Abstract

This paper reviews the first "Consciousness Reframed" conference. A number of artists' works in media such as virtual reality and interactive installations are discussed, and various issues relating to "technoetic" artworks are raised. These issues include questions such as the potentially dehumanizing nature of technology, the transcendent states claimed for cyberspace, the nature of immersion, and aspects of the problem of consciousness. The author offers some suggestions regarding how technoetic art might tackle such issues.


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In July 1997 the Centre for Advanced Inquiry into the Interactive Arts (CAiiA), at the University of Wales, held the first "Consciousness Reframed" conference. About 150 people attended, most of them involved in different fields of the media-arts: multimedia theory, web-site production and virtual reality (VR), painting, video and installation, art history and architecture, philosophy and the social sciences and teaching and ethics.

What does "Consciousness Reframed" mean? No one had a set definition, but the term provided a great stimulus to explore ideas about consciousness: from neuro-physiology to artificial intelligence, from extra-sensory perception to shamanistic trance practices, from the Internet to VR installations and from constructed ways of seeing to the role of geometry in painting. Roy Ascott, the chair of CAiiA, in his preface to the Abstracts for the conference, put it this way:

Interactions between art, science and technology are leading to the emergence of new cultural forms, behaviours and values. It is within the field of Consciousness that this is most marked and at the same time least understood. This conference has been convened in order to open up informed discussion of the issues this raises and to examine what might be described as the tech noeticprinciple in art [1].

The term technoetic is the key. It refers to our use of technology in cultural production, and it also refers to the noetic, or how we understand the world and our processes of being in it. This suggests the exploration of how technology is changing our perceptions of the world. Certainly many of the papers and discussions that represented the huge diversity of practice in new-media arts focused on this issue.

Humanizing Technology

A primary issue confronting new-media artists is the politicoeconomic question of the human and environmental impact of their work. This applies to all our technological activity. Modeling our ideas is an ancient and deeply human practice in which we engage with the world in our process of understanding it. Modeling leads to reflection on our productions, to new ideas and inventions and may also lead to critical thought about what we do. We need to pay more attention to the impact of our activities on other systems. To "humanize" technology, we have to take into account the biological and emotional aspects of our being. Notions of feedback and self-organization allow us to account for the consequences of what we do.

Char Davies addresses this techno-cultural problem in her work Osmose [2]. A person entering the installation is presented with images on two projection screens: on one is a silhouette of the person "flying" the work (Fig. 1) and on the other, the space that he or she is "flying" through (Fig. 2). It is an elegant and evocative work, with the image and music presenting a floating, wistful feel. One flies through translucent underwaterlike jungles and crystalline spaces as well as worlds of text and the underlying computer code.

In her paper "Techne as Poiesis: Seeking Virtual Ground" Davies speaks of Osmose as being a poiesis or bringing forth, revealing our being in the world. The prime navigating tool is the breath. On breathing in, one rises through the virtual worlds; on breathing out, one sinks slowly into deeper realms, until one gets down to the core machine-code world. Davies likens the experience to one of diving rather than dreaming. The participant gains a sense of being removed from the everyday world and "immersed" in some environment that does not necessarily behave according to the rules of the known. The conscious use of breath, combined with a feeling of balance in the immersant, undoes our habitualized everyday perceptions and leads to altered states of consciousness.

Through its use of the breath as a navigational tool, immersion in Osmose produces an emotional experience. This emotional character of Osmose brings one to anew experience of the technological. Response to the experience of Osmose is often a feeling 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" [3].

Thus, for Davies and many other new-media artists, humanizing technology involves a subversive generativity of ideas and of methods for handling technological presence. It involves opening up, diversifying, re-connecting, so that anything we do with the techne, we can sidestep, redo, or recast when it is put to inhuman tasks. The trap is that we just end up feeding the business world with even more new things that it can capture. But to stop, to relinquish the critical stance, to cease being generative is to degenerate and to cease to exist.

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What Is Immersion?

Both dreaming and shamanic trance are states that require total immersion in the experience. But just what is "immersion" in VR? How do we define it and how can we distinguish it from other mental states within consciousness, such as being absorbed in a book or film? 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 some sort of version of the conceived experience to us?

Joseph Nechvatal in his paper "immersive implications" suggests that technoetic connectivity provides a tool for society to understand itself. It reworks and redirects the perspectival point of view: "The classic Cartesian duality between subject and object becomes omnijective, iridescent, shimmering and porous in its inversions" [21]. Immersion is enveloping, physical rather than cognitive, and different from one's absorption in a book or the cinema. For Nechvatal, immersion in VR implies a unified total space, a homogeneous world without external distraction, striving to be a consummate harmonious whole. Identifying "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" [22], he asks, "Do VR's immersive attributes permit us to support non-discursive intuitive generalisations from which to weave a philosophy of virtual reality by adapting principles of complex generosity?" [23]. He adds that with a "specifically spherical way of conceiving encounters" [24] a new "perspective" is afoot within VR (Fig. 8) . Nevertheless, he warns, as continuous total immersion would be monstrous, we should regard VR as a modeling system in which artists can generate the "countless, but shortlived, experiences and observations that can be exact only because they are brief entries into the encompassing phenomenon of a shimmering deframed consciousness" [25].

Davies' Osmose might provide the paradigm example of immersive space: one dons the helmet and harness and enters a floating world, where everything is translucent and jungle-like—enveloping worlds of imagination, though not one's own but the artist's. The point of view in the immersive world is omnidirectional, a point of hearing rather than of view. One's head is the origin in the center of a sphere, the aural center of perception in the jungle. The primary sense in the jungle is hearing; sight is interrupted by the forest. We can see only the most local distance, yet we can hear a vast world of sounds.

