Aesthetics: Folding Body

The body is the first locus of intentionality, as pure presence to the world and openness upon its possibilities.
— Young, Throwing Like a Girl

It is all very well being a tactile surface, to sense an outside as opposed to an inside (skin). Or to be vascular fleshy objects, responding to electro-muscular stimulation (flesh). Folding in the cutaneous touch of the skin surface into the more visceral tactile-kinesic sense of the muscles and flesh, we fold again. This section deals with the ‘felt’ or sensorimotor body and the expansion of the sensorium. Our ponderous, weighty corporeality has its own distinct ‘feel’ . Iris Marion Young is interested in such questions, the ‘tactile, motile, weighted, painful and pleasurable experience of an embodied subject’ , and additionally ‘how this subject reaches out with and through this body; and how this subject feels about its embodiment’ (1990:14). One way of exploring these questions is to address the sensory order, to perform other ‘felt’ phenomenologies. The techniques and technologies of immersion that occur in virtual reality directly address the sensorium, offering alternative ways of sensing the body and its relations to the outside. Through the use of virtual reality technologies, visceral experimentation can occur, playing with morphologies of feeling.


In 1968, the move from mechanical devices to digital technologies of sensory immersion took place in the first head-mounted display (HMD) devices of the flight-simulation pioneer Ivan Sutherland (see e.g. Hillis 1999), the interactive technology we most readily associate with VR.

Despite Bühl’s assertion earlier that the user experiences a virtual world as ‘actually real’ , there is no need for absolute verisimilitude, and participants bring their own somatic senses and states of rest, pain or pressure to the installation. The question therefore becomes how to integrate these haptic sensations into virtual reality. As will be established more concretely in the following chapter on haptic technologies, there is a correlation between touch and the feeling of presence, and this extends to VR:

Virtual reality is never without touch since a person is always feeling the floor, the force of gravity... Without integration, touch degrades presence. With integration, touch is the most dominant form of presence ... so the moral is [that] haptics is the royal road to credibility, to presence in VR. (Bricken, in Lauria 2000)

While presence may be enhanced through technologies such as haptics, this need not require complete sensory immersion. Interactions between bodies and technologies admit degrees of immersion, and while VR installations increasingly address tactility through ‘powergloves’ or ‘cybergloves’ , for example, touching objects and people can be achieved in numerous ways in virtual environments.


The Thickening of Sensation: Char Davies

While there are numerous examples of the distributed multisensory body in performance, one artist who directly explores the possibilities of the digital sensorium and the limits of the virtual body is Char Davies.[4] Her interactive installation Osmose was exhibited initially at the Musee D’art Contemporain de Montréal in 1995, and Éphémère followed at the National Gallery of Canada in 1998. The virtual environment of Osmose is a full-body immersion with an unusual navigation system, involving a scuba-like bodysuit that responds to expansion of the diaphragm and tilt of the body. A head-mounted display renders a three-dimensional space with semi-transparent objects, and sounds of fluids are dynamically generated. Davies’ preferred term for participants in these installations is ‘immersant’ , because the combined effect is to alter the sensorium through immersion, being the digital equivalent of scuba-diving or a flotation tank, and hence to experiment with the phenomenology of the felt body. The immersant proceeds buoyantly through a series of beautifully rendered, multisensory worlds. Meanwhile, gallery visitors can watch the backlit silhouette of the immersant on a screen, a moving shadow with trailing wires, and the graphical rendering through the head-mounted display is reproduced on nearby monitors. In a review of Éphémère, which employs a navigation system similar to that of Osmose, Jennifer Fisher watches one immersant’s silhouette and notes: ‘the kinesthetic aspect of the haptic comes into play as the gestures of the person – hands open like antennae or grasped protectively before the body – can be studied’ (1999:53).

Rather than the audience’s third-person spectatorship of the aesthetic surgery of Orlan, or the fleshy-machinic prosthesis of Stelarc, or even a straightforward celebration of cutaneous touch or kinaesthesia, these Davies works are fully immersive multisensory worlds felt from a first-person perspective, altering the perceived boundaries of one’s body and the realm of possible actions. It shifts the somatosensory context, and alters the immersant’s sensibility. Fisher argues that this work has implications for a haptic aesthetics, impacting ‘the sensational and relational aspects of touch, weight, balance, gesture and movement’ (ibid.). Significantly, the hands are free. With pressure sensors on the vest, and vestibular sensors responding to tilt of the spinal axis, there are no tactile gloves. Nonetheless, this bodysuit is a haptic interface encouraging a full-body mode of navigation. Inhaling, you ascend; exhaling, you sink. Leaning forward, one moves in that direction. And although a graphically intensive world is rendered, the work engages effectively with nonvisual sensations, further implicating (that is, folding) sensations into the body of the immersant.

