In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have turned to virtual spaces for solace and connection in an unpredictable world. With its low-stakes gameplay, virtual crafting and exploration, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been a source of self-care for many people around the world, but also for activists involved in political movements.
A new art exhibit curated by Ciel Noel from the University of Manitoba’s School of Art takes place inside Animal Crossing and explores the tension between activism and self-care.
Battleax Bunny, the user handle of another School of Art student, designed the Paws: Protest, Activism, Whimsy and Self-Care (PAWS) exhibit in-game while never having played Animal Crossing before.
The exhibit is “set up like an open-air gallery,” she says. “You can’t build enclosed spaces. So it’s sort of like walking through a sculpture gallery, in a sense, where it’s open air. You can relax. You can sit. You can take in the exhibit.”
One of the inspirations for this exhibit was the Hong Kong protests, some of which took place in Animal Crossing. Joshua Wong, one of the organizers of the Umbrella Movement, is celebrated in PAWS through umbrella art in the exhibit and a collection of umbrella game items.
“We use these kind of limited tools that Nintendo provided to define an art space and talk about the kind of art that’s happening in Animal Crossing, with a focus on how people related to activism and protest, but also the reflective topic of self-care and expression,” Noel says.
Johanna Hedva, a chronically ill American theorist, had written extensively previous to the COVID-19 pandemic about how self-care is a radical act for people who can’t necessarily engage in physical protest due to disability or chronic illness. This inability to leave home in order to manage personal health has become a worldwide issue, which makes Animal Crossing a good place to protest and for PAWS to engage in larger ideas about activism and self-care.
“At some point, you actively have to put your safety on the line in different forms of activism, including the kind that inspired the exhibition,” Noel says. “The protests that happened on an (Animal Crossing) island by a player in Hong Kong, after Hong Kong went into quarantine ... They used Animal Crossing to continue” protesting.
Noel says that, while working on these activist movements, “many people have to make different decisions around the intersection of self-care and protest. When it comes to their safety, ‘How far do I go? What do I put on the line? And what do I do to take care of myself?’”
She says that, as a Black and mixed-race person engaged in Black activism, she’s had to choose when to engage in the physical effort.
“It’s not always the most just thing for you to be out in the streets. If we’re trying to preserve quality of life for different people, sometimes it’s best for some folks to be able to be at home or be fed,” Noel says.
This digital-art activism allows visitors to engage in these ideas, explore on their own terms and see how the digital world can function both as escape and a radical mode of expression. Those without Animal Crossing are able to engage with this exhibit through a video tour.
Take a video tour of PAWS at umanitoba.ca/art/paws or find it in Animal Crossing at DA-5260-9503-9239.
Published in Volume 75, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 25, 2021)