Reality and the Dynamics of Transcendence
Immersive Virtual Space
computer-based art exhibit that I was immersed in personally, Osmose
during the International Symposium on Electronic Art held in Montreal
last autumn, was the creation of Char Davies a Montreal artist who
began her career as a painter of large-scale fictitious landscape
works. She became frustrated at her inability to delve beyond the
two dimensional picture plane through which she was attempting to
depict an enveloping osmotic-type space. This lead her to experiment
with computer technology by teaming up with a colleague working
in the computer software field.(1) She was able
to gain solid backing from high-tech computer firms in her pursuit
of both an artistic and experimental type of art form. The current
art show utilizes a $1.4 million dollar computer designed by U.S.
Onyx computer especially to show Osmose.
are two ways to view this computer-based art. As part of the audience
you see what is projected onto the screen in front of you wearing
stereoscopic glasses. Or you can be an immersant, the sole person
located in the theatre's special chamber. As an immersant in this
three-dimensional work of art, I was dressed in the following equipment:
chest harness to monitor my breathing and balance and headgear to
immerse me in a three dimensional, 360 degree world. Breathing in
I was told would cause me to ascend while breathing out would bring
me down during my three-dimensional voyage in space. I could bend
my neck up or down to see spaces above or below me and turn in any
direction. My bodily responses controlled the images that the audience
in the theatre's auditorium could view stereoscopically. As I floated
through digitized spatiality they would do so vicariously.
the headgear is first put on you the image that appears is a three
dimensional grid--receding lines surround you setting up a geometrical
mis-en-scène. One feels as though one has entered the world
of the mathematician's phase space. Soon, however, the program begins
its magic and a strange enchanting three-dimensional world emerges
out of the space. Space surrounds you "osmotically", as
the artist intends it to.
"immersants", as the artist prefers to call the people
who participate in Osmose, stay connected for twenty minutes or
so in order that they experience some of the twelve worlds that
symbolize journeys through--Forest, Clearing, Leaf, Pond and Abyss,
which are intended as metaphors or sites for the contemplation of
a renewed connection with nature--or as the artist prefers, with
Being. I came into a forest with many trees which in yet another
world gave way to a clearing with a pond much like Heidegger would
have had it. And, as it turns out, it seems that this is what the
artist had in mind because she referred both to Heidegger's "clearing"
and to Rilke's poetry when speaking to an audience later that week
at ISEA where she screened this video of Osmose and explained the
concepts underlying her work of art. As she explained it in an artist's
statement Osmose is "A work-in-progress exploring the potential
or immersive virtual space--as a medium for visual/aural expression
& kinaesthetic experience of philosophical ideas".(2)
In this respect, Davies is at the forefront of an immersive art
form which employs computer technology and is without a doubt its
leading artistic implementor and exponent.
one floats in space, through leaves that take on ethereal dimensions
and shapes, one feels at peace with the world and more than this
at peace with the cosmos. Davies aspires to dissolve boundaries
between subject and object, between inner and outer worlds. Her
hope is that immersants will reenter the real world with a greater
sensitivity for the nature of things. She hopes, too, that the immersive
art experience might create a new understanding for being-in-the-world.
the most enchanting experience for me came when I encountered an
overpowering and dominating, "cosmic tree". Slowly appearing
from directly behind me it travelled toward me getting bigger and
more glorious in its diamond-like sparkling attire until it embraced
me like a lover. Aesthetically so pleasing and so perfect in its
treeness it became for me nothing less than the archetypal cosmic
tree that archaic cultures embraced so reverently and that Christian
cultures still do with their Christmas trees.
tree immersed itself in me, travelling through me, becoming one
with me and leaving me nostalgically anticipating the moment when
it would be gone.
I mused, "now I know what Buber meant by the I-It experience".
