Embodiment in Electronic Media

Jamy Sheridan, an artist and professor at the University of Michigan School of Art, has also used GAs [Genetic Algorithms, ed.] in his work. In performances combining projections of computer images and the human body he has created work that crosses the boundaries between the physical and virtual. Using software created with musician/programmer John Dunn, Sheridan has generated a series of animated computer images based on a traditional carpet pattern called the Tree of Life. Appropriately, portions of the symmetrical pattern are based on the genetic configuration of organisms. The patterns move and evolve, displace one another or dissolve into liquid dots flowing serenely across the screen.

But it’s Sheridan’s choice of screen that is most compelling. Several installations are flat on the floor with the projector mounted on the ceiling. The screen is actually a layer of white sand some two or three inches thick. The sand is uneven, filled with mounds and dips left by preceding audiences. The carpet of light is shown on this undulating surface – looking like fabric laid on the floor (plates 40, 41).

The work is incomplete without the body, however. Stepping onto the sand, participants enter an arena. Dots of light and fragments of the carpet’s pattern wash over the body on the way to the sand. The carpet wraps the body in light. As the patterns flow, the sand appears to move, pulling the viewer along. Spilling a handful of sand momentarily connects the body to the sand with a veil of colored light. In the dark, it's as though all were dissolved, ebbing and flowing with the carpet’s patterns.

The dematerialization of the body in Sheridan’s work recalls our earlier discussion of mediated identity and presence in electronic environments. His work is not alone in this respect. A particularly compelling example is “Bodymaps: Artifacts of Touch” by Canadian artist Thecla Schiphorst. Many components of the installation are similar to Sheridan’s. It too is an audience-participation piece using a horizontal surface for projection. While Sheridan’s work projected onto the body, Schiphorst's projects the body itself.

Once again, the selection of the screen is important. Schiphorst’s surface is a deceptively simple sheet of white velvet laid over a tabletop. The table stands alone in the room. Hidden sensors imbedded in substrate layers of the velvet sense pressure and heat. Passing one’s hand lightly over its surface sends signals to a computer, activating a concealed projector above. Depending on which sensors are affected, a variety of brief video segments is shown onto the velvet screen below.

The images are of the artist immersed in water, her eyes closed, her body moving as if in a dream (figs. 140, 141, 142). The movement is in slow motion, the images fading in and out of view. The videos are viewed on the basis of the gesture that evoked them – a slow, gentle wave of the hand may be rendered in the languid motion of the image, for instance. At times the body, filmed in white liquid – perhaps milk – disappears only to emerge from the white velvet a moment later.

Touch inspires the image – image inspires the touch. The sensuality of the velvet surface and the aquatic movement of the body make engagement with the piece a charged experience. The sense of bodily presence is augmented by the response of the system and the viewer's complicity (plate 48).

German artist Monika Fleischmann and architect Wolfgang Strauss have produced several works using projection to dematerialize the body. In one, “Rigid Waves," the viewer engages a large screen that appears to shatter repeatedly into smaller pieces. The viewer begins with one large image but as the screen breaks up each fragment contains a smaller image of himself – as though his identity were spread over an increasing number of avatars. The question oil identity in electronic media pervades Fleischmann and Strauss' work, both in their installations and in their designs for cybereal environments.

In another collaboration, “Liquid Views,” a horizontal computer screen is placed in a darkened room (fig. 143). On it is an image of water, a pool perhaps, with pebbles on the bottom. The viewer also makes out her reflection on the water’s surface. The screen is touch-sensitive. Should the viewer touch her reflection, it breaks up as though she had touched the surface of a pool. Waves ripple to the edge of the screen, distorting the pebbles below. Adjacent wall-mounted screens display the same image, surrounding the viewer with the shifting self- image, distorted by her gesture.

Quebec artist Char Davies takes the theme of water, body and self in a different direction with “Osmose.” This is a virtual environment to be explored with a head-mounted display. Vertical movement is achieved by inhaling and exhaling. This interface is drawn from Davies’ experience as a scuba diver where using the air in one’s lungs affects buoyancy.

The world Davies portrays is a rich, dream-like space populated with presences and metaphors. Some are recognizable – a tree, a clearing or rocks in a stream – others we can only infer. Osmose is a layered space with many levels (figs. 144-147). It appears to be based on a natural environment, yet examination reveals greater abstraction the farther down one goes. At its lowest levels, where metaphorically one expects soil and tree roots, we find instead planes of text based on Davies’ writings and of those who inspired her. All the images above this level draw on their power. The abstract gives rise to the concrete.

Davies’ piece is an internalized self-portrait. Visitors who don the headset find themselves in a highly personal, if uninhabited, world. Her texts, the buoyant motion, the dreamlike quality of the experience all contribute to its paradoxically cosmic intimacy. In other works discussed to this point we have seen the body as object and screen. Abstract though they may be, avatars are still object-like representations of the user. How different is this cyberspace where the body disappears entirely while Davies’ presence remains. Even the viewer’s breathing is co-opted into representing the author. The body has been dematerialized, abstracted and invested in the poetry of Osmose. While computation can render the abstract tangible – as in the work of Eckel and Art+Com – it can also abstract and ablate the concrete. Davies’ artistic dematerialization of the body into ambience takes this process to an extreme.

Char Davies, Osmose (1995), Tree PondChar Davies, Osmose (1995) Tree Pond
Shown are scenes from Char Davies' osmose. The virtual environment has a scale of abstraction that takes immersant visitors from the most natural, concrete images to the most symbolic. The strata of Osmose descend to the rudimentary level of text show in the bottom image, the extreme of abstraction.

Char Davies, Osmose (1995), Code World

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Put on-line: Wed July 5th, 2017.