BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES

I breathe in and float upward, passing through shimmering globes and layers of ephemeral, earth-tone patterns. I lean left and drift through a dreamlike leaf world, chasing receding balls of light. As I drift, ethereal voices float around my ears, melodic and yet indistinct male and female songs that respond to my movements. I exhale and sink into the trunk of a vast tree set amid a large clearing. The interior of the tree glows with an odd luminescence as I follow channels of light-infused sap, flying through its depths merely by leaning my body and breathing.

I am inside Osmose, Char Davies's virtual reality artwork. This unusual application of computer technology delivers me into a dreamscape where my logical faculties melt into a deep, meditative awareness centered in my breath and body. As I breathe in, I float up in the world; as I exhale, I float down. Davies achieves this simple and yet utterly unique technique for navigating virtual space through the use of a chest harness that monitors my breath. This harness includes a breathing and balance sensor that tracks my body's movement in real time. When combined with the 3-D VR helmet I wear on my head and fat cables linking the whole to a high-powered, parallel-processing Silicon Graphics Onyx computer, I become immersed in cyberspace in a way that explodes my previous conceptions of the medium.

I am not alone in this reaction. A consensus has emerged among those who have experienced immersion in Osmose that it inspires feelings of deep peace and reverie, inducing a quasi-meditative state of awareness. Immersants, as Davies calls them, speak of feeling connected to themselves and the world in a new way after a journey through Osmose. Media theorist Brenda Laurel calls Osmose "breath-taking" and comments that it is "a fundamentally powerful use of technology in the service of, dare I say, nature. There's a healing there, not just of individuals, but of the technology itself." [1]

This healing is precisely Davies's goal. Cyberspace, in its current manifestation, has a tendency to further the split between our minds and our bodies. We enter it through a flat, two-dimensional screen and engage it primarily with our minds, leaving our bodies, for the most part, behind. In fact, for many cyber-aficionados, the body in the context of cyberspace is reduced to "meat," a characterization that denigrates and minimizes the profound power of physical, experience.

As Davies's work demonstrates, the radical objectification of the body in the context of cyberspace is not an inevitability produced by the medium itself. Instead, as Sherry Turkle's [2] work amply demonstrates, cyberspace acts as a mirror that reflects a wide variety of cultural needs and conditions. When it comes to our bodies, cyberspace reflects our entrenched habit of splitting our minds and bodies, thereby reducing the primal power of our physical selves.

This well-documented cultural trajectory, also known as the "mind-body split," has had devastating consequences in severing not only our minds from our bodies but also humanity from the earth that we inhabit. From our split stance, we have sought to objectify and control the physical world, reducing nature to a complex of resources to be plundered at will. This attitude has not only contributed to environmental degradation at an alarming rate but has almost wholly excised the physical from our sacred reality, casting us adrift in an objectified world.

Viewed through windows, menus, and icons, cyberspace seems the perfect bedfellow for our disembodied reveries. But this interpretation reflects our reality, not the reality of cyberspace itself. If we approach cyberspace from the perspective of a splintered self, we will re-create this dualism in cyberspace. If, however, we see cyberspace as a part of a larger, integrated, sacred experience of the world, the picture begins to change quite dramatically. Artists such as Davies are beginning to break through into new experiences of cyberspace that are guided by deeply felt, sacred, and holistic understandings of the world and our role in it.

BODILY WISDOM

The first time I was immersed in Osmose, I came to the environment with a heightened sense of my physicality—I was almost six months pregnant with my second son. For me, pregnancy is a time of deep, physical awareness, much of it unpleasant. At six months, I was still experiencing fatigue and nausea. In this light, the ability of Osmose to engage my body in a new way was a welcome change. As in meditation, my focus shifted to my breath, centered and grounded in my body. Through my breath, my body became a source of calm. I found myself falling slowly into a state of reverie tinged with delight as I drifted through Osmose with my baby kicking inside my swelling belly. In the session, time collapsed, and I was shocked to find when I came out that I had been immersed for forty-five minutes, an unusually long time.