An experience that was often difficult to "teach" to students
who founder on what Buber means by the sacredness or holiness of
the artist explained it, hers was an attempt to provide viewers
with a sense of being in profound and fluid relationship with these
virtual worlds of her creation. Her artistic endeavour of immersing
one into what often seemed to be a transcendent sense of spatiality
was perhaps the best example of enabling one to experience what
philosopher's have only been able to write about--this always out
of reach for them, sense of transcendence.
last world conjured up infinite-like spatiality. Had one stepped
into that heaven beyond the beyond? Into eternity? Here giant exquisite-geometric-crystal-ice-spheric
boulders flew non-threateningly toward me and I toward them and
although already in space I entered into yet into its inner sense
of space. Later I reflected that this must be what Teilhard de Chardin
meant when he anticipated, at his death, becoming one with Cosmic
Being. In effect--the experience was, as some have described it,
like "tripping" although without drugs.
Char Davies's Osmose is aesthetically overwhelming, and more than
pleasing to the senses. There is even this surprising attempt to
balance left-right hemispheric content due to the enframing of images
by worlds of code and text. Davies confided that she used excerpts
of her favourite writers and philosophers for the world of text.
As she explained it, the words one floated through in Osmose were
deliberately used because she hoped to show that philosophical concepts
could be represented by images. Davies's goal is to utilize the
computer's talents in an artistic manner that does not conjure up
images of digitalness. In this respect she succeeds brilliantly.(3)
rather, ingeniously, even embeds the computerized code used to create
her work of art into one of her worlds of words perhaps to remind
one that without these floating codes, the technological contribution
of the computer, the osmotic experience, would not be possible.
Virtual Dynamics (Metaphysics) of Osmose
are two ways to approach transcendence in Osmose. Positively through
the dynamics of space or negatively through the dynamics of nature.
Here I will deal with nature and so proceed through a via negativa.
The question I wish to address is, is there such a thing as doing
a philosophy of virtual reality and if so what are the metaphysics
of it? Is it possible to do philosophy from the point of view of
image and is this how we will do philosophy in the future.(4)
Heim in his book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality introduces us
to the notion of a cyberspace filled with Platonic forms out of
which cyberartists and/or the cyberpoet will mould meaningful reality.
When I reflected upon this cyberspace notion of Platonic forms I
immediately realized that Heim had touched on a vital nerve, one
that connects philosophy to computer generated images. If Michael
Heim's Platonic metaphysical forms need to be moulded by an artist,
then Char Davies surely accomplishes this moulding through her digital
work of art, Osmose. It occurred to me that 1) the dynamics underlying
Osmose might serve to determine the validity of Heim's insight that
there could be a metaphysics of virtual reality based on Platonic
dynamics and that 2) if this was so, then Plato's metaphysical dynamics
ought to work to describe the digital dynamics of Osmose.
Osmose and Platonic Forms
Osmose, the cyberspace out of which forms are moulded is limited
to and framed by a computer, so the idea of cyberspace we are dealing
with here is confined to these brackets rather than to the global
ones we are accustomed to thinking of. We have seen how the initial
scenario in Osmose introduces one to a mathematical grid--as though
to remind a person that everything one is about to see will have
been produced through the computer's manipulation of three points,
geometrically positioned to create an image. If one were to dissect
the artistry underlying the image of the tree in Osmose what one
would see is pure geometry. Triangles of every conceivable dimension
have created the tree. The software program used (Softimage) has
also facilitated the illusionary rounding off of the edges and the
dressing of the tree in its resplendent, glittering glory.
mathematical intelligibles, therefore, constitute a convenient starting
point for us in this discussion of digitized philosophical dynamics
because we are dealing not only with the input of the digitized
bodily responses of the immersant but with the output of an interactive
computerized program, and with a software program based on geometry
the immersant's point of view the tree in Osmose is a glorious image--capable
of conjuring up ideas of Ideal Forms. From the point of view of
Platonic dynamics the tree that is generated through these digital
mathematical formulas would be an anomaly; the tree ought simply
to be an intelligible form in thought, certainly not a visible one
and never an Ideal one. Ideal Forms are intelligibles that transcend
mathematical intelligibles in Plato's philosophy. Ideal Forms can
never be know expect by analogies and metaphors and proportionality.
