The Poetics of Navigation

In order to analyze computer representations of 3-D space, I have used theories from early art history, but it would not be hard to find other theories that could work as well. Navigation through space, however, is a different matter. While art history, geography, anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines have come up with many approaches to analyze space as a static, objectively existing structure, we do not have the same wealth of concepts to help us think about the poetics of navigation through space. And yet, if I am right to claim that the key feature of computer space is its navigability, we need to be able to address this feature theoretically.

As a way to begin, we may take a look at some of the classic navigable computer spaces. The 1978 project Aspen Movie Map, designed at the MIT Architecture Machine Group, headed by Nicholas Negroponte (the group later expanded into the MIT Media Laboratory), is acknowledged as the first interactive virtual navigable space, and also as the first hypermedia program to be shown publicly. The program allowed the user to "drive" through the city of Aspen, Colorado. At each intersection the user was able to select a new direction using a joystick. To construct this program, the MIT team drove through Aspen in a car taking pictures every three meters. The pictures were then stored on a set of videodiscs. Responding to the information from the joystick, the appropriate picture or sequence of pictures was displayed on the screen. Inspired by a mockup of an airport used by Israeli commandos to train for the Entebbe hostage-freeing raid of 1973, Aspen Movie Map was a simulator and, therefore, its navigation modeled the real-life experience of moving in a car with all its limitations. [72] Yet its realism also opened up a new set of aesthetic possibilities, which, unfortunately, later designers of navigable spaces did not explore further. They relied on interactive 3-D computer graphics to construct their spaces. In contrast, the designers of Aspen Movie Map utilized a set of photographic images; in addition, because the images were taken every three meters, the result was an interesting sampling of three-dimensional space. Although in the 1990s Apple's QuickTime VR technology made this technique quite accessible, the idea of constructing a large-scale virtual space from photographs or a video of a real space was never systematically attempted again, despite the fact that it opens up unique aesthetic possibilities not available with 3-D computer graphics.

Jeffrey Shaw's Legible City (1988-1991), another well-known and influential computer navigable space, is also based on an existing city.[73] As in Aspen Movie Map, the navigation also simulates a real, physical situation, in this case, riding a bicycle. Its virtual space, however, is not tied to the simulation of physical reality: it is an imaginary city made from 3-D letters. In contrast to most navigable spaces whose parameters are chosen arbitrarily, every value of virtual space in Legible City (Amsterdam and Karlsruhe versions) is derived from the actual existing physical space it replaces. Each 3-D letter in the virtual city corresponds to an actual building in a physical city; the letter's proportions, color, and location are derived from the building it replaces. By navigating through the space, the user reads the texts composed by the letters; these texts are drawn from the archive documents describing the city's history. Through this mapping, Shaw foregrounds, or, more precisely, "stages," one of the fundamental problematics of new media and the computer age as a whole—the relation between the virtual and the real. In his other works Shaw has systematically "staged" other key aspects of new media such as the interactiv.e relation between the viewer and the image, or the discrete quality of all computer-based representations. Legible City functions not only as a unique navigable virtual space of its own, but also as a comment on all the other navigable spaces. It suggests that instead of creating virtual spaces that have nothing to do with actual physical spaces, or spaces that are closely modeled after existing physical structures, such as towns or shopping malls (this holds for most commercial virtual worlds and VR works), we may take a middle road. In Legible City, the memory of the real city is carefully preserved without succumbing to illusionism; the virtual representation encodes the city's genetic code, its deep structure rather than its surface. Through this mapping Shaw proposes an ethics of the virtual. Shaw suggests that the virtual can at least preserve the memory of the real it replaces, encoding its structure, if not its aura, in a new form.

