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The common feature of panorama, Cinerama and IMAX lies in the fact that they stress sensory immersion over and above narrative immersion and this is their weakness because people appear to prefer narrative immersion. It is noteworthy for example that IMAX has begun to digitally remaster Hollywood narrative films in order to bolster its audiences. Our preference for narrative immersion makes sense if we accept that one crucial difference between humans and other animals lies in our ability to create imaginary worlds. The philosopher of consciousness Daniel Dennett notes that, from an evolutionary perspective,  the capacity to create imaginary worlds enables human beings to test out ideas and actions before trying them out in the real world in potentially dangerous situations (Dennett 1996).

Roland Barthes’ ‘Readerly’ and ‘Writerly’ Texts

Narrative immersion, however, can also be shallow, or even insidious due to the fact that it can transmit questionable ideological messages to a mass public. Herein lies the basis for the distrust of linear narrative on the part of avant-gardist art theory. One can see this distrust clearly in Barthes’ Mythologies (1973 orig. 1957) and in his distinction between the ‘readerly’ and the ‘writerly’ text in S/Z (1974). But there is no longer a clear dichotomy between the readerly and writerly text. The  proliferation of film theory, cultural studies and media studies in the education sector since the late 1970s has led to a growing sophistication in the way in which many people view conventional mass media narrative to the point where even pulp fiction can be transmuted into a complex text via a creative reading. The implosion the neat ethico-aesthetic dichotomy between linear and nonlinear narrative is especially evident in art in the work of Cindy Sherman and the video installations of Candice Breitz. Which is to say, whether one is confronted with a linear or a nonlinear narrative there is ample potential for a creative engagement and critical reflexivity.

One of the fundamentals of a critical approach to narrative is bearing in mind its fictive and constructed character. One of the pioneering methods for revealing the constructed nature of narrative was Brecht’s distancing effect (Verfremdungseffekt) which snaps the spectator out of the comfort zone of passive immersion into the realisation that what they have been immersed in is a construction. Verfremdungseffekt is, accordingly, a deconstructive device.

One technique, or ‘effect’, was to break the narrative action so that the actor could address the audience directly. The thinking behind the Verfremdungseffekt is to enhance people’s consciousness not only of the constructed nature of the narrative they are watching but also to suggest that it is possible to become passively immersed in one’s everyday world. Brecht’s aim was to encourage a more active consciousness that would resist such passive immersion. And it is interesting to note a resonance between the Brechtian position and Bishop’s description of the impact of the theatrical medium of installation art when she observes:

Many artists and critics have argued that this need to move around and through the work in order to experience it activates the viewer, in contrast to art that simply requires optical contemplation (which is considered to be passive and detached). This activation is, moreover, regarded as emancipatory, since it is analogous to the viewer’s engagement in the world. A transitive relationship comes to be implied between ‘activated spectatorship’ and active engagement in the social-political arena. (Bishop 2005: 11)

But if we examine her reflections more closely we see that they actually contradict the Brechtian position. Bishop claims that ‘moving through the work’, which implies immersion, activates the viewer and that this can translate into a more active role in social reality. What she leaves out is the crucial element of distance. She is claiming that immersion activates while Brecht argues that immersion deactivates. Moreover, we can add Barthes’ thoughts on the topic, because like Brecht, Barthes argues that immersion leads to passivity whereas being confronted with a more challenging text leads to an activation of the reader. At this point in the discussion I would suggest that from an ethico-aesthetic point of view there is not a great deal of difference between immersion in a theatrical mise en scène created by an installation artist and immersion in a literary, cinematic or videographic narrative. Both modes of immersion are prone to the Brechtian-Barthesian critique.

