Plural Reality

At the close of this century, the human being is againimmersed in times of remarkable change which not only affects society as a whole, but in particular, affects the individual's way of thinking, conceiving and perceiving the outer world.

The scientific and technological progress of the l9th and 20th centuries has been a key factor in this process. The first major step was taken during last century's Second Industrial Revolution. An irreversible development, from mechanization through motorization and acceleration in transportation means (ship, train, and car) and in communication media (electronic telegraphy and telephone) has left its mark, in great measure, on the history of our century, and has radically transforined the traditional parameters concerning time and space. All of this continues to affect our human condition, our vision and our relationship with reality. As if this was not enough, the fruit of this close relationship between mechanics, physics and chemistry was yet rmother revolution. The Third Industrial Revolution, which took place in the 20th century with the discovery of electronics and the invention of the microchip, has taken us in giant steps into the present era of computers and telecommnunications.

And so, dominated by the impetus and dizziness ofspeed itself, distances do not determine time anymore, but it is time which determines distances. Just as Terence McKenna rmembers, "only sixty years have elapsed between a maximum land speed of 50 km/hour, to that of 13 km/second."[1] To this we may add the fact that comniunication media, whether telephone, radio, TV and currently above all, Internet, have achieved that any geographical distance may become insignificant when we wish to get verbally or visually close to the farthest corners of the earty. The trip from one place to the other is not measured in kilometers anymore; it is measured in units of time. If we travel on any means of transportation, time is still measured by a clock; but if we "travel" virtually through any present-day means of comminucation, time becomes instantaneous and is reduced to tenths of seconds, if not completely annulled. Bearing all this in mind, it is easy to infer what this change of parameters means to our minds, as well as to our group and personal habits.

On the other hand, man's eye prostheses, whether we call them space satellites or infrared telescopes, now allow us to visualize the universe at such distance and with such a precision as never before. At the same time, nanotechnologies are permitting accessto microscopicspheres of nanometric dimensions which would otherwise be inaccessible to the human eye (a nonometer is one thousand millionth of a meter).

All of the above can help us understand, first and foremost, the meaning of the new technologies to the human being. They are comparable to uge artificial organs, extracorporeal faculties of our senses and of our physical and mechanical functions, as well as the cerebral ones. If we see it this way, we should also point out that all these technological breakthroughs revels a reciprocal relationship between man and machine. And that is because technological progresscannot be understoodin any other way, but as the result of the creative ingeniousness of the human mind. Just as Jean Baudrillard states, "Machines offer the spectacle of thought."[2] It is as if our complex mental space would materialize in them. They put us in touch with ourselves; they turn us into the subject and the object at the same time; they even lead us to the anthropological doubt of our own existence.

At the same time that technological progress modified our way of conceiving and perceiving the world around us, science reasserted several other essential revelations to contemporary thought. The theory of relativity as well as quantum physics, that of chaos and even endo physics, have eventually begun questioning reality and objectivity as inevitable and ontological values. Parallel to these scientifc revelations, philosophical thought began to deepen into the relativism of reality itself, which since then has been considered as something created in a flexible and variable way within the subject itself. "We are not subjects of an objective world, but projects of possible worlds," said philosopher Vilem Flusser.[3]

The renunciation of some of the most important classical pillars of Western scientific and philosophical thought have modified and brought closer the traditional dichotomies between the real and the imaginary or virtual. The fact is, that which is virtual cannot be defined nowadays, based on an antihesis between that which is real and that which is imaginary or spiritual. Scientist Christopher Langton describes it in a very illustrative manner when he says, "Virtual particles constitute in reality, the molecules of life... the virtual is a system as longas its parts and the aggregate of its characteristics cannot be shown in an isolated way, but only at the moment of their interpenetration."[4] As such, the spirit would be a virtual element in the machine of the body, says Peter Weibel in reference to Langton.