While in Osmose, I found that my analytic sensibility dissolved as I floated among its various worlds. When I first entered the environment, I saw a three-dimensional, phosphorescent green grid against a black background. This "Cartesian" grid quickly faded as I entered the "clearing," a dim space suffused with filtered light. As my eyes adjusted, I saw in the middle of the clearing a majestic tree standing in front of a pool of water. I leaned forward and moved toward the tree. As I got closer, I entered the tree and then, going deeper, moved into its leaves. As I exhaled, I sank into the root system of the tree, entering a space that had a profound earthy quality. Again I leaned forward and found myself back in the clearing. I saw a trail of small lights, like fireflies, floating away in the distance. I followed them lazily, moving among the leaf world, the tree, the clearing, and the cloud world above. At one point, I sank into a pond at the foot of the tree, entering what Davies calls the "abyss," a world of seemingly infinite space in which floated a shimmering ball. As I moved toward the ball and entered it, I found myself back in the clearing once again, a neat circularity that further short-circuited my ability to create a linear experience of the space.

Once I became accustomed to the general parameters of Osmose, I tried to float upward as far as I could. To my surprise, I found beyond the clouds the "text" world, a space of floating words. Generally a person deeply tantalized by evocative and poetic phrases, I quickly grew impatient in this world. My intellect had shut off and I wasn't ready to reengage it. I exhaled and sank down through the clouds, the clearing, and the earth until I found myself in another world of text floating on a black background. This was the "code" world and was composed of all the software code Osmose employs to generate its images. In this world I became deeply anxious. I didn't want to be in the code. I wanted to be back in the archetypal images of nature. Responding to my emotional state, I focused all my attention on rising to escape the floating, numeric sequences.

My experience in Osmose threw me back on myself, gently prodding new awarenesses to the surface. I noticed that I was deeply comfortable in the most ambiguous of the spaces—the transitions among the various worlds. When each world became clearly recognizable-as tree, leaf, or pond—the luminous quality of the floating lights receded into the background. At that point, I began to interpret and distance myself from my immediate experience. My response was to return to: the transitional spaces where the images and the sounds floated around me in an indistinct yet beautiful and soothing way. I also found my antipathy to the text world and my deep anxiety in the code world fascinating. These were unexpected responses generated from deep in my psyche, responses that seemed to escape my interpretive abilities.

In the hours following my immersion, images of Osmose continues to surface in my mind's eye. At one point, I was powerfully reminded of a passage I had recently read in a book by Stuart Kauffman, a scientist at the Santa Fe Institute. Kauffman's book, At Home in the Universe, explores his thesis that the emergence of life can be scientifically explained through the study of self-organizing systems. Kauffman believes that life is, for a variety of complex reasons, an inevitability in the trajectory of evolution. In a passage early in the book, describing the gestation of a human embryo, he writes, "the magic of ontogony lies in the fact that genes and their RNA and protein products form a complex network, switching one another on and off in a wondrously precise manner." [3]

As I was reminded of the passage, I suddenly understood it in a new light. Life, I thought, is emerging in my belly right at this moment and the magic is much larger than my genes and RNA. There is magic in the peace I feel and the visceral sense that that peace is connected, in some deep way, to the peace women have felt for thousands of years as they gestate their children. This is a bodily magic beyond my RNA that is related to the fact that growing inside me is a sliver of myself joined with a sliver of another person, my husband. Through the experience of gestation, I feel both my uniqueness and, at the same time, how deeply connected I am to the greater whole of human evolution.

The deep sense of interdependence that I felt so powerfully flies in the face of evolutionary theory. In the world of traditional evolutionary science, sex is a puzzle. If evolution proceeds through natural selection, through survival of the fittest, then an act that relies on two individuals each cooperatively contributing a piece of genetic material doesn't make sense. In a world strictly guided by competition, evolution would logically create ways for each individual to selfishly pass on his or her genes in a dominant way. Why, evolutionary theory asks, did sex evolve as a solution for reproduction? The answer seems clear enough to me.

