Outside the Box

New-media pioneer Joseph DeLappe gets a retrospective in Sonoma

As technology and digital media take hold of our collective consciousness and international conflicts become increasingly fought with unmanned drones, artist Joseph DeLappe aims to challenge the status quo.

This month, several innovative and interactive highlights from DeLappe’s career come together for a new exhibit, “Memory and Resistance,” at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. DeLappe opens the show with an artist’s talk on April 15.

Sonoma Valley Museum of Art’s executive director Linda Cano first met DeLappe in 2014 when he was the director of digital media at the University of Nevada in Reno and she was working at the Fresno Art Museum. “We had an exhibition of his work, and he built a life-size drone on the campus of Fresno State out of 3D printing elements,” she says. Each section of the drone had the name of a civilian casualty from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.

Cano appreciated DeLappe’s art, and also his sensitivity in handling his subject matter. “It’s very serious work,” she says. “The work itself is provocative, but he himself is not provocative.”

When Cano came to the North Bay to work for SVMA a year ago, DeLappe was one of the first artists she considered featuring at the museum. “Joseph’s political commentary is a good match for the time, and his art is participatory,” she says.

While DeLappe’s installations include polygon cardboard sculptures of the Statue of Liberty and Gandhi, much of his work is more interactive, explains Cano. For one of his most famous projects, dead-in-iraq, DeLappe played the first-person shooter America’s Army, an online recruiting game, and typed in the name, age, service branch and date of death of each service person who had died in Iraq.

DeLappe’s most recent project, Killbox, is his most interactive to date—a two-player game named after the military term for an area targeted for destruction. One player acts as the drone operator, tasked with delivering a strike. The second player is the civilian on the ground bombarded by chaos. Players then switch roles and do it all over again. Rather than glorify violence the way many Call of Duty–type video games encourage, Killbox is a remorseful, horrifying vision of the reality of drone warfare.

Killbox was recently nominated for a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) award for Best Computer Game, and DeLappe, who is now professor of games and tactical media at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland, just last week received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

“I think this exhibit will be a little different for our community,” Cano says, “and I hope people come, participate and give us feedback about this new direction.”