Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Malaise of The Critical Artist, Bret Schneider

The dominant order of the ‘critical artist’ in contemporary art, emanating from Duchamp’s intellectualism has digressed from transformative social critique to affirmative idealism. Contemporary art’s compulsion towards post-conceptual, immaterial, critical practices evidences the problematic success of the neo-avant-garde’s ideological support of the critical artist, as opposed to its failure. Marcel Broodthaers’s forecast of art eventually liquidating into the culture industry has proven painfully too true, and paired with the critical artist who was poised to change the industry from within, the critical artist has instead turned out to cater to empirically existing conditions within a given system. What is at stake is understanding why seemingly obsolete modernist problems like boredom, alienation, anxiety and reification persist when their solutions have been supposedly fulfilled by critical artistic expansion, most notably by secondary, explanatory information. Additionally, recent complaints about ‘misconceptual’ art that is as “catchy as the hook in a rock song”(Holland Cotter, The New York Times) suggest a growing malaise with critical art, which was originally created to avert the problems of a purely sensual art experience. The success of the artist-as-critic project, a phenomenon accruing from reactions to modernist originality, combined with a persistence of the problems they were meant to absolve suggests a crisis in the political imagination of our time. But this is evident even before the purely contemporary expectations of historical research; in Theodore Adorno’s criticism of Surrealism’s lack of critique and lapse into fetish in 1934 we witness an implicit shift from artist as autonomous, original creator, to artist as critic[1]. More significantly, Surrealism’s failure to properly critique society had proven Adorno’s aesthetic theory, which targeted dominant models of art perception as serving idealist functions. This idealism had run through Kant, Freud, and we continue to witness a drive towards immaterial ideology which supposedly critiques social orders, but practically deviates towards an empirically affirmative idealism in the continual expectation for artists to ’say something’ about society today. A symptom of this crisis is that the kernel of critical thought is increasingly digested exclusively within art itself. In other words, artists are futilely trying to rectify a deeper historical problem of critical transformation which extends far beyond them, and now failing. As artists absorb into the culture industry, they curiously become more ‘critical’ within their free-floating bubble, yet without fostering the broader social aspirations that once seemed possible. However, artists today who can synthesize the diverse new materials opened by this expanded field, and work this post-conceptual, now didactic criticism, materially offer insight into the historical necessity for the emergence of the critical artist, even if only accidentally. Which is to say, the critical artist is more an acute symptom of reification than its self-purported solution to it.

As a result of a trajectory through the culture industry artists inevitably become both irrelevant and ubiquitous, as is evidenced by the compensatory growth of intellectual validation through secondary discourse, multicultural mining, rote explanation, and contingent information irrationally grafted onto material. The culture industry renders the critical artist a pastiche of its past hopes. Such desperate grafting ironically giving the illusion of rational critique, is meant to be a salve for the continuing rupture between industrial material and and the diminishing intellectual means to comprehend its significance in a recklessly productive civilization. Artist lectures, artist statements, the rhetoric of explanations to the viewer, the vain attempts to clarify materials through secondary critique, are all stamps of the continuing nonfulfillment of form and sensation, divorced and polarizing from its increasing qualifying discourse. Out of some undiagnosed new condition of desperation, artists force iconic social topics into material in such a crude and pathetic imposition that it implies an intensive new paradigm to resolve seemingly archaic ruptures between sensation and intellectualism. Critique becomes another material. Some art today is an attempt to get at a critical coexistence of material and intellectual differences, even when those differences are unfortunately further widened. Sensational qualities of art, and their complexly accrued theories, are increasingly wrenching apart and losing their mutual effectiveness, and as a result many artists are trying to rectify this within art itself – a futile attempt when divorced from the totality that contemporary art has shattered so exhaustively. Displaying a wide-ranging contemporary ethos of art production which squeezes conceptual data and theoretical discourse into banal material play, postconceptual, misconceptual art results in an overwrought semiotic package streamlined towards making the most impactful commentary it can make by way of a synthetic unity of marginally related products (including criticism), in varying permutations.

Misconceptual Art
The cultural investment in the critical artist has reached such an impasse that Robert Storr labels it ‘misconceptual’, even going so far as to suggest it need not be understood because “you know it when you see it”[2]. The impasse is the accumulation of contemporary ideologies that art should explicitly critique the existing material world, taking cues from Duchamp’s hopes for art to become intellectual rather than retinal. Storr’s statement leads people to believe that many of the artists today who practice conceptual art have little understanding of it whatsoever. In fact, the scenario is more that artists today only understand conceptual art. The illusion that they don’t understand it comes from their poignant inability to synthesize conceptual art’s intellectualism with a rapidly changing cultural industry that renders historical imperatives obsolete. In other words, new art is not ‘misconceptual’, its just that conceptual art today is colored by the streamlining which has seized it, and which art presents in acute form. We have recently learned that conceptual art assimilates one-liners swiftly. Ironically, art’s liquidation into the culture industry was initially postulated by some aspects of conceptual art, and this implies a problem not with so-called misconceptual art today, but with conceptual art’s ideological foundations of an idealism which lives on in distorted form. The problem is not that artists today are not conceptual enough, its that conceptual art was not a fulfilled project and needs to be fulfilled today to show what it truly was in the 1960’s. When it does so in misconceptual art it shows its implicitly fallacious character more than it did previously, in that critiquing social norms from a distance seems like a ruse of artistic practice. Misconceptual art shows us the fallibility not merely of todays artists, but rather of conceptual art’s failures to project a more substantial plan for the future. The recent ‘misunderstanding’ is really just a further understanding. This makes Storr’s reliance on Lawrence Weiner and Kara Walker all the more nostalgic. The lack of understanding the phenomenon creates a scenario where it is simultaneously resisted and generated, and is the result of an incompleteness of art and criticism. If artist’s today don’t get involved with their material, but critique it distantly, this heightens the promise of conceptual art, which was always problematic in its removal from materialism. Such hands-off removal has not surprisingly fostered a situation where many artists today merely pick a cultural relic and do nothing to it, thus affirming empirically existing material conditions (in that the object is unchanged) and empirically existing consciousness, which seeks to use the material to predictably say something about society already prefigured in the distorted subjectivity of the creator.

The New York Times’ Holland Cotter likewise voices a complaint about misconceptual one-liners in The Boom Is Over, Long Live the Art: “…it has given us a flood of well-schooled pictures, ingenious sculptures, fastidious photographs and carefully staged spectacles, each based on the same basic elements: a single idea, embedded in the work and expounded in an artist’s statement, and a look or style geared to be as catchy as the hook in a rock song.”[3] The critical artist has turned into the didactic artist and instigated an indefinable malaise from the now obsolete critic. When material is used as a soapbox to preach a message from the maker, the same things end up getting said, as psychological determinsim, untouched by material, reigns supreme. In sum, the intellectual artist has become a pastiche of itself. But some artists use pastiche as a style in itself. The scenario is that the pressures of creating in the culture industry, ironically accountable for 1960’s political motivations, drives artists to increasingly validate their practices by streamlined intellectual discourse. Such an odd synthesis permits these intellectual and philosophical concerns to become artificially sleek. Cotter’s complaint, which escalates the seriousness of art to do something meaningful, only widens this gap between what we expect from art and what can actually happen in a society which turns thought into a fashionable good, not to mention the inability and irrelevance of art to revolutionize itself but instead reify its own pre-existing conditions. Radicalization of art has only happened in times of broader social conflict where more than its local effects were at stake, which explains why artists who seek to absolve society of its discontents from afar, without being materially invested, are only more of an isolated, esoteric joke removed from real practical change. But despite the complaints from melancholic critics, many artists today attempt to address historically invested intellectualism by recognizing its accompanying poverty of empirically compromised material that fail to measure up to its own hopes. The artist-as-critic has created a curious situation which at once makes art practices seeking a unity of sensation and discourse didactically fashionable, stylistically ambiguous, and synthetically associative. That an attempt at synthesizing art with its manifold supporting theories and integrated cultural vectors happens collectively and is suffused throughout almost all art practices today makes it all the more practical, and suggests a possibility of returning to the many ‘real’ artistic moments that were missed. Merely dismissing a phenomenon as misconceptual denies its ability to clarify those implicit historical hopes and the continual failure for them to be realized.

Misconceptual one-liners are important gauges of diverse social pressures and a result not only of the heavy internal issues of the intellectual avant-gardes, but also from the complicated stresses to communicate efficiently in a world where communication is brought into existence increasingly by competition. That these projects which seek to absorb and ‘trump’ the poignant shortcomings of modernism’s sensation, and also postmodernism’s use of critique and secondary discourse, go critically dismissed is the problem. Synthesis of extremes, artificial collages, and remedying sensory failures through secondary discourse has been the standard model since Dada. But the real issue is that though artists increasingly try to unify art and secondary discourse, this project is preordained to failure, at least when measured against the universal social overcoming which criticism was expected to foster. The artist-as-critic has eradicated the traditional role of emancipatory critic and merely erected a fractured approximation of criticism and pastiche in its place. The unquestionable simplicity of misconceptual art suggests a failure of critique and not merely of art.

