Another digital art piece, Osmose, was conceived by Char Davies and first exhibited in 1995.[2] A participant engages with Osmose by wearing a head mounted display and vest of sensors and other digitalia. Media critic and theorist Mark Hansen describes experiencing the piece, how

a forest clearing centering around a great old oak tree appears. Everything in your visual field seems to be constructed of light: branches, trunks, leaves, shimmer with a strange luminescence, while in the distance there appears a river of dancing lights. Leaning your body forward, you move toward the boundary of the clearing and pass into another forest zone. You are now enfolded in a play of light and shadow, as leaves phase imperceptibly into darkened blotches and then phase back again, in what seems like a rhythmic perpetuity. Exhaling deeply causes you to sink down through the soil as you follow a stream of tiny lights illuminating the roots of the oak tree.

Soon you sink into an underworld of glowing red rocks that form a deep, luminous cavern beneath the earth. Exhaling again, you sink still further, encountering scrolling walls of green alphanumeric characters that (you will later learn) reproduce the 20,000 some lines of code upon which the world you are in is built. Longing for the vivid images above, you take in a deep breath and hold it, waiting to ascend. After passing once again through the clearing, you enter another world of text, encountering quotations from philosophical and literary sources that seem to bear directly on your experience.

"By changing space, by leaving the space of one's usual sensibilities," one passage informs you, "you enter into communications with a space that is psychically innovative . . . we do not change place, we enter our Nature."

The attention you have been lending to your breathing makes you feel angelic and fleshy: while you float dreamlike, unencumbered by the drag of gravity, your actions are syncopated with your breathing in a way that makes your bodily presence palpable, insistent. Meanwhile, you find yourself floating back down to the clearing, no longer driven to explore, but meditative, content simply to float wherever your bodily leaning and breathing will take you. (107-9)

From Hansen's description one can see that "navigation" through Osmose depends on breathing: inhaling and holding your breath "moves" you up in the piece's world; exhaling moves you down. (Davies is a scuba diver, and she drew on her diving experiences in shaping how someone moves through Osmose.) Oliver Grau, who writes about new media art, lists how participants in Osmose described their sense of being immersed in a "contemplative, meditative peace" and of feeling "gently cradled" (199). Grau writes that Osmose's "physically intimate design of the human-machine interface gives rise to such immersive experiences that the artist speaks of reaffirming the participants' corporeality; Davies even expresses the hope that a spatio-temporal context is created 'in which to explore the self's subjective experience of "being-in-the-world"--as embodied consciousness in an enveloping space where boundaries between inner/outer, and mind/body dissolve'" (199). Grau ends by noting that "Prerequisite to the attainment of this goal is immersion experienced in solitude, a subjective experience in the image world" (199).

Both Osmose and Saturday, as their creators hopefully describe in their quoted words, draw participants into unusual sensuous engagements with their environments and so are set up to encourage participants to attend to their hearing or breathing (in these particular cases) as they probably would not amid the distractive normalities of daily activity. Such attention to a body's sensuous perception characterizes many art pieces that rely on digital processing, such as Ephemere, another piece by Davies, or Paul Sermon's Telematic Dreaming (see Grau 274-75), Thecla Schiphorst's Bodymaps: Artifacts of Touch (see Hansen 64-67), or Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio's Blur Building (see Hansen 178-83). By experimenting with art that is not experienced by a person sitting still before a monitor, digital artists can ask us to attend to senses other than or in addition to sight, to experience those senses so as to "extend the domain of sensibility for the delight, the honor, and the benefit of human nature," as Wordsworth wrote several centuries ago (qtd. in Abrams 395).

The theorists of new media art discussed here—Hansen, Grau, Anna Munster—give extensive descriptions of Osmose as they write about digital art that grows out of the visual tradition of European art—even if the art they are describing is no longer primarily visual in its appeal. Each draws on—overtly or not—traditional eighteenth-century notions of aesthetics to discuss the art. It is that focus that gets them—and digital art (because digital art is a highly academicized and intellectualized area right now, with theory being read by artists who in turn make art that moves the theorists)—into potentially awkward situations. These are the situations noted in the introduction, in which aesthetics and ethics break apart, situations we have been warned about at least since Walter Benjamin.