Based on the virtual and the possible, the society of computer science and telecommunications has created a whole functional structure which introduces us directly into virtual worlds. To understand the phenomenon of the so-called Virtual Reality we do not even have to use the well-known helmets or sensors; it is enough to have a simple connection into the Internet network to be able to enter new virtual "continents" of the so-called cyberspace, a space through which a fundamental part of the structure and function of contemporary society is governed: private and public management, economy and finances, as wellas the more generalized global communication, buth in the individual and the collective field.

It is precisely this virtual space of ephemeral and immaterial, without time, distance, or geographical location, which is becoming the new agora in our smaller and increasingly complex "global village". The transformation concerning the human condition has not passed by unnoticed by art. On the contrary, since the beginning of the century, the new technologies for communications have deeply moved the creative and restive imagination of the artists, both in their aesthetic and formal aspect, as much as in their conceptual proposal of the work of art. Moreover, their creative genius has been part of the invention of systems, computer programs, or interfaces taken as an intersection and communication between man and machine, between the atom and the bit.

The Labyrinth of Art

In order to approach and understand the new artistic manifestations, it is necessary to register them within the social and cultural context that guides the way of thinking and acting of the human being. History of art itself shows us that the consideration and function granted to the artist and his work has depended, to a great extent, on the prevailing social systems which have varied through the centuries. That is why a categorical definition about the nature of art has never existed. But rather, on the contrary, it is as the Spanish historian Simon Marchan stated, "The world of art is a labyrinth, and we shall only be able to know where it leads, or what is to be found within it, if we try to seek orientation through the works that, out of social or cultural agreenient, we accept as artistic".[5]

By entering this "labyrinth" briefly, we may clearly observe how art has been changing its direction and meaning. In the primitive cultures, it surfaced from the belief and the need to influence the outer world. In this sense, the artist and his work specially related to the world of magic and shamans, functioning as the means to evoke the powers of man over nature. In Classical Antiquity, however, the painter or sculptor was considered a mere craftsman, lacking any intellectual or creative capacity. So Seneca stated it conclusively, "The images of the gods are venerated, but sculptors are scorned."

And that was because, up to the Middle Ages, there was a very clear distinction between the subservient arts and the liberal arts. The latter was concerned with exercises that were essentially of the mind, like poetry, rhetoric, logic, as well as arithmetic and even music. Instead, subservient arts were of a mechanical nature, and comparatively lesser, such as painting and sculpture.

The intellectual activity of the artist against the mechanical activity of the artisan was valued mostly from the Renaissance .That is when the artist started to attain social recognition as the creator and author of a work. The artist, in turn, becomes a researcher and an explorer of the laws of nature. His greatest aspiration was that art would be considered as a faithful copy of nature, but besides imitating it, it had to evoke beauty, because the value of beauty corresponded to that of the truth inherent in all things.

In time, the process of differentiation and independence of the artist confronting that of the artisan was parallel to the appearance of the expository value of the work, as well as its merchandising nature. Thus, it was not until the 18th century that the figure of the artist began to rise on the social ladder, even assuming important official status in the courts of absolute monarchs. Art had a lowly function, appointed to exalting the circles of feudal, as well as clerical power.

Until the last part of the 18th century, the history of art was closely linked to the technological and communicative evolution. Every period and every culture have manifested their creative potential and their aesthetic tendencies through different genres, forms, and techniques. For example while the Germans centered their work in metals and goldsmithing, the Romans distinguished themselves with their reliefs and their architecture. Some Neolithic peoples expressed themselves through pottery, while the Andean cultures excelled in their textile art. Incidentally, we may add that the etymological term "technician" derives from the Greek tekhnikós, which means "relative to an art" and comes tékhné, which means "art" or "ability".

Even though it is true that throughout history art has developed within the context of technological progress and "communication media", this relationship changed radically during the 19th century. It was then that art began to shed the bonds that tied it to the other social practices declaring its nonfunctionality and its freedom of expression as its only true value. Turning its hack on the Industrial Revolution and on the new optical and mechanical technologies for production, it continued to manifest itself throngh the traditional craftmanship practices.

