Art and Activism in VR

Verbum Magazine

Based on a talk given at the San Francisco Art Institute's
Virtual Reality Symposium
August 1991

Not too long ago I drove through the deserts of Nevada, Arizona, and Utah up to Zion canyon. For a time I followed the bed of the Virgin River. It was 110 degrees and I dried up like an apricot in a rented red convertible. After dark, shooting stars landed on the dashboard. I hiked the next morning. At the end of a two-mile climb, I finally stood at the top of 3000-foot red mountains that had been dunes, then desert, then covered by an inland sea, then thrust up through receding waters toward Father Sky. My eyes turned to pyrite under dusty desert lids and I grew a long turquoise tail. And it occurred to me that I've been unfairly dismissing an issue that deserves genuine attention in the world of virtual reality.

Last year an article in the London Guardian accused virtual reality of being "the enemy of the greens." The article suggested that when VR provides compelling and beautiful alternatives to the "real" world (and by this I think that the author meant the natural, phenomenal world), people will be enticed into forgetting about their own world, the health of the planet, and even their own bodies. At every conference and in almost every interview, somebody alludes to the notion that VR encourages the further separation of mind and body. In the future world of William Gibson's Neuromancer books, the body is "meat," and the interesting parts of life (except maybe sex) are on the net. Vernor Vinge painted a picture of such a condition in his celebrated short story "True Names" - the mind accelerates into the net, clothed in pixelated radiance, leaving the body forgotten, slumped over a keyboard in some shabby basement room.

The persistence of this image is probably the single greatest factor in the continuing sensationalism around VR. It makes some of us in the VR field very uncomfortable-because it's entirely plausible, and because it's entirely at odds with the visions and motivations that drove us into the medium in the first place. We know that there is a potential, even more arresting than the images of Gibson or Vinge, for taking your body with you into worlds of imagination, remote real landscapes, fantastic new works of art. But try explaining diving into dark blue dream-holes to a journalist . . . get all wet and runny with these guys and they really let you have it.

So we try to ward off the negative vibes of these fears and criticisms by pointing to the good that can be done by VR. It can raise consciousness about the natural world by giving people remote first-person access to places on the earth; it can give people the ability to change scale in relation to a place and see at first-hand all of its myriad patterns and processes. If any significant percentage of the population ends up telecommuting through personal VR systems, the result will be fewer cars on the road and cleaner air. And transcultural networked VR systems will accelerate the breakdown of nationalistic and even geographic barriers to global community. I have said all of these things myself, and I believe them with all my heart, but there are some things I haven't been copping to when I get asked the question, "Why shouldn't we be afraid of VR?"

I am nauseated by the endless, monotonous stream of crap pumped out by the computer game industry. It breaks my heart that nasty, violent, sexist little games are still the thing that people are most familiar with, in a medium where I see such iridescent potential. It makes me sick that I was in the computer game business for nearly 15 years and I couldn't figure out how to make a difference. And who do we blame for this? Do we blame the 14-year-olds who buy this stuff? Hey, you are what you eat, and I've been doing some of the cooking. By the time artists and humanists realized that they could have any power to change what was going on in computer games, the market and the mindset were established and the superstructure of the game business had grown a pretty healthy immune system. Some people moved their values out to the newer medium of multimedia; I moved on to research, and then to VR, and sometimes I still feel like I'm running out ahead of a wave of cultural pollution that's threatening to break over my head at any moment. The first public VR installations are war games. But sometime we've go to stop running and stop whining and do something about it, and it might as well be now.

But I'm ranting ahead of myself. I want to try to tease the issue apart a little, to try to understand the basis of these fears, and to think about what we as artists might be able to do about them.

At the root of the problem, perhaps, is a basic fear of representational art. Every new representational medium in its early life stimulates a great deal of fear, hype, and controversy. The stories are familiar. Plato banned the theatre from his Republic on the grounds that people would confuse life and art, thereby undermining both judgment and morality. The church hurled lighting bolts at the vernacular press. Early photography was touted as being "just like life," and, of course, there are the tales of audiences freaking out in the early days of film, mistaking close-ups for severed heads and ducking when a gun was fired toward the camera. But very quickly, people come to invent and recognize the language of a new medium through its conventions-acts and scenes, single-point perspective, close-ups and jump cuts. The confusion doesn't last long.

As the novelty of a new medium wears off and we become sophisticated in its use, the issue of style emerges. As a representational medium forms, it attempts to capture some aspect of reality through imitation. This happens naturally in the technology-intensive phase of its evolution. But this is not the same as realism. Early painting were not realistic as we now understand realism in graphical style-they were saturated with symbolism and imagistic shorthand. Photography began with portraiture-a conceptual approach that was also steeped in convention-and in VR we still fly with our fingers and our disembodied hands pass right through objects we're trying to grasp. These things are not realistic, but we don't notice them until a medium begins to emerge.

