Formally a painter and filmmaker, Char Davies began working with 3D digital media in the mid-eighties. She was a founding director of SoftImage Inc. where she played various roles, including Vice-President 1988-1994 and Director of Visual Research 1994-1997. She left SoftImage a year ago to found Immersence Inc., as a vehicle for pursuing her artistic research. Her sophisticated and experimental immersive projects Osmose and Ephémère have garnered international acclaim and remain unique in their practical and philosophical approach to technology-based artworks.

This interview by Karl O'Donoghue took place via e-mail in spring 1998 prior to the official launch of Davies' most recent immersive work, Ephémère. Revisions by the artist took place in March 1999.

Karl O'Donoghue: Descartes claimed to be able to use mathematical principles to construct a complete account of everything that occurs in nature. Excluding your own work, almost all three-dimensional computer graphics are based on Descartes mathematical principles, leading to the ubiquitous aesthetic of hard-edged objects in empty space. How important was Anti-Cartesianism to the creation of Osmose?

Char: Rather than 'Anti-Cartesianism' I prefer to think in terms of seeking an 'alternative' to it. My entire approach to the work (i.e., visual aesthetic and the user interface) was intended to explore and evoke an alternative sensibility to the Cartesian worldview.

This desire goes back a long way, probably to the early eighties when I began to artistically investigate my own extreme myopic vision, by making paintings and drawings of the world around me without wearing corrective lenses. In this unmediated, unfocused mode of perception, I discovered an alternative (non-Cartesian) spatiality whereby "objects" had disappeared; where all semblance of solidity, surface, edges and distinctions between things—i.e., the usual perceptual cues by which we visually objectify the world—had dissolved. These were replaced by a sense of enveloping space in which there were no sharply defined objects in empty space, but rather an ambiguous intermingling of varying luminosities and hues, a totally enveloping and sensuous spatiality, very much like that felt by a body immersed in the sea.

In Osmose and Ephémère, this non-Cartesian sensibility of being in the world is conveyed though use of a visual aesthetic based on semi-transparency and ambiguity of spatial relationships. This is further developed by a user interface which relies on the intuitive body processes of breath and balance, rather than on the conventional manual devices, to evoke a state of mind in which receptivity and gentle contemplation are rewarded.

Karl: I would argue that the philosophical ideas in Osmose are similar to the ideas of the Deep Ecology movement, would you agree?

Char: Yes there are certain correspondences, including the desire to challenge our culture's anthropocentric interpretation of nature as a resource to be subjugated and exploited, and to emphasize our inherent connection with the living flowing world.  I have been reading environmental philosophy (including deep ecology) for many years. I have spent a lot of time alone in "nature" or, to be more specific, in the "non-manmade environment"—for me, nature is the life-flow and as such it is unfathomably mysterious. Almost all my work is based on nature as metaphor, as muse. Even as I spend my entire life seeking to intuitively understand its processes and in turn communicate these to an audience, what I seek will, I know, always remain beyond my reach, with each work being only a step towards some kind of understanding, toward some kind of reconciliation. 

While biologically we are inseparable from the natural world, and the cultural boundaries between us and "it" are being dramatically redefined by new technologies, for the most part we still experience great estrangement and alienation, which of course is the side effect of old Descartes, and the western scientific patriarchal paradigm. My work is about all this: using this very much implicated technology of our time to create work in which differences between the virtual and the real, inside and out, self and world are confused. In which people, through their own bodily participation, might be able to temporarily step outside of that paradigm to see "freshly"—by directing their attention away from goal-oriented behaviour and the will to master, to the paradoxical sensations of simply being, with all the wonder that implies.

Karl: Do you feel that women have a closer relationship with nature than men?

Char: I would say that women's close relation to their own body cycles tends to somewhat offset the enculturated alienation from the biophysical realm. But rather than place men on one side and women and nature on the other (an old tactic of the Cartesian worldview) I would rather say that we are all, in fact, embedded in nature.  We, and every other living creature, are partaking of the earth around us, or as Henri Beston once wrote, we are all "caught in the net of space and time", and are oh so quickly, so briefly, just passing through.

