Gazira Babeli is an artist born in Second Life on 31 March
2006. Tall and willowy, her expressionless eyes hidden behind a pair of dark
glasses, she exudes a strange allure somewhere between voodoo priestess, drag
queen and X-men heroine. Of mixed race, she almost always appears dressed in
black, usually alternating between her performance outfit (a severe-looking
long black coat), and her more casual everyday look (t-shirt, mini-skirt,
fishnets and Doctor Marten boots). One thing she is never without, not even
when she takes everything else off, is her outlandish cone-shaped head gear,
a key part of her get-up, which as we will see, also has its own precise
Now we would not have concentrated for so long on Gazira's appearance if we had not read quite so
much on the grey attire of Joseph Beuys, his felt hat, and his shaman-like
presence. Gazira, who sees herself first and foremost as a performance artist,
is well aware of the fact that, from Beuys to Orlan, the body represents any
performer's first work of art, and that the construction of one's persona is
not a sideline, but a key part of the oeuvre. No details must be overlooked.
Life and art are one. But here there is also another level to consider. Gazira
Babeli lives and works in Second Life, a 3D virtual world launched by the
Californian company Linden Lab in 2003, and entirely constructed, owned and run
by its residents. The latter are conscious that their avatars are their first,
true creations, and dedicate much of their attention to their appearances. In
other words the specific characteristics of an artistic genre (in this case
performance art) are inextricably bound up with the internal logic of the
universe that hosts it, giving rise to a succession of superimposed layers we
will often come back to.
Living in Second Life
"We still don't understand what 'life' is and yet, we are
talking about a second one. One life at a time, please! Maybe these lives
(RL and SL) are not so different: symbolic abstractions and virtuality are
common attributes." 
Having said this, we should however note that Gazira's existence in Second Life is
radically different from that of all other residents. Second Life is an
alluring metaphor which aims to offer exactly that to its residents. If our
"first lives" are those in the real world, our second lives are played out in a
virtual world by our digital representations, or avatars. The latter exist in a
simulated world which largely reproduces the dynamics of the real world:
avatars go shopping, look after their houses and appearances, work, have sex
and travel. Most of the residents do all this in total acceptance of the
simulation, namely without realizing they are inhabiting an interface made up
of data, a world held together by code and script. When this awareness comes to
the fore, we can talk about a "third life", as Matteo Bittanti termed it in a
recent essay. In Bittanti's view, the third life is "the set of activities
carried out by a subject acting in Second Life through an avatar": "a subject
boosted by analogical and digital extensions and prostheses such as an avatar,
computer, keyboard and monitor." 
This subject is constantlyoverlaying practices of social life and programming practices or 3D modelling,
constantly combining the two levels of reality he or she inhabits: "the
analogical plane (first life) and digital plane (second life)". Gazira Babeli
operates on yet another level of life (and awareness). She does this, first and
foremost, by doing away with the first life: for Gazira, the subject - be it a
man or a woman - that created her, is not her 'real' alter ego, but simply the
stupid deity that manipulates the interface she lives in, the mysterious being
that governs her actions from on high. In this way, Second Life becomes her
real plane of action, and it is from this perspective that her radical
identification between social life and manipulation of code acquires meaning.
Living in any world means acting with an awareness of the rules that govern that
world. But the social conventions that rule the virtual world of Second Life,
just like the linguistic conventions that support its interface, only work on
the surface: the world that Gazira has chosen for herself is based on other
laws, those written in programming code.
This is why her performances are not based on acting - like any normal avatar - on the Second Life platform,
but on manipulating and activating its code. She is not a performer, but a
"code performer". She does not pretend, like everyone else, to be in a world
made of objects and atoms, but is aware of inhabiting a world made of code, and
being made of code herself. Performance art is always a critique of the norms
the surrounding world is based on. And Gazira operates precisely in this way,
which is why she appears like some kind of bizarre shaman to those who see her.
In all cultures, shamans have the power to enter into contact with the world of
primitive forces and mediate those forces. Gazira runs scripts as if they were
magic spells, unleashing earthquakes, natural disasters and invasions of pop
icons like plagues of locusts.
