Virtually as natural as breathing

Stephen Jones, Consciousness Reframed Conference in Wales

Stephen Jones takes a brief look at several issues that might have arisen (had there been time allocated for debate) at the Consciousness Reframed Conference in Wales

Consciousness Reframed at the CAiiA institute of the University of Wales was convened in July of this year to open up research and discussion of issues in interactive arts and “to examine what might be described as the technoetic principle in art.” (All quotes are from the Abstracts of the conference.) That is, how the technological is changing our consciousness of the world; our perceptions and our productions, our knowledge and modeling of the world.

Setting up the framework, Carol Gigliotti (Ohio State University) suggested that consciousness of cyberspace is a function of our understanding of how navigating through our own domestic worlds informs “our involvements with contemporary interactive technologies.” She asked, “Why construct virtual environments? Why do we feel the need to create something when we have so little understanding of why the natural world exists?” This question is often asked in relation to technological activity, usually in the following way. Look, all this technology is doing terrible things to our environment, so isn't it time we stopped and let the 'natural' world have ascendency again?

I'm never sure what I think about this, being so heavily involved in technology myself. The activity of cultural production is an ancient and deeply human function in which we engage with the world in order to understand it. Even some animals make and use tools, and language and counting are technologies. We need to pay deeper attention to the impacts of our activities on other systems, and it is here that we can work multimedia towards more acceptable ends. We can use the theory behind multimedia, the notions of interactivity and feedback, complex systems and self-organisation to recast our frameworks to look carefully at and acknowledge the consequences of what we do.

Another way to change thinking is in the re-mythologisation of the technological. For many people involved with VR (Virtual Reality) it seems to have acquired characteristics of dreaming, because one is removed from the world in wearing the helmet and harness of the VR installation. Canadian VR producer Char Davies notes that one experiences her work Osmose as though removed from the everyday world and 'immersed' in some environment that doesn't behave according to known rules. One navigates Osmose by breathing; breathing in one rises through the virtual worlds and breathing out one sinks slowly into deeper realms, descending to the core machine-code world. The immersant dives into the transparency of the virtual world, breaking habitualised perception, leading to altered states of consciousness.

Davies spoke of Osmose as being a kind of poiesis, un-concealing our being in the world. Immersion brings with it a realm of the emotional. She comments that “…by re-conceiving humans as beings 'within' the world, as participants among the world's temporal becomings” we may be able to subvert the rationalist view, revealing new perceptions of our relations to the world, re-invoking the sacred. Thus response to the experience of Osmose is often one of its ineffability, its indescribable nature, “an unfathomably poetic flux of comings-into-being, lingerings and passings-away within which our own mortality is encompassed.”

Davies' discussion also opens up issues of what Cyberspace actually is. Is it a dream world or a trance space? Margaret Dolinsky (University of Illinois, Chicago) spoke of VR as being active or “lucid” dreaming. In her work Dream Grrls designed for the Cave (an immersive, stereo-graphic virtual display theatre), she provides active dreaming spaces where we can explore dream versions of our self. The cyber realm becomes differently valued, a source of experiencing substantial otherness from our regular in-the-world being.

Is the producer of cyberspaces a shaman? Kathleen Rogers has been exploring Mayan shamanism in the mythology of the snake, using multimedia to emulate and bring on these trance states. The snake represents spiritual energy in many cultures and Rogers' intention “is to re-activate this complex model of Mayan consciousness” as a kind of cognitive archeology. The snake represents spiritual energy as well as the cyclical notion of time held by the Maya. She aims get to some sort of essence of this mythology using immersion as a tool for inducing spiritual states in the VR adventurer.

The Brazilian artist Diana Domingues also spoke of the potential for shamanistic states in VR and likened the screen of VR to the desert as a device for the projection of desires and dreams. She suggested that creative production is a way of losing ourselves, offering “interactive installations for people to experience conscious propagation in an organic/inorganic life. Electronic interfaces and neural networks provide intelligent behaviours, managing signals of the human body in sensorized environments,” providing electronic ritual and trance interfaced with electronic memory as “virtual hallucination” producing a shamanic experience.

Mark Pesce (the inventor of VRML) also takes the line that cyberspace is ineffable, mythological space, “dream-time” or “faerie”, a space of magical reality. “The forms of magical reality, ancient to humanity's beginnings, shape our vision in the unbounded void of electronic potential”. It is as though cyberspace provides an hallucinatory configuration of our perception, becoming a screen for the projection of our spiritual desires and interests.

More generally, the question becomes just what is “immersion”? How do we define it and how can we distinguish it from other mental states such as being absorbed in a book or the cinema? What degree of suspension of disbelief is needed, what agreements with the artist do we make in entering “cyberspace” so that the artist can bring a version of their conceived experience to us?

Osmose in many ways provides the paradigm example of the truly immersive space; one dons the helmet and harness and enters a world where everything is translucent, floating, jungle-like—an enveloping world of the artist's imagination. For Joe Nechvatal (an American artist living in France) immersion is containment, a 360-degree surround, physical rather than cognitive, different from the absorption we have in a book or the cinema. For Nechvatal immersion in a VR work implies a unified total space, an homogeneous world without external distraction, striving to be a consummate, harmonious whole. He identifies “two grades of immersion…(1) cocooning and (2) expanding within, which, when these two directions of psychic space cooperate…we feel…our bodies becoming subliminal, immersed in an extensive topophilia…an inner immensity where we realise our limitations along with our desires for expansion”.

In the immersive world of VR we are placed at the centre of a polar dimensional realm: wherever we turn our perspective follows, the sounds of the cyber jungle exist within plain hearing, the view is only revealed as we penetrate deeper into re-calculated space.

In the jungle, hearing becomes primary, vision is downgraded. In the VR world hearing and vision are continually re-calculated placing us at the centre of polar coordinates. As art historian Suzanne Ackers suggested, renaissance perspective is displaced and we learn new ways of seeing, navigating in new kinds of conceptual space. Point of view no longer operates in its traditional manner, it now alters over time and our perception of time and space becomes a virtual knowledge, no longer fixed to the Cartesian frame, mutable, always recalculated, determined by our progress through the environment.

The suggestion is that the experience of VR is one of non-knowing, omni-perception transcending formerly known territories, launching us into dreamspace and the worlds of the shaman. As Davies amply demonstrates in Osmose the world visually perceived becomes one of multiple layers as well as one of fluid viewpoint, worlds layered as sheets of knowing through which we navigate, each sheet providing its own enveloping omni-projective space as though we had torn away at the veils of perception rumoured at in so much early western mystical literature.

But to what extent can this really be happening given that most VR work is simply re-calculated perspectives of thoroughly well defined visual productions? Shamanism and dreaming both suppose a disruption of the consciousness of the viewer wherein recombination of thoughts and images can freely occur. I don't feel that any of the work reviewed here manages this but I suspect that there is other work, for example Bill Seaman's, where the seeds of such a process are being laid.

RealTime issue #21 Oct-Nov 1997 pg. 19

© Stephen Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1997