What a really extraordinary world we live in. An obnoxious college student invents something called Facebook. (I haven’t seen The Social Network yet, but that seems to be the drift.) Millions of us join it. Thousands in Egypt foment a revolution using it. Count me among the astounded, as well deeply moved.
I think one of the reasons I hesitate to endorse a world where we can design our own alternative realities is that this reality is so extraordinary. I could never come up with some of the stuff that happens in it. It’s full of surprises. Will our virtual worlds compare?
But then again, consider: What if the creation of virtual environments enhances our ability to see and interact with this reality?
Char Davies interests me because that’s what she’s about in two artworks created with virtual reality (VR) technology—Osmose (1995) and Ephemere (1998).
“Osmose is about our relationship with Nature in its most primary sense,” writes Davies. “Osmosis: a biological process involving passage from one side of a membrane to another. Osmosis as a metaphor: transcendence of difference through mutual absorption, dissolution of boundaries between inner and outer, inter-mingling of self and world, longing for the Other. Osmose as an artwork seeks to heal the rational Cartesian mind/body subject/object split which has shaped so many of our cultural values, especially towards nature.”
Both pieces were inspired by an actual place in southern Quebec, where Davies used to wander and study the rocks, trees, ponds and streams—and may still, for all I know, even though she laments its gradual demise because of pollution, especially smelters in the U.S. Midwest.
Born in Toronto, Char Davies studied art and philosophy at Bennington College, Vermont, before obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Victoria, British Columbia. From very early on, she was interested in nature and our perceptions of space. Searching for a way to express her love for the natural world that wasn’t simply representational, she engaged in a series of visual exercises, removing her contact lenses so that the images she painted were ones she saw with her own blurry vision. Instead of seeing and painting objects, she saw different regions of light, which freed her from the physical objects and turned her into a more interior, poetic, and symbolic artist.
What led her away from painting and into working with VR was a profound need to convey a sense of being enveloped in space in her art. With the new technology she was able to develop her work in a three-dimensional instead of a two-dimensional space. In 1987 she became a founding director of the very successful company, Softimage, a Montreal-based developer of digital animation software, which helped her in her work as an artist.
This is how she describes Osmose and Ephémère:
“The impulse behind this project has been to communicate an intensified experience of being embodied in the space-time of the living world. Osmose and Ephémère are my most recent attempts to distill and amplify the sensations and emotions of being conscious, embodied and mortal, i.e. how it feels to be alive here now among all this, immersed in the vast, multi-channeled flow of life through space and time. In these works I seek to remind people of their connection to the natural (rather than man-made) environment not only biologically, but spiritually and psychologically, as regenerative source and mythological ground.”
Unlike the usual VR experience where the participant uses a probe to explore a virtual world, where the experience is about control, the “immersant” in Davies’ work moves through virtual space by means of breath and balance—when she inhales she begins to rise, bended knees increase her speed, leaning forward produces movement forward and back, backwards. The focus on breathing makes the immersant intensely aware of her own body. The actual experience is supposed to feel something like scuba diving.
Ephémère is structured into three levels: the landscape, under the earth, and the body. It is also structured temporally passing from daylight to nighttime and back, and through the seasons. Its boulders give way to body organs then, in turn, transform to bone. Seeds may germinate when the immersant gazes at them. The immersant experiences the earth and the body in their profoundly spiritual and physical relationship to one another.
For too many of the VR techies, the technology promises us new bodies that don’t decay or die. “That trend, for me, is one that I find very alarming,” says Davies, “and a lot of people have bought into it. For me, it’s important that we reaffirm the body, reaffirm our materiality, and I feel that by using these interface methods I am resituating the body in that virtual space.”
In the meantime, Char Davies has returned to real reality. Working with boulders, streams and forest—she is currently shaping more than 500 acres of land in southern Québec.
Now, if I can just figure out how to become an immersant! Or not?