And as in Second Life every fragment of code has to have its own "physical" location, Gazira keeps her
scripts in her hat, her magic wand. She knows that the body is a construct, and
enjoys deforming it or rendering it interchangeable. She knows that space is an
illusion and she plays around with these contradictions. She knows that
"reality depends on our graphic card", and never misses a chance to call attention
to that. But she transfers everything onto the artistic plane, by means of what
she terms "performances", "sculptures", and "paintings". In this way she
introduces another level of action, another idiom to decodify and another set
of rules to subvert: those of the art world.
"Falling down from 21.987.0987 meters height is not so
safe in RL..." 
In October 2006 a minor apocalypse hit a beach in Second Life, burying it under a flood of
skipping Super Marios. In technical jargon this is called "grey goo", an
expression used in nanotechnology and science fiction to describe a
hypothetical apocalyptic scenario in which self-replicating robots consume all
living matter on the earth .
Although the cataclysm did generate a certain level of anxiety, Gazira appears to be more interested in
setting off a mental short circuit than a genuine system collapse. This was why
she populated the three-dimensional, baroque world of Second Life with the
definitive icon of the 8-bit era.
This process is evident in Kaspar Goo (November 2006), where she asks an actor to play the part of Caspar David
Friedrich's wanderer, going into raptures over the wonders of nature. It is
dawn, and our wanderer, in his wide-brimmed hat, watches the sun come up over a
fairy-tale scenario. The mimesis appears to be played out to perfection, till
the traveller's doubts appear in concrete form, embodied as a shower of
question marks sullying the horizon. A couple of days later Gazira showed up at
the opening of a show held in Ars Virtua , an exhibition dedicated to avatar
portraits by Eva and Franco Mattes (0100101110101101.org) . At a certain point the venue
filled up with bananas, and not just any old bananas, but a replica of the
banana created by Andy Warhol for the cover of The Velvet Underground's first
LP. It is hard to say whether this is a comment on the work of the Mattes (that's
all pop!) or a competition over who is most "pop art" of all. But above and
beyond this play of references, and observations about past art forms, which we
will return to later, Gazira displays her desire to intervene on the
surrounding space, in this case occupying it and revealing its conventional
nature by inserting elements which are completely "foreign" to the
three-dimensional illusion she lives in: out-sized two-dimensional objects
borrowed from language (the question marks) or visual communications (Super
Mario, Warhol's banana).
The spatial-temporal model of Second Life is a rather peculiar one. The force of gravity is present, but
residents can fly. There are dimensions, distances, journey times and speed
limits, but these can all be circumvented in an instant by teleporting. The
latter practice, mutated from science fiction, is based on an implicit pact:
the blind faith that, once activated, we will be teleported exactly where we
want to go: a "real" place which can be physically identified on a map.
COME.TO.HEAVEN (July 2006) was a performance which explored a
very simple hypothesis: what happens if, combating the force of gravity, I hurl
my body (or someone else's) from millions of meters at extremely high speed?
The result depends on the characteristics of the graphics board on the computer
being used. In some cases the polygons shatter, and the result no longer has a
human semblance, while in others the body appears to have gone through a kind
of turbine, with limbs multiplying and breaking up, and the body becoming a
messy pulp of flesh and hair. Exploiting the physical characteristics of her
environment, Gazira appears to be exploring various strands of twentieth
century art, and indeed she describes her work as a painting on the computer's
graphic card. At the same time the frame of reference can only be that of an
imaginary "flight" like Yves Klein's famous leap into the void.
