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Performing in (Virtual) spaces: Embodiment and being in virtual environments

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This paper focuses on how the body has been recontextualised in the age of digital technology, especially through the phenomenon of Virtual Reality, and specifically on fully immersive VR environments made as art or performative installations. It discusses the progress\ion in form and function from other digital media or ‘cybermedia’ to fully immersive virtual environments (VEs). This paper attempts to explicate the specialised and intrinsic qualities of ‘Being’ in immersive VEs, and how it impacts both the experience of the embodied person in the virtual environment, and our thinking about everyday reality. The unique state of Being in immersive VEs has created a paradigm shift in what humans are now able to experience, and affects how we understand our embodied selves in an increasingly digital world. Because of this, the contributions of visual and performance artists to VE's continued development is key to how we will know and comprehend ourselves in the near and far future as creatures existing in both the physical and the digital domains. The paper draws upon twenty years as a professional Virtual Reality ‘maker’ who has trained in both Computer Science and in Art, and finds fascinating affinities between these disciplines in the space of the VE where people and performers interact in new embodied modalities.
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International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, Volume 3 Number 2 & 3.
© Intellect Ltd 2007. Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/padm.3.2&3.123/1
Performing in (virtual) spaces: Embodiment and being
in virtual environments
Jacquelyn Ford Morie University of Southern California
Abstract
This paper focuses on how the body has been recontextualised in the age of digital technology, especially
through the phenomenon of Virtual Reality, and specifically on fully immersive VR environments made as
art or performative installations. It discusses the progress\ion in form and function from other digital
media or ‘cybermedia’ to fully immersive virtual environments (VEs). This paper attempts to explicate the
specialised and intrinsic qualities of ‘Being’ in immersive VEs, and how it impacts both the experience of
the embodied person in the virtual environment, and our thinking about everyday reality. The unique state
of Being in immersive VEs has created a paradigm shift in what humans are now able to experience, and
affects how we understand our embodied selves in an increasingly digital world. Because of this, the
contributions of visual and performance artists to VE’s continued development is key to how we will know
and comprehend ourselves in the near and far future as creatures existing in both the physical and the
digital domains. The paper draws upon twenty years as a professional Virtual Reality ‘maker’ who has
trained in both Computer Science and in Art, and finds fascinating affinities between these disciplines in
the space of the VE where people and performers interact in new embodied modalities.
Keywords virtual reality; virtual environments immersive; presence; performance art; embodiment;
Being; role play
Suggested citation Morie, J.F. (2007), ‘Performing in (virtual) spaces: Embodiment and being in virtual
environments’, International Journal of Performance Arts and digital Media 3: 2&3, pp. 123138, doi:
10.1386/padm.3.2&3.123/1
Part 1. Rethinking the body in the digital age
The body is the zero point of the world. There. Where paths and spaces come to meet, the
body is nowhere. Michel Foucault, Utopian Body. (2006: 233)
A number of late twentieth century theorists, as well as practitioners of digital art, have reconsidered
the significance of the body in the digital age. For some, the ‘meat shell’ or physical aspect of the body
is no longer relevant. Australian performance artist Stellarc, who accoutres his meat shell with numerous
physical and digital devices, has proclaimed his desire to replace all the internal parts of his body with
mechanical or electronic substitutes. Hans Moravec, a prominent roboticist at Carnegie Mellon, pro- motes
the concept of downloading the essence of the human mind into a computer, so one may live forever.
However, technology is not infallible. Beyond the fact that most computers have life spans that do not even
reach that of a half-grown child, what of long-term maintenance? Will there be an army of servant bodies
left behind to tend to the machine-encapsulated brains? Or worse yet, human slaves? Or, will the machines
simply be programmed to tend to themselves until the inevitable post-apocalyptic power failure? Then
wither the no longer electrically sustained silicon-embedded minds?
I believe, as Erik Davis has stated, that these ideas could be seen as ‘symptoms of an
arrogant and deadly rift with nature’. Our meat shell is that which connects us to the
natural world most directly. To deny it is to break not only with what we know but also
with how we know. (1998:128)
Body as meat can be contrasted with the concept of body as container for information, promoted by
Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman. As many feminist critics assert, Hayles maintains that
body concepts reflect gender differences at their core and that the body is a female concept; disembodiment
is a male one. Direct sensory input is messy, the ‘wetware’ limited and confining (which according to
Hayles parallels the state of women in society), whereas the realms of thought and silicon are clean and
noble. Yet, Hayles says that today’s situation moves us beyond this dichotomy, starting to fuse these ideas.
