Long after unstrapping the harness and shedding the helmet that immersed my body in Char Davies's Ephémère, I retain a memory of her computer-rendered environment that is absolutely visceral. Etched in my mind is the sensation of floating downwards into a wintery scene of a flowing river and stark silhouettes of trees stripped of their foliage to an underground world of entangled roots and strangely animate seeds; then sinking deeper to a place where flesh and earth mingle, rivers become veins, seeds give birth to eggs, rocks evolve into organs, and bones turn to dust; and finally surging upwards again to encounter a kaleidoscopic burst of verdant greenery. Like a vivid dream, the memory of this sensation has a clairvoyant, surrealist quality. It hovers between the cognitive realm of consciousness (I was there, I experienced it) and the extrasensory realm of the unconscious (it seemed so real that it must have happened, yet the fluid shifts in time and space and seamless transformations of matter mean it must have been a dream).

At the dawn of the Enlightenment, Descartes struggled to find a method of philosophy to anchor thought in the apprehension of the self and to banish dreams from invading our waking perceptions of the natural world. [1] At the twilight of the twentieth century, immersive virtual environments such as Char Davies's loosen the moorings of Cartesian logic, setting the self adrift in an uncharted realm of perception where the demarcation between what is an illusion and what is not is no longer easily ascertained. In part, the unsettling blurring of boundaries between reality and its technological replication occurs on a sensory and physiological level. By donning a stereoscopic headset that envelops perception in a computer-rendered realm of images, we voluntarily blind ourselves to the exterior world. Unlike cinema, in which the audience sits in a darkened theatre, their bodies grounded in the physical world, and watches flickering projections of light on a screen, in Davies's work our enclosure of the self in a simulacrum is complete. Enveloped by images and sounds, one loses a perception of one's body as separate from the artificial environment it inhabits.

On a metaphysical plane, the implications of this entanglement of body and machine are far more indeterminate and paradoxical. The experience of virtual reality is not only a technical process, but also an imaginative and conceptual act of giving oneself over to a mimetic universe of human design. In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin, writing on the revolutionary potential of cinema to penetrate, like a surgeon's hand, deep into our optical unconscious, noted that a critic hostile to film complained, "I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images." [2] In virtual reality, this sensation of technology remodeling consciousness is amplified. Dziga Vertov once wrote that in cinema one flies. [3] In virtual reality, one becomes the cameraperson, the viewer, the set, the landscape. There is no chance to flee the theatre, as audiences did when they first experienced Lumières' train arriving at the station. Another strategy of interacting with the mimetic image must be found to avoid a psychic collision with the technological doubling of reality.

A poetic and meditative exploration of the ways in which perception and the apprehension of self are reconfigured by virtual reality, Davies's Ephémère is a search for such a strategy. Her innovative use of the technological apparatus of VR to create an artificial environment that mirrors the organic world reveals a twofold process of linking the technical to the metaphysical, matter to illusion. On a physical plane, the blindfolding effect of the standard VR helmet is countered by the use of a body harness, which intimately connects the corporeal act of breathing to immersion of the self within a technological realm. Whereas most virtual environments deploy a glove wired to computer sensors to create a relationship between the motion of the hand and the perception of movement in virtual space, in Ephémère the subtle and involuntary life force of the body interacts with computer code. Rather than experiencing the sensation of penetrating a mimetic realm (a literal enactment of cinematic projection analogous to Benjamin's metaphor of the surgeon's hand), one is gently suspended, floating and sinking to the rhythmic inhales and exhales of one's own breath.

While this link between the physicality of the body and its immersion in virtual space is an essential element of Davies's work, the content of the artificial environment we temporarily inhabit is equally salient. It is not only how we move but also what we see in virtual space that produces a critical awareness of how our apprehension of self is altered within a mimetic universe. To experience a computer-generated reality of hard-edged grids and futuristic architecture, as is common in most VR environments, is to engage with a cultural paradigm that reinforces a technological will to power over nature. In contrast, Ephémère draws upon the natural world and the artist's background as a painter for inspiration, with hard-edged grids giving way to muted transparencies and an atmospheric translucence.