ought to point out that we are working our way downward into the
depths of Plato's cave parable for purposes of the analogy that
I am making here. Plato's metaphysics has it that the world of invisible
intelligible Ideal forms has projected the world of mathematical
forms possible for thought. The mathematical forms in turn have
made the world of things or objects visible in the real world. As
we descend further into the cave, the visible forms of things and
objects project themselves as shadows on the walls of the cave that
people mistake for the real world. How does all this relate to the
dynamics of the immersive art we have just seen?
computer can instantly create geometric, mathematical forms, or
images, out of numbers and points and hence as we saw with Osmose
make a world of mathematically invisible forms visible. In so doing
it introduces yet another dimension into Plato's stratification
of worlds--a projected dimension of virtual mathematical forms.
Rather than project a real world, as Plato's mathematical forms
do, the computerized dynamics of Osmose project no real world--only
mathematicized images. The forms of nature we see in Osmose are
not meant to be facsimiles, they are instead virtual forms of nature.
digital rendition of nature allows us to slip into a never before
experienced inbetween world that Plato might or might not have marvelled
at. That is, Osmose, as an immersive work of art, allows us a way
of seeing the world of mathematical forms in a virtual, imageful
way--a world that ought only to belong to thought. It brings the
invisible mathematical formula into a visible world of forms that
can represent things or objects but only in a formal way. The move
is not a difficult one to make because of the computer's digital
ability to generate mathematical formulas as images. We are all
familiar with the Mandelbrot set and its astonishing displays of
formulas as images. What is thought provoking for philosophers in
respect to Osmose is that an artist has taken philosophical concepts,
supposedly bound to thought alone, and image-fully projected their
abstract forms--making of them visible concepts.
we juxtapose the Platonic mathematical dynamics alongside the Osmosian
dynamics, and continue downward from the invisible but now visible
worlds of mathematical forms we encounter two types of visible forms:
the Osmosian virtually formal nature and the Platonic realworld
variety. Whereas in the original cave scenario the objects or things
in the real world were projected upon the walls to become an imaginary
world of images, of shadows, we now have a projection of a virtual
form of nature on the "walls" of a cavernous 3 D computer
spatiality. The artist's digitalized rendition of nature has forced
us to skip over Plato's idea of a real world projection so that
the projections we are confronted with in Osmose are images of virtual
forms of nature, not nature as we know it at all.
Osmose permits us to be immersed only in the virtual forms of nature
how can the transcendent experience that so many immersants obviously
experienced in Osmose be a transcendent one? After all I am claiming
it has lead one into the Platonic world of the cave. If we rethink
Plato's parable we would have to ask what does it mean to have reflected
on a wall imaginary forms created not from a real world of objects
but from virtual forms of nature?
one does not necessarily relate to these forms as virtual forms
of nature. As one reflects upon the immersive experience a Kierkegaardian
"immediacy-after-reflection" occurs. One finds that one
has, indeed, been lead down into a Platonic cave of shadows by the
resplendent artfully produced computer images in Osmose. We have
descended, so to speak, from Plato's mathematical world of intelligible
forms directly into a world of forms and shadows through provocative
digital artistry. Since virtual forms of nature have been involved
rather then a virtual reality or real world of nature, something
about these digital images of nature remain with you as afterimage
and it is this afterimage that eventually becomes disconcerting.
Upon reflection we find that we have become prisoners of a computer's
rendition of a virtual nature and if left to wallow in the nature
represented in Osmose we would be no further ahead then the cave
people that Plato describes in his famous parable.
are confronted with the same question, again. What, then, of the
transcendent experience? How is it that Osmose in the end, can produce
in one these feelings for transcendence if the immersive work of
art has lead one into a computer's abysmal cave of geometrically
produced forms and even worst by way of digitized senses?
many ways what is true of the later Schelling's wrestle with the
limits of reason in his negative philosophy is also true of the
dynamics of Osmose. In Osmose there is this encounter with the virtual
forms of nature going on; they are mesmerizing and bedazzling expressions
of the mathematical/geometrical but they are limited to the computer's
"reason" or logic; to its program and your own sensations.
