It has been said that life imitates art, though the reverse could be argued effectively, too.
Despite which version of the old trope serves one’s unique manifesto, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art’s latest installation, “Memory and Resistance: The Work of Joseph DeLappe,” offers new proof of both.
Last week, as the U.S. carried out airstrikes on Syria, museum staff were un-crating DeLappe’s pacifist works. In a timely juxtaposition, media met muse – the result is a must-see exhibit that forces reflection.
A native of San Francisco recently expatriated to Scotland, DeLappe has been working with electronic and new media for more than 25 years. From a critically-acclaimed computer game exploring the cost and consequences of drone warfare (“Killbox”), to 2006’s provocative “dead-in-Iraq,” for which the artist’s avatar listed the names of America’s 4,484 Iraq war casualties while “playing” a defense department video game used for recruitment, DeLappe has never shied away from controversy, and his unblinking focus on might-versus-right has allowed him an international footprint.
Part exhibition, part performance art, DeLappe’s work has shown in many first-world democracies: Australia, England, Sweden and Canada. But he has exhibited, too, in geopolitical hotspots where dissent is discouraged: Mexico, Peru, Spain, even China.
SVMA director Linda Cano describes his art as both interactive and provocative.
“DeLappe’s pioneering work, located at the crossroads of protest art, gaming, and technology, addresses the central moral issues of today,” said Cano.
Deeply affected by the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, DeLappe set off on a mission to incite public conscience.
“I’ve been developing creative responses to our ongoing political situation in the world,” DeLappe said. “Hopefully in ways that sort of cut through the fog.”
Through image, electronics and outright subversion, he pokes the slumbering bear of citizen apathy.
In 2013, DeLappe rode a specially-equipped bicycle around Nellis Air Force base in Las Vegas, chalking a 460-mile circle around an area large and sunny enough to provide solar power for the entire U.S. – that is, if its purposes were appropriated from the military for infrastructure. In 2012, the artist authored a job posting on Craigslist for Bashar Al Assad, titled “Dictator Seeks New Job!” While boastfully claiming expertise in “all aspects of despotic rule, including torture, general corruption… and the nepotistic dictatorial sector,” DeLappe’s fictional Syrian strongman also demonstrated a cheeky willingness to negotiate – agreeing to consider “work as a babysitter, dogwalker, prison guard or stand-up comedian.”
When asked whether his brand of artistic subterfuge has ever drawn unwanted attention from the powers that be, DeLappe shrugs, nonchalant.
“I have received verbal threats via messages and comments and news stories. People questioning my patriotism,” he said. “But I’m very critical of the art world’s response in the U.S. to the politics of the last 20 years or so. I think it’s been rather pathetic.”
Of SVMA’s willingness to showcase his work, DeLappe is staunchly complimentary. “I think it’s rather risky for them, considering they’re donor-based.”
Among the more visually striking components of “Memory and Resistance” is a large collection of canvases titled “Thrift Drone.” Each of the 100-plus canvases was culled second-hand from a thrift store, selected first for its overall visual interest, and next for the image’s sliver of wide open sky. In each of those blank places DeLappe placed a military drone, a montaged, almost cartoonish, Predator or Reaper. The subtext of “Thrift Drone” is as plain as it is powerful: Big Brother is everywhere, and he’s watching you.
Joseph DeLappe in conversation with Dorothy R. Santos
When: April 15, 2 p.m.
Meet the artist on opening day of “Memory and Resistance” for a firsthand account of how technology can be optimized to extend and transform military and political power.
Admission: $15/$12 members
Regular Hours: Wednesdays through Sunday, 11 am - 5 pm.
Art+Technology: Arduino Maker Workshops
When: April 29, 1 to 5 p.m. (ages 12-plus) and May 13, 1-5 p.m. (adults)
Maker Fair blue-ribbon recipient Greg Ames leads investigations into electronics and digital programming. Working with Arduino components, learn, invent and create in Ames’ “technology playground.” Admission: $65/$58 members
Maker Camp: A Collision of Art and Technology
When: June 12 to 16. 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (ages 10-plus)
A week-long “maker” intensive where students create digitally coded creations using robotics, Arduino platforms, programmed LED installations, and 2-D reflective art making. Imagination and curiosity meet 21st-century skills. Admission: $340/$290 members