Describing this as the age when we became posthuman, she recognizes that the body is an integral part of
an ‘information/material circuit that includes human and nonhuman components, silicon chips as well as
organic tissue, bits of information as well as bits of flesh and bone’. The virtual body needs both aspects:
‘the ephemerality of information and the solidity of physicality or, depending on one’s viewpoint, the
solidity of information and the ephemerality of flesh’ (Hayles 1996).
Neither has modern science lent much credence to the arrogant rift’ of Stellarc, Moravec and their
similarly minded colleagues. The cognitive sciences, strongly influenced by recent findings from
neuroscience, is supporting and justifying a mind/body union, finding extreme interdependencies between
our brain’s development and our embodied human state. In pointed terms, there would be no mind as we
know it without the body that engenders, contains and nurtures it.
This move away from mind as a computer where neurons equate to electronic circuitry, has begun to
take hold in philosophy as well. Lakoff and Johnson’s foundational work The Philosophy of Mind brings
this debate to a clear resolution, which echoes the neuroscience findings:
There is no such thing as a computational person, whose mind is like computer software,
able to work on any suitable computer or neurological hard- ware . . . Real people have
embodied minds whose conceptual systems arise from, are shaped by, and are given
meaning through living human bodies. (1999)
Such arguments deflate the concepts of such notable philosophers as Kant (‘no autonomous person’),
Frege (detached thought not based on mind or body) and Chomsky (language as pure form) and such
movements as post- structuralism (no decentred monolithic self, whose meaning is only relevant to a
particular milieu).
Phenomenologists, from Husserl to Merleau-Ponty, have also brought the body back into the picture,
and their concepts of embodiment have had tremendous influence on diverse areas of thought, from
cognitive science to the arts. But only recently, with the bridge of cognitive science adopting empirically
derived knowledge about the inner workings of our brains from neuroscience, has there been any means of
vetting the philosophical theories.
It seems clear that all prior philosophical schools of thought have been based on a priori
assumptions, and not empirical data. Cognitive science, a continuum of related disciplines ranging from the
more pragmatic computer and neurosciences on one end to psychology and philosophy on the other, now
brings a degree of empiricism into philosophical discourse. It has itself gone through an evolution
paralleling, in some sense, that of philosophical constructs that have to do with the mind. According to
Lakoff and Johnson, the first generation of cognitive science was based on symbolic computational
systems, such as computers. It is logical that this phase developed in the 1950s and 60s. They argue that
such concepts were in synch with the ‘Anglo-American philosophy’ of the time, and were informed by the
domains of ‘early artificial intelligence, information-processing psychology, formal logic, generative
linguistics, and early cognitive anthropology’. Moravec was a first generation cognitive scientist.
Succeeding generations of cognitive scientists subscribe less and less to the mind-body duality.
When findings from neuroscience about the mind-body connection began to be published, it became
evident that many assumptions on which early cognitive science was built could no longer be justified.
Chief among those findings was the understanding that our brain and its functioning, structure and ability to
reason is based on the actions of the body, and that absent such a body there can be no mind as we know it.
Antonio Damasio and other neuroscientists (Edelman, LeDoux and Schacter) have shown how far from the
mark the prophets of disembodiment are. The body and what it does, how it experiences the world, is
responsible for the complicated interweaving of neuronal connections in our brain, out of which our mind
and perhaps consciousness itself is constructed. Twenty-first century science has only confirmed that
corporeal intelligence translates directly into our mental intelligence.
More evidence from philosophy shows that even our most basic linguistic/mental concepts are built
upon metaphors so deeply integrated into our embodied self that they are taken for granted. Phrases such
as: life is a journey, these two names are close, face your problems, grasping the concept, I see what you
mean, or weighed down by grief, all originate in a lived body experience. The discourse between science
and philosophy is finding mutual benefit, and as Lakoff says, science promises to give us insight into
philosophy in three important ways. It can provide conceptual analysis, critical assessment, and a means of
constructive philosophical theorizing’.
