Oliver Grau started the seminar with a short historical overview of immersive spaces throughout history. Examples can already be found in the Ancient Greek period: the rooms of the houses in Pompeii were covered with 360° fresco's depicting the Gods. This was done to give the inhabitants the feeling of being immersed in a divine environment. In the 17th century, we find the stereoscopic device; in the 19th Century, Claude Monet sought ways to absorb the viewer into the rough paint strokes of his paintings. There's the cineorama in 1900, the Futurama in 1939, and more recently IMAX cinema and CAVE technology were developed. Nowadays, Grau said, the image has become a virtual and interactive image: its digital character makes it more fluid: at any time open to manipulation by the external environment.
Grau argued that the desire for transcendency is a reoccurring idea throughout history; already in the Middle Ages did men want to 'go up in pure spirit'. Man has made technology that leads towards ever-increasing immersion. The search in art and science for full-body immersive spaces has not only created utopian desires (hope for maximum illusion) but also apocalyptic thoughts: critics of immersive spaces fear the loss of physical body in an age that is obsessed with the idea to become more virtual than ever. Grau went on giving different recent examples of VR environments: Osmose by Char Davies, in which the user controls the virtual world by breath. Davies wanted to develop a natural and intuitive interface in this work. Another example is Living Web by Christa Sommerer, Laurent Mignonneau and Roberto Lopez_Gulliver: "In Living Web (picture) users can immerse themselves physically and in 3D into this image and sound information streamed "live" from the Internet. Microphones pick up the users' conversations and use them to generate and download corresponding image and sound files from the Web. Users can furthermore interact with these data through intuitive interfaces and explore their content in more detail." (1)
Virtual art is, Grau said, based fundamentally on the element of illusion and immersion. Interestingly, Grau made a distinction between hermetical closed immersive spaces and non-hermetical closed immersive spaces. Where in the former the user is encapsulated by the virtual world, in the latter the illusion of immersion is created within a determined framework, like trompe l'oeil, diorama, TV.
Grau's lecture was very interesting, but three remarks can be made here. Firstly, Grau comes dangerously close to falling into the trap of deterministic history-telling, when he states that one can see an evolution towards increasing perfectioning of immersive technology. Secondly, when Grau talked about man's desire towards transcendency, it should be underlined that the escape from the 'impeding' body, is really MAN's desire, this is, a fundamentally fallocentric desire. Grau talked about the occurrence of the transcendency idea in the Middle Ages, but he should have underlined that in that period, thanks to Catholicism, man was equated with the intellect and woman with seductive flesh that distracts man from his mission and makes him susceptible to temptation. A lot of contemporary feminist writers criticize this wish for disembodiment. Cyberfeminists like Francesca Da Rimini try to integrate the physical body into cyberspace: the clitoris is a link to the matrix! A third and final remark on Grau's lecture is that he takes the distinction between reality and fiction for granted when he says that 'even a six year-old can distinguish reality from imagination.' I wonder if the distinction is so clear-cut as he claims, because who can prove that his experiences are not the 'real thing', but fantasy and illusions? The movie Existenz, for example, plays with this difficulty to distinguish the virtual world from reality, not only on the part of the player but also on the part of the viewer.
After Grau's introduction, Anneke Smelik gave a brief introduction into her research, in which she combines feminist and cinematic theory. Mrs. Smelik examines the representation of immersion into cyberspace in cinema. She discovered that the transition from reality into a virtual world happens through what she calls a 'tunnel-image'. When a character jumps from reality into cyberspace (or mental world), he (together with the audience) is sucked in a long narrow tunnel, to eventually end up at the other side. Freejack is an example of this: Emilio Estevez and his lovely partner Rene Russo are sucked into a tunnel, until they end up in the head of Anthony Hopkins.
The tunnel-image is also present in medical visualization techniques such as endoscopy. There is a strong tendency to interpret the act of visualizing a space as acquiring knowledge about that place and eventually controlling the place. We find it back in different phenomena: security cameras, NASA's desire to get pictures from Mars, satellites mapping the world, even the CCC-project that is currently presented at DEAF04. Smelik claimed that this act of taking possession of a space through visualization is only possible through movement, be it sending out a space shuttle with a photographing robot on board, or sticking a tube with a camera down your anus. To visualize the movement from reality to cyberspace, the tunnel-image comes in very handy to make it clear to the audience that the character moved into cyberspace.
According to Smelik, a double red line is distinguishable in discussions concerning cyberspace. One discursive thread concentrates on the mental state, equating the computer to the brain, the other one makes constant references to the physical body. For example, the word matrix refers to maths, and denotes a ray of data, items, numbers (mental state). But at the same time, matrix is derived from mater and means womb (physical state). The same thing is observable in movies, when the main character undertakes the (mental) trip into cyberspace, this will always happen through a physical 'portal': an eye (Freejack), or an opening in the back, connecting to the nervous system (Existenz). The audience also is more conscious of its body, because when looking at the turning image of the tunnel, one easily experiences physical nausea.
Next, Marnix de Nijs talked about the development of his project Panoramic Acceleration, which consists of a rotating chair on which a big screen with moving images is attached. He found out that if the immersive quality of the image is taken away (if the participant doesn't 'connect' to the image), then the person experiences nausea from the rotation. So immersiveness into a visual/virtual reality is needed to forget the rotating reality. De Nijs also talked about his recent project Run Motherfucker run (picture). In this project he had a lot of problems with the narrative aspect of the project: he wanted to add a lot of characters and details into the scenes to make the immersion more interesting. But when you run towards a character on screen, you realize the limits of immersion (because you cannot interact with a cinematic character) and the illusion stops being credible. Another problem was that when the participant runs too fast, he doesn't notice the details in the scenes. So the immersive aspect of the project greatly limited the narrative possibilities.