Realism is a style that typically arrives fairly late in media evolution. It didn't really hit the theatre until the early 20th century-two thousand years after drama began. In American theatre, realism was invented to express a particular set of values -it was deeply bound to an emphasis on contemporary social problems, and its political bias was decidedly liberal. The popular belief that realism is the absence of style is as wrong-headed as the belief that Western objectivity is the absence of point of view. Photorealism, an artistic style that is popularly thought of as the pinnacle of realism, is concerned, not with life but with technology-photorealistic painting rhapsodizes on the camera, and until quite recently, photorealistic computer graphics celebrated computers and mathematics. It certainly wasn't driven by a great fondness for chrome balls and extruded letters. The point is that realism as a style isn't simply about lifelikeness; realism carries as much "point of view" as any other style.

At SIGGRAPH, the annual computer graphics conference sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery, we've seen a dramatic change in the style of computer graphics over the last two years. More and more of the works shown at SIGGRAPH are based on incredibly intricate models of objects, physics, and natural processes. Last year Carl Sims presented a piece called "Panspermia" that was filled with lush, fantastic plants growing from seeds on an alien planet. He created the piece, not by constructing images, but rather by designing and constructing a gene pool that could "grow" worlds of endless variety. At this year's conference, we were treated leaves blowing across a playground on a windy day, reflections in deep water, geese flying across a purple autumn sky. These images were derived from deep simulations of natural phenomena, and they embody an understanding and a joy of expression that goes beyond mere modeling into a region of worship. In their loving revelations of the patterns and processes of nature, these images initiate a postrealistic style, a kind of neoromanticism in computer art. The techniques that derive from this style feed back to the medium and transform it; in the future we will think of representing things by imitating their outward and visible characteristics as a quaintly old-fashioned, cumbersome, and lifeless approach.

The style of a work is often the unthinking artifact of contemporary culture; the hack artist simply works in the style of the times-both the artist and the viewer are anesthetized by it. The multisensory photorealism of contemporary virtual reality is an artifact of a necessary stage in the evolution of the medium. But in a vital work, style is something that an artist deploys, for reasons that may be both artistic and political. Now that photorealism lies within our grasp, we are afforded the opportunity to question whether it's appropriate to turn up the knobs on every sensory modality. Immersion is not just physical and perceptual; it is also cognitive and emotional. One of Marshall McLuhan's great insights was that "hot" media-media that saturate our senses with information-can also cauterize the imagination. You can fall asleep with the television blaring, but when you're driving along absorbed in a really good radio show, you don't even see the road-the visual part of your mind is elsewhere, partying down with your imagination. An obvious implication, and one that I'm pursuing in my own work, is that ambiguity and sensory incompleteness are key elements in the kind of deep participation we desire with a work of art.

When McLuhan wrote Understanding Media, he characterized the young medium of television as "cool"-a medium that invited imaginative participation. Realism-and turning up the sensory gain-have completely changed the picture. In the 70s, people began to seriously worry about their kids turning into zombies in front of the tube. In the 80s, people worried about kids turning into zombies in front of computer games. And today, of course, people worry about their kids turning into zombies in virtual reality. Well the bad news is, they did, and they did, and they will. The Rat Patrol and Space Invaders and Battle Tech will be with us always. But working ourselves up into a luddite frenzy won't make a damned bit of difference. The real question is why, and what we're going to do about it. I want to offer what I hope are a few insights based on some of my own experiences.

As I burrowed my way from theatre into the computer game biz back in the late 70s, I started running across a kind of person I'd never encountered before: computer nerds. You know, the guys who sat in front of screens all day and wore their pants up under their armpits. With some alarm, I began to discover the nerdliness in myself. But as an artist in a high-tech world, and as a woman in a really male field, I also felt some serious alienation. I couldn't understand why these guys seemed so autistic-and why their games seldom had really interesting social or political or artistic content.

I got my eyes opened at the Hacker's Conference in 1988. There were about 13 women there, out of a group of 300 or so, and there was the obligatory panel on women in computing. All of the women were at the session, and a handful of men straggled in, mostly because they were genuinely concerned about the issue, but also, I think, because they felt it their duty to take the obligatory beating. And they got it. One woman after another talked about how the boys had kept her off the mainframe at college, how they changed her password and messed with her files or turned off her logon.

