Catherine Richards' The Curiosity Cabinet at the end of the Milennium and Char Davies' Osmose seem poles apart. But, as Frances Dyson discovers, closer inspection of these charged environments reveals artists whose works are preoccupied with media saturation and the real experience.

Osmose is one of the most technically sophisticated virtual reality environments on show today. Created from the sumptuous, painterly 3-D graphics Char Davies has been developing and exhibiting for the past five years, it employs a unique navigational interface, based on breathing and balance. At the Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montreal, where Osmose premiered, I was lucky enough to be 'immersed,' and remember how the faint terror of being fitted with what looked like a cross between a parachute harness and a corset – in fact a motion-capture harness with breathing and balance sensors – subsided as I began to move, very slowly, through fields of translucent images; sinking down into chasms, rising up through surfaces, becoming embedded in spirals of light. I was in water, in computer code, in a tree, above a pond. But I could have been anywhere, because the images and sounds hovered between realism, fantasy and the strange touch of blurred memories.

Richards' The Curiosity Cabinet, in contrast, is exquisitely low tech. A beautiful wooden crypt, encased in gleaming copper screens that shield the space inside from any electromagnetic rays in the atmosphere, houses nothing but a small bench and notebook. It is grounded, or rather 'earthed,' via a giant, grotesque, jewel-like copper coil that winds from one wall of the structure through a window to the street below, 'discharging' the radiation gathered up by the copper screens. It's quite a procedure to actually get inside the cabinet – a bit like being locked in a safe from the outside. Sitting for a few minutes on the bench, looking out through the delicate, relatively small screen doors (was this a small person's playhouse?) I felt exhilarated. Whether this was at the thought of being in a completely uncharged atmosphere for the first time ever, or at the peculiar feeling of being excited about experiencing an absence of something I'd never noticed, I don't really know. Perhaps it was the irony of this (anti)electronic work being situated amid the buzzing atmosphere of the ISEA95 Electronic Art Exhibition at the École Cherrier in Montreal. I don't really know.

Osmose and The Curiosity Cabinet could neatly suggest opposites: full/empty; hi-tech/low-tech; simulated space/real space; on/off; immaterial/ material. Poles apart. However, these are only initial impressions. When we consider being rather than looking, immersion rather than the screen stare, and when the philosophical wireframes of both artists are uncovered, the works reveal an antipathy that turns upon an unexpected poetic affinity.

Certainly, the histories and passions of both artists point to a more complex engagement with their mediums than simple dualities allow. Richards is a pioneer of VR; her works Spectral Bodies (1991) and The Virtual Body (1993) were among the first to deal aesthetically and intellectually with new media technology, and have received several prestigious awards internationally. Her unrelenting interrogation of 'technological being' spills over into published texts, the coordination of residencies such as "Bioapparatus" at the Banff Center of the Arts, and provocative presentations at venues such as ISEA and CyberConf. Davies, in comparison, has a background in painting; she turned to 3-D computer graphics in the mid-'80s in order to represent "luminous enveloping space," and to VR in the mid-'90s (Osmose is her first VR piece) because of its immersive and real-time interactive capabilities. Throughout her career, Davies has maintained a strong interest in the relationship between interior and exterior, self, nature and technology.

Corporeality, identity, ecology, technology – which some would say are the issues of our time – permeate the unnerving atmosphere of lived space within the electro-aesthetic domain that both works engender. The hi-tech, VR plenitude of Osmose and the peculiar detoxified emptiness of The Curiosity Cabinet each create a placid, haven-like environment that swarms with all the contradictions embedded in the idea of a space to 'be' apart. In Osmose, for instance, Davies unabashedly combines images of nature – 'filtered' through her own artistic vision – with the apparatus of high technology. Nature, hi-tech and art merge somewhat to begin with, however, Davies spikes this trio of tropologies with spiritualism – a 'centering' associated with breath and balance. Using the breath/balance interface – rather than the traditional power glove – to navigate the worlds in Osmose, Davies explains, "The body, rather than the head, becomes the ground of all experience. Breath disturbs the boundaries of inside and outside the body, and in the sense of meditation, brings us closer to the connectedness of all things and reaffirms the physical world and the interior spiritual space of self."

Osmose's very simplicity is beguiling; in this computer-aided Gestalt, nature and technology, spirit and self are brought together, smoothed over, comforted, and reconciled through the wellsprings of body and space. But there is also something prickly about this seamless condensation of the big questions, as if, beneath the declarations of cosy tranquility, there lurks the beginnings of a big lie. For an artist like Davies, who has been inspired by Martin Heidegger's critique of modern technology, there can be no easy synthesis of nature and technology.

