Gazira Babeli
Code Performer
Submit To The Gods
Pau Waelder, CIAC's Electronic Magazine , 2008

You must teleport to get there. Up in the sky above Locusolus Island [1], hidden among the clouds, stands the solemn appearance of a Greek temple. Its solid columns of white marble reflect the sunlight at dawn, the sober beauty of the Doric order multiplied all over the peristyle. Despite the limitations of 3D objects in Second Life and its simple texture patterns, the building brings to mind the majesty of what once were the houses of the gods. Yet the sign on the pediment that reads "Olym Pong" with its neon glow makes the place look more like a kitschy theme park entrance of a casino hotel in Las Vegas.

When approaching the temple, one notices the big black marble tile that blocks the entrance. It is, though, possible to slip inside by walking through the narrow space between the tile and the wall. Unlike a real Greek temple, the building has a single, square room with four openings, one on each wall, all of them covered by black tiles. In the center of the room, an eternal flame burns inside a small torch. As one moves close to it, a puff of smoke suddenly pours out and a text message informs the visitor that one of the gods intends to "pong" him or her (or it). The black tiles slide nervously sideways, following the movements of the visitor's avatar. When trying to exit the temple through any of the openings, one of the black tiles blocks the avatar and sends it bouncing back into the room, sometimes hitting another tile and thus being violently thrown across the squared space. The battering continues until the tiles are once again inert. The game is over. The gods are pleased.

Olym Pong (2008) is a work by Gazira Babeli [2], an avatar artist who has been living in Second Life since 2006. Babeli disrupts the simulated reality of this online virtual world by writing scripts that, either run by the avatar herself in what she has called "acts" or attached to an object and triggered by other user's actions, generate unexpected situations that playfully alter the order of things. Although Second Life (SL) is marketed as a world limited only by one's imagination [3], it is in fact governed by many rules and constraints, with the aim of creating an environment that mirrors the real world, particularly on the social and economic level. An avatar can move around this world, chat with others, alter its appearance, create objects, fly and teleport, but soon the user finds that he or she must spend some Linden Dollars in order to have better looks, own land or complex objects, and that any interaction with another avatar must follow a code of conduct.

Babeli, in the manner of an early twentieth century avant-garde artist, tries to push the conventions of Second Life to their limits, forcing her audience to admit that the virtual world is, in fact, an illusion. Such an idealistic attitude reminds us of the dadaists' disbelief in society, but also of the early works of the group, which sought to criticize the web using the medium's own resources. Gazira Babeli herself claims to be part of this lineage by stating:

"for me is like the wild Middle Ages of the Internet... Second Life seems to offer a Renaissance Perspective". [4]
If, as some have claimed, Second Life is the model for the future World Wide Web, then Gazira is one of its first net artists. And just as members used html code, javascript, ASCII and search engines to create their works, Babeli uses Second Life's source code. This enables her to control everything inside the simulated world and turn it upside down. If artists such as JODI [5] or Jimpunk [6] experienced with controlling the browser window or the user's operating system, Gazira can go one step beyond by altering a world that is made of code but perceived as a reality. Her works move mainly around two coordinates, one being the experience of the user through the avatar (related to perceiving SL as a real space) and the other a reflection on the possibility of making art in Second Life. Babeli defines herself as an artist, so she is arguably forced to use the conventions of the art world in her practice. If, as stated above, all of Second Life is a mirror of the real world, then the art scene in this simulation also evolves in conventional locations such as exhibition spaces run by an artistic community and uses common terms such as "exhibition", "performance" or "sculpture" to define its products. Gazira's work establishes constant references to 20th century art, from Dada and Duchamp to Pop Art, in artworks that are presented as installations or sculptures but engage the visitor in unusual ways. By using these references, Babeli accomplishes to place her work in the context of art history while at the same time playing with the expectations of its audience: instead of adopting the usual, passive contemplation of the artwork, the visitors find themselves engaged in a (usually unpleasant) interaction with the object, that just won't stand still. In Avatar On Canvas, for instance, the user is invited to "sit" on a chair placed in the middle of a canvas imitating a painting by Francis Bacon. When doing so, a script automatically deforms the avatar's body, shaping it into a convoluted figure, which evokes the style of the British artist. This and other works break the (polite) distance between the artwork and the spectator, not only allowing the latter to modify the artwork by means of an interface, but merging the two in ways that are beyond the control of the visitor. Gazira takes control over the environment and the avatar itself, thus controlling the spectator, who will experience total submission in the name of art. Domenico Quaranta considers this form of control a distinctive trait of Gazira Babeli's work, to the point of proposing a verb derived from the artist's name:
"Gaz /gaz/ verb (...) 2. [fig.] Remove an avatar from its self-imposed state of immaturity, by showing 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". [7]
Therefore, the visitor is "gazzed" by the artwork, realizing, as the body of his avatar is transformed, that Second Life is nothing but a simulation made of code, which can therefore be hacked. Babeli's hack reverses the usual distribution of roles in the relationship between human and machine (the user controls the system by means of the interface) and takes the spectator to admit who is really in control.

If Gaz becomes a verb, so does Pong. The avatar artist applies her particular form of control to one of the first and most influential video games ever created: to "pong" is thus to send an avatar bouncing from one side to another of a confined space by means of a series of sliding tiles. On one side, by placing this game in the context of a temple, Babeli brings the notion of fate in Greek mythology (the destiny of mortals being determined by the decisions of the gods) to a virtual world of supposedly unlimited possibilities. And on the other side, she pays homage to the history of video games, reminding us that Second Life is in fact derivative of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft. In this sense, if SL is the ultimate video game, a game with no rules in which every player can set his or her own objectives, the Pong is its ancestor. The game that Nolan Bushnell designed in 1972 has earned its place in video game culture and can be considered, according to Andreas Lange, a "myth": as the exhibition Pong.mythos [8] shows, it has become a reference for many artists, extending its influence beyond the realm of arcade games. Revered as a classic of its genre, it embodies the simplest form of interaction with such an engaging game play, that it constitutes a critique to today's videogames with their complex graphics and realistic 3D environments. It is therefore logical that, when the gods decide to play with the avatars, they choose Pong. The visitor who dares to enter the home of the gods will be subject to their cruel battering and realize that the avatar is just a pawn in this game: a pawn that is usually controlled by the user, who identifies with it, but which can be also controlled by others. Gazira Babeli moves away from the references to contemporary art in this work in order to reflect on the subject of control, the Greek gods being the perfect metaphor for the invisible forces that dominate over a simple mortal's will. It is in fact the code that allows her to shape this reality, but just as code is here hidden behind the appearances of real objects, so do her hacks need to be presented in a way that is understandable for the user and not perceived as a malfunction of the program. OlymPong is therefore a environment that "gazzes" the users into understanding that the possession of their avatar, as everything in Second Life, is an illusion, and that they will have to submit to whatever "the gods" decide -be it Linden Labs or anyone who, as Gazira, controls the code.



[1] Olym Pong's Second Life location

[2] Gazira Babeli's Website:

[3] See Second Life: What is Second Life?

[4] Quote from Gazira Babeli, in Domenico Quaranta (ed.), Gazira Babeli, Brescia: Fabio Paris Editions, 2008, p.65.

[5] JODI's Website:

[6] Jimpunk's Website:

[7] Domenico Quaranta, in Domenico Quaranta (ed.), Gazira Babeli, Brescia: Fabio Paris Editions, 2008, p. 67.

[8] Andreas Lange, "Exhibition Concept", at

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