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Before us lies a war-torn landscape: devastated buildings, soldiers, tanks, ruins, and the wounded. Under a lowering sky of dark clouds, we move through a landscape filled by death and destruction. An apocalyptic atmosphere pervades the scene. Armed only with a camera, we find ourselves in a panorama of news pictures of various armed conflicts. It is a universe of anonymous violence. Using a joystick, we navigate around soldiers, standing like Potemkin villages, from different nations and historical periods. Arranged in a kaleidoscopic pattern in this sphere of death, they stand stationary and lifeless, these images of war. The farther we penetrate into this image sphere, the more we realize how endless it is. With «World Skin,» which in 1997 won the coveted Golden Nica in the Interactive Art category at the Ars Electronica, Maurice Benayoun transports the spectator into a virtual battle panorama, which is interactively experienced through CAVE technology. The award of this highest distinction in computer art was also recognition of Benayoun's long-standing engagement with digital techniques; his first success came in 1995 with «The Tunnel under the Atlantic,» aninstallation with great public appeal. Visitors to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris embarked on virtual journeys through space and time to meet with visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal in an image space. «World Skin» is viewed in a cube, an almost hermetically enclosed space, where the walls and floor are projection screens and only the entrance side remains open. Several viewers at a time watch the virtual images that run around its walls. Seen through liquid crystal glasses, that is stereo glasses, the objects appear vivid and three-dimensional as though immediately in front of the spectators in the CAVE. Databeamers outside this area project the real-time images onto the CAVE's semitranslucent walls so that inside the images flow seamlessly leaving no areas blank. This produces an impression of being physically present in the images. Thus the installation fulfills a central requirement of all virtual art: enclosure of the observer within an image space—here in the CAVE —to elicit a greater or lesser feeling of immersion and separation from the outside world. Further, Maurice Benayoun is revealed as an exegete of the panorama; he has revived the idea and aesthetics of this historical
medium and developed it further using the latest image technology.
The installation's image space, a composite of pictures from dozens of theaters of war around the globe, are formed into a virtual panorama by a Silicon Graphics computer. Within the panorama, the viewers take pictures with a camera. Here, however, photography is a weapon of annihilation: whatever is ‹shot› exists no longer. Any fragment photographed by a viewer disappears from the image space, leaving a monochrome area with black silhouettes, and a print of the image fragment is handed to the visitor on leaving the installation. The colored images disappear completely and all that remains is a white patch of screen. Taking photographs underlines the fact that these representations of war stem from the media; for the viewer, an insight that is at first overshadowed by the experience of immersion. «Here the viewer contributes to augmenting the tragic dimension of the drama,» says Benayoun. «Without him, this world would be left to its pain. He rouses this pain, exposes it.» Moreover, it is the visitors who destroy the virtual space. The skin of media images is ripped off the bodyof the world, whereby the camera is the weapon: the synaesthesis of exploding flashlights and the sound of the rising staccato of gunfire have a reciprocally intensifying effect.
In the history of technology, the camera has many associations with deadly weapons, from Etienne-Jules Marey's photographic gun to today's remote-controlled Cruise Missiles, whose constant stream of relayed images only ceases when the enemy and its images have been destroyed. Whereas in the early years, image production had difficulty in keeping pace with ballistic techniques, with the advent of cinematography and video image speeds began to approach those of the missiles, which in turn now increasingly assume the function of cameras. Humans are withdrawing farther and farther from the battlefield. Modern warfare is tele- and media warfare, a simulation where all conceivable variations of strategies are played through like a game with infinite variations. This critical analysis represents Benayoun's approach to the panorama. In «World Skin,» the
experience of war in images is interfered with and destroyed by the medium of photography. Ultimately, it is about the role images play in our perception and appropriation of the world. Real atrocities are reduced to «significant surfaces,» to use an expression of Vilém Flusser's. Although the news pictures depict real events, they do not allow us any part or concern in this endless tragedy. Benayoun draws attention to this fact and also to the new technological developments from the military complex while at the same time he seeks to overcome this state of affairs through the use of new technology. In «World Skin,» the ubiquity of the photographic images creates a kind of second visual skin, which blankets reality and, in our memories, replaces it. Bit by bit, «World Skin's» panoramic space of image segments is erased and neutralized. The actions of the visitors cause a clean and non-symbolic data space to appear: they tear the skin off the image space and leave in its stead—nothing. It follows that for Benayoun photography represents death. Here he is in agreement with Vilèm Flusser, who described photography, like war, as a medium for tearing events out of history: «Like war, like photo: times stand still in both.»
The sound, composed by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, has an important share in creating the impression of immersion. His composition reflects the topography of the image space. It is both present in the same texture and characterizes the potency of the images. Total immersion is only achieved through the synaesthesis of these effects. However, sound not only enhances the immersed state, it also encourages the viewer to destroy the image part of the immersion: what at first sounds like a camera shutter when the visitor takes pictures soon changes into the sound of gunfire. Depending on how often the camera is used, the sounds increase until they resemble the rapid fire of an automatic machine gun. This automatic destruction of the images through taking photos demonstrates a parallel to the compulsive behavior of machine-gunners—first observed in World War I—who under sustained fire could not take their fingers off the triggers of their weapons. The viewers hear an ever-louder crescendo of detonations, which accompanies and intensifies the effect of the image space being destroyed, until the extent of the damage is so apparent that they are jolted out of their immersed state.
As a finely meshed alliance between science and art, today media art explores the aesthetic potential of interactive, processual image worlds. Internationally prominent representatives of this art form, such as Charlotte Davies, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss, Jeffrey Shaw or Victoria Vesna work as scientists at research institutes in the field of developing new interfaces, interaction models and innovative codes: they set the technical limits according to their aesthetic goals and critiques. Thus a new type of artist has emerged: as scientists, they often have security of tenure and they develop the technology for their image-aesthetic innovations themselves, working as leaders within teams of programmers and engineers. We are seeing a new alliance between art, technology and science; artists now publish reports on their new software or interface models in specialist journals or present them for discussion at scientific meetings.