Labeling an entire generation of art as ‘misconceptual’ sidesteps understanding of what social pressure has given it prominence, and glosses over how ‘misconceptual art’, though bearing the legacy and mark of conceptual art, has transfigured into something else by the continuity of public disinterest. Misconceptual art perhaps has more in common with Dada’s synthetic assemblages than conceptual art’s time-saturated processes, and is burdened by crude templates of streamlined transmission which hastens viewing in the culture industry. The didactic, streamlined functionality which appears to permit no interpretation from the viewer, works as a rote catalog for a world where new material is promulgated at a rate faster than it can be assessed. Artists today pick and assemble arbitrary items in endless permutations, rather than do something to it, as Jasper Johns would say, and echo the fastidious, studied, and calculated campaigns of advertisements, for example. Creativity occurs as a select-and-combine process. A situation like this implies the heightened arbitrariness of production, as it doesn’t matter so much what one chooses, as much as it does that one chooses. What is chosen is arbitrary, and this has repercussions in criticism, where arbitrariness feeds uncritical affirmation, or at best a field of critique dominated by judgment of what one chooses as opposed to what one does with what is chosen. However, at the same time, one does choose, and this implies an active role in the process of creation, and a semblance of freedom in that process. I say semblance, because it is artificial – the idea of subject matter in general is obsolete, and its ambitious intrusion into art matter suggests a helplessness in its ambition more than anything. So it seems there is a fascinating escalation of the dialectical competition between freedom and arbitrariness.

Non-Specific Objects

If change is to be understood at all it is necessary to abandon the view that objects are rigidly opposed to each other, it is necessary to elevate their interrelatedness and the interaction between these ‘relations’ and ‘objects’ to the same plane of reality
– George Lukacs

The interrelatedness of objects is glossed-over in the determination to use specific ones to say something about society at large. This process, in which all art is borne, only shows how ’society at large’ is misunderstood realistically and further defined by the fantasies which result from reification. Artists often pick objects because they supposedly say something specific and partake in different modes of understanding. In the work of Mark Dion for example, the material method which pierces through the secondary discourse and trumps its autonomy is one of searching, shopping and selecting objects, and then subsequently arranging. In other words, the ‘critique of nature’, which is what is commonly received as the art’s purpose, is a reified ruse propped up by a very different process of buying. Dion’s art says more about how fantasy-critique plays a part in the everyday psychology of exchange than it ever could about nature (or conceptions of nature). The creative role is marked by a curiosity of the new objects of culture – that it here manifests as the old is all the more odd and pertinent to reified consciousness – and this of course resembles Surrealism’s romance of the 19th century, which actually said more about the conditions of its own era of escapism. Of course, what has made Dion a recognized artist is specifically the secondary information and forced subject matter: institutional critique of knowledge and nature, or more importantly an institutional critique which acutely fails to manifest in the sensory material of the work itself, as each are separately autonomous and poignantly non-identical. That the dominant order of art fixates on the often overly ambitious secondary information that abstracts the exchange value of the material, indicates the problematic unquestioned notion of the artist as critic. In other words, ‘critique’ is an excuse to fetishize the truncated use-value of given objects. When Dion distorts the objects he acquires through critique, their material conditions are disfigured to provoke fantasized ideas of nature, which only abstracts them further. In brief, ‘critique’ of objects doesn’t clarify them, but further obscures them and participates in the exchange value economy because the use-value is fetishized and imagined through critique. ‘Nature critique’ is an excuse to fixate on the misunderstood object, divorced from totality. Artists like Dion are especially good at this fetishization, and are invaluable glimpses into this process which everyone participates in without offering solutions.

Found objects have stretched beyond mere objecthood to assimilate intellectualism and found ideas in the dematerialized contemporary world. Little has changed from Dada’s reification-exposing collage, excepting that found objects to be assimilated into the category ‘art’ have expanded. Misconceptual art, or synthetic art, is unavoidably a collective response to a civilization producing objects not merely for practical function, but additionally for its own mesmerization and deception. Critique is subsumed in, and reinforces this mesmerization. Artificially combining these new materials is a search for meaning – or more specifically, a method of echoing the arbitrary qualities of our industrialized material world – especially including the ephemeral, relational social orders. Misconceptual art looks meaninglessly arbitrary only because it successfully mimics the banal exchange of products in the everyday, if only in fractured form from artist to artist. Rather than quashing the dominant order of capitalist production, and ‘deterritorializing’ commodity signifiers, as David Joselit suggests, Dada and new misconceptual practices express the commodity form in a more comprehensive and acute way by showing the marred psychology which masquerades as positivist critique[4]. Artists in an unprecedented, hyper-productive cultural industry inarguably animate odd instances of reification and the commodity form in the fundamental misunderstanding and abstraction of new products to be partaking in something they are not, or are very iconically so, both material and immaterial. That artists fixate on the iconic aspects of objecthood doesn’t critique them, but reinforces such a crude understanding. As such, new ‘synthetic’ art practices have much more in common with Dada than conceptual art – and I’m thinking here of Francis Picabia’s Ane (Ass) as a cornerstone which grapples with new material production by forcibly new ways of labeling things resulting from perhaps an epistemological shortcoming in thought and collective intellectual inability to keep up with the segregating intrinsics of industrial production. Picabia’s Ass is diagrammatically representative, in hyper-condensed form, of the confused relations between material and criticism today. Where production is interminable, critical discourse and language is forced into a position of artificial plasticity. In such a world the unmitigated promulgation of objects is disproportionate to the ability for understanding those objects.

The True Artist…
Conceptual art has infected the minds of today’s generation in similar ways that Dada infected the minds of conceptual artists. Just as the historical implications of Dada had not entirely manifested in its time, and thus needed to be reconsidered in conceptual art to be properly understood, conceptual art is perhaps only now being understood retroactively today and points to considerable problems of a certain trajectory of the intellectual artist. Art in the mid-century had reached a crucial point where certain fundamental assumptions of its original character could no longer be valid in the rapidly changing contemporary world. Just as Walter Benjamin had noticed that what made Kafka poignant was his use of outmoded parable in a modernity which had moved rapidly beyond such devices, artists in the 60’s realized that certain historically developed aesthetic devices no longer seemed salient material for transforming society[5]. In other words, painting in the 1960’s seemed as outdated and noncontemporary as parable did in Kafka’s time. Such discontents manifest in the awkward synthetic unity of Bruce Nauman’s The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths, which pairs an outmoded premodern form (the spiral) and romantically archaic idea (the phrase itself) with the most crude information products of a contemporary civilization quashing such antiquated notions in its trailblaze. Amongst other constructions denied them, one of the ‘myths’ was a unity of material and non-material, which began to come under critical siege in works like these and also in painting. Philip Guston recognized that the antiquated notions of painting had lessened effect on new topical political problems such as racism. To a certain extent the foundation of contemporary art was tempered by what society in the 1960’s seemed politically charged (or iconically reified) enough to measure itself against. Art in the 1960’s polarized towards either side, and conceptual art became more or less associated with the immaterial. Boris Groys argues that it is not just the concepts which matter in conceptual art, but how such immaterial comes into material existence[6]. This is doubtlessly true, but it is also a truth that we can only recently observe by projecting backwards. Early artists working in this canon were perhaps buckling under too much historical pressure to smoothly unify the material-intellectual split in this manner, and polarized into ideological positions on either side (ie minimalism/conceptual art) as a way to expose the problem from within.

Painting was never a salient option for Nauman. He saw it as an expired art form which couldn’t keep up with industrialized material like neon signage. Such notions had precendents in Duchamp, who marveled over the new beautiful forms of industrial objects (such as airplane propellers) which rendered the past obsolete. There is a naivete in Duchamp and Nauman, an earnest fascination with industrial society’s vulgar potential for transformation. The polemic on art aspect of Duchamp that contemporary critics like to fixate on has masked his important curiosity in industrial products and glossed over a certain truth in Duchamp’s genuine anxiety over art’s immediate obsolescence. Certainly, Duchamp was no Futurist and had a trepidation about the terrifying aspects of modernity. The point being that the new world which rendered art profane and ‘everyday’ was a primary concern above polemicizing against art; he was considerably less ironic than we have projected him as. Similarly, Nauman credits the reason for his art being a frustration with social conditions. Nauman and Duchamp are artists of the confused nexus of mesmerization at industrial forms, and sickness with the alienating society that produces those forms. They are artists who irresolve a modern aporia and rather let contradictions arise acutely.

The neon signs for which Nauman has become so famous were originally intended to be assimilated into the urban-storefront-scape that inspired them. Conceptual artists of the 1960’s realized that the category of an avant-garde, which they were intentionally or inadvertently bearing, was moot unless it could branch out into the everyday, which it quite literally attempted to do, in tacit aims of absolving its own internal problems. Much of what we identify as ‘contemporary’ or ‘postmodern’ has been conditioned by this heterogeneous expansion and a pains to keep up with modernization by liquidating into it. Boris Groys sums it up, “an individual artist could no longer compete effectively with the commercial apparatuses of image production”. Nor does the unity of the artistic-everyday stop at the image. Artist-ideal transformations were also the result of knee-jerk reactions to Greenbergian formalism which also seemed outdated. But rather than do as Kafka did, and use the outmoded parable anyway to articulate modern problems of historical uprooting and groundlessness, conceptual artists eschewed the old altogether in favor of the culture industry. In some ways, and very subtly, post-conceptual art’s convergence with the culture industry is nearly Futurist, if not for its saving grace of self-ambivalence about that move. But at the same time Nauman located the inverse space of such discursive hopes and proposed what might happen if these projects failed to touch ground, as they had previously. One result was him bouncing a ball in his studio, looking more like a prisoner than an artist liberated by diversified not-entirely-artistic action. He was rhetorically distanced from the literal effects of placing the artist’s version of the neon sign back out into the everyday. Whether accidentally or intentionally, these neon signs receded back into the white cube and segregated museological context which they undermined. Concerning the avant-garde’s “move from intrinsic concerns around art to the discursive problems of art”, something about the notion was doomed from the outset[7].

