Designing space is more than just creating a three-dimensional frame. It is also about creating an experience. In this article I will suggest that in order to understand what digital spaces is we can learn a lot from analyzing places for leisure, namely gardens. More particularly I will examine how the gardens of Villa Lante in Italy and Stourhead in England frame stories and organize experiences. I will then propose a model for comprehending the landscape garden and examine how this model can be viable as a tool for analyzing digital spaces. This will be exemplified through examining two virtual reality (VR) artworks: Tunnel Under the Atlantic by Maurice Benayoun and Ephémère by Char Davies.

The VR works chosen is of a very particular kind their most significant quality being that they use spatial features to set up an experiential frame. They are both elaborate expressions of places that can be entered and investigated. Entering the work is a matter of navigating digitally composed and computer-mediated spaces. However these particular VR works establish places that both in how they are created and how they are experienced differ from how we usually understand space, as we know it physically. The VR works are not spaces that try to simulate the spatial typology that we are familiar with through our physical surroundings. Rather they establish spaces that distinct themselves from the familiar to challenge our usual habitual perception of our surrounding world (Davies, 1998a).

The VR work and the garden space discussed in this article share certain similarities: through a spatial setting they establish a pure experience space with a particular aesthetic expression. In either case there is no random collection of elements that combined gives an expression but rather a meticulously arranged composition with carefully planned sequences of elements with particular meaning.

Both the gardens and the VR pieces can be defined as artistic expressions that are promoted through a spatial setting. However they are different in the medium and in the material through which the expression comes about. Garden art has existed in many thousand years whereas the digital artwork is a very resent medium. I believe it can be enlightening to analyze the artistic spatial articulation of the garden space and with this knowledge find out what signifies the virtual artistic spatial expression.

10.1 Gardens as Staged Experiences

Unlike buildings as houses and schools that serve a functional need, gardens are primarily created for pleasure, contemplation and perhaps representation. The garden does not serve any strict practical purpose and its design and layout derives form a different point than that of organizing functionality. Gardens are expressions for their contemporaries' vision of paradise or philosophical discourse. In a broad sense you can say that they are narrative as they are telling the story of ideal place.

Gardens can be viewed as an organized sequence of staged situations. The designer has created a condition where the protagonist is taken along paths through sceneries and settings to please and surprise. Gardens are experienced spatially which ultimately means that we can move around in them. It is a three-dimensional frame that although it does not offer a strict linear narrative (telling that…) has a narrating expression that can be experienced through viewing, interaction and movement (it is a telling about…). The spatial sequencing of elements can be regarded as equivalent to a time structure in narrative. As Michael Heim claims "Space from the standpoint of the "system participant" has a temporal framework" (Heim, 1998). The garden space is laid out in a very specific way that organizes and relates the different places and installations. The path through the garden guides the way it is intended to be experienced:

There is a tendency to think of narrative primarily as a temporal art and landscape as something visual, spatial, an unchanging background and therefore non narrative. However as Ricoeur states, narratives combine two dimensions, one a temporal sequence of events and the other a non chronological configuration of that organizes narrative into spatial patterns. Stories can plot events into lines, create hierarchies, unite beginnings and ends to form circles, or tie knots and design labyrinths. Likewise, through landscape the temporal dimension of narrative becomes visible, and space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history (Bakhtin). Landscape narratives mediate this crossing of temporal and spatial experience. (Potteiger and Purinton, 1998)

The spatial orchestration can be seen as a narrative gesture in two ways. First of all as a time-based sequence that is defined by the path that takes the protagonist through the space. Secondly as an iconographic structure where plan and elements that constitute the space refer to specific myths or ideas.

10.2 From Gardens to VR

It is obvious that a direct comparison between historical gardens and VR artwork is impossible since the times and conditions that the two has emerged in are completely different. However the history of garden design can create a path that can guide us in the search for a comprehension of fictional virtual worlds. A comparison can perhaps reveal curtail points about these virtual places for exploration. The garden spaces of Lante and Stourhead are both examples of how stories, meaning and expressions are conveyed through a three-dimensional spatial setting that we can experience actively through moving through it. Simultaneously a comparison can reveal the differences between the two garden space and virtual artistic spaces of Ephémère and Tunnel Under the Atlantic. Hopefully it will bring us closer in defining a spatial vocabulary significant to experience places in VR.

The gardens of Villa Lante from the Italian renaissance and Stourhead from the 18th century England are chosen because they illuminate the point about place as fiction and pleasurable exploration very clearly. They do this through their staged sequence, through literary references and through inscriptions in the gardens that indicate how it is suppose to be experienced. There is a distinct story being told both in the spatial organization as well as in the way groups of sculptures referring to the Greek mythology relate to each other and the surrounding environment. Finally the gardens have interactive features meant to surprise and involve the visitor. One could say that the gardens in their shapes are very expressive and communicative.