Although Legible City was a landmark work in that it presented a symbolic rather than illusionistic space, its visual appearance in many ways reflected the default real-time graphics capability of SGI workstations on which it was running: flat-shaded shapes attenuated by a fog. Char Davies and her development team at Softlmage have consciously addressed the goal of creating a different, more painterly aesthetic for the navigable space in their interactive VR installation Osmose (1994-1995).[74] From the point of view of the history of modern art, the result hardly represented something new. Osmose simply replaced the usual hard-edge, polygonal, Cezanne-like look of 3-D computer graphics with a softer, more atmospheric, Renoir or late Monet-like environment made of translucent textures and flowing particles. Yet, in the context of other 3-D virtual worlds, it was an important advance. The "soft" aesthetic of Osmose is further supported through the use of slow cinematic dissolves between its dozen or so worlds. Like in Aspen Movie Map and Legible City, the navigation in Osmose is modeled on a real-life experience, in this case, scuba diving. The "immersant" controls navigation by breathing: Breathing in sends the body upward, while breathing out makes it fall. The resulting experience, according to the designers, is one of floating, rather than flying or driving, typical of virtual worlds. Another important aspect of Osmose's navigation is its collective character. While only one person can be "immersed" at a time, the audience can witness her or his journey through the virtual worlds as it unfolds on a large projection screen. At the same size, another translucent screen enables the audience to observe the body gestures of the "immersant" as a shadow-silhouette. The "immersant" thus becomes a kind of ship captain, taking the audience along on a journey; like a captain, she occupies a visible and symbolically marked position, being responsible for the audience's aesthetic experience.

Tamás Waliczky's The Forest (1993) liberated the virtual camera from its enslavement to the simulation of humanly possible navigation-walking, driving a car, pedaling a bicycle, scuba diving. In The Forest the camera slides through the endless black-and-white forest in a series of complex and melancholic moves. If modern visual culture exemplified by MTV can be thought of as a mannerist stage of cinema, its perfected techniques of cinematography, mise-en-scene, and editing self-consciously displayed and paraded for its own sake, Waliczky's film presents an alternative response to cinema's classical age, which is now behind us. In this metafilm, the camera, part of cinema's apparatus, becomes the main character (and in this respect, we can connect The Forest to another metafilm, Man with a Movie Camera). On first glance, the logic of camera movements can be identified as the quest of a human being trying to escape from the forest (which, in reality, is just a single picture of a tree repeated over and over). Yet just as in some of the animated films of the Brothers Quay, such as The Street of Crocodiles, the virtual camera of The Forest neither simulates natural perception nor does it follow the standard grammar of cinema's camera; instead, it establishes a distinct system of its own. In The Street of Crocodiles, the camera suddenly takes off, rapidly moving in a straight line parallel to an image plane, as though mounted on some robotic arm, and just as suddenly stops to frame a new corner of the space. The logic of these movements is clearly non-human; this is the vision of some alien creature. In contrast, the camera never stops at all in The Forest, the whole film being one uninterrupted camera trajectory. The camera system of The Forest can be read as a commentary on the fundamentally ambiguous nature of computer space. On the one hand, while not indexically tied to physical reality or the human body, computer space is isotropic. In contrast to human space, in which the verticality of the body and the direction of the horizon are two dominant directions, computer space does not privilege any particular axis. In this way it is similar to the space of El Lissitzky's Prouns and Kazimir Malevich's suprematist compositions—an abstract cosmos, unencumbered by either earth's gravity or the weight of a human body. (Thus the game Spacewar with its simulated gravity got it wrong!) William Gibson's term "matrix," which he used in his novels to refer to cyberspace, captures well this isotropic quality. But, on the other hand, computer space is also the space of a human dweller, something used and traversed by a user, who brings her own anthropological framework ofhorizontality and verticality along with her. The camera system of The Forest foregrounds this double character of computer space. While no human figures or avatars appear in the film and we are never shown either the ground or the sky, it is centered around a stand-in for the human subject-a tree. The constant movements of the camera along the vertical dimension throughout the film-sometimes getting closer to where we imagine the ground plane is located, sometimes moving toward (bur again, never actually showing) the sky-can be interpreted as an attempt to negotiate between isotropic space and the space of human anrhropology, with its horizontality of the ground plane and the horizontal and vertical dimension of human bodies. The navigable space of The Forest thus mediates between human subjectivity and the very different and ultimarely alien logic of a computer-the ultimate and omnipresent Other ofour age.