Today media artists are shaping very disparate areas, for example, telepresence art, biocybernetic art, robotics, Net art, space art, experiments innanotechnology, artificial or A-life art, creating virtual agents and avatars, datamining, mixed realities and database- supported art. These specialist disciplines can be roughly assigned to the fields of telematic, genetic or immersive-interactive art, and subsumed under the generic term ‹virtual art›.
From an image-theoretical perspective, it is remarkable that installations such as «World Skin» are bringing back the image form of the panorama to life—at least for a time. In addition to works by Maurice Benayoun, others, such as «The Visitor: Living by Numbers» (2001) by Luc Courchesne, «Place Ruhr» (2000) by Jeffrey Shaw, or Michael Naimark's «Be Now Here» (1995–2002), can also be put in the category of an exegesis of the panorama. These installations revive and discuss the idea and aesthetics of this dinosaur of a medium and are thus part of the history of immersion—a phenomenon that has only recently received recognition yet can be traced throughout the entire history of Western art. Consciously or unconsciously, these artists make reference to this
ancestor medium, the ‹panorama›, which was patented in 1787. Originally developed as an innovative visualization for use in military reconnaissance, Robert Barker's invention of circular perspective was soon put on the market, developed in the course of the nineteenth century into a mass medium, and ultimately reached an audience of several hundred million people. Alternating between art, spectacle and political propaganda, in the beginning panoramas were created by individual artists who often worked for years under penurious circumstances. By 1800, however, panoramas were being produced in the metropolises of England and France in a mere matter of months according to strict profit-oriented principles in technically rationalized industrial processes based on the division of labor. The panorama became the nineteenth century's indicator of the image media combination of art, science and technology; it was one of the most widespread image media in the history of art. No other space of illusion created with traditional techniques developed this degree of illusionism and suggestive power. These were preceded by calculations of how to achieve a maximum oftechnological and psychological effects—also an exemplary feature of the panorama.
Through the ‹magical› luminosity of the picture, which was due to concealed overhead lighting, the illusion space itself appeared to be the source of the real. In the panorama, the depictions of nature assumed a totality and spectators ‹travelled› through time and space—a closed universe of illusion. In 1800, a commission was set up by the Institut de France for the express purpose of studying this medium. The panorama's central effect of producing an ‹illusion totale› met with the commission's wholehearted approval. Their report found that, through its alliance with science, art had come decisively closer to its goal of perfect illusion. The impossibility of comparing the panorama's objects with extraneous objects, and being surrounded entirely by a frameless, all-embracing image, the spectator is subjected to a deception that is complete. Moreover, the awareness that this is a deception tends to fade the longer the observer remains in the panorama. Critique of the panorama followed hard on the heels of this praise; around 1800, the arguments were phrased mainly in
physiological terms—very similar to contemporary discussion about simulator sickness. Suspicions were also voiced that the illusion might permanently impair the capacity for perceiving reality. The military establishment and politicians saw this differently: both Napoleon and Admiral Lord Nelson quickly recognized the medium's suggestive potential for influencing the masses. Bonaparte's plan, however, to make his victories permanently available to the public in eight rotundas in the park at Versailles did not become a reality.
In Germany, the ‹dark side› of the panorama and with it the concept of immersion reached its zenith considerably later: after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Paradigmatic for this is Anton von Werner's «The Battle of Sedan,» undoubtedly the most expensive picture of its time and viewed by millions. The gigantic canvas measured 1725 m2 and the picture brought «the military hour that the empire was born,» as the official jargon put it, to Berlin's Alexanderplatz.The opening ceremony in 1883, on the anniversary of the Battle of Sedan, was a political event, attended by the Kaiser, Bismarck, Moltke, and practically the entire power elite, and was front-page news in all the major newspapers the next day. In front of the photorealistic battle painting, which presented the German aggressors as defenders, was a ‹faux terrain›—a space with three-dimensional objects, such as bushes, boulders and fieldwork tools, as well as real weapons and cardboard figures. Rousing marching music from an orchestrion and the compelling appeal of the soldier's perspective additionally enhanced the involvement of the observer. From all directions, this image apparatus was concentrated and fixed physiologically on the observer with the precision of photorealistic illusionism. In this way, the Sedan panorama represented the state of the art of contemporary technical skill in the art of illusion and knowledge of the physiology of sensory perception, as formulated by Hermann von Helmholtz in a series of lectures «On the Relation of Optics to Painting,» 1871. For us today, whose viewing habits are so fundamentally different from those of the nineteenth century, it is almost
impossible to imagine the profound effect that static panorama images had on contemporary audiences. In the first few moments, the brightly painted scene appeared so overwhelming that many visitors said they felt as though they were in a real battle. The newspaper «Neue Preussische Zeitung,» for example, wrote: «The visitor is gripped immediately, he is taken completely by surprise and instinctively holds back. One is afraid of being trampled by the horses' hooves and feels the urge to concentrate on going backwards. Swirling dust and smoke seem to fill the air. Trumpets blare, drums beat, drums roll… .» The multimedia event that the Sedan panorama represented served to drum blind obedience, the fundamental prerequisite for the mass battles of World War I, into the groups of schoolchildren who were taken to see it. Whereas Benayoun's panorama is informed by fundamental skepticism of the image—virtual images are given over to stepwise destruction—the battle panoramas of the nineteenth century were firmly committed to a staunch belief in images and their powerful effects.
In history, the suggestive power of virtual and immersive image spaces has not only been pressed into the service of politics but also utilized by the Church for its power strategies in a visual mass medium. At the beginning of the sixteenth century in Northern Italy, the first of the «Sacri Monti» were constructed—an image wall erected against the encroaching Reformation as it were—a movement which later spread throughout the Catholic world. The idea was to build highly illusionistic, diorama-type simulations of holy biblical places in which thousands of pilgrims a day could become immersed. The most famous of these spaces of illusion, the «Calvary» at Sacro Monte, Varallo, was created 1518–1522 by Gaudenzio Ferrari. Although he is largely ignored today, Ferrari's contemporaries did not hesitate to put him on a par with Leonardo. Ferrari complied with the tenets of art theory of his time which, in addition to the faithful rendering of proportions, colors and perspective also embraced Lomazzo's demand of
expressing «moto,» the passion of the soul. His skills served the goal of absolute mimesis, such that many of his life-size, terracotta figures wore real clothes and wigs and even had glass eyes.