Process became important too in this reaching beyond itself, whereas previously it was not needed, or perhaps not identified as a potential tool for art to overcome itself through . Yes, as a means of expression, but also increasingly as a didactic qualifying factor to de-mystify and explain the creative process which seemed to no longer have any purchase – process was incepted to put creativity on trial; an odd form of positivism. Instead of art being “the lie which reveals the truth”, art transformed into the truth which reveals the lie. Process art reveals how culture happens and demystifies it. Process is used as an inclusive explanation which reveals everything and makes transparent the fallacy of a historically determined artistic intention. Process today has increasing value as support system for recent art, as non-process art has no ability to stand on its own. Looking through the extensive survey of art that VVork curates provides an example of how process occurs around art today and not exclusively within it formally as in earlier conceptual art. Though discursive in material, the manifold projects presented on VVork are only appreciated when there is an explicative factor and supplementary information which qualifies its right to exist, and suggests a lineage from the conceptual art idea that ‘there are already too many objects in the world’. Additionally there is an extreme caution here, suggesting that creating something as historically overloaded as an art work is important in some way. New art is framed by a calculated pretense that it is doing something important, and artists today echo this by laboring extensively over ideas and not materials. Rarely is there something on VVork (as an acute portfolio for broader artistic trends) which doesn’t support its image or material by language, whether in the title or in the material list or in a supplementary text. The prototypical form of this aesthetic diaspora is an attempt at synthetically unifying a material sensation with immaterial information, both being complicated through their excessive germinating and recycling.

Not that this is new – Picabia articulated such a diremption in the expanded material field of industrial production when he juxtaposed the image of a propeller with the word ‘ASS’ on the cover of his 1917 Dada publication 391. Broodthaers and Nauman’s visual puns were similar to this split, where words and visuals were forced together in such a crude manner that it showed how incongruous linguistic information and sensory data are, despite how desperately they clung to eachother. In a violently creative world, where culture is an excuse for unchecked production which uproots everything preceding it, how can we possibly understand such a diverse and arbitrary inventory of things which appear to have no relation? The heterogeneous paradigm of contemporary art exposes the continuing diaspora of culture, but uncritically (and this makes all the difference). Though one side is that material has more prominence and less meaning, the concealed intangible rationale for this material existence is likewise both moot and proliferating. In conceptual art it is not simply the mass object that is desired, but rather the explanation for that object. In varying ways, recent projects are an attempt to not widen this gap between production and critique, but to collapse it. This is supported by the manic growth in visual studies, recent obsessions with diagramming and mapping, and fascinations with archiving – all digressions of conceptual art’s index fascination.

Endless Permutation

Due to the stress for the artist to be a contributing member to society in the culture industry by way of legitimizing their work through iconic social critique and spectacle, conceptual art has transfigured from basic empirical experimentations into the current exploitation of easily-assimilable ideas for their entertainment value – withdrawing (perhaps desperately overdrafting) anything from the bottomless bank of visual culture. Artists regularly peruse websites like VVork to calculatedly research what has already been done, weighing the conceptual manifestations of other artists’ completed projects against their own latent ideas. The purpose of websites like VVork is to inform the viewer of what has been done, so that they do not repeat a permutation, and so that they may research constituent material elements. Original permutations of the preexisting are the only semblances of originality left and are beaten mercilessly into the submission of paltry intent. To nobody’s true surprise, the same ideas are struck upon by a multitude of different people. VVork curates this anxiously creative consciousness. The website functions as a database. Even though we interact with it as an online escape from the grey drudgery of everyday life, its sole function is to provide visual proof of what has been done. That rote information becomes a valued escape in everyday life is problematic. Likewise, that creativity is conditioned by calculating procedures of not-so-studious visual research is also a crisis. In this paradigm of creativity, artists mobilize not so much to create, which is an outmoded idea, but to simply permute through the available combinations that the expanded field of art supplies. When that store is up, what next? As a result artists today are more shoppers and arrangers than makers. Even if they aren’t shopping for material, they still shop for ideas.

Expansion Into The Culture Industry

The expanded field of art’s success has become its greatest vice. Art in the expanded field (no longer limited to sculpture) arises as a response to industrializing society which opens up access to new materials at a rapid pace. In a society divided by labor, a cohesive plan within art to unify and absorb the fractured divisions and their manifold products became important. Rosalind Krauss’s essay Sculpture In The Expanded Field, was a symptom of a crisis in production between art and the rest of society, where the new is more and more conditioned by capitalist production for its own sake. A great example of this grappling with new material is shown in Harald Szeeman’s proposal for Documenta 5. In addition to photography, monuments, pop art, surrealism, and realistic painting, to name a few artistic forms, he calls for new fields of production to open into the art domain. Szeeman supplies a list ranging from children’s paintings, sports, games, theatrical sets, light shows, caricatures, traffic signs, pornography, comics, and science fiction, to name a few. Expanding the field of art is not limited to spatial concerns, but has turned out to be more concerned with new industries opened up by post-war America. What all of these items listed have in common is that they are new divisions of industry, all culturally oriented. Art in the expanded field has turned into an encompassing entangling and disentangling with new cultural production. Art in the expanded field inarguably opens into the new fields of cultural production and becomes an obsession to mine, and exploit any given detail of visual culture. On the one hand, no aspect of the visual world can go unturned. On the other, the homogenous unturning which transpires lies somewhat ambiguously (and often ambivalently) between critique and unquestioning mesmerization.

Of course, this expanded field has transpired before. The expanded field was not as new in the 1960’s as we have been led to believe. Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau manifest all of this material opening from the years 1921 – 1937 in a slightly more pathological way. With a list ranging from pencils worn to stubs, to votive candles, to a mutilated corpse, paintings by Michelangelo being viewed by a leashed dog, and much more stolen personal items from friends, Schwitters allowed new anthropological and modernist material to flood his living space in ways which preceded Szeeman (this also threatens the idea of apartment gallery as a new phenomenon as well, but that another time)[8].

One of the significant problems of the unprecedented success of art expanding into diverse fields is that in this motion away from high art, artists have liquidated freely into the culture industry. In itself this isn’t the problem, as the goal of such subtle ideology was and continues to be aimed at transforming culture, which to a certain extent has happened and has opened up considerably more freedoms outside of the institution and conventionality. For instance, new art practices that don’t get bogged down in linear political problem solving, are able to synthesize the manifold forms that the culture industry has opened up, somewhat like Picabia admixing an industrial propeller and seemingly arbitrary words. The difference lies in the change of industrial material, not change of production itself, which is always concerned with sustaining its own means. For instance, just because artists are not concerned with factory made items like propellers or urinals, does mean that they are not navigating an industrial economy. On the contrary, the situation is such that production has been expressed more so in the service and cultural industries – as evidenced by Szeeman’s inclusions of sports, games, caricatures, etc. Due to the mobilization from factory labor to less material service labor, a lot of art today has questionable immaterial dimensions. Art in the 1960’s, or the dematerialization of art has turned out to be just as oppressive as material art. In other words, the dematerialization ideology posited as absolute a world where alienated labor is freeflowing, intangible, and more mobile. Intellectual discourse, as well as subjectivity in general, is treated as any another material for exploitation without barrier. Expanded art in the culture industry permits manipulating history as if it were any other material for exchange. Art practices which are reliant upon secondary discourse merely give the ruse of criticism; Pablo Helguera situating academic criticism as theater is a strong example of this mobilization of criticism into entertainment and how those two things are bound up in each other. The immaterial aspects don’t suggest that art is not material anymore. What it suggests is that there is a polarization between material and immaterial. Certain artists today either bring this diremption closer together, or further rupture it. Either way, it is the major implicit focus of art today and its manifold styles of address only point to its significance.

What does demarcate this success as somewhat nightmarish in its banality is that it hasn’t permitted critique – the mobilization of art into its more discursive problems has left criticism, and perhaps intellectualism more generally speaking, in a wake entirely reminiscent of the modernism it sought to distance from. Curiously enough one of the originating formulations of such an expansive endeavor – Krauss’s text – happens within the field of criticism. This presents a very strange occurrence of two unexpected things: first, that critique somehow ironically discredited itself as a socially necessary means, and secondly, that criticism, far from being the rhetorical character severed from practicality it is often dogmatized as, had a considerably powerful effect on shaping future artistic practices. Whether or not it was intended to do so, the idea of expanding art beyond itself has made room for the unabated fragmentation of visual studies. As it is now, ‘visual studies’ takes up a position wherein a guilt over esoteric art is reason to wander into popular culture domains, which has by and large been suppressed as a valid area of study until recently. The release of high art has permitted an entire generation of artists to erect a false mystification of pop culture and excused them from understanding that high art and mainstream culture emerge at the same moment as different facets of the same industrial apparatus.

The issue here is not a failure of an avant-garde, but an avant-garde which has proven all too successful and persists on having a purchase on a present that no longer seems harmonious with its beginnings. When Broodthaers suggests that high art will inevitably be liquidated into the culture industry, it is not merely an objective statement, but a forecasting. In other words, it both is and ought to be. Such a statement brings up problems in capitalist reification, for the objective, matter-of-fact quality of such a statement already concedes a certain passivity of subjectivity in the face of binding cultural industry. On the other hand, the forecasting quality of this statement suggests that Broodthaers had some autonomy in deciding how society ought to be, and was not merely a submission to the passive reified stance that society ‘is’ a certain way. That Broodthaers did submit to the culture industry by way of some semblance of autonomy is curious. Submission here is problematized by this guise of autonomous choice, and it seems fair to say that such a scenario seemed the proper synthesis at the impasse of the avant-garde in the 1960’s. If Broodthaers saw the oncoming of culture industry as both positive and negative, then why the ambivalence? Naturally, this ambivalence seems an appropriate response, almost ubiquitously symbolic for any avant-garde that acutely bears these tensions between the historical rhetoric of bourgeois art and a vulgar art for the people. In this sense, much of the art of the 1960’s was not resistant to mainstream culture, but affirmative of this compromised tendency of society, which is not to say its finalized reality. Dada and new synthetic art never offer a utopia, but rather allow the detritus of the utopia that is capitalism to surface in order to understand it.

