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Very powerful immersive technologies are available in the domain of digital art in the form of virtual reality technologies. Currently the two major systems are the head mounted display (HMD) and CAVE. The head mounted display provides the viewer wearing it with a totally immersive field of vision via stereographic video spectacles embedded in the headgear. The HMD also provides stereophonic sound and, very importantly, has a movement tracking device that enables the computer graphics being displayed on the immersive field-of-vision display to adapt to the direction and inclination of the viewer’s head. Information regarding the exact position of the head is integrated into the visual data being inputted to the eyes in a manner that provides the most powerful corporeally immersive experience currently possible. And the reason why it is possible to describe this as corporeal is because vision cannot be divorced from the body, although the dichotomy between the embodied and the disembodied gaze is plausible and informs postmodern theory, especially that of Lacan.

The relationship between body and vision can be experienced quite readily by ‘driving’ a virtual racing car in a high definition video game on a Playstation or Xbox, the realism of the scene is so pronounced that the effect of the car swerving to turn a tight bend creates a highly visceral response as if one were in a real car. This effect is considerably more potent when the field of vision is totally encompassed and head movements are coordinated one’s view of objects in the virtual space. Oliver Grau reports that in an early HMD virtual reality experiment one of the participants ‘panicked when his HMD showed pictures taken from the top of a skyscraper of the street far below, even though he was actually safely inside the building.’ (2003: 163). But the HMD has not had a widespread impact in the sphere of the visual arts, even media arts.

The principal problem with HMD is that only one user can experience it, also that user is cut off from the world around her. CAVE provides an alternative that is effectively a computer graphic installation in which a small group of people can share the illusion. But it remains the case that only one person at a time can control movement through the scenes being displayed. CAVE consists of a room with translucent walls onto which computer generated and carefully coordinated imagery is projected. The entire room including the ceiling and floor can be projected onto. A three-dimensional effect is achieved by the now quite old strategy of projecting two displaced images onto the screen that are separated by spectacles.[23] The result is that images spring out of the screens at the viewer and one has the disconcerting illusion of being ‘hit’ by objects moving towards one out of the screen.

One can understand why fine artists have not used these new technologies and might not be aware of their existence. There would be few art colleges in the world that could provide access to such equipment due to its advanced technical status and expense. On the other hand HMD technology was sufficiently accessible to be used in arcade games during the 1990s (such as Virtuality) and PCs are significantly more powerful today. There will no doubt be some readers who have experienced HMD virtual reality arcade games, but few fine art oriented readers will have experienced HMD or CAVE art works due to the fact that currently such works are confined to the parallel universe of media art which has evolved alternative exhibition spaces and alternative international exhibitions. Accordingly, at the turn of the millennium we have two art worlds, two avant-gardes, and two modes of deconstructive art, unfortunately with something of a schism between them.

The lack of awareness of such technology in the world of fine art can also be explained by the fact that the artistic tradition is focused on individuals. It would be difficult for an individual to utilise such technology due to the technical requirements. It is best handled, as in filmmaking, via teamwork and/or institutional backing. This is even more the case for CAVE which is currently an expensive and elaborate technology.

The distance between the uses of high technology HMD and CAVE virtual reality in the digital art community and the relatively low technology of the fine art community is evidenced in Carsten Höller’s The Forest, 2002, which is an instance of a ‘no-frills’ approach to virtual reality using relatively inexpensive devices. For this installation Höller made use of Olympus’ Eye-Trek video eye-glasses with integrated headphones. These spectacles simulate a large widescreen television seen several feet away. They do not provide an immersive experience in the manner of an HMD, instead they were marketed as the visual equivalent of headphones.

In The Forest two films are projected: one into the left and one into the right eye. The films are of snowy forest in twilight filmed by Höller. To begin with the two films are identical then, when the camera approaches a tree, they differ bit by bit, one to the left of the tree, one to the right, one to the front, one to the back. The resulting spatio-temporal displacements appear designed to make the viewer more aware of the cognitive and constructed nature of perception. The Forest may be low-tech in comparison to CAVE or HMD but it is certainly effective in terms of creating a quasi-immersive experience that destabilises habituated ways of seeing while retaining critical distance. High technology does not produce good art, creative people produce good art and low technology can produce better results than high technology.

The Forest also indicates that the definition of high-tech in the world of installation art of the 1990s and early 2000s begins and ends with video. This is not to criticise fine art, especially when the position being pursued in this chapter is that the success of an immersive experience should not be judged solely on its capacity to submerge reflective distance. On that basis it would be instructive to address some instances of high-technology immersion, one using HMD the other using CAVE.

