2. IMMERSION in a field of distance
‘distance is the primary condition for getting close to the content of a work’ Theodor Adorno (in Grau 2003: 202)
Several writers on the topic of installation art (Bishop 2005; de Oliveira 2004; Rosenthal 2003) have pointed to the importance of the issue of immersion. Claire Bishop, in particular, argues that that the immersive capabilities of installation art constitute a breakthrough in the sphere of art practice. She explains:
Installation art … differs from traditional media (sculpture, painting, photography, video) in that it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space. … installation art presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, small and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision. (2005: 10)
What is remarkable about installation art, according to Bishop, is that the viewer is embodied. This assumes that the viewer is not embodied when looking at other modes of art, and that assumption can and will be disputed in this chapter. As far as touch, smell and sound are concerned most works of installation art are visually oriented. Virtually none use touch because of the restrictions in the maximum security environment of the gallery/museum. Very few use smell, and sound is also rare in those varieties of installation art that do not use video. Video installation on the other hand often uses soundscape very effectively. But video does not fit into Bishop’s definition outlined in the above passage where she states: ‘Installation art … differs from traditional media (sculpture, painting, photography, video)’ [emphasis added]. The main reason why she excludes video is because it is most commonly dependent upon a flat screen that the viewer cannot walk into. However, there are instances of multiple screen configurations that allow the viewer to enter and we will deal with such an instance in this chapter. Also, it will be argued here that video is actually more immersive than most instances of sculptural installation art. The reason for this lies in the phenomena of the suspension of disbelief and the integration of the visual field with bodily and spatial awareness.
We can elaborate on the passage quoted from Bishop above by creating a dichotomy between embodied and disembodied art. Disembodied art is the art of the gaze, which is to say the mode of art typical of the gallery/museum experience ruled by the regime of ‘look, but don’t touch’. That is fundamentally the logic of Bishop’s claim. But it is flawed because our visual sensibility is integrated into our bodily and spatial sensibility. Recently I visited an exhibition of contemporary British art, British Art Show 6, in which there was an immersive installation in one room and a single screen video projection in adjacent rooms. The immersive installation seemed influenced by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, there was sand on the floor the walls were painted dayglo orange and there were palm trees. Walking did produce an immersive effect and the combination of the signs did conjure up a sense of the tropical, but it was a very theatrical sensation. In the next room was Alia Syed’s Eating Grass, 2003, a single screen projection. This proved to be extremely immersive. Eating Grass is like a dynamic cinematic ‘painting’ with shifting forms and colours that integrate into its ambient soundscape. The effect is like visual music, but there is also a nonlinear narrative dimension. Walking out of the video room back through the sand and palm trees one was struck by how fake and theatrical that experience was compared with the depth of the video immersion. Given the right kind of imagery our mind can empathically enter the screen and if it does the resulting experience is deeply immersive. Returning to Bishop’s thoughts on the centrality of immersion to installation art she continues her argument:
Instead of representing texture, space, light and so on, installation art presents these elements directly for us to experience. This introduces an emphasis on sensory immediacy, on physical participation (the viewer must walk into and around the work) (2005: 11)
The opposite of sensory immediacy is being asleep. If one is awake one’s senses are immediate. There is no less immediacy looking at a painting than there is looking at the various features of an installation. The crucial point in Bishop’s definition of installation is that it concerns works of art that one can walk into. But the argument proposed in this book is that this act of ‘walking into the picture’, as it were, does not necessarily lead to greater immersion. In most instances the theatricality and/or informational nature of the installation ensure that there is more distance than immersion even when we ‘walk in’. In the majority of cases we are looking at objects arranged in a room. Using an aesthetic thought experiment one could imagine creating an installation by using one’s authority as an artist to declare that a gallery filled with paintings was a readymade work of art. Which is to say the viewer should no longer look at the paintings on the wall as separate entities but imagine them as created by the one artist as an integrated whole. This scenario is not radically different from most experiences of installation art, even the contingent nature of the interrelatedness of the objects fits the deconstructive agenda informing installationism. What is most instructive about this scenario is that it points to the fact that what is most important about the model of installation art as ‘the picture that one can walk into’ is the expansion of narrative possibility. One of the key arguments in this book is that this expansion of the narrative dimension is one of the most fundamental contributions of contemporary installation art. And it is a contribution that connects narrative installation art with video art, cinema and media art.
Because the instances of installation art that achieve deep immersion are relatively rare due to the fact that they entail a disruption of the habitual functioning of the museum, we cannot accept Bishop’s attempt to use immersion as a defining feature of installation art. Taking a more circumspect approach it can be suggested that the immersive capability of most installation art is not significantly greater than the immersive capacity of any other art form. It can be argued, for example, that the multimedia nature of film with its integration of sound, image and story is actually more immersive than the majority of instances of installation art. In terms of most visits to art exhibitions in which installation art vies for our attention with its current major competitor video, it is video that wins in terms of immersive potency.