Case Study

As I look at VVork, there are varying images today; Magic Beans, by Botis Razvan is just above a similarly shiny metallic sculpture by Joel Holmberg titled Trash Can Lid and just below an installation by Carlos Motta called Gigantic Intervention. I am not familiar with any of these artists, which draws my attention. I feel secure that any day I go to VVork I will see 5-10 artists who I’ve not heard of, yet who have collectively, unbeknownst to them, exhausted a certain idea. VVork heavy-handedly likes to propose this lack of creativity, ironically brought about by an illusion of delimited creativity, liberated from the restraints of conventionality. VVork is a result of the rapid proliferation of artistic production, and provides an indexical catalog for the excessive amount of artists.

Magic Beans is an image of 3 beans, placed close together naturally. They look gold, and to ensure that the viewer understands this, it is stated in the accompanying text “life size in 14 karat gold”. There is no ambiguity of understanding between the viewer and the artist’s intention. The artist has taken every precaution to make sure that we are not misled into thinking that these beans are copper, or any other metal, and nothing more than life size. We are restricted access to interpretation as the answers to the puzzle are given upfront. The answers being given argues that art should be clarifying and not obscurantist, and also suggest that viewing is not an exploratory endeavor, but rote, and information based. This lack of interpretation is an attempt to bring the viewer in closer to the initial empirical qualities of the work. Collapsing the immaterial intention and the material facts is the synthetic unity in the work. Magic Beans is perhaps an ambiguous name, but the title obviously refers to jack and the beanstalk, and if one lives in Chicago the visual association is made between these magic beans and the Cloudgate monument by Anish Kapoor to such an extent that it seems like a bad attempt at a populist joke.

Trash Can Lid permits itself a bit more ambiguity, though there is that tension between immaterial expectation, as we are informed that this shiny piece of twisted metal probably the size of trashcan though much more mangled, actually is a trashcan lid. This begs the question, just because we say we are something, does this mean we are that something? This is echoed in the artists about page on his website where he has artifact from a Yahoo question he posted ‘How is it possible to convince people you are an artist?’ Again, we are in that nexus between immaterial hopes and material appearances.

Carlos Motta’s image of a rectangle-layered-pedestal bespeckled with hundreds of crumpled pieces of paper is not sufficient enough as an appearance; “presents a stack of paper. Each sheet of the stack holds a different photograph from top news stories”. Part of this explanation can be attributed to the photo-documentary function of the website. But lets assume that whatever the exhibition context was, it likewise had an explanatory text accompanying it, if not an entirely more thorough one. No misunderstanding is permitted. We cannot be allowed to think that the crumpled paper on the floor is of a different origin than newspaper headlines. There are related issues around this which make it interesting, specifically that the artist is in a position where the materials he chooses are so niche and obscure that they are no longer self-evident upon mere looking. This leads directly into a scenario where a didactic function is not only permitted, but necessary for the artwork to function. As opposed to Robert Storr’s dismissal (which ironically ended up uncritically supporting blue-chip artists who are prey to the same function), this didactic function is an indexical necessity in a production-based economy that doesn’t permit material to be understood. The artist-critic inevitably collides with its antithesis, the uncritical producer in the culture industry. The functionality of art – and this didacticism is ubiquitous – is somewhat similar to Benjamin’s analysis of August Sander’s photographs of workers. According to Benjamin, the function of the photographs is to provide an index of the new, modern personality conditioned by labor. What one does for work is what they are in modernity, and Sander’s photography is a reference manual and map for a new world. Likewise in the didactic misconceptual world of recent art, production material needs a manual. Cabinet magazine for example, has perfected the form of users manual for strange new material in a rapidly industrialized society.

Dada and New a-political Art

There is something politically valuable in the continuation of Dada into the 1960’s, and its revisitation today by many artists. Hal Foster, by summoning Roger Caillos’s ideas of environmental similarity, suggests that Dada had no intent to overturn society, and was not bent on revolution, but rather was a relief of fascist politics, or at least its distorted echo[9]. If this is the case, then such a project was singular when compared to the overtly political aspects of most of the modernist movements which surrounded it. Impressionism, as T.J. Clark notes, was intertwined with anarchism, Constructivism was able to exist only because it was permitted by Lenin as a form of propaganda, and Trotsky had a very heavy hand in molding the collective of Surrealism. That Dada was able to resist such totalizing political projects, which by the 1960’s were considered outmoded, was perhaps the biggest draw for artists in this era. This isn’t to say that Dada, or Conceptual art et al were not political in any way and somehow existed in a free-floating aside, but rather that Dada was perceived as the only viable historical continuation of politics within art exclusively due to its profound ambivalence. This isn’t to say that Dada was a success either. On the contrary, it only persists today because of its profound inability to incorporate politics into art. Evasion, or inversion of politics in Dada and beyond, does not mean it is not conditioned by social and political situations. In many ways the pronouncement of Dada saying what it was not is perhaps the most profound indicator of the social and political conditions surrounding it.

What conceptualism in the 1960’s and to some extents today, suggest is a curious return to the empirical art and positivism of certain modernist projects. Some of this can be attributed to the photodocumentative nature of new websites that merely describe. But in some regards that is exactly the issue; we have made room for this specific scenario of viewing. In other words, the document is not just a result of the art, but the art is made to be documented and viewed in this didactic manner. And why not, when much of the bodily sensation of art is perceived as exhausted? However, the bodily does still exist in art and likewise its contingent discourse. Each coexists in a unique attempt to provoke an idea of harmony with the other. This is where these practices have a quality about them which revisits both as if their unity was a given, but at the same time positions such an endeavor as a ruse. Whether it is a ruse or not, such practices have a balancing quality which set them apart. In Magic Beans for example, there is a labeling of the obvious, we are looking at beans. At the same time a contingently impossible ‘magic’ is projected onto the what we obviously recognize as beans. It is what it most obviously is and isn’t. Calling a spade a spade is an interesting maneuver, it’s incredibly banal, even hyperbolically so. Hyperbolizing the banal is a recurring motif in modern and especially the conceptual rubric of contemporary art. Recently this hyperbole has reached exhaustion. What some of these blatantly obvious and incredibly literal art works do is dramatize empiricism to call it into question. Essentially, what marks these works is an illusion of understanding, similar to the way Beckett describes the basic functions of mundane life. Much of the work is heavily coded in jargon, half-completed scientific research, esoteric philosophy, and so on. When the secondary intellectual information is added on, whether it be in title or otherwise, it is likewise coded and poetically mobilized to complicate the entire package.

What makes a lot of this new art interesting (and new) is an intentional lack of didactic political pretense. Especially when compared with the prominence of socially engaged art concerns, the politically spectacular (Paul Chan, Nina Berman come to mind), and the multicultural identity art. New ‘synthetic’ art is more intellectually complicated and has more dimension than the linearly determinist political art which surround them. Just as Dada demarcated its bubble of experimentation from such blatant politics in Surrealism, Constructivism, and so forth, new synthetic art segregates itself from one-dimensional politically spectacular work. New synthetic art secures the important Dada-Conceptualism lineage of intellectualism that is being crowded out by institutionally supported facile political art and shallow social critique.

An example from Daniel Baird will suffice here to show the wide discrepancy between inflated intellectual discourse and banal material, and how these two elements come into an associative play reminiscent, but not derivative of, Dada. Hamartia is an example of an incredible gap between intellectual content and new material. Hamartia is a Greek word describing the tragic decline of a hero in theater, or an error committed in ignorance that results in unintended disaster. First and foremost, historical information like this is open to utility by artists in ways it was not prior to the 1960’s. Greek drama is dealt with in the most up-to-date contemporary manner – that is to say, with plexiglass, mirrored adhesive (for cars), dessicant, potting soil, and other plastics. Like Nauman’s The True Artist Helps the World By Revealing Mystic Truths, Baird articulates a violent disharmony between historical intellectualism and contemporary industrial production. Banality and the heavy weight of intellectual history sit awkwardly incongruous with each other, and incite a very wide breadth of free-association. All the materials used to render the immaterial are profanely contemporary and incredibly distanced from the sacred theoretical impulse.

Material: shiny plastic
Theoretical: Greek theater and narrative decrescendo.

Material: potting soil
Theoretical: character downfall through error.

Visual: glass
Theoretical: technological advances over the course of human civilization.

Baird’s success is that through a hyperbolic mix of up-to-the-minute materials and far-reaching historical thought, he allows the incongruency of material and intellectualism to surface in illuminating ways. The work is about relationships between incongruous and fractured cultural objects. In sum, there is an absurdly insurmountable gap between what is and what ought to be, theory and material, and so on. The interests of the artist – technology, Greek drama, science – are all plucked from the “toy store of history” as Donald Judd calls it, just as the materials are plucked form the stores of industrial society. Both coexist in a forced unity, or artificial synthesis reminiscent of Dada collage, in order to incite free associations and articulate the breadth of history which anti-climactically culminates in banal material. Intellectualism and production never rectify in the contemporary world, but sit uncritically adjacent to each other. Synthetic art like this is most successful when it understands the arbitrariness of such syntheses, ie. ‘hamartia’ and the materials used say little else other than that we are living in an industrial society where everything is available but nothing is meaningful. This is made all the more problematic when artists, (Cotter’s ‘artist statement’ rhetoric) project complex sacred philosophy (in its current form of social theory) atop profane industrial material in order to render it meaningful. These intentions subtextually use such earnestness and affect as any other material. Needless to say, this fails to manifest in the work, and that is precisely the interesting thing, insofar as it acutely shows the discrepancy between what we want intellectually and the ability to achieve it materially.

