work 2

Gaz of the Desert, by Gazira Babeli (Second Life), 2007


"... Simon of the desert, who is the most free man on Earth (...) because he has and does what he wants, without any obstacles. He is there on top of a column, eating lettuce. Total freedom."
Luis Buñuel 1

Gaz of the Desert is a machinima piece created entirely in Second Life by the avatar artist Gazira Babeli 2. Loosely based upon Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert (1965), this 23-minute film presents the artist herself as an ascetic who has decided to live on top of a column, in the middle of the desert. She protects herself with an umbrella from the rain that is constantly pouring from a lonely cloud floating over her head: the image reminds us of the classic Pink Panther cartoons. The stylite is visited three times by the Devil, in the form of a young woman (played by Chi5 Shenzhou) who, as in Buñuel's film, tries to persuade her to give up. As there are no dialogues in this movie, the interaction between the two characters is played out in their gestures (mostly those of the Devil) and their gazing at each other. In the first visit, the Devil appears at dawn wearing a black dress and dances to a tune by blues musician Skip James (himself a loner and quite spiritual person), Keep your Lamp Trimmed and Burning. Gazira ignores her and she leaves. In a second visit, at night, a whole temple suddenly rises around the stylite's column, creating a platform on the same level on which she stands. The Devil comes again, naked, and dances seductively under the moonlight, then reappears dressed with a black leather apron and a gas mask, and threatens Gazira with two butcher knives. Nothing ensues, and then the whole structure and the visitor disappear. During the day, several large spiders gather around the base of the column, and also a short man smoking a cigar (played by Beavis Palowakski) sits there, staring at the stylite. At night, the Devil pays Gazira the third and last visit, this time driving a motorcycle, looking like a cross between Lara Croft and Tank Girl and heavily armed. She tries to throw a missile towards the column but fails. She then generates several explosions, which don't seem to affect the stylite. Finally, the Devil appears on top of column, holding Gazira in her arms. They teleport. Gazira and the Devil now appear as workers in a call center, sitting in their cubicles while being observed by the short man, who appears to be the boss. Several other characters are working in the claustrophobic office dominated by a big clock. At her terminal, Gazira takes some time to work on her story, the same film we have just watched.

Created between February and March 2007, this movie belongs, both in concept and form, to the creative universe of Gazira Babeli, an inhabitant of the 3D online digital world Second Life 3. The avatar was born on March 31st, 2006 and has since developed an artistic practice that combines the fields of performance and software art: in fact, she considers herself a "code performer". As a character with a physical appearance within this virtual world, Babeli enacts performances that subvert the usual behavior of Second Life avatars (mostly mirroring those of a shopping mall visitor in any Western city). But also, as a coder, she is able to transform the rules that govern the simulation and thus intervene in the environment in ways that are unimaginable in the real world. She can create earthquakes and tornados, summon a plague of Marios and singing pizzas, or elevate to heaven. Within the logic of Second Life, she can make miracles. Gazira thus presents herself in this film as the ascetic saint who lives on top of a column, away from the ordinary world. Using the same words with which Buñuel refers to Simon, we could state that she can "do what she wants, without any obstacles". She has "total freedom", but that cannot last: a fellow avatar will come for her and take her to a more "productive" environment, within an established system. The metaphor can be both applied to real life as well as to Second Life, where disturbing or inappropriate behavior (such as being naked in a public space) will lead to the avatar being expelled. In Buñuel's film, Simon makes miracles (which meet the indifference of the people who witness them) and rejects the goods and the intrinsic values (such as private property) of the world that surrounds him. In his solitary existence, fifteen meters above the ground, Simon embodies the metaphor of what the online simulation promises: a space of freedom (limited to its own confines), away from the world yet linked to it. The sudden lack of financing led Buñuel to conceive a way to conclude his film, a brilliantly abrupt and anachronistic ending in which both Simon and the Devil appear in a dance club in New York. Simon wants to leave, but the Devil tells him, as she joins the dancers: "you must stand until the end". In Gazira's film, both characters are teleported (a common form of transportation in Second Life, which is represented by a progress bar) to the call center, rather a Purgatory than the Sabbath of Buñuel's film, and there it seems that Gazira will also have to "stand until the end".

Both Buñuel and Second Life are key references in this film, which in turn connect to Babeli's practice. Collateral Damage, a retrospective of her work, was shown recently at the ExhibitA gallery on the Odissey simulator, displaying several pieces which denote her tendency to establish references between her work and the tradition of modern and contemporary art: Yves Klein, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp are some of the artists to whom Babeli refers in her artworks. The influence is clearly marked, as if the pieces would not be understood or appreciated as "art", were they not in this frame of reference. On one side, this explains why Babeli has decided to base her first movie upon the work of Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, and on the other it contributes to separate this film from other machinima pieces. The artworks by Gazira Babeli can usually be labeled as painting, sculpture, installation or performance, even though they introduce elements that place them beyond the limitations of these disciplines. This also applies to Gaz of the Desert being considered a movie. The artist herself states: "the only thing I really can't stand in SL is going to the movies. I find it very disturbing for an avatar who is already living in a film-like environment" [5]. Babeli included in her retrospective show two sculptures titled U Are Here, which reproduce the settings of the movie: the desert and the office. By clicking on them, the viewer gets teleported inside these locations and is offered the chance to experience the same situations pictured in the film while trying to find a way out. By means of these artworks, the movie extends beyond its own narration and inserts the viewer into it. Gazira Babeli also included cameo appearances of several fellow avatars in the last scene, thus connecting the film to the world of Second Life by giving a status of celebrity to other users. In contrast to other machinima films, Babeli creates a movie that does not obviate the simulated world in which it is made: it is not just a movie made in Second Life, but a movie about Second Life and its promise of being a space for freedom and creativity.

Gaz of the Desert is in conclusion a new form in which Gazira Babeli explores the creative uses of this simulated world. It is cinema in the same way that the other works are paintings or sculptures. Being aware that Second Life is a "film-like environment", as she states, Babeli reinforces the identity of her movie by linking it to traditional filmmaking (the reference to Buñuel's film, although it is not mentioned anywhere in the credits), staging a premiere (red carpet included) in the desert setting and including cameos, as mentioned before. Despite being visually appealing (the simulation enables to create stunning scenarios) and well directed, the film does not innovate in form but rather in context. Compared to other artworks, which deconstruct the very logic of the film by introducing interactivity, simultaneity or turning image into data, Babeli's movie is quite conventional, yet it finds its meaning in the integration with the virtual world it belongs to: it thus becomes, in a broad sense, a film within a film.

1 : Excerpt from an interview by Tomás Pérez Turrent and José de la Colina, published in Buñuel por Buñuel. Ediciones PLOT, Madrid, 1993.  

2 : See  

3 : See Second Life's website.  

4 : Tilman Baumgärtel, "My body can walk barefoot, but my avatar needs Prada shoes. Interview with Gazira Babeli", in Nettime, March 23rd, 2007.  

Pau Waelder

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