Gazira Babeli
Code Performer
TEXTS
Gaz me two times, baby (Gaz me twice today)
Domenico Quaranta, February 2008
 

Babeli. On 31 March 2006, when Gazira chose her surname from the options on the Second Life registration page, she must have guessed that language was going to be crucial aspect of her life as an avatar. She would have seen it from the fact that an avatar, even before it has a body, gets a name. What she couldn't have known then is that she would be responsible for a body of work that, starting from language itself, would turn Second Life on its head. And she certainly could never have guessed that she was set to become a household name among its residents [1]...

Gaz /gaz/ verb (gaz-zing; past: gaz-zed; past part. gaz-zed) 1 [trans.] deform; submerge under a shower of pop icons; hurl someone from hundreds of meters, dashing his or her polygons onto the graphics card; shut someone into a can of Campbell's soup; transform a respectable avatar into a crazed maniac running every animation in its inventory in random order... 2 [fig.] Remove an avatar from its self-imposed state of immaturity, by showing it that the consensual hallucination it inhabits is not real, or a poor imitation of a mistaken idea of reality, but an imperfect mishmash of code, textures and polygons, in which Gaz too lives and works. [Derivatives] Gazhat; Gazwork...

Those who believe that it's excessive to bring in Kant and his definition of Enlightenment [2] to talk about Gazira probably underestimate the number of people for whom discovering her work had the power of a revelation. But to have something to reveal, you need to have made a discovery. Gazira's first discovery was that Second Life is a much more powerful "illusion" than film: despite the presence of the screen, the "suspension of disbelief" is total, and the "perception of the time spent as our avatars' 'assistants' appears to evaporate." [3] The disillusion comes about traumatically, as we "close this 'world' and find ourselves facing the computer screen, full of files and icons, as flat as a gravestone."

Gazira learns. She learns that identity, like the body, is something artificial, an assembly of fragments bought in a shop for a handful of Linden Dollars (the currency of Second Life). She learns that the illusory space she inhabits is highly theatrical and that to go from being an unwitting actor to being a fully conscious director all she needs to do is learn the basics of her machines and special effects. She starts working on and playing with scripts. "...I tried to find the limit beyond which my imagination became unacceptable. Not finding it I continued with my experiments...". Explorations, attempts, trials; but not yet art. She designs a guitar and goes to sing gospel on street corners. She goes to the sandboxes, the places in Second Life where programmers create new objects. She learns how to design weapons. One day in April she finds a huge glass building bearing the ambitious sign "New Media Center". It is all but empty, and Gazira decides to plaster it with the only thing she has in her inventory: a giant pizza which when touched sings O Sole Mio and sprays tomato sauce everywhere. The owner of the museum shows up, worried but also interested. They talk, the adjective 'pop' is mentioned. A few days later Gazira creates an oversize can of Campbell's soup, which, when you get too close, tries to gobble you up. The phrase "You love Pop Art - Pop Art hates you", appears in the dialogue box.

She designs earthquakes and starts experimenting with the laws of gravity. She unleashes a "grey goo", a storm of self-replicating objects that fill an area up to a set point, and can also cause the temporary collapse of the simulator. But here what rains down from the sky are Super Mario icons, question marks, Warholian bananas.

She almost always tries her codes out on herself: when she happens to invade the space of others at times she is given an enthusiastic welcome, but mostly she gets insulted. She learns the importance of language in a virtual world: language as programming code, that the entire structure of her theater rests on; language as communication code, the basis for all social engineering practices, crucial in a world that presents itself as a space for socialization. She develops a weapon that punishes verbal offences, and calls it Don't Say - a tornado that traps and lifts up anyone using "inappropriate" words. Insults, in the main. Or critics' jargon.

These projects reveal a growing level of awareness, which is not only the result of her growing maturity, but also comes from dealing with a certain social context: artists, critics, curators. Gazira pieces it together: if Second Life is a theater, then she is a performer. Her "actions" use code which becomes an event, the language of performance: they are therefore code performances. Like all the other residents, Gazira records her adventures. When she starts seeing these as works of art, and other people start to recognise them as such, she produces a website. In December the members of Second Front [4], Second Life's first group of performance artists, approach her to invite her to join. A mutual friend, Sugar Seville, decides to buy a piece of land that can be made into a safe place for their work: this is the first nucleus of Odyssey, set to become one of the most interesting art environments in Second Life. A few months later, on 16 April 2007, Gazira opens a big exhibition in a newly opened museum-sized venue. It is called Gazira Babeli: [Collateral Damage]. There is a table with aperitifs, a catalogue, even a guest book. Given the size of the show, which presents twelve installations and a film, the term 'retrospective' is not presumptuous. In the two months that follow the show is visited by 1,178 real visitors: which means that 1,178 people have clicked, often more than once, on a link to visit it. Gazira Babeli exists and she is an artist.