One of the problems in Bishop’s formulation is that it takes for granted that just because we can walk into the work of art it is no longer simply a work of art but something akin to social reality. Bishop effectively presumes that installation art has achieved the goal of bringing art into everyday life which I am arguing is simply not the case. Instead what we have are varieties of theatrical construction. So long as the viewer remains aware that she or he is viewing a construction then a creative and critically reflective engagement is possible. But if the immersion is so total that the viewer loses critical distance then the effect is regressive. There may be an experience of jouissance but the degree to which this is emancipatory is debateable. Oliver Grau tackles this problem when he notes that in immersive environments:

a …core element of art comes under threat: the observer’s act of distancing that is a prerequisite for any critical reflection. Aesthetic distance always comprises the possibility of attaining an overall view, of understanding organization, structure and function, and achieving critical appraisal. This includes searching for hypotheses, identifications, recollections, and associations. Notwithstanding the longing for ‘transcending boundaries’ and ‘abandoning the self’, the human subject is constituted by the act of distancing; this is an integral part of the civilizing process. As [Theodor] Adorno expressed it: ‘distance is the primary condition for getting close to the content of a work’ (Grau 2003: 202)

This is an important and substantial observation when considering the immersive experience because it alerts us to the possibility that the more immersive the experience becomes the more likely it will diminish our critical faculties. One can cite the pioneering installation artist Hélio Oiticica’s use of cocaine as a metaphor for such a diminution in Block-Experiments in Cosmococa, 1973. Drugs can offer a consciousness-expanding technology but there is also the considerable danger that the immersive experience they offer becomes an end in itself. Ultimately, critical-creative consciousness is the most valuable ‘technology’.

With regard to the sensual dimensions of immersion it is significant that in the course of his comments on critical distance Grau quotes Hartmut Boehme’s almost Biblical assertion that: ‘All happiness is immersion in flesh and cancels the history of the subject. All consciousness is emancipation from flesh to which nature subjects us’ (in Grau 2003: 203).[13] Boehme’s Cartesian mind-body dualism is open to considerable theoretical criticism but it retains some heuristic value, pointing to the putative dichotomy between the embodied and disembodied gaze implicit in Bishop’s analysis of the immersive potential of installation art. This issue will be dealt with in more detail below, but first I would like to examine the work of Olafur Eliasson, an installation artist who comes closest to the enduring desire to place the viewer in the picture in a manner akin to the panorama. One of the key features of Eliasson’s works is that they make the viewer aware of the synthetic nature of the environment in which they are placed, which is very different from Bishop’s claims for the realism of immersive installation. Moreover, the fact that one realises one is in a constructed environment leads to a more reflective aesthetic experience.

Culture not Nature—Olafur Eliasson

At face value Eliasson’s installations can seem to be an attempt to appear natural rather than cultural, the very embodiment of the search for the romantic ideal of the ‘innocent eye’ {Ruskin, 1857 #1256}. For example, Eliasson’s Your natural denudation inverted,  winter 1999–2000, was an installation in the courtyard of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, that used steam as a medium for a representational sculpture that refers to the natural phenomenon of steam rising out of the ground in Eliasson’s ancestral homeland, Iceland.  As the warm steam escaped onto the icy courtyard in the Pittsburgh winter it left a layer of ice on the tree’s branches, a live real-time event. One would be forgiven for seeing this work as an evocation of ‘natural’ direct presence over and above mere ‘cultural’ re-presentation. 

This installation, however, is most certainly cultural rather than natural. The steam was piped from the museum’s heating system. What appeared to be naked reality (‘natural denudation’) was indeed ‘inverted’. It was a mechanical apparatus constructed out of the building’s heating conduits, scaffolding, a water supply, and mechanically manufactured steam.

Significantly Eliasson refers to his installations as ‘pictures’, and we can suggest that rather than presenting nature Eliasson constructs a re-presentation, a ‘picture’ that we can walk into. According to that formulation we are not coming closer to innocent experience we are instead ascending the orders of simulacra towards ever more virtual realities.