While the works discussed so far all create virtual navigable spaces, George Legrady's interactive computer installation Transitional Spaces (1999) moves from the virtual back to the physical. Legrady locates an already existing architectural navigable space (the Siemens headquarters building in Munich) and makes it into an "engine" that triggers three cinematic projections. As regular office employees and visitors move through the main entrance section and second-level entrance/exit passageways, their motions are picked up by cameras and are used to control the projections. Legrady writes in his installation proposal:

As the speed, location, timing, and number of individuals in the space control the sequence and timing of projection sequences, the audience will have the opportunity to "play" the system, that is, engage consciously by interacting with the camera sensing to control the narrative flow of the installation. All three projections will comment on the notion of "transitional space" and narrative development. Image sequences will represent transitional states: from noise covered to clear, from empty to full, from open to closed, from dark to light, from out of focus to in-focus.[75]

Legrady's installation begins to explore one element in the "vocabulary" of the navigable space "alphabet"—the transition from one state to another. (Other potential elements of this alphabet include the character of a trajectory; the pattern of the user's movement—for instance, rapid geometric movement in Doom versus wandering in Myst; possible interactions between the user and the space, such as the character acting as a center of perspective in Waliczky's The Garden (1992); and, of course, the architecture of space itself.) Earlier I invoked a definition of narrative by Bal that may be too restrictive in relation to new media. Legrady quotes another, much broader definition by literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov, according to whom minimal narrative involves the passage from "one equilibium to another" (or, in different words, from one state to another). Legrady's installation suggests that we can think of a subject's movement from one "stable" point in space to another (for instance, moving from a lobby to a building to an office) like a narrative; by analogy, we may also think of a transition from one state of a new media object to another (for instance, from a noisy image to a noise-free image) as a minimal narrative. For me, the second analogy is more problematic than the first, because, in contrast to a literary narrative, it is hard to say what constitutes a "state of equilibrium" in a typical new media object. Nevertheless, rather than concluding that Legrady's installation does not really create narratives, we should recognize it instead as an important example of a whole trend among new media artists—exploration of the minimal condition of a narrative in new media.

Each of the computer spaces just discussed, from Aspen Movie Map to Forest, establishes a distinct aesthetic of its own. However, the majority of navigable virtual spaces mimic existing physical reality without proposing any coherent aesthetic program. What artistic and theoretical traditions can the designers of navigable spaces draw upon to make them more interesting? One obvious candidate is modern architecture. From Melnikov, Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright to Archigram and Bernard Tschumi, modern architects have elaborated a variety of schemes for structuring and conceptualizing space to be navigated by users: We can look, for instance, at the 1925 USSR Pavilion (Melnikov), VillaSavoye (Le Corbusier), Walking City (Archigram), and Parc de la Villette (Tschurni).[76] Even more relevant is the tradition of "paper architecture"—designs that were not intended to be built and whose authors therefore felt unencumbered by the limitations of materials, gravity, and budgets.[77] Another highly relevant tradition is film architecture.[78] As discussed in the "Language of Cultural Interfaces" section, the standard interface to computer space is the virtual camera modeled after the film camera rather than a simulation of unaided human sight. After all, film architecture is architecture designed for navigation and exploration by a film camera.

Along with different architectural traditions, designers of navigable spaces can find a wealth of relevant ideas in modern art. They may consider, for instance, the works of modern artists situated between art and architecture, which, like the projects of paper architects, display a spatial imagination freed from the questions ofutility and econorny—the warped worlds of Jean Dubuffet, mobiles by Alexander Calder, earth works by Robert Smithson, moving-text spaces by Jenny Holler. While many modern artists felt compelled to create 3-D structures in real spaces, others were satisfied with painting virtual worlds: Think, for, instance, of the melancholic cityscapes of Giorgio de Chirico, the biomorphic worlds of Yves Tanguy, the economical wireframe structures of Alberto Giacometti, and the existential landscapes of Anselm Kiefer. Besides providing us with many examples of imaginative spaces, both abstract and figurative, modern painting is relevant to the design of virtual navigable spaces in two additional ways. First, given that new media are most often experienced, like paintings, via a rectangular frame, virtual architects can study how painters organized their spaces within the constraints of a rectangle. Second, modern painters who belong to what I call the "space-medium tradition" elaborated the concept of space as a homogeneous, dense field, where everything is made from the same "stuff"—in contrast to architects who always have to work with the basic dichotomy between built structure and empty space. And although the virtual spaces that have thus far been realized, with the possible exception of Osmose, accept the same dichotomy between rigid objects and the void between them, on the level of material organization they are intrinsically related to the monistic ontology of modern painters such as Matta, Giacometti, or Pollock, for everything in them is also made from the same material—pixels, on the level of surface; polygons or voxels, on the level of 3-D representation. Thus virtual computer space is structurally closer to modern painting than it is to architecture.