Karl: In my opinion Osmose has a feminine subjectivity, in both its interface and its visual aesthetic (i.e., it is challenging the conventional "phallic" pointing that is common in most computer human interfaces). Is that just my reading of the piece or would you agree?

Char: I would agree. How I experience space and time is very much shaped by my being embodied as female in this life—and this sensibility has no doubt shaped my approach to the technology.

The breath and balance user interface is an example of this, in that it shuns hand-held devices which I believe really do reinforce an instrumental and dominating stance toward the world (world as "standing reserve" for human use, to use a phrase of Heidegger's). As for those joysticks, they are so obviously phallic that it is a joke, a bad one at that, though perhaps if you are a guy you wouldn't question this. Which is the whole point, not questioning the origins and default values of all these methodologies, i.e., the worldview and values which, by default, they express. Unless designed to challenge its own conventions, the medium will continue to carry the values of the patriarchal paradigm from which it has sprung (i.e., Military and  science).

Karl: How do you feel about the criticism outlined in the Wired magazine review of Osmose, about Osmose being created with the same technology that trains fighter pilots to blow nature up?

Char: I didn't read that as a criticism for it is absolutely true. The entire work is based on subverting those conventions within the medium, to offset such uses, to demonstrate that the technology can be used to create environments that counter the techno-scientific worldview.  As to whether my work will ultimately be co-opted, (e.g. leading to more beautiful military flight simulations and shoot-em-up computer games) only time will tell. I hope I have sent an alternate current upstream.

Karl: Laurie McRobert in her essay "Immersive Art and the Essence of Technology" * talks about you being a sort of prophet, that one day all people will have left of nature are the images that artists like yourself make for them. Do you feel that there is any truth in a statement like this, or is it other people's readings of the piece?

Char: The second part yes, I am very much afraid of that happening—as for being a prophet, I don't think it is up to the artist to comment on the prophetic aspects of their own work. However I do believe that many artists are able to sense things 'in the air' and that their work can reflect this. As an example, the British poet, John Clare [1793-1864]† wrote a poem called "Swordy Well " in which a field expresses its great sorrow over the increasing loss of its own hedge rows and wildlife—a lament really, about loss of diversity and life in the face of the coming industrial age.

In this sense, my own work is an expression of longing and loss. Osmose was, at least for me personally, very much about longing for reconciliation with nature, a longing for a "bringing together" of what man (and "god") has put asunder, to overcome the estrangement that seems to characterize our age. "Osmose" came from "Osmosis" which I interpreted to mean the transcendence of boundaries. "Ephémère", on the other hand, is about the ephemerality, the transience, of all life; it is a lament for the passing of nature-as-we-knew-it-in-our-childhood, and for the passing of our own lives.

WinterStream, still image from Ephémère, the most recent immersive VR project by Char Davies.

[Char Davies, Winter Swamp, from Ephémère, 1998]†
Digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live immersive journey/performance.

I do believe that as industrialized human populations spread across the face of the planet compromising ecosystems of habitat and flora/fauna out of existence as access to the "real" natural environment diminishes—people will seek psychological compensation where they can.  In the developed world, this will include immersive virtual environments. And such artificial environments will only compound the problem by serving as distractions from dealing with the problem—they will become the "sand" where we bury our heads in the face of the coming storms.

While Jaron Lanier said that immersion in virtual environments might increase appreciation for the real world, I tend to think that unless the values embedded within the medium (a la Descartes) are deliberately circumvented or subverted by the artists/designers, this medium will not only distract us from earthly responsibilities but will actually reinforce the dominant western worldview that has always approached nature as a resource to be exploited.