Hyperreality and Daguerre

Jean Baudrillard has noted that an obsession with simulation appears to be a key feature of modernity-postmodernity; and one can remember that one of the pioneers of the technical vision, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, inventor of the first practicable mode of photography, was a stage designer and creator of dioramas:

the sets he realised from 1817 to 1822 for shows at the Ambigu Comique or the Opera, brought him unanimous praise from critics and public. He displayed original creativity with his light effects, creating moon-rises or moving suns that remained in people’s memory. {Niepce, 2004}

Eliasson’s recreations of natural phenomena harbour distant echoes of Daguerre’s dioramas and Barker’s panoramas. One might also mention the enduring and apparently insatiable modern fascination for technological spectacle and simulation to the point where prosthetic perception seems valued more than direct perception. Indeed that is probably the entire point of what Eliasson means when he speaks about his work in terms of ‘pictures’. The raison d’être of art seems to be based on our enduring preference for representation over reality.[14]

Reinforcing his insistence on the artificiality of his creations, Eliasson has asserted that ‘nature is a product of civilisation’, and that Iceland’s lonely landscape ‘has already been reproduced’ {O.K.v.G 2004}. It most certainly is the case that the way we look at things is culturally mediated. We can consider Michel Foucault’s claim that body, mind and imagination are ‘inscribed’ by constantly evolving regimes and disciplines of social power.[15] The extreme Foucauldian position is that what we call being human is almost entirely a socio-cultural construction and Eliasson seems to agree when he notes:

I believe that nothing is there before our birth, before our ‘cultivation’ or cultural education. I strongly believe in cultural influence, that there’s only one cultural history. … Our consciousness is the result of historical experience handed down to us through others.’ (Morais et al. 2002)

If we accept Eliasson’s point of view then consciousness seems victorious. There is almost a ring of rationalist humanism to Eliasson’s words. Is he suggesting that human beings are actually in control? Are we returning to the self-confident utopian modernism of the machine age?

When we read Eliasson’s words, however, we must remember that here is a purveyor of illusion who is probably well aware of the accusation that his work is purely ‘retinal’, sensory, or spectacular. In his statements he appears to be attempting to distance himself from the body, trying to position himself favourably with respect to a provision of critical reflection. But in a highly immersive installation such as The Weather Project at Tate Modern, 2003, visitors experienced a sense of play and jouissance that seems more akin to the body than to the intellect.

But this experience of jouissance was one of several facets of this work. One can also point to the fact that, Eliasson’s The Weather Project totally overcame the panoptic surveillance of the museum. It opened up a zone in which people had freedom to enjoy what was essentially a public art environment. If freedom is the ethical core of modern democratic society then we should extend it not only to the artist—which is the current attitude of the museum with regard to most installation art—but also to the viewer.  What is significant about this observation is that what is essentially an ethical proposition intersects with what would otherwise merely be an experience of the senses. It is this intersection that makes The Weather Project an outstanding work of immersive installation art.


At this point I would like to return to Harmut Boehme’s statement: ‘All happiness is immersion in flesh and cancels the history of the subject. All consciousness is emancipation from flesh to which nature subjects us’ quoted by Grau in the course of his discussion of critical distance (Grau 2003: 203).  What is fascinating about Boehme’s statement is the fear of the body that is wrapped up tight inside it. Here is someone who has evidently experienced the full force of the other of the rational self, and has retreated back to reason for consolation. One might say that the body has a mind of its own which can utterly befuddle and even disintegrate the ego. Freud described this situation in terms of a divided self and, more recently, in Kinds of Minds the philosopher Daniel Dennett argues that the evolution of consciousness has left human beings in several minds, the most prominent being the rational mind and an other which might be referred to as the mind of the body or, after Francisco Varela (1991) the ‘embodied mind’. And in order to illustrate this ‘other’ of the rational mind Dennett quotes, not Freud, but Friedrich Nietzsche:

