Part I
Experiencing Immersive Virtual Space

A computer-based art exhibit that I was immersed in personally, Osmose during the International Symposium on Electronic Art held in Montreal last autumn, was the creation of Char Davies a Montreal artist who began her career as a painter of large-scale fictitious landscape works. She became frustrated at her inability to delve beyond the two dimensional picture plane through which she was attempting to depict an enveloping osmotic-type space. This lead her to experiment with computer technology by teaming up with a colleague working in the computer software field.[1] She was able to gain solid backing from high-tech computer firms in her pursuit of both an artistic and experimental type of art form. The current art show utilizes a $1.4 million dollar computer designed by U.S. Onyx computer especially to show Osmose.

There are two ways to view this computer-based art. As part of the audience you see what is projected onto the screen in front of you wearing stereoscopic glasses. Or you can be an immersant, the sole person located in the theatre's special chamber. As an immersant in this three-dimensional work of art, I was dressed in the following equipment: chest harness to monitor my breathing and balance and headgear to immerse me in a three dimensional, 360 degree world. Breathing in I was told would cause me to ascend while breathing out would bring me down during my three-dimensional voyage in space. I could bend my neck up or down to see spaces above or below me and turn in any direction. My bodily responses controlled the images that the audience in the theatre's auditorium could view stereoscopically. As I floated through digitized spatiality they would do so vicariously.

When the headgear is first put on you the image that appears is a three dimensional grid—receding lines surround you setting up a geometrical mis-en-scène. One feels as though one has entered the world of the mathematician's phase space. Soon, however, the program begins its magic and a strange enchanting three-dimensional world emerges out of the space. Space surrounds you "osmotically", as the artist intends it to.

Most "immersants", as the artist prefers to call the people who participate in Osmose, stay connected for twenty minutes or so in order that they experience some of the twelve worlds that symbolize journeys through—Forest, Clearing, Leaf, Pond and Abyss, which are intended as metaphors or sites for the contemplation of a renewed connection with nature—or as the artist prefers, with Being. I came into a forest with many trees which in yet another world gave way to a clearing with a pond much like Heidegger would have had it. And, as it turns out, it seems that this is what the artist had in mind because she referred both to Heidegger's "clearing" and to Rilke's poetry when speaking to an audience later that week at ISEA where she screened this video of Osmose and explained the concepts underlying her work of art. As she explained it in an artist's statement Osmose is "A work-in-progress exploring the potential or immersive virtual space—as a medium for visual/aural expression & kinaesthetic experience of philosophical ideas".[2] In this respect, Davies is at the forefront of an immersive art form which employs computer technology and is without a doubt its leading artistic implementor and exponent.

As one floats in space, through leaves that take on ethereal dimensions and shapes, one feels at peace with the world and more than this at peace with the cosmos. Davies aspires to dissolve boundaries between subject and object, between inner and outer worlds. Her hope is that immersants will reenter the real world with a greater sensitivity for the nature of things. She hopes, too, that the immersive art experience might create a new understanding for being-in-the-world.

Perhaps the most enchanting experience for me came when I encountered an overpowering and dominating, "cosmic tree". Slowly appearing from directly behind me it travelled toward me getting bigger and more glorious in its diamond-like sparkling attire until it embraced me like a lover. Aesthetically so pleasing and so perfect in its treeness it became for me nothing less than the archetypal cosmic tree that archaic cultures embraced so reverently and that Christian cultures still do with their Christmas trees.

The tree immersed itself in me, travelling through me, becoming one with me and leaving me nostalgically anticipating the moment when it would be gone.

Later I mused, "now I know what Buber meant by the I-It experience". An experience that was often difficult to "teach" to students who founder on what Buber means by the sacredness or holiness of a tree.

As the artist explained it, hers was an attempt to provide viewers with a sense of being in profound and fluid relationship with these virtual worlds of her creation. Her artistic endeavour of immersing one into what often seemed to be a transcendent sense of spatiality was perhaps the best example of enabling one to experience what philosopher's have only been able to write about—this always out of reach for them, sense of transcendence.

The last world conjured up infinite-like spatiality. Had one stepped into that heaven beyond the beyond? Into eternity? Here giant exquisite-geometric-crystal-ice-spheric boulders flew non-threateningly toward me and I toward them and although already in space I entered into yet into its inner sense of space. Later I reflected that this must be what Teilhard de Chardin meant when he anticipated, at his death, becoming one with Cosmic Being. In effect—the experience was, as some have described it, like "tripping" although without drugs.

Indubitably Char Davies's Osmose is aesthetically overwhelming, and more than pleasing to the senses. There is even this surprising attempt to balance left-right hemispheric content due to the enframing of images by worlds of code and text. Davies confided that she used excerpts of her favourite writers and philosophers for the world of text. As she explained it, the words one floated through in Osmose were deliberately used because she hoped to show that philosophical concepts could be represented by images. Davies's goal is to utilize the computer's talents in an artistic manner that does not conjure up images of digitalness. In this respect she succeeds brilliantly.[3]

Davies, rather, ingeniously, even embeds the computerized code used to create her work of art into one of her worlds of words perhaps to remind one that without these floating codes, the technological contribution of the computer, the osmotic experience, would not be possible.