Notwithstanding the above, photography and cinema later on had a major influence on the traditional artistic proposals. Among other reasons, it was because they displaced painting in the analogous representation of the image, so that the painter was impelled to produce new forms of representation, beginning by definitively breaking away from that same analogous representation. By the end of the 19th century there commenced a whole succession of evolving processes, from an analogous representation to a digital one, which would take us from Monet to the present day infographic creations.

It is precisely at the time of the Impressionists that artists started to be interested in the concept of perception itself, first in light and color in Impressionism, and later in the relationship with forms in Cubism, or linked to the world of the subconscious in Surrealism. Even the idea of immateriality was raised in the abstraction of Suprematism.

The phenomenon of the autonomy of art took a step into the evolution of "art for art's sake", unprecedented in all its history. Some artists have gone so far as to question the fundamentals and the technical traditions of expression. In a rich cultural broth, in which literature, music, and the plastic and visual arts tried to transgress their own aesthetic, formal and conceptual limits, the Collage, the ready-made, the happening and performance were born. Within this context, it turned out to be completely coherent that as early as the 20s and 30s, the first fine art experiences in movement were manifested. The drawings and the paintings done directly on celluloid by painters Walter Ruttman, Viking Eggeling and Oscar Fishinger, heralded the first integration of pictorial practice in cinematography.

Electronic Art

Since the beginning of the 20th century, the new artistic trends, like the Futurists, the Bauhaus, and later Fluxus, among others. put forward a new social function of art and expressed innovative concepts of creation and communication related to current technologies.

The fact is that already in 1933, only five years after the radio was established as a mass medium, and one year after the BBC broadcast its first experimental program on television, E.T. Marinetti proclaimed in his manifesto "La Radio Futurista", "Now we possess a television of fifty thousand dots for each image on a big screen. We await the invention of teletactilism, teleperfume, and teleflavor. We, the Futurists, perfected radio broadcasting, destined to centuplicate creative genius... A new art which begins where the theater, the cinema and literature end."[6]

Here summarized in a few words are the motivations and relations among the arts and the communication media. At the beginning of our century, it was already set forth that the new media could become a support for the most varied artistic fields. One of its main objectives was to break the traditional casts for creation and representation. The intention was to revolutionize art. Even a new integration of art within the other social practices was proposed, turning artistic creation into one of the main boosters which would give form and content to present and future society.

The new iconographs of the computing and telecommunications era may be considered the direct heirs along this line. What is more, in the present era of electronics, informatization and mediatization of all social practices, we find some phenomena which are similar, in certain aspects, to those dating from the beginning of the century. Positivist beliefs in technological progress, the restoration of integrating artistic practices to social life, as well as the subversion of traditional values, are to be found, similarly, in the cybercultural movements of the 80s and 90s.

The relationship of the artist with the new technologies changed an essential aspect, notwithstanding the fact that it lived through a devastating world war, which is the other face of progress. It was the Korean artist Nam June Paik, among others, who pioneered in video-creation during the 60s, and who articulated the new attitude of the artist before the unstoppable technological progress. His motto was to "humanize" the new technologies, to avoid blind faith in them, and to make use of all creative genius in order to apply electronic tools in something constructive and emancipating for the human being.

This intention thus implied that the artist should consider anew the ethical value of aesthetics, together with the integration and commitment of his work to present society.

Those who changed the brush and the canvas for a video camera and for a television screen, or for an electronic palette and a computer, founded themselves on a critical and analytical base, in the most constructive sense of the word. I am not referring to the virtuous electronic craftsmen who service the entertainment and communications industry, those who are capable of creating a dazzling world of images, certainly seductive, to amuse a massive audience as if it were a circus performance. I am talking about those who have kept their distance from the calculated and superfluous aesthetics of consumerism, and to those who concentrate on pointing out, in different ways, the change of conception, perception and thought, immersed in a world mediatized and technicalized in all its streams.

