Wonderland: A Manifesto for 21st Century Immersive Works

comissioned by Mesh#18 Experimenta Vansihing Point, ed Lisa Gye,
Experimenta Media Arts Inc, 2005, p13-15.
August 2005

Melinda Rackham

Virtual Reality is a sensual space, a spectacular arena that can corporeally transport the immersant beyond everyday space and time. Ripe with mixed metaphors, its pleasure resides in a temporal zone, somewhere between hard and soft consciousness, between the material and the spiritual, in the interwoven threads of body and mind. Yet these epicurean, non-addictive, G-rated, wonderlands have been getting bad press lately.

In Mesh 17 Russell Smith and Sarah Tutton suggest that we are disenchanted with the hype of immersive media and VR technologies. This justification for the uptake of Video Art implies that we have lost both our ability to engage with our society's technology, and more sadly, with the joy of giving ourselves over to simultaneous childish wonder and adult fancy. I would speculate that this recent overexposure of linear video arts speaks more of conservatism and commodification in the new media art market - of the ease of having a saleable edition for collectors, rather than the demise of VR.

But to be fair, immersive media is a risky business both from the point of view of the viewer and the artist/investor/producer. These works are demanding - they do not neatly sit on a shelf to be turned on at your desire, they don't pause or rewind, and they insist the viewer be willing to engage, to play, to respond in a physical situation. In terms of financial investment, the often amorphous, expansive, and experimental works may also have extended development time, large budgets and no saleable end product.

While there been some extraordinary works produced, others have been appallingly empty. But whether you love them or hate them, they ask hard questions and have an impact unlike any other form of practice. How can you not be moved after 15 minutes of meditative breathing in the intimate and intense immersion in Char Davies' Osmose? Does placing ones hand on the console of Jeffrey Shaw's Web of Life? generate a sense of deep global connection? What do you talk about after communing with the larger than life spectacle of Stellarc's severed polygonal Prosthetic Head?

So perhaps we have arrived at a productive juncture, a time to reconsider what Virtual Realities can offer us. Being a network connected big city dweller, who is continually engaged in high speed multi-tasking just to survive, more and more I want immersive worlds which provide a haven from the hyper-stimulation of my daily life. It seems a critical mass has been reached as we collectively long for a change of pace to eagerly embrace slowness and subtly. What the art world needs now is a manifesto for immersive technologies in the 21st century, a guide to creating landscapes of altered consciousness in computer-generated immersive environments.


1. Simple, strong, subtle.
2. Seduction overcomes control.
3. Play is pleasure.
4. Contemplate don't manipulate.
5. Abstraction amplifies minimalism.
6. Feel now, think later.
7. Nothingness enhances emptiness.

Although our human species is highly complex, we are relatively simple creatures when it comes to stimulus and response. As any phone-sex worker knows we don't need very much at all to get us going. Suggestion and illusion can be far more powerful than physical reality, as we like to fill in the gaps with our own imagination. So too in art - hence the downfall of many 3D Virtual Reality pieces is that they overwork at producing an optical virtual realism, rather than endeavouring to trigger sensation. In fact the most effective immersive space I have ever experienced consisted of nothingness. It had no object, no imagery, no text and no discernable auditory narrative.

This immersive sound/space work, <db> , was created by multi-form artists dumb type's music and sound director Ryoji Ikeda, and installed within an anechoic (echo free) chamber at the NTT InterCommunication Centre [ICC] in Tokyo in 2002. The viewer is placed in the completely lightless chamber and exposed to densely composed sine waves and white noise. There is an emergency stop button under your hand in case the blackness and sound become too intensely frightening or physically painful. Just when you think you can take no more, the piercing, grating noise abruptly stopes, and a non-speaking attendant ceremoniously leads you out into an adjoining room. This new space is the antithesis of the anechoic chamber - here you are confronted by an infinity of images of yourself reflected by mirrors on every surface, in sound proofed silence, bathed in intense white light.

The alternation of the sensory on/off switch, from black intensity to white intensity produced a floating sensation in me. I literally felt a lightness of being unlike anything I have experienced without chemical enhancement or deep and sustained meditation before. Time suspended, it was a delightfully long and crystal clear few minutes. Perhaps it was soemthing akin to the religious ecstasy reported by those having white light near death experiences. That light and dark, sound and no sound could be so profoundly consciousness expanding, and such a full experience inspired me seek out other works which make intelligent use of minimalism.