There is a moment in Ephémère when, sinking deep below the red-tinged earth, one encounters a technological doubling of the organic and the virtual. Passing through indeterminate layers of alluvial sediment, one finds oneself inside a highly symbolic and abstracted replication of nature that feels, but does not appear, real. The disorientation that occurs in virtual space and time is suddenly compounded by the realization that one has entered a mimetic image in which one's body has fused with simulation. What ensues from this flash of recognition is an uncanny sensation of seeing oneself as both flesh and machine. As if in a dream, the self is both embodied and disembodied, matter and illusion. Distinctions between mind and body melt away to reveal a place where consciousness is no longer grounded solely in the natural world nor in its technological double, but in a dialectic between organic and synthetic realms. Instead of being able to give ourselves over to cybernetic fantasies of technological control and eternal replication, we come face to face with our own mortality.

Curiously, the most controversial aspect of Davies's work is precisely the mirroring of the organic within virtual space. When Davies speaks publicly about her immersive virtual environments, there is inevitably one person in the audience who asks her why she makes virtual replicas of nature when she could simply take a walk in the woods. The contrast that this question evokes, between the mediated experience of viewing an artificial rendering of an old-growth forest and the first-hand experience of smelling fragrant pine needles overhead and feeling dank earth underfoot, cuts to the heart of Davies's artistic intervention in the realm of new technologies. Embedded in the question is an assumption of an opposition between culture and nature, yet the urge to copy nature—that is to create a second nature through mimesis—is central to an understanding of our existence and the world we live in.

The human impulse to mimic nature finds its genesis in the earliest immersive environments, caves, in which wall paintings animated the experience of hunting animals for survival. It carries forward into shamanistic realms, in which medicine men create models of the natural world through chants or herbal potions or crudely fashioned sculptures calling forth the invisible spirit world of dreams and visions. Like the return of the repressed, the mimetic urge finds its modern roots in the capacity of photography and cinema to seize hold of nature through images. Between the animistic magic of the shaman and the secular lens of the camera lies a legacy of classical Western thought extending from the Hellenistic era to the Enlightenment, in which both God and humanity were artisans tending gardens, creating from the chaos of the cosmos a neat and ordered relationship of nature to culture predicated upon divine design.

In Char Davies's virtual environments, the historical progression from the "primitive" cognition of a spiritually infused nature to the ascendancy of modern science, which classified, secularized, and demystified the material universe, is disrupted. As in that moment of early modernism when Louis Aragon sensed that technology's advances had unleashed a mythic flow of spirits, something of an ancient animism seeps through the modern lens. [4] In the second nature of simulation that is experienced through Ephémère there emerges a sense of the mysterious and the marvellous. While it is tempting to attribute this impression to the transcendent role of technology, the opposite has occurred. The experience of otherworldliness in Ephemère is dependent on our capacity to relate the reduced space of virtual reality, with its defined set of computer coordinates, to the infinite complexity of the natural world. For as Davies reminds us in the dialectic she constructs between the organic and the synthetic, the earth is a fertile site of reverie and regeneration. In contrast, virtual reality is a sterile environment that, at best, can offer us a glimpse of the mimetic residue of nature's vast chaos. To imagine otherwise is to risk mistaking technology for divine design.

Raised on a mass-culture diet of video games, Gulf War precision bombings, and Hollywood blockbuster spectacles, we have ingested a series of paradigms framing virtual reality that reinforce the role of technology as the trumpeting warrior, waging battle against real and perceived enemies ranging from space aliens and DNA mutations to the cataclysmic forces of natural disasters. Yet despite the Manichaean fantasies that underlie the harsh, clean grids of computer animation, virtual reality has become, in the popular imagination, a parallel universe in which we can bridge the escalating schism between nature and culture. The appeal of this phantasmic universe, with its potential to extinguish desire for the messy and unpredictable reality of everyday existence, is both the utopian promise and the sinister endgame of new technologies. In response, Davies creates a virtual environment that disturbs the ingrained attitudes in contemporary Western society of nature as separate from culture, and of illusion and matter as irreconcilable. To immerse the self in Ephémère is not to evade a psychic collision with a technological double, but to reflect upon the implications that such a collision poses for how we choose to imagine and to inhabit a second nature of simulation.



1. Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, ed. David Weissman (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996).

2. George Duhamel quoted by Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 238.

3. Dziga Vertov's description of cinematic experience is quoted in Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989), 11

4. Louis Aragon, "A Preface to a Modern Mythology," in Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (London: Picador Books, 1980).

This essay first appeared in Char Davies: Ephémère. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1998.

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Last verified: August 1st 2013.