3. Beyond the Screen: Interactive Art

From the room-size computers of the 1940s to desktop, laptop, palmtop, and wristwatch computers, human interaction with this powerful and pervasive calculating machine has changed. When in the 1960s computers started to become capable of producing and manipulating images, computer graphics became a prominent research topic among engineers. Likewise, computers started to attract the attention of experimental visual artists all over the world.

This is exemplified by the Japanese team Computer Technique Group, founded in 1966 by Masao Kohmura and Masanori Tsuchiya in Tokyo. Between late 1967 and early 1968 they produced classics such as Running Cola Is Africa (1968), a black and white graphic sequence showing the transformation of a runner into a Coca-Cola bottle that then morphed into the map of Africa [1]. They employed the visual trope of "morphing" as a means of conveying social criticism.

Working against the background of conceptualism, kinetics, and Pop in the 1960s, many artists abandoned the tactile appeal of the analog realm and ventured into the unknown domain of computer graphics. Examples include the work of the Americans John Whitney [2] and Charles Csuri, [3] the Brazilian Waldemar Cordeiro, [4] the Hungarian Vera Molnar, [5] and the German Manfred Mohr [6]. Many artists working with computers at the time explored algorithms that generated multiple forms of abstract or Constructivist art. Others created figurative images that were charged poetically through specific graphic procedures (e.g., warping, morphing, zooming). Cordeiro's work is particularly distinct in this context because the artist, living under the worst phase of the Brazilian military dictatorship, produced computer images that were rich in personal, emotional, or subtle political content.

Computer graphics in art continued to flourish in the 1970s and 1980s, as new algorithms were developed and digital images started to acquire color, rich shading, and photographic qualities [7]. Computers were gradually becoming incorporated in interactive art installations, as exemplified by historical exhibitions such as Software, curated by Jack Burnham in 1970 for the Jewish Museum in New York. [8] Computer graphics were prominent in videos and films in the 1980s, and even television commercials started to feature digital animation regularly. The launch of the Macintosh computer in 1984 and the graphic software industry that followed made computer imaging accessible to a larger number of artists. Consequently, the creation of still images presented new challenges to a younger generation of artists, who enjoyed unprecedented creative freedom. As the new frontier of computer graphics became a stable industry and an established artistic practice, experimental artists in the 1990s started to push the digital image into new areas of imagination and experience. The works discussed in this chapter reveal some of the most fascinating approaches to the areas of virtual reality (VR), interactive performance, avatars, telepresence, and artificial life. In these works digital images are always present, but they are not conceived as static, self-contained pictures. They are spaces, interfaces, remote database inputs, ephemeral real-time creations, and evolving forms.

Inside the Image

Since the late 1980s the term virtual reality has been used in scholarly journals and popular magazines alike, often taken to mean different things for different purposes. When first developed by Ivan Sutherland in the late 1960s, the technology of virtual reality was intended to enable scientific visualization of three-dimensional data in real time through the use of head-mounted stereoscopic electronic displays. Because the technology has grown less expensive since the early 1990s, it has catapulted from research labs into myriad applications, such as education, military training, medicine, and gaming. True to its origins, the concept refers to a visual space that can be seen as such by the viewer and in which this viewer can navigate in three dimensions in real time. If the viewer perceives the space through a stereoscopic device, he or she has the sensation of being immersed in the space. For the viewer to have a seamless experience, the computer must be powerful enough to calculate every subtle change in point of view in real time.

Figure 37 (a)
Char Davies, [Osmose, virtual reality installation]
Forest Stream from Ephémère, 1998.
Digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted
display during live immersive journey/performance.

(Courtesy of Char Davies.)

In this virtual world viewers navigated an environment made of natural forms and synthetic elements. This shows a view of the forest sector of [Osmose] Ephémère † (a).

The interface was a vest that allowed participants to move in the virtual world using their breath and balance, resembling scuba diving (b).