Along with painting, a genre of modern art with particular relevance to the design of navigable virtual spaces is installation. Seen in the context of new media, many installations can be thought of as dense multimedia information spaces. They combine images, video, texts, graphics, and 3-D elements within a spatial layout. While most installations leave it up to the viewer to determine the order of "information access" to their elements, one of the most well-known installation artists, Ilya Kabakov, elaborated a system of strategies to structure the viewer's navigation through his spaces.[79] In most installations, according to Kabakov, "the viewer is completely free because the space surrounding her and the installation remain completely indifferent to the installation it encloses."[80] In contrast, by creating a separate, enclosed space with carefully chosen proportions, colors, and lighting within the larger space of a museum or a gallery, Kabakov aims to completely "immerse" the viewer inside his installation. He calls this installation type a "total installation."

For Kabakov, a "total " installation has a double identity. On the one hand, it belongs to the plastic arts designed to be viewed by an immobile spectator—painting, sculpture, architecture. On the other hand, it also belongs to time-based arts such as theater and cinema. We can say the same about virtual navigable spaces. Another concept of Kabakov directly applicable to virtual space design is his distinction between the spatial structure of an installation and its dramaturgy, that is, the time-space structure created by the movement of a viewer through an installation.[81] Kabakov's strategies of dramaturgy include dividing the total space of an installation into two or more connected spaces and creating a well-defined path through the space that does not preclude the viewer from wandering on her own, yet prevents her from feeling lost and bored. To make such a path, Kabakov constructs corridors and abrupt openings between objects; he also places objects in strange places to obstruct passage. Another strategy of the "total installation" is the choice of particular kinds of narratives that in and of themselves lead to spatialization. These are narratives that take place around a main event that becomes the center of an installation: "The beginning [of the installation] leads to the main event [of the narrative] while the last part exists after the event took place." Yet another strategy involves the positioning of text within the space of an installation as a way to orchestrate the attention and navigation of the viewer. For instance, placing two to three pages of text at a particular point in the space creates a deliberate stop in the navigation rhythm.[82] Finally, Kabakov "directs" the viewer to keep alternating between focusing her attention on particular details and the installation as a whole. He describes these two kinds of spatial attention (which we can correlate with haptic and optic perception as theorized by Riegl and others) as follows: "wandering, total ("summarnaia") orientation in space—and active, well-aimed 'taking in' of the partial, the small, the unexpected."[83]

All these strategies can be directly applied to the design of virtual navigable spaces (and interactive multimedia in general). In particular, Kabakov is very successful at making viewers of his installations read carefully the significant amounts of text included in them—something that represents a constant challenge for new media designers. His constant concern is the viewer's attention and reaction to what she will encounter: "The reaction of the viewer during her movement through the installation is the main concern of the designer… The loss of the viewer's attention is the end of the installation."[84] This focus on the viewer offers an important lesson for new media designers, who often forget that what they are designing is not an object in itself but a viewer's experience in time and space.