Immersed in VR, we are placed at the center of a realm based on polar coordinates: wherever we turn, our perspective follows, the sounds of the cyberjungle lead us. The view is revealed only as we penetrate deeper into recalculated space. As art historian Suzanne Ackers suggests, Renaissance perspective is displaced, and we are learning new ways of seeing, navigating in new kinds of conceptual space [26]. 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. Consciousness can only follow along, hoping to make the necessary adustments before we fallout of the world. Our internal center is temporarily dislocated from our external center; suddenly we do not know where we are.

According to Nechvatal, the immersant in VR is cut off from the world in a fusion of sight and sound where a "radical unity and aesthetic transcendence through totality… provide a complete alternative reality to the viewpoint for exploration and contemplation… immersive art striving towards a consummate harmonious whole" [27]. The experience of VR is one of omni-perception transcending formerly known territories. 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 can navigate, each sheet providing its own enveloping omni-projective space.

In her paper "Perception of Individual Time," Ackers points out the role of geometry and muathematics in our perception. She asks how this has altered over the history of art and how it appears in VR work. "Geometry played a crucial role in the development of Gothic architecture. Today, we easily perceive the numerical harmonies in a cathedral's facade or interior space. What about our perception of the numerical harmony in digital images?" [28]. For example, in Osmose the visuals "can be seen in the context of pictorial tradition, the dimension or time is an addition which has only been made possible by the complex use or numbers, and or computer programming" [29]. The interval or our immersion in Osmose provides a perspective that is time-based as well as spatial; this perspective constantly perturbs our usual sense or locus in space and time. This is a new kind or aesthetic experience where time plays an important role in our view or the work.

In the audience's contemplation or a painting, the durational element becomes little more than a slightly extended present, whereas involvement in VR, new-media or video work forces one to spend some time with the work simply to gain any idea or it at all. Being captured by the work becomes another factor in the immersion. Duration as a dimension or an artwork allows the producer or the work to introduce a series or ideas, or a flow and mutation or one idea, which is not available in most painting or sculpture. Time allows an audience the luxury of contemplating the work, or exploring possible interpretations, and it allows artists the luxury of extending and developing associations and permutations of ideas. It is this which promotes interaction as much as any "hands on" operability or the computer-driven work. just as conversation takes time to develop, so does one's conversation with an artwork take time to develop, being especially enhanced if the feedback from the artwork is active. Our perception can change, or be changed, over time as the feedback loop between us and the artwork is allowed to develop.

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In Conclusion

Why are we conscious at all? asks Carol Gigliotti in her paper "What Is Consciousness For?" Why do we possess this unique "space in which we spend a major portion of our life?" [42]. Our navigation through our own domestic worlds as well as our wider social worlds informs and configures "our involvements with contemporary interactive technologies" [43]. If we do not ask the basic questions about why we are conscious, then what of our productions, cultural and otherwise? "Why construct virtual environments? Why construct artificial life environments? Why do we feel the need to create something when we seem to have so little understanding of why the natural world exists?" [44]. What do we miss about ourselves and our being in the world if we go straight to the question of technological consciousness? Perhaps we should look critically at why we do these things and at the impact they have on our society and on other non-languagebased conscious entities: animals and other creatures. Gigliotti wites:

If, as I surmise, one purpose of consciousness is to help us make our way through constant change, then we may need to better understand the limits that fear imposes in us in understanding both our own consciousnes, and our involvement in the development of artificial life forms with consciousness of their own. We may want to ask ourselves: could it be that our consciousness is for making only our meaning in the world, imprinting only ourselves on this vastness, bettering the planet and perhaps space, with only our intelligent creations? But then what is animal consciousness for? And for that matter, what would robotic consciousness be for? … How can we hope to understand and develop a positive relationship with beings of our devising if we understand so little of the incredible richness of those beings that already exist and share our conscious and unconscious space here and now? [45]

I suggest that consciousness is a result of the self-organizing capacity of the brain in its milieu: the body and the world. Cultures supply and inform the spectrum of possibilities for how consciousness is organized. The production of artworks employing some of the feedback-driven, autopoietic capabilities that we embody offers some leads to the solution of the problem of a technologically determined culture. If this kind of work can become complex enough, or if enough connectivity can be developed among these works—say, over the Internet—then is it possible that the system that thus evolved might in fact be conscious? And if so, what then?

References and Notes


1. Roy Ascott, "Preface" in Roy Ascott, ed. Consciousness Reframed: Abstracts (Newport, Wales. CAiiA, Univ. of Wales College, 1997) p. 1.
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2. Beryl Graham, Serious Games: Art . Interaction . Technology. (exh. cat.) Barbican Art Gallery, London, August-October, 1997.
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3. Char Davies, "Techne as Poiesis: Seeking Virtual Ground: in Ascott [1] p. 28.
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21.Joseph Nechvatal, "Immersive Implications," in Ascott [1] p.68.
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22. Nechvatal [21] p. 68.
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23. Nechvatal [21] p. 68.
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24. Nechvatal [21] p. 68.
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25. Nechvatal [21] p. 68.
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26. S. Ackers, "Perception of Individual Time," in Ascott [1] p.2.
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27. Nechvatal [21] p. 2.
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28. Ackers [26] p. 2.
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29. Ackers [26] p. 2.
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42. Carol Gigliotti, "What Is Consciousness For?" in Ascott [1] p. 40.
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43. Gigliotti [42] p. 40.
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44. Gigliotti [42] p. 40
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45. Carol Gigliotti, "What Is Consciousness For?" in Ascott [34].
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Manuscript received 3 November 1997.

Stephen Jones (artist, engineer, theorist),
387 Riley St.,
Surrey Hills, NSW 2010,
Australia.

E-mail: sjones@culture.com.au


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Last verified: August 1st 2013.