Immersion has a history—unremarked by historians of art until now—which runs through the entire history of Western art and back as far as classical antiquity. Impressive examples of rooms with wall paintings that seem to extend the space and fuse physical with illusion space are found in Roman and Pompeian villas, such as the «Villa dei Misteri.» (I am not suggesting that these image spaces should be taken as some kind of starting point for this image tradition; nor is the evolution of media of illusion and immersion ever likely to reach an absolute end.) In this chamber dedicated to the cult of Dionysus, which was used for rites of initiation and rituals, the observer is surrounded by life-size, realistic figures, who seem to address the visitor and each other across the intervening space, communicating from wall to wall. The image spacefunctions as a portal, allowing gods to enter the supposedly real physical space and, vice versa, taking the portrayed human actors and the observer onto the same image level—it could be classed as a mixed ‹reality.› This strategy of immersion, initially visual, which was produced in the Villa dei Misteri with all the visual techniques known to this epoch, ‹opened› the boundary to the image space, integrated the observer into the scene, and conducted him or her into the ritual core of the mystery cult.
Similarly, the history of immersion can also be traced through the history of cinema. Even established greats of critical art, such as the Soviet avant-garde film director Sergei Eisenstein, appear in a new light if we examine their immersive visions. From the perspective of the 1940s, the film pioneer Eisenstein viewed his medium as the most elaborated image medium in a chain of development where art, science and technology were progressively merging together. In an essay written shortly before his death, «O Stereokino» (1947), Eisenstein emphasizes the long continuity of the
interdependent and synergetic relationship between art, science and technology. The ultimate synthesis of all art genres, which he believed was imminent, would culminate in the utopia of «stereokino,» stereoscopic cinema, which was at the same time the expression of an ages-old, deeply human urge to create images. Then the image, experienced in «real three-dimensionality»—he did not provide any technical details—would «pour» from the screen into the auditorium. Further, stereo sound would be «absolutely essential.» It would enable the film director to «capture» the audience and the audience to «immerse themselves completely in the powerful sound.» The images of stereoscopic film would attain a potential for three-dimensionality and movement never seen before; so powerful that they would wrench the audience psychologically out of their actual surroundings and into those of the film—all in the cause of Socialism under Stalin.
With the history of immersion, it is not my intention to propose any kind of extended durability for it or to provide art historical legitimization for virtual reality; rather, I wish to demonstrate the recurring existence of the figure of immersion in intermedia together withits problematic potential and intentions. It is certainly inadmissible to ascribe an inner logic of development to the history of immersive image spaces, which, in small, successive steps that follow each other rapidly ultimately leads to the virtual reality of the computer. Rather, we are dealing with many and diverse individual stages, often contradictory and disparate, that represent and initiate a new status for perception. Almost at the same time as Eisenstein was developing his visions of future cinema, Fred Waller's «Cinerama» made its appearance in the USA. Similar to today's IMAX cinemas, in the 1950s it provided around one hundred cinemas across the world with three-dimensional image worlds, many of them ultra-fast moving ones.
Further, the history of the World's Fairs—as yet unwritten—abounds with attempts to surround visitors with utopian worlds of images. Paris 1900 introduced the new «Cinerama,» which enclosed visitors in a panorama of film pictures so that they ‹went up› in a hot-air balloon from the Champ de Mars, and exhibited many propagandistic panoramas of French colonies. The «Futurama» in New York in 1939 presented the U.S. car industry's image vision of the totally
automobilized city. Later World's Fairs continued to utilize immersive image techniques, as at Expo 2000 in Hanover, where the principle of immersion played a central role in the theme park «Mobility.»
From this brief sketch of the historical development of immersion, it is apparent that over time, older image media lose their use value; however, their importance as spaces for artistic experimentation increases. Increases in suggestive power and visual impressiveness were often the goal and driving motivation behind the development of new media of illusion. On closer scrutiny, we can make out a sheer endless stream of supposedly established entities, like cinema, that are revealed as assemblages of components that are arranged in ever-changing and new constellations in the kaleidoscope of developing evolution of art media. An overview provides some idea of the momentous energy involved in the constant search for and creation of novel spaces of illusion.
As a rule, virtual realities that are primarily experienced visually seal off the observer hermeticallyfrom external visual impressions, appeal directly through the use of threedimensional objects, expand the perspective of real space into illusion space, observe scale and color correspondence, and, like the panorama, use indirect light effects to make the image appear as the source of the real. In the case of virtual realities, the creator's intention is an artificial world that renders the image space a totality or at least fills the observer's entire field of vision. Unlike, for example, a cycle of paintings representing a temporal sequence of successive images, these images integrate the observer in a 360° space of illusion, or immersion, where there is unity of time and place. Image media can also be described in terms of how they intervene in perception, how they organize perception and cognition; in this respect virtual immersive spaces must be classed as extreme variants of image media, which, because they represent a totality, offer an alternative reality. On the one hand, they meet the demands of the media-makers for a symbolic form of an all-embracing image experience, which admits no contradictions or alternatives, and on the other hand, they offer the observers—again because of their
totality—the option of sensual and awareness-altering fusion with the image medium. This represents a huge difference to, for example, non-hermetic «trompe l'oeil» illusionistic painting where it is easy to recognize the medium utilized, or to images and image spaces constrained by a frame, such as theater, to a certain degree the diorama, and particularly television. Within the limits or framework of their form, these image media symbolically stage the aspect of difference. They leave the observer outside and are thus not suitable for presenting virtual realities in a way that deceives and overwhelms the senses. For this reason, I shall not consider these media here.
