by Manu SharmaFeb 26, 2023
Today we are immersed in multiple realities, and the millennials have been born into the pleasures of Minecraft, the frustrations of Apple’s Siri, and the social story-worlds of massive multiplayer online role-playing games (M.M.O.R.P.G.s). Over and above, the popular culture, the walls between high-art and digital and immersive art have progressively come down, and with each progressive discovery the world dividing art and technology shrinks.
One could say that media scholar Janet H. Murray had predicted it all in her 1997 geek fest book, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyber Space. As an aside, the revised edition of this book is selling like hotcakes with rave reviews in the New Yorker, and currently only one copy remains on Flipkart! (Oh no, did someone just buy it?)
This book examines the growth of new media both as an art and science. To paraphrase her overall argument, Murray reasons, that though there is a tendency to think of the computer as “the enemy of the book,” it is in fact “the child of print culture” (Murray, 1997 MIT Press). The book is a powerful representational medium of its own that promises to continue the evolution of storytelling and “reshape the spectrum of narrative expression”.
While books are good at delivering essentially linear stories, she avers, that computers are good at telling stories of a different kind - “procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial”. And they are particularly good at telling stories that reflect the digital age - stories about fractured realities, complex systems, and networked ways of being in the world.
Trumping Murray’s argument is the 1994 book, The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality, where Michael Heim posits the question, “Are not all worlds symbolic? Including the one we naively refer to as the real world, which we read off with our physical senses?” This rings truer today where perception and the experience of art has moved beyond that can only be perceived in the ‘real’ world.
However, if we are going to delve into the world of digital art, we must start at the very beginning. Let us go back to circa 1968, when Ivan Sutherland created a virtual reality system that gave the user the ability to occupy the same ‘space’ as a computer generated wire-frame object. Or the summer of '69 (apologies to Bryan Adams), when Myron Krueger (b.1942) developed a series of art installations that strived to embrace and mimic the real world interaction. Krueger coined the term 'Artificial Reality' to describe a new genre of work in which the user’s physical body influenced the unfolding of meaning in the work of art.
From his earliest interactive artworks, Glowflow and Videoplace in ‘69, to his experiments in the 90s with hand-gesture interfaces, Krueger strove to create responsive environments that used computer-mediated physical space to construct the aesthetic experience.
We must also tip the hat to Ray Bradbury and his sci-fi graphic novel Illustrated Man, written in 1951. It is set in a futuristic world where children play out their fantasies. Things go awry when the real and the virtual world collapse and the parents are consumed by hungry lions (Hello Ra One?).
In 1974, the holodeck in Star Trek was one of the first series to fabricate a ‘virtual’ space that enables unique experiences that are unrealisable in the real world without computer assistance. Gene Roddenberry's iconic science-fiction universe created all kinds of alternatives to the universe as we know it. It had an incredible impact on popular culture, scientific aspirations, the artistic endeavours of several contemporary artists and the world at large. Any 80s child has a warm smile when the term “Beam Me Up Scotty” is said.
Fifty years later, capitalising on the psychological power of immersion, contemporary artists have created immersive spaces that enable the audience to escape to other realms and experience genuine emotional responses.
Char Davies is a Canadian contemporary artist known for creating immersive virtual reality artworks. She exhibited Osmose as part of the Code exhibition (a seminal exhibition of innovative computer art), in 1995, at the Ricco-Maresca Gallery in New York. There are a dozen world-spaces in Osmose, most based on metaphorical aspects of nature. These include Clearing, Forest, Tree, Leaf, Cloud, Pond, Subterranean Earth, and Abyss. Participants were outfitted with a head-mounted display and motion/breath sensitive vest that enabled them to enter a world unlike any they had experienced before. Davies’ work facilitated a unique ‘perception of consciousness: a feeling of disembodiment and embodiment at the same time’.
Current interactions with virtual spaces have moved towards an abandonment of encumbered experiences that depend upon awkward and expensive devices such as head-mounted displays and data gloves in favour of natural unencumbered interactions. This brings to mind the artists who have been able to create an immersive environment using low-tech solutions.
While computer scientists and artists sought to create virtual spaces using the computer, traditional artists were abandoning the sterile white walls and rectangular pedestals of the gallery in favour of an activation of the space between the walls.
Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Allan Kaprow, James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg in the 1950s had already begun to obscure the line between the art object and its context, thus utilising the space the work inhabits to enhance meaning. Ronald J. Onorato in the book Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art 1969-1996, writes, “The aesthetic power of installation art does not reside in a singular, commodified object but in an ability to become, rather than merely represent, the continuum of real experience by responding to specific situations.”
Ushering the era of new media art was the Seoul-born pioneer Nam June Paik (1932–2006). He brought the television to fine art, treating it as a tactile and multi-sensory medium and object, with works such as Robot K-456 (1964) TV Garden (1974), Electronic Superhighway and Time Dance.
After graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1956, he moved to West Germany to continue his studies. There he met the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, as well as the conceptual artists George Maciunas and Joseph Beuys, all of whom deeply affected his thoughts on performance.
Paik joined the Fluxus group in 1962 and moved from the manual manipulation of audiotapes to experimenting with television sets and their screens. Two years later, by this time living in New York, Paik met the cellist Charlotte Moorman, a central figure of the city’s avant-garde, and the two began a collaboration that would last until her death in 1991. Paik created many of his most well-known works for Moorman, including TV Bra for Living Sculpture (1969) and TV-Cello (1971).
After Paik, a whole plethora of artists emerged, like British contemporary artist Ed Atkins (b. 1982), who is best known for his video art and poetry; French artist Camille Henrot (b. 1978), and Anicka Yi (b. 1971), a Seoul-based artist whose conceptual art work lies at the intersection of fragrance, cuisine, and science.
Other names that are on the list of artists to watch out for are - Amalia Ulman (b. 1989), an Argentinean artist based in Los Angeles whose practice includes performance, installation, video and net-art works, and Hito Steyerl (1966), a German filmmaker, visual artist and writer whose work investigates media, technology, and the global circulation of images.
Whether engaging with the aesthetics of technology or the fluid world of politics, their work will influence generations of artists and art lovers to come.
(The article has referenced research from Bonnie Mitchell’s paper on immersive art, at the Digital Arts, School of Art USA, Gallery Gogosain; Janet H. Murray’s book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyber Space, and Art in the Age of Internet 1989 to Today by Eva Respini .)