Ijsselsteijn, a neuropsychologist, is working on Presence Engineering. This project has three aims, Ijsselsteijn explained, firstly to try to broaden the human system bandwidth, secondly to evoke the experience of really 'being there' in virtual space (and even being there together with other people) through advanced multisensorial media representation. Finally, the research tries to develop a better understanding on the part of the user of mediation techniques.
Ijsselsteijn formulated a taxonomy by which different immersive environments can be defined. This taxonomy is based on two parameters: vividness, which describes the richness of the environment representation and interactivity, which measures to what extent the user can transform the environment. Within vividness two subdivisions can be made: breadth (visibility, audibility, touch, smell) and depth (quality, fidelity in relation to reality). By putting vividness on the vertical line of a diagram and interactivity on the horizontal line, different graduations of immersiveness can be measured. In this way a mathematical model can be put together to evaluate different interactive immersive projects.
After a brief historical overview of immersive spaces (going from the Mesdag at Scheveningen constructed in 1881 to the recent development of the Cybersphere-picture), Ijsselsteijn stated the main question of his research: can artistic devices naturally and comfortably work together with the human sensory system? Ijsselsteijn described several experiments by which people 'forgot' (for a few moments) the boundaries of their own bodies and were able to extend their bodily sensation to artificial devices. For example, one's hand is covered and the index finger is stimulated by an external impulse. At the same time, the person sees an artificial hand before him that is stimulated at the same time and on the same place as his own hand. When the researcher would hold a hammer above the artificial hand, the test person would scream and pull back his own hand. He would really feel that the artificial hand was his own. These experiments are useful in order to experiment with creating illusionary bodily sensations in immersive environments.
Ijsselsteijn concluded that the fluid integration of technology in the human body blurs the distinction between the 'unmediated' body and the 'mediated' technology. This, according to Ijsselsteijn, forms an interesting contradiction to phenomenology, which states that every understanding of the world starts from the first person-perspective within well-defined bodily boundaries. Ijsselsteijn's discipline, neuropsychology, will in the future prove to be useful in order to examine the user's interactive behavior in immersive virtual environments and improve the state of immersion by stimulating virtual sensations through the physical body.
Benayoun is one of the most important artists of contemporary art and it was quite an interesting experience to listen to his theoretical ideas on immersive environments. He started his lecture by saying that creating an immersive environment is like being a gardener or an architect. The park is the perfect virtual environment for him. The VR-world is something you visit, and as a visitor you try to read the world that someone else created. Creating the four elements of illusionary power is important: the illusion of reality, the illusion of communication, the illusion of participation and the illusion of action. Benayoun described two of his projects. The project Tunnel under the Atlantic (1995) was about connecting two places, Paris & Montreal. The participants on both sides of the Atlantic had to 'dig' through virtual 'image-sculptures' in order to come into contact with one another. It took the participants 10 hours before the first contact was made. The image sculptures were made up of images from cultural heritage & collective memory (famous paintings, faces, sentences, etc). In another virtual reality installation, World Skin (1998), the visitor walks through a deserted battlefield covered with flat images of soldiers (picture). The visitor is given a camera and when he takes pictures, he erases a part of the scene: "We take pictures. First by our aggression, then feeling the pleasure of sharing, we rip the skin off the body of the world. This skin becomes a trophy, and our fame grows with the disappearance of the world." (cited from http://www.benayoun.com/Worskieng.htm). Benayoun wanted to install a virtual memory-field of the Yugoslav war that, although it occurred at the beginning of the '90, is already erased from our memories. Both Tunnel under the Atlantic & World Skin show important aspects of Benayoun's view on immersive spaces. First, for him the virtual space is a place of collective memory, where people gather and where they can add and share memories. This leads us to the second important feature of Benayoun's art practice. Interaction for Benayoun means that the user leaves traces behind in the virtual world, so that the world is somehow changed when he leaves.
Immersion for Benayoun also means activating a critical attitude: the artist introduces a fiction in order to interrogate the world he's living in. Watch out! was such a project. Boxes were placed in public space with a little peeping hole. Of course, people became curious and looked inside. Inside, a message was projected with a call to spread the message. When people looked inside, their eye was projected on a big screen. It looked like they were inspecting the world: Watch out! Big Brother/Sister is watching you!
Interesting is how Benayoun defined VR: "VR is not about technology, it is about introducing a fiction into the physical world". At the same time he claims that nowadays the world is more and more becoming a fiction (TV reality shows, 'infotainment'). A question from the audience arose: if the borders between reality and fiction are collapsing, is the term Virtual Reality then still useful? Answering to this, Benayoun said that VR is about creating a set of predetermined parameters/conditions/rules for an environment (to create 'a situation' as he put it) and wait how the spectators/visitors will react. According to him, 9-11 was an extreme example of a virtual event. Benayoun concluded his lecture with an aphorism that leaves you wandering: Art in digital art is what remains when the power is turned off...
The Art of Immersive Spaces was an interesting seminar to attend because different questions were emphasized from different disciplines concerning the topic of immersive spaces. It was maybe a pity that because of a strict time schedule speakers could only briefly introduce their work. But the seminar gave a very good impression on what different disciplines are working on at the moment and what problems they encounter during their research. What was mostly interesting is the combination of artists with scientists, an approach that is now very often applied in discussion forums at electronic art festivals, because in electronic art, science and art can often engage in a fruitful dialogue. And in this case, it proved to be a very fruitful multi-logue.
(1)Cited from: http://virtualart.hu-berlin.de/works/zoom.do?id=394 &fileid=1475.
More info on the mentioned artworks:
Living Web + other works by Christa Sommerer & Laurent Mignonneau
CCC-project at DEAF04
Run Motherfucker run
Tunnel under the Atlantic
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