But why then project such secondary discourse onto the work in the first place? Of course part of it is the pressure for artists to talk about their work, but thats not the whole of it. The secondary information is a further coding, disguised as decoding and a desperate semblance of meaning in a society where freedom has gone awry. Just like Magic Beans we think we are being given clarifying information, when we are just being given excess information. The material is coded, and the information we are given is coded. Even though we expect such things to work together (the artist statement is a macro form of this collective expectation) they work against each other. We are allured by a theatrical interplay of mystique, but denied. A lot of art today is driven by a poignant irresolution of antitheses, and even a-antitheses – can antitheses exist in a non-ideological, homogenous world? One of the main distinctions between new misconceptual art today and old misconceptual art of the 1960’s is that the indexical mark of the artists conception is less present and more divided from the material in the former, by the synthetic interruption of meaning. Most importantly, early conceptual art had less ambition in its formal processes at that moment. It has taken decades for us to learn the true ambitious character of conceptual art and Dada as a struggle with alienating helplessness.

1 Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics

2 “Let’s just call it misconceptualism. You know it when you see it, and you see it everywhere in art exhibitions, at art fairs and – first alert! – in art academies, where it incubates like a low-grade infection in the hidden recesses of seminar rooms, nourishing itself on inarticulate obscurities fostered by the ‘strong’ misreading and/or helpless misunderstanding of critical discourse. It is idea art without an idea, identity art without an identity, the ‘Oh wow!’ school of 1960s’ philosophy and politics updated for the 2000s, the spawn of bone-headedness and the bon mot. Misconceptualism is the zone where narrow minds go to escape self-induced claustrophobia only to find the abyss.”

Robert Storr, Art and Text; Two Vindications of Conceptualism and Its Offshoots. (Frieze, issue 116, June – August 2008)

3 Holland Cotter, The Boom is Over, Long Live The Art!. (The New York Times, 2009)

4 David Joselit, Dada’s Diagrams. (The Dada Seminars)

5 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations

6 Boris Groys, The Mimesis of Thinking. (Open Systems, Tate, 2005)

7 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real

8 Leah Dickerman, Merz and Memory, on Kurt Schwitters. (The Dada Seminars)

9 Hal Foster, How to Survive Civilization, Or What I have Learned from Dada. (Lecture at The Art Institute of Chicago, March 2010)

above copied from:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reshaping Spectatorship: Immersive and Distributed Aesthetics, Edwina Bartlem

University of Melbourne, Australia

On the surface, discourses of immersive aesthetics and distributed aesthetics may appear incongruous. The terms evoke different media, creative processes and modes of audience engagement. On one side stands the ideal of immersive aesthetics in Virtual Reality (VR) art and screen-based installation. On the other side, shimmers the fluid ideal of distributed and dispersed aesthetics that circulate around discourses of Distributed aesthetics implies creative modes of operating in, and experiencing, the spatial and temporal flows of information networks. While there are differences between these aesthetic forms and experiences, immersive and distributed aesthetics also share similar interests in transforming and extending notions of the body and perception through technological mediation. This paper undertakes a comparison between immersive and distributed aesthetics in relation to VR and networked art, particularly networked installation art.

I will focus on the ways in which these artworks immerse the viewer in states of perceptual and cognitive transition in order to argue that networked art, along with VR art, can generate immersive experiences in the viewer. Central to this notion of immersion is the sensation of being present in an electronically mediated environment that is illusionistic and sometimes remote from the body of the participant. In other words, immersive artworks have the capacity to collapse the perceived distance between the viewer and the artwork or between remote participants. Furthermore, VR and networked immersive artworks may have revolutionary consequences for traditional aesthetic theory in relation to spectatorship and aesthetic judgment. Three questions guide this enquiry: What does it mean to be immersed in art? How is it possible for viewers to become immersed in the flows of networked information? If networked immersive artworks create new aesthetic experiences for participants, what are the consequences for traditional theories of aesthetics and spectatorship? There are many artists who could be surveyed in this brief study of immersive aesthetics and technologies. Artists such as Luc Courchesne, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Michael Neimark, Simon Penny, Erwin Redl, Jeffrey Shaw, Christ Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, all use digital, screen-based and projection technologies to immerse the viewer in various aesthetic, structural and perceptual states. For the purposes of this article, though, I have decided to focus on works by Char Davies, Ken Goldberg, Paul Sermon, Stelarc, and a collaborative VR artwork by Petra Gemeinboeck, Roland Blach and Nicolaj Kirisit. These artists effectively illustrate the central concept of this article, that immersive artworks, whether they are VRs, screen-based or networked installations, have the potential to transform how we perceive our bodies, consciousness, communities and relationships with digital technologies. Ultimately, immersive artworks re-shape our understandings of art spectatorship from a distanced and passive exercise, to an active and often intimate endeavor, that is both playful and performative in nature.

Defining Immersion

What is immersion? What does it mean to describe a technologically generated environment as immersive? The very term immersion implies that one is drawn into an intimate and embodied relationship with a virtual and physical architecture, whether this immersive affect is generated by a VR system, the cinema, a panorama or another medium. It suggests that one is enclosed and embraced by the audio-visual space of the work, and transported into another realm or state of perception. One cannot be immersed without being affected by the environment on perceptual, sensory, psychological and emotional levels. In Ten Dreams of Technology, Steve Dietz includes ‘immersion’ (alongside ‘symbiosis’, ‘emergence’, ‘world peace’ and ‘transparency’) as part of a register of ideal states of presentation and viewer experience aspired to by many new media artists, curators and theorists (2002: 510-511). Immersive art and technology are not new phenomena. The ‘dream’ of total immersion can be seen as an ongoing quest to create an artificial environment that is absolutely embracing and engaging for the participant-viewer on sensory, emotional and psychological levels. Erkki Huhtamo (1995), Margaret Morse (1998), Barbara Maria Stafford (2002), Oliver Grau (1999 & 2003), Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (2000) and Angela Ndalianis (2004) all historicise immersive technologies and maintain that techniques designed to immerse the viewer in virtual and illusory spaces did not appear with the invention of digital technologies. They variously trace the origins of immersive aesthetics back to panoramas, cabinets of curiosities, Baroque ceiling paintings, ancient frescos and even cave paintings. So rather than being completely new, immersion seems to keep reappearing as an ideal, and often transcendental, form of human-representation and human-technology relationship. This fascination with immersion seems to indicate a human desire to fuse with the immersive image-space or technology—a desire to become posthuman or transhuman (Hayles, 1999: 6).

Immersive technologies and aesthetics are not empty of politics; on the contrary, they are ideologically loaded devices that allow viewers to enact a form of voyeuristic and colonising ‘machine vision’ that brackets out the ‘disturbing realities’ of the actual world (Huhtamo, 1995:161). As Huhtamo argues, immersive technologies create a form of directed vision that edits out the immediate world around the participant, while providing them with an illusion of being transported into another (remote) environment. For Huhtamo, immersive technologies are a form of visually immersive entertainment and ‘escapism’ (1995: 161). Although I agree with Huhtamo’s assertion that immersive technologies are ideologically imbued devices, there is a contradiction inherent in his critique of immersive aesthetics. On the one hand he interprets immersion as a ‘predominantly passive’ experience in which one simply looks into the screen (1995: 163). Paradoxically though, he also sees immersion as being linked to the desire to transcend the material body and to become immersed in a telematic environment (1995: 163). [1] This second point suggests an active perceptual relationship with immersive technologies, rather than a completely passive one. In order to become immersed, and to transcend the body, one must actively engage with the technology to extend one’s body and consciousness beyond biological and habitual modes of embodied perception.

In contrast to Huhtamo and others, I maintain that immersive aesthetics, especially in relation to immersive art, does not simply facilitate pure escapism into a hyper-real environment. Immersive artworks often generate self-conscious and self-reflexive forms of perception and interaction as participant-viewers engage with the work. Considering this, immersive art presents a challenge to traditional aesthetic philosophies—specifically Modernist philosophies descended from Immanuel Kant— that seek to assert the need for perceptual distance during the experience and assessment of art.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to fully elaborate on the debates surrounding the idea that one needs critical distance to competently judge and fully comprehend a work of art, but it is worth noting that critical distance has remained a dominant discourse in art history and theory. Modern aesthetic philosophy has often struggled to account for sensory-aesthetics in the body of the spectator, tending to privilege rational thought over sensory perception and a body that simultaneously thinks and feels (Lyotard, 1994: 10). Modern aesthetic theory that asserts the need for critical distance tends to perpetuate a mind/body dualism where the mind of the spectator is seen as the primary site of interpretation. The inability of modern aesthetic theory to adequately deal with sensory-aesthetics is somewhat ironic given that Alexander Baumgarten coined the term ‘aesthetics’ (from the Greek ‘aesthesis’) to describe his project of creating a theory of ‘sensory knowledge’ (Shusterman, 1999). Kant also acknowledges that the subject’s experience of ‘pleasure and displeasure’ are central to the aesthetic experience, however he suggests that there is a serial temporality to sensation, reflective thought and meaning (Kant, 1957: 41-42). Kantian aesthetics implies that a form of emotional detachment and critical distance are necessary on the part of the viewer to adequately judge art and to experience a sublime encounter (Kant, 1957: 41-42). Thus, the viewer must maintain a position that is outside of the artwork or event.

