Drifting and Imaging in Second Life: John Craig Freeman’s ‘Imaging Beijing’ (2006)


Session Title:

  • Avatars and Virtual Spaces

Presentation Title:

  • Drifting and Imaging in Second Life: John Craig Freeman’s ‘Imaging Beijing’ (2006)




  • In this paper, I will discuss the way in which the existence of the dérive is possible in Second Life and how this is demonstrated by John Craig Freeman’s “Imaging Beijing.” Freeman is a contemporary American artist from Boston, Massachusetts. His “Imaging Place” is an ongoing place-based work combining photography, video, documentary and virtual reality. It began in 1997 as an exploration of the forces of globalization, and was installed in the virtual setting of Second Life in 2006. Freeman’s overall project and its individual components such as “Imaging Beijing” can be analyzed through Jean Baudrillard’s 1983 essay

    “Simulacra and Simulations,” particularly his notion of the simulation. Most importantly, “Imagining Place” assesses the realization of the dérive in Second Life.

    The mid-1960s Situationist theory of the dérive explains that in order for a social change to arrive, subjects must re-experience the activities of daily life. Guy Debord, writing of an era characterized by the soaring popularity of television viewership and the wild proliferation of commercial media and advertising, noted that society itself was being transformed by technology.  His Society of the Spectacle (1967) describes this emergence of consumer society and proclaims that the spectacle that dehumanizes us. One of Debord’s proposed solutions was the dérive, which was to arouse in subjects an increased interest in the geography of the city. Most evocatively, the dérive was to create new encounters that were not otherwise possible, and through this allow for to positive social change.

    Freeman follows Debord to critique our contemporary social geography as defined by computers and the Internet. Viewers encounter his work through an avatar that takes the role of the dérive’s psychogeographer and allows for a new awareness of the terrain. For example, in “Imaging Beijing,” the player’s avatar enters the city through satellite images and experiences it through panoramic documentary photographs. Focus on Beijing’s Hutong neighborhoods calls attention to the communities and individuals that bear the brunt of rapidly expanding globalization.  I find that Freeman’s insistence on active versus passive viewership is in alignment with Debord’s hopes for the dérive.

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