The experience in my body tells me that sexual union leading to new life creates a deep awareness of cooperation and interdependence, linking me inextricably into a larger whole. But why does this confer an evolutionary advantage! It doesn't necessarily, until one considers the telos of evolution, its hidden, spiritual core. From a sacred perspective, evolution has a purpose, a direction, toward greater unity that is just as much a part of its reality as is natural selection. The Judeo-Christian tradition identifies this evolutionary trajectory as toward greater unity through love. This is what Cobb and Griffin refer to when they speak of the subjective aim of divinity, the divine lure in each moment toward truth, beauty, and goodness. This telos is also what Wilber points to in his systematic description of holons, of the vision of each piece of the universe linked to every other piece in a vast, dynamic web. And the telos of evolution toward a unified experience of divine love was the clear culmination of Teilhard's theology. This telos of evolution is a subtle but powerful force that must be felt, sensed, and intuited through the wisdom of the body, mind, and spirit working in unison.

In my pregnant state, my awareness of the telos of evolution was heightened. The sense of spiritual peace I felt stemmed from the profoundly personal and yet communal nature of the miracle unfolding inside me. This seemingly paradoxical, ambiguous experience exemplifies bodily based wisdom. Our bodies both contain and isolate us, while at the same time their needs, cycles, and history link us into a continuum of cooperation with the rest of the planetary community. The contradictions that my body embraces—its depths, its emotions, and, ultimately, its spiritual core—are those that science wants to ignore. It is in these contradictions that Osmose ultimately finds its power.

DESCARTES REVISITED

Char Davies thrives on ambiguity. As a computer artist and one of the earliest members of SoftImage, a wildly successful computer animation company, Davies has become accustomed to the varied demands of the working artist and the businesswoman. As I sit in her corporate office looking through a bookshelf that mingles writings on philosophy, ecology, art, and theology with computer software theory, I am struck that this women has learned to find creative sustenance in fluidly shifting between seemingly contradictory roles. In essence, what Davies's life experience has taught her is that the journey not the destination, is the key to creative wholeness. This insight is a perfect foil for cyberspace, a medium whose very soul is composed of movement and process.

Davies began her professional career as a painter and visual artist. She pursued these media for fifteen years, using them to explore the primary thematic material that she characterizes as the relationship between the inner, spiritual and subjective world and the outer, physical world, or what she calls nature. Davies traces her fascination with the archetypal dynamic between inner and outer to a mystical experience she had some twenty years ago. She describes herself in a field at dusk when "suddenly, for an instant the boundaries of my mind expanded to merge with the horizon, creating a sense of union between self and world that I have longed for ever since." [4]  This moment in the field drove Davies to find an artistic medium capable of communicating the sensual, full-body experience that was the core of her experience.

In the mid-1980s, Davies discovered the 3-D computer animation of […] Daniel Langlois. […]†. A few years later, when Langlois founded SoftImage, Davies joined him and the two worked for several years to build a company dedicated to producing high-quality computer animation software. The company was enormously successful. SoftImage software is widely considered the best in the computer animation industry and is responsible for the effects in such movies as The Mask, Jurassic Park, and Jumanji. In 1994, Microsoft bought SoftImage. Davies left the company at the end of 1997 to pursue her artistic research separately. In her last three years at SoftImage, she concentrated on pushing the boundaries of virtual reality as an art form. Osmose is the result of these efforts.

Davies describes Osmose as "about being-in-the-world in its most profound sense, i.e., our subjective experience as sentient, embodied, incarnate beings embedded in enveloping flowing space." [5]  As an artwork, Osmose is "motivated by the desire to heal the Cartesian split between mind/body, subject/object, which has shaped our cultural values and contributed to our dominating stance toward (and estrangement from) life. In this context, Osmose seeks to resensitize—reconnecting mind, body and world." [6]

Davies's statement seems, at first glance, something of an oxymoron. Computers serving to reconnect mind, body, and world? Davies's medium, virtual reality, has its roots in military applications. It was originally created by the Department of Defense for flight training simulations. Since the technology has entered the public domain, the vast majority of implementations have continued with this theme of simulating the real world by seeking to re-create some semblance of it, albeit in a heightened way. VR designers constrain the medium through "solid" walls and familiar and clearly defined "rooms" or "buildings." Participants in VR commonly navigate these pseudo-Cartesian worlds as though they are driving, using conventions such as pointing or joy sticks. This means of moving through the space emphasizes the experience of an external, objective world.