Unlike Plato's descent from Ideal Forms, through the mathematical,
real and imaginary, the digital dynamics descent has been a descent
beginning only from the mathematical, proceeding directly to the
virtual and shadow world and only after reflection inviting us to
confront the real world of nature. Osmose, indeed, succeeds in making
of us concerned ecologists.
intent is to demonstrate how the metaphysics of the cave parable
can also work upward through the real world and the mathematical
world and hence toward an intuitive metaphorical grasp of the realm
of Ideal forms. This is also true of Osmosian dynamics--not in respect
to nature but in respect to the cosmos--something we cannot go into
Heim's insight and Plato's metaphysics, I have attempted to demonstrate
that Osmose is a vehicle that allows us a way to describe a metaphysics
of digitally through the use of images so that in fact the image
sublates the concept. This digital approach to metaphysical dynamics
suggests that this kind of image-ful philosophizing is just as legitimate
as conceptual philosophizing in provoking thinking processes. It
is also possible to argue (but not here) 1) that because of cyberspace
and the multimedia it employs philosophy based on image-ful dynamics
is likely to become the dominant way of philosophizing in the future.
And 2) that new philosophical paradigms for thought created out
of cyberspace will create a shift from left hemisphere domination
to a right hemisphered matrix. We will learn to function out a wholistic
sense of consciousness rather than the sequentially fragmented one
we have been caught up in for the past 2,000 years or so.
despite all this good news, that it is now possible to experience
philosophical concepts through the images created by digital dynamics,
the bad news is that digital dynamics can not take us out of the
worldview that we are presently bound to. Our digital worldview
is just as bound to the mathematical and geometrical paradigm as
Plato's worldview was and thus to ideas of space and time and transcendence
that dominate this worldview.(5) To transcend the
ideas of this worldview we shall need a new paradigm entirely.
to Table of Contents
Last Updated August 7, 1997 by Laurie McRobert
See footnote 7.
Quoted from a postcard give away describing Osmose.
We ought to note the credits listed for "Osmose". Char
Davies--Concept and direction; George Mauro--Graphics; John Harrison--Virtual
reality software development; Rick Bidlack--Music composition and
programming; Dorota Blaszczak--Sound design and programming; and
Daniel Langlois--Executive Producer. The exhibition is co-sponsored
by Microsoft Softimage and Silicon Graphics. As already noted in
the text it is substantially subsidized by a software company. This
computer-art is not easily produced. This particular work of are
would cost about 2 million dollars in my estimation to produce,
perhaps more. An artist working alone would not be privy to this
kind of financing. One must point out that Davies has had the advantage
of working closely with the creator of Softimage, Daniel Langlois.
Not only has she achieved her goal in this production, but she has
gone even further--she has immersed us, for better or for worse,
into a three dimensional cosmic womb. She is not alone, however,
the field is fast becoming inundated with computer-artists who are
becoming quite adept at producing virtual reality effects; in merging
humanness with machine.
In fact these initial rumblings of image-ful philosophical dynamics
began when I gave a course at Thomas More Institute that pitted
chaos theory against deconstructionism. The idea was to let the
abysmal dynamics evoked by deconstructionism be grasped through
the fractal images provided by chaos theory. I was surprised at
how easily students could understand what it was that deconstructionists
were deconstructing through the use of the images of fractal science
In include in this digital category the quantum computers being
developed. They too work through digital dynamics even though they
are designed to interact with each other's digital 0-1's (called
qubits). Cited at http://www.aston.ac.uk/~batong/Neutronics/waveref.htm.
The article lists it source as Physics News UpDate The American
Institute of Physics Bulletin of Physics News Number 293, October
30, 1996 by Phillip F. Schewe and Ben Stein.