In virtual realities, to the panoramic view is added the sensorimotor exploration of an image sphere that conveys the impression of being inside a ‹living› environment. Interactive media are changing our idea of the two-dimensional image into one of a multisensory, interactive space of experience located within a processual context. It opens up objects and image spaces that until now were impossible to depict.The parameters of time and space can be modified at will and the virtual space can be used for modeling and gathering experience. Particularly the possibility of communicating with and accessing such image spaces via global data networks, together with the technique of telepresence, offers a range of new options for immersion. Further, a significant proportion of the image resources of the natural environment are being merged with artificial images in mixed realities, where it is often impossible to distinguish between original and simulacrum. I do not wish to imply that computer-generated virtual art invariably gravitates toward maximum illusion: on the contrary, artists are continually engaged in attempts to subvert this basic tendency and to critically interrogate illusionism, interface design and natural interaction processes in order to discover new aesthetic options. Nevertheless, it must be emphasized that virtual art definitely operates within the field of illusion and immersion —the paradigm of the medium. This fact, whether treated critically or used strategically by the artists, is the foundation upon which this art genre erects its works. The potential of virtual artworks for visualization far
exceeds pure mimesis. To visualize complex systems, a goal of many artists, holds great new and creative potential for image technology. New image spaces for interactive art reception are being created that can be experienced polysensually. These facilitate processual situations and thus encourage aspects of performance. In this way, the categories of games and game theory acquire new meaning.
Since the late 1980s, a new generation of displays enable 3-D images. The Head Mounted Display (HMD), for example, or the more recent CAVE, convey to the user the impression of being immersed in the image space, of moving around in it in «real time,» and of being empowered to intervene in and modify the images. Although the idea of quantifying immersion (see SIGGRAPH conference) first appeared in the early 1990s in connection with so-called presence research (a quasi synonym for virtual reality research), the phenomenon of seeming to be present in the location of an image is much older. In spite of changing media technologies, the idea of a 360° image is an enduringfeature in the history of art and the media. A predominant characteristic of its development was on the one side the interplay of large format immersion spaces, which completely integrate the physical presence of the observer (rooms with 360° frescoes, the panorama, Stereopticon, Cinéorama, IMAX cinema, and the immersion methods of contemporary digital art, for example, the CAVE) and on the other, devices positioned immediately in front of the eyes (peep-show box, stereoscope, stereoscopic television, Sensorama, and more recently the HMD.) This is a history of frameless, even immeasurable images; the relationship of humans to these images is inextricably bound up with specific historical perception and media competence: the central phenomenon of immersion arises when work of art and advanced image apparatus, when message and medium, converge in an almost inseparable unity—the medium becomes invisible.
Immersive art is without doubt key for understanding the development of the media, although the concept may appear somewhat opaque and contradictory.
Obviously, the relation between critical distance and immersion is not a simple matter of ‹either/or›; the many and diverse connections are interwoven, dialectic, in part contradictory, and definitely dependent on the individual dispositions of the observers and their historically acquired media competence.
Immersion can be a mentally active process; in the majority of cases, however, both in older and contemporary art history, immersion is mental absorption in order to initiate a process, a transition. Characteristics are a diminished critical distance and emotional involvement. Aesthetic experience that requires distance or room for reflection tends to be subverted by immersive strategies. More power of suggestion appears to be an important motive force in the development of new media of illusion. It would seem that this is the driver behind ongoing efforts to renew power over the observers using novel potential for suggestion in order to install new regimes of perception. Yet, the idea that humankind can somehow return to a state of pre-symbolic and pre-media experience in the Rousseau sense, that is tomake mediation through symbols disappear and achieve immediacy of experience, is an illusion.
If we look more closely at history, we recognize that there is an interdependent relation between the suggestive potential of historic media of illusion and what we know about the media competence of their contemporary audience. Even six-year-old children are able to distinguish between reality and ‹as-if worlds›, yet in Western art and media history there is a recurrent movement that seeks to blur, negate, or abolish this distinction through employing the very latest imaging techniques. It is not possible for any form of art to reproduce reality completely and we must remain aware that there is no objective appropriation of reality—Plato's metaphor of the cave demonstrates this. Only interpretations are decisive. This was a major philosophical theme of early modern times: The work of Descartes, Leibniz and Kant may be regarded as marvelous attempts to reflect upon the consequences that derive from the mediation of perception, and thus the cognitive process, which ultimately cannot be overcome— even with the aid of highly sophisticated visualization. In essence,
artificiality and naturalness are also concepts of reflection. They do not denote objects but views, perspectives and relations. In addition to mimicking it, the transformation of reality has always been the essence of art: the creation of reality, collective and individual. Interestingly, certain recent findings in neurobiology propose that what we call reality is in fact only a statement about what we actually have the ability to observe. Any observation is constrained by our relative individual physical and mental natures and our theoretical scientific premises. It is only within this framework that we can make observations of that which our cognitive system, dependent upon these constraints, allows us to observe.
Over the last few years, intense discussion has centered on the question of the image—in media studies, art history, as well as the neighboring disciplines like cultural studies— which displays remarkable parallels to the rapid developments in the field of the new media. This discussion is reflected in the works of such diverse thinkers as Vilém Flusser,Jonathan Crary, Hans Belting, Horst Bredekamp, Martin Jay, Lev Manovich and Oliver Grau and confronts a cultural process of change, which has been described as ‹iconic turn› by William J. Mitchell (1995). In the course of this revolution of the new media, digital media and digital images, these novel worlds of images and the future predicted for them have been both celebrated and lamented, or even hailed as the apocalypse by thinkers such as Dietmar Kamper or Jean Baudrillard. The cultural effects resulting from this transformation of the media, however, have so far only been analyzed to a minimal extent. Disturbingly, theorists such as Vilém Flusser have even spoken of the ‹dissipation of the body› in the cyberworld of the media.
Interface design, to put it pointedly, has become a political issue for it is where media art and media theory are located. Recently, a discussion has erupted about ‹natural› versus ‹critical› interfaces, which either cover up or make us aware of their media and iconic foundations. The parameters of spatial organization, arrangement of degrees of freedom, avatar design, narration strategy, and in the case of
evolutionary image processes the definition of a selection procedure, are creative tools now in the hands of artists. The effects, in terms of the theories of image, art and the media, are unforeseeable. I shall now examine the ways in which contemporary artists are trying to develop immersive strategies in the digital sphere; strategies that strongly relate to the ever-changing interface with the machine, the technique of telepresence, and the development or design of software, for example, to facilitate interaction or evolutionary image processes based on genetic algorithms. My contention is that these elements in combination demonstrate a further development of the principle of immersion using state-of-the-art visualization technology.