GAZIRA, THE ARTIST

Being an artist means doing something that can be recognised by a community of people, be it big or small, as "art". The concept of art changes over time, so this acknowledgement comes about when the would-be artist references a tradition of practices and ideas that the community in question calls "art history". The concept of art is not something absolute, but a socio-cultural construct that can change over time. In a virtual world it is the same: art exists when there is an art world ready to embrace it. This world may share the value system adopted by other art worlds (for example the contemporary art world), but this is not strictly necessary [5]. In Second Life, an art world exists. In his essay for this book Mario Gerosa talks about a sizeable community of "unaware" artists, whose art becomes a "social connection", a factor for aggregation and recognition. Moreover, these artists shoot portraits of avatars in line with traditional aesthetic criteria; they fill the galleries of Second Life with works that lie midway between kitsch and popular taste. Gazira is not part of this world, and does not seek or obtain its approval. The art of the social networks feeds the illusion; Gazira ruptures it. Gazira does on occasion do kitsch portrait shots and voluptuous nudes herself, but she uses these in a completely different way.

Nudes Descending a Staircase is a work she created for Collateral Damage, in which a series of carefully framed nudes fall headlong down a marble staircase, ending up in a heap at her feet. With great irony, Gazira appears to be repeating Duchamp's diatribe against a form of art which confines itself to producing static images in a world which offers endless possibilities for action, and following up his battle against turpentine poisoning with a new battle against image poisoning. This is a work that comments on Second Life, reflecting good-naturedly on a world of gadgets that offers up the values of the "real" world to the letter; values that are entirely alien to its own internal logic. But this is a work that talks to those, like her, who acknowledge that Duchamp is one of the most important figures in contemporary art, and those, like her, who acknowledge the viral nature of the artistic act. Gazira Babeli is without a doubt well aware of these two genres: contemporary art and net.art, namely the art that exploits the conceptual potential and potential for signification that only viruses, codes and network protocols can offer. Hurling your body at great speed from thousands of meters up, until your computer's graphics card can take it no more and spews out a splatter of smashed polygons, replicated limbs and popping eyes (Come To Heaven, 2006) is an operation that sits perfectly with this tradition. It is Cubist fragmentation, and it is performance, in the sense attributed to the term by seventies artists like Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman (testing your own relationship with space and time, exploring your body's limits). It is checking out the limits of the machine, as Nam June Paik did and as Dutch duo Jodi do, and it is Software Art, formalized instructions that translate into an event.

We could make similar observations regarding many other works by Gazira Babeli.

Her "grey goo" attacks are an artistic version of the tactics adopted by the "griefers" the bad guy hackers of Second Life; but they also recall a number of ambitious landscape projects, like the orange fabric that Christo and Jeanne-Claude unfurled over Central Park in 2005. Unbroken Eggs (2007) is a monumental installation comprising two colored marble towers that collapse on top of the visitor as he or she passes, then resume their original position, in a constant cycle of death and resurrection. Once more code sparks off an event that would be impossible, in these conditions, in the real world, but the work, originally a tribute to Luciano Fabro, establishes a profound dialogue with his art, and explores form and sculpture, and the ethical value of creating art, as well as addressing a collective trauma - the collapse of the Twin Towers. Only in a virtual world can such an event be repeated ad infinitum without "collateral damage": only here it can be representation without ending in tragedy.

After looking at Gazira as the "ghost in the machine", a glitch in Second Life, in the essay that follows the American critic and artist Patrick Lichty points out that her lexicon is curiously "modern". As we have noted, for Gazira, as for Nanni Moretti, words are all-important. By calling her works "acts", "sculptures", "paintings" and "installations", Gazira performs a specific intellectual operation which has the aim of dissociating her works from the "New Media" jargon that is all the rage in Second Life. She thus frames her work in an artistic context that explores the concepts of the body, time, space, identity. All of her works require the active involvement of the viewer, but the word "interactive" never appears; everything is interactive in Second Life. At the same time, and for the same reason, Gazira has no interest in immersive environments, penetrable spaces, reactive installations, or exploiting or implementing the innate multimedia potential of Second Life's graphic engine. All of this is natural, just as flying and teleporting from one place to another is natural. What's new, in the context of virtual worlds, is being able to start talking about the body, time, space, identity once more. As usual Gazira sums it all up in a pointed one-liner: "For me net.art is like the wild Middle Ages of the internet... Second Life seems to offer a Renaissance Perspective." [6]