10.3 Villa Lante

Villa Lante, plan view
Figure 10.1
Gardens of Villa Lante plan view:
a forest and formal garden.

The gardens of Villa Lante is an Italian late renaissance garden from 1566. It was commissioned by the cardinal Gambarra and designed by the then famous landscape architect Il Vignola (Moore, 1983). Lante consists of two individual but related areas: one is a small forest with a few cut paths and selected sculptural arrangements, the other is a formal garden organized around a central axis and a water theme.

The plan of the garden of Villa Lante (Figure 10.1) departs in narrative. The story of Ovids Metamorphose is the creative starting point for all the garden features (Potteiger and Purinton, 1998). The development throughout the story is translated into garden elements. The passage from golden age to flood and then from chaos and wilderness to order and geometry is illustrated in the garden layout.

The journey starts in the forest. The protagonist is taken along paths that cut through areas covered with oak trees. There is a movement uphill towards the point where the two diverse garden parts meet. A small waterfall marks the threshold. It refers to the flooding in Ovids Metamorphose. Here there is a dramatic shift from wooded wilderness to terraces with fountains and sculptures.

Villa Lante
Figure 10.2
Looking up the central water axis in Lante.

The protagonist descends downwards again following the motion of the water. As one moves along the central axis the water goes through several stages of transformation. On one terrace it spurts out of dolphin mouths, on the next it floats through a wine-cooling volt in a large stone table (Figure 10.2) before it swirls down shell-Iike bowls to the Neptune fountain. Finally it finds rest in four large square pools at the base of the garden. The further one descends down along the water the more organized and controlled the garden expression is. The journey through the gardens of Villa Lante can be seen as a pilgrimage that illustrates the storyline: the passage from golden age to chaos and then to control and geometrical order (Berger, 1996).

One interesting feature in the Lante garden is its interactive water jokes popular at that time. When the ladies walked on the stairs a triggering device activated water jets that spurted water up their dresses. Also when sitting on one of the garden benches one could risk getting drenched with water when someone triggered the water nozzles. The renaissance people found great pleasure in teasing and surprising the visitors to the gardens and simultaneously demonstrate their high engineering skills.

10.4 Stourhead

Stourhead, plan view
Figure 10.3
Stourhead plan view:
a field, a central lake and wood patches.

Stourhead is an English landscape garden from the 18th century designed by Henry Hoare (Enge, 1992). The design consists of a central lake placed in a large open landscape surrounded by wooden areas (Figure 10.3). There is a path around the lake and along it a number of temples and follies are placed each representing a scene form Virgil's Aeneid.

According to Moore, Stourhead is "a particular vivid narrative" as the heroes wandering around the Mediterranean basin in the Aeneid is unfolded along a stroll around the central lake. Temporal confrontations of plot are translated into spatial configurations of story. On the way one is met by scenes and characters from Vigil's story and by architectural references like the Pantheon to classic Rome (Figure 10.4). For those familiar with the text there is dense association, for others the scenes becomes compositional elements in the garden landscape (Moore, 1993).

Figure 10.4
Looking towards the Pantheon replica at Stourhead.

As the protagonist moves along the path scenic settings are revealed through sightlines and openings. The design can be viewed as temporal in the sense that what is revealed and from where is carefully composed. When one moves along the path following the lakeshore pavilions like that of Pantheon are concealed and revealed along the way in a carefully orchestrated composition. You move behind a group of trees and when the lake is back in view again there is a vista across the lake with branches of trees in the foreground, a stone bridge across the lake in the middle ground and finally the pantheon pavilion in the background as the focal point.

10.5 Three Aspects of the Garden Spaces

In both Lante and Stourhead the final composition of the garden have emerged through a selection and enhancement of different qualities defined by the designer and his commissioner. A very significant feature of the two garden designs is the overall plan as a stamp or monogram on the ground surface (Figures 10.1 and 10.3). Also the experience of moving through the garden was given great consideration as it was meant to be pleasurable and enchanting (Figures 10.2 and 10.4). Finally it needed to be enlightening in some way and thus stories and literary references were embedded in the designs (Figures 10.2 and 10.4). This suggests a model in which the garden space can be read through three different aspects:

Each aspect has a distinct point of view on the garden and together they reveal the 'organization of the space, how it is experienced and what it means.

