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The virtual world: a space of connections

Whereas the traditional image is always attached to a particular place and to a fixed or moving medium, the digital image, in its electronic form, has no particular place to go, no fixed address which is exclusively its own and from which it cannot escape. Virtual space is made up of circulations and connections and in the immense networks of hypertext and hypermedia, the user navigates and browses from data to data. The objects which inhabit this space have no fixed identity, since they can move from one form to another. Metamorphosis or, more precisely, diamorphosis — the state between two forms, the movements in the interval, form in a state of becoming — becomes more important than the form itself.
Every day, our social and technological environment presents new challenges to our identity. When we compare an old photograph of Ivana Trump with a recent one, we may wonder which is the real Trump and which one is the artificial one. Perhaps our definitions of reality can no longer be provided by philosophy alone. Today, plastic surgeons, fashion designers and adolescents all make aesthetic choices that partake in the modification of the human form, choices that once only artists were able to make. It is as though individuals can choose today between multiple identities.

The virtual time

The utopian characteristics of the virtual world are paralleled by its simulated time. This virtual time does not merely signify the real time of the interaction through interface devices. This is only one aspect, important but of limited consequences. Virtual time also has its own specific characteristics. It is an autonomous time, free of references to the time in the real world, with no past, no present and no future, projected outside any perspective, be this deterministic or not, and outside the process of becoming that is life, even when it tries to simulate life. It is a time outside the chronos, a uchronic time.
Since it is possible to mix the time of the user with the time of the machine, this mingled time is open to hybridization effects and to the possibility of unforeseen experiences which may constitute real discoveries.

Aura and interactivity

Because, if computer imagery is un-situated, and capable of endless reproduction, always further from the unique expression of the artist, it nevertheless aspires to recreate the appearance, the smell and the feel of reality, to create an experience of presence which is as authentic as possible. But the specificity of thus aspiring to a real experience resides in the pleasure of knowing this reality, a reality which is now deprived of its aura. Interactivity nonetheless offers a unique experience at each go. The unique spatial presence of an object with its aura is replaced by a temporal experience of a uniquely produced event. Interactivity may thus lead to a new kind of aura: a unique virtual event which it will be impossible to repeat.

The virtual: a critique of cultural codes

Entering a sensorial universe means being exterior to a daily context. This artificial independence makes the fictive framework a protection against the contingencies of the exterior, such as the body. Unlike the frame of a painting, traditionally identified with the limits of the narrative space of the painting, or the frame of a theatrical scene, which determines the narrative space of a play, this new framework separates reality and virtuality into two mutually exclusive domains. The ecstasy of being disembodied reinforces this independence by stripping the subjects of their identities. But these interactive subjects — thinking subjects, marked by geography and culture — inevitably bring their cultural codes into the fictional space where transgressions are authorised. The virtual thus emerges as an ideal instrument for criticizing cultural codes. But, in order to produce such critical tensions between the real and the virtual, the fictive framework cannot be suppressed altogether. On the contrary, it is the task of interactive art to question the frame, to work on it so that a reciprocity between real space and virtual space can give rise to a reversible subjectivity.

Virtual environments: immersion

Entering a virtual world is a peculiar experience: it is a form of immersion which involves much more than eyesight. The body of the voyeur-manipulator also enters the scene, garbed in a special uniform, a data suit, gloves equipped with sensors and optical fibres, display spectacles or visualization headsets. By means of these prosthetic elements, movements of the eyes or hands, a step or a word spoken are analysed by the computer and immediately determine the image’s field, the displacement of an element within the virtual space or even the user, who may be represented in a fragmentary or symbolic form, within the virtual scene. The body functions as a kind of polysensorial interface device. Attention moves away from the realism of the image to the human interface and the realism of the perceptive effects. Breath and force are also captured and olfactive and effort feedback effects are generated. But access to virtual worlds is not without its constraints: the body is fragmented and the prostheses worn isolate it, at least partially, from the real world

Modelling the user

Recording and analysing the maximum possible quantity of information about users is another essential line of research that is becoming important in the design and use of virtual environments. It is possible in a virtual space to track data on users’ movements and to determine simple aspects of their personal tendencies such as if they are left-handed or right-handed, if they prefer textual to image information, what language they speak and so on. By using this data and information about the user, it is becoming possible to create or modify a virtual environment for a specific user in a way that better matches their vocabulary and preferences. By personalizing this virtual space, it might also help the user to perform difficult tasks more easily and efficiently.

Interactive agents

Another course of research is attempting to populate these virtual spaces with intelligent computer-generated characters. The aim here is to develop a type of interactive agent which can perform many useful activities, intelligently navigate through virtual worlds, and also serve as a guide to users. Simple models of agents such as this have already been used in entertainment experiences such as the original Sperry Computer Pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida. There, a virtual character magically appears in three dimensions and explains to visitors how the computer room operates. Although these simple applications are not interactive, new technologies will soon make it possible to interact with these agents in a virtual environment and even to superimpose them into real spaces around us — questioning the boundary between real and virtual.Artistic problems raised by algorithms
Algorithms help us solve certain problems, but not all problems can be solved in this way. As the mathematical and operational foundation of each and every computer, as well as of the entire superstructure of the network, the algorithm means absence of ambiguity. Calculations and their results can only be translated into algorithms when the mathematical procedure by which the problem is to be solved can be formulated. The essential characteristics of a non-ambiguous calculation procedure are as follows: fundamental elements, determination, generality and finitude. These four characteristics are diametrically opposed to the ethical and aesthetic requirements of art, namely the capacity to make us sensitive, or to develop our sensitivity towards the unknown, the Other. This opposition allows us to measure the enormity of the task with which artistic practice is faced when it enters the realm of communication within the network, a terrain which is essentially governed by algorithms.

Virtual reality and the control of the senses

Virtual reality represents the most radical new manifestation of man/machine systems, in which man is an integral part and in which his movements, his physiological state, even his brain waves, may be used as commands or may be controlled by sense stimuli. It implies isolation in terms of the real. The devices are connected directly to our bodies, to our senses and, soon perhaps, under our skin or even directly to our brains in the form of brainchips. The way is open to transplants of brain tissue, to the stimulation or derivation of neuronal activity by means of micro-electrodes, to the coupling of neurones and transistors, or their implantation in the cochlea. The aim is to link the computer system directly to the human brain. For the time being, our senses are the stimulators which activate our brain, their signals translated into electrical activity. The next step, the direct stimulation of the brain, does not seem so far off: it will be the integration of just one more release-mechanism to activate given centres.

Beyond simulation?

The first stage of simulation is now behind us. Beyond photographic realism, technology has now opened up entirely new avenues of research to creative artists. It is to be hoped that creators will be able to explore them effectively while looking for other modes of representation, and thinking critically about what the construction of non-real environments means. It is important to note that one of the interesting features of virtual spaces is that they allow their users to choose the appearance — humans, objects or plants — in which they wish to present themselves to other virtual partners in the space. There is food for thought here regarding the consequences of such phenomena for our perception of others. Similarly, it is now possible to imagine interactive plays or films which will associate real characters and virtual ones, a situation which will obviously alter the nature of the work and the way it is understood by the spectator-user.