These are artists who are clear about the fact that one can only evolve towards new knowledge through research and participative experimentation, and that such knowledge will synchronize us with the complexity of our present; a present that becomes more difficult to think of and understand in terms of the past.

The artists of the era of electronics expose works which are created and inscribed in the volatile and ephemeral coordinates of time. These proposals evoke an irreversible transformation of our perception, and articulate the change in both our aesthetic categories and our thought.

Concerning the traditional artistic practices, the base and the context on which the creative process is situated have been modified. In this sense, it should be noted that the values of change over which present society is established do not have a merely material or objective character. The value of change is the information, ephemeral and immaterial, which moves instantaneously, in "real time," and from which new richness, new powers, and new social and cultural structures are established. This information is precisely one of the raw materials of electronic and digital art today.

Virtual Reality

In 1950, the artist and mathematician Ben F. Laposky created the first electronic abstraction on an analogous computer. But it was not until 15 years later, that scientists Frieder Nake, Georg Ness, and Michael Noll proposed the idea of Art by Computer.[7] The decade of the 60s was decisive for graphic creations by computer, as well as for the beginning of what we call video art, and for the invention of technical devices for Virtual Reality.

In 1965, the journal "Computers and Automation" summoned the first contest between engineers and scientists, which awarded, not the most precise visual and technical visualizations, but the most aesthetically impacting and "beautiful". Only three years later in 1968, the London Institute of Contemporary Arts organized the first exhibition of graphic art works done on a computer, under the title of "Cybernetic Serendipity". For that occasion they got together plastic artists, cinematographers, architects, musicians and even poets, with the purpose of debating whether or not it was possible to create a work of art using a computer.

The name of this exhibition refers to the historical book by mathematician Norbert Wiener, titled "The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society"; a publication that has been influencing artists and theorists of every field even to our days. This is because, as early as 1950, Wiener said "society can only be understood through a study of messages and the commnunication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future, development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part. It is the purpose of cybernetics to develop a language and a technique that will enable us indeed to attack the problem of control and communication in general, but also to find the proper repertory of ideas and techniques to classify their particular manifestations under certain concepts."[8]

Nevertheless, it was not until the 70s that video and TV technologies were more accessible to artists than the hindering computers, whose use was confined to big computation centers and were seldom available to independent creators. But this situation changed radically at the beginning of the 80s. Massive commercialization of personal computers gave way to a growing interest on the possibilities of the graphic creation of synthetic and digital images called infographic works.

With respect to Virtual Reality, the first prototype was made by the American Morton Heilig, a documentary film-maker. In 1952, he was so impressed by his first visit to a Cinerama that he proposed to develop a machine that could cover 100% of the spectator's span of vision, besides producing all kinds of sensorial information like odors, movements and sounds. He obtained the patent for this machine called "Sensorama" in 1960.[9] Nevertheless, like so many other inventions which are ahead of their time, it didn't prosper then.

Heilig also conceived of the first television installed in a helmet, which incorporated three dimensional devices, wide peripheral effects, stereophonic sound, and the capability of including odors. The American Ivan Sutherland picked up on this idea in 1966, and added the possibility of producing digital images from his computer, instead of analogous images coming from a camera. In this way, to the original idea of immersing the spectator in an audiovisual environment, as Heilig proposed, he added the aspect of computerized simulation and interaction. Since the beginning, this prospect interested NASA which was anxious to substitute the costly analogic simulators for new digital technologies. Meanwhile, the informatician and artist Myron Krueger created a series of interactive installations with diverse sensorial devices and cameras connected to computers in 1970. These captured and processed the movements of the spectators, generating a world of images with which the visitor interacted. Krueger coined the term "Artificial Reality" in 1973, and he was the first one to propose interaction between man and machine as a work of art.