The structuring aspect organizes from bird's eye view where what is and how they connect. This is the diagram that in it has the overall idea but nothing about the actual experience. In the gardens of Villa Lante the structuring aspect will then be the overall plan that distinguish the forest from the formal garden and determines the path through them both. At Stourhead the structure consists of a central lake with a path around it. In both gardens narrative serves as a departure point for organizing and differentiating the space. Also the plans reveal the philosophical perception of space and landscape governing at that time. When Lante was build in 1566 there was a big interest in geometric order and perspective as the language of truth. Stourhead on the other hand was created at a time when the soft curves of the pastoral landscape appealed to an emerging urban life form. These distinctly different approaches to nature and space are visible in the outline of the plans.

The experiential aspect is about how the garden is experienced. It is the atmosphere and the elements orchestrated to affect the senses of the protagonist. Like the smells, the sound and all the tactility's that relates to the immediate perceptual system. Garden elements reveal and conceal: through opening and closing it offers intimate places and views to vast expanses. The experiential aspect understands the space from a situated point of view. In Lante this is signified through motion down terraces along water features. For every level new elements appear with each their distinct treatment of water in both shape and sound. Obviously the idea of perspective inspired 11 Vignola when he orchestrated the elements along the central axis. At Stourhead the vistas that are arranged according to movement around the lake is the main theme on the experimental aspect. The landscape architects studied landscape paintings and composed vistas in the garden according to the rules of composition with a foreground, a middle ground and a background.

The metaphorical aspect is all the symbols and metaphors that can refer to something outside the garden. These are elements-like sculptures that evoke associations to stories, places or ideas. In villa Lante the sculptures are directly related to Ovids Metamorphose and the passages fr.orn the forest through the formal garden illustrate the transition theme in the story. One journeys from wilderness through the flooding and descend along central axis towards higher and higher geometric order. In Stourhead both the movement around a large body of water and the building features met along the way is taken from and pointing towards the hero's journey in Virgil's story around the Mediterranean to Rome. Pantheon stands as a central symbol of the architectural grandness of classical Rome. These symbolic features open up whole new realms in the garden spaces. Lante for instance is inhabited by figures from roman mythology bringing in a whole world of mystique.

10.6 From Physical Space to Digital Space

So the garden spaces can be read through looking at three aspects of the design. Or rather we could call it three points of view: The overall structure or plan, the protagonist point of view and the referential or metaphoric point of view. the first structuring aspect describes a stamp or signature of the space and the all-knowing Gods-eye point of view. The experiential aspect describes what we as protagonists might experience when moving through the space. This aspect is related directly to the body and the space perception of "being there". Finally the metaphoric aspect tells us something about the ideas and stories that are embedded in the space.

Now we turn towards our two VR spaces Tunnel Under the Atlantic and Ephémère to see what particularities the three aspect model can reveal about these spaces. On one hand the virtual fictional space can be very similar to garden space in as they to a degree share certain characteristics. They span three dimensions, they can be navigated, they might be interactive, they are a result of a design, and they are most likely fictional in some sense. Most important they are created to promote a particular experience and atmosphere for the protagonist. But there are significant features where digital and physical places are distinctly different namely the material from which they are created and how they are accessed. It is likely that the model will reveal these differences more clearly and thereby get us closer to understanding what the significant of the virtual space might be.

10.7 Tunnel Under the Atlantic

Tunnel under the Atlantic
Figure 10.5
A concrete rod with large screen in Tunnel Under the Atlantic.

Tunnel Under the Atlantic is a digital installation from 1995 by the French artist Maurice Benayoun. It is a virtual tunnel that connects Paris and Montreal. In each location at center de Pompidou and Museum of Modern art a concrete rod shoots out of the ground. In the opening of the rod there is a large circular life-size screen (Figure 10.5) (Fargies, 1995).

With a joystick one can dig ones way through a virtual tunnel of images that refer to the cultural relation between the two French-speaking countries. The protagonist print his or her track through the image layers and collage-like spatial formations appear with walls coated with the images one pass (Figure 10.6). These cave spaces and tunnels remain so the next visitor can explore the existing and simultaneously add new paths through the subterranean virtual mass.

Tunnel under the Atlantic
Figure 10.6
A view into Tunnel Under the Atlantic.

The two sites are connected via Internet. While digging the protagonists can hear and speak to each other even if they cannot see each other. The goal is to connect the two ends of the virtual tunnel space. When this happens the diggers will meet the other represented by a digital portrait floating in the tunnel space. Tension is enhanced, as the spatial position of the sound of person at the other end of the tunnel shift. Standing in front of the tunnel you will suddenly hear the other immersant speaking as if he or she is right behind you.