Everything (or almost everything) she does would be "impossible in real life": not because it is built in mid air, or because it challenges the fundamental laws of the static nature and permeability of bodies, but because - as Alan Sondheim asserts - it is intrinsically dangerous. The shower of frogs was one of the plagues of Egypt, and collapsing buildings, earthquakes and tornados often end in tragedy. While in Collateral Damage, the rogue critic who dares mention the words "New Media" will have the pleasant surprise of being lifted into the air by a tornado and hurled around the venue, all without any collateral damage, of course.

GAZIRA, THE WORK

Each of Gazira's works adds another facet to her persona, and her legend. A painstakingly cultivated legend, in the knowledge that in a virtual world, identity building is one of the main strategies of signification, and the avatar is the artist's very first work. "My body can walk barefoot, but my avatar needs Prada shoes", she once declared [7]. And while she has often exhibited nudity before a society which is highly sensitive to the issue of the naked body, she also dedicates great care to her appearance. Tanned skin, almost always dressed in black, her eyes are masked by a pair of dark glasses. She wears a strange top hat, which she often uses to carry her scripts in, and compared to other avatars, her gait is rather rigid. Some describe her as evasive and unfriendly, others as open and affable. The fact that she is not subjugated to a "real" identity has done a lot for the legend that surrounds her, but also to the concreteness of her persona. In Second Life you can meet loads of avatars but few people. Gazira is one of the latter. She is not someone's puppet: she is someone in her own right. As a total work of art, an overall artistic project, Gazira is the crowning of a century of work on identity building: from Rrose Selavy to Luther Blissett, passing Roberta Breitmore on the way [8]. But at the same time she is a cultural construct, a fictitious identity that in Collateral Damage can be purchased for just one Linden dollar, the equivalent of a few cents: a clonable, democratic body that we can all buy and use.

But maybe this is exactly what Buy Gaz 4 One Linden Dollar! intends to demonstrate: we can all be like Gazira, but Gazira herself is something very different; we can all own a Gazira, but the real Gazira will always elude us.

Her works represent an active contribution to the construction of this identity. They all help form a picture of an unpredictable, caustic performer, entirely capable of summarily rupturing the magic of the rite we are witnessing. All she needs to do is enter an exhibition and unleash a shower of bananas to free those in attendance from the illusion of taking part in a real opening, and to reveal its nature as a worldly ritual. In Ultimate Submission, she does the chicken dance, dressed only in a barrel - at the entrance of one of the biggest porn-fetish-S&M stores in Second Life [9], making an extreme (and sardonic) bid to join that world of synthetic beauties, but at the same time showing us just what they are and what we ourselves risk becoming: mere simulacra. In Who's Afraid of..., she does a sexy dance number in front of a series of art history beauties, from Rembrandt's Bathsheba to Botticelli's Simonetta Vespucci, brazenly comparing herself with the other works of art; and in Anna Magnani she tests out her acting talents, performing all the facial expression animations available in Second Life in quick-fire, random sequence.

Lastly, in the medium length film Gaz of the Desert (February - March 2007), Gazira actively contributes to writing her own legend, starring in a hagiographic version of her own story, along the lines of Simón del Desierto (1965) by Luis Buñuel. Gazira is subjected to a series of temptations by Satan, as well as some genuine attacks: erotic dances and locusts, hatchets and Kalashnikovs. At the end of a death sequence (real or faked?) Gaz reappears in a call center, sitting beside her stunning temptress, both at work. She is wearing a t-shirt which reads: "Fuck off. I'm scripting." An enthralling production, which presents the finest eye candy Second Life has to offer, though it is hardly recognizable as such, and a story which could be interpreted as a parable on the subject of "second lives" lived along a fine line between the seductive power of illusions and the awareness of reality [10].

