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Char Davies’ Immersive Virtual Art and the Essence of Spatiality

by Laurie McRobert
University of Toronto Press, Toronto Canada, 2007
290 pp., illus. 16 b/w. Trade, $50.00 Canadian, 32.00 UK
ISBN: 080209094X.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University

mosher@svsu.edu

I look upon my dusty shelf of the first wave of Virtual Reality (VR) books and miss those heady cyberpunk days of 1989-93 when VR was the rage. In Howard Rheingold’s ambitious Virtual Reality, or titles like Silicon Mirage, or Garage VR, one breathes the same optimism as the early days of crystal radio sets and the Model T Ford.

The world of computer-human interface was not the same after Jaron Lanier's 1988 SIGGRAPH conference demo of a digital world viewed through head-mounted "eyephones," six degrees of freedom of movement within it, and a data glove as controller. The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (The WELL) bristled and crackled with blue-sky conversations imagining the transformative possibilities of VR. The subsequent loss of Lanier’s company to a corporate creditor could inspire a tragic opera, and unlike Steve Jobs’ Apple, he never regained it in the end (as perhaps Lanier’s personality was more like the puttering Woz than confident and focused Jobs). The anthropologist Barbara Joans looked around the 1991 Second Cyberspace Conference at the University of California in Santa Cruz and noted that half the room was full of scientists with technological solutions but no problems (content) for it, and the other half artists with content to tackle but no access to the technology.

Enough nostalgia. There is a freshness in the fact that Laurie McRobert's first encounter with virtual reality was to experience Char Davies' work, the digital installations Osmose and Ephémère, at the end of the 1990s. This makes McRobert a bit of a latecomer, but gives her the advantage of knowing the medium from a pair of its most mature works. The two Davies artworks are experienced via a head-mounted display unit and a body vest to monitor breathing and balance. Participants are immersed in 3D-virtual space where they interact with abstract images of nature while navigating in an artificial spatial environment. Navigation in VR forces designers to choose between a theatrical (externally managed) work, or one in which the user is entirely free yet at the risk of flying off into unbounded empty space and (with no visual clues) not finding her or his way back. One solution is invisible walls, restricting the user’s movement.

In reading this book, it becomes evident how Davies‘ virtual worlds developed from her earlier evanescent, dematerialized drawings and paintings. Their indeterminacy and lack of sharp definition is suggestive of the nineteenth century artists J.M.W. Turner and Eugene Carriere, or the whooshes of critically-derided contemporary painter Leonardo Nierman. These are sui generis 3D worlds, containing nothing to kill (as in a video game), just a place to observe a world that drifts around you. Too often simulation of nature leads to puppetry, which this reviewer–despite privileging the human representation in painting and drawing–finds unsatisfying. The inclusion here of Davies’ working sketches from notebooks is helpful to an understanding her aesthetic and artistic goals.

However, Davies’ digital environments prove the truism that you have to have power (computer and person-hours) to build VR. She is fortunate to have both artistic skills and refined aesthetic, as well as the advantage of partnership in the 3D software firm SoftImage. Like automobiles before Henry Ford, VR development remains a rich person's game, even if the wealth–as hardware costs drop–is in programming resources. Another notable work in VR history, Brenda Laurel's Placeholder project, had Interval Research Corporation's Paul Allen money behind it.

Yet what of contemporary commercial VR development? Few applications succeeded that employed social worlds with avatars until Second Life, which is losing its luster in corporate eyes. Second Life seems to flounder——or at least has disappointed its corporate tenants. Meanwhile Facebook booms, creating community metaphors and communication without doll-like avatars, only photos or cartoons. For 3D worlds, the boom seems to remain in games and military simulations, as only these make continual use of developments in real-time 3D technology. One ponders the well-developed trigger fingers of the gamer generation of troops that invaded and occupy Iraq.

In mapping Char Davies’ peaceful worlds, McRobert looks to Hegel, Heidegger on the nature of object and experience. She alludes to Northrop Fry and Jewish mystics, She quotes Michael Heim, early philosopher of cybericity. All offer her conceptual planks to add to the scaffolding upon which she sits to experience Char Davies’ worlds. A list of "cyber immortalists Rudy Rucker, Mike Kelley, Hans Moravec" gives pause, unless she is talking of a robotocist named Kelley rather than the non-digital California artist who reconstructs his Michigan schooldays in human tableaux, performance, and installations. One would also like to see McRobert locate, or juxtapose, Davies’ synthetic wild gardens with the virtual architectures of Michael Benedikt, Marcos Novak, and Peter Anders. Still, Char Davies is fortunate to have as dedicated a commentator and documentarian as Laurie McRobert.

To hear of media studies out of the University of Toronto, this reviewer immediately thinks of the legacy of Marshall McLuhan. It is good that the university's press is publishing on contemporary digital media, for creative innovation in Canada has frequently outstripped work from the cash-strapped, increasingly privatizing and profit-driven universities in the nation to its south.

 

 




Updated 1st December 2007


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