10.7.1 Structure

The installation of the Tunnel Under the Atlantic has a double spatial structure: a physical and a virtual. The physical structure consists of two concrete rods shooting up through the floor in Paris and in Montreal holding a large screen and a joystick. The virtual structure is the organization of the digital material that defines how space appears on the screens inside the concrete rods.

Space in the tunnel is a result of a specific recipe that determines exactly how shape and matter merge. In this installation the artist has created the conditions for how space is actualized through a set of rules. Space is defined by principles and not designed as a completed predetermined expression. The matter that the spaces are created from is held in a database. It is only when a person starts interacting with the material in the piece that actual spatial expressions emerge. The spectator is taken into consideration in the design of the space and without someone exploring it, it ceases to exist (Mestre, 1997). Benayoun has created the conditions for a universe and not the universe itself. This is a working method very unusual for a traditional designer of space. It is a process much closely related to a traditional computer system designer. If-, then-; the structure defines a process rather than a result.

The God's eye view of the tunnel space does not like the garden spaces have a finite stamp or a mark. It is a space that is constructed as it is explored from a collection of images. The images are extruded into three-dimensional cubes and placed adjacent to one another. It is a three-dimensional grid that in principle can extend itself forever (Figure 10.7) (Nahon, 2001). All the images are indexed in a database and associated according to themes as photograph, old, new, blue, landscape, motif, contrast, and material. The image that that the protagonist chooses to move forward through determines what next image appears on the tunnel walls.

Tunnel under the Atlantic, database
Figure 10.7
Tunnel Under the Atlantic is created from an image database.

When Tunnel Under the Atlantic was exhibited in 1995 it took 5 days for the two ends to be connected by the participants. The artist had prescheduled the meeting as a specific time rather than in a specific place. "It is not geographic space but semantic space", the artist states, and therefore it could in principle continue endlessly (Benayoun, 2000). Time is incorporated into the design as a structuring factor.

This again shows a deviation from the structure of both Lante and Stourhead. In the gardens time plays a crucial role but as a given factor that influences the experience of space. Here I am talking about changing seasons, change of light throughout the day, plus growth and deterioration of matter as years go by. In the gardens time does not operate on the structuring level as it is outside the domain that can be controlled by the designer.

10.7.2 Experience

As the protagonist with the joystick moves forward through the tunnel space is actualized. Journeying through the space is experienced as a continuous onward going motion much like one would experience driving a car. Only here the surrounding space that one travels through is of an entirely different kind. There are no obstacles on the way. The digging figure can be turned in any direction (also up and down) and the protagonist can move forward and through existing corridors or carve entirely new paths. Space is made as it is being travelled and in principle rooms and corridors can be expanded endlessly. The system of actualizing space as it is being explored means that the space is not a constructed thing in any typical architectural sense. There are no virtual columns or walls being erected as in the two garden spaces. The rule provide modes of possibilities that when actualized create surprising constellations and collages but not a specific predetermined composition.

The interactor is not only a spectator or a pilgrimage but also someone who can actively influence the spatial expression itself through exploring it. The protagonist becomes engaged in the space through its immediate response. So what lacks in multisensoring surrounding space (since the tunnel is merely a large screen) is gained again in the instant feedback offered by the space generator.

The protagonist and the space could be said to be in an active dialogue as they influence one another in a very concrete manner. In Lante there is a degree of influence in the water features that can be activated for play and surprise but there is not nearly the same degree of spatial response to a persons movement. The more one digs through the tunnel, the more precisely ones preferences are defined due to the structure of the system as mentioned previously. Through this different areas in the tunnel have unique expressions and atmospheres reflecting the person who created it. The place holds an imprint of the digger.

The virtual space is created as an imprint in matter the same way as one would dig a physical tunnel. A form of subtraction takes place in the way the (digging) shape meets the (image} material and results in surprising expressions. One could say that some of the unpredictability that through weather conditions exist in the garden spaces is restored in this particular virtual space through this partly random collision between matter and shape. Crystalline formations appear and somehow bear reminiscence of early expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The spaces are collaged and fragmented. Images are distorted, cut, and joined randomly into a montage-like space. Images become space as they are extruded into mass that you can carve through. Going one way an image is carved into two displaying asymmetrically decorated corridor. Turn a little to the left and the corridor is intersected with new expressions. One can carve out large cave formations where for instance fragments of a pictured boat collide with handwritten text. Even if the number of images are limited and the digging shape predefined the constellations that emerge appear to be endless.

