Char Davies, Forest Grid, from Osmose, 1995
[Char Davies, Forest grid, from Osmose, 1995] Digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live performance.

It’s been hailed as “the world’s first virtual work of art” and damned as little more than a “digital float tank”.

Perhaps these reactions to Canadian artist Char Davies’s computer art Osmose were to be expected. It is an example of that much talked about, little seen phenomenon: virtual reality.

When you enter Osmose, you start in a wood, at the centre of which is a clearing and a crystalline tree. You can then move up to a world of text or dive to look at the computer code that underpins the work. Alternatively, you can drift through different organic spaces. When your time is up, the world drifts away and you're left hanging in empty digital space.

Davies says that a diving trip in the Bahamas was as a crucial influence. “People who do VR tend to design virtual worlds based on every day experience. You walk, drive, ride a bike. Diving allows you into a space where different rules apply. You work by breathing and tend not to use your hands.” So, though you pull on a headset to enter Osmose, data gloves are nowhere to be seen. You lean in the direction you want to move, and breathe in or out to move up or down. The result is that you are more conscious of your body—a stark contrast to the hype which celebrated VR as a way of escaping the flesh.

Art that uses technology (usually in a sponsorship deal) risks winding up as corporate PR. Softimage, the graphics software company which supported Osmose, lent the Silicon Graphics machine which runs the show, but Davies tops the food chain — she’s Softimage's director of visual research.

Davies hopes her piece will influence the computer business. “Conventional thinking about technology, in terms of visuals and interactive sensibility is based on speed and adrenaline — either you’re killing or scoring. This tries to explore an alternative. If artists are aware of conventions and look for ways to circumvent them, they can play a valuable role in the business.”

Jim McClellan

Char Davies's Osmose is on display at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, London EC2, as part of the Serious Games exhibition (19 June to 17 August). To book an appointment to use the Osmose helmet and vest, call 0171 638 8991. Viewers at the exhibition can watch a projection of the participant's eyeview and hear the soundtrack on headphones.

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Last verified: Jun 17th, 2017