Heidegger's notion of 'enframing' – the quantification, calculation and measurement of all things – is literalized in VR, where immense computational processes measure, map and translate body movements into changes of scene and perspective fast enough to simulate physical interaction and movement. The 'enframing' of VR completes the reduction of the 3-D physical world that began with the 2-D map or diagram at the end of the Renaissance. As Heidegger warns, and as both Davies and Richards are acutely aware, the supreme danger in thinking of all matter as data is that humans become the measure of all things, and thereby obliterate the possibility of difference. From this perspective, 'nature' seems innately mathematical (heard the phrase 'the technology of nature' lately?) while `culture' simply does not figure in the equation.

And here is the core from which the big lie of VR explodes: By reducing the everything to code, 3-D interactive simulations are more 'realistic' than any previous electronic media. This realism (especially as it involves the actual movement of the body) allows the 'reality' of VR to be thought of as mathematical but still 'real' space – with all the Neoplatonic connotations of universal, mathematical 'being' that the rhetoric has retrieved from the Enlightenment, suffused with patchouli oil and applied again as the 'ecstasy' of data.

So does Osmose – a VR piece – reinforce, or reveal and critique, its Cartesian heritage? "Our culture has drastically separated exterior from interior, valuing the objective over the subjective, mind over body," says Davies. "I wanted to do something that heals this Cartesian split. After a time in Osmose there is a shift in awareness – the user loses the urge to control, and boundaries between inner, outer, mind, body space and time begin to dissolve."

Just in case the immersant gets too 'post-symbolic' and mystical, Davies parenthesizes the dozen or so worlds in Osmose, with a Text World above (with her own writings, poetic and philosophical texts) and a Computer Code World below. And while the use of breath as a navigational interface emphasizes a sense of embodiment within the piece (even if the head-mount morphs into a surrogate scuba set), 'breath' still occurs in a place where humans generally cannot be and breathe at the same time. Whether Davies intends it or not, these oceanic depths – representing the natural world and the 'depths' of the self – can only be experienced by donning the breathing devices and becoming a human fish, a kind of aquatic cyborg. And the breath itself – as it moves inside and outside the body, belonging to no-one, flux-like and ephemeral, represents a boundary collapse between all the great distinctions (life and death, natural and supernatural, self and other). In Osmose this breath is centered in a body that is not entirely our own.

If breathing isn't easy, motion – that icon of VR environments – is also very, very slow. The stillness and sense of envelopment in Osmose comes out of Davies' extreme myopia – a visual impairment that has led her to think of experience more in terms of atmospherics, permeations and resonance – and also from her experience as a deep sea diver, of being perfectly still and having the sea life surround her.

For Davies, "Osmose is trying to create an environment of being still and just being – allowing things to come to you – rather than always doing, getting, conquering and moving forward. That stasis is so antithetical to our culture of doing."

And also antithetical to traditional VR. In line with the technological determinism that drives Western culture, eye-hand navigation in most VR literally clasps the eyes with video screens and metaphorically demands that the user 'look ahead,' move forward, progress towards the future – a future that has since become a trademark of a technology already defined as 'progress.' In our media-saturated and neophilic culture, movement, progress and narrative become embedded within the technology itself, while technological development advertises a deferred transcendence with the promise that one day the simulation will be so realistic, you will be there! The key to this transcendence is'immersion,' on one hand, and on the other, a cultural stupefaction that Geert Lovink has dubbed 'organized innocence': The general presumption that 'we come to VR untouched by media culture'; 'we aren't scopophiliacs driven by a love of the new.' Osmose does not engage any of these desires: Breathing deeply doesn't really count as getting ahead; it's impossible to zoom, and there's nothing new about the ocean or the woods. These experiences are familiar and, for the time being, don't require sponsorship from Microsoft. On all counts, Osmose functions best as a trailer for the deep sea: As Davies says, "Osmose will have fulfilled its purpose if it makes people want to go diving."

Encouraging the real over the virtual, Osmose refuses transcendence to a techno-spiritist oneness with nature through VR immersion, Richards' cabinet gives electronic 'being there' and the romance of connectivity an entirely new twist. In total contrast to Osmose, the 'immersion' that The Curiosity Cabinet offers takes effect via an absence of technology in a situation where the 'immersant' becomes impossibly 'unplugged.' For those
- who know Richards' work – in particular, Spectral Bodies and Virtual Bodies, it came as a surprise to see a piece so woody, solid, sculptural and definitely 'off.' But like those other works, The Curiosity Cabinet interrogates the increasingly complex relationships between the body as a site for new technologies, and the issues of subjectivity, materiality and – virtuality that emerge from that relationship.

Whereas Osmose critiques the separation from nature and spirit that techno-scientific thinking engenders, Richards asks whether the product of that thinking – the autonomous, unified, self-determined and totally rational individual – can exist within our mediacratic culture as it approaches the end of the millennium.