There is no predefined path to walk in the tunnel space. However there is the desire to search out and connect to the tunnel being dug form the other location. The two protagonists can hear each other as they journey. Sometimes the sound will appear as if it comes from behind encouraging the protagonist to change direction. In both the gardens the path to journey through the space is set in an entirely different manner. In both gardens there is a predefined route to follow that will take the protagonist through various staged situations. The tunnel space is more like amaze or a riddle. Although the journey itself is exiting and pleasant there is a very specific goal to be reached.

10.7.3 Metaphors

Figure 10.8
Lante: geometry, symmetry, central axis.

The image material that the protagonist encounters on his journey through the tunnel is not coincidental. All the pictures somehow describe the cultural relation between France and French-speaking Canada. It is the reference material to the two places common cultural heritage. In that sense the tunnel becomes more than interesting carved spaces and a fun chat installation. The Tunnel Under the Atlantic is a virtual strata of heritage material. Paintings, documents, and images from the last 500 years can be found in the space. The actual digging can be read as a reinvestigation and understanding of the cultural layers that connect the two regions. The montage technique of the spatial articulation can be seen as a reflection of how two cultures connect: unlike the ordered structure in Lante where the ideal worldview was geometry this work reflects a world of complexity (Figures 10.8 and 10.9).

Figure 10.9
Tunnel: complexity, collage, fragmentation.

The tunnel is a symbolic space in more than one way. The symbolic implication of a physical tunnel installation is articulated through the concrete rod going into the ground. It suggests an image of a rod that moves on in a straight line through the mass of the earth re-emerging somewhere on the other side (Figure 10.10). This gesture suddenly reveals the roundness and mass of the earth. It is perhaps the same sudden understanding of earth that took place when we as children attempted to dig a hole all the way through to China. The gesture accentuated that the earth was round (do they really walk upside down, do we?). Tunnel Under the Atlantic hence becomes a gigantic installation at earth scale.

While the installation space accentuates the physicality of the earth the tunnel space itself is virtual. In a way it is similar to a medieval painting of cosmos but reversed. It is no longer the heavens that hold this imaginative enchanted space that we mentallyand symbolically can inhabit. Rather it is the earth, the subterranean beneath us that holds these possibilities of containing and fantastic space beyond our daily habitual life. It is an image space that visualize an enchanted earthly terrestrial space much like the way a ceiling of a baroque church shapes the images of celestial heavenly space. So what does this fantastic space that roams beneath us contain? It contains our own human history here in the shape of the cultural memory of Canadian and French connection.

Tunnel concept
Figure 10.10
Tunnel concept: a rod through the globe.

Finally the space is about meeting and connecting regardless of physical distance. The scope is to dig; the climax becomes the moment of encounter. What the concrete rod accentuates (the scale of earth) the direct connection suddenly eliminates again (the proximity of stranges). In an interview Benayoun claims that the e-mail is one of the most interesting features of the Internet as it contains intense emotional encounters (Mestre, 1997). The spontaneity and informality of the e-mail creates possibility for dialogues between people who perhaps do not know each other. And because of that, conversations through the Internet can become very personal, Benayoun claims.

The notion of the e-mail encounter between apparent strangers is closely related to the themes of Tunnel Under the Atlantic. The tunnel becomes a symbol of creating proximity between two physically remote places through informal conversation space. In the interview mentioned above Banayoun also talks about how intense a physical meeting between two e-mail acquaintances can be (Mestre, 1997). Knowing someone on an apparent personal level without having met the other physically can create great anxiety when an encounter is emerging.

This anxiety is actualized in the virtual tunnel as a driving force in the narrative. As digging is being done from both locations the two protagonists can talk to each other. It is not until the tunnel spaces are connected that the protagonists get a visual image of the other. Benayoun claims that the situation had an intensity, emotion and affect that only increased for every day the digging went on (Mestre, 1997). People returned daily to be there for the moment of encounter. And further, those who were there when the two tunnel spaces finally merged felt that they had truly experienced a great event, the artist claims. The tunnel hence becomes the symbolic manifestation of connecting locations far apart for informal and personal conversation.

10.8 Ephémère

Figure 10.11
Protagonist with HMD behind translucent screen in Ephémère

Ephémère is a fictional virtual world from 1998 by the Canadian artist Char Davies. Through a head-mounted display (a helmet with stereo screens in front ofboth eyes) the protagonist enters a translucent and organic landscape. It is a solitary experience as only one person at a time can explore Ephémère (Figure 10.11).

The virtual environment of Ephémère is based on themes from the natural world. It is a three-dimensional digital space divided into three zones that are organized vertically on top of each other. The areas have each their unique metaphorical expression of landscape, earth and interior body. The top layer is a forest-like place with tall black trunks rising from a surface with rocks and creeks. Below the forest floor there is a subterranean earth world of roots, strings and seed-like figures (Figure 10.12). Further down one finds a flushing dense red environment with shells and bones. All elements are ambiguous and semitransparent as the space is meant to evoke rather than illustrate (Davies, 1998b).

