Diving into the virtual

Kathy Cleland immersed in the translucent worlds of Char Davies

Char Davies, Forest and Grid, real-time frame capture from Osmose (1995)

Char Davies, Forest and Grid, real-time frame capture from Osmose (1995)

Based in Montreal, Canada, Char Davies is best known for her acclaimed immersive virtual environments Osmose (1995) and more recently Éphémère (1998). The works are notable not only for their exquisite translucent visuals and evocative soundscapes but also for their creative interface. In her immersive environments, the user, or more accurately, the ‘immersant’, does not just manipulate a mouse or joystick or touch and point with a dataglove, they are immersed in a virtual world where the body is the navigational interface. Immersants are strapped into a motion tracking harness and breathing and balance determine their movement within the worlds. There is a paradoxical freedom from the physical limits of the body as you float through the world on a meditative journey but this is coupled with an intense awareness of the body anchored by the breath. The works are both literally and figuratively captivating.

Char Davies likens this experience to the bodily immersion of scuba diving where the diver also navigates through body and breath control and the works certainly do share some of the characteristics of a fluid underwater environment. But there are also surreal, otherworldly aspects to the work which induce altered states of consciousness that are more evocative of dream states or the experience of meditation. The environments of Osmose and Éphémère are alternate realities, worlds of the imagination which follow the logic of dreams rather than the rules of real world physics. In real life you can’t float up into the sky or down through the earth. In Osmose and Éphémère you can do both.

Osmose is structured into a series of translucent shimmering world spaces but as well as its startling beauty, the work is also conceptually sophisticated and self-referential. The first virtual space experienced is a 3 dimensional Cartesian grid which dissolves to a clearing as the immersant starts to orient themselves with their first breaths. From the clearing the immersant can journey to a variety of world spaces including Forest, Tree, Leaf, Pond, Earth, Cloud, Abyss and Lifeworld. Underlying these worlds is an area of computer code and there is another upper level or layer of quoted texts which comment on nature, the body and technology.

Although her artistic iconography is drawn from nature and natural processes, Davies presents us with more than a virtual reality representation of nature; her work is a reconstruction of nature, a second nature, where we can see through the underlying grid and code that the environment is based on, and the conceptual overlaying of culture in the upper level of texts to the translucent visuals that explore the inner workings of natural forces and processes.

Like Osmose, Éphémère includes archetypal elements of nature (earth, rock, tree, river) but in this work the metaphor is extended to include bodily organs, blood vessels and bones. The work is structured vertically into 3 levels: landscape, earth, and interior body—each level moves through transformative cycles of germination, growth, decay and death and immersants can also ‘cross’ from underground river to bodily artery/vein. Each journey through Éphémère is different and, like Osmose, the experience is determined by the immersant’s breathing and balance.

In her online documentation of Osmose, Davies introduces her work with a quotation from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. “By changing space, by leaving the space of one’s usual sensibilities one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating. For we do not change place, we change our nature.”

In documentary footage of Osmose, the effects of this ‘psychically innovating’ experience is evident on the faces of people taking off their head-mounted displays at the end of their immersive experience. The common facial denominator is wide-eyed dreamlike wonder, some are moved close to tears. Most of them are almost speechless after the experience, those who could string a few words together beyond ‘wow, that was amazing’ compare the experience to meditation or to a religious experience. The phenomenological experience of the work appears to induce a contemplative meditative state which blurs the boundaries between inner/outer and mind/body. “The experience of seeing and floating through things, along with the work’s reliance on breath and balance as well as on solitary immersion, causes many participants to relinquish desire for active ‘doing’ in favour of contemplative ‘being’” (Char Davies, “Changing Space: Virtual Reality as an Arena of Being” in The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation and Crash Culture, ed. John Beckman, Boston: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998).

The introduction via the means of virtual reality of new experiential spaces opens up the possibility not only of new experiences but new modes of experience with the potential to change human nature itself. Comments Davies, “Such environments can provide a new kind of ‘place’ through which our minds may float among three-dimensionally extended forms in a paradoxical combination of the ephemerally immaterial with what is perceived and bodily felt to be real” (ibid). Although science fiction literature and film has started to sketch out this terrain, in the real world we are just starting to glimpse some of the possibilities of these new technologies. Exactly what the long-term ramifications of this will be for human nature is a topic that will be of increasing importance as we move into the virtual reality domains of the 21st century.

Char Davies’ visit to Australia in June-July 1999 was hosted by Cyber Dreaming, an Aboriginal multimedia production company based in Queensland. In Sydney, dLux media arts presented Davies’ keynote address at Flashpoint 99 architecture and design conference, University of NSW, July 12. More information about Char Davies’ work can be found at http://www.immersence.com/

RealTime issue #34 Dec-Jan 1999 pg. 14

© Kathy Cleland; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1999