Char Davies - Artist Biography

Canadian artist Char Davies is internationally recognized for pioneering artworks using the technologies of virtual reality.

Originally a painter, Davies transitioned to digital media in the mid-1980s when she began exploring 3D computer imaging as a means of going "beyond" the 2D picture plane. In 1987 she became a founding director of the 3D software company Softimage, whose intuitive design philosophy arguably reconfigured the computer graphics industry. A developer of software tools used in such films as Jurassic Park and The Matrix, Softimage held its initial public offering on NASDAQ in 1992 and was subsequently acquired by Microsoft. During her ten years at the company – as its first VP, then Director of Visual Research – Davies began adapting its software for her own artistic purposes.

Her earliest explorations included a series of 3D digital still images (Interior Body Series, 1990-1993), exhibited as large-scale light boxes in the US, Europe, Australia and Canada. Characterized by a painterly aesthetic of luminous transparency and spatial ambiguity, as well as references to both landscape and the internal body, these images established Davies' concerns in the digital field. Foremost among these concerns was challenging the bias of 3D computer imaging towards objective (or literal) realism.

In 1994-1995, Davies created the immersive virtual environment Osmose, now considered to be a landmark in the history of virtual reality and new media art. Intent on subverting conventional approaches to VR, Davies and her team developed the use of semi-transparency in real-time, and invented a user interface based on breathing and balance that enabled immersants to seemingly "float" among translucent landscapes. Osmose and its companion work Ephémère (1998) became world-renowned for their aesthetic sensibility, technical innovation and emotional effect on participants.

These works have been widely exhibited, including at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art; Barbican Art Centre, London; Australian Center for the Moving Image, Melbourne; Museum of Monterrey, Mexico; Montreal Musée d'Art Contemporain; the National Gallery of Canada; and Laboral, Spain. They have received extensive media coverage, ranging from Art in America to Wired and New Scientist, and continue to be the subject of academic studies. The first monograph on her work, Char Davies' Immersive Virtual Art and the Essence of Spatiality (by Laurie McRobert) was published by University of Toronto Press in 2007. Both Osmose and Ephémère were recently re-mastered to run on contemporary technology.

Davies has long held a unique vision of the potential of immersive virtual space – as a spatiotemporal arena for questioning our habitual perceptions, and, paradoxically, for re-sensitizing us to the wonder of being embodied in the world.

She has lectured on this subject across North America, the UK, Europe, Australia and Japan, and her writings ("Virtual Space", 2004; "Rethinking VR: Key Concepts and Concerns", 2003; "Changing Space: Virtual Reality as an Arena of Embodied Being", 1998; "Osmose: Notes on Being in Immersive Virtual Space", 1995) have been published in numerous anthologies. In 2005, she completed a doctorate in philosophy (the dissertation was titled "Landscapes of Ephemeral Embrace: Immersive Virtual Space as a Medium for Transforming Perception") at CAiiA (Centre for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts), University of Plymouth, UK. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Art by the University of Victoria, Canada, in 2002.

Over the past two decades, Davies has become increasingly engaged with the intertwining of virtual space with actual "place". She has made a lifetime commitment to caring for a forest, situated on a small mountainside in southern Quebec, where she has protected over 1200 acres for perpetuity. In addition to the daily responsibilities of land management, she has been creating large-scale compositions – using stone, wood, and water – within the landscape, inspired by the work of 14th century Japanese Buddhist monks.

As part of Davies’ new work, she and her team are developing a constantly evolving visualization software, named the SeeR. It is currently being used for re-presenting landscapes with billions of points, captured from actual environments by different technologies such as 3d laser scanning, LIDAR, etc., enabling multiple spatial perceptions. With the SeeR, they can explore real and virtual spaces (environments), and can “edit” them in ways that are not possible with conventional point-cloud softwares. In the future, the SeeR will be made available to designers, artists, research centres, museums and potentially the general public, opening new ways of experiencing (the representation of) our natural environment..

Davies is based in rural Quebec and San Francisco.

Updated July 22th, 2018
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