Figure 10.12
View into Ephémère's world of [strings and]† seeds.

You move freely through Ephémère. The environment is navigated through breath and balance. The immersant wears a tracking vest that registers movements of the chest. When breathing in one rises, when breathing out one descends. Orienting the torso in the desired direction and leaning from side to side to control navigation. After 15 min of immersion the journey automatically comes to an end.

10.8.1 Structure

Similar to the Tunnel Under the Atlantic, Ephémère has both a physical and a virtual structure. The immediate physical structure consists of a computer connected to a head-mounted display and a tracking vest. While only one person at a time can journey Ephémère, others can follow the experience on large screens from a space adjacent to the private chamber of the immersant. One screen shows a projection of what the protagonist sees when exploring Ephémère. The other is a translucent screen through which the shadow of the immersants body can be followed as he or she moves to navigate.

In the virtual space of Ephémère the theme areas are organized vertically in three layers on top of one another (Figure 10.13). However there is no clear threshold between the layers (except for the entry scene, but I will get back to that) and the protagonist can travel freely among the three zones. All areas are equal and the space typology is closer to that of an underwater or outer space world than to that of Lante and Stourhead. In the two gardens spaces matter is tied to a surface ground, which means that there is a horizon. In Ephémère there is a division line between forest and underworld that refers to a horizon, but it can be penetrated. Even more diverting from both the garden spaces is that the space of Ephémère is organized in a loop. Like a moebious ring the space is completely folded around itself, which means that if you keep moving forward you always end up where you started.

Figure 10.13
Ephémère consists of three worlds on
top of each other.

The space of Ephémère can be navigated through the interface but not really altered. The structure is to a large degree a fixed space, which is unlike Tunnel Under the Atlantic where space is created as it is navigated. One could see Ephémère as much closer related to the behaviours of the garden spaces as elements are composed in a more permanent design.

Like Tunnel Under the Atlantic time plays a crucial role in the structure of Ephémère. The journey is set to have a 15-min span during which elements change colour and appearance in a system inspired by the flux of seasons, and change of light throughout a day. Here the design somehow mimics what goes on in the gardens only as a designed intervention and not an existing condition.

10.8.2 Experience

In Ephémère you meet a strange but familiar world. All features in Ephémère are blurred and semitransparent and there are only vague distinctions between what is space and what are objects within the space. Organic elements such as trees, rocks, roots, and bones can be recognized but they are distorted, ambiguous, and semitransparent. In Ephémère the border between liquids and solids are dissolved and the relation between elements unclear. It is a space where things hover somewhere between the two poles of matter and space.

Ephémère was last exhibited at SFMOMA in spring 2001 where I got a chance to experience it: An assistant guided me into a small chamber behind the installation space. As soon as the head-mounted display and the tracking vest had been strapped onto my body, the journey was ready to begin.

I find myself immersed into a dark space with white speckles that slowly transforms into a haze. Tall slim vertical structures suddenly begin to appear and I realize that I am floating amongst tree trunks in a dark forest. I can move in all directions depending on how I position my body. No gravity ties me to the ground. I move towards the forest floor where I follow a silvery blue stream that curls among the trees. After a while I can penetrate the "ground surface" and journey down into a subterranean earth world. Roots, strings and seed-like figures float in what seems to be an endless dark space. But it is impossible to distinguish their scale and exactly what each element is supposed to represent. It is like travelling into an abstract painting not unlike the work of Per Kirkeby. Transparent layers play with each other creating enormously beautiful expressions. I gaze upon a seed-like figure and suddenly it responds by unfolding with bright white and purple colours. Moving further down I encounter a dense red environment with white shell or bone-like objects. There is a pulsing movement and a strong flushing squeaking sound. I have come to the darkest and most secret inner space. This is the space of the interior body. I venture back up towards the earth world and the forest and I realize that colours and shapes have transformed into new amazing expressions. Ephémère changes over time as one travels its universe. There is a constant flux and motion in this environment. After travelling for 15 min the journey come to a close. Elements around me begin to fade away and I am back in the dark speckled space for a short moment before the assistant returns to help me out of all the equipment.

The experience of journeying [through]† a strange but familiar place is heightened by how one moves through the space. Navigating through breath and balance influence how the environment is perceived. Motion is in a way internalized making body awareness a part of the experience. Journeying through Ephémère is a fluid, floating feeling, almost like diving. Perhaps it is specifically through this body engagement with the digital world that creates a strong sense of presence in Ephémère. It is an example of how the artist has not only created a significant visual expression but also, dealt with how this expression is experienced.