Part 2. The body emplaced within the virtual
The phenomenological discussion and its focus on the lived experience leads directly into one of the
quintessential qualities of virtual environments (VEs). Because our bodies must be emplaced within the
virtual space, VEs constitute a distinctive medium of embodiment. VEs engage the body as kinaesthetic
input via the specialised interface devices that not only permit but require bodily actions to be performed
sensorially, kinaesthetically, proprioceptively within a full 3D spatial, yet virtual construct.
When our perception is mediated by the VR equipment yet seems so real, we must reconsider what
does and does not constitute a mediated environment. VR expert and psychologist Jack Loomis has equated
this to the unaware state most people have of their everyday embodied existence:
The perceptual world created by our senses and the nervous system is so functional a
representation of the physical world that most people live out their lives without ever
suspecting that contact with the physical world is mediated. (1992)
Now that we can experience technologically mediated experiences within virtual environments, the
mediated nature of our natural world must be re- examined. VR philosopher Frank Biocca says that our
previous complacency has been shattered by the onset of VEs. Yet this state allows us to better understand
the basis of immediate experience.
The relationship between the body and experience is direct and immediate, even entwined. Our body
becomes the vehicle for sensory experience that body which has itself been formed of experience. The
body shapes who we become by compelling our neurons to form their intricate and scintillating patterns of
connectivity. Experience affects how we think, feel and understand our place in the external world, and it
does this by forming the mind by which we make sense of it.
The body and the space it occupies are part of the full experiential equation. Merleau-Ponty describes
it thusly:
Experience discloses beneath objective space, in which the body eventually finds its
place, a primitive spatiality of which experience is merely the outer covering and which
merges with the body’s very being. To be a body, is to be tied to a certain world. Our
body is not primarily in space: it is of it. (2002)
While virtual environment technology still suffers from lack of access by the general public (due to
its historical roots in militaristic strongholds and concomitant high cost) those who have been fortunate to
experience compelling virtual environments have been put in touch with something wondrous and
expansive. An early, yet pivotal example is the Placeholder project, done in the early 1990s by Brenda
Laurel, Rachel Strickland and team, which is arguably one of the most embodied virtual experiences ever
to be created.
Placeholder directly recalls Donna Haraway’s notion of our relationship to other gendered creatures.
(Haraway 1985) In Placeholder you are embodied, but not as a human being. You take on the persona and
characteristics of one of four totemic animals: spider, crow, snake or fish, performing from their point of
view, speaking in their voice, seeing with their eyes and even leaving messages in the virtual world for
others to find. The human body is thus transformed, or, as Hayles says, ‘resurfaced and reconfigured by its
interface with the technology’. This reconfiguration, even if not directed at performing other species, is
nonetheless necessitated by one’s emplacement within the virtual environment, in both the embodied and
cognitive sense. The space and the ontological framework of the space we experience is an extremely
seductive form of reality.
Part 3. The isochronic structure of emplacement
In immersive environments we are embodied this is one of their hallmarks yet, we know little
about the body that is experiencing the virtual environment. Any investigation into this dualistic
phenomenon will surely raise more questions than it can answer. Where do we position the body that the
participant leaves behind in the room? It is the living body, as it exists, breathes and continues working
where it is situated, but it is not the lived body, which is experiencing the world within the virtual
environment. The VE experient possesses knowledge of two simultaneous bodies. This is true whether
there is a virtual body image or not, or whether there is direct or interpreted mappings of navigation and
movement.
The act of emplacing one’s body within the immersive environment signifies a shift to a dualistic
existence in two simultaneous bodies. VR pioneer Marcos Novak (in Palumbo 2000) calls the body the
‘threshold between two worlds’ and there is much evidence to support this view.
Many VR critics have described how participants enter into the world of the virtual and leave their
bodies ‘behind’. I believe that participants do not actually leave their bodies behind, even though to a
bystander or spectator the physical body may seem to be a form of shed detritus in the room. The body of
the participant is synchronously subsumed into the virtual self that enters into the world within the screen,
which is created in the mind from what the body experiences. Entering into a territory that is not quite
imaginal, and yet not fully based in solid physicality, the self becomes subsumed, bodily, consciously and
subconsciously dancing with the created space-for-becoming.