Part of the project for each of these writers is to legitimate digital art as art. As mentioned, the kinds of art discussed here—Saturday's bone transducers and Ormose's breath responders, for example—do not look like traditional two-dimensional or even three-dimensional visual art. Such art does not equate with an object like a stretched canvas or shaped stone, as a painting or a sculpture does; instead, as with Saturday or Osmose, the art is what one experiences while wearing mediating objects like gloves or vests. This art is highly technologized, requiring considerable time (and, often, space) for installation and testing before it can be shown—and such art certainly cannot just be hung on a wall or placed on a pedestal and left to the oversight of long-standing museum guards.

Some in arts institutions do resist this work: there are mainstream arts magazines whose writers do not discuss this art (for example, see Art in America); "museums have only begun to open their doors hesitantly to the art of the digital present" (Grau 10); and there are schools that refuse to teach its production. Such art cannot be sold as singular objects.

But this art is, of course, taught and displayed, often in new or expanded institutions; as Oliver Grau wrote in Virtual Art (2003), there are "new media schools in Cologne, Frankfurt, and Leipzig and the Zentrum für Kunst and Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe, Germany, is a heartland of media art, together with Japan and its new institutes, such as the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo and the International Academy of Media Arts and Sciences near Gifu. More recently, other countries, such as Korea, Australia, China, Taiwan, Brazil, and especially the Scandinavian countries, have founded new institutions of media art" (10). These institutions (as their technically oriented names suggest) are all fairly recent, however, and it is—in part—the work of writers such as those discussed here to publicize this work, create (understanding) audiences for it, and show that it fits or ought to fit within existing arts institutions with, if necessary, only slight modification to institutional practices.

And, of course, to show that something new is not really so new, one shows how it fits into tradition—which could be one reason the writers included here discuss such digital artworks in parallel with traditional aesthetic theory. This, of course, requires reshifting in the logics of the traditional—and so leads to the problems mentioned in the introduction. To flesh out these problems requires showing these writers' aesthetic turn.

For most people in the early twenty-first century, aesthetics cannot be understood except as historicized. As theory about evaluative judgments about art or other cultural productions, as theory about one's taste for Rembrandt or Thomas Kinkade, Mozart or Mariah Carey, aesthetics is, at best, considered descriptive of how particular people in particular temporal and geographical contexts feel pleasure in their engagements with certain kinds of objects. Among others in the twentieth century, Raymond Williams ("Taste is for Williams a name for the habits of the dominant class rendered as inherent qualities" [Shumway 104]) and Pierre Bourdieu (for whom "the 'aesthetic point of view' was the surest mark of class distinction" and "largely reducible to ideology, a form of political dominance" [Harkin 185]) have done much to establish current theories about "the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surfaces, of that which takes root in the gaze and the guts and all that arises from our most banal, biological insertion into the world" (Eagleton 13); they encourage us to an understanding that such theories can make no universal, eternal claims about bodies and senses.

In aesthetics' eighteenth-century origins, however, those who developed theories of aesthetics believed they were discussing universals and eternals. Aesthetics, as a named discipline, began (in most tellings) with Alexander Baumgarten's work in the mid-eighteenth century. Baumgarten took aesthetics from the Greek aisthesis, which (in the words of Martin Jay) "implied gratifying corporeal perception, the subjective sensual response to objects rather than objects themselves" (6). Questions of aesthetics were originally, then, questions about how we make judgments about our sensory relations to the worlds in which we move: Why do we judge something to be beautiful, sublime, disgusting? Kant argued that aesthetic judgments result when we understand how universal reason can resonate in our particular, individual sensuous takes on the world, through conceptual understanding. Under this telling (to quote Cassirer's interpretation of Kant), the Beautiful is a "resonance of the whole in the particular and singular" (318). Similarly M. H. Abrams describes how, with the rise of Romanticism in the late eighteenth century, "writers testified to a deeply significant experience in which an instant of consciousness, or else an ordinary object or event, suddenly blazes into revelation; the unsustainable moment seems to arrest what is passing, and is often described as an intersection of eternity with time" (385). In such tellings, aesthetic judgments are possible precisely because it was believed, first, that something universal or timeless inhered in what we judge to be beautiful or to be art and, second, that each person's bodily sensibilities gave the person visceral and so cognitive access to that universal or timeless thing.