Nevertheless, the popular visualization helmets with liquid crystals (LCD) in combination with sensitive gloves (Data Glove) did not prosper until the mid-80s, when NASA hired two young musicians, Tom Zimmerman and Jaron Lanier. For the improvement of their system.[10] Both had developed these gloves to play an imaginary guitar, creating sounds with the movement of a sensitive glove connected to a computer. The collaboration of these two musicians with NASA propitiated in the last part of the 80s the definitive international repercussion for the recently named Virtual Reality (VR). From that moment on. its development and application in all walks of society has been unstoppable.

Virtual Art

For the art world, it meant a radical change of parameters. That is because in the traditional fields of the visual and fine arts, the works have always been proposed as a "window" through which the spectator can contemplate the imaginary world of the artist. But visual art conceives for the first time an access "door", so when entering it, the visitor may immerse and interact, in a lively way, with this imaginary world.

The three main characteristics of a Virtual Reality work of art are: immersion, interaction and imagination. With all of this, the spectator may become a participative user of the artistic creation. He activates and stimulates the growth of virtual vegetation ("interactive Plant Growing" by Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau). The viewer strolls through an architectural space ("The Capable Skin" by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Emilio López-Galiacho, or "Place" by Jeffrey Shaw), or participates in an actors' dialogue ("Frontiers of Utopia" by Jill Scott). In the same way, the spectator can contemplate and interact with his own image ("Liquid Views" by Monika Fleischmann, Wolfgang Strauss and Christian A. Bohn), or find himself immersed in onyric landscapes of woods or submarine worlds ("Osmose" by Charlotte Davies).

The linking, that is, the means of communication and contact between the physical world and the virtual environment of the artist, is the interface. This can simply be a computer mouse, a glove, or even a sensitive suit; a camera, or any other device supplied with sensors to transmit the physical signals from the user to the computer. These signals are inscribed in the virtual environment projected simultaneously on a screen, a TV, or a helmet provided with a liquid screen covering the whole field of vision of the user. Any movement of the interface implies at the same time a transformation corresponding to the projected images. This way, the user may virtually traverse a landscape, fly over, or walk through any volume, architecture, or abstraction, well as interrelate with the images in several ways.

Because of the above characteristics, a virtual art work cannot be understood as an object or as a representation of something real or imaginary. On the contrary, it is conceived as a hybrid construction of simulated worlds, of possible worlds. But this hybridization does not only refer to the fluctuating images; it goes farther and proposes a morphological relationship among images, texts and sounds, as well as a synergy among the diverse fields of creation: photography, painting, cinema, architecture or theater, among others. At the same time, virtual art implies a growing "hybridization between a thought that is technoscientific, that can be formalized and automized, and the figurative and creative thought whose imagery emerges from a symbolic universe of another nature, and one to which models can never be incorporated".[11]

In visual art, the artist createsthe "continent", a virtual "inhabitable" environment, and the user/spectator creates the "content". The individual experience of the user with the work, his placement and interaction with images and sounds, give form and give the work a generative sense, a sense that is open and transforming. They arouse curiosity, and why not say it, incite to playing with the virtual environment. But this playful aspect turns out to be fundamental in discovering and experimenting freely the individual and collective relationships with the virtual world. Even so, the purpose of these works is not so much that of amusement, but that of concentration and revelation of new habits, and also of new ways of thinking, conceiving and perceiving our environment.

In a reciprocal process of connection and adaptation between man and machine, it seems imperative to articulate the possible meaning to the human condition. "Humankind moves, move than ever, at the technospace of telecommunications, which is gradually substituting real space and physical experience," said Peter Weibel.[12] But at the same time, these virtual spaces become real the moment they are acknowledged as being a chance of survival for the human species.[13] While our minds and virtual presences traverse the hybrid cyberspace at the "speed of light", the physical body tends to greater immobility. Enveloped in a second "skin" of electronic impulses, it entrusts its physical mechanical and sensorial functions to the machines. Consequently, the field of operative actions is also entrusted to them and only thinking and feelin, as such still belongs to the human being, at least for the moment.