The idea of a secure place outside of an event, culture or artwork has, of course, been critiqued by Friedrich Nietzsche, Pierre Bourdieu and postmodern theorists such as Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard. In Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime (1994), Lyotard critiques the assumed temporality of Kantian aesthetic reflection and critical distance by arguing that intuition and sensation are both forms of knowledge that take place instantaneously with other forms of thinking (10). According to Lyotard,

The act of thinking is … accompanied by a feeling that signals to thought its ‘state’. But this state is nothing other than the feeling that signals it. For thought, to be informed of its state is to feel the state of thought and a warning to thought of its state by this state. Such is the first characteristic of reflection: a dazzling immediacy and a perfect coincidence of what feels and what is felt (Lyotard, 1994: 11).

Rather than maintaining the idea of distanced contemplation, I am interested in the idea of contemplating an art object or environment from within the architecture of the work. Renée Van de Vall addresses this idea of a ‘critical distancing from within’ the physical and virtual boundaries of an artwork in ‘Immersion Distance and Virtual Spaces’ (2002: 141). Van de Vall asserts that interactivity and aesthetic self-reflexivity—‘the feeling one has of one’s own movements and perceptions in the performance of the work’—are central to experiences of immersion (2002:141). Hence, critical reflection is integral to the experience of immersive artworks. It takes place while one is engaged in the act of play or interaction within the immersive environment.

Immersive digital art may be seen as an extension of modern art movements such as Dada, Fluxus and Conceptual art because of the emphasis on formal elements, the concept of the work, art as an event, and the focus on audience participation. Immersive art is also markedly concerned with exploring and foregrounding the body’s complex role in aesthetic experience. Immersive artworks are often body-centred works that draw attention to the body of the participant during first-hand participation and spectatorship, while rendering visible the affects of technology and technological discourses on the body, the subject and habitual modes of perception. As such, immersive aesthetics can be seen as part of a discipline that Richard Shusterman calls, ‘somaesthetics’, the ‘critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one’s body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aesthesis) and creative self-fashioning’ (Shusterman, 1999). Immersive experiences with VR and networked art may in fact have a transformative affect on how participants perceive their own bodies and everyday modes of perception during and after the event.

The point of many immersive artworks might in fact be that the viewer becomes aware of their own presence in the artwork and how they perceive these environments physically and intellectually while interacting with the work. Certain immersive VR, networked and screen-based installation artworks seem to invite viewers to contemplate the structure of the work and to comprehend their passage through a variety of perceptual states while they are immersed in the work. Rather than making the technology and interface invisible and natural to the participant, it seems that immersive artworks draw attention to the technology and the ways in which the technology and aesthetics structure the experience of this environment and everyday modes of perception.

While immersion may be viewed by some as an ideal state of presentation and experience, it is questionable whether artists are really seeking to achieve this ideal, given that they often have alternative strategic interests in using new technologies in the production and presentation of their work. Digital artists often have different interests to commercial, entertainment and military professionals regarding the development, creation and presentation of technologically mediated-environments. In some cases, artists actually work against the intended or legitimate uses of digital technologies and aesthetics. This is not to defend the idea of art as a separate and superior field of representation to computer science, entertainment media or military communication research. In fact it would be naïve to assume that the boundaries between these fields had not become increasingly blurred over the past forty years. Artists collaborate with scientists, engineers, graphic designers, robotics engineers and other specialists in the production of new hardware, software and interfacing systems. In turn, the new technologies and interfaces designed by artists, or made in collaboration with other professionals, are often appropriated by entertainment, scientific-research and military industries for their own projects. Nevertheless, some artists deliberately seek to subtly or overtly subvert the typical uses and aesthetics of certain technologies. New digital technologies and aesthetics may be appropriated and applied in critical and subversive ways to draw attention to the medium, the interactive event and the modes of perception used to participate with the work.

Immersion & VR

VR systems are seen by many new media theorists, artists and designers as the ideal medium for evoking a sense of immersion in the viewer. While cinema and VR are not the only aesthetic forms that create immersive experiences for participant-viewers, they remain the most written about forms of immersive technologies. Over the past two decades, histories and theories of immersion have tended to circulate around VR systems and discourses of cyberspace. The dominance of VR in discourses about immersive technologies and aesthetics is directly related to the fact that VR is seen by many theorists as the ultimate technology for totally immersing the viewer in a virtual environment. New media theorists and practitioners such as, Huhtamo, Bolter and Grusin and Grau, along with Michael Heim (1998), Ken Hillis (1999), (2000), Peter Lunenfeld (2000), Lev Manovich (2000) and Joseph Nechvatal (2001), maintain that VR systems are one of the most effective forms of immersive technology. Indeed, immersion is seen by some as the ‘defining feature’ of VR aesthetics (Heim 1998: 54).The types of immersion that VR is said to stimulate include ‘total immersion’ (Lunenfeld and Nechvatal), ‘full immersion’ (Bolter & Grusin) and ‘total sensory immersion’ (Featherstone and Burrows 1995: 3). There are also theorists and artists, such as Brenda Laurel, who suggest that immersion does not have to be ‘total’, it can be ‘partial’ by privileging some sensory ratios over others, especially vision and hearing. Whether it is ‘total’ or ‘partial’ these forms of virtual immersion imply that the user experiences a sense of fusion with a technologically generated space—a virtual environment (VE). The user becomes deeply embedded in this illusory space and their faculties of perception—their senses and processes of cognition of space, time and motion—recognise this experience as being akin to an embodied form of perception. Consequently, the boundaries between the computer-generated stimuli of the VR system and the embodied space of the participant-viewer seem to collapse. Char Davies virtual artworks, Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998) are two examples of artworks that evoke this perceived collapsing of boundaries between technological and bodily space. These works will be the focus of the next section.

According to Grau, the aim of immersive art is to allow the viewer to ‘become part of the mise en scene’ of the artwork (2003: 44). The production of a sense of immersion in the viewer requires this perceived collapsing of distance between the viewer and the object, screen or image space. The aim of some VR systems seems to be to reduce the perception of distance between the viewer and representational space—or the subject and object—to almost zero degrees (Grau, 2003: 44). Distance is therefore antithetical to illusions of immersion in virtual spaces.Concepts of presence and telepresence are of central importance to understanding how immersive aesthetics seem to collapse space. Jonathan Steuer has argued that telepresence is a defining characteristic of virtual reality (1995: 35). He defines presence as ‘the sense of being in an environment’, while telepresence is a feeling of ‘being there’—of being present in a remote elsewhere through technological communication links (1995: 35-36). In other words, telepresence suggests that one can feel present in a distant location or virtual environment through human-technology interfaces. Presence and telepresence are central to immersive aesthetics in digital media art, because in order to feel immersed in a virtual or technological environment, one needs to have a sense of immediacy and intimacy with that environment. [2] In the case of VR systems, telepresence refers to the sensation of being present in a virtual space, while simultaneously occupying physical space in the material world. Telepresence of this form symbolically collapses space for the immersant through interfacing with specific digital information and VR technologies, while metaphorically expanding the space of the body and imagination through these technologies. The sense of closeness or (tele)presence within the virtual world of the artwork is achieved through several conditions. Firstly, VR technologies collapse the perceived distance between the viewer and the representational space by isolating the user in remote technologically-mediated space that surrounds the participant with three-dimensional imagery and sound. Immersive VEs physically and perceptually envelop the viewer in a technologically-mediated architecture. To engage with VEs first-hand, participants are required to enter into a physically intimate relationship with technology. They either have to enter a physically enclosed architectural space such as a Virtual Cave or multi-screen projection space, or they need to wrap their bodies in technological equipment such as Stereoscopic Goggles, Head Mounted Display (HMD) Units, Data-Suits and Data-Gloves. The hardware devices work with the software elements of computer graphics or animations, to enhance an illusion of being enclosed in the image space. Bringing the screen or image closer to the viewer’s eyes reduces the physical distance between the viewer and representational space (Grau, 2003: 44). This close proximity to the screen and image theoretically produces a sense of immersive presence in the illusionistic space of the work. In the case of HMD units they also effectively decapitate the viewer’s head from the rest of their body—a condition which Simon Penny (1995), N. Kathryn Hayles (1999) and others have argued reproduces a Platonic-Cartesian mind/body split. This split implies that the central site of perception is located in the mind and through the senses of vision and to a lesser extent, hearing. The rest of the body is meat to be abandoned and transcended by theoretically entering a VR which according to Jaron Lanier (1989) is a form of cyberspace.

Collapsing the perceived distance between the viewer and image is also made possible by placing the viewer at the centre of the virtual world and by emulating techniques of embodied perspective and perception. Point of view (POV) perspective is an especially powerful device for evoking a sense of embodied presence in VEs. Bolter and Grusin describe the embodied first-person POV used in some VEs as a ‘remediation’ of cinematic and televisual techniques that seek to provide viewers with the mobilised POV of particular characters (2000: 243). Cinema and game designers use POV techniques to provide a subjective form of narration and to heighten identification with on-screen characters or avatars. POV and psychological identification are central to suturing the viewer into the VE and heightening their impressions of total immersion within these domains. While panning, tracking, tilting and zooming shots are used in cinema to emulate the mobile gaze of characters, computer graphics and virtual reality systems, such as Davies’ environments, take the techniques of first-person POV and perspective further, often placing them in the participant’s control. The participant has agency over where, when and how to look. Placing the control over POV in the hands of the viewer has the effect of reinforcing the viewer’s perception of embodied and cognitive presence in the immaterial space of the VE. This sense of presence can only be experienced through technological mediation and first-hand interaction with the appropriate technology.

