Wearing a virtual-reality headset and an unfamiliar device strapped to my chest, I embark on Char Davies's interactive work Ephémère (1998). As I adjust to the images just in front of my eyes, the setting unfolds with a black screen speckled with white spots. Ambient sounds and organic forms cascade in to create a constantly changing, otherworldly encounter. Designed as an antidote to conventional uses of VR (there is no gloved hand), the headset and chest apparatus allow the user to navigate three corresponding and interlaced worlds —landscape, subterranean earth and interior body—via breath and physical movement. The context for this magical journey was an exhibition of art and new technologies at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) entitled "010101: Art in Technological Times," which was on view from March to July. Other Canadian highlights of the show included Rodney Graham's Edge of a Wood (1999), a two-channel DVD projection, Janet Cardiff's wonderful site-specific "video walk" The Telephone Call (2001) and an earlier VR work by Davies called Osmose (1995).

Char Davies, Tree Pond, from Osmose, 1995
Char Davies, Osmose (detail), 1995

[Char Davies, Tree Pond, from Osmose, 1995
Digital image captured in real-time
through head-mounted display during
live performance.] †

Computers, sound synthesizers and processors, stereoscopic head-mounted display with 3-D localized sound, interface vest, motion-capture devices, video projector, silhouette screen. Dimensions variable.

Since the mid-1980s, Davies has explored computer-generated images and spaces that refresh perception. Buddhism, yogic breathing and scuba diving inform the immersive quality of her work. Before I donned the headset and harness, a gallery attendant explained the mechanics of the interface and offered some tips on navigating through Ephémère's virtual spaces. Inhalation enables one to buoyantly rise up. Exhalation gives the impression of sinking downward. Bending forward simulates forward movement. Bending at the knees produces speed and momentum.

Navigating through this organic universe, I detected a "narrative" where participation simulates processes of blooming, fruition and decay. By staring at certain glowing orbs in the middle stratum, the user can spur these organisms to bud and germinate their surroundings. Looking through the pixellated and semi-transparent images in the headset, though, the three realms were barely differentiated, save for the germinating orbs. Perhaps the subtlety of differentiation was meant to highlight the correspondences between realms. The haunting audio track was far more descriptive: by adapting to the immersant's movements, it helped to distinguish each environment. On the artist's web site, located at www.immersence.com, Davies relies "on semi-abstract semi-transparent figuration to create an ambiguous, evocative painterly aesthetic, which actively engages the participant's imagination in the work." Though I appreciate her desire to circumvent "hard-edged mimetic realism," I was left wanting sharper images, like the ones I saw in the crisp video projection in a connected viewing room, where one could also watch the participant silhouetted behind a screen, bending and breathing.

Hand navigation and repetitively aggressive actions, the conventional applications of VR, are happily absent in Davies's work. Instead, it is one's own bodily encounter, curiosity and breathing that shape the embodying interface. Because Ephémère is an elaborate and enfolding metaverse, my fifteen minutes of immersion offered only some of the work's possibilities. Each visit is supposed to reveal a different experience, suggesting that the databases of electronic art can be as diverse as those who encounter it. "010101: Art in Technological Times" also brought forth an engaging web site, http://010101.sfmoma.org**, which offers information on all the artists in the exhibition as well as its own investigation of the potential of virtual spaces. No headsets required.

[** Updated link:https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/010101/ – Last visited: Jan19, 2017]

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.