As an artist, I therefore have two choices: I can either unplug and never go near a computer again or I can choose to remain engaged, seeking to subvert the technology from within, using it to communicate an alternative worldview. Up until now that has been my approach. My strategy has been to explore how the medium/technology can be used to "de-automatize" perception (via use of semi-transparency, seemingly floating through things etc.) in order that participants may begin to question their own habitual perceptions and assumptions about being in the world, thus facilitating a mental state whereby Cartesian boundaries between mind and body, self and world begin to slip.  Rather than directly critiquing the technology and its conventional uses, I have sought to use it for alternative ends, hopefully demonstrating to others that this is indeed possible. While from an anthropocentric perspective, the new few decades into the new millennium may prove to be very exciting and possibly bright for certain segments of humanity. However, I feel very sad for the rest of the earth, all those other beings who live here too…

Karl: Would you be able to tell me how the new piece is different from Osmose?

Char: When we began this interview, Ephémère was not yet complete, and I was reluctant to discuss it before it was done. However since then the work has come out into the world. While Ephémère incorporated many of the techniques we developed for Osmose, such as semi-transparency and spatial ambiguity, and an interface based on breath and balance, as well as exploring nature as metaphor, Ephémère went beyond Osmose in many ways, as another step towards my elusive goal.

In seeking to deal with the ephemerality of life, this work expands the spatiality of Osmose to encompass temporality. While Osmose was based on spatial organization of various worlds, and stasis of most elements within, (except the flowing particles) Ephémère relies on the emergence and transformation of form, and the ebb and flow of visibility and audibility.  Ephémère contains three horizontal levels: landscape, subterranean earth, and interior body. The landscape is constantly transforming through time. 

The relationships between the various elements and the participant are more interactive or inter-responsive. In Osmose, interaction was limited to navigation and the resulting ambiguous perceptual readings of gestalt-like compositions were dependent on the changing participant location (with the exception of the fully-interactive sound). In Ephémère, gaze has been introduced as a means of interaction: rocks "open" when gazed upon, revealing landscapes which quickly fade, and in the earth, seeds sprout if approached slowly with a steady gaze, blooming, then fading back into the earth.

I introduced the interior fleshy body as the substratum in Ephémère (quite a change from the software code that formed the base of the Osmose world) as a means of reaffirming the poetic correspondence or co-equivalence between earth and body. This correspondence has been a presence in my work for the past ten years, a concept first explored through paintings, in the mid-eighties.

While about eight thousand people have been individually immersed in Osmose [as of 1999]†, anecdotal responses from some of the three thousand people who have experienced Ephémère [so far]† (I am talking about those actually immersed rather than the many who have been in the public installation and witnessed immersive journeys by others) suggest that this second work feels much more interactive, and evokes a sensation of being swept up and away, without a secure unchanging place to return to (i.e., the clearing in Osmose), i.e., one has to surrender to the experience…

I am loaning my equipment and both works for six months to the Dream and Nightmare Research Laboratory at the world-renowned Sleep Institute in Montreal. I hope that, by tracking and studying the mental and bodily responses of some twenty test-subjects, the psychological and physiological effects of immersion in Osmose and Ephémère can be better understood. I hope this will lead to an understanding, or at least the beginnings of an understanding, into how our minds and bodies cope with such mixing of the virtual and the real…


Immersive Art and the Essence of Technology, Laurie McRobert.
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Ephémère was exhibited at the National Gallery of Canada from June to Sept 1998.
Planning for future exhibitions is underway and details will be posted on the Immersence website when available. Artist papers and additional information on Osmose and Ephémère can also be found on the site:

An extended feature on the work of Char Davies can be found in the UK journal New Scientist, February 6, 1999.

Karl O'Donoghue is a graduate of the National College of Art & Design, Dublin and is currently completing an MA in Interactive Media at Dublin Institute of Technology. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected]

About the New Media Notes article:

New Media Notes is compiled and edited by Gary Crighton. Archives and additional resources are available online at: . [Link inactive. The archived web site can be visited at: ]†. Comments and submissions should be directed to [email protected].

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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.