“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert of the changes in sense perception.”

— Marshall McLuhan

According to on article in the business magazine Forbes, 2020 is humanity's first "virtual year" (Rabimov, 2020). The Covid-19 pandemic forced us to focus on the virtual, as it was the only way to continue to interact with one another. The challenges of the pandemic, and the limitations to our mobility, accelerated the use of common digital tools. Video conferencing systems which had been available for years were suddenly used en masse. If visiting museums and galleries was not possible during lockdown, online viewing rooms and augmented reality apps provided opportunities to see artistic works conveniently, and virtually, from home. Virtual spaces became popular exhibition venues, and numerous museums offered 360-degree views of their digitized museum spaces. Through the use of platforms such as Mozilla Hubs or VRChat it was possible to come together as avatars at digital vernissages, or join artist talks. These strategies were used not only to experience art, but also for social exchange, and they will play a decisive role in future digital developments.

Mobile technologies, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (known collectively as XR) provide us with new spaces and possibilities for interaction. VR allows us to immerse ourselves in virtual worlds, while AR overlays the real world with virtual images, including the outside world. Both technologies open up new perceptions, and create an alterity of our lifeworld. Nowadays, the separation between real and virtual space can no longer be clearly defined. The duality between online and offline, the age-old dichotomy that governs our thoughts and actions, is increasingly dissolving. This is also true of Plato's parable of the cave and the distinction between body and mind. The digital transformation is undermining the division between real and virtual, with the virtual appearing more real than ever before. Accordingly, the Italian philosopher Luciano Floridi coined the neologism 'onlife', referring to the new experience of a hyperconnected reality in which it no longer makes sense to ask whether one is online or offline (Floridi, 2015, p. 1). He describes the increasing uncertainty of the distinction between reality and virtuality as one of the great challenges of our time.

This cultural transformation has a long history. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan reflected as early as the 1960s, technological innovation and the accompanying shifts in perception have always been reflected in art, which acts almost like a seismograph (McLuhan, 1994 [1964]). The virtual expansion of our visual worlds began in the 1960s. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), developed the first head-mounted display as a prototype. This development placed the visual environment directly in front of the viewer's eyes without the need for an architectural space. The head-mounted device was connected to a stereoscopic display from a computer program that depicted simple virtual wireframe shapes which changed as the user's head moved. Since these are superimposed over a real background, this could also be seen as the birth of augmented reality (AR), where real and virtual space overlap. In the 1970s, computer artist Myron Krueger coined the term 'artificial reality'. In the 1980s, the popularization of the term VR was attributed to computer scientist Jaron Lanier. With Videoplace, Myron Krueger developed a responsive environment that used projections, video cameras, specialized hardware, and on-screen silhouettes to create a virtual space that surrounded users and responded to their movements. The users were represented by silhouettes, which created a sense of presence.

In the 1980s, the artistic exploration of virtual reality via head-mounted displays and data gloves experienced its first peak, despite the high cost and unwieldiness of the technology at the time. Early works were realized by the French-American artist Nicole Stenger. Between 1989 and 1992, she produced Angels, an interactive, immersive VR film. Equipped with a data glove and data glasses, participants explored a virtual paradise in which angelic voices prompted them to interact and explore the virtual space.

Among the pioneers of the early use of VR is the German artist duo Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss. In 1992, they won the prestigious Golden Nica award, or the Prix Ars Electronica for interactive art, for their work Home of the Brain. Home of the Brain is a VR installation that invites a cultural-philosophical reflection on virtual space. Conceived as an archaic symbolic world, Home of the Brain allows visitors to reflect on the theories of media philosophers and computer scientists through the use of light, colour, form and words, and to wander through a "space of texts and thoughts" (Fleischmann/Strauss, 1992). Another example of an early computer-generated virtual world is the interactive installation Perceptual Arena (1993) by artists Ulrike Gabriel and Bob O'Kane. This work invites the viewer to interact in virtual reality by means of data gloves and glasses. The computer-generated abstract forms can be manipulated and constructed with the help of a virtual sensor.

A final example is the work of the Canadian artist Char Davies. In 1995, she created the immersive virtual environment Osmose, a technically complex and visually impressive simulation of various natural and textual spaces. Spatially localized sounds reacted to the interaction with the viewers, their breath and their balance. Navigation happened via biofeedback, i.e. one moved through the virtual world by breathing. The viewers controlled their navigation through the dataspace by means of a lightweight, sensor-lined chest harness that communicated their breathing and every movement of the upper body to the software. By using an intuitive and embodied process, the interface made the unconscious connection with the virtual space far more intense than, for example, the use of joysticks or computer mice.