Finally a male friend of mine spoke up. He was an ace game programmer, shy and brainy, who was really trying to communicate. He stammered a little. "I don't mean this as an insult," he said, "but what you need to realize is that most of us got into computers to avoid you. You know, the social stuff. The stuff we're not any good at." Well, you could have heard a pin drop. There it was, the truth hitting the floor like a bag of cement. And I suddenly realized that I wasn't the only one who was disadvantaged.

Flash forward. I'm giving a talk at the graduation festivities of the computer science club at the University of California at Davis in the spring of 1991. The room fills up with positively gorgeous young people. About 30 percent of them are women; many are Asian. The boys look like rock stars, only more wholesome. Pretty little gold earrings peek out from behind long, clean hair. The pre-show chatter is about programming, yes, but also about film, global politics, even social events. I mean, these people are making dates. I start talking to them, asking questions about what they're studying. And I keep getting answers like, "well, I started out in ethnographic studies and ended up in computers," or "I designed my own major." And I feel some really old tension release between my shoulder blades. If these guys are in it, maybe the future is going to be more fun than I thought. But they're not there yet, and we have a lot of work to do.

The sense of alarm around virtual reality persists. Every week, at least, there's an article in some newspaper that accuses the medium of offering us a replacement for the physical world and our own bodies. In a culture riddled with addiction, the fear is that VR is an especially pernicious form of escapism that will further enfeeble our waning commitment to the natural world and the physical quality of life. While this notion embodies a level of conspiracy theory that I'm not quite ready to sign up to, it does bring us back, in a circuitous way, to the nerd problem. I suspect that there are a lot of people working in the VR biz who don't particularly like their bodies, who aren't comfortable with them, and who really are, perhaps, looking for a way out.

But remembering my programmer friend at the Hacker's conference, this tendency isn't the result of premeditated evil, but rather of a hole in experience. Dive into the desire for self-replacement, and you'll find, at bottom, the basic human quest for identity. In all cultures, one of the fundamental ways that we learn about who we are is through self-representation-the clothes we wear, the way we speak and move, the way we relate to other people. But not only are these traditional modes unwieldy for many people, they are so constricted by social and cultural symbolism that finding creative self-expression through them is often like passing a camel through the eye of a needle.

Which flashes me back to acting class, long ago and far away. In theatre movement, we spent a whole year doing one exercise. First, we cast our faces in plaster and made masks of them that were entirely neutral, entirely at rest. For the whole year we wore those neutral masks over our faces. Each of us acted out a simple scenario: I am walking along a dock; I see a pier; I see a boat at the end of the pier. I walk to the boat, haul it in, untie it, step in, pick up a pole. I dip the pole into the water until it hits bottom, I propel the boat out into a quiet harbor, and I sail away.

In the beginning, we were caricatures despite our blank faces-all our physical quirks glaring out from our habit-encrusted bodies. As we relaxed and got into the zen of the thing, a moment was reached when there was just the dock, just the boat. Our bodies were becoming as neutral as our faces. And finally, something extraordinary happened to all of us. The world started to fill in. The barnacles on the boat, the sound of water lapping against the sides of the boat, the feel in your knees as you step into the boat on the water. And a kind of serene joy started to seep into us from what our bodies were doing, from the inside out and the outside in. When the masks came off at the end of the year, the faces had a new light in them-and we had new knowledge about the extraordinary palette of body and imagination in discovering who we were and who we could become.

Now, that's virtual reality. It's about computer graphics and animation and cycles and I/O, yes, but it's also about sensation and perception, ambiguity-about forging new connections between body and imagination and spirit. To my mind, the future of the medium-and the effect that it will have on popular culture and individual lives-depends hugely on the ability and willingness of artists to take control of its evolution.

If you are familiar with my work you know about my interest in plundering the theatre and narrative arts for new approaches to interactive media. The course of media evolution invariably involves the recapitulation of previous forms. But there is a place at which dramatic and narrative metaphors finally break down, and that is the point at which experiences become so interactive that the originating artist no longer has exclusive or even primary control over the shape of the whole. True interactivity means shared authorship; interactive experience becomes a time-displaced collaboration between the originating artist and the people who become co-makers of the piece by interacting with it.

To design for such deep participation requires a total reworking of the idea of authorship and the ontology of form. It involves a commitment, not to dictate, but to midwife the emergence of forms and styles that are genuinely new. It requires that we work on some really hard artistic and cultural problems with vigor and discipline. Most of all, it necessitates that we aggressively advance this agenda in our educational institutions, our discourse, and our R&D labs. Because it's not enough to be an artist doing work or a theorist thinking off. We have to manage the politics of this new medium from the inside of the institutions where it's taking shape. We have to plant the right visions in the public mind. We have to do the research, make the examples, and cultivate the cultural and economic climate in which virtual reality can bloom.

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