Chapter 5
Interactive Digital Installations


Osmose (1994-1995) and Ephémère (1997-1998) by Canadian artist Char Davies* are impressive immersive interactive environments. To experience these works, participants (or "immersants," as Davies calls them) don a stereoscopic head-mounted display (in Davies's opinion, still the most effective way to enable sensations of full-body immersion in an all-encompassing space). The immersant also wears a vest that tracks breathing and balance—a strategy intended to reaffirm the role of the subjectively lived body in virtual space. The graphics in both works, true to Davies long-established visual sensibility, consist of soft-edged, luminous, semitransparent forms set among flowing particles.

Char Davies, Subterranean Earth, from Osmose, 1995
Figure 5.4
Char Davies, Subterranean Earth,
from Osmose, 1995
Digital image captured in real-time
through head-mounted display during live immersive journey/performance.

The first realm encountered in Osmose is a three-dimensional Cartesian grid, but with the immersant's first breaths, this gives way to a clearing, surrounded by a forest. One can, through breath, endlessly float through this forest; or enter the clearing's lone tree and the interior of its leaves; or sink into a pond and its oceanic abyss; or rise above the clearing into the clouds or descend into subterranean depths among translucent roots and rocks. Two additional realms—the philosophical text above and the software code below—function as conceptual parentheses around the work (figure 5.4). The sounds in Osmose were originally sampled from male and female voices uttering phonetics, then digitally processed and localized in three dimensions. The sound is then generated on the fly, in real time, responding like the visuals to changes in the immersant's head and body position, direction and speed. After fifteen minutes of immersion, a symbolic lifeworld appears and then irretrievably recedes, bringing the session to an end.

Char Davies, Forest Stream, from Ephémère, 1998
Figure 5.5
Char Davies, Forest Stream, from Ephémère, 1998
Digital image captured in real-time through head-mounted display during live immersive journey/performance.

In Ephémère, Osmose's iconic repertoire of trees, rocks, and streams is extended to include body organs, arteries, and bones, suggesting a symbolic correspondence between body and earth. While Osmose consists of a dozen spatial realms, Ephémère is structured into three levels: landscape, subterranean earth, and a substratum of interior body flesh. Ephémère is structured temporally as well: its landscape changes continually, passing through diurnal/nocturnal cycles and seasonal transformation; its subterranean boulders give way to body organs; they in turn transform to bone. Throughout the experience, various elements come into being, linger, and pass away, with the timing of their appearances dependent on the immersant's position, slowness of movement, and steadiness/duration of gaze (figure 5.5). A striking example are the dormant seeds that when activated by a gaze, allow entry into their blooming's luminous space. The river (also an underground stream or a vein/artery) has a gravitational pull that propels the immersant along while randomly transforming the surrounding spatial realm. Such transformations are also aural, and the sound is thus in a constant state of flux. Finally, depending on the immersant's whereabouts after a dozen minutes within the work, there are multiple endings, whereby the rich flows of color, texture, and sound begin to fade, leaving only autumn leaves, ashes, or embers falling in empty space.

While the central experience of these two works is immersive, there is a performative aspect as well: during public exhibitions, the solitary journeys of participants are video projected (sometimes stereoscopically) so that an audience can follow the visual/aural explorations in real time as they unfold from the participant's subjective point of view. At the same time, the audience can watch a silhouette of the participant's body. The projection of this gesturing body shadow alongside the real-time video projection serves to poeticize the relationship between the participating body and the resulting visual/aural effects—and most important, draws attention to the body's grounding role in virtual space.[4]

In both Osmose and Ephémère, Davies proposes an alternative virtual reality that resists the usual trajectory through the employment of specific design strategies, such as a user interface based on the tracking of breath and balance as a means of countering the disembodying tendency of virtual reality. Davies's use of multilayered semitransparency in the graphics is intended to subvert the conventional aesthetic of hard-edged-objects-in-empty-space—in her view, a striving for mimeticism that upholds Cartesian dualities. Davies's work eschews hand-driven interface devices on the basis that they reflect/reinforce a controlling and dominating stance toward the world. Her work encourages a contemplative mode of exploration whereby unexpected and subtle perceptual confusions might occur, instead of the usual high-speed shoot-and-kill scenario that rewards violence and aggression.