Ontologically, simultaneous Being within the real and the virtual worlds is a situation humans rarely
experience, even if one considers the phenomenal states shamans enter into in performance of their ritual
duties. Much of the intrinsic nature of Being in an immersive virtual environment under- scores this
profound phenomenological shift. In a virtual environment, our self exists within a space that in itself does
not exist, but that our senses readily believe is there. In our lifetimes, no greater change of Being has taken
place than this duality of existence at our command.
The lived body has bifurcated and become two. What does this imply for the lived body? Does it
inhabit both spaces equally? Do the isochronal embodiments affect our conscious Being equally? An actor
‘bodies forth’ (in performance terms) the character he or she is playing in a play or film. Does a VE
participant ‘body in’ to the virtual construction? Are we semi- embodied in a virtual environment, or dually
so, ontologically speaking? Are these diacritical states of embodiment, or complementary?
We are inside the virtual yet we are also aware that we are still in the physical world. I believe this is
the quandary that makes the concept of presence
1
so elusive. At some level we are aware of our dual
perceptions, and because of this it takes an extraordinary amount of connection to the virtual experience to
overcome, or momentarily forget, this dualistic state of Being. It is more than a simple ‘willing suspension
of disbelief’. Such a feeling can happen in Csikszentmihalyi’s famous state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi
1997), but the conditions that can bring us to it are far from predictable. I believe that while this sense of
presence is the ultimate goal of many virtual environments, the experient may also have meaningful
experiences whilst still aware of the bifurcated nature of this self-ness (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The bifurcated self existing isochronically in both the real and the virtual worlds.
It is true that we have material bodies and that these bodies ‘think’ within their embodiment, yet, as
Merleau-Ponty explains: ‘We actualise separately from the physical body, the body of the anatomists or
even the organism of the physiologist, all of which are abstractions, snapshots taken from the functional
body’ (1962). Experiencing the immersive virtual environment, our functional body is within, yet the
physical body is not simply playing the role of a snapshot; it remains the context for our functioning.
Kathleen Rogers, a United Kingdom-based artist whose immersive VR works include the series
Sleepless Dreaming, describes this bodily displacement phenomenon within her work:
Sleepless Dreaming is composed of computer model houses and interiors that a
participant could navigate through to experience the gravitational paradox and the heart
of VR. In this work a participant was in effect in two spaces simultaneously. In the real
world of the gallery, and moving along a recurrent corridor of rooms navigating through
doorways, along walls and into a void. (2006)
Experiencing a virtual environment provides what Maria Palumbo calls an opening for ‘a new
interrogation of the world and ourselves, and, consequently, the possibility of imagining other possible
kinds of space, other possible ways of being a body-that-becomes-space’.
Part 4. Representation: the imaged forms of embodiment
Once we are in the virtual environment, what form do we take? In immersive VR the physical body
itself is shielded from the view by the VR head mounted display. Early VRs at first made do with the
simple representation of a disembodied hand, correlated to a physical hand encased in an instrumented
glove. Within the virtual space, one saw this representational hand floating out in front of the computed
‘eye position’. Moving one’s real finger caused a similar motion to occur with the virtual hand. Later the
image was expanded to a crude but full body image correlated to the physical body’s location in virtual
space via a tracking system connected to the head display.
These bodily representations, called avatars (a name borrowed from Hindu mythology, where it
denotes the incarnation of a spiritual being into bodied form), are more graphically sophisticated today,
though not yet to the level of photorealism. The question these visuals raise is not how real they look, but
whether they are helpful or distracting to the experient in a VR world. VR practitioners agree there is no
single answer to this question. In his foundational article, The Cyborg’s Dilemma (1997), Frank Biocca
discusses evolutionary consequences engendered by the avatar concept and the way we perceive ourselves
in a virtual environment. He contends that we have been moving towards ever-more digital representations
of our ‘self’ a ‘progressive embodiment’ of which virtual reality is the most advanced and sophisticated
example.
Michael Heim, noted philosopher of VR, asks what form the cyber body should take. He questions
the range of representation, from a detached hand to a full body, to no image at all: ‘should users feel
themselves to be headless fields of awareness, similar to phenomenological experience?’