Many virtual environments reduce the observer to a seemingly disembodied entity within a Cartesian space with a fairly clear view of a space that is frequently quite empty. Although Charlotte Davies' virtual environment «Osmose» has only been shown a fewtimes in the USA and Europe, more than any other contemporary work it has been the subject of international media art debate. Only a few thousand visitors have actually had the opportunity to experience the installation, but many times that number of art lovers has avidly followed the debate on aesthetics, phenomenology and reception of virtual art that has centered on this particular work. Moreover, the level at which «Osmose» cultivates the user-interface—a central parameter of virtual art—is unparalleled. «Osmose» is an immersive interactive environment where the user experiences 3-D computer graphics and interactive sound synaesthetically wearing an HMD. It is a technically advanced and visually impressive simulation of a series of complex natural and textual spaces: a mineral–vegetable, intangible sphere. Nothing here recalls the grainy, jittery polygonal images of virtual art's early years: in the data space created by the Canadian Charlotte Davies, phosphorescing points of light glimmer in soft focus in the dark.
Her objective to develop a natural, intuitive
interface, is groundbreaking. The user interface is the point of contact between humans and machines where exchange with oneself or with others takes place. Many forms are possible. It is at the interface, which must be used by the active observer according to the rules of the particular illusion world, that the communication structures of the simulation meet with the human senses. Thus, the interface in virtual reality has a more sustained function as the key to the digital artwork and it shapes both perception and dimensions of interaction. The observer, whom Davies refers to as the ‹immersant›, controls navigation through the virtual space by means of a lightweight vest filled with sensors. This has to be put on before the journey can begin; it tracks each breath and movement of the torso and relays this information to the software. Because this interface concept utilizes involuntary physical processes and habitual muscular movements, the observer unconsciously connects with the virtual space in a much more intense way than with a joystick or a mouse. The effect is a profound feeling of corporeal presence, which in the course of the ‹stay›results in an emotional state that is enhanced still further by the music. Each zone has its own localized sound; in fact, the sound plays a decisive role in generating the feeling of presence.
At first glance, Davies' most recent work, «Éphémère» (1998), appears to be the twin of «Osmose»: a virtual space that generates reactive image worlds in real time. However, whereas «Osmose» was deeply embedded in a spiritual conception of nature, the image worlds of «Éphémère» include organs of the body, bones and the blood circulatory system. When asked, Davies says that «Éphémère» is inspired by an actual place in her native Quebec and, in a certain sense, it symbolizes a lament, an elegy, a remembrance space for the passing of nature as we have known it.
When actually immersed in a high-resolution, 360° illusion space such as «Osmose» or «Éphémère,» it is only with great difficulty that an observer can maintain any distance to the work or objectify it. It is almost
impossible to perceive it as an autonomous aesthetic object. If media competence results from the capability, or learned ability, to objectify a given medium, then this ability is undermined by virtual installations. The designers of this medium utilize all means at their disposal to banish this from the consciousness of the recipients. At best, the medium of virtual reality—as indeed all immersive image techniques—can only be objectified through knowledge and awareness of the image production processes and an understanding of their technical, physiological and psychological mechanisms, for in them everything is an image. As the interfaces seem to disappear, as their design becomes more natural, the illusionary symbiosis of observer and work progresses and psychological detachment increasingly vanishes. Inside the immediate existence of ‹omnipresent› virtuality there will be lasting effects on any mechanism of knowledge acquisition. Thus, in certain seemingly ‹living› virtual environments a fragile, central element of art comes under threat: the recipient's act of distancing, which is essential for enabling any critical reflection.
There are, however, remarkable attempts by artists to use immersive strategies to oppose the apparent lack of distance. In the Renaissance, neo-Platonists constructed virtual temples of memory, memory theaters, spaces of thought, and storage spaces of knowledge for the collected wisdom of their time, where many and various—theoretically infinite— associations between objects and memory locations could be combined and thought. Mental, imaginary navigation through these spaces that also facilitated combinatory processes: ‹ars combinatoria› was the intellectually productive principle of these memory theaters, for example that of Giulio Camillo, circa 1550. The Hungarian artist Agnes Hegedüs, who worked at the Zentrum für Kunst- und Medientechnologien (Center for Art and Media Technology—ZKM) in Karlsruhe for many years, has revived this historic concept of the memory theater, as Bill Viola had done a few years before. Importantly, the difference is that Hegedüs offers the visitors to her virtual spaces a dynamic structure with intermedia
elements, thus expanding the historical mnemonic techniques to include contemporary media. Here virtual art joins the current widespread trend of a «mise en scène» of knowledge, to initiate and push forward rejection of the desktop metaphor in favor of dynamically generated spatial visualizations. Agnes Hegedüs is a representative of this. Her «Memory Theater VR» (1997) invites the visitors to enter a panorama rotunda. A circular screen both marks the boundary of the virtual reality environment and forms a virtual theater. Hegedüs' panorama offers a rich array of associations leading the visitor through the history of art and media, including Mannerist, Futurist and Deconstructivist virtualities. It is a collection of decisive intellectual turning points in history, media emblemata,which are configured before the inner eye in changing combinations, allowing the visitor to form individual memory images.
One of the earliest memory spaces that was a representation of an entirely new form of public space—that of global computer networks—was «The Home of the Brain» (1991) by Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss. At the ART+COM institute they created, inStrauss' words, «a morphological simulation space, in motion,» which is experienced polysensually and interactively. The architecture of Mies van der Rohe's Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) in Berlin is the model for the electronic shell of «The Home of the Brain,» a digital data archive for different theoretical approaches. A modern version of a «stoa,» it offers a simulated, highly symbolic space of information where a metaphorical discourse on the ethical and social implications of new media technology takes place. These questions are illuminated through the presentation in the virtual space of seminal quotations from the very different approaches of the scientists Marvin Minsky and Joseph Weizenbaum and the philosophers Paul Virilio and Vilém Flusser.
