Chapter Six

Analysis: Immersed in the Body Code

Although women participate on all levels of code culture, their insights and experiences are often drowned out by the dominant male voice. One exception is the New Media Arts, a realm where women's code-centric discursive practices have been more visible than in most other arenas. When women use code visibly and demonstratively, in ways which run contrary to mainstream conceptions of computer programming, then the dominant ways of knowing, applying, and conceptualizing technology are challenged. In so doing, women artists disrupt the masculinization of code in important ways. In the interest of a multiplicity of voices, this chapter includes interviews and excerpts from email exchanges with women whose works, directly or indirectly, explore the formal, political, and performative aspects of code.

Certainly, the New Media Arts are not impervious to gender hierarchies. When a computing trend, such as the Open Source/FLOSS movement, enters the vestibules of artistic practice, the whole gendered beast, tail and all, follows. Nevertheless, in the New Media Arts, women use code in the practice of subversion, activism, and creative collaboration, and apply computer programming in the creation of conceptually and aesthetically innovative works. Interestingly, the body emerges as a reoccurring theme in the works of several of these new media artists.

Sensual Code

Coming to computer imaging with a background in painting and filmmaking, the artist Char Davies sought to expand her creative practice in virtual, three-dimensional space. She became a founding director of a leading 3-D software company, Softimage, in 1987, and became the company's vice-president, and later, director of visual research. Her combined technical and artistic backgrounds informed the creation of 3-D digital images and, in the early 1990s, an interest in virtual reality environments. These experiences led to the conception of her first immersive, virtual environment, Osmose, in 1995, which has been recognized as a visionary work by the global New Media Arts community.

Figure 6-1
Char Davies. Forest Grid, Osmose (1995).
Digital image captured [in real-time through head-mounted display during live]† immersive performance of the virtual environment Osmose.

As an interactive environment installation, Osmose includes 3-D computer graphics, interactive 3-D sound, and a head-mounted display. The project's immersive experience is achieved with real-time motion tracking, which, via motion-capture sensors, gathers information based on an immersant's breathing and balance. The immersant wears a vest and her breathing movements are translated into movement in a computer-generated, virtual multi-layered world. Most of these world-spaces reference nature, and are called Clearing, Forest, Tree, Leaf, Cloud, Pond, Subterranean Earth, and Abyss (see figure 6-1). Two world-spaces are dedicated to language; the substratum Code, coptains the actual software underlying Osmose, more than twenty thousand lines of phosphorescent green text (see figure 6-2). The superstratum Text includes writings by Davies as well as texts on the body, nature, and technology.

The firsthand experience of being immersed in an all-encompassing spatiality, Davies (2004) writes, is powerful and, as a subjective bodily experience, difficult to relay in words and two-dimensional images. [1] With the body as an integrative vehicle for navigation, Osmose takes an nonconformist approach to virtual reality, VR. Davies writes, "In conventional VR, the participating human subject is represented as an omnipotent, disembodied and isolated view-point, maneuvering in empty space (and often, at least in terms of increasingly immersive computer games, looking for something to kill...). [2] In Osmose, conversely, the physical body and virtual worlds are brought into unison. Davies notes, "depending on how the immersant controls her breath, she can hover, as if buoyant, among the lines of Code; or by inhaling deeply, she can rise through it and into the Under-Earth above; or by exhaling, she can drop down through the bottom of the Code realm, in which case she will find herself 'recycled' into the upper reaches of the Clearing and so on."[3]

Figure 6-2
Char Davies. Code World, Osmose (1995).
Digital image captured [in real-time through head-mounted display during live]† immersive performance of the virtual environment Osmose.

