Exhibited in ‘Transfigure’ at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image, Melbourne, 8 December 2003 — 9 May 2004
Freedom from Equipment
Thus, for contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.(Walter Benjamin)
What Benjamin said about film all those years ago (in the 1920s) finally makes sense to me after seeing, or rather ‘doing,’ Char Davies’ two immersive virtual environments at the Australian Centre of the Moving Image’s most recent exhibition, ‘Transfigure: perception, body, space & landscape transformed by the moving image’. In the Davies works the oppositional dynamic between film and painting has been supplanted by that between Virtual Reality immersion and older audio-visual media (such as film), but the key element Benjamin says is on offer in the newer
artform is the same: ‘an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment’. Benjamin’s characteristically paradoxical assertion — that it is the highly technical nature of the production of film that enables it to achieve this equipment-free state — is all the more paradoxical in the case of Davies’ two works, Osmose (1995) and Ephemere (1998). Osmose is described as ‘an immersive virtual environment with stereoscopic 3D computer graphics, spatialised sound and real time interaction. The interface consists of a stereoscopic head-mounted display and real-time motion tracking based on breath and balance’. Ephemere utilises the same technical equipment (Davies, 2004).
Steve Dietz has said that in these works Davies ‘is attempting to create completely non-technical feeling spaces and experiences with some of the highest technology available’ (2002: 512). For Dietz what is most significant about this project is that it captures one of the dreams of technology for the future, a dream which hopes to ‘predict the future by inventing it’ but which never manages to do so (Dietz, 2002: 512). This future (virtual) experience of a non-technical existence would be that which Benjamin says one is entitled to ask from a work of art, namely, an experience that is produced by a negation of the equipment that is used to provide it.
This negation would appear to have a retrogressive intent, tending toward an an ideal, illusory pre-technological moment of human existence. And this charge could be levelled at Davies’ work, suffused as it is with an aesthetic of the natural, organic world. In Osmose one flies through virtual forests and down into ponds and oceans of flowing liquid pixels. The soundtrack is generated interactively from samples of human voices. Davies has stated that for a long time she has ‘been interested in conveying a sense of being enveloped in all-encompassing, all-surrounding space, a subjective embodied experience that is very different from the Cartesian notion of absolute, empty, abstract, xyz space’ (Davies, 2004). This xyz space is figured in the beginning of Osmose as a gridded black zone in which one first finds oneself. As one begins to travel by means of breathing and rocking, swaying and crouching movements, the grid is left behind and the ‘natural’ milieu appears as a distant region below the user, a region inviting exploration.
These works could be described as ‘Romantic’ in the widespread sense of the term inasmuch as they invoke the natural world against civilised, rational, technoculture. There is, however, a more profound sense in which they demonstrate the persistence of a romantic aesthetic and indeed ethic today. Their project of negating their equipmentality evinces the dialectic of sublation that Jacques Derrida (among others) have identified as central to the romantic impulse (Derrida, 1986). Osmose and Ephemere seek to negate the technological to arrive at the natural, the rational (mental) to arrive at the physical (embodied); the seek to negate the military-entertainment complex that produced VR to arrive at the spiritual realm of experience, to negate the physical effort of operating the equipment to transcend the body-mind duality, and so forth.
Of course, these works have always already inscribed the paradox of this project that Benjamin identified. Aside from its Cartesian ‘lobby’ of gridded space, Osmose includes a zone ‘beneath’ the virtual forest floor that is thick with representations of the computer code used to design the illusory 3-D space. Ephemere‘s navigational design allows for passage into objects such as boulders which can open up into whole other spaces of exploration. As such it draws on the classic GUI design aesthetic of items within items (documents in folders in folders) which open up when clicked. Along with the weighty hardware interface tools one wears, this reminds the user they are operating a variant of computer interface design in order to go to the ‘different’ space beyond the everyday world of computer technology. The work’s prospective future identified by Dietz is the telostoward which the dialectic unfolds. This ideal synthesis of the technological and the natural would be achieved when the implicitly injurious nature of technology is transformed into its opposite, the restorative technology of nature.
These works want technology — as injury to the human, as inert matter, as spiritless machinery — to disappear into a realm free of equipment. While this could be seen as a nostalgic, even naïve project, Osmose and Ephemere have the merit of foregrounding the paradoxical aspect of this persistent romantic dream. In so doing they make apparent something which Bernard Stiegler has emphasised in the first volume of his extended study of technology, Technics and Time (1998). The technological is not something which appears after the human: the human can
only be thought of as a default of essence, always already in need of a technical supplement (fire, flint, weapon). The human was never natural if natural means non-technical. Davies’ high-tech ‘nature works’ reiterate this essential default of the human by revealing that the freedom from equipment that is nature is opened up as a possibility for the human precisely and only by equipment.
Benjamin, W. (1968) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Trans. Harry Zohn, in H. Arendt (ed.), Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.
Davies, C. (2004) ‘Artist’s Statement’, Transfigure website, http://www.acmi.net.au/char_davies.htm. Accessed March 4, 2004.
Derrida, J. (1986) Glas. Trans. J. P. Leavey, Jr. and R. Rand. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Dietz, S. (2002) ‘Ten Dreams of Technology’, Leonardo 35, 5: 509-13.
Stiegler, B. (1998) Technics and Time, Volume One: The Fault of Epimetheus. Trans. R. Beardsworth and G. Collins. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Patrick Crogan teaches film and media at Adelaide University, Australia. He has published work on technology, film, digital media and computer games in journals including Angelaki, Theory, Culture and Society, and Animation Journal. He is a contributor to The Video Game Theory Reader and co-editor of the first issue of the online media theory journal, Scan.