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Art practices employing virtual reality technologies, artificial life systems and biotechnological research address significant representational and cultural issues.

Despite their deployment of very different kinds of technologies and representational strategies, artists working in these three fields negotiate Enlightenment and contemporary models of thought, as well as ideas prevalent in science and technology. In this paper, I consider how such conceptual models are addressed by four representative artists. The goal of this study is twofold: to examine the diverse stratifications of meanings lying within the models of thought cited by these artists; and to explore the conceptual shifts that take place when artists cross the boundary front virtual reality and artificial systems to real life.

One aspect of CyberAnthropology is to investigate how humans deal with the artificial worlds they have created and the socio-cultural phenomena occurring as a result of the interactions between the mind and the body and virtual realities and artificial tools such as robots. In this study I take, as a point of departure, an approach somewhat different in that I examine how artists negotiate given sociocultural constructs in the creation of their virtual environments, artificial systems and biotechnological artworks, and specifically the diverse ways they employ to challenge Enlightenment ideologies.

In art discourse, Enlightenment is often conceived as a conflation of the Cartesian mind-body dualism and Renaissance ocularcentric, perspectival traditions which privilege the visual and the rational. Acknowledged as the force underlying modern progress and technological advancement, Enlightenment is also perceived as positivistic, reductive and instrumental. In contrast, post-modern theories and poststructuralist strategies serve as conceptual models to counter Enlightenment ideologies. By deconstructing monolithic truth systems and universalizing discourses, post-structuralist theorists and artists reveal the ways in which unitary, dualistic and hierarchical modes of thought are constructed, aiming in the process to dismantle or challenge the cultural inscriptions that inform our thought systems.

The virtual reality environments of Char Davies and the robotics of Simon Penny explicitly address ocularcentric epistemologies and representational traditions by challenging the mind-body dualism embedded in Enlightenment ideologies. Even though their respective approaches on these issues differ, both artists strive to engage the body as a source of knowledge. But how do artists who create real life artworks deal with such issues? Some bio-tech artworks operate as tangible, living models of post-structuralist notions of difference and différance; as well, other live artworks display cyborgian notions of fluid boundaries and hybridity that dismantle age-old dualisms. But do such live artworks necessarily challenge reductive Enlightenment ideologies? Or do they repeat them in the guise of new utopias? A cloning project by Natalie Jeremijenko and the transgenic artworks of Eduardo Kac provide insights into these questions.

To begin this study, I would like to examine the ideas and artworks of artists who create virtual reality and artificial systems. Char Davies' work Osmose (1995) is an immersive interactive virtual-reality environment installation which the participant is able to experience through an expanded sensorium — hence not just visually. Wearing a head-mounted display and a jacket fitted with position detectors, the participant is immersed in a three-dimensional, visual and acoustic virtual space in real time: by inhaling or exhaling, one has the impression of floating upwards or falling; and by altering body positions, one can change directions. Thus, with very little effort, the immersant can float, fly, or jump through different virtual spaces: a clearing, a forest, a pond, a subterranean earth, and so on. These do not consist of analog images but rather, they are, according to Davies, metaphors of nature.

By entering this virtual environment, the immersant no longer assumes the traditional role of a distanced, disembodied eye contemplating a fixed object; instead the participant becomes totally immersed in a virtual world, resulting, the artist says, in the dissolution of the separation between mind and body: "Within this spatiality, there is no split between the observer and the observed. The withdrawal of the sense of sight, of visual acuity — which so dominates the human relationship with the world and is so tied to the Cartesian paradigm — allows another way of sensing to come forward, one in which the body feels space, very much like that of a body immersed in the sea."[1]

Although Davies' ideas reflect her desire to transcend Enlightenment ideologies and traditional ocularcentric epistemologies, she is aware that virtual reality technologies, developed by the military and industrial interests, are not neutral and that they remain embedded in Cartesian values. In this context, she cites several authors, including Henri Lefebvre: "[V]irtual reality can be read as a 'literal enactment of Cartesian ontology,' the product of the collective consciousness of Western culture issuing from 'a techno-utopian ideology ripe with subconscious perceptions and prejudices in which liberation is sought from the body [and Earth] by dissolving into the machine'."[1]

Taking her cue from Marshall McLuhan who wrote that the role of the artist was to create counter-environments in order to expand perceptions and correct "the unconscious bias of a given culture,"[1] Davies employs virtual reality technologies to challenge the ocularcentric mode by engaging the participant's body and expanding the immersant's sense of reality. Davies' ultimate aim is to expand the participant's perception of the real world through his/her experience of the virtual one: "I seek," she says, "to remind people of their connection to the natural (rather than man-made) environment not only biologically, but spiritually and psychologically, as regenerative source and mythological ground."[1]

But do her virtual reality environments effectively transcend Cartesian dualism? [...]

The three other artists, examined in this paper, also negotiate Enlightenment ideologies, and adopt contemporary models of thought in order to transcend ideas and traditions deemed problematic. A crucial question emerges from their diverse strategies and art practices. How is one to detect ancient reductive models of thought disguised as new utopias? Can one completely evacuate them? Is it, in fact, possible to divorce the respective (bio)technologies from their source in Enlightenment ideologies?


1. C. Davies. "Landscape, Earth, Body, Being, Space and Time In The lmmersive Virtual Environments Osmose And Ephémère".
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Last verified: Nov 6th 2017.