The Second Life of Sacred Sites
Ute Eickelkamp put me onto a really fascinating article that appeared recently about legal and cultural issues arising due to real world locations being recreated in the online world Second Life. The question of how to apply copyright is raised, but more interesting from my point of view is the controversy surrounding Teltra’s reproduction of a virtual Uluru without the permission of the traditional owners of the original, the Anangu people. The article reports that:
Designers of the BigPond site included a scaled down Uluru, with a barrier to stop people walking or flying over the sacred site. However, representatives of the traditional owners, the Anangu people, warned that even with the restrictions it may be possible to view sacred sites around Uluru, although they were continuing to investigate the issue.
Concerns have also been raised that Uluru and the opera house could be exposed to digital vandalism, following an attack on the ABC’s Second Life island earlier this week.
A spokesman for Telstra confirmed the company had not sought the permission of Uluru’s landowners.
Legislation has been in place to limit photography, filming and commercial painting at Uluru for 20 years, with tight restrictions on what is and is not allowed.
Capturing images of parts of the northeast face of Uluru is banned and all pictures taken of that part of Uluru must be submitted to the landowners for approval.
While visitors in the game cannot touch Uluru or fly over it, they can virtually fly in the no-fly zone to the northeast and take snapshots.
However, while the rules governing photography, filming and paintings have been in place since 1987, a spokesperson from National Parks said the issue of digital images online had never been raised before.
National Parks, which administers the area on behalf of the traditional landowners, now has lawyers looking at Uluru in Second Life and is considering sending a delegation to meet landowners to discuss the situation.
This article raises a lot of really interesting questions about the relationship between the digital technology, the sacred and cultural rights. It’s worth noting that the Anangu people’s reaction is not to the unauthorised reproduction of Uluru but also because of unauthorised visiting and viewing of secret/sacred parts virtual rock itself. But given that this is just a digital model, in what sense are these virtual visitors seeing secret/sacred objects or sites? Unlike a photograph, a digital copy has no indexical relationship to the original — no physical connection between sign and referent. But nevertheless the Anangu are expressing a real concern about unauthorised people seeing what they’re not supposed to and going where they’re not supposed to. The magical umbilicus between the two remains, it seems, and actions in a virtual world appear to be capable of damaging the sacred qualities of the original.
I don’t know a great deal about phenomenology of ritual and production of sacred sites in Aboriginal socieites, but it seems like an interesting case to explore how these are being rearticulated in response to the challenges presented by new technologies.
On Monday Ute will be hosting a round-table discussion about this article in her Art and Culture course here at Macquarie. I might go along and see if I can learn some more about this.