In his 2008 interactive sci-fi game program War Mail, Jeremy Bailey reinvents e-mail to suit a far off, interstellar future. After an introduction by Bailey about this new world where space is endless and all distances are far, the live audience is shown their space ship which they will all be controlling. The crowd is given glo-sticks with which they (slowly and clumsily) direct their tiny triangular ship around the game screen with a very sci-fi user interface. Around the screen float several clusters of alien spaceships, each ship containing a letter or character (only ‘!,’ ‘?,’ and ‘$’ as Bailey explains those are the only punctuation we will use in the future). Bailey’s talking robot head floats in the center, watching the players’ ship. At the bottom of the screen in addition to the kill count which would be typical in a game like this, there is an outgoing e-mail message box addressed from Bailey to his mother with the subject line “Hi Mom!” The crowd is tasked with writing her a nice e-mail by shooting down the ships with the corresponding letters. They decide to write “god I miss you.” They rotate the ship by waving their sticks, sing a resounding “aah!” to propel the ship forward and clap to fire. With more than a little assistance from Bailey (“I know that you’re going to get good at this in the long run, you probably have at least 100 years to figure this out) they manage to write “goddd” instead. Bailey then explains that in order to send it, they have to take down the alien base ship. Bailey does this himself and, after starting and ending a brief interstellar war, the message is sent. He opens his Gmail account to prove it and remarks that his mother will be very disappointed.
Like most of his work, War Mail is both interactive and satirical. Marta Burugorri of “Institute of Network Cultures” describes his theme:
"He bases his work on the ironic hope in technology that his naïve character ‘Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey’ emphasizes in every new creation, turning all his discourse into a sweet parody of our current relationship with technology.” (Burugorri, Marta. (2013). Interview with media artist Jeremy Bailey.
On the surface, his works are always very bright, silly, and colorful with a futuristic sci-fi flare and this is no exception. He also seeks to explore how people use the internet and adds a more organic human interface. Most of his work is projected on a body, usually his, and moves with it, such as in his more recent works, Dialectical Software Gundam Suit (2009) and The Web I Want (2015). However, in this case, instead of this futuristic tech being projected onto a person, the people are projecting themselves into this fictional world. Whereas the vast majority of Bailey’s works are performed in bright, white rooms, this one is dark. He is usually alone, here there are many. So what does that mean, exactly? Considering the theme of the game is to shoot down many space crafts (therefore killing many friendly aliens, for the simple task of writing an email) one could argue it is about the little regard people, or perhaps corporations, have for the well-being of others if it means they get access to their pleasures and convenience. No one person has the power, except Bailey, and all of the participants are shadowed and faceless. This gives a “The Lottery” style feeling of not only anonymity, but also the sense that the destruction caused was not one single person’s fault so no one is to blame. This might also add the theme of conformity and assimilation. The fact it is in the form of a video game might also allude to the idea that video games have desensitized the population to the realities of war.
War Mail shares this same theme of cooperate greed and destruction with his other work done the same year Video Terraform Dance Party (2008). This also is an interactive, live software demonstration that relies on movement. Bailey creates a world by bobbing his head to move the cursor and sculpt a 3d rendered island. However, when his terraforming puts him several trillion dollars in debt, he cheerfully tells the prospective user that this can be fixed by building a military base on the island, firing missiles, and therefore destroying and reclaiming the countries he was indebted to, causing his income to skyrocket. In both works he speaks in his ever positive and cheerful “Famous New Media Artist” persona while nonchalantly causing widespread devastation through his flashy interface.
Both aesthetically and thematically, one might see similarities between this and Jonathan Monaghan’s Robot Ninja (2013). Visually they both appeal to a sleek, modern, futuristic aesthetic that harnesses technology in ways not yet possible. Both latch onto a video game style approach as Monaghan describes Robot Ninja as a hyper inflated depiction of masculine video game power but also as an expression of the culture of war. War is glamorized. War is greedy. War is about power and wealth. Perhaps these both comment on the culture and ideas surrounding war, particularly how video games affect this. Both first appeal to the viewer’s visual fascination and curiosity to these embellished futuristic world before subtly explaining what the implications of such a world are.
Propaganda games exist, though not in great number, and they are characterized my imposing an agenda on the player to make them think a certain way. They are not common, but some mainstream games have this same effect on a lower level, particularly when it comes to war and violence. The horrors of war are off screen and what is on screen is designed for fun, action, and competition. So is War mail. It’s presented like a new video game demonstration, showcasing its features in a fun, light hearted, entertaining light. The deaths of the innocent aliens are discounted and Bailey laughs it off as they beg for mercy on the bottom of the screen. What can be taken from this is a lesson to not allow ourselves to be desensitized by the glamorization and commercialization of serious and harmful institutions, in these cases war.
Thumbnail image courtesy of the Pari Nadimi Gallery