Davies writes that while feelings of disembodiment and immateriality enable participants to float through the environment, the experience is, at the same time, grounded in the participant's own body. [4] One's physical presence within the stratums, including Code, is central to Osmose. Davies comments, "Because the artwork Osmose is fully immersive and interactive, involving 3-D digital imaging, spatially-localized sound, and a stereoscopic head-mounted display, one does not merely look at the code, but experiences being within it; instead of simply gazing at a visual representation of letters on a screen, one feels bodily surrounded, with the code extending infinitely all around (including above, below and behind, not only in front)." [5]

The vast majority of VR systems adhere to a realistic, angular aesthetic. Although a full and realistic immersion has not been achieved, advances in that direction have been made and define the general trend. Christian Paul (2002) identifies this tendency as "a flight from the body that has its origins in the fifteenth-century invention of linear perspective vision." [6] Subverting this approach, the aesthetic of Osmose reflects Davies' training as a painter. Evocative of natural environments, the different world elements have rich and painterly surfaces, while translucencies and textures give the appearance of a living organism into which the immersant's body may integrate seamlessly. Davies writes, "A common response to the experience is one of astonishment: many 'immersants' have described their experience in euphoric terms while others have inexplicably wept."'[7]

In the creation of Osmose, Davies collaborated with John Harrison, who developed the custom software, and Georges Mauro, who created the models and animations. Davies submits, "I want to say that the very fact I am not a programmer has probably significantly influenced the nature of my work in this field. I once heard someone say during a public lecture that she thought it was essential for artists who were working with such technology to learn how to program, specifically so that they could learn the limits of their tools, and work within those limits. I, on the other hand, believe that not knowing how to program enabled me to stubbornly 'push' the technology beyond its conventional limits according to my own artistic and philosophical agenda." [8]

For this discussion, Davies agreed to elaborate on the significance of code in Osmose. What ensues is an exchange conducted with Davies via email in the summer of 2006.


CH: Could you comment on what prompted you to integrate code as a visible element in Osmose?

CD: I wanted to integrate "code" as a visible element into Osmose in order to draw attention to the technological means by which the work was made. I wanted to emphasize that, even while the contents of the work consist of representations of "nature," the immersive experience takes place within a highly technologized construction. I also wanted to counteract the popular notion of so-called virtual reality as a utopian spiritual space (as it was being hailed at that time, i.e., in the mid '90s) by pointing out that "underneath" it was merely computer code.

However, rather than incorporate visual references to coding throughout the work, we specifically located the code so that it would be experienced as the "substratum" of the Osmose environment. Accordingly, it can only be encountered by going down through the surface of the ground and through the subterranean earth, an act achieved by exhaling deeply so that one effectively sinks.

In response to the specific wording of your question, I want to say again that the code in Osmose is experienced not only as a visible element but as an enveloping spatial realm one is bodily in. This effect is enabled significantly by the fact that the code in Osmose is not only visible, but audible, that is, spatialized aurally in three-dimensions. Thus, not only does the immersant see the code scrolling around her, and proprioceptively sense herself floating among it, but she also hears it all around, above, below, behind, before. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of sound in enabling an experience of being bodily surrounded, of being bodily in place.

CH: At the time when Osmose was created, in 1995, code was scarcely a topic of discussion within the contemporary art scene, or even within the discourses of media art. Early on then, your work quite specifically pointed to the significance of code in computer-mediated experiences. Today, in part due to the Open Source movement as well as new art forms, such as software art, code is the subject of a range of discourses. Would you say that you anticipated this development?

CD: Not for me to say. That's what historians are for.

CH: John Harrison developed the custom software for Osmose. Did collaborating with a programmer inform your aesthetic choices?

CD: I would not say that working with a programmer informed my aesthetic choices. However, constructing a work as ambitious as Osmose in 1994-95 involved close collaboration between myself, John Harrison and Georges Mauro: most important was not only their commitment to manifesting my artistic vision, but their respect for my exploratory creative process which I had developed years before while painting.

By the way, the reason that the green letters in the Code realm are so simply drawn is due to the limitations we were constantly running up against in terms of computing power. If the shape of the letters in the Code realm had been more complex or detailed, the real-time rendering frame-rate (necessary to create a convincing sense of being immersed) would have become impossibly slow. John therefore designed the font in the Code realm so as to simplify the letters and make them faster to render.

CH: Osmose includes a realm of code and a realm of scrolling text that contains the writings of poets and philosophers. Do you see a relationship between the two types of writing?