Embodied Immersion: Osmose and Ephémère

Issues of embodiment vs. disembodiment and the perception of space obviously play a central role in the artistic explorations of virtual reality. Only a few virtual-reality environments which completely immerse a viewer into an alternative world have been developed within an art context, and Canadian artist Charlotte Davies’s (b. 1954) Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998) are classics of the genre. (Christiane Paul, 2003: 126)

As suggested earlier, Char Davies’ virtual environments, Osmose and Ephémère, are designed to enable for a mobile first-person point of view. They use a HMD unit in order to facilitate this perspective. When an active participant (or ‘immersant’ as Davies prefers to call them) perceptually enters Davies’ VEs they are offered an embodied POV of an imaginary world that fills their ‘field of vision’ in all directions (Lunenfeld, 2000: 87). As the participant physically turns or tilts their head and body to ‘look around’, they appear to be visually surrounded by this ephemeral, semi-abstract illusion in all directions. The immersant occupies a central position in this environment as the virtual world revolves around them. Davies environments are 360º spaces that visually and psychologically envelop the participant, which in turn produces kinaesthetic affects in the immersant. The visual spaces of Osmose and Ephémère have a depth of field and three-dimensionality that emulates human visual perception of actual space in terms of scale, depth and movement. The mobile, first-person POV works with the other elements such as the semi-translucent, semi-abstract imagery and three-dimensional sound, to generate an impression of being physically present in a virtual environment. These environments enact a Baroque logic by making the frame of the work invisible to the active participant and by stimulating multiple senses at once, extending the space of representation in all directions so that embodied perceptions of space become fused with the illusionistic space of the VE (Ndalianis, 2000). Davies’ VEs are consistent with Angela Ndalianis’s notion of the generation of the ‘Neo-Baroque’ effect in that they encourage participants to ‘emotionally, empathetically, and perceptually enter the microcosmic world of virtual reality’ (2004: 151). Ndalianis argues that the Neo-Baroque aesthetics of entertainment media have a ‘dual sensation of the audience’s immersion into the alternative world and the impression of the entry of the world into the space of the audience’ (2004: 151). Thus, perceptions of bodily and exterior space become blurred to the participant viewer. However, Davies’ works are not just entertaining or immersive in nature.

Although Osmose and Ephémère are often described as completely or totally immersive VE artworks, as evidenced by the Christiane Paul quote at the beginning of this section, it is important to note that these works are also presented as installations in public exhibition spaces. The immersant is situated in a small room behind a frosted glass pane. A back-lit silhouette of the immersant’s body is visible through this screen as they interact with the work. The immersant effectively adopts the role of performer while they interact with the VE. They are on display for the other viewers who are able to view the silhouette of the active participant while they interact with the virtual technology and see a two-dimensional version of what the immersant sees on a large high-resolution screen. Thus, becoming immersed in Davies’ VEs is not simply an intimate or autonomous event. Rather, this is a collective happening between multiple viewers with different perspectives of the same event. At the very least there is the first-person embodied mode of immersion and interaction with the work and a vicarious view of the screen and active participant as the spectator edits together this ‘performance’ and screening.

Lev Manovich compares the immersant in Davies’ work with a ‘ships captain’ who takes ‘the audience along on a journey’ and ‘occupies a visible and symbolically marked position, being responsible for the audience’s aesthetic experience’ (2000: 261). However, the immersant does not have as much control over navigating this environment as the ‘ships captain’ analogy implies. From first-hand experience of both Osmose and Ephémère, the interfacing systems are often quite difficult to control and this generates a self-awareness about how one is engaging with the technology. Besides the fact that the HMD unit is heavy and difficult to ignore, participants have to use their breath, movements and balance to navigate the system. They breathe in to rise; and out to fall; lean forward in a skiing gesture to move forward in a particular direction and stand upright to pause and float as if in water. Therefore participants navigate pathways through these immersive virtual environments by using their whole bodies or aspects of their bodies in unconventional ways. An effect of this embodied interface is that it creates a self-reflexivity about how one usually perceives actual space through habitual and embodied processes. While Osmose and Ephémère engage the participant’s body as a source of knowledge and experience through the interface system, they do so in a way that makes ones’ body seem alien to oneself. The techniques of breathing and movement utilised in these works are not everyday experiences of the body in motion for most people. Although Davies’ interfacing systems were based on the experience of scuba diving, this is hardly an everyday experience for the majority of people. In fact, these navigational techniques are better described as body disciplines that are acquired through practice. Viewers need to readjust and re-discipline their bodily movements and breathing in order to control their pathways through these virtual environments more effectively.

This is perhaps the main strength of Davies’ work. Rather than providing a completely escapist and passive experience of an immersive virtual environment, it heightens the immersant’s self-awareness of how they usually perceive and interface with the world and technology. They are required to enact a different form of embodied interaction with this virtual environment than a mouse or joy-stick interface would facilitate. Osmose and Ephémère have the potential to make participant-viewers more aware of their desires for control of their own bodies, the environment, technology and the actions of others. Active participants are neither physically nor intellectually distanced from the technology of the work, and hence, these immersive artworks can generate critical forms of engagement in the participant while they are ‘inside’ the work.

Dancing with the Goddess: Uzume

Petra Gemeinboeck, Roland Blach and Nicolaj Kirisit’s immersive virtual reality system, Uzume (2002), also provides the immersant with an embodied POV, while also situating these participants as performers or objects of observation for other viewers. Uzume is designed as a 4 to 6 wall CAVE projection environment. The title of the work refers to a Japanese Shinto Goddess and literally means ‘whirling’, an action that is repeated in the swirling visual aesthetics of the work and often in the gestures of the participants as they play with the work. Uzume provides the viewer with a screen-based responsive environment that is in a state of unfolding and emergence in relation to the actions of the participant-viewer. Participants are equipped with two hand sensors and tracked shutter glasses, which are significantly less cumbersome than the HMD unit utilised for Davies’ work. These devices allow participants to generate a three-dimensional, aesthetic environment in a process of becoming. As participants physically move around in the projection space of Uzume, they engage in a gestural and responsive communication exchange with the audio-visual interface. The Goddess software does not simply mimic the actions of the participant, but responds in more discrete and unpredictable ways. Uzume seems to be a virtual entity with autonomy from the participant-viewer. Participants do not have complete control over the system and must communicate with the system via playful gestures. Yet as they dance with the Goddess, they are also being observed by other viewers who witness their interaction as a performance. VEs such as Uzume, Osmose and Ephémère operate as installations and theatrical events by placing the active-participant on display within the architecture of the work—similar to some early happenings. While the participant communicates with the interface through their actions and movements, they effectively become performers and active participants within the work, challenging the once idealised aesthetic position of the distanced observer. Active-participants therefore occupy the dual position of the subject and object of observation for other viewers and they cannot help but be aware of these related roles. These immersive installation environments provide conditions for both the active observer and a more distanced observer, but they subvert the traditional notion of the objective contemplation of art.

Telepresence & Networked Art Events

While VR technologies provide the most overt forms of telepresence for viewers, VR is only one of many communication mediums that give the impression of bringing a distant space or subject closer to another (Steuer 1995: 36). Telepresence implies a form of absent presence in distant locations for the operator (Steuer, 1995: 35-36). Simulcast television, telephones, and mobile phones with built in cameras and live video or internet link-ups are other examples of communication technologies that potentially create a sense of telepresence in participants. These technologies seem to collapse the distance between users in remote locations by placing them in a participatory and communicative relationship with each other (Grau, 2003:271). Telematic, telepresence and telerobotic art projects explore the idea of our physical body and communities being distributed throughout the world, yet also being linked together via networked connections and spaces. Perhaps not surprisingly, these projects often have an interest in exploring the extension of the body and consciousness through digital technologies. The themes of new communities, surveillance, voyeurism and the lack of privacy in relation to networked technologies and spaces, are dominant concerns in telematic and telerobotic art. One of the first telerobotic projects on the internet was Ken Goldberg’s Telegarden (1996) which is on permanent display at the Ars Electronica Museum of the Future Centre in Linz, Austria. Telegarden combines networked art, robotics, webcam surveillance and the active participation of viewers located remotely from one another. The miniature garden is maintained by ‘gardeners’ who are situated remotely from the installation. Participants make their telepresence felt in the garden through the process of tending to this garden, which they are able to access via various networked technologies. They are able to see the garden via a webcam, and tend the garden via a robotic arm that allows them to water, feed and sometimes plant seeds in the garden. Thus they extend their physical presence through various networked technologies that render them telepresent in the geographically remote installation space. The success of this project is remarkable given that the maintenance of the installation depends upon the nurture of people across remote locations. Thousands of people have logged onto the system to help cultivate the garden in its various stages of growth and decline over the past few years. Tending this garden is a collective and anonymous activity. The creative act in this case is not only located with the artist, but with the participants who log in and technologically extend their bodies in order to nurture this mini-landscape. Telegarden highlights the potential that networked creative projects have to connect people from distant locations and involve them in collective community actions.

Although Telegarden is not a sensorially or architecturally immersive environment in the same way as VR and other networked installations, I maintain that it still immerses the user in a collective telematic environment. Experiences of telepresence and imaginary connections made between the different participants, the various technologies and the physical space of the garden, suggest another form of immersion—telematic or networked immersion. This form of immersion entails participants becoming involved in a collective act of creation of an event or environments through information links and networks. So while the participants may be distributed throughout the world they are collectively telepresent and telematically linked and immersed in production and information exchange.

More recently, a number of interesting networked technology art projects have taken place via video conferencing and more nomadic technologies such as mobile (cell) phones and personal digital assistants (such as Palm Pilots). Speakers Corner (2000-1) was designed by Jaap de Jonge to encourage remote participants to send text messages or emails to an interactive LED text display that was attached to the outside of Kirklees Media Centre in Huddersfield, England. The fifteen metre text display screened a constant stream of information from news updates, weather reports, political messages, poetry and personal messages sent by remote participants. Some strangers effectively communicated with each other through this public interface, which made public what is usually thought of as a secure and private form of communication. The space of the display screen became a nexus point of streaming information and projected identities—a site virtually (tele-)present, if only momentarily. While the concept of distributed aesthetics implies a fractured and dispersed form of cultural and artistic practice through the space and time of information flows, networked digital technologies also facilitate the connection, meeting, interaction and collective activities of people located in distant locations. Networked technologies allow for new forms of human-machine interaction, including the ability to experience a shared presence in multiple and remote locations at once.