‘Body am I, and soul’—thus speaks the child. And why should one not speak like children? But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body. The body is a great reason, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a herd and a shepherd. An instrument of your body is also your little reason, my brother, which you call ‘spirit’—a little instrument and toy of your great reason … Behind your thoughts and feelings, my brother, there stands a mighty ruler, an unknown sage-whose name is self. In your body he dwells; he is your body. There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom. (in Dennett 1996: 78–79)[16]

It is evident that the Nietzschean standpoint does not accord with the Freudian position that the rational mind is superior to the body, indeed Nietzsche reverses this polarity; and one can detect significant Nietzschean, as well as Freudian, features in the aesthetic philosophy of Surrealism. Freud referred to the mind of the body disparagingly as das Es, ‘the it’: Id. Nietzsche’s more positive approach may be closer to the truth than Freud and Gilles Deleuze puts forward a compelling case for Nietzsche’s position in Nietzsche and Philosophy (1983).

But all this talk of the body-mind and its remarkable power for empathy to the point of ego dissolution is only to make the point that such forces are not going to be released in an art gallery. We keep our distance when we enter the gallery and when a work offers us interaction it had better be good because we generally don’t want to cross that line, even if it is not actually taped onto the floor we expect it to be there. Like Pavlov’s dog the regular gallery visitor has been totally conditioned by the gallery’s panoptic regime. It takes a work like The Weather Project to make us realise what the art gallery/museum might be like if it could overcome its fear of the visitor, and vice versa.

The Mirror and the Body

The next example of immersive installation art I will examine will benefit from an exploration of the body/mind problem via the thought of Jacques Lacan whose version of psychoanalytic theory was influential on feminist theorising of the body that came to the fore in discussions of art in the English-speaking world in the 1980s. Freud characterised the baby as being in a condition of polymorphous perversity in which the whole body was an erogenous landscape. Lacan has a similar notion wherein the very young child knows little distinction between the inside and the outside, the body and its environment. This would be a highly immersive, emotionally charged condition due to the fact that feelings are intensified by the lack of distinction between self and other. As Judith Feher-Guerwich notes the months old child ‘still feels undifferentiated from its surroundings’ (1999: 23).


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Block Experiments in Cosmococa, Program in Progress, CC3 Maileryn, 1973. Slide series, hammocks, nailfiles and soundtrack. Installation view at the Wexner Center for the Arts, 2001. Photo: Richard K. Loesch

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003–2004. Tate Modern turbine hall.

Olafur Eliasson, The Weather Project, 2003–2004. Tate Modern turbine hall.

Olafur Eliasson, Your Natural Denudation Inverted, winter 1999–2000. An installation in the courtyard of the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh, that used steam as a medium for what can be considered a representational sculpture.

Olafur Eliasson, Your Natural Denudation Inverted,  winter 1999–2000. An installation in the courtyard of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, that used steam as a medium for what can be considered a representational sculpture.

The Effect of Fog and Snow Seen through a Ruined Gothic Colonnade, 1826. Oil on canvas, L. J. M. Daguerre, in Gerard Levy Collection. Illustrated by R. Derek Wood. 'Daguerre and his Diorama in the 1830s: some financial announcements. Also reproduced in Panoramania! by Ralph Hyde, London: Trefoil Publications and Barbican Art Gallery 1988, catalogue item No.99 on p.119 with colour illustration on p. 168.

The Effect of Fog and Snow Seen through a Ruined Gothic Colonnade, 1826. Oil on canvas, L. J. M. Daguerre, in Gerard Levy Collection. Illustrated by R. Derek Wood. 'Daguerre and his Diorama in the 1830s: some financial announcements. Also reproduced in Panoramania! by Ralph Hyde, London: Trefoil Publications and Barbican Art Gallery 1988, catalogue item No.99 on p.119 with colour illustration on p. 168.

An ultra-wide Cinerama screen created by three overlapping projections.

An ultra-wide, immersive Cinerama screen created by three overlapping projections.