CD: I envisioned the two realms of Code and Text as "conceptual parentheses" around the work: the Text was superstratum and the Code was substratum. The decision to place them in such relationship was (at the time of making the work) intuitive: I could analyze that relationship for you but haven't time to do so at present.

CH: As is evident in the documentation of Osmose, the experience of Osmose is an emotionally as well as a spiritually charged journey for many participants. Did any participants respond to encountering a code level?

CD: Immersant responses to the Code depend on individual identity and background. For example, as John Harrison has told me, his programmer friends (as well as other programmers, I would imagine) enjoy "floating" through the code because they can actually read and appreciate the particularities (and idiosyncrasies) of his programming style.

A non-programmer is not able to do this, but instead will experience being suspended among what he assumes is software code, with its various connotations. Some individuals find this unpleasant or frightening, as did Margaret Morse (1998) who, after writing about "drowning" in the Osmose pond, described her experience in the code:

Consider also that I have a math phobia and that one of the worlds in the piece consisted of machine language, which scrolled upward faster than I could escape it by breathing in more and more. As I got more and more panicky, the programmer John Harrison revealed that the way out of machine language world was to surrender and sink into it. Despite my own reaction, I could understand the intention of the piece, to 'encourage the immersant to effectively let go' in a meditative experience that reconnects the body and the world. The piece also underlines that we can and do experience symbols viscerally and emotionally and that these symbols do not have just one meaning, but many potential and experientially determined ones.

Maggie's comment about viscerally experiencing symbols echoes what I've written above.

CH: At one point, you describe the code element in Osmose as a "scrolling wall of code." [10] Programming requires a high degree of perfection because even minor flaws can cause a program to fail. Consequently, code is often described as a body of "hard" languages. Is this your experience?

CD: I'm not going to address your description of code as a body of "hard" languages but rather the notion of minor flaws causing a program to fail. Sometimes, this can be a good thing, in that so-called "bugs" can enable a freeing from the straightforward rationality and constraints of programming.

Here is the first example. In the early days of Softimage (1990 or so), I was making my own images with the software (working through its user-friendly interface) even before it was completely stable. In particular, I remember a programming error in the rendering code, which allowed me to raise illumination values over 100% up to 1000% and higher. This was not logically possible, but indeed, because of that specific programming flaw, I was able to do so. This enabled me to create unusual lighting effects, which subverted conventionally realistic lighting characteristics. The software programmer who was writing the rendering code knew about this flaw, and it was only a matter of time before it was corrected. Eventually, all the irrational quirks in the software (by which I could circumvent other conventional effects) were also corrected. I saw this as a kind of loss.

Here is a second example. Several years later, while working on the immersive virtual environment Osmose, we discovered a strange visual effect faking place in the graphics, which caused a reversal of dark/light tonalities under certain circumstances. Specifically, the Osmose tree and clearing would temporarily reverse from dark to white, when layers of flecks passed in front. I really liked this strange effect (it looked like stark winter and even suggested the aftermath of war). It turned out that what was causing this was a programming flaw in the software associated with the computer hardware we were using. By the time we went on to make the next virtual environment Ephémère, this programming flaw in the hardware had been corrected by manufacturer. Again, I saw this as a kind of loss.

So in answer to your question, in my experience, such flaws in the programming often yielded exquisite surprises, which, in their very irrationality, offered windows of possibility by which to escape conventional results. This is what I mean by how such bugs can enable a "freeing from" rational, logical methods and the limitations that result from conventional approaches.

CH: You've noted that the VR world Osmose does not contain a "predetermined linear narrative," and that "each participant's experience is unique, unrepeatable, dependent on one's own behavior...." I am wondering what your views are with regard to language in this context. For example, past, present, and future tenses mirror the beginning, middle, and ending of traditional narrative structures. Do you see a relationship between code and the absence of a predetermined linear narrative in Osmose?

CD: First of all, I should say that Osmose, like its successor Ephémère, does contain one linear narrative, which is the only narrative I have ever been interested in: that of our being born into the world and our dying out of it (along with everything else, coming into being, lingering, and passing away). In between, each journey, each passage through, each life-span, is unique and unrepeatable.

