| FEATURES 02 | VIRTUAL AND OTHER BODIES |
Langlands & Bell The House of Osama bin Laden 2003 interactive computer animation and glitchy reconstruction of her apartment, including the contents of her fridge. But by the time of her solo exhibition at Signal Gallery in New York the following year, she was describing the dissociated sensation caused by spending a long time in another place: ‘I was recalling the memory of what having a body was like. In VR you feel like the memory of a body, the emotional memory of a body.’ In that exhibition Rossin temporarily exchanged immersive VR for the solidity of large Perspex sheets moulded over her body in a protective or perhaps memorialising gesture.
The same experience is described more positively by Laurie Anderson, speaking about her collaboration with Taiwanese artist and programmer Hsin-Chien Huang, Chalkroom, 2017. This award-winning VR experience and installation, currently on show at Mass MoCA and the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts, takes the viewer into a shadowy world of various rooms and spaces which are seemingly built out of words and stories written in space like chalk on a blackboard. With Anderson’s characteristic voice as an anchor point throughout, participants are able to move and interact with the words to unlock a seemingly endless world of new stories and narratives. ‘It’s about what I’ve tried to do in every other thing I’ve ever made,’ the artist said in an interview, ‘music or sculpture or film; to be completely bodiless.’ For Anderson this is a welcome experience of freedom, or perhaps one of total absorption into a technologically mediated universe. But it underlines the point that virtual reality is an essentially disembodied medium, which may promise to be as good as real reality while lacking everything about human experience other than the purely optical. Infinitely scalable VR space is just another kind of geometric space where we seem to move without friction. Another god-space in which we can be given the illusion of complete control over our environment. Many cyberfeminists, alongside Anderson, have welcomed this control and the ability to inhabit dif erent identities as emancipatory in some way. But what if this utterly disembodied feeling were inextricably tied up with Haraway’s critique? When we cover our eyes with a headset we are literally inhabiting a world view constructed and promoted by a masculine corporate tech mindset. No matter what the content, no matter who the programmer, a virtual space created purely from data and navigable without any relationship to our situated bodies will always represent a patriarchal mode of experience because it is ultimately a dissociated one. It denies the body in order to more easily colonise space.
The roots of VR in military technology are well known, going back as far as the very early flight simulators af er the Second World War. The US army uses headsets and multimillion dollar sof ware to train its infantry in dif erent combat situations, dummy M16 rifles equipped with gaming joysticks enabling the soldiers to move around fictional or recreated environments. The House of Osama bin Laden, 2003, by Langlands & Bell was one of the earlier immersive installations which touched on the military roots of the technologies. It was, significantly, originally commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in London. Viewers were able to navigate around bin Laden’s former home in Afghanistan within a videogame-style virtual setting complete with abandoned vehicles and details texture-mapped from the real site. Similarly, since the late 1990s, traumatised army veterans have been able to seek treatment for their PTSD using VR exposure therapy, which is by some accounts more ef ective than standard talk-therapy approaches. The patients are put back into the scenario which initially triggered their condition. But the dissociative feel of the digital experience gives them just enough distance to start to rebuild more normal feelings and reactions. It may also be significant that one of the mind’s primary responses to experiencing trauma is to dissociate from the body.
We are seeing an epidemic in anxiety and dissociative mental health conditions among young people at present, which many link to the universal immersion in digital and virtual spaces online. The connections to cultural phenomena such as social media are well understood now, but I would suggest that a more fundamental, phenomenological link to the disembodied experience of a purely geometric space must also have an ef ect. It does not feel good to leave your body behind.
To return to the starting point of this article, historical theories of sculpture might be of use because they enable us to see and understand the role that the human body plays in perceiving what Herbert Read called the ‘ponderability’ of sculpture – its substance, its mass. We process these qualities through imagining them in relation to the feel of our own body. Take away the body, and the ef ect just isn’t the same. The vogue for post-internet art may well have dissipated but 3D technologies will play an increasingly normal part within contemporary art in years to come, as signalled by the inclusion of a virtual/augmented reality section in last month’s Frieze New York. What is needed is to develop a new vocabulary for dealing with virtual forms that goes beyond the simple contradictions of presence and absence, original and copy. I would like to see the human body somewhere near the centre of such a vocabulary. ❚
Mark Wilsher is an associate lecturer in fine art at Norwich University of the Arts.
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JUNE 19 | ART MONTHLY | 427