In 1995 the Canadian artist Char Davies, working with designers and programmers, created Osmose, [9] a virtual reality immersive artwork (fig. 37) that invited viewers to move through synthetic infinite worlds. In this work Davies presented a unique interface to what she calls the "immersant" (the person immersed in the virtual world). In the form of a vest, this interface provided real-time motion tracking based on breathing and balance. This meant that viewers could inhale to rise and exhale to descend and could move forward or backward in the virtual space by leaning forward or backward in the physical world. Viewers navigated a complex world made of natural forms, such as trees, and synthetic elements, such as three-dimensional Cartesian wireframe grids filled with diaphanous substances.

"The public installation of Osmose," explained Davies, "included large-scale stereoscopic video and audio projection of imagery and interactive sound transmitted in real-time from the point-of-view of the 'immersant.' This projection enabled an audience, wearing polarizing glasses, to witness each immersive journey as it unfolded. Although immersion took place in a private area, a translucent screen equal in size to the video screen enabled the audience to observe the body gestures of the immersant as a poetic shadow-silhouette."

Her second VR work, entitled Ephémère (Ephemeral), was also created with a team of designers and programmers and premiered in 1998 at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. [10] Whereas in Osmose the immersant could move through a forested glade populated by static objects, in Ephémère every object was in a state of flux. Organized in three levels, this work also made use of organic and natural metaphors, except that this time an analogy was suggested between nature and the human body. Like Osmose, Ephémère used the breathing and balance vest interface to propel the viewer in space, made creative use of three-dimensional sound, and could only be fully experienced with a virtual reality headset. As viewers tried to make the most of the allotted fifteen-minute time slots, their sense of time might have gotten warped. The digital image became a navigational space, inviting endless exploration.

Tracking vest worn by Georges Mauro
Figure 37 (b)
[Tracking vest worn by Georges Mauro.]
(Image courtesy of Char Davies.)



1. Jasia Reichardt, Cybernetic Serendipity: The Computer and the Arts (New York: Praeger, 1968), 75-77.
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2. John Whitney, Digital Harmony: On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art (Peterborough, N.H.:McGraw-Hill, 1980).
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3. Charles Csuri, "Computer Graphics and Art," in Tutorial: Computer Graphics, ed.J.Beatty and K. Booth (Silver Spring: IEEE, 1982), 558-70; originally published in 1974 in Proceedings of the IEEE.
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4. Waldemar Coreiro, Arteônica (São Paulo: Editora des Américas, 1972); Annateresa Fabris, "Waldemar Cordeiro: Computer Art Pioneer," Leonardo 30, no, I (1997): 27-31; Eduardo Kac, "Waldemar Cordeiro's Oeuvre and Its Context: A Biographical Note," 30, no. I (1997): 23-25.
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5. Vera Molnar, "Towards Aesthetic Guidelines for Painting with the Aid of a Computer," Leonardo,8, n0. 3 (1975): 185; "My Mother's Letters: Simulation by Computer," Leonardo 28, no. 3 (1995): 16-70.
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6. Ruth Leavitt, Artist and Computer (New York: Harmony, 1976), 92-96.
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7. See Herbert Franke, Computer Graphics, Computer Art (London: Phaidon, 1971); Annabel Jankel and Rocky Mountains, Creative Computer Graphics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
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8. Judith B. Burnham, coord., SOFTWARE--Information Technology New Meaning for Art (New York: Jewish Museum, 1970).
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9. See Char Davies, "Osmose: Notes on Being in Immersive Virtual Space," in Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Arts Conference Proceedings (Montreal: ISEA '95, 1995), 51-56; Ken Goldberg, "Virtual Reality in the Age of Telepresence," Convergence 4, no. 1 (1998): 33-37.
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10. See Jean Gagnon, "Dionysusand Reverie: Immersion in Char Davies' Environments," in Char Davies: Emhémère, exhibition catalog (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1998), n.p.; Mathew Mirapaul, "An Intense Dose of Virtual Reality," New York Times Online, July 9, 1998; Char Davies, "Ephémère, Landscape: Earth, Body and Time in Immersive Virtual Space," in Reframing Consciousness: Art, Mind and Technology, ed. Roy Ascott (Exeter: Intellect, 1999), 196-201.
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Last verified: August 1st 2013.