The immersive virtual environments of Davies are the fruit of more than twenty years of artistic practice dealing with nature, psyche, and embodied perception. Her work effectively demonstrates that the medium of virtual reality is capable of communicating sensibilities other than those with which it is commonly associated. Far from adhering to the techno-utopian view of cyberspace, Davies considers the phenomenon of virtual reality to be a reflection of the Platonic/Newtonian/Cartesian philosophical tradition and the military-scientific-industrial complex from which it has sprung: a medium whose conventional design metaphors reinforce the dominant Western world-view by proposing a realm ruled by mind, where flesh is absent and there is no dirt. While some believe bodies and nature are outmoded metaphors, Davies considers such faith in engineering silicon as a means of delivery into immortal omnipotence symptomatic of an almost pathological denial of our bodily embeddedness in the biological matrix of Earth, and as such, the classic testosterone-induced dream.[5]

Davies envisions virtual reality as a means of undoing habitual assumptions about our being-in-the-world. She approaches the medium as a visual/aural spatial/temporal arena for perceptually "changing space" in the sense meant by the French philosopher and essayist Gaston Bachelard: "By changing space, by leaving the space of one's usual sensibilities, one enters into communication with a space that is psychically innovating.… For we do not change place, we change our Nature."[6] In short, Davies's goal is to use virtual reality as a means of temporarily collapsing boundaries between subject and object, interior and exterior, self and world in order to facilitate a refreshing of perception, thereby potentially resensitizing participants to the extraordinariness of being alive, sentient, and embodied, here now, among all this, briefly immersed in the flow of life through space and time.

Davies began her career in the late 1970s as a painter and filmmaker. Her research into embodied perception and non-Cartesian spatialities dates back to 1980, when she began exploring the effects of her own extreme myopic vision: a dramatically altered world in which hard edges, separate objects, and indeed all distinctions between things disappear, dissolved in light. (This work laid the foundation for her unique visual aesthetic of multilayered semi-transparency, as later seen in Osmose and Ephémère.) During the mid-1980s, Davies continued this research, exhibiting a group of paintings called Espaces Entrelacés—that is, interlaced spaces. Subsequently, an increasing desire to rep-resent nature as perceptually enveloping caused Davies to seek a means of going beyond the painterly two-dimensional picture plane, and precipitated her interest in the virtual three-dimensionality of computer graphic space.

Driven by the force of her artistic inquiry, Davies became a founding director of what arguably became the world's leading computer-animation software development company, Softimage. As head of visual research from 1988 to 1997, Davies became well versed in the commercially driven biases in the technology. With the intent of subverting these conventions, she produced a series of three-dimensional computer-generated still images (the Interior Body Series, 1990-1993) using complex lighting techniques and semitransparency to represent non-Cartesian spaces and suggest a metaphoric coequivalency between the interior lived body and nature. These images received numerous awards for their rich unconventional sensibility and were exhibited as large-scale light boxes around the world. Even though the images were constructed and rendered as three-dimensional scenes, however, they ultimately remained two-dimensional because of the output medium; for Davies, this posed a huge limitation.

In mid-1993, Davies began writing about the potential of immersive virtual environments as a more effective means of "crossing the picture plane" into enveloping three-dimensional space—and laid out her intentions for subverting conventional approaches to virtual reality. In early 1994, she assembled a team (John Harrison and Georges Mauro, with Dorota Blaszczak and Rick Bidlack on sound) and embarked on the production of Osmose.

Fifteen to twenty thousand people [approximately 35,000 people, as of November 2007]† have to date been individually immersed in Davies's virtual environments, in exhibitions held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2001), the National Art Gallery of Canada (1998), the Museum of Monterrey, Mexico (1997-1998), and the Barbican Art Centre in London (1997), to name only a few. Many participants have reportedly expressed astonishment at their paradoxical perceptual experience, and some have been so emotionally overcome they have cried. As one person remarked in a letter to the artist: "[The work] heightened an awareness of my body as a site of consciousness and of the experience and sensation of consciousness occupying space. It's the most evocative exploration of the perception of consciousness that I have experienced since I can't remember when."

Davies is currently involved (through Immersence, the research and development/production company she founded in 1998) in porting Osmose and Ephémère from high-end hardware to personal computers, and in developing strategies for further work. She continues to write and lecture widely, most recently at Cambridge University for the sixteenth Darwin College Lecture Series on Space, and among other honors, has been awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and the regent's lectureship at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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.