Created on occasion of the exhibition [Collateral Damage] , U AreHere (April 2007)
consists in two sculptures which violate the pact of trust implicit in the
practice of teleporting. Or rather, they represent an overly-literal
application of the latter. The sculptures are two simple models on pedestals:
the first represents a desert with some archeological ruins, the other a room
with a window we can peep into to see what's inside: a banal-looking office
with a clock, a desk and a computer. By clicking on the models we are
transported into the setting in question: an arid, apparently infinite desert,
or a closed room with no way out. Have we been shrunk or just taken hostage
inside a "real" version of the setting represented by the two sculptures? We
will never know, also in view of the fact that to get out we cannot fly, but
have to use an internally-located device that we have to track down. But this
is of little importance, for in any case the spatial/temporal model of Second
Life has been violated. As for the office, for the time being we will only note
that while Gazira views Second Life as a sort of Dickian replica of the world
of Perky Pat , the real world (the room in which
our real body is linked to the world) is none other than another imaginary
Earthquakes are another obvious way of manipulating space. Here, as in the various "grey goo"
scenarios, it is fairly natural to think that Gazira is attempting a hack, or
"griefing" as they say in Second Life. But while this is undoubtedly bound up
with various attempts at artistically sabotaging a system - be it digital or
social - we get the impression that in recreating a real-world phenomenon
strangely absent from this virtual world which is so realistic in many other
aspects, Gazira is once more playing around with its reality coefficient.
"My body can walk barefoot, but my avatar needs Prada shoes." 
As well as taking center stage in performance art, in Second Life the body acquires some
very particular characteristics. On the one hand the user is aware of dealing
with a conventional representation of him or herself, a digital alter ego that
enables him to interact with the surrounding space and the other beings
present: nothing more or less than the little round faces used in the very
first graphic chatrooms. On the other hand relations with one's avatar soon
come to resemble those we have with our real bodies: it needs to be taken care
of, dressed, groomed, kept satisfied (mostly in terms of sex and having
drinks); it is inviolable and irreplaceable. In her work Gazira Babeli frees
the body of the avatar from these restrictions, and invites us to see it for
what it is: a representational convention that we are free to 'violate' at
will. Buy Gaz' 4 one Linden! (April 2007) enable us, for the symbolic
price of 1 Linden Dollar, to purchase Gazira Babeli's open source body:
we remain ourselves but we can use (and abuse) her black coat, her body, even
Second Life is full of twins: the avatars of the greenest residents, who have not yet learned to personalize
their bodies. This also recalls the world of Perky Pat, where the people, in
their drug-induced state, identify with a limited number of people, ending up
by being 'translated' into the body of Perky Pat or her boyfriend Walt. But
this work was also a more general reflection on the concept of identity,
something which is not only increasingly ambiguous, but which has now acquired
such importance that in Second Life it is a kind of social divider,
distinguishing crowds of newbies sharing the same stereotyped bodies, from an
elite of experts capable of displaying their own individuality.
Meanwhile Come Together (April 2007) explored the concept of the fusion of bodies.
The work is a pedestal surrounded by many coloured balls, which in Second Life
represent sexual relations. By clicking on these, the avatar is transported
onto the pedestal, where it merges into the bodies of the other visitors, in a
series of uncontrollable random movements. Once more symbols are subverted, and
the parody of a real action (sex) is converted into a kind of fusion with
synchronized movements only possible between avatars.
But the most radical violation is that of Avatar on Canvas (March 2007),
a series of three Francis Bacon paintings where the main figure has been replaced
by a three-dimensional chair. This is an implicit invitation to sit down, but
when we do, our avatar is subjected to hideously violent deformations (thus
completing the Bacon). At this point we can choose to leave then come back with
our usual appearance, or hang out in our new anamorphic but still entirely
Avatar on Canvas is in fact a watered-down version, in the guise of a work of art, of a theatrical
performance by Second Front  (a group of which Gazira is an active member) entitled
Spawn of the Surreal (February 11, 2007). On that occasion, Gazira incorporated
her deforming code into a few of the chairs set up for the audience of the
Second Front show. The audience members in question ended up being deformed
without any prior warning, and their consequent panic and embarrassment reveals
the - entirely irrational - sense of attachment that residents of Second Life
have with regard to their virtual bodies, deemed sacred and inviolable exactly
like our physical bodies.
Don't Say New Media!
"... a 'world in a valise'" 
Second Soup, performed in May 2006 (and recorded on video), sees
Gazira tackling a giant can of Campbell's soup, another pop art
icon. The artist is looking at it on a poster, when all of a sudden the can
leaves its paper domain and grabs hold of her. From that moment on she just
can't get rid of it. Gazira jumps, flies and runs, but the can always catches
up with her. Pop art as an irksome deity, a cumbersome legacy that we just
can't seem to shed? The penetrability of bodies in Second Life makes some of
the scenes amusing, but Gazira doesn't appear to be enjoying herself much. "You
love Pop Art - Pop Art hates you!", is the ironic subtitle to the piece.