The desire to re-create our reality in a realistic and yet oddly sanitized form, the Holy Grail of the vast majority of VR research since its early days, reflects many of the basic impulses in the computer graphics world in general. In 1989, the early days of VR, artist and educator Richard Wright summarized this mindset when he wrote, "The perception of computer imagery … is one of faultless presentation, accuracy, and a commitment to the myth of self-justifying technological progress…. What [is sought] is a kind of 'realism' that tries to describe the world with an insistent, even authoritarian, accuracy that is over whelming. It is as though the corporate power of the media had joined up with the methodological rigor of the mathematicians and scientists to create some final, definitive and coercive depiction of the visual world'' [7]

Understood in this context, it is no surprise that we have generated a cultural confusion around cyberspace, assuming that we have to choose between organic and cyber realities. When cyberspace is held up as a better, cleaner version of organic space, we are seduced. But this seduction hides a thorny nest of problems, not the least of which is that we cannot really leave organic space behind. We are embodied creatures, and our physical, emotional, and spiritual health depends on being in our bodies in a deep and respectful manner. When we try to escape this reality, entering the computer-generated fantasies of TV and advertising, we disempower our bodily based imaginations. After all, in these hyper real worlds, whose fantasy are we entering, and what vision drove their creation?

The heightening and objectifying of reality that still characterizes most of the implementations of cyberspace is certainly not a new desire in our culture. Robert Romanyshyn argues that one important thread in the development of a technology that encourages us to objectify the world and leave our bodies behind can be traced to the development of linear-perspective vision. This way of seeing the world emerged from a technique developed in the 1400s in which painters literally created mathematical, life-size grids that they would place between themselves and their subjects. This practice created a firm separation between the viewer and the viewed, between self and world. In this process, the self was transformed into a spectator and the world became a spectacle. As Romanyshyn writes, "The shift is from the created order of nature to the creation of  meaning established by the self in its withdrawal from the world." [8]

The self behind the window is a self that has disengaged from the physical world and from its own body to become a being of almost pure mind. We can hear in this development a clear echo of Plato's wish to move away from the messy reality of embodied experience toward the pure world of ideal forms. The outcome of this perspective is that the world through the window becomes a mathematically defined, geometric, and ultimately fragmented universe. The world that the self engages mutates into a universe of rational intellect. As Romanyshyn explains, "The hegemony of the head leaves no room for the pantomimic body, for the body with its power to generate spaces, to create situations. Within the linear, and homogeneous, space of explanation, within that grid where all space has become equal and the same, the heterogeneous pantomimic body has no place." [9] In other words, there is no room for embodied wisdom in the world of linear-perspective vision.

In their current implementation, computers seem to be propelling us further toward this disembodied place, becoming, to borrow Walker Percy's phrase, "cosmonauts in cyberspace." [10] This notion borrows from both a hope and a fear. We have the desire to escape the messy and mortal sphere of the body while, at the same time, we are afraid that the alternate realities offered by cyberspace will simply suck us in, pulling us step by step away from the organic world that gave us birth. What we really want is to have our cake and eat it too. We would like to have bodies that are forever young, beautiful, and free of pain that inhabit a clean and orderly natural world free of forces beyond our control.

Walker Percy writes, "Every advance in our objective understanding of the Cosmos and its technological control further distances the self from the Cosmos precisely in the degree of the advance—so that in the end the self becomes a spacebound ghost which roams the very Cosmos it understands perfectly." [11] It may be no coincidence that cyber space has emerged as a cultural force at this point in time. In its current form, cyberspace offers us a way to push the limits of ghosthood. Through it, we can roam the universe of information at will, our minds cast loose in the infinite, discursive Net. But in this wandering we are becoming hungry ghosts. While we cram ourselves with information, we thirst for connection, depth, and spiritual meaning in our lives. We are discovering a need for the wisdom that only our bodies and a deep experience of the natural world can bring.

