Displaced guilt over access to extremely costly methods of production is the first among the myriad failings of contemporary techno-artists. As the debate rages as to whether or not the computer augurs the century's last avant-garde, too many of those who employ its technologies offer a neverending idylicization of nature in the service of a feel-good eco-aesthetic. The call for a return to nature is thus a puzzling embarrassment: Why use million-dollar systems dependent on the latest hardware and software to create simplistic critiques of machine culture?

"Osmose," a virtual-reality installation by Canadian artist Char Davies, seems at first glance to fall straight into this trough. Davies's supporting texts are full of "green" thoughts—the interface is built around skin-diving metaphors—and many of the environments are modeled on the organic eco-systems of the "natural" world —forest, stream, leaf, earth, and so forth. Yet Davies transcends her own rhetorical setup with an installation that's too clean to be green. For one, the physical environment she creates is highly aesthetic rather than simply thrown together as a mess of monitors, hardware and wires draped in black cloth, as is the usual techno-art scenario.

Based on the way that divers navigate underwater, "Osmose" uses a unique interface mechanism: a vest with sensors to detect the motion of the chest. The user breathes in to rise, and exhales to descend. This apparatus offers a delightful spin on Virtuality's standard repertoire of corporeal/aesthetic pleasures, so often limited to the head and hands. In terms of pleasure, "Osmose" anticipates the needs of two entirely different audiences. Only the smallest percentage of the museum's patrons actually get strapped into the vest and helmet like, head-mounted display (HMD) so as to immerse themselves fully in the virtual environment; the rest participate less actively. Anticipating this, Davies creates a dialogue between the piece's "user" and the "viewers" (who wear polarized glasses and watch a large-screen stereoscopic projection of what the user sees). Blocked off from the viewers by a full-length pane of opaque glass, the user's back-lit silhouette twists and turns as she learns new ways of negotiating new space.

Char Davies, SOFTIMAGE, Tree, from Osmose, 1995 †
Digital image captured in real-time
through head-mounted display during
live performance.

These virtual spaces are both lovely and strange. Perhaps their strangeness stems from the fact that these are so clearly acculturated bits of nature. Though based on organic forms, their colors and textures do not strive toward the chimera of VR—digital realism. For users, movement from cloud to tree trunk, from glen to riverbed, may be fluid and dimensional; for viewers, the images may have the quality of a languid series of long takes with the occasional fade. But below the rocks and the riverbed is an environment composed of alpha-numeric characters arranged in intersecting planes. This spatialized conceit about computer code and the way it undergirds technoart is quite sophisticated visually. More importantly, though, its self-reflexivity denaturalizes the imagery, revealing the entire experience as a well-articulated series of electronic maneuvers.

Davies is the director of visual research at SoftImage, a high-end computer graphics software group that was recently purchased by Bill Gates in his quest to have Microsoft own everything in North America that the Disney Company does not. In other words, Davies is as implicated in the brave new technological world as an artist can be. "Osmose" is at its best when it elides Edenic fallacies about oneness of nature and concentrates on the shifting terrain of millennial technology.

Reprinted courtesy of Peter Lunenfeld and Art + Text

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.