In [Collateral Damage], Second Soup is presented as an installation of 5 soup cans
that are activated when the spectator gets too close. Globally, this piece is a
good starting point for considering the nature of Gazira's art. The performance
dimension is undoubtedly a key element, but there is more to it than that.
Gazira writes the code, runs it in person, and records her performances in
photo and on video just like any performance artist, from Marina Abramovic to
Vanessa Beecroft. But Gazira's performances are computing code, that the artist
offers on her site under Creative Commons license, so that anyone can use it.
She operates in a network environment (Net Art?). She writes code (Software
Art?). She uses legends and icons from pop culture (Pop Art?). In reality
Gazira's work is above and beyond these categories, or rather it resides in a
context where such distinctions no longer apply.
The comparison with Software Art would appear to be the most relevant in this case.
In a 2004 essay the German critic Inke Arns introduced the concept of the
performativity of code in software art, adapting it from John L. Austin's
theory of the linguistic act.
As Arns writes:
"... this performativity is not to be understood as a
purely technical performativity, i.e. it does not only happen in the context of
a closed technical system, but affects the realm of the aesthetical, the
political and the social. [...] Code thus becomes Law..." 
Arns concludes by observing that "software art directs our attention on the fact that our (media)
environment is increasingly relying on programmed structures." Gazira Babeli
does more than just operate inside our media environment. She lives there. The
code she writes transforms her environment, because her environment is made of
code. In other words there is a shift from performative code to performance.
When software artists write code they manipulate the environment of that
medium. When Gazira Babeli writes code she manipulates the world she lives in,
and undermines the illusion which that world is based on, the illusion that all
the residents (artists included) take great pains to maintain. She reveals the
secret behind the Perky Pat dolls and forces us to think about just why this
doll's house attracts us so much.
The use of code is however where any resemblances between the work of Gazira and New Media Art in general
end. It is no coincidence that Gazira does not relate that much to the other
artists in Second Life, and only if pressed will she reveal her relations with
net.art. Her references are Friedrich, Warhol, Bacon and Duchamp. At the same
time she always tries to link her works to traditional, recognized art forms:
painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance.
In [Collateral Damage], this is self-evident: Buy Gaz' 4 one Linden! is a mural; Avatar
on Canvas is a series of three paintings; U AreHere and Second
Soup are sculptures, and so on. Simply put, Gazira exercises the right to
"implement" these traditional forms using a series of possibilities ingrained
into the world she inhabits.
Nudes Descending a Staircase (April 2007) is an installation that ironically resolves the
contradictions raised by exhibiting a painting in a setting like Second Life.
It is a series of nudes printed on canvas, which fall off the wall and end up
in a heap at the bottom of a staircase. Now this is obviously an animation in a
virtual setting. And many of these works are interactive. But can we still talk
about "new media" and "interactivity" when the world we live in is a software
environment and the possibility to interact with things and people is one of
its most natural characteristics, a given? For Gazira these are terms that
should be banned from Second Life. But if you are tempted to use them,
then just don't do it during the show: you could be swept away by the current
version of Don't Say Tornado, a whirlwind that is activated when someone pronounces the words "new media". In
its own way, another interactive multimedia installation...
"...a portable desert" 
Another thing which really annoys Gazira, when it comes to Second Life and
virtual worlds in general, is our inability to get over the interpretational models
offered up thirty years ago by cyberpunk culture.
Constantly harking back to William Gibson's Cyberspace (1982) and Neal Stephenson's
Metaverse (1992) not only means hindering the development of new models, but
also neglecting the numerous metaphors for 'elsewhere' that have also had a
hand in shaping virtual worlds: from the Christian heaven to the island in The
Tempest, from Moore's Utopia to Carroll's Wonderland. Gazira's works make
constant references to these 'other' places (such as the heaven in
COME.TO.HEAVEN, which in [Collateral Damage] is accessible to all,
simply by typing "heaven me"). But it is in the short Gaz' of the desert
(2007), and the other works closely connected to this that references to a
specific vision of 'elsewhere' are put forward with the force of a statement of
And this elsewhere is none other than the "surreality" conceived by the surrealists in
1924, and explicitly referenced in the title of the Second Front performance.