In addition to classic VR, there have been numerous artistic experiments aimed at immersive experiences as well as active audience participation. Examples range from dome projections to walk-through 360-degree platforms that can be controlled interactively and to so-called CAVEs, which are surround-screen/surround-sound systems that simulate a complete entry into a virtual world by projecting 3D computer graphics in a confined space which viewers can explore with the help of special 3D glasses. An example of this strategy is conFiguring the CAVE (1996) by Jeffrey Shaw, Agnes Hegedüs, Bernd Untermann and Leslie Stuck. In this piece, viewers navigate a room with five projections by moving a mannequin attached to a computer monitor. Equipped with 3D glasses, they are immersed in seven successive audio-visual computer-generated environments. In conFiguring the CAVE, the focus is on immersion in abstract visual worlds. In Michael Naimark's installation Be Now Here (1995-2002), the artist invites telematic travel to distant landscapes, as well as the possibility of experiencing different places within an immersive virtual environment. The viewers, equipped with 3D glasses, can watch footage of various places which have been included in UNESCO's list of endangered world heritage sites, such as Jerusalem, Dubrovnik, Timbuktu and Angkor. They navigate these spaces on a rotating mechanical platform via a control device. On the other hand, Luc Courchesne creates an interactive narrative with The Visitor: Living by Numbers (2001). In order to immerse themselves in the story, the viewers must move their heads into a spherical projection dome which they pull over their heads and onto their shoulders. Inside this cinema dome they become visitors to the story, whose development and navigation is controlled interactively by calling out the coordinates. These computer-generated environments allowed interaction and controlled change of an illusionistic environment for the first time. Central to these spaces was the active involvement of the visitor as described by the artist Jeffrey Shaw, himself a pioneer of immersive art, in contrast to immersion in cinema: "contrary to cinema's mere enlargement of the screen, these augmentations of the image space are sought after as a means of achieving semantic extensions of the narrative space" (Shaw, 2003, p. 24). The active involvement of the audience through the possibility of interaction, the philosophical investigation of the real and the virtual, and the exploration of a new aesthetic were equally important for early artistic engagement with VR.

Computer games are paving the way for immersive audience participation in virtual spaces. They tie in with the complex but familiar language of film, in which a unified world is constructed through camera movements, pans, zooms, montage techniques, and changing shots and perspectives. In a computer game, viewers become users. It is only through their actions that the plot is advanced, and the programmed space is navigated and explored.

These developments are manifested in the recent success of VR, a technology that has established itself as a new artistic tool and has become a part of the artistic canon. Artists are using VR as an extension of their artistic practices. Virtual spaces range from abstract visual worlds to interactive narrative spaces. In multi-user applications, these spaces can be experienced collectively. This is contrary to the long-standing criticism that VR isolates users and does not create a shared experience. In the encounter between physical elements and virtual environments, artists today refer to the 'onlife' described at the beginning of this essay, the lack of separation between virtual and real spaces in a hyperconnected reality. In contrast to the promise of constant optimization of our living environment through technology, art offers a critical perspective that demonstrates how these technologies change and influence our living environment and our actions. Artists work with VR in a variety of ways – often using the technology against the grain, altering it and making it the object of contemplation of its fundamental nature, rather than just using it as a tool. Once again, art acts as a catalyst for critique by providing a social feedback loop that demonstrates how the new medium fundamentally changes our sense of space and time, as well as social, private and public space. It also illustrates what it can do for the relationship between artists and viewers.


Fleischmann, Monika, and Strauss, Wolfgang (1992), video documentation of the presentation of Home of the Brain, Ars Electronica Festival 1992, https://vimeo.com/7560336

Floridi , Luciano (Ed.) (2015), The On life Manifesto. Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era, Basel: Springer Open. 

McLuhan, Marshall (1994 [1964]), Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man, Cambridge: The MIT Press. 

Rabimov, Stephan (2020), Why First Virtual Reality Art Prize Is Perfect For 2020, https://forbes.com/sites/stephanrabimov/2020/11/27/ why-first-virtual-reality-art-prize-is-perfect-for-2020/

Shaw, Jeffrey (2003), "Introduction", in: Jeffrey Shaw & Peter Weibel (Ed.) (2003): Future Cinema. The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, Cambridge: The MIT Press.



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Last verified: feb 20th, 2024.