Part II
The Virtual Dynamics (Metaphysics) of Osmose

There are two ways to approach transcendence in Osmose. Positively through the dynamics of space or negatively through the dynamics of nature. Here I will deal with nature and so proceed through a via negativa. The question I wish to address is, is there such a thing as doing a philosophy of virtual reality and if so what are the metaphysics of it? Is it possible to do philosophy from the point of view of image and is this how we will do philosophy in the future.[4]

Michael Heim in his book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality introduces us to the notion of a cyberspace filled with Platonic forms out of which cyberartists and/or the cyberpoet will mould meaningful reality. When I reflected upon this cyberspace notion of Platonic forms I immediately realized that Heim had touched on a vital nerve, one that connects philosophy to computer generated images. If Michael Heim's Platonic metaphysical forms need to be moulded by an artist, then Char Davies surely accomplishes this moulding through her digital work of art, Osmose. It occurred to me that 1) the dynamics underlying Osmose might serve to determine the validity of Heim's insight that there could be a metaphysics of virtual reality based on Platonic dynamics and that 2) if this was so, then Plato's metaphysical dynamics ought to work to describe the digital dynamics of Osmose.

a) Osmose and Platonic Forms

In Osmose, the cyberspace out of which forms are moulded is limited to and framed by a computer, so the idea of cyberspace we are dealing with here is confined to these brackets rather than to the global ones we are accustomed to thinking of. We have seen how the initial scenario in Osmose introduces one to a mathematical grid—as though to remind a person that everything one is about to see will have been produced through the computer's manipulation of three points, geometrically positioned to create an image. If one were to dissect the artistry underlying the image of the tree in Osmose what one would see is pure geometry. Triangles of every conceivable dimension have created the tree. The software program used (Softimage) has also facilitated the illusionary rounding off of the edges and the dressing of the tree in its resplendent, glittering glory.

Plato's mathematical intelligibles, therefore, constitute a convenient starting point for us in this discussion of digitized philosophical dynamics because we are dealing not only with the input of the digitized bodily responses of the immersant but with the output of an interactive computerized program, and with a software program based on geometry and mathematics.

From the immersant's point of view the tree in Osmose is a glorious image—capable of conjuring up ideas of Ideal Forms. From the point of view of Platonic dynamics the tree that is generated through these digital mathematical formulas would be an anomaly; the tree ought simply to be an intelligible form in thought, certainly not a visible one and never an Ideal one. Ideal Forms are intelligibles that transcend mathematical intelligibles in Plato's philosophy. Ideal Forms can never be know expect by analogies and metaphors and proportionality.

I ought to point out that we are working our way downward into the depths of Plato's cave parable for purposes of the analogy that I am making here. Plato's metaphysics has it that the world of invisible intelligible Ideal forms has projected the world of mathematical forms possible for thought. The mathematical forms in turn have made the world of things or objects visible in the real world. As we descend further into the cave, the visible forms of things and objects project themselves as shadows on the walls of the cave that people mistake for the real world. How does all this relate to the dynamics of the immersive art we have just seen?

The computer can instantly create geometric, mathematical forms, or images, out of numbers and points and hence as we saw with Osmose make a world of mathematically invisible forms visible. In so doing it introduces yet another dimension into Plato's stratification of worlds—a projected dimension of virtual mathematical forms. Rather than project a real world, as Plato's mathematical forms do, the computerized dynamics of Osmose project no real world—only mathematicized images. The forms of nature we see in Osmose are not meant to be facsimiles, they are instead virtual forms of nature.

This digital rendition of nature allows us to slip into a never before experienced inbetween world that Plato might or might not have marvelled at. That is, Osmose, as an immersive work of art, allows us a way of seeing the world of mathematical forms in a virtual, imageful way—a world that ought only to belong to thought. It brings the invisible mathematical formula into a visible world of forms that can represent things or objects but only in a formal way. The move is not a difficult one to make because of the computer's digital ability to generate mathematical formulas as images. We are all familiar with the Mandelbrot set and its astonishing displays of formulas as images. What is thought provoking for philosophers in respect to Osmose is that an artist has taken philosophical concepts, supposedly bound to thought alone, and image-fully projected their abstract forms—making of them visible concepts.

If we juxtapose the Platonic mathematical dynamics alongside the Osmosian dynamics, and continue downward from the invisible but now visible worlds of mathematical forms we encounter two types of visible forms: the Osmosian virtually formal nature and the Platonic realworld variety. Whereas in the original cave scenario the objects or things in the real world were projected upon the walls to become an imaginary world of images, of shadows, we now have a projection of a virtual form of nature on the "walls" of a cavernous 3 D computer spatiality. The artist's digitalized rendition of nature has forced us to skip over Plato's idea of a real world projection so that the projections we are confronted with in Osmose are images of virtual forms of nature, not nature as we know it at all.