As mentioned earlier, I am not arguing for one genealogy over another, as though the genealogies were mutually exclusive. What matters here is the three qualities the writers I quote similarly note about the aesthetic theories of roughly two centuries ago: those theories directed attentions to intensified or heightened sensuous bodily perceptions—to aesthetic experiences, that is—as what connected particular bodies with something larger, ineffable, or at least inutile; as a result, in being so connected, one was to experience—viscerallyone's place in the ethical world, in the world of universal law governing how one was to live. In formulating such connection, the theorists made aesthetic experience "into an intense but solitary experience of the relationship between self and external nature" (Harkin 174), as the quotations from Williams and Eagleton suggest. Although neither the digital art nor the theories about it described at the beginning of this essay seek relationship between self and the ineffable, they draw on the other two aspects of the older theories: first, they can encourage the solitary, ahistorical, nonparticular, engaged experience at the core of eighteenth-century aesthetics—as with Davies' words about Osmose—and, second, current art and theories do attempt to tie aesthetic experience to the ethical, to one's relationships with others. These two aspects of earlier theories do not and cannot be made to fit back together when brought to bear on current understandings of sensing bodies in their worlds.

From the time of Kant, those who have studied aesthetics have tended to direct their attentions in three directions: toward the object conceived of as being worthy of aesthetic judgment, toward the judgment itself, or toward the aesthetic experience that links the sensation of the object with the judgment about it. As mentioned earlier, the digital art discussed here is problematic as object, and the case has to be made for these digital pieces to be worthy of judgment as art. And so it makes sense that the writers discussed here would focus on aesthetic experience—a heightening or intensifying of day-to-day perceptual experience—in any attempt to use aesthetic theory in legitimating digital work such as Saturday or Osmose. In so doing, they, like the eighteenth-century aesthetic theorists, hope to use aesthetics to make perception ethical.

Munster, in her 2006 book Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics, uses the first four-fifths of her book to discuss what I would call the epistemological functions of new media art; in her last chapter she claims that "the aesthetics of technologically inflected, augmented and managed modes of perceptions is also about relations to others in the socius" (151), about, that is, our ethical relations with others. Here is Hansen's take (from his 2006 book Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media) on what digital arts can do: Because they engage our senses, but in unexpected or new ways, as Saturday or Osmose engage with our hearing or our breathing, such digital art pieces can

broaden what we might call the sensory commons—the space that we human beings share by dint of our constitutive embodiment. This is because digital technologies:

  1. Expand the scope of human bodily (motor) activity; and thereby
  2. Markedly broaden the domain of the prepersonal, the organism-environment coupling operated by our nonconscious, deep embodiment; and thus
  3. Create a rich, anonymous "medium" for our own enactive co-belonging or "being-with" one another; which thereby
  4. Transforms the agency of collective existence … from a self-enclosed and primarily cognitive operation to an essentially open, only provisionally bounded, and fundamentally motor, participation. (20)

Similarly, Grau ends his 2003 book on virtual art by arguing that the "processes of digitization create new areas of perception, which will lead to noticeable transformations in everyday life" (347): "The roles that are offered, assigned, or forced on the users when interacting are an essential element in perception of the conditions of experience—experience both of the environment in a world transformed by media and of the self, which is constituted as never before from a continually expanding suite of options for actions within dynamically changing surroundings" (347).

Munster, Hansen, and Grau each make this eighteenth-century move: They use aesthetic experience as what enables us to move from perception to ethics. The writers ground ethics in epistemology through this way of teasing out aesthetic experience. They argue that what we know about the world through for that purpose—if, in other words, we believe that our senses are persuadable—then rhetorical considerations should apply here, as well.


Although my focus has been on art and gaming, any text we compose engages us aesthetically. Written texts may be shaped to dull bodily sensation, or to emphasize cognition over sensuality, but this is only one way among many that we teach bodies what they are or should be. As I mentioned in my opening, recent changes in the technologies of texts can make the aesthetic possibilities of texts more obvious and more available to our rhetorical ends, and so I hope that this essay has persuaded that how we engage each other sensuously through our texts, any text we make, is worth discussion in our research and teaching as we query how we might bind our bodily perceptions with our ethics.


2. Screenshots of the piece are online at http://www.immersence.com/osmose/index.php
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Last verified: August 1st 2013.