How are users best immersed in virtual environments? I mean this from a technical-
ontological point of view. Should users feel totally immersed? That is, should they forget
themselves as they see, hear, and touch the world in much the same way as we deal with
the primary phenomenological world? (We cannot see our own heads just part of our
noses in the phenomenological world.) Or should users be allowed and encouraged to
see themselves as cyberbodies? Should they be able to see themselves over their own
shoulders? Should they be aware of the primary bodies as separate entities outside the
graphic environment? Should they be able to see other primary bodies interacting with
virtual entities? Or should they suspend physical experience? Should we see the primary
bodies of others in virtual worlds, or does telepresence mean that we will never be certain
of the society we keep, how much of it is illusory or artificial? Should we make up the
avatars that represent us or be given various identity options by the software designers?
(1998)
The selection of a body image within virtual environments is not simply an aesthetic choice; it incurs
distinct effects on the structure of one’s perceptions within the experience, and therefore on the overall
qualities of the encounter. Our experience is very much influenced by how we perceive our self, and yet,
within most immersive environments, as they exist today, this choice is still made by the VE designer.
2
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reminds us how acutely our thought processes are informed by our (real
and now virtual) bodies:
. . . the body as represented in the brain, may constitute the indispensable frame of
reference for the neural processes that we experience as the mind; that our very organism
rather than some absolute experiential reality is used as the ground reference for the
constructions we make of the world around us and for the construction of the ever-present
sense of subjectivity that is part and parcel of our experiences; that our most refined
thoughts and best actions, our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, use the body as a
yardstick. (1994)
Modern neuroscientists view the body as the primary shaper of neuronal connections constituting our
brains, which, in some as yet-to-be-deter- mined way, create our minds and even our human essence. It also
contains the grammar of experiencing, rule bound by its sensory apparatus and neural underpinnings,
networks and connections. It provides not only our spatial but also our temporal locus, and we may well
question how alternate forms of experiential representations in the virtual domain will influence and
perhaps change our mental development? Answers to these queries are the domain of future researchers as
the numbers of virtual environments reach a critical mass; for now we can simply enumerate the forms of
representations and how they are experienced.
The primary modes of embodied expressions in contemporary VEs, delineated by Heim (above) and
others, include no avatar, a mirrored self, a partial or full graphical personification and an observer’s view
of a graphical avatar that represents the self. I will discuss aspects of these as they relate to our ontological
nature as emplaced in the immersive environment.
No avatar: The simplest means of representation is no representation at all. This is the first person
point of view. The environment appears as though seen through our own eyes. The views in the virtual
world are computed with the camera lenses situated at the approximate location of each eye (as there is a
wide range in the actual physical parameters of each experient). This corresponds to the mental model we
have of the self that inhabits the physical world, but in a virtual form within virtual space.
While we are perceptually aware of our physical bodies (seeing the nose in our field of view as Heim
mentioned, or even looking down and seeing our laps), not having a representational body is not usually
disconcerting. The exception is when we consciously look to see ourselves and don’t, for example, when
we look down to ensure correct placement of our feet upon a stair, and we see no corresponding virtual foot
to place. As Bruce Wilshire explains, ‘. . . in perception it is only because the body is perceptually engaged
with the perceivable world that the world is perceived at all, yet it is only because the body gives way to
this world beyond it (it is not focally perceived itself) that perception of the world can occur’ (Wilshire
1982) (emphasis mine).
Many immersive environments use this mode of (non)representation. Char Daviesworlds fall into
this category, as they are specifically designed to take one outside of the ordinary body, even while using
aspects of the physical body (i.e. breathing) to navigate the environment. She says her work is meant to ‘. . .
reaffirm the role of the living physical body in immersive virtual space as subjective experiential ground’
(Davies 1995). She believes having a body representation would interfere with the connection to the
physical body. This type of (non)imaged embodiment can allow one to remain in touch with their inner
conception of their own native, imagined self. This is the underlying premise for my own virtual
environments, which also use this first-person point of view.
Some VR critics have a very different view of the non-representational form of Being in virtual
environments. Writing in the early days of VR, Nell Tenhaaf (1996) calls the human in concert with the VR
experience a ‘bioapparatus’, and argues that the ‘absence of representation’ in VEs is what allows them to
seem unmediated, and produces a ‘new order of transcendence’.