Following the power of simplicity is Whiteplane2 , a collaboration in sound and light by UK artists Alex Bradley and Charles Poulet which recently premiered at the BALTIC. Earlier versions of the work were researched and developed partially in Australia during residencies at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Performance Space, Sydney with sound artists Gail Priest and Bruce Mowson. Instead of the black and white immersion of <db>, Whiteplane2 creates a coloured light space, an 'in-between', which the artists poetically describe as "an impossible geography inhabited by beauty and disorientation."

Figure 1: Whiteplane2 (2005) Alex Bradley and Charles Poulet (UK)
The viewer is physically located - sandwiched in fact - between two shifting planes of light while their senses are temporarily realigned by way of the frequency, volume and movement of the work's audio horizon. Physically the installation is an 8 x 5 meter Perspex platform and ceiling - in fact giant light boxes filled with L.E.D.'s, which cycle through flowing colour sequences. Hearing becomes critical as the light, synchronised with the sound, flashes, disappears and almost liquefies the gallery space. It is the audience who become the interactive components in this work as it's minimal and contemplative execution encourages a loss of self consciousness. They relax, lie down on the platform, and yield to the seductive power of a visceral sonic light bath.

Immersive contemplative spaces also reside outside pf physical manifestation, such as navigable abstract 3D VRML internet worlds. As completely computer generated territory's they have unique qualities which can only be experienced by putting aside our default preconceptions as colonisers of cyberspace. In works as Scorched Happiness (2004) the viewer becomes an abstract, non-humanoid avatar in order to explore a virtual emotional geography. This collaboration between Melbourne based Adam Nash, Mami Yamanaka and John McCormick, is a beautifully confronting meditation which envelopes its participants in foreignness.

Figure 2: Scorched Happiness ( 2004) Adam Nash, Mami Yamanaka and John McCormick (Aus)

There isn't much for the viewer to do - merely steer their floating shifting animated shape around the monochromatic geometric landscape, which takes Julia Kristeva's text Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner as its inspiration. The avatars become huge, layered, temporally chimeric audiovisual events which fill up the space then recede as they react to each other's manifestations. Performed at ACMI as part of 2004: Australian Culture Now, this highly poetic work is almost impossible to describe subjectively, one must be inside it to truly feel the emptiness of virtual space.

This newness it seems is about feeling rather than thinking. We are sophisticated enough to knowingly enjoy fleeting sensation, to be centred in our body and to relate to other intensities from there. Anne-Sarah Le Meur's 3D real time installation Into the Hollow Of Darkness subtly encourages corporeal engagement. The silent work, co-produced between 2001-2005 with Art3000/LeCube and Interface-Z in France utilizes simple imagery and synthesical light to spectacular affect. Here abstract, minimal, sensual images are constituted by the spatial play of 2 lights - one black and the other colored, which combine and then part in a slowly choreographed dance upon an animated surface.

Figure 3:Into the Hollow of Drakness (2001-2005), Anne-Sarah Le Meur (France)

The Hollow of Darkness computer generated images are suggestive of an unknown creatures' body apertures.. they could be irises, nostrils, nipples, anuses, or folds of skin on something alien. In this way the work shares soemthing with Patricia Piccinini's The Breathing Room (1999)- a non-responsive screen-based installation that looks at the idea of panic within contemporary society by creating an immersive emotive space. While Piccinini's unidentifiable, yet highly vulnerable creature conveys the sense of urgency and intimacy through the sound of breath and a physically vibrating floor, Le Meur creates affective immersion - a cybernetic feedback system which responds to the viewers movements via an unobtrusive head-mounted device.

The phenomena as Le Meur affectionately calls it, is projected on the periphery of the viewer's visual field, and unlike most art installations, the software generated abstract representations move away from the viewer as we move towards them. One gradually learns that by becoming passive, almost motionless, you can influence its colors and movements, hold or pause the forms, or tame them. The outcome of this subtle interaction is to give the impression the forms are alive, even looking back at you. Hence slowness creates intimacy, creates sensual pleasure.

Figure 4: Into the Hollow of Drakness (2001-2005), Anne-Sarah Le Meur (France)

All these works mark a return to the delightful openness of abstraction, producing a powerful yet strange intimacy with ephemerality. Nothing tangible is represented - everything rests upon the simple seductive power of light and sound, and the reciprocity of the play between the viewer and the work. They are pure refreshment, delightfully pleasurable interludes in a world of chaotic banality. My craving is satisfied now I've savoured the sweet taste of wonderland.



Term coined by Char Davies to describe those immersed in virtual reality worlds.
Russell Smith and Sarah Tutton, Mesh # 17, New Media Art in Australia and Asia, in Broadsheet, p29.
Julia Kristeva, Stranger to Ourselves, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

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