"The idea for The Curiosity Cabinet, and the sculptural, material way that I've expressed it," says Richards, "really came out of wondering why, why, why are people still talking as if it's possible to be this autonomous separate self, no matter what technology we use or are immersed within? I think a lot of sci-fi and cyborg mythology is about saying 'yes, we're going to bond with technology, but we'll still be the same, we'll still be the intact egos but we'll just be bigger....' You know, the 19th-century idea of the autonomous individual with a different backdrop of more power delivery. I started speculating about what it would mean to be that kind of self in our current mediascape – I mean we're in this electromagnetically charged environment constantly that we can't see, and we have no idea what it's doing. At the same time, I was thinking about the curiosity cabinet, which became popular at that moment in European history when explorers were collecting 'curiosities' from new worlds and bringing them home to their benefactors, who would then display them as a sign of their autonomous power to act on the world without any repercussions. The situation that existed when new, physical, worlds were being explored is now reversed – if you want to be that autonomous, self-determining individual, it's not the world in a cabinet –meaning the media, electronic world – it's you in the cabinet; you're the endangered species, you're the collectable, and you're the one that's on display."

Richards' cabinet is also a paradoxical haven, its four walls enclosing a variety of conflicting associations. Like Osmose, it seems to provide a space for reflection and spiritual awareness, but at the same time this 'retreat' – from the 'chargedness' of media culture, from the drive of technology and technological thinking – is only possible by surrendering the atmosphere, the phenomenological space, of contemporary humanity. In an obverse relationship to VR, the space between the (copper) screen and the viewer is so free from the electromagnetic charge of culture that the immersant becomes a species in wilderness, 'caged' as Richards suggests, or within the 'standing reserve' – the stockpile of human and natural resources – that Heidegger uncannily predicted. One observer likened the cabinet to a spaceship, with the copper coil attaching the astronaut to the vessel. In outer space, as much as beneath the sea or within the electromagnetically free zone, being is a long way from the 'natural' self, and 'there' is physiologically, at least, alien.

As Richards sets up the conditions for creating the kind of self that would choose to exist in an uncharged environment, the lessons from those who are forced to do so immediately come to mind. In a strange and frightening way, images of people (often women) with environmental illness, eking out an existence within the aluminum shields of specially designed houses, falling into muscle spasm at the approach of invisible electromagnetic waves or toxic fumes that only they can feel, represent the flip side of the silicon-empowered cyborg –a withered, rather than empowered human being for whom leakage between inside and outside is a threat rather than a promise: for whom 'connection' means death.

"This ties into the theme of boundaries," Richards says, "to take the classic VR as an example, you literally have to be plugged in; the better it works, the more intimately it reads your body, your memory, who you are. And of course, eventually these VR modules will be all linked up so that you're sharing virtual worlds. So how, in a virtual world, do you maintain the stability of those boundaries between inside and outside, real and virtual, self and other? But then, what's the good of being on a network if you're unlinked...?"

In Osmose, boundaries are disturbed by stillness, breath and the fluidity they represent: In The Curiosity Cabinet, the boundary itself becomes a source of both protection and alienation, with the copper screens shielding invisible rays from the caged curio inside. Boundaries are important – isn't that what the picture frame and the romantic of the frontier is all about? – but for Richards, the real dilemma facing 'cowboys in cyberspace' is how to be autonomous and connected at the same time: "The actual functioning of the technology," Richard says, "is to make everyone more vulnerable and to question the notion of the unified subject, in a very practical systematic way. But culturally, there is a strong denial of this – the kind of stories offered about virtual life are completely opposite to what's actually going on."

These days, the hunger for a reconciliation between art, technology, spirituality and nature, and the desire for a transcendent, unifying and preferably out-of-body experience is most often (dis)-satisfied through the duplicity of a technologically induced rapture. Neither Osmose nor The Curiosity Cabinet offer an escape – from reality, or even virtual reality. In Osmose, as in the ocean, to retain the body as we know it, is to repress that physiological function which defines life. To repress breath is to die. And just as there is a grand denial in the willing confusion between physical and virtual, there is a certain death drive, or at least a species shift, involved in the reconciliation between technology and nature that, in Osmose, leaves us breathless.

Death also permeates the 'clean room' of The Curiosity Cabinet, placing us in a crypt, a coffin, uncontaminated by the fumes of culture that, today, have become culture itself. Stillness, suspesion, a cage – created in order to understand the dimensions of these charged havens and problem leaks, and in order to meet big lies with big questions. From Osmose: Why aren't you diving? From The Curiosity Cabinet: What put you in here?

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Last verified: August 1st 2013.