If Osmose permits us to be immersed only in the virtual forms of nature how can the transcendent experience that so many immersants obviously experienced in Osmose be a transcendent one? After all I am claiming it has lead one into the Platonic world of the cave. If we rethink Plato's parable we would have to ask what does it mean to have reflected on a wall imaginary forms created not from a real world of objects but from virtual forms of nature?

Initially, one does not necessarily relate to these forms as virtual forms of nature. As one reflects upon the immersive experience a Kierkegaardian "immediacy-after-reflection" occurs. One finds that one has, indeed, been lead down into a Platonic cave of shadows by the resplendent artfully produced computer images in Osmose. We have descended, so to speak, from Plato's mathematical world of intelligible forms directly into a world of forms and shadows through provocative digital artistry. Since virtual forms of nature have been involved rather then a virtual reality or real world of nature, something about these digital images of nature remain with you as afterimage and it is this afterimage that eventually becomes disconcerting. Upon reflection we find that we have become prisoners of a computer's rendition of a virtual nature and if left to wallow in the nature represented in Osmose we would be no further ahead then the cave people that Plato describes in his famous parable.

We are confronted with the same question, again. What, then, of the transcendent experience? How is it that Osmose in the end, can produce in one these feelings for transcendence if the immersive work of art has lead one into a computer's abysmal cave of geometrically produced forms and even worst by way of digitized senses?

In many ways what is true of the later Schelling's wrestle with the limits of reason in his negative philosophy is also true of the dynamics of Osmose. In Osmose there is this encounter with the virtual forms of nature going on; they are mesmerizing and bedazzling expressions of the mathematical/geometrical but they are limited to the computer's "reason" or logic; to its program and your own sensations. Unlike Plato's descent from Ideal Forms, through the mathematical, real and imaginary, the digital dynamics descent has been a descent beginning only from the mathematical, proceeding directly to the virtual and shadow world and only after reflection inviting us to confront the real world of nature. Osmose, indeed, succeeds in making of us concerned ecologists.

Plato's intent is to demonstrate how the metaphysics of the cave parable can also work upward through the real world and the mathematical world and hence toward an intuitive metaphorical grasp of the realm of Ideal forms. This is also true of Osmosian dynamics—not in respect to nature but in respect to the cosmos—something we cannot go into here.


With Heim's insight and Plato's metaphysics, I have attempted to demonstrate that Osmose is a vehicle that allows us a way to describe a metaphysics of digitally through the use of images so that in fact the image sublates the concept. This digital approach to metaphysical dynamics suggests that this kind of image-ful philosophizing is just as legitimate as conceptual philosophizing in provoking thinking processes. It is also possible to argue (but not here) 1) that because of cyberspace and the multimedia it employs philosophy based on image-ful dynamics is likely to become the dominant way of philosophizing in the future. And 2) that new philosophical paradigms for thought created out of cyberspace will create a shift from left hemisphere domination to a right hemisphered matrix. We will learn to function out a wholistic sense of consciousness rather than the sequentially fragmented one we have been caught up in for the past 2,000 years or so.

Finally, despite all this good news, that it is now possible to experience philosophical concepts through the images created by digital dynamics, the bad news is that digital dynamics can not take us out of the worldview that we are presently bound to. Our digital worldview is just as bound to the mathematical and geometrical paradigm as Plato's worldview was and thus to ideas of space and time and transcendence that dominate this worldview.[5] To transcend the ideas of this worldview we shall need a new paradigm entirely.

Last Updated August 7, 1997 by Laurie McRobert


1. See footnote 7.

2. Quoted from a postcard give away describing Osmose.

3. We ought to note the credits listed for "Osmose". Char Davies–Concept and direction; George Mauro–Graphics; John Harrison–Virtual reality software development; Rick Bidlack–Music composition and programming; Dorota Blaszczak–Sound design and programming; and Daniel Langlois-Executive Producer. The exhibition is co-sponsored by Microsoft Softimage and Silicon Graphics. As already noted in the text it is substantially subsidized by a software company. This computer-art is not easily produced. This particular work of are would cost about 2 million dollars in my estimation to produce, perhaps more. An artist working alone would not be privy to this kind of financing. One must point out that Davies has had the advantage of working closely with the creator of Softimage, Daniel Langlois. Not only has she achieved her goal in this production, but she has gone even further—she has immersed us, for better or for worse, into a three dimensional cosmic womb. She is not alone, however, the field is fast becoming inundated with computer-artists who are becoming quite adept at producing virtual reality effects; in merging humanness with machine.

4. In fact these initial rumblings of image-ful philosophical dynamics began when I gave a course at Thomas More Institute that pitted chaos theory against deconstructionism. The idea was to let the abysmal dynamics evoked by deconstructionism be grasped through the fractal images provided by chaos theory. I was surprised at how easily students could understand what it was that deconstructionists were deconstructing through the use of the images of fractal science.

5. In include in this digital category the quantum computers being developed. They too work through digital dynamics even though they are designed to interact with each other's digital 0-1's (called qubits). Cited at The article lists it source as Physics News UpDate The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News Number 293, October 30, 1996 by Phillip F. Schewe and Ben Stein.

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Last verified: August 1st 2013.