In rare instances, however, we encounter fine art installations that provide what might be termed deep immersion. Such installations typically require an extremely well thought out and executed mise en scène. And by using that cinematic term I bring the discussion back to the leitmotif of narrative cinema. The key instances cited in this chapter are Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003; Ann Veronica Janssens' mist installations; Carsten Höller’s Test Site, 2006; Gregor Schneider’s Die Familie Schneider, 2004; and John Bock’s Klutterkammer, 2004. Four out of the five instances require highly elaborate theatrical-like constructions that help explain the rarity of such super-installations. Four out of the five instances have an obvious narrative dimension that links them to cinema. We might refer, therefore, to deep immersive installation as ‘films that one can walk into’. The narrative dimension becomes even more evident in the virtual reality immersion possible in media art. Two such installations will be dealt with in this chapter, Char Davies Osmose, 1995, and Maurice Benayoun’s World Skin, 1997. The crucial difference between computer generated virtual environments and physical environments is that the virtual enviroments are inherently informational, which indicates their potential for narrative as well as corporeal involvement. This is especially evident in the case of World Skin which combines three-dimensional graphic immersion with a distinctly narrative mise en scène.
The crux of the theoretical tack taken in this chapter is that even deep immersive installation is prone to an unfavourable comparison with narrative immersion. Deep immersion is fundamentally one of sensation and emotion which can be described as the degree zero of creative engagement on the part of the viewer. One can compare it with Matisse’s belief that art should be ‘a comforting influence, a mental balm—something like a good armchair in which one rests from physical fatigue.’ (in Chilvers 1996: 331). One can ask, for example, to what extent does riding down Carsten Höller’s slides in the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, 2006, facilitate creative and critical engagement on the part of the gallery visitor? As noted in the introduction Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan reports that ‘Höller firmly believes that slides should be far more widely used in public life. The idea is that if we all went down a slide on a daily basis it might profoundly change our lives’ (in Lovell 2006). I suggested that Morgan’s reference to slides ‘profoundly changing our lives’ is typical of the hyperbole associated with commentary on fine art. One wonders how such statements can be made with a straight face. What is significant about Höller’s intervention in Tate Modern lies not in the ‘life changing’ experience of riding down a slide but the deconstruction of the sanctimonious atmosphere that permeates the art museum. If we had slides in every museum that might radically change the way in which such institutions operate, but Höller’s slides remained framed by the art system as a ‘work of art’ with a title and year Test Site, 2006, and they will be taken down to make way for the next show. And with regard to the question of narrative, the interpretation of Höller’s slides I have just given is an instance of giving an immersive installation a narrative context, in this case the narrative of deconstructing the sanctity of high culture and bringing art into life. Without a narrative framework such as this the experience, however much fun, becomes less likely to alter the institutional fabric. Höller’s intervention is very valuable but it must be understood as being more than simply ‘amusing’ without getting tied up absurd claims for its ‘profundity’.
And one can mention other instances in which deep immersion and a liberational narrative are intertwined; for example, the work of media artist Eero-Tapio Vuori. Vuori’s work goes beyond the confines of gallery-bound installation art by creating performative events that lead viewers out of the museum into the real world in a controlled manner where actors interrelate with the visitor in a manner that mixes fantasy with reality. One of his events involves taking the gallery visitor into a forest and asking them whether they would like to strip naked and take part in what appear to be pagan rituals. Such actions go several steps beyond the work of more gallery-bound faux-primitives such as Paul McCarthy and John Bock. The message behind Vuori’s work is that there is more to life than a mortgage and a nine-to-five job. There is no sense in which his work can be reduced to Matisse’s bourgeois notion of art as relaxation. It is also the case that Vuori’s work has an open-textured nonlinear narrative structure; and I should emphasise that when I refer to ‘narrative’ in this text I am always considering it as a continuum that includes linear and nonlinear narrative.
At the linear pole of the narrative continuum lies work that is conventional, rule governed, and designed for ‘easy’ or ‘passive’ consumption. At the nonlinear pole lies the transgressive and/or playful narrative that is oriented towards active reception. And with regard to active reception we can also cite Bertolt Brecht’s famous attack on the passivity of narrative immersion and his introduction of the distancing effect (Verfremdungseffekt).
The importance of the nonlinear pole of the narrative continuum is that it allows the artist-author to play with conventions in such a manner that the viewer-reader becomes critically and creatively engaged. James H. McTeague notes that Brecht believed that ‘total absorption in the character robbed the actor and audience of the necessary objectivity to see the role from more than one point of view’ (1994: 26). Similarly total sensory immersion might have an effect akin to the ‘retinal art’ that Duchamp dismissed in favour of an art of ideas.