In the 1990s the Austro-German group of artists Knowbotic Research developed another variant of immersive virtual spaces, of hybrid models for the digital representation of knowledge. Their virtual installation «Dialogue with the Knowbotic South» (DWTKS) (1994–1997) processes scientific data from international research stations to create a constantly changing abstract representation of Antarctica.
It visualizes and maps this deserted yet scientifically well-documented continent resulting in a virtual scenario that is, however, neither abstract nor illusionistic. «Dialogue with the Knowbotic South» processes the data received via the networks and visualizes it on large projection screens in a darkened room as changing starbursts, which can be activated by software agents called «knowbots.» Here the visitor does not experience immersion in an illusionary Antarctic landscape but, instead, in an image space filled with abstract scientific data, a space of permanent metamorphosis, which is the intention of the artists. «Dialogue with the Knowbotic South» enables the observers to actively witness how science models and simulates Antarctica, a continent not fully explored, with extreme climatic conditions and little history of civilization, into an artificial construct, into computer-aided nature. Knowbotic Research's concept raises doubts about the hope of science to achieve a representation of nature in its entirety and, with their artistic deconstruction, they highlight the ideological dimension of images in science that seek to represent what is seen as it is intended it should be seen.
In plays, novels or artworks we often encounter a conflict situation, a caesura, or an ambivalent moment that, when concentrated within one character, serves to endow the plot with overwhelming suspense until, finally, the conflict is resolved in some way, for example by a tragic «dénouement.»
A remarkable example of a new kind of combination of digital art and theater, of life and art, or, technically speaking, of a complex software interface is the installation «Ultima Ratio» (1998) by Daniela Alina Plewe. Her interactive installation pursues an ambitious goal: to develop a visual language equivalent to what takes place in theater, which reflects the logic and inner arguments of the protagonists that precede the action. «Ultima Ratio's» basic aesthetic experience is conflict. Once involved in its ambivalence the visitor must actively and creatively make a decision. On closer analysis, however, the iconic argumentation is revealed as being still at a rudimentary stage of development: the arguments appear as fragile and abstract spatial bodies, which represent their conditions, conclusions and internal dynamics. Notwithstanding, Plewe's «Ultima Ratio» offers a first
glimpse of an open system of theater, which allows the audience to participate in a sophisticated way in the solution of complex model con- flicts. Her system of interactive degrees of freedom draws visitors ever deeper into the space of possible alternative strategies of action and allows them to participate in an immersive path of narration—a symbiosis of virtual art and theater.
The ongoing fusion of genres—or media—that has been apparent since the beginning of the 1990s is a signature of virtual art and the technology upon which it depends is mirrored in the work of the Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw. Together with the British artist and theorist Roy Ascott, who began to publish texts on interactive computer art in the 1960s, in fact before it even existed, and the American artist and researcher Myron Krueger, whose experiments with the reactive real-time system «Videoplace» (1974) are considered the beginning of interactive art, Shaw is regarded as a pioneer of interactive art. For decades he has been particularly interested in immersion, although he has not stated this explicitly; however, the concept ofimmersion pervades his oeuvre, from his early ‹inflatables,› his work «Corpocinema» (1967), to his works based on the expanded cinema idea which breaks through the limits of the cinema screen, the various versions of his classic «The Legible City» (1988), a square kilometer of virtual urban space with an architecture of letters as high as buildings that can be crossed by bicycle, his «Extended Virtual Environment,» (1993–1995), and his most recent installations, such as «Place Ruhr» (2000). Visions of future cinematography were assembled in the exhibition Future Cinema at the ZKM, which was co-curated by Shaw. His installation «Place Ruhr» not only links the genres of photography and video with virtual art, but Shaw consciously locates it in the tradition of that dinosaur of media and art history of immersion —the panorama.
Particularly global access to and exchange of images via the Internet opens up a new, data-mediated epistemology through the technique of telepresence,
which also represents a paradox. Telepresence is indeed a mediated perspective that appears to surmount great distances; however, in the virtual environments via polysensorial interfaces perception is even enhanced through the so-called ‹lower› senses (‹active› touching, ‹passive› feeling or smelling) and thus the abstraction- and concept-generating function of distance comes under pressure. The classical position of an observer directly in front of a material artwork is replaced here by a participatory relationship, which may appear to overcome great distances yet through feedback loops in the work appears to be directly present in the digital image space.
At an exhibition organized by German Telekom in the autumn of 1991, an early version of «The Home of the Brain» was transmitted from the ART+COM institute in Berlin via ISDN to Geneva in Switzerland. Users in Geneva, equipped with data gloves, were able to navigate the data set from Berlin without being visible. This was an experiment with telepresence, whichstands for the reception of works consisting of digital data and interaction with them from afar. Thus as early as 1991 «The Home of the Brain» provided a glimpse of the epistemic innovation that telepresence represented, where in its reception the work loses its locatability. The observer does not physically go to the work, the painting, panorama, film and so on, but neither does the work come exclusively to a particular observer.
Telepresence art, which developed in the early 1990s before the WorldWideWeb and can be seen as the successor to telematic art, was particularly indebted to the work of two artists—Eduardo Kac from Brazil and Ken Goldberg, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. The pioneering work of Kac and Goldberg, which triggered a great deal of theoretical reflection on the implications of telepresence for the concepts of art and cognition, has less to do with transferring observers to immersive environments or enhancing the imagined connection with an artificial environment by means of
sensual feedback and more with the telecommunicative aspect: teleaction using operators and robots. Kac, who has exhibited all over the world and is the recipient of many important awards, first achieved international recognition in the 1980s as the pioneer of Holopoetry. In the 1990s, his primary interest was art that combines biological processes with telematic structures. In the «Ornitorrinco Project,» a collaboration with Eduardo Bennett exhibited at SIGGRAPH 1992 in Chicago, users controlled via telephone lines the movements of a remote robot located at Kac's workplace, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He continued to explore these aesthetics in following works, such as «Ornitorrinco in Eden» (1994), «Rara Avis» (1996), and «Uirapuru» (1999), which linked physical spaces with interactive and perception processes with a remote place.