Telepresence and Connectivity in Networked Installations

Networked installations often seek to immerse participants in a ‘composite reality’, connecting people from remote locations in virtual and physical spaces (Paul, 2003: 21). Grau has commented that telepresence art is ‘the successor to telematic art’ as defined by Roy Ascott (2003: 271). Yet it is probably more appropriate to say that telepresence art is an extension of telematic art. Telepresent, networked installations share some concerns with telematic art in terms of linking participants from distinct locations, foregrounding the concept of a networked community, stressing process-orientated art practice and enticing multiple users into participatory relationships with art. British artist, Paul Sermon, synthesised immersive aesthetics into his telematic installations in the early 1990s. Sermon studied with Ascott in the early stages of his career and credits Ascott with having influenced some of his initial concepts. In Telematic Dreaming (1992), Sermon used video-conferencing technologies to create a link between individuals located in two distinct spaces. Central to the installation was a double bed that acted as both a prop and projection screen for the event. Participants would recline on the bed and face a real-time projected image of another individual who was situated remotely. The feedback system and intimacy of the work created an immersive environment and sense of telepresence for active participants occupying the imaginary bedrooms. Although the participants could not communicate verbally, they could communicate through facial expressions and bodily gestures, sometimes reaching out to touch the other person. This installation brought individuals (usually strangers) into close proximity with each other. The experience was both personal and public, with a video camera documenting the exchange between the strangers and then sending the live footage to a series of monitors that surrounded the bed in one of the spaces. So while it was an immersive and intimate experience for the participants on the bed, it was also a voyeuristic experience for on-lookers. The semiology of the bed contributed to the success of this immersive, telepresence installation and event. The bed is a cultural symbol that holds connotations of intimacy, privacy, rest, sexuality and desire. Sermon played on these connotations by using the surface of the bed as a projection screen and through the production of a perceived intimacy in the collapsing of the psychic space between participants. The materiality of the bed further enhanced the immersive qualities of this installation by drawing on the bodily memories of those participants who had an experience of sharing a bed with another person.

In a later work, Telematic Vision (1993), Sermon produced another immersive, telepresence installation around two large sofas and a television monitor that were placed in different rooms. Once again, the semiology of the sofa and the television worked together to create a familiar and intimate relationship for a theatrical exchange to take place between strangers in these locations. From personal experience, this work seemed to evoke far more playful and mischievous interactions from the participants than Telematic Dreaming, perhaps because the lounge room is usually a more social space than the bedroom.

Extending the Body

One of the obvious advantages of telepresence is that the operator can hypothetically see and feel from a machine’s perspective in close proximity, while simultaneously maintaining a safe physical distance. The operator extends their body through hardware and software technologies. A technological device becomes an extension of the operator’s body, continuing human presence beyond the corporeal body through information networks and into a mechanical form. Thus, telepresence produces a type of cyborg embodiment and perception for the operator who fuses their naturalised modes of sensing and perceiving with technological modes of seeing, hearing and feeling. Stelarc has evoked a type of cyborg vision and telepresence in his events by attaching cameras to his head and other body parts to document events from an embodied POV that seems on the surface to emulate naturalised vision, while actually being mediated through the lens of the camera. Stelarc’s Ping Body and Fractal Flesh (1995-7) events explored the possibilities of cyborg vision and re-embodiment through technology by drawing upon and extending the idea of telepresence. Distant spectators were given the opportunity to log into a web interface and to affect the artist’s body (or ‘the body’ as Stelarc prefers to call it) from a remote location (Stelarc, 2004). Active contributors effectively participated in a performance event with Stelarc by activating muscle stimulating electrodes that were attached to his body. Ping Body/Proto Parasite (1995) at Telepolis offered an opportunity for people at the Pompidou Centre (Paris), the Media Lab (Helsinki) and the Doors of Perception Conference (Amsterdam) to remotely access and manipulate Stelarc’s physical body in Luxembourg. Remote users could stimulate various parts of Stelarc’s body through the Stimbod system (Touch Screen Interface for Multiple Muscle Stimulation) by physically interacting with a touch-screen and graphic representation of the artist’s body. [3] Ping values were then gathered from users’ collective activity and translated into electrical stimuli (low voltage shocks) that were applied to ‘the body’. Users could watch the affects of this information feedback system in real time because it was video taped and webcast live. Stelarc was effectively telepresent in multiple locations at once via video, computer and internet links, while remote users were also making their telepresence felt through their ability to manipulate Stelarc’s body from distant locations. In both cases, metaphors of cyborg bodies and telepresent perception were evoked through these interactions. The Ping Body experiment implies a desire for control over bodily reactions (pain and fatigue) as it goes through physical and metaphorical re-construction through prosthetic addition and cybernetic extension. Simultaneously though, it suggests a surrendering of autonomy and power over the body as it becomes a vehicle for telepresence and communication. The tension between the desire for technological control and subjection is fundamental to debates about telepresence and information technologies more generally. Telepresence implies that one can be electronically present anywhere with the right information links, equipment and feedback systems. Central to the fascination with telepresence and virtual reality is the desire for control over things that are remote from the body. Arguably, the fixation that some people have with being (tele)present in several locations at once and being able to escape the corporeal body (if only temporarily) reflects an obsession with transformation and control through technological means. Stelarc creates an inverse relationship in his work by surrendering control of his body and allowing it to become another point of connection in the information flow. Ken Hillis maintains in Digital Sensations (1999) that we ’fear the loss of control over our minds, our society, our government, our bodies, and our sexuality‘(1999: 211). Ironically, VR and the internet are sites that heighten our awareness of conditions that already exist in our culture that we have little control over such as conflict, exploitation, media saturation, visual surveillance and the technologisation of our bodies and perception (Hillis, 1999: 211). These cyberspaces intensify an awareness of our desire for control over our bodies and environments, but couple this alertness with an anxiety concerning the extent to which we are able to control such things.

Three conclusions emerge from this analysis of VR and First, has the potential to create immersive experiences for participants by collapsing the perceived distance between the viewer and another participant or event in a remote location. Information networks not only distribute information, they create links and draw people closer together. Second, immersive and distributed aesthetics are not necessarily escapist in nature and do not always represent a flight from the body. Rather, as the term aesthetics implies, they can evoke a return to the body and sensory perception by heightening awareness of naturalised and embodied modes of perception. They also draw attention to how naturalised modes of perception are being extended and transformed through new information technologies and networks. In some cases, technological interfaces have already become so ingrained in our everyday lives as to be normalised body disciplines, even though they clearly generate particular modes of interacting with the world.

Finally, artworks that generate immersive and distributed aesthetics have had a dramatic effect on traditional aesthetic theories that uphold the ideal of a distanced observer. Immersive digital artworks enfold the viewer in the architecture of the work, extending the viewer’s sense of bodily presence in virtual and remote locations. The traditional relationship between the viewer and art object has been radically reconfigured by new technologies that situate the viewer in different spatial and perceptual relationships with the work. By immersing the participant in a changing sensory-aesthetic environment, VR systems and refuse the illusion of a secure place outside of an artwork or technological culture where one can dispassionately assess art, technology and our relationships with these discourses. They highlight Lyotard’s point that aesthetic judgment takes place in ‘a dazzling immediacy’ of thinking and feeling while interacting with the work of art. Yet immersive artworks often expand this concept by transforming the role of the viewer from a spectator to a participant or performer who effectively helps to create both the content and the meaning of the work as they interact.

Author's Biography

Edwina Bartlem is an art curator and writer with a specific interest in video, new media and biological art practice. Until recently, she taught cinema and new media studies in the Cinema Program at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where she is currently completing a PhD on immersive aesthetics in new media art. At present, she is the Curator and Arts Programmer at Manningham Gallery in Melbourne. Recent publications include: ‘Immersive Artificial Life’ in the Journal of Australia Studies (Issue 84, 2005), ‘Coming Out on a Hell Mouth’ in Refractory: Journal of Entertainment Media (Vol 2, 2003) and ‘Emergence: New Flesh and Life in New Media Art’, soon to be published in an edited book on the future of flesh and bodily mutation.

[1] ‘Telematics’ refers to computer mediated communication networking made possible through telephone, cable, internet and satellite links. These technologies effectively bring individuals or institutions from geographically dispersed locations into communicative relationships. Perceptions of space, bodies, identities (personal, national and global) and ideas about communication have been challenged by telematics. Roy Ascott introduced the term ‘telematic art’ to describe art projects that use communication links and exchanges as integral parts of the work. For Ascott, the meaning of art is not generated by the artist alone, but by the process of interaction between the participant(s) and networked systems.

[2] The concept of telepresence evolved from research done in the mid-1980s by NASA’s Human Factors Research Division who were working on developing telepresence as a way of manipulating robots from a distance, to reduce the risk of human harm or death in hazardous environments (Woolley, 1992: 126). As Benjamin Woolley describes it, NASA’s research was aimed at providing ‘a wrap-around technology that would give the machine operator the feeling of being in the place of the machine being operated’ (1992: 126).

[3] The Stimbod software was conceptualised by Stelarc and designed by Troy Innocent. Gary Zebington developed the remote body-control element of the software that was used in the Ping Body events. See Stelarc’s website for more information about the design and development of Stimbod (

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