Total sensory immersion: Char Davies

Charlotte Davies’ Osmose, 1995, is a work of art using the head mounted display that provides a prime instance of the interrelationship between vision and embodiment. The work consists of a virtual world made up of computer generated and stylised representations of land, sky and water. Oliver Grau provides an eloquent description of the experience of Osmose:

Like a diver, solitary and weightless, the interactor first glides out of a grid of Cartesian co-ordinates into virtual scenarios: a boundless oceanic abyss, shimmering swathes of opaque clouds, passing softly glowing dewdrops and translucent swarms of computer-generated insects, into the dense undergrowth of the forest. (2003: 193)

Grau also reports that the ‘interactor’ can pass seamlessly into the ‘subterranean earth, encountering there vivid rocks and roots’ and also ‘enter the microcosm of a tree’s glistening opalescent leaf’ (Grau 2003: 195). Grau’s evaluation of the immersive capacity of the experience indicates that it is of several orders more powerful than that possible within the typical instance of installation art. Of the environments discussed here only Janssens’ mist installations Schneider’s Die Familie Schneider and possibly Eliasson’s The Weather Project could come close to the immersive impact of Osmose.

One of the key points that Grau makes is that the immersive power and the empathic exploratory interest generated by this work lead to the illusion of ‘full-body inclusion’ (2003: 200). He describes this experience in terms of ‘ecstatic’ and ‘regressive’ emotions. 

Grau notes that despite the fact that Davies’ representation consists of graphic (albeit multi-layered, three dimensional and fluid) rather than high fidelity realism, the imagery can, nevertheless, induce physiological responses. For example people who have a phobic response to being underwater can experience this within the animation-like graphic environment. Grau cites a participant’s report on the experience: ‘even when the water is symbolic, I experienced it viscerally as water and everything smothering that water means to me’ (2003: 200). Again we confront the thin line dividing imagination from reality.

These observations are most interesting because they point not only to the coordination of vision with the corporeal sensation but also the implication of perception, cognition, memory and imagination—physical reality and fictive reality. It is very difficult for us to comprehend the fact that everything we experience—including the body—is constructed in the synaptic universe of the brain. But virtual reality, like psychomimetic drugs, brings us that bit closer to accepting that this is the case.

Yet, if we stand back for a moment from the ‘wow factor’ of Osmose, Grau’s only critical comment is to pose the question: ‘Why the immense technological effort in order to return, after a gigantic detour, to the real?’ (2003: 201). This is a fairly weak critical response given the amount of space Grau devotes to a description of the lyrically immersive capacity of Osmose. One could easily counter his comment by noting that Osmose is not real, it is hyperreal. And for Baudrillard, at least, the hyperreal is, disturbingly, more real than real: thereby threatening the reality of the real (1994).

But perhaps Osmose is not an instance of human beings spending immense technological effort in order to recreate reality—it can be understood instead as a technological extension of the Imaginary. This is the doubling that Metz saw in cinema taken a quantum leap further.[24] In the hands of Davies art enters into the space of hallucination, and from an ethical-aesthetic point of view that might be problematic.

Bearing this in mind one can note that in his evocative account of Osmose Grau appears to have forgotten his earlier meditations on the topic of critical distance. We need to address Grau’s lack of critical commentary on Osmose by bringing distance back into the discussion. Davies’ Osmose is principally a sensuous experience. For most people it would be beautiful, the fact that it is corporeally immersive reinforces the sensuous effect. But what is most significant in the context of this book is that Osmose is not critical art, which does not mean it is not art, it simply means that it is not deconstructive art.[25]

The case of Osmose is, however, useful for the task of navigating a course through the thicket of contemporary art practice. We become aware that in spite of being produced by individuals, fine art practice is fundamentally defined by its history: its discursive and material practices. A work such as Osmose appears to represent a radical break with that history. We can dismiss it as pure sensation but at the same time we would have to ask ourselves why we did not apply the same logic to Janssens’ mist installations and Eliasson’s The Weather Project. The argument put forward in this chapter is that such works draw attention to the power of illusion. The same frame of reference could be applied to Osmose. If we entered into this work with critical distance in mind then we could reflect upon its seduction. As well as enjoying the lyricism of this work we could also be aware of the potential of this technology for sheer escapism.

Although Grau does not make the comparison himself it is possible to connect his account of Osmose with his discussion of the pioneering filmmaker Sergej Eisenstein’s concept of Stereokino. Grau explains that Eisenstein imagined cinema evolving into a three-dimensional experience that would ‘immerse’, ‘engulf’, ‘capture’ the viewer {Grau, 2003 #1278: 155}. Grau comments: ‘obviously, Eisenstein is not looking to facilitate inner distance in the spectator or to construct an area of manageable, controlled reception’ {Grau, 2003 #1278: 155}.

The implication is that a stress on immersion and jouissance within the domain of mass media could be associated with a desire to increase the suggestibility of the audience to socially constructed ways of seeing. Eisenstein was working within a communist regime, but even without a political agenda the implication is that sensory immersion entails a diminution of our critical faculties evident in regression to child-like wonder and feelings akin to bliss or ecstasy.

Yet, although Osmose is highly sensory it should be remembered that it is a graphic environment. Computer generated imagery can be informational as well as hyperreal. Indeed in many respects virtual reality can be understood as an expansion of the graphic user interface we see everyday on our computer screens. The capacity to mix a wide variety of media within the virtual reality environment points to the fact that it does not have to be a purely sensory experience. Another antidote to the curtailment of critical distance lies in interactivity, and it is in this particular area that digital art succeeds. Osmose is not interactive, but Maurice Benayoun’s virtual reality masterpiece World Skin, 1997, is.