Virtual art is evidently conceived as a hybrid and fluctuating world. But instead of leading us to the annulment of the physically real, as some say, it can also be thought that it could take us to that which is essentially real. Within this context, I think we should mention the reflections of David Bohn, physicist and Einstein's collaborator. His opinion is that we have arrived from a Haraclitian "everything flows," to an "everything is in flux"; that is to say, and I quote his words, "What exists is the process itself of comming into being, while all objects, happenings, entities, conditions, structures, etc., are only forms which can be abstracted from this process."[14]

Virtual Art - Plural Reality

Is an exhibition that refers precisely to this "everything is in flux". It sets forth a series of artistic proposals that intensify the sense of association between the real and the virtual. They contribute new meanings to the worth of that which is permeable, and to the transgression among concepts, languages and disciplines that are traditionally differentiated. This connection itself, this interrelation among diverse branches of knowledge and disciplines reveals the complexity of the real. Like Michel Foucault used to say, "the world cannot be experimented so much anymore as it it were a grand avenue extended in time, but as a net that joins points together and crisscrosses in a tangle".[15]

Virtual art proposes a new configuration bctween the real, that is to say, the inevitable, irrevocable, and the virtual, which is to say, the feasible. For this purpose, the artists developed new concepts and strategies on possible relationships illustrated between man and machine. They situate us in a world of images and spaces, calculated by means of complex algorithms and simulations; and at the same time, they render transparent and demystify the omnipresent technostructures. They expose their mechanisms and languages, individualize the relationship between man and machine, and propitiate new experiences which connect us and place us in a future that has become present.


1. Terence McKenna, 'Cartografia temporal al borde de la historia', in cat Art Futura '92 (Madrid: 1992)
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2. Jean Baudrillard, 'Der Xerox und das Unendliche', in Cyberspace: Zum medialen Gesamtkunstwerk (Munich: Boer Verlag, 1993)
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3. Vilem Flusser, 'Vom Viriuellen', in Cyberspace: Zum medialen Gesamtkunstwerk (Munich: Boer Verlag, 1993)
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4. Quote from Christopher Langton, in Peter Weibel's article 'Virtuelle Welten', cat Ars Electronia, 1990, ed by Veritas Verlag (Linz, 1990)
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5. Simón Marchán Fiz, El universa del arte (Madrid: Edición Salvat, 1985)
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6. F.T. Marinetti, La radio futurista (La Mancha, Cuenca: Ediciones Radio Fontana Mix, Universidad de Castilla, 1986)
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7. Herbert W. Franks, Kunst im electronischen Zeitalter, ed by DuMont (Cologne, 1984)
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8. Cynthia Goodman, Digital Versions-Computer and Art (Syracuse: Abrams Everson Museum of Art, 1987)
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9. Grigore Burdea and Phillipe Coiffet, Tecnologias de la Realidad Virtual (Barcelona: Paidos Hipermedia, 1996)
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10. G. Burdea and P. Coiffet, ibid.
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11. Edmond Couchot, 'Enire lo real y lo virtual: un arte de la hibridacion', in Arte en la era electrónica, ed. by Claudia Giannetii (Barcelona: 1977)
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12. Peter Weibel, 'La era de la ausencia', en Arte en la era electrónica, ed. by Claudia Giannetti (Barcelona: 1997)
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13. Richard Schuster, 'Soma und Medien', in Kunstforum International Bd. 132 (Ruppichteroth: 1996)
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14. David Bohm, La totalidad y el orden implicado, ed. by Kairos (Barcelona: 1957)
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15. Michel Focault, 'Espacios diferentes', in Toponimias (Madrid: Fundació La Caixa, l994)
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Last verified: December 14th 2013.