I have purposefully used the word strategy to refer to Kabakov's techniques. To evoke the terminology of Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, Kabakov uses strategies to impose a particular matrix of space, time, experience, and meaning on his viewers; they, in turn, use "tactics" to create their own trajectories (this is a term actually used by de Certeau) within this matrix. If Kabakov is perhaps the most accomplished architect of navigable spaces, de Certeau could very well be their best theoretician. Like Kabakov, he never deals with computer media directly, and yet The Practice of Everyday Life contains a multitude of ideas directly applicable to new media. His analysis of the ways in which people employ "tactics" to create their own trajectories through the spaces defined by others (both metaphorically and in the case of spatial tactics, literally) offers a good model for thinking about the ways in which computer users navigate through computer spaces they did not design:

Although they are composed with the vocabularies of established languages (chose of television, newspapers, supermarkets of established sequences) and although they remain subordinated to prescribed syntactical forms (temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic orders of spaces, etc.), the trajectories trace out the rules of other interests and desires that are neither determined, nor captured by, the system in which they develop.[85]


EVE and Place


By placing interfaces of different technologies next to one other within a single work, Shaw foregrounds the unique logic of seeing, spatial access, and user behavior characteristic of each. The tradition of the framed image, that is, a representation that exists within the larger physical space that contains the viewer (painting, cinema, computer screen), meets the tradition of "total" simulation, or "immersion," that is, a simulated space that encloses the viewer (panorama, VR).

Another historical dichotomy staged for us by Shaw is that between the traditions of collective and idividualized viewing in screen-based arts. The first tradition spans from magic-lantern shows to twentieth-century cinema. The second passes from the camera obscura, stereoscope, and kinescope to head-mounted displays of VR. Both have their dangers. In the first tradition, the individual's subjectivity can be dissolved in a mass-induced response. In the second, subjectivity is defined through the interaction of an isolated subject with an object at the expense of intersubjective dialogue. In the case of viewers' interactions with computer installations, as I noted when discussing Osmose, something quite new begins to emerge—a combination of individualized and collective spectatorship. The interaction of one viewer with the work (via a joystick, mouse, or head-mounted sensor) becomes in itself a new text for other viewers, situated within the work's arena, so to speak. This affects the behavior of this viewer, who acts as a representative for the desires of others, and who is now oriented both to them and to the work.

EVE rehearses the whole Western history of simulation, functioning as a kind of Plato’s cave in reverse: Visitors progress from the real world into the space of simulation, where instead of mere shadows they are presented with technologically enhanced (via stereo) images, which look more real than their normal perceptions.[113] At the same time, EVE's enclosed round shape refers us back to the fundamental modern desire to construct a perfect, selfsufficient utopia, whether visual (the nineteenth-century panorama) or social. (For instance, after 1917, Russian architect G. I. Gidoni designed a monument to the revolution in the form of a semitransparent globe that could hold several thousand spectators.) Yet rather than being presented with a simulated world that has nothing to do with the real space of the viewer (as in typical VR), visitors who enter EVE's enclosed space discover that EVE’s apparatus shows the outside reality they ostensibly just left behind. Moreover, instead of being fused in a single collective vision (Gesamtkunstwerk, cinema, mass society), visitors are confronted with a subjective and partial view. Visitors see only what one person who wears a head-mounted sensor chooses to show them; that is, they are literally limited by this person’s point of view. In addition, instead of a 360-degree view, they see a small rectangular image—a mere sample of the world outside. The one visitor wearing a sensor, who thus literally acts as an eye for the rest of the audience, occupies many positions at once—master subject, visionary who shows the audience what is worth seeing, and (at the same time) mere object, an interface between them and outside reality, that is, a tool for others; a projector, light, and reflector, all at once.

Having examined the two key forms of new media—database and navigable space—one is tempted to see their privileged role in computer culture as a sign of a larger cultural change. If we use Auge’s distinction between modernity and supermodernity, the following scheme can be established:

  1. modernity—“supermodernity,”
  2. narrative (= hierarchy)—database, hypermedia, network (= flattening of hierarchy),
  3. objective space—navigable space (trajectory through space),
  4. static architecture—“liquid architecture,”[114] and
  5. geometry and topology as theoretical models for cultural and social analysis—trajectory, vector, and flow as theoretical categories.

As can be seen from this scheme, the two “supermodern” forms of database and navigable space are complementary in their effects on the forms of modernity. On the one hand, a narrative is “flattened” into a database. A trajectory through events and/or time becomes a flat space. On the other hand, a flat space of architecture or topology is narrativized, becoming a support for individual users’ trajectories.

