Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, June 26-September 27, 1998
appeared in Parachute 94, April-June 1999.
While it affords
diverse modes of engagement, what is most compelling about Char
Davies' interactive installation, Éphémère, is its implications
for a haptic aesthetics - the sensational and relational aspects
of touch, weight, balance, gesture and movement. This work's virtual
reality technology is designed to achieve a full body "immersion,"
where the beholder directs his or her own journey through a simulated
This 3-D computer
graphics and sound work was co-produced by Char Davies' own Immersence,
Inc., and Softimage, the company she helped found. Éphémère's
world première occupied three rooms at the National Gallery. Outside
was a reception area where participants signed a release form. Entering
the darkened exhibition space visitors encountered two screens:
on one appeared the current "immersant" in silhouette, while another
displayed a projection of their real-time journey. Viewers watched
how participants negotiated clarity out of their initial confusion.
Here the kinaesthetic aspect of the haptic comes into play as the
gestures of the person - hands open like antennae or grasped protectively
before the body - can be studied.
With an appointment,
one goes behind the scenes, is greeted by an attendant, and strapped
into equipment with interfaces cued to enable directional movement
in the virtual world. A set of pressure sensors in a vest responds
to the expansion and contraction of respiration. As you inhale,
you ascend; as you exhale, you sink. Another set of sensors respond
to the tilt of the spinal axis, which, in turn, trigger trajectories
of volition. As you lean, you move in a particular direction. Next
a helmet is placed over the head which projects images directly
onto the eyes. Significantly, the hands - the organs of touch -
are free. It is not contiguous touch that is implicated in this
VR world, but rather the relational mode of the haptic through navigational
interfaces which track breath and balance.
the headset and the constriction of the vest take a little getting
used to, but with practice one begins to float effortlessly through
space. There is a buoyant sense of movement in a world of partially
dematerialized objects, an elation of feeling free from the density
of the body. The sequence of the fifteen-minute voyage - while differing
with each enactment - moves through a series of preset environments.
Maneuvering beyond tangible forms, one enters a realm of affect
that evokes an out of-body experience. Objects are transparent,
as if it is their subtle rather than actual bodies that are observed.
The poetics of the piece pivot on thresholds: the shift in awareness
between outer and inner space, the change of seasons in a landscape,
the shift in perception external and internal to the body. One begins
the journey floating disembodied through starry outer space. Coming
to earth, one glides through a forest of ghostly trees, stones and
running water. Controlling the breath affects one's altitude in
the artificial world as well as one's consciousness. One begins
to sense how suspending the breath enables a steady focus which
acts as a trigger. Coming to stillness and fixing one's gaze transforms
objects into scintillating visions. Rocks transmute into luminescent
tadpoles with gently moving tails, or you might be merged into a
seemingly infinite column of light. Next, one finds one's self inside
a representation of the body, observing circulatory networks and
rivers of blood cells. Then in a more abstracted space, we seem
to observe the firing of synapses along the nervous system. This
results in an immediate identification with the body's interoceptive
space. Yet because your experience is visible to others, this is
not a solitary meditation. The attendant plays a significant relational
role by interacting with and encouraging the beholder. It is uncanny
to have someone commenting on what feel like interoceptive states,
like having someone in your head. The journey ends just as it began,
floating again in outer space.
of many commercial virtual reality applications work to enhance
an extreme detachment characteristic of a primarily visualist experience.
Games designed to "identify and strike," to thrill through speed,
derive from military applications of this technology. Davies' work,
instead, uses the same technology to bring forth a qualitatively
different experience. Instead of encouraging the sense of "objectivity"
of search and destroy applications, Éphémère deploys a haptic
interface to deepen the sense of subjective embodiment. What becomes
exciting is how elements of this world respond to the participant's
presence. Instead of speed, the negotiation of a "still point" generates
a kind of mutuality that effects an opening into new realms of experience.
According to the artist, patience is rewarded precisely because
"it fosters contemplation rather than action." This has important,
even feminist, implications for an ontological alternative to commercial
VR's frantic, and often violent, conventions.
illuminates the aesthetic as both a category of judgment and experience.
Viewing the silhouetted immersant, we can see how aesthetic choice
operates in the form of a kinaesthetic response. The audience can
watch the moment when the participant opts to move in a specific
way, at a particular speed, or to sustain a stationary focus. We
notice how each decision confers a transition into a distinct realm
of possibilities. While visuality is involved, Éphémère also
implicates non-visual sensation and experience in its relational
modes. At a time when much VR technology effects a visual dominance
and corporeal abstraction, this work's use of the haptic sense both
implicates and creates an "embodied" spectator. While "immersence"
- submerging oneself in a particular environment - may be fearful
to some in ideological terms, the politics at work here are more
sensorially nuanced. There is no fixed overdetermination because
choice is constantly at work. Éphémère is, instead, an opportunity
to train the senses toward a more multi-sensorial aesthetic.
is an art and cultural critic, editor, and independent curator based
in Montreal. She has written extensively on feminist aesthetics
and exhibition practice. She is co-editor of Living Display: Rethinking
Human Exhibition (forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press)
and working to complete a book Haptic Aesthetics: Engaging Touch
in Art and Exhibitions. Her recent projects include the exhibitions
CounterPoses: Reimagining Tableaux Vivants (galerie Oboro,
1998), Vital Signs (The Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery, 2000),
and Museopathy (The Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2001).
Dr. Fisher co-organized Uncommon Senses: An Interdisciplinary
Conference on the Senses in Art and Culture at Concordia in
April 2000. She teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program at Concordia
University and in the Department of Art History and Communication
Studies at McGill University.
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