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Virtual Body

The Virtual Body is a nostalgic material object. A first sight it seems to be a museum piece made of alluring, warm, fine materials, reminiscent of the column stereoscopes of the mid-nineteenth century. These innovative optical devices were part scientific instrument, part aesthetic object, and part perceptual media. The Virtual Body occupies this ambiguous ground of instrument and object. Evocative of nineteenth-century taste and world view, its reassuring distinction between the spectator and the object is still familiar. But it is just this familiar relation that is challenged in new technologies and, once the spectator interacts with this piece, the familiar spectator/object relation is turned inside out.

The Virtual Body initially presents a Rococo room as an object for the spectator. Then these relations are inverted, taking up the spectator within the simulation. Instead of the spectator being central to the room's perspective, standing under an interior sky, a model of order, the spectator is taken in, dispersed, positionless, yet everywhere.

Not overtly about technology, this quiet piece has a deceptive appearance. It mimics absorption of current technology into familiar material environments. But as technology seems to disappear, assimilated by objects, it remains ubiquitous, everywhere. As a consequence, the object, in effect, becomes simply a carrier, a host, a nostalgic remainder of materiality.

This work addresses a shift in the idea of self under these conditions. In the highly technological culture of North America the clear distinction between the spectator and object is changing so that the boundaries between the two are no longer clear. Shedding the comforting nineteenth-century perspective of the body as a self-contained organism, the body cannot now, in a sense, be distinguished from the information environment. Rather than a contained and independent self, we have a body that is intimately readable, a universally coded information event. Our boundaries seem porous, in a cyborgian condition. This piece is about the moment of awkwardness as we recognize ourselves in this experience.

Interaction in new technologies is experiential, often crossing physiological thresholds and body boundaries. This is why a body illusion is at the centre of this piece. The illusion is experiential. Body illusions can modify the sense of body presence, impossible to describe as material or virtual. In this case they create the sense of motion without moving, a sense of the body travelling with the awareness that the body is still. One cannot stand back from the artwork and observe it. To experience it one must be taken in by it. Human physiology and the machine, spectator and object, the observer and observed are merged.

The great technological dream includes a wish to simulate experience. Will we attempt a direct technological link with our own body presence; will we intervene in the way we inhabit our own material presence? The Virtual Body brings these subtle shifts to the surface in seemingly innocent ways.

The wooden cabinet stands on a platform in the middle of the room. As spectators enter they see on top of the cabinet a miniature glass room. The walls are semi-transparent and illuminated. On approaching they see that the images in the hand-blown glass and liquid crystal Mylar portray a Rococo room. These richly coloured images glow with light from the patterned floor within - a computer-generated pattern on a monitor.

Steps to the platform beckon to take a closer look. Standing next to the glass room, spectators notice a brass peephole in the top/ceiling. Peering inside they see, momentarily, the Rococo ceiling - in fact a reflection. But just as it appears, this ceiling image is interrupted by the floor image on the monitor, and this floor image in its turn is overtaken by the ceiling. The space in the miniature room destabilizes.

On one glass wall of the room, where a knob on an instrument might be, is a hole in which to put one's hand - to enter the rom. This intervention by the spectator is sensed and a third state begins. The glass walls of the miniature room suddenly become opaque and lose their transparency for anyone standing on the outside.

Meanwhile the peering spectator stares down at his or her hand spread across the room's floor, the monitor. The floor pattern on the monitor begins to scroll. In a few moments the spectator begins to sense a body illusion: a displacement of the body, an illusion of motion. One's hand appears to be infinitely travelling away from the body. Then the arm begins to take the body with it. It is as if miniature space is folded into infinite space, as if stillness is folded into motion. The body loses all references: inside/outside, giant/miniature, spectator/object, part/whole. The spectator becomes an instrumental site of the technology, caught up by the dispersion of events.

As the spectator withdraws, the transparent miniature room reappears, glowing once again. This Rococo room, which was the original installation site in Antwerp, Belgium, is an illusionistic box designed to surround, overwhelm and trick the spectator. In a similar way many new technologies are committed to creating a simulated sensorium, enveloping all the senses. But there is a significant difference. In the Rococo space, the floor remains firm for spectators while the surrounding visual intoxication is oriented towards them. In the postmodern, virtual world the floor is no longer firm and stable. In The Virtual Body, as the floor destabilizes it takes a sense of a separate self along with it.

Copyright © Catherine Richards. All Rights Reserved.