But this is only one possible scheme. What is clear, however, is that we have left modernity for something else. We are still searching for names to describe it. Yet the names that we have come up with—“supermodernity” “transmodernity,” “second modern”—all seem to reflect the sense of the continuity of this new stage with the old. If the 1980s’ concept of “postmodernism” implied a break with modernity, we now seem to prefer to think of cultural history as a continuous trajectory through a single conceptual and aesthetic space. Having lived through the twentieth century, we learned all too well the human price of “breaking with the past,” “building from scratch,” “making new,” and other similar claims—whether involving aesthetic, moral, or social systems. The claim that new media should be totally new is only one in the long list of such claims.

Such a notion of a continuous trajectory is more compatible with human anthropology and phenomenology. Just as a human body moves through physical space in a continuous trajectory, the notion of history as a continuous trajectory is, in my view, preferable to the one that postulates epistemological breaks or paradigm shifts from one era to the next. This notion, articulated by Michel Foucault and Thomas Kuhn, in the 1960s, fits with the aesthetics of modernist montage of Eisenstein and Godard—rather than our own aesthetics of continuity as exemplified by compositing, morphing, and navigable spaces.[115]

These thinkers also seem to have projected onto a diachronic plane of history the traumatic synchronic division of their time—the split between the capitalist West and the communist East. But with the official (although not necessarily actual) collapse of this split in the 1990s, we have seen how history has reasserted its continuity in powerful and dangerous ways. The return of nationalism and religion and the desire to erase everything associated with the Communist regime and return to the past—pre-1917 Russia and pre-1945 Eastern Europe—are only some of the more dramatic signs of this process. A radical break with the past has a price. Despite the interruption, the historical trajectory keeps accumulating potential energy until one day it reasserts itself with new force, breaking out into the open and crushing whatever new has been created in the meantime.

In this book, I have chosen to emphasize the continuities between the new media and the old, the interplay between historical repetition and innovation. I wanted to show how new media appropriate old forms and conventions of different media, in particular, cinema. Like a river, cultural history can not suddenly change its course; its movement is that of a spline rather than a set of straight lines between points. In short, I wanted to create trajectories through the space of cultural history that would pass through new media, thus grounding it in what came before.


72. Stewart Brand, The Media Lab (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), 141.
back to document text

73. Manuela Abel, ed., Jeffrey Shaw—A User's Manual (Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM, 1997), 127-129. Three different versions of Legible City were created based on the plans of Manhattan, Amsterdam, and Karlsruhe.
back to document text

74. http:/ /www.softimage.com/Projects/osmose/. [link defunct]. See http://www.immersence.com/osmose
back to document text

75. George Legrady, Transitional Spaces (Munich: Siemens Kultur Programm, 1999), 5.
back to document text

76. For a discussion of the Archigram group in the context of computer-based virtual spaces, see Hans-Peter Schwarz,Media-Art-History: Media Museum(Munich: Prestel, 1997), 74-76.
back to document text

77. See, for instance, Visionary Architects: Boullee, Ledoux, Lequeu (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968); Heinrich Klotz, ed, Paper Architecture: New Projects from the Soviet Union (Frankfurt: Deutsches Architekturmuseum, 1988).
back to document text

78. See, for instance, Dietrich Neumann, ed., Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner (Munich: Prestel, 1996).
back to document text

79. Ilya Kabakov, On the "Total Installation" (Bonn: Cantz Verlag, 1995).
back to document text

80. Ibid., 125. This and the following translations from the Russian text of Kabakov are mine.
back to document text

81. Ibid., 200.
back to document text

82. Ibid., 200-208.
back to document text

83. Ibid., 162.
back to document text

84. Ibid., 162.
back to document text

113. Here I am describing the particular application of EVE that I saw at the “Multimediale 4” exhibition, Karlsruhe, Germany, May 1995.
back to document text

114. See Novak, “Liquid Architectures in Cyberspace.”
back to document text

115. Another notion that belongs to this paradigm of discontinuity is Rene Thom’s catastrophe theory. See his Structural Stability and Morphogenesis (Reading, Mass.: W. A. Benjamin, 1975).
back to document text


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.