In Tunnel Under the Atlantic space came about through the immersants interaction with it. In Lante there is a degree if influence in the water features that can be activated for play and surprise. Stourhead however is fixed in its design actualization. Ephémère hovers between the two: in one way Ephémère is a permanently defined expression. Once and for all the designer has created a spatial virtual composition that remains. However a selection of singular elements can change according to how the protagonist moves. If you gaze at a rock long enough it will open up and lead you into a strange artic landscape. New dimensions can unfold within the realm of the existing space.

And in one more way this virtual space is dependent on the immersant: the full experience of Ephémère is limited to take place within the space of the installation. As soon as we remove the vest we can no longer move simply by breathing in and out. Our body movements are registered by the vest and so the space is aware of our presence within it and can hence respond accordingly.

10.8.3 Metaphor

Ephémère is metaphorical place in the sense that it is based on the themes landscape, earth, and interior body. However elements in the three zones are distorted and abstracted, the idea being to evoke rather than to illustrate. The intent of the artist is to abstract, distil, and amplify what she calls the essence of the natural world. Ephémère is a direct critique of the Euclidian space concept of solid objects in empty void (Davies, 1998a). In Ephémère there are only translucencies and indefinite organic shapes. Davies is part of the deep ecology movement that challenges the dualistic Western worldview and sees human beings as apart of nature rather than separate from it (O'Donoghue, 1999). Nature is a mirror of our own inner world, something that we as humans are united with.

When describing the intent of her work, Char Davies often turns to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard. "By changing space, by leaving the space of one's usual sensibilities, one enters into communication that is physically innovating. … For we do not change place, we change our nature." (Bachelard, 1958). Davies wants to change our perceptual mode. By immersing us into a fluid abstracted landscape that is navigated through breath and balance she claims that we will re-enter our physical surroundings with a new sensibility. In Ephémère Char Davies wants to give the immersant an experience where consciousness, body and space float together. A state of mind where there are no set boundaries between a person and the surrounding environment, between subject and object, between inner and outer world, and between space and matter (McRobert, 1997). It is the idea that the organic world somehow resonates with our interior life and holds the essence of being. Space and body is inherently one. The artist states that her work "is about being-in-the-world in its most profound sense, i.e., our subjective experience as sentient, embodied, incarnate, living beings embedded in enveloping flowing space." (Davies, 1995/1998) Through the navigational system the body is incorporated in the experience of the virtual world rather than separated form it.

Figure 10.14
Stourhead: singular elements, soft curves, composition.

Ephémère seems to be a yearning back to a fetus stage where body and space are united. The border between fetus, mother, and space floats. The body inhabits another body and lives in a fluid condition in a liquid that is both nurture and place. In Ephémère navigation is internalized - the interior and exterior are tied closely together. The space itself is not only living flushing organic vessel, it is a living breathing body itself. Body and space is treated as ultimately being one: an organic living nature. Inhaling to navigate brings attention to our own inner chambers of the body, in the pulsing veins and vessels in the deepest zone of Ephémère we are moving inside a body. "With breath as a navigation tool, the immersant deepens the awareness of internal states, so that Ephémère brings most participants to a state of mediation in about ten minutes." (Heim, 1998)

Davies uses the very same technology to give her world vision that is usually governed by the exact paradigm that she attempts to critique: the hand controlled mind/eye dominated environment with objects in empty cartesian space. But one could also say that part of the image world that is employed in Ephémère has come about exactly through science and technology. Elements resonate with pictures of outer space, of deep sea worlds, of microorganisms, and of interior bodies. It is as if our culture's probing technologies in medicine and in science has opened up a whole new image world to us with new fantastic interpretations of what our natural world can be. As in Tunnel Under the Atlantic Ephémère seems to re-enchant the earthly bodily physical world that we inhabit. Stourhead was concerned with the soft curves of nature and body. Ephémère penetrates the surface and investigates the zones within the earth and body (Figures 10.14 and 10.15).

Figure 10.15
Ephémère: organic matter, overlay, transparency

10.9 Spaces United

All four spaces treated above were somehow meant for explorative enjoyment and for contemplation. They are similar in the sense that they all incorporate aesthetic values into a composition of beautiful and powerful space. Everyone of them also clearly has a significant story or meaning incorporated into them. An ideal or narrative that becomes the foundation for how the entire design is carried out.

