PAWS: Protest, Activism, Whimsy and Self Care in Animal Crossing belongs to a burgeoning era in art exhibition. Curated by second-year school of art student Ciel Noel, not only is PAWS completely digital, but actually takes place entirely within the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.
It has been almost a year since New Horizons was released for Nintendo Switch. Since then, the world has witnessed massive social and political movements, as well as the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. These events led many individuals to come together in this time of need, but left others burnt out and in need of escape — enter New Horizons’ timely release here.
Since its release in March 2020, the laidback nature of New Horizons has made players turn to this adorable, customizable game as a way to escape from the stressful realities of the real world, maintain connections during worldwide lockdowns and as a mode of self-expression. The gaming platform has also since become an unlikely site of activism and, now, art exhibition.
Battleax Bunny, PAWS’ island designer, said, “I think [Animal Crossing] opened up a lot of connections for people […] it created some accessibility despite the fact that we couldn’t go anywhere.”
Noel was researching online exhibition spaces through her work-study position with the School of Art Gallery, which led her to discover the game as a potential alternative. She was particularly inspired to investigate Animal Crossing specifically as a platform for art and activism after witnessing the protests occurring in Hong Kong in 2019. When these protests were shut down by China’s government, protesters turned to games to continue protesting and made virtual installations about these topics.
Regarding why she chose to include self-care as a vital part of PAWS, Noel said, “I can never think about doing any sort of activism without thinking about self-care […] self-care for survival.”
“It’s kind of unfair to ask people of colour to only ever do work about activism or protest […] people need to be able to make art in joy and talk about their joy, and that will lend to a quality of life that we need, that we are actually […] also fighting for along with activism.”
Featuring work by Adelle Lin, Kayelynn Kennedy, Hailey “Hōkū” Kanoe Schurz and designed by Battleax Bunny, PAWS consists of an Animal Crossing island hosting multiple displays. As there are creative limitations on what can be done within the world of the game, artworks included mainly consist of clothing and object installations, both found and customized, as well as custom prints and posters, which make up the outdoor exhibition’s visual language.
The first letter in the PAWS acronym is “Protest,” which is showcased in both Lin’s works as well as their umbrella installation.
The umbrella installation, a work by Noel and designed by Battleax Bunny, is dedicated to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and their most recent protests, displaying many umbrellas arranged on the ground as well as newspaper and custom prints.
Lin’s work is a memorial for the Black Lives Matter movement and consists of custom prints of some well-known victims of police brutality. Surrounded by flowers, candles and spaces to sit and contemplate, this thoughtful memorial echoes one that Lin had built in her own Animal Crossing world.
Another exhibit in PAWS carrying elements of both activism and self-care are Schurz’s works, which reflect Schurz’s mixed Indigenous heritage. “Land Back Flag,” in particular, speaks to the artist’s support of the movement by the same name, which fights for Indigenous rights to the lands stolen from them among many other calls to action.
Schurz’s works consisted of custom posters, prints and clothing and their relationship to self-care actually lies in representation, because Schurz was able to make traditional clothing and face paint designs in alignment with their cultural heritage.
“Being able to customize the character in a way that represented them was part of the element of self-care,” Noel said.
Kennedy’s work in PAWS also speaks to self-care through clothing, and her portion of the exhibition displays Kennedy’s favourite outfit on clothing stands and in a custom pattern print.
“I wanted to have artists speaking to the joy and self-care and fun that they get out of Animal Crossing,” Noel said. “When I spoke to [Kennedy] about self-care and Animal Crossing, she spoke a lot about the outfits […] especially […] during lockdown, the pandemic, when you’re not always having opportunities to dress up and go out, you’re not necessarily having energy or money or resources or whatever you need to dress up and go out, so she would change her outfit quite a bit and that would bring her a lot of joy.”
Additional programming for the exhibition includes PAWS Artists in Conversation, a panel discussion composed of the artists featured in the exhibition and moderated by Noel, as well as the PAWS Curatorial Tour and Pattern Jam Workshop, in which Noel discusses the process of creating the exhibit as well as how Animal Crossing players can create custom patterns to decorate their own islands. Both talks will be uploaded to the School of Art Gallery’s YouTube channel.
You can catch PAWS: Protest, Activism, Whimsy and Self Care in Animal Crossing until May 7, viewable through the exhibition’s Dream Address on Animal Crossing: New Horizons or by watching the gallery tour, both of which are available on the school of art website.