While it affords diverse modes of engagement, what is most compelling about Char Davies' interactive installation, Ephémère, is its implications for a haptic aesthetics — the sensational and relational aspects of touch, weight, balance, gesture and movement. This work's virtual reality technology is designed to achieve a full body "immersion," where the beholder directs his or her own journey through a simulated world.

This 3-D computer graphics and sound work was co-produced by Davies' own Immersence, Inc., and SoftImage, the company she helped found. Ephémère's world premiere occupied three rooms at the National Gallery. Outside was a reception area where participants signed a release form. Entering the darkened exhibition space visitors encountered two screens: on one appeared the current "immersant" in silhouette, while another displayed a projection of their real-time journey. Viewers watched how participants negotiated clarity out of their initial confusion. Here the kinesthetic aspect of the haptic comes into play as the gestures of the person hands open like antennae or grasped protectively before the body can be studied.

With an appointment, one goes behind the scenes, is greeted by an attendant, and strapped into a equipment with interfaces cued to enable directional movement in the virtual world. A set of pressure sensors in a vest responds to the expansion and contraction of respiration. As you inhale, you ascend; as you exhale, you sink. Another set of sensors respond to the tilt of the spinal axis, which, in turn, trigger trajectories of volition. As you lean, you move in a particular direction. Next a helmet is placed over the head which projects images directly onto the eyes. Significantly, the hands the organs of touch are free. It is not contiguous touch that is implicated in this VR world, but rather the relational mode of the haptic through navigational interfaces which track breath and balance.

Adapting to the headset and the constriction of the vest takes a little getting used to, but with practice one begins to float effortlessly through space. There is a buoyant sense of movement in a world of partially dematerialized objects, an elation of feeling free from the density of the body. The sequence of the fifteen-minute voyage while differing with each enactment moves through a series of preset environments. Maneuvering beyond tangible forms, one enters a realm of affect that evokes an out-of-body experience. Objects are transparent, as if it is their subtle rather than actual bodies that are observed. The poetics of the piece pivot on thresholds: the shift in awareness between outer and inner space, the change of seasons in a landscape, the shift in perception external and internal to the body. One begins the journey floating disembodied through starry outer space. Coming to earth, one glides through a forest of ghostly trees, stones and running water. Controlling the breath affects one's altitude in the artificial world as well as one's consciousness. One begins to sense how suspending the breath enables a steady focus which acts as a trigger. Coming to stillness and fixing one's gaze transforms objects into scintillating visions. Rocks transmute into luminescent tadpoles with gently moving tails, or you might be merged into a seemingly infinite column of light. Next, one finds one's self inside a representation of the body, observing circulatory networks and rivers of blood cells. Then in a more abstracted space, we seem to observe the firing of synapses along the nervous system. This results in an immediate identification with the body's interceptive space. Yet because your experience is visible to others, this is not a solitary meditation. The attendant plays a significant relational role by interacting with and encouraging the beholder. It is uncanny to have someone commenting on what feel like interceptive states, like having someone in your head. The journey ends just as it began, floating again in outer space.

Char Davies, Shadowscreen, from Ephémère, 1998
Char Davies, Ephémère,, 1998, real-time frame capture:
photo courtesy Char Davies / Immersence inc. and Softimage inc.

The conventions of many commercial virtual reality applications work to enhance an extreme detachment characteristic of a primarily visual experience. Games designed to "identify and strike," to thrill through speed, derive from military applications of this technology. Davies' work, instead, uses the same technology to bring forth a qualitatively different experience. Instead of encouraging the sense of "objectivity" of search and destroy applications, Ephémère deploys a haptic interface to deepen the sense of subjective embodiment. What becomes exciting is how elements of this world respond to the participant's presence. Instead of speed, the negotiation of a "still point" generates a kind of mutuality that effects an opening into new realms of experience. According to the artist, patience is rewarded precisely because it fosters contemplation rather than action. This has important, even feminist, implications for an ontological alternative to commercial VR's frantic, and often violent, conventions.

This technology illuminates the aesthetic as both a category of judgement and experience. Viewing the silhouetted immersant, we can see how aesthetic choice operates in the form of a kinaesthetic response. The audience can watch the moment when the participant opts to move in a specific way, at a particular speed, or to sustain a stationary focus. We notice how each decision confers a transition into a distinct realm of possibilities. While visuality is involved, Ephémère also implicates non-visual sensation and experience in its relational modes. At a time when much VR technology effects a visual dominance and corporeal abstraction, this work's use of the haptic sense both implicates and creates an "embodied" spectator. While "immersence [immersion]†" — submerging oneself in a particular environment — may be fearful to some in ideological terms, the politics at work here are more sensorial nuanced. There is no fixed overdetermination because choice is constantly at work. Ephémère is, instead, an opportunity to train the senses toward a more multi-sensorial aesthetic.

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: Sept 6th, 2008.