Ethnography of the Virtual

How can the experiences of virtual spaces be explored? Personal descriptions and testimonials provide at least some basis for the analysis of the virtual, and the coordination of comments among a variety of different people is helpful but not necessarily as accurate or broad as might be needed. The many different pitfalls of relying upon ethnographic as well as first-person commentaries about any cultural or experiential activity have been well documented (Marcus and Fischer 1986, Clifford 1988). Again, this is not to suggest that value cannot be drawn from ethnographic explorations of viewer experiences in differing contexts. Rather, it is to propose that the conclusions developed from these observational and analytic tools often end up making claims about digital, simulated, and immersive experiences that do not move beyond behavioral or phenomenological levels of observation. At the same time, artists who create virtual worlds have stepped into the breach and, as Char Davies (qtd. in Gigliotti 2002) suggests, developed a sophisticated discourse to explain what they are doing:

For a long time, I have been interested in conveying a sense of being enveloped in an all-encompassing, all-surrounding space, a subjective embodied experience that is very different from the Cartesian notion of absolute, empty, abstract, xyz space. As an artist, I am interested in recreating a sense of lived, felt space that encircles one with an enveloping horizon and presses closely upon the skin, a sensuous space, subjectively, bodily perceived. Some might interpret this as a uterine or womb-like space. Perhaps the desire to recreate, to communicate this sensibility, my sensibility, of such space is because I am female: I would leave that up to interpreters of my work. I think it might have more to do with having spent so much time alone in nature. (P. 64)


Char Davies, Forest Grid,
from Osmose, 1995
Figure 5.1
Char Davies, Forest Grid, from Osmose, 1995
Digital image captured in real-time
through head-mounted display during live immersive journey/performance.

The following two examples (figures 5.1 and 5.2) are from the work of Char Davies and exemplify the extraordinary autonomy that can be developed in virtual worlds. Although participants have to wear head-mounted displays (HMDs) to see the images, the impact of Davies's design is so powerful that questions of interiority and the boundaries between dreams and reality are breached in a tumultuous fashion. Davies's installations lay bare the contradictions of virtual spaces. On the one hand, her work is so highly mediated that it is unclear how artifice, experience, and participation can be untangled. On the other hand, the power of Davies's creations is such that the experiences are more visceral than intellectual, more about testing the limits of perception, body, and thought than they are about recognition or gazing. In fact, Davies has constructed these spaces as environments for reverie [...].†

[Note: Ron Burnett has added a correction from Char Davies:

"In fact, there is no specific trajectory of pre-created images. Nor is there a single route available for either work. Indeed, it is something significantly different that is going on.

It is better to think of these works as "spatio-temporal realms" through which the participant can pass, and where each passing-through is unique and unrepeatable. While each work has been given an intro and ending (in the case of Ephémère, multiple endings) and a certain spatial structure—there are no predesigned two-dimensional images. Rather various three-dimensional "elements" (3D models, particle systems, etc.) have been preconstructed, to then be generated, reconfigured, and displayed in limitless combinations (particularly with Ephémère) in real-time according to the participant's behaviour. There is therefore no predetermined narrative or route, or even a range of routes to be chosen from, rather each immersive experience is created by the participant's navigation within the work and the work's visual/aural response to such explorations."

See also] [Updated link 2017:]†

Char Davies, Forest Stream, from Ephémère, 1998
Figure 5.2
Char Davies, Forest Stream, from Ephémère, 1998
Digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live immersive journey/performance.

At another level, there is no simple inductive link between the complex experiences of virtual image-based environments and how they are processed and thought about. What I want to avoid is a narrow binary relationship between viewer and screen where responsibility is laid on either side. As a contrast, Davies's images and words suggest a much more symbiotic relationship among immersants and virtual worlds. Davies is looking for explanations that bring viewer and screen/image together as pictured in figures 5.1 and 5.2. The result could best be described as an open space that combines the characteristics of images and viewers and binds them into a shared framework. In other words, the mediated character of virtual images and virtual spaces means that, just as with language, there is no easy way to separate the manner in which the images operate from the manner in which they are experienced. My argument acknowledges the weight that must be placed on the combined role played by images, language, thought, and self-reflection in any context but with particular emphasis on the evolving importance of virtual experiences and the ways they are changing how participants interact with image-worlds.

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.