Goldberg's concept for a «Telegarden» was widely discussed and finally installed in 1995; since 1996 it ison show at the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria. Goldberg envisioned a collective and intercontinental cultural production, an idea slightly reminiscent of Roy Ascott's telematic artwork and collaborative writing project «La plissure du texte» (1983). At the Electra exhibition in Paris, Ascott connected artists in eleven cities in Australia, North America and Europe using the ARTEX system to write a collective fairy tale with different narrative levels and role assignments. The collaborative writing project lasted twelve days and was online day and night. The telephone technology of the time prevented reception of this art event by a large audience, so «La plissure du texte» is only comparable in a limited way with the «Telegarden» and its unknown number of anonymous viewers. Further, Ascott's concept of telematic art at that time consciously renounced, even negated, the object character of an artwork and insisted on its processual nature. By contrast, Goldberg's «Telegarden» allows the object to return to telematic art, albeit an object undergoing a process.
Paul Sermon is a British artist from Roy Ascott's school whose work integrates immersive aspects within the framework of telematic art. He became well known for his telematic installation in the early 1990s and has taught at several art schools in England and Germany. In «Telematic Dreaming» (1992), Sermon uses video-conferencing to connect people in different places, which enables communication with mime and gestures and results in astonishing, almost intimate encounters. In «Telematic Dreaming» a bed is the medium for high-definition images; images of a partner who is perhaps thousands of kilometers away, in live and intimate proximity. The clear projection of another person, who is able to react almost in real time to the other's movements on the bed, is so surprisingly suggestive that to touch the image of the body that is projected onto the sheet becomes an intimate act. Sermon's declared aim was to expand the user's sense of touch: obviously it was not possible to actually touch the other virtual bedmate, but one experienced thesuggestion of touching through rapid and vigorous or tender and reflective movements. Many users said that they found it a very contemplative experience; a sensory impression achieved synaesthetically where hand and eye fuse. This quality distinguishes both «Telematic Dreaming» and other works that Sermon produced in subsequent years.
Whereas Goldberg's users log on to a website to perform actions in a distant place, in Simon Penny's work in progress «Traces» the interface is absolute. Using a link that was completely new at the time, in 1999 the Australian media artist, who taught for many years at the Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, connected three CAVEs in different locations to produce a single translocal immersive image space. Users enter virtual spheres, spaces of sound, and experience a gentle vibration of the floor. The image of a user in Tokyo can be seen in a CAVE in Berlin, or vice versa. Four infrared stereocameras transform in
real time the user's outlines into three-dimensional representations, which the artist's concept envisages will be seen thousands of kilometers away in polysensorially expanded image space. Worlds of computer images or navigation interfaces for orientation do not exist in «Traces.» Instead, users interact with gauzy traces of light, which represent the dynamics and volumes of human bodies. Penny's idea is that «interactions will take the form of real-time collaboration sculpturing with light, created through dancing with telematic partners.» The technical goal is to get away from all traditional forms of interfaces and visual displays. «Traces» dispenses with HMDs, trackers, joysticks and screens; nor does it use graphic menus or icons. The aesthetic goal is to focus user's attention on how their bodies feel for it is the body's movements that generate the real-time graphics and the sound. «Traces» formulates for the first time the experience of interacting with vestiges of avatars, or remote bodies: the appearance of the ‹dispersed body,› as introduced by the debate on telepresence. In this way it combines digital image art with elements from the genres of sculpture and scenography.
Artists like Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss in «Murmuring Fields» (1998–1999) are currently working to enhance the vision of the ‹natural interface› through unobtrusively connecting the user with the image worlds as they come into being. In this context, there is a new and important role for the theremine, a Russian invention that dates from the early twentieth century. Plans exist for the future to use a theremine to relay images—Penny's solution was to use a camera detection system. Thus the vision of a ‹seeing CAVE,› which can scan the visitor's contours exactly and reconstitute the highly complex images in a different location, appears to be within reach.
The old dream of cinema, to put the audience immersively in the picture, is formulated most sophisticatedly in Penny's concept. He reflects in a masterly way the state of the art in illusion techniques and, as an artist-engineer with humor, has created image machinery that plays ironically with modern-day myths. Here there is an undercurrent of McLuhan's idea of «the extensions of man» and the hope, which is basically a religious one, of being able to leave one's body. Through links to any number of robots or
technobodies, that is avatars, telepresence makes multiple spaces of experience possible. These spaces may have a contradictory design and evoke contrary experiences. Reality, states quantum physics, is always a product of observations. Now, a technical arrangement makes distance and proximity coincide in real time, which means: I am there where I am not and I experience sensory certainty of this against my better judgment.
Recently artist-scientists like Thomas Ray, Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau or Karl Sims have simulated processes of life: evolution, breeding and selection have become methods for creating art. With the aid of genetic algorithms, the scenic and immersive image worlds generated by computers are given the semblance of being alive. The debate on genetics and artificial life, or A-Life, which was at first confined to the life sciences, acquired models, visions and images from art that have become visual points of referenceand catalysts in this controversial debate. Sommerer and Mignonneau are perhaps the most well known exponents of genetic art, which seeks to integrate the forms, processes and effects of life into art. In conjunction with the visual principle of immersion, this comparatively young branch of digital art has begun to play an increasingly important role in the production of illusions. From the beginning, naturalism has dominated the work of Sommerer and Mignonneau. Over 100 work exhibitions worldwide since 1992 document their success. Perhaps more than any others, these artists represent a form of art that, at an advanced technological level, engages with the upheavals wrought in contemporary art by the revolutions in image media and bioscience. Their exotic and voluminous image worlds are populated by a myriad of life forms: amoebas, tropical rainforest scenes, picturesque swarms of butterflies, or brightly colored microorganisms. Their unique aesthetics distinguishes their works, for example, «The Interactive Plant Growing» (1992–1993), «Phototropy» (1994–1997),
«Trans Plant» (1995), «Intro Act» (1995), «GENMA» (1996), «Life Spacies» (1997), and «HAZE Express» (1999). «A-Volve,» a real-time installation developed in 1994 at the National Institute for Supercomputing in Illinois and the ATR Lab in Kyoto, Japan, projects evolution that takes place in a computer into an illuminated pool of water. Software agents that resemble three-dimensional creatures ‹inherit› their phenomenology according to a model based on evolutionary transmission of traits, where new combinations arise through the principles of crossover and mutation, which are only constrained by the framework of selection determined by the artists. A ‹genetic code› consisting of ninety parameters ensures that no two of these teeming image amoebas look alike. For image production, evolution is a groundbreaking procedure. Well-directed application of the random principle enables the generation of unpredictable, non-reproducible, unique and transient images. The more complex the motor functions and phenomenology, the more intensely the images appear to ‹live.› Visitors tothe installation, who ‹create› the colorful software agents, intervene in the evolution of succeeding generations. This personal involvement with complex images of artificial life forms in an interactive context is most important for the immersive power of genetic art. An icon of genetic art, «A-Volve» is undoubtedly one of the most important artworks of the last century.