In other words Gazira Babeli asserts that Second Life is a 3D manifestation of
our collective subconscious, an imaginary sphere where body and space reveal a
new dimension, where the notions of cause and effect cease to apply and where
the succession of events is rapid, irrational and gratuitous, like a flow of
thoughts. Second Life is a new mental space, where even an invasion of pizzas
which spurt tomato sauce in all directions and sing "O Sole mio" when trodden on
(SingingPizza, 2006) can be accepted; a dream-like landscape where space becomes
animated, as in the installation [Collateral Damage] = [Pizzaiolo!!!] +
[Devil's Right Hand] (2007), a stage where a pizza spatula and a guitar
play ping pong with pizzas and vinyl records, which when they hit someone in
the audience, project him or her to a space in front of an audience forced to applaud.
This is a place where, like in our dreams, our bodies can undergo sudden metamorphoses,
and an image or a sculpture can unexpectedly become a real space, an infinite
desert that can be explored in all directions.
In this desert - the "portable set" of Gaz' of the Desert, which also appeared in U AreHere -,
amid dawns and sunsets of overwhelming beauty, Gazira retreats, like Simeon the
Stylite (the hermit who gave rise to that singular ascetic practice of spending
a spiritual retreat seated atop a column)  to take on the temptations of the devil,
interpreted in the film by the stunning Chi5 Shenzhou. Perched on her column in the driving
rain, Gazira holds out for as long as she can, but in the end she is forced to
give in. Only then are we catapulted into the anodyne setting of a call center
(the office of U AreHere), where between calls Gazira appears to be busy
putting together her story: imprisoned in the "world in a valise" she has
chosen to live in, in her own surreal reality.
 Gazira Babeli, in Wirxli Flimflam, "Gaza Stripped. Interview with Gazira Babeli", in Slate Magazine, January 2007.
 See Matteo Bittanti, "[Introduzione]", in Mario Gerosa, Second Life, Meltemi, Rome 2007. P. 14.
 Gazira Babeli, in Wirxli Flimflam, quoted.
 See the definition of "Grey Goo" in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grey_goo
 13 Most Beautiful Avatars, curated by Marisa Olson. See http://0100101110101101.org
 Gazira Babeli, [Collateral Damage]. Second Life Works 2006 - 2007, ExhibitA Gallery,
Odyssey (38, 30, 23). April 16, 2007.
 See Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, 1964. In the
novel the Perky Pat dolls are simulacra that, when associated with the use of a
hallucinogenic drug, Can-D, enable earthlings deported to Mars to be
temporarily "translated" into an imaginary world where they can experience an
existence similar to their terrestrial lives through the body of Perky Pat, a
 Gazira Babeli, in Tilman Baumgärtel, "'My body can walk barefoot, but my avatar needs Prada shoes'.
Interview with Gazira Babeli", in Nettime, March 23, 2007, online at
 Second Front(http://secondfront.org) is an international collective of
performance artists established in Second Life on November 23, 2006. See
Domenico Quaranta, "A Leap Into the Void. Interview with Second Front", in Rhizome.org,
March 1, 2007, http://rhizome.org/thread.rhiz?thread=24830&page=1#46877
 Gazira Babeli, in Wirxli Flimflam, quoted.
 Inke Arns, "Read_me, run_me, execute_me: Software and its discontents, or: It's the
performativity of code, stupid!" In: Olga Goriunova / Alexei Shulgin (eds.), Read_me.
Software Art and Cultures Conference, Aarhus: University of �rhus (DK)
2004, pp. 176-193. Available online
 Gazira Babeli, in Tilman Baumgärtel, quoted.
 Gazira took her inspiration from Simón del desierto, the 1965
Luis Buñuel film dedicated to Saint Simeon.