It has already been noted that Dada and Surrealism are not only a crucial component of the genealogy of installation art but were also characterised by an intersection of visual art with a literary dimension. The nonlinear narrative strategies of montage and chance pioneered by Dada and Surrealism are so crucial to deconstructive art that it is possible to argue that installation art that engages in pure sensation without a nonlinear narrative dimension is not deconstructive; it becomes, instead, akin to ‘retinal’ art. Sensory immersion softens the critical faculties leading to what De Oliveira et al. refer to in their recent book on installation art as ‘the empire of the senses’ (1993). This is the kind of anodyne art that late capitalism could wholeheartedly embrace. It is an art that does nothing to encourage critical reflection on behalf of the viewer.
As was noted earlier, narrative immersion has the advantage that it not only embraces a play with form and sensation, but also a play with content. And it is possible for the viewer to become immersively involved in the narrative play, yet retain the capacity for critical distance. In the case of watching narrative film the informed viewer can become deeply immersed in the narrative yet be able to instantly switch to a more critical mode of viewing that might note the use of camera movements, point of view, and ideological messages etc. The ability to seamlessly switch from imaginative immersion to rational analysis is a remarkable cognitive feat comparable with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s assertion that the ‘test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function’ (Fitzgerald 1945). But contemporary research in cognitive psychology is supporting Freud’s contention that the border between reason and imagination is thinner than we might think (Phillips 2006)
Video, like film, is an excellent narrative vehicle; even when the sequence is nonlinear and the screens are flat on a wall they attract and retain not only sensuous but also cognitive attention. When screens are deployed in a sculptural manner (e.g. Jana Sterbak From Here to There, 2003) the immersive effect is intensified especially if screens are deployed in such a way that the viewer can ‘walk into the picture’ (e.g. Ergin Cavusoglu, Michal Rovner, Jane and Louise Wilson, Athanasia Kyriakakos and Dimitris Rotsios) then video becomes exceedingly immersive. But the most powerful immersive technology is evident in the sphere of digital art where the viewer can become involved via input devices and/or become immersed in three-dimensional virtual reality.
What is perhaps surprising is that digital art is almost completely absent from the fine art mindset. Amazingly, there are no references to new media art in the current literature on installation art despite the fact that issues of immersion and interaction with the viewer are as relevant to new media art as they are to installation art. One can recall, however, that it took two decades for video to enter centre stage in the world of art; and over a century in the case of photography.
It is also the case that if we turn our attention towards new media art we gain valuable insight into the history of immersive technologies. Visual immersion begins with the invention of perspective and Maurice Owen argues that Roman wall painting is the first instance of what we might refer to as ‘virtual reality (2007). The wall-dissolving power of Renaissance fresco painting is well known, and one can easily refer to this as a modern technology due to its basis in geometry. And there are other technologies that we should be familiar with; for example, in a recent study that attempts to locate virtual reality in an historical context Oliver Grau (2003) has provided some valuable insights relevant to the topic of installation art. One of the most pertinent historical precedents Grau cites is the invention of the panorama. Grau reports that on 17 June 1787 ‘Robert Barker patented a process under the name of “la nature à coup d’oeil”, by which he meant a panoramic view could be depicted on a completely circular canvas in correct perspective. … when viewed from a central platform at a certain elevation … The application of this invention became known a few years later under the neologism “panorama”’ (Grau 2003: 56). Grau notes that the importance of the invention of the panorama what that it ‘installs the observer in the picture’ (Grau 2003: 57).
Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy judged the invention ‘capable of producing effects and representing nature in a manner far superior to the limited scale of pictures in general’ (Grau 2003: 57). But, significantly, its impact on fine art was negligible. Instead, it became a device for public spectacle when, on 14 May 1793, Barker opened a purpose-built rotunda to display his panoramas in Leicester Square, London.
In spite of the fact that being in the picture is an involving perceptual-phenomenological experience, the wonder of such immersive effects is easily displaced by alternatives that offer not simply perceptual but also narrative (cognitive) involvement. The advent of cinema eclipsed and annihilated the fashion for panorama when it was introduced at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Grau reports that ‘for a short time, the panorama united with the new technology of cinematography in the Cinéorama. First presented at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris’ (Grau 2003: 147). But what is most interesting about this phenomenon is the phrase ‘for a short time’. The significance here is that ultimately people became more immersed in narrative content than in purely sensory-perceptual experiences. Cinéorama was resurrected in the 1960s in the form of Cinerama, but there were no more than a hundred dedicated Cinerama theatres world-wide. The contemporary popular immersive spectacle is the IMAX cinema.