«A-Volve's» evolution is based on genetic programs developed by Laurent Mignonneau. Generally, the object of these computational operations is to achieve a homogeneous, uniform optimum of adaptation innovatively and efficiently. To this end, the principles of natural non-predetermined evolution are simulated: selection, crossover and mutation. By employing genetic algorithms, «A-Volve» endeavors to create biological mechanisms such as growth, reproduction, mutation, adaptation and ‹intelligence.› Evolution appears here rather like a boring machine whose salient characteristic is extravagant and wasteful production of ever-new random forms, which are tested and discarded in a dynamically changing
environment: mass production with slight variations. The more complex the random structures are, the more the images appear to ‹live›—not fixed but mutable, adaptable, even ‹capable of learning› after accumulated evolution processes of selection.
Genetic image worlds seldom come in the form of 360° illusions; often they are shown on one large screen in a darkened room. However, they must be included in any analysis of the phenomenon of immersion because they produce image worlds that seem to be alive. Interaction with them, like in computer games, leads to the players—consciously or unconsciously—becoming increasingly involved in the logic and decision-making structures of the game and thus the users experience immersive impressions. These are enhanced further by the unpredictable animation and complexity that genetic image processes are capable of producing.
In an interactive evolutionary artwork, the artist offers its users a range of degrees of freedom and defines rules, which they must follow. These attain major importance for they are essential for thereception and process of the work, something that was unknown before. Without interaction, the artwork «A-Volve» does not exist. Users actually do follow the continued survival of their creatures and try to protect them from others. This is an effect of social presence, which through the individualized software agents whose appearance is suggestive of social behavior, consciousness and feelings serves to increase immersion in the environment. Similar to computer games, the interaction with ‹individualized› agent programs intensifies the impression of being immersed in the image space and the action taking place there. Nevertheless, in the case of «A-Volve» aesthetic distance has two poles: the tendency to remove emotional boundaries, which is the effect of social presence, but also distance that enables control over the creatures in the first place and acceptance of their ‹death.› This distance, however, arises in the course of interacting with the scenario of images and merely demonstrates how effective the design of «A-Volve» is with regard to the principle of immersion.
The work of Karl Sims, a computer artist educated
at MIT's MediaLab, was an important influence on Sommerer and Mignonneau. As early as 1990, Sims' computer animation «Panspermia» was a sensation and received many awards. «Panspermia,» which treats concepts such as chaos, evolution, complexity and the origins of life, is a scientific and artistic visualization that is both remarkable and elegant. Sims' non-immersive installation «Galápagos» (1997), now part of the permanent collection of the ICC in Tokyo, is an even more impressive visualization of Darwinian principles of evolution. Successive generations of this artificial biosphere's fauna exhibit increasing complexity. Unattractive ‹life› forms do not get selected by the users: irreversible extinction. The creative aspect and the option of testing the possibilities of the virtual space for evolution is given to the users in that they have the privilege of crossing two organisms. The result is an intimation of the infinite varieties of virtual creatures that evolution holds for life, the hyperspace of the possible, which can never be grasped intellectually in its entirety but can perhaps be best described with the aestheticcategory of the sublime, in the sense used by Edmund Burke. It is the visualization of this abstraction that sets «Galápagos» apart from the majority of recent interactive installations.
This concept of combinatorial games was varied and expanded in «SonoMorphis» (1998), an installation created by Bernd Lintermann and Torsten Belschner. In the image space of «SonoMorphis,» users also ‹create› generations of ever-new biomorphic bodies based on genetic algorithms. Lintermann sets the artificial creatures in permanent rotation and enhances the spatial effect with stereo sound, which is also generated by random processes. Lintermann's intention is to keep the interactive structure of the installation flexible, which should be understood as an instrument, in this case an instrument consisting of visual and acoustic components. The number of possible forms is 1080; an analogy, according to Lintermann, with the total number of atoms in the universe. Be that as it may, the number of possible variants is incredibly high and impossible to explore in full.
Digital art is open, transient, interdisciplinary, multimedia, processual, discursive, concept- and context-dependent, and in addition, is increasingly oriented toward interaction with the recipient. Within the evolving art genres, virtual art has begun to further dismantle the traditional tableau; this time, in favor of a processual model of art. Interaction, telematics and genetic image processes not only encourage the crossing of boundaries; they also drive the trend toward fusing the perception of the users with interfaces that increasingly assail the entire suite of human senses. There are now immersive works that integrate into virtual art the genres of architecture, sculpture, painting, scenography, theater, film, photography and even historic image media such as the panorama, or at least absorb them via simulation into a space that only exists by virtue of its effects.
Whatever conclusions we draw from such image scenarios, it is clear that virtual image culture will get a strong push in the direction of illusion and immersion. This will not come so much from indefatigable engineers, refining each single detail, butfrom combinatory random processes that generate the unexpected and enrich images in complex ways. It is also certain that with the advent of interaction, interface design and evolution, technology will pave the way for changes in aesthetics and new cognitive potential. The playful, seemingly autonomously acting agents, which intensify interaction and enhance social presence and therefore strengthen the connection with the image space, complement the experience of immersion evoked by the images and sounds. For these reasons, increased importance attaches to engaging with the technological bases of this illusion in order to obtain an effective therapeutic agent with which to confront the widespread hype surrounding these new images. For when all is said and done, they are still images—no more, but also no less.
Translation by Gloria Custance