However on the structuring level the two VR works Ephémère and Tunnel Under the Atlantic are significantly different from the garden spaces of Lante and Stourhead. In the Tunnel Under the Atlantic spaces are constructed on the spot from a particular set of rules. In Ephémère space is a finite predefined expression but significant by the fact that there is a slippery boundary between space and matter. It is apparent that the experienced virtual space, that is to say the digital expression in itself, can be expressed through space vocabularies that are specifically possible in VR.

The garden spaces of Lante and Stourhead are set on a piece of land, a place that already had a series of preconditions. These are among others gravity that makes the water run downhill and hence create sound, sunlight that reflects in the water and that enhance textures, smells that comes from the living material, sound from the wind, and so on. The digital domains of Tunnel Under the Atlantic and Ephémère are without gravity in any predetermined way. Here everything within the space came from the designer's hand.

In the garden spaces of Lante and Stourhead the entire composition is created around the fact that we walk on the ground and experience everything from a certain height. The protagonist's sightline is fixed at approximately 150 cm above the ground plane. Trees, statues, and other structures are erected from this surface.

In the space of Tunnel Under the Atlantic there is no ground surface. Metaphorically speaking one resides under the surface in a subterranean world. Space is mass removed and movement is possible in all directions. Similarly the space of Ephémère is one continuous realm without gravity. There is a threshold between forest and earth that refer to a horizon but the protagonist can move freely across this line.

The space in Ephémère is an internal place in the sense that it is entirely related to the body that is experiencing. In Tunnel Under the Atlantic the space is connected to the protagonist, as he or she is the one creating it while exploring. This is different from both the garden spaces that to a great extent are fixed in their expression and related to a surrounding environment. In the VR world place is directly connected to body and protagonist and not to an outside space or horizon.

What the gardens and the VR spaces have in common is that they are explorative threedimensional places designed to promote a particular experience for those who venture into their domain. Space can be more than simply a background for human activities. Spatial design can have many aspects of expressions and a complex system of relations. A designed place can organize the elements and patterns in an overall scheme, it can choreograph the actual experience of how one move and what one sees, and finally through iconic references it can point to literary stories, cultural themes and perhaps evoke certain atmospheres. Both the gardens and the two digital works are space designed to promote an aesthetic and pleasurable experience for the protagonist.

The structure and actualization of digital and physical space as seen in the examples here are very different as the explorative virtual spaces offer entirely new options for space configuration and modes of experience. But the four examples share some very fundamental themes and in that way the virtual spaces discussed here ties into a history of garden space that is many thousand years old. The four examples are all in their own way narrative visions of ideal space, an image of paradise as conceived at the moment of creation. Although the four spaces seem to communicate very different themes it is obvious that they convey contemporary ideas. The spaces can be said to have an overall narrative structure in the sense that they are designed with a very particular experience in mind. Moving through spaces like that of the described gardens as well as the VR works treated here can be seen as entering out on a pilgrimage.

Lante explores the story of Ovid's Metamorphose from golden age via flooding to reach a geometric order considered the highest ideal governing at that time. Stourhead illustrates how the hero in Virgil's Aeneid must reach enlightenment through his journey around the Mediterranean. Also the work points to a culture that was embracing the picturesque pastoral landscape as cities were growing. The Tunnel Under the Atlantic investigates the subterranean as space of cultural memory and communication. Ephémère points towards an organic environment where body and space unites as part of the same whole.

Both gardens are based on ancient mythological stories that in away pull spaces outside earthly realm into the world of Gods. Both VR works however has earth itself as its subject matter for stories about enchanted space: as terrestrial tunnel spaces of communication and cultural heritage and as internal organic matter that resonates with our own being as nature. I can only guess but I am quite sure that if this analysis was done using contemporary garden spaces rather than VR works the result would be almost the same: an attempt to re-enchant the physical world we inhabit as a paradise vision.


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The Gardens of Villa Lante (1566). Landscape architect: Vignola, Commissioner: Cardina Gambara.

Stourhead (1755). Landscape architect and Commissioner: Henry Hoare.

VR Artworks

Tunnel Under the Atlantic (1995).
Concept: Maurice Benayoun, Musical creation: Martin Matalon, Computer development: (Z-A Production), A Public Command of the Delegation aux Arts Plastiques, French Ministry of Culture, A co-production of Z-A Production/IRCAM/Mission Recherche et Technologies du Ministère de la Culture/Centre Georges Pompidou.

Ephémère (1998)
Concept, direction, art direction: Char Davies, Computer graphics: Georges Mauro, Custom virtual reality software: John Harrison, Sonic architecture/programming: Dorota Blaszczak, Sound composition/programming Immersence: Rick Bidlack

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website. † Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Last verified: August 1st 2013.