he and six other performance artists connected to the same Quake III Arena first-person-shooter game and, each playing a character, reenacted/typed the pilot episode of the sitcom Friends before an audience at Sheppard Fine Arts Gallery. Then in three separate performances in October 2004, he typed the full transcripts of the three presidential debates between George Bush and John Kerry in the online games Battlefield Vietnam, Starwars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, and The Sims Online.
He’d been thinking of doing a memorial to soldiers ever since the outpouring of proposals for 9/11 memorials. But he was so involved with “War Movie” that he put the idea to the side.
The memorial he ultimately decided to create is a fleeting one—typed into a chat box and then quickly gone. It’s a far remove from the Vietnam War Memorial, with names etched in stone. What began as a quiet, personal action of a man in front of his computer, has since reached more people than he ever expected. And he’s going directly to the same people the real Army is trying to reach: potential recruits.
“It’s the most significant work I’ve ever been involved in,” he says.
How’s that art, anyway?
Some have a hard time accepting that typing names into a chat box online—a sort of virtual graffiti—can be art.
Mainstream art in general has been slow to accept New Media. DeLappe organized the First Reno Interdisciplinary Festival of New Media just this past fall.
New Media requires a broader population to think of art not necessarily in terms of beauty hanging on a wall, but as the exploration of ideas and seeing or using something in a different way.
“One of the key roles of an artist is to make the invisible visible,” says DeLappe. “I firmly state that it is art.”
As more people connect and develop alter egos on blogs, YouTube, chat rooms, Myspace and online videogames, the Web has become an alternate universe, a new type of social and public place. Inside it, artists are doing what they do in the outside, “real” world—showing the rest of us a different view.
Some New Media artists are taking a kind of guerilla Web presence, actively pointing out the absurd. There are artists making up fake products sold by fake online companies or, in the case of Christopher Bruno, putting one over on Google by turning its side columns of ads to read like poetry (www.iterature.com/adwords/). That lasted for 24 hours until Google caught on and pulled it.
These contemporary artists are more interested in making art where they can find a place to do it, not where someone has sanctioned as an “appropriate” place. Artists have long transformed garages, warehouses and crumbling abandoned walls as spaces for art. Increasingly, those places are being found online.
“Think of Van Gogh painting his landscape,” says DeLappe. “This is our landscape—a new social environment where we’re spending an awful lot of our time. From my point of view, it’s the lineage of performance art, guerilla, street art. Instead of considering your art as something only seen in a gallery, this is wanting your art to get out.”
But “Dead in Iraq” is about more than setting his artout. It’s also DeLappe’s way of figuring out what it’s all about—from the war to the game to the practice of using a cartoon game to recruit real people for a real war. While millions play pretend battles on a screen, Delappe wants what he sees as a disconnected America to remember the very real deaths happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that we are all somehow complicit.