Secondly, I am reminded of the Hopi language/culture, which, I have heard, does not contain concepts for past or future but only present. I would be curious to know how their stories might reflect this. I'm sure there are many cultures whose concepts of time are unlike our own, but this is outside my expertise.

Regarding your specific question, my response is no, I don't see any relationship between code and the absence of a predetermined linear narrative in Osmose. I do, however, see a relationship between my previous experience as a painter and the absence of predetermined narrative in my work.

My approach to the medium of immersive virtual space has been significantly influenced by my early formation as a painter. For example, rather than telling stories or developing linear narratives, I was always more interested in what I call "spatial simultaneity": whereby certain subjective experiential realms such as interior and exterior, self and world–conventionally kept apart in our dualistic culture (see below)–are presented as interlacing or interpenetrating (to use Merleau-Ponty's term), that is, occupying the same space at the same time. The particular origins of my desire to accomplish this are beyond the scope of your context.

CH: You write that virtual space is not neutral and that "The origins of the technology associated with it lie deep within the military and western-scientific-industrial-patriarchal complex." [11] This heritage, as you suggest, resonates in the hard edges and the denial of the body that is so common to the majority of VR environments. In regards to language, scholars have suggested that letters are tools and embedded in every tool is an ideological bias. [12] Do you see a relationship between the cultural bias inherent in VR and code?

CD: I don't think any tool or medium is culturally neutral. I am not a programmer and cannot speak specifically to the biases inherent in computer coding: however, if programming languages are indeed binary, based on Os and 1s, there is no room for suggestion, evocation, ambiguity or in-between-ness. This is why semi-transparency became so essential in my approach to the medium of immersive virtual space.

I had already explored transparency as a painter, and used it while constructing the 3-D digital still images, which preceded my work in VR. Accordingly, in Osmose, transparency became our primary means of subverting, or at least circumventing, what I call the "hard-edged object-in-empty-space syndrome" pervasive in 3-D computer graphics and VR environments. This syndrome–conventionally known as photorealism, or objective realism, and still highly sought after in the industry (Pixar's animated films are an example)–serves to uphold a rigid dichotomy between solid objects and empty space. In doing so, it not only reflects but reinforces a traditionally Western dualist worldview, with all the attendant implications, including not only how one sees the world but behaves towards it.

We therefore deliberately used transparency (including an entire range of semi-transparency between invisibility and opacity) in an effort to dissolve such dichotomy and create ambiguity–not only between object and space, figure and ground, interior and exterior, but also between subject and world. Transparency (along with a user interface based on breath instead of hands) thus became our technique, our tool, for undermining the ideological bias in the technology in terms of treating the world as a collection of objects or "standing-reserve" for human use. I could go on here, having written a doctoral dissertation about this, but it would be outside the realm of your question.

CH: In your experience, do men and women approach code differently?

CD: I cannot answer this question from experience because we did not do comparison studies. A female software engineer would no doubt experience as much curiosity in floating through John's code as any male programmer. While some people might assume that Maggie Morse's "math phobia" is related to gender, more likely it has to do with cultural biases in early math education.

CH: As a pioneer in the digital arts, did you have any female role models?

CD: I wish...


1. Davies in Penz, Radick, and Howell, Space in Science, Art, and Society, 83.
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2. Ibid., 72.
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3. Davies in an electronic exchange with the author, October 2006.
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4. Davies in Penz, Radick, and Howell, Space in Science, Art, and Society, 85.
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5. Davies in an electronic exchange with the author, May 2006.
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6. Paul, Digital Art, 125.
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7. Davies in Penz, Radick, and Howell, Space in Science, Art, and Society, 71.
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8. Davies in an electronic exchange with the author, May 2006.
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9. Morse, Virtualities, 208-211.
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10. Davies in Penz, Radick and Howell, Space in Science, Art and Society, 91.
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11. Ibid., 72.
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12. Postman, Technopoly, 12-13.
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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.