Interactive immersion: Maurice Benayoun

Benayoun’s World Skin uses CAVE to immerse the viewer in a virtual reality war zone. To recap, CAVE consists of a room, the walls ceiling and even floor of which are projection screens. Unlike the HMD which is restricted to a single user, CAVE allows a group of people to enter the three-dimensional image environment. The only encumbrance is that viewers have to wear spectacles with liquid crystal shutters that ensure that each eye receives a stereographically adjusted image. Grau explains that the ‘image space is a composite of pictures from many theatres of war which are formed into a virtual panorama’ via a Silicon Graphics computer (Grau 2003: 238). Visitors are provided with interactive ‘cameras’ and when they snap a scene with the camera a flat rectangular segment is removed from the three-dimensional projection leaving ‘a monochrome area with black silhouettes’ (Grau 2003: 239). The visitor is given a print on their way out. Benayoun explains: ‘the viewer/tourist contributes to an amplification of the tragic dimension of the drama. Without him [sic] this world is forsaken, left to its pain. He jostles the pain awake, exposes it’ (in Grau 2003: 239). Grau appears to take a contrasting point of view when he suggests that

In World Skin, the ubiquity of the photographic images creates a second visual skin that blankets reality and, in our memories, replaces it. Bit by bit, World Skin’s panoramic collage of image fragments is erased, neutralized. The actions of the visitors cause a clean and non-symbolic data space to appear: They tear the skin off the image space and leave in its stead—nothing. (Grau 2003: 240)

Both interpretations seem equally valid because the point is that this work stimulates critical reflection whereas Osmose appeals primarily to the body via an illusion of corporeal immersion. World Skin, in contrast, offers immersion but not to the point where we lose critical distance. Benayoun notes that World Skin is ‘an immersion in a picture, but it is a theatrical performance as well’ (Benayoun 2005) [emphasis added]; and this theatricality means that we do not forget that what we inhabit is a construction.

What distinguishes World Skin from Osmose is not simply the political subject matter but the fact that the act of taking a photograph places the viewer in an active relationship with the work that can be contrasted with the passive, dreamy, floating experience of Osmose. The act of taking the photograph, the fact that this leaves a flat blankness in the three-dimensional skin of the dynamic image field, and the fact that the viewer is given his or her photograph as a souvenir all serve to make experiencing World Skin not simply an act of looking but an act of doing, which is to say a truly embodied engagement with the work that is rare in the field of fine art.


The various works examined in this chapter indicate that immersion in and of itself is insufficient to release the viewer from the regime of passive consumption. All too often installation art that focuses on immersion can lead to a momentary experience of regressive jouissance, an echo of childhood that is the lowest common denominator of viewer involvement. On the other hand, works such as Eliasson’s The Weather Project, 2003, and Bock’s Klutterkammer, 2004, can dislocate the panoptic regime of the gallery/museum and give the visitor a taste of a more viewer-oriented museum experience. Such experiences can lead to a polemic response on behalf of the reader such as is evident in this book. But such responses will inevitably turn to a topic that goes beyond the passive involvement of immersion towards the active involvement that is interaction. And this is the subject of the following chapter.

IMMERSION | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | CONTENTS

Char Davies, 'Rocks and Roots' real-time frame capture from Osmose, 1995 © Char Davies, Immersence Inc. & SoftImage Inc. Immersive computer generated virtual reality using head mounted display.

Char Davies, 'Rocks and Roots' real-time frame capture from Osmose, 1995 © Char Davies, Immersence Inc. & SoftImage Inc. Immersive computer generated virtual reality using head mounted display.

Char Davies, 'Tree' real-time frame capture' from Osmose, 1995 © Char Davies, Immersence Inc. & SoftImage Inc. Immersive computer generated virtual reality using head mounted display.

Char Davies, 'Tree' real-time frame capture' from Osmose, 1995 © Char Davies, Immersence Inc. & SoftImage Inc. Immersive computer generated virtual reality using head mounted display.

The General Reality CE-200W. Photo: General Reality Corp

The General Reality CE-200W. Photo: General Reality Corp. An instance of a head mounted display capable of providing a highly immersive computer generated virtual reality that shifts spatially according to the movements of the viewer's head.

An instance of CAVE virtual reality. Exploring a temple in a virtual reality CAVE at Iowa State University. The people standing in the room see the projected computer generated images as three-dimensional. Image reproduced courtesy of Whitney Sanford. Thanks also to David Kolb.

Carsten Holler, The Forest, 2002. Two films 6min 15sec on two DVD players fed into Olympus’ Eye-Trek video eye-glasses with integrated headphones. These spectacles simulate a large widescreen television seen several feet away. They do not provide an immersive experience in the manner of an HMD, instead they were marketed as the visual equivalent of headphones.