Trying to recreate the sensations of learning to scuba dive in the Caribbean (2001, personal communication), a self-described epiphany inspired Davies' painting and later VR installations. She came to believe, like the psychoanalytic and phenomenologically-influenced writer Gaston Bachelard, that the body’s changing relationship to space was capable of ‘transfiguring the participant’ (Davies in Pesce, 2000:267). Fostering a fluid, dynamic sensory ambiguity in her installations she seeks to actualize Bachelard’s belief that

[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. (Bachelard 1994:206)

Davies’ installations offer not only different sensibilities but also an altered sensorium. After experimenting with painting, her explorations with VR as an artistic medium employ a painterly aesthetic to an ongoing, interactive, immersive, multi-sensory virtual environment. Both Osmose and Éphémère attempt to blur boundaries between fluid environment and ‘felt’ bodily self. As Stone describes within a different context, what Davies intends is an ‘elaboration and amplification of spatialization and presence’ (1995:90) through this medium. An ephemeral, dynamic aesthetic that celebrates the ambiguity of interior and exterior, a fluid virtual environment involving transparent objects, the result is unnerving. ‘There is a buoyant sense of movement in a world of partially dematerialized objects,’ describes Fisher, who continues: ‘Maneuvering beyond tangible forms, one enters a realm of affect that evokes an out-of-body experience’ (1999:54). Adapting to this departure from habituated perception, of our usual sensibilities, can be an almost overwhelmingly affecting experience, as some comments by immersants reveal.

Once immersed in Osmose there is a fragmented narrative of sorts, each world osmotically transforming into the next. A three-dimensional Cartesian grid functions as ante-room and orientation space, and after the first few breaths with the unusual interface the grid recedes to reveal a forest clearing. From this space twelve other ‘world-spaces’ can be accessed, each focusing on a particular natural feature. Such features from the forest clearing that the immersant can visit include a Pond, a Tree (with a Leaf showing the osmotic fluid transport systems within), a Subterranean Earth, a Forest and an Abyss. These are all experiencable as three-dimensional, semitransparent worlds. Above them is another world, Text, that reproduces quotations from relevant texts on nature, technology and embodiment, and fragments from the artist herself, represented as two-dimensional text within a three-dimensional world that can be navigated around. Below the nature-based worlds is another textual level, Code, which similarly represents the actual code used in the software. The textual levels work as parentheses, sandwiching the semi-realistic representations of nature in osmotic worlds.

The sense of immersion and bodily ambiguity is heightened through the production of a sense of enveloping, viscous space, ‘thick’ with sensation (see also Merleau-Ponty 1992:204). For example, Vivian Sobchack makes the distinction between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ technological space in discussing cinema. The ‘thin space of the machine’ is transformed into a ‘thickened and concrete world’ , she argues (in Stone 1991:115). Paradoxically, a thickened space of sensation is often achieved at the expense of the grounded sense of tactility that usually affirms the body’s felt position in space. Dot Tuer maintains that the sense of immersion is actually enhanced in Osmose through the disconnection of actual bodily touch from the thickened, multi-sensory space of the installation:

Unlike cinema, in which the audience sits in [a] darkened theater, their bodies grounded in the physical world, and watches the flickering projections of light on a screen, the enclosure of the self in a simulacrum is complete. Deprived of a tactile relationship to the outside world, one loses a perception of one’s body as separate from the artificial environment it inhabits. (Tuer 1998)

Despite the almost hermetic illusion of sensory immersion in the work, the immersant is never completely cut off from the physical grounding of sensation, since the bodysuit and head-mounted display (HMD) constrain the actual body, have weight and constrict action. Nevertheless, the illusion of immersion is convincing enough, and an alternative sensibility results, a different morphology of feeling. The unusual mixture of natural imagery made fluid and ethereal makes Osmose ‘both a solid mineral and a fluid intangible sphere, a non-Cartesian space’ , writes Grau (2003:195), involving a ‘physically intimate synthesis of the technical and the organic’ (ibid.: 198) through the unusual interface. Unlike mimetic or hyper-representational VR that uses what Tikka describes as a ‘joystick-phallus’ (1994) to navigate, Davies wanted to change what the eye would see, make it non-mimetic, and alter the mode of navigation within this differently realized world. So the diaphragm and bodysuit promotes ‘an embodying interface which tracks breath and shifting balance, grounding the immersive experience on the participant’s own body’ as Davies expresses it (2000). Tuer describes this sense of fluid immersion after experiencing the similar interface of Ephémère. ‘Rather than experiencing the sensation of penetrating a mimetic realm,’ she comments, ‘one is gently suspended, floating and sinking in rhythm with the inhaling and exhaling of one’s own breath’ (1998). The worlds of Ephémère include organs of the body, bones and, following neatly from our discussions of fleshiness and vascularity, the circulatory system. Even navigation between different areas of the virtual environment occurs without abruptness as ‘osmotic transitions’ , according to Grau (2003:195).