There is a flip side to this story. The ghostly realm of cyberspace has the potential to push us back into the organic world with new eyes. Many astronauts who have circled the globe report awakening to a profound love for the beauty and fragility of our planet when they viewed it from afar. A similar dynamic may be in play between us and cyber space. The particular form of understanding that can emerge in the interaction between the human and cyber worlds is precisely the point for Davies.

When Davies immerses us in a world that explodes Cartesian space, that relies on our inner, subjective experience for its power, she seeks to "enable us to experience our place in the world afresh." [12] This is one of her primary goals, and she is fond of quoting Gaston Bachelard to emphasize the point: "… 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."[13] The ambiguous, fluid, and spatially unfamiliar world of Osmose—where the virtual body hovers and floats in a digital terrain unhampered by gravity—opens our senses for a new relationship to the organic world when we reenter it. It is Davies's hope that these various elements in Osmose will "work together to loosen the mind's rational hold, dissolving the subject/object dichotomy, and: in a dream-like way, [shift] the immersant's mode of experience away from the everyday bias of eyesight to one that resonates deeper within the physical body." [14]

In eliciting a paradoxical experience of embodiment, Osmose invites us to reexamine the relationship between bodies and cyberspace Osmose is an abstract space that calls us to be grounded in our physical bodies. In it we are embodied and disembodied simultaneously. As Davies writes, "In Osmose, this paradox is amplified. After a certain period of immersion (usually about ten minutes), various conditions related to the imagery, luminosity, semitransparency, spatial ambiguity slow subtle transitions between the worlds, evocative resonant sounds along with solitude, deep breathing and maintaining one's center of balance within the space all combine to create a distinct shift of awareness as he or she lets go of the rational urge to control, and boundaries between inner, outer, mind, body, space and time begin to dissolve." [15]

Paradox has a special role to play on the road to spiritual awareness. Perhaps the most fundamental paradox in our experience is that between mind and body. Spiritual experience can reconcile this paradox as it enables us to feel a connection to all that is from the locus of bodies that clearly keep us separate. We are connected and yet disconnected at the same time. The enabling force in this reconciliation is "transcendence," or what many traditions refer to as "nonduality." As Ken Wilber explains, "Paradox is simply the way nonduality looks to the mental level. Spirit itself is not paradoxical; it is not characterizable at all." [16]

Accessing the transcendent aspect of spirit enables us to move beyond the paradoxes generated by the mind and its relationship to body and spirit into a place of oneness. From the transcendent perspective, paradox dissolves. As Wilber reminds us, paradox is a condition generated by mind. Therefore, paradox and ambiguity can serve as signals that we are in the realm of mind. Reconciliation and wholeness require incorporation of an experience of spirit. As an integrative space that brings together the cyber and the bodily, the worlds of code and text with the dreamscapes of artistic vision, Osmose comprises a hopeful next step as we struggle to integrate the complex and confusing contradictions represented by cyber, spirit, and body.

Notes

1. Erik Davis, "Osmose". Also available online at Wired Magazine.


2. See Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen and The Second Self.


3. Stuart Kauffman, At Home in the Universe, pages 24-25. 


4. Char Davies, "Osmose," page 5.


5. Ibid., page 3. 


6. Ibid. 


7. Richard Wright, "The Image in Art and 'Computer Art,' " Leonardo, Computer Art Supplemental Issue, 1989, page 51. 


8. Robert Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream, page 80.


9. Ibid., page 115. 


10. Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos.


11. Ibid., pages 12-13. 


12. Char Davies, "Osmose," page 1. 


13. Ibid 


14. Ibid., page 3. 


15. Ibid., page 6. 


16. Ken Wilber, Eye to Eye, page 180.


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Last verified: August 1st 2013.