“The visible world is no longer a reality
and the unseen world is no longer a dream.”
— W.B.Yeats 
“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert of the changes in sense perception.”

— McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Virtual reality is once again capturing popular consciousness and the collective imagination of the creative community (to say nothing of the technology giants and start-ups who are presently driving its breakneck development through a combination of financial and human capital investment). Nearly fifty years since computer scientist Ivan Sutherland first donned the “Sword of Damocles,” widely considered to be the forebear of modern virtual reality and augmented reality head-mounted displays (HMDs), and more than thirty years since the second major wave of virtual reality research and development gave us early examples of applications in industry (flight simulators), entertainment (gaming), and art (early work from artists like Char Davies and Brenda Laurel), the technology is back with a vengeance. 

[…] 

The crux of its power and potential rests in its deep connection to our faculties of perception, utilizing our sensorium to its fullest extent — visual, aural, tactile, and kinetic inputs and outputs — to explore an environment that fully surrounds us, yet is separate and distinct from our everyday lived reality. No other form of immersive media affords this. This direct line into our senses gives virtual reality an uncanny ability to “trick the brain,” to trigger our suspension of disbelief, and coerce us into believing that we are actually present in the virtual world before us to such a convincing extent as to be able to elicit physiological responses to virtual stimuli, such as a feeling of dread or vertigo when standing at the edge of a virtual abyss or ducking and dodging to avoid being “struck” by virtual objects. This has led cutting-edge psychologists to investigate its use as a behavioral therapy tool that can be used to treat everything from autism, to phobias, to PTSD, to pain management. Doctors specializing in “cognitive technology’ such as Albert “Skip” Rizzo, director of medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California, who has been using virtual reality as a therapeutic tool for more than a decade, rely on VR simulations to perform a kind of exposure therapy wherein patients are asked to confront a traumatic experience or event in order to overcome it. The results have been remarkable, with MRI brain scans documenting patient progress and recovery after several months of consistent treatment. 

Given this power, it should come as no surprise that artists, who are typically trained in both the physical and philosophical underpinnings of sense perception, should be drawn to this new medium. It’s the closest thing we have to being able to accurately convey the inner workings of one’s consciousness, imagination or subjective experience. Moreover, it is a profoundly perspective-shifting technology that, as “Unframed World” curator Tina Sauerländer notes, allows us to “reflect on states of being in our world today," both real and imagined. Virtual reality’s true potential, I believe, is that it allows us to experience radically different environments and perspectives, and to challenge the dominant and habitual perceptual states we’ve come to know and understand. Recent artistic projects like Rachel Rossin’s The Sky Is A Gap allow us to explore a different relationship to time and the built environment, using our bodies to simultaneously navigate through time and space in surreal landscapes. Other projects like Tree from from Milica Zec and Winslow Porter help us break free from our typical human-scale perspective, allowing us to briefly experience existence as a tree in the rainforest, racing its birth, life and death in a twelve- minute experience, all while raising awareness about deforestation and climate change using a visceral, primary encounter. 

However, many recent artistic explorations of virtual reality are still nascent and underdeveloped. To really consider and understand its potential as an artistic medium, we are better served by looking back at the work of early VR artists such as Char Davies, who spent more than a decade working on virtual reality experiences throughout the 90s and early oughts and produced artworks that were far more elaborate, imaginative and sophisticated than most of the examples we’ve seen thus far today. Also important to note is that Davies’ work was able to achieve a level of scale and public exposure as yet unattainable to many contemporary artists working in VR (in part owing to the length of her career), with more than 35,000 visitors having been individually immersed in her works, Osmose and Ephémère, between the years of 1995 to 2007. Davies writes, “I think of virtual space as a spatio-temporal ‘arena’ wherein mental models or abstract constructs of the world can be given virtual embodiment (visual and aural) in three dimensions and be animated through time.” Davies treats this space as both an opportunity to more holistically represent her subjective and intuitive experience of the world as “immaterial, interrelated, and dynamic flux,” something that she had attempted to achieve with painting and two-dimensional imagery of 3D graphics but was never fully able to attain until she began working in virtual reality, while at the same time crafting experiences that make participants more in tune with their own powers of perception via the subjectively-inhabited bodily experience of the immersive virtual space. 

In her work, Davies presents a radically alternative approach to virtual reality from the one being pursued by her computer science peers, one that seeks to resist the tendency to treat VR as “a means of escape into some disembodied techno-Utopian fantasy” and instead treats it as a means of “facilitating a temporary release from our habitual perceptions and culturally-biased assumptions about being in the world, to enable us, however momentarily, to perceive ourselves and the world around us freshly.” She defies the typical “hard-edged-object-in-empty-space” aesthetics in favor of transparent, layered, and suffused visuals that lend her work an ethereal quality and encourage “perceptual ambiguity.” She trades in hand-held joysticks, pointers and gloves in favor of simple, intuitive modes of interaction and navigation, such as breath and center of balance, and in doing so is able to simultaneously reinforce the viewer’s sense of embodiment while also offering new sensibilities that challenge and offer alternatives to the prevailing tendency for mastery, domination and control as means of existing in the world. In her work, Davies seeks to leverage VR’s direct pipeline into our means of perception to offer us new mental models for understanding and experiencing the world around us, both real and virtual. 

It’s almost impossible to discuss virtual reality and its simulated worlds without mentioning the work of Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard famously argued that our society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and that human experience is merely a simulation of reality. “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.” He critiques how culture and media construct our perceived reality, manufacturing desires and leading us further and further away from the original referents they were intended to represent. And yet, it’s possible that while Baudrillard sees simulations and simulacra as dangerous, in that they seduce us away from the real and towards counterfeit symbols and recursive models dislocated from an origin point, in the work of Davies we glimpse how, when in the hands of the artist, these simulations offer us an opportunity to develop new perceptual states that seek to dismantle dissociative mental models in favor of new ones that strive to connect us to our sensorium, to our natural environment and to each other.  

REFERENCES: 

- Davies, Char. "Virtual Space." Space: In Science, Art and Society. François Penz, Gregory Radick and Robert Howell, eds. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (2004), pp. 69-104, illus.

- McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Boston: MIT Press, 1964. pp 16-18 

- Rizzo, A. Bravemind: Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy. University of Southern California, 2005-present.

This article originally appeared in the exhibition catalogue for "The Unframed World: Virtual Reality as Artistic Medium," organized by Tina Sauerländer at HeK Basel, 2017 

Julia Kaganskiy is the director of NEW INC, the New Museum's incubator for art, technology, and design, has started the art, culture, and technology meetup group ArtsTech in 2008.

http://www.newinc.org
 

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