Reconfiguring of the Sensorium

Attempting to address the thorny question of where the body is in cyberspace, Sobchack (1987) criticizes the electronic space of the computer and video screen, describing it as ‘a phenomenological structure of sensual and psychological experience that seems to belong to no-body’ (in Stone 1991:114). But in a multidimensional, multisensory virtual space, being an immersant rather than a spectator, the body reappears through movement and action: ‘it is the quality of direct physical and kinaesthetic engagement, the enrolling of hapticity in the service of both the drama and the dramatic’ as Stone (ibid.: 106) succinctly describes. The unusual interface and mode of navigation, and the sense of the thickness of an enveloping, de-solidified space, all contribute toward what Deikman calls the ‘de-habituation of perception’ (in Davies, 1998). This could be couched in terms of affect, the disordering of sensation; or as a disruption to the ‘natural attitude’ in phenomenological terms. Departing from the space of our usual sensibilities, the immersive space of Osmose, thinks Davies, provides

a sense of bodily spatial envelopment, combined with virtuality and apparent three-dimensionality, as well as feelings of disembodiment with embodiment (given the use of an embodying interface), create an experiential context that is very different from the world of our habitual perceptions and behaviour. (1998)

It works as an alternative somatosensory context to explore our embodied consciousness in a thick, enveloping space of sensation where boundaries between inner and outer, mind and body, are immediately experienced as less distinct. As Hayles discusses in the context of another VR installation, Brenda Laurel and Rachel Strickland’s Placeholder (1994), the ambiguous body and the subtle sensorium can be potentially either disorientating or liberating for the participant:

When a user enters a VR simulation, body boundaries become ambiguous. Body motions affect what happens in the simulation, so that one is and is not present in the body and the simulation. The body marks one kind of presence; the point of view, or pov, that constructs the user’s position within the simulation marks another (1996:13-14).

Additionally, there are different gendered responses to such immersion, and from anecdotal evidence from VR researchers she reports that women feel comparatively more disorientated and suffer more motion sickness, perhaps a result of the separation of the pov (point of view) and their actual body (ibid.: 14). This separation is especially prominent in those works where the body is imagined and performed otherwise, where a morphology of the sensorium/motorium exists. In Placeholder for example, ‘Smart Costumes’ (bodysuits) enable the participant to take the form of four different animals, and the sensorimotor envelopes (the sensorium/motorium) are different for each. The snake for example can see into the infra-red spectrum. Hayles observes that these embodiments do not re-establish a natural connection between the user’s point of view and their actual embodiment, since ‘human beings do not naturally have sensoriums that process information in these ways’ , and instead the participant is a ‘techno-bio-subject whose body has been resurfaced and reconfigured by its interface with the technology’ (ibid.: 17). These aspects are both acknowledged and exploited in Davies’ work. She therefore brings her artistic approach to this new technological medium, allowing a form of phenomenological experimentation unparalleled in any other medium. While Cézanne had shown the tactile within the visible for Merleau-Ponty, the possibilities of immersion engage sensation and perception in more direct ways:

I think of immersive virtual space as a spatio-temporal arena, wherein mental models or abstract constructs of the world can be given virtual embodiment in three dimensions, then kinaesthetically, synaesthetically explored through full-body immersion and interaction. No other space allows this, no other medium of human expression. (in Grau 2003:201)

The perception of a visually semi-transparent, de-solidified world where motile interactions are performed differently, paradoxically, thickens sensory space, helping to instil that ambiguously felt embodiment. In the words of Davies and Harrison (1996), immersants in Osmose ‘feel both disembodied (because of the visual aesthetic, being able to float and pass through things) and embodied (due to a reliance on breath and balance) simultaneously.’ Proprioception is usually automatic and unobtrusive, providing a sense of our bodily boundaries and the ability to navigate through complex spaces, but in this case the sensorimotor envelope is experienced differently. In extremely rare cases, such as that of Ian Waterman (Cole 1995), there is loss of proprioception through neurological damage, and patients feel they are manipulating their body with conscious effort from the outside, like a puppetmaster, and every movement must be preplanned. They have no sense of being inside their own bodies. The body’s ambiguity in Davies’ work therefore explores proprioception by altering perceived bodily boundaries and altering the mode of interaction with that world. While motility and interaction in the virtual world affect immersants’ point of view as they float through a series of worlds, their actual bodies remain standing, their arms making sweeping or grasping movements, plugged into the installation. So whatTikka identifies as the more usual phallic mode of insertion into virtual space, with its associated need for mastery and control, now finds different expression. What Davies and Harrison are grasping toward in this ambiguous sensorimotor body, following from Fisher (1997), is a haptic aesthetic rather than simply a ‘visual aesthetic’ .

While neither Osmose nor Éphémère employs cutaneous tactility as such, Davies’ installations and haptic interface engage with the vestibular and proprioceptive body, under-explored somatic sensations that now receive empirical, experimental treatment. It thereby alters the body’s mode of insertion and potential actions in that world. The visual perception of a semi-transparent, de-solidified world, the use of bodily movements to navigate that world, fosters a de-habituated perception. In these works the felt boundaries of the body are blurred into a semitransparent environment, providing the sense of a thickness to space, and of an altered sensory orientation to the world. As such, these interactive performances are visceral experiments, a kind of practical phenomenology of the sensorimotor envelope, using non-tactile technologies to pursue a haptic aesthetics.



4. Examples include David Rokeby's Very Nervous System (1986-1990) and Marcellí Antúnes's fascinating project Réquiem (1999).
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