GAZIRA, INSIDE AND OUT

After Collateral Damage, Gazira took herself off to a little island not far from Odyssey, that she has christened Locusolus. Here she has "archived" the entire show and created new works. The visitor or curious passer-by might encounter an atmosphere very similar to that of the villa of the same name belonging to Martial Canterel, the weird inventor in the Raymond Roussel novel [11]. Gazira has a lot in common with Canterel. Like him, she tries to carve out her place in the world by dominating nature, mediated by bizarre mechanisms that someone later termed "celibate machines". A different world, different nature. Ursonate in SL is an installation composed of a giant tap, which seems to suck up from the earth and spew out a plethora of assorted junk: toy cows, globes, merry-go-rounds, boats, vans, cars, balls and other bits and pieces. All in time to the ultra-famous Ursonate (1922 - 1932), the "phonetic poem" by the German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Gazira stages a visual interpretation of the Ursonate, but without sacrificing its intrinsic characteristic: experimenting with verbal language. Under this aspect Gazira also has a lot in common with Raymond Roussel. The latter wrote his books starting with a verbal game, the phonetic similarity of two different phrases, which he used to build complex images and narrations. Language as a generator of images, the first cog in complex mechanisms of meaning. Language as performance code, code as a linguistic act. Machines which are celibate, but not infertile.

Gazira Babeli, along with a few other artists, has given rise to a complex system of meaning in Second Life, a 3D simulated world entirely constructed and owned by its residents. Her oeuvre belongs to that world and speaks to that world. At present Second Life boasts around twelve million users, but it is not the only virtual world. The experience of life on screen is a common, widespread one. We do not know what the future holds for these virtual worlds, but we do know that their present is our present, even if we have never entered a virtual world, and never intend to. Which is where the challenge to leave Second Life comes in. Gazira has managed it on various occasions, taking part in exhibitions, touring and releasing her film. In October 2007 she took part in the project The Gate, a portal linking a real space (the iMAL Center in Brussels) and the virtual world of Second Life. From the real venue, the public could communicate and interact with her and anyone else who turned up in the area in front of the portal. The Gate provided Gazira with further confirmation of her existence. It showed her that even though humans are aliens, you can communicate with aliens. She holds a gun to the head of one in a cowboy hat. Another attempts an impossible dialogue then holds up a hand-written note reading: "I don't have a computer". What does it matter? You don't need a computer to understand Gazira. This is why she comes out of Second Life, in this book for instance. And this is why she will come out again.

 

Notes

[1] A quick guide: Second Life (www.secondlife.com) is a 3D persistent world on the internet entirely designed by its residents. The company that launched it in 2003 (Linden Labs of California) supervises it, collects the rent and updates the software, but leaves it up to the clients, or "residents" to develop it. Residents are those who adopt a virtual alter ego, known as an avatar, to frequent this world, using it as a platform for communications, social life and creative activities. In other words, they can chat to other users on line at the same time, have a drink, have sex, visit an exhibition and perform a host of other varyingly mundane "real life" rituals, without moving from their computers. They can also use internal 3D design and programming tools to build a house, and design clothes or other objects. If they wish, they can do this for a profit, selling what they make in exchange for the local currency, Linden dollars (which can be exchanged for real dollars). Some do art. At present Second Life has around 12 million residents. Each resident has an inventory, a section of the interface which lists all of his or her possessions. Geographically Second Life is divided into one main area (mainland) and a series of islands of different sizes; technically speaking the world resides on a number of servers, very powerful computers which keep a set area of territory online, 24/7. These portions are divided into independent areas known as sims or simulators; one server runs around four simulators. Polygons are the basis for 3D modelling, and are covered in texture, modular images which make the objects in question look more realistic. A script is a piece of computing code which makes something happen, a glitch is a computing error, something like a virus (purists will be horrified). And that just about rounds up the list of difficult words you will find in this book.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Answering the question: what is Enlightenment?, 1784.

[3] Gazira Babeli, "Memoria Burattinaia", 2007. Published in Il Sole24ORE [Ventiquattro Magazine], N 7, July 2007, pp. 76 - 78 entitled "La Grande Illusione".

[4] Second Front: http://slfront.blogspot.com/

[5] The concept of "art worlds" was put forward by Howard S. Becker in Art Worlds, University of California Press, Berkeley - Los Angeles - London 1982.

[6] In Tilman Baumgärtel, "My body can walk barefoot, but my avatar needs Prada shoes. Interview with Gazira Babeli", in Nettime, 23 March 2007.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For Luther Blissett, the multiple name that sparked a media frenzy in the 90s, see http://www.lutherblissett.net/. Roberta Breitmore was the fictitious identity created by American artist Lynn Hershman Leeson at the beginning of the 70s.

[9] The Latexia Space Station Mall, in the "Fetish VooDoo" region.

[10] Pau Waelder offers an interesting, highly detailed analysis of the film in his article "Day For Night", in Le Magazine électronique du CIAC, n. 28, 2007. Online at: //www.ciac.ca

[11] Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus, Editions Jean-Jacques Pauvert, Paris 1914.

 
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