The mirrored self: This form presents the participant with a view of himself as captured (typically)
by video cameras or other devices that keep track of the body movements of an individual. Few VEs have
yet to fully employ the mirrored self, with one prominent exception. Myron Krueger, pioneer of
immersivity,
3
believes the human body to be the ultimate interface between the mind and the machine. He
insists the body of the participant be unencumbered, and has worked for many years to build interactive
media based on this philosophy. In Krueger’s installations, the movement and actions of the body alone
cause the desired results to occur, by integrating mirrored representations of participants. The body image
presented in Kruger’s work is typically a single colour, flat field video silhouette of the participant, seen by
him (and others) on a screen at the same time as he moves his own body (Krueger 1983). The mirrored
image is intuitive, in that we have become accustomed to such representations of self since we first learned
to recognise ourselves in a mirror.
4
It is nevertheless a dualistic form, though, separating the representation
from the physical body spatially, but not temporally. Such a representation is isochronic with the physical
body.
Graphical personification (partial, whole): When a body image is used, it raises a more ontological
question concerning the nature of that image and its correspondence to the experient’s own body. Unlike
Krueger’s video image that was a spatial translation of the ‘own body’ some VR creators elect to use a
spatially coincident graphical avatar for the body representation. In other words, the avatar appears to be in
the space occupied by the person’s mental construct of where they are in the VE.
Designers are not yet able to create a specialised image for each individual without a great deal of
advance planning, and therefore use a generic 3D model. The design of this model is up to the creator of
the work who can decide to make it humanoid or not, or limit the representation to a single gender,
whereby one could find their female self housed in a male- modelled body.
5
Third person/observed avatar: In this form of embodied image the participant takes on, in this form
of embodied image at an experiential locus that is outside their perceptual self. An avatar appears, at some
distance out in front of the experient’s physical and imaginal locus. It is obviously related and connected to
the experient, in that its motions and actions may be con- trolled by the participant’s actions and
corresponding decisions. This is what Freud might call the ‘observer’ or third person view as opposed to
the ‘field’ or self view.
This form of body image is most common in games, where players control an avatar to move through
the objectives of the game world, but it is far less common in immersive virtual environments. Rebecca
Allen does use this form of representation in her Bush Soul series of virtual environments, allowing the
participant to inhabit the 3rd person view/body of an intelligent virtual agent. The graphical depiction of
this agent is not a human form, but a set of swirling geometric shapes that twirl and spin as the experient
directs it, via a force-feedback joystick, across the colourful virtual bush landscape. In fact, however,
Allen’s design allows the avatar some autonomy. While the experient provides suggestions to the character,
ultimately it may not fully follow those directions. The avatar/agent has its own intrinsic behaviour set that
can take precedence during the experience (Allen 2000). This situation sets up a phenomenal dichotomy
that questions whether I myself, or another controls me. In fact, one of Allen’s stated research goals for this
series was to investigate the relationship between the avatar and the human.
Shared environments: In shared virtual realities, there is also the question of the representation of
others in the environment with the experient. A representation of some form seems mandatory, for absent
it, the worlds will appear empty. This poses a larger question: how are forms of self and other determined?
Are there guidelines that might govern how we see representations of self and others in shared spaces?
Benedikt maintains that participants should have a body representation. His Principle of Personal
Visibility (1991: 177179) actually addresses two rules of visibility: that you must project an image within
the digital realm, and you must have the right to decide which others in the environment you want to see.
(This strikes an odd note in the name of privacy. If I must be visible to everyone, but I can turn off
representations of others, then others can turn off my representation. This seems to defeat the purpose of
having a representation at all, and in any case it works only for realms of the virtual that are truly shared
spaces). Part of his rationale for this is to foster accountability in cyberspace and to nullify voyeurism, but
curiously, he suggests a ‘small blue sphere’ as a minimal presence marker for cyberspace denizens. In spite
of a shared space, he argues for a way to be alone, by turning off the representations of others. What if that
is done, but others can still see you? What sort of snobbery might they conclude is behind being ignored by
that out-of-touch blue ball?
Private, meaningful, immersive worlds are my primary interest here, so I will conclude with a few
more thoughts on the subject of self-representation within them. A form and metaphor of my body icon that
I cannot control may compete with my own inner representation of self in inhabiting this environment. In
such cases, it may be better to have nothing at all. As Davies’ work shows, the virtual environment
becomes a sacrosanct enceinte; a sacred, encompassing space, where mind transcends body even as it
references the body, felt organism even in visual absence. This body, as felt phenomenon, is how we know
the world, true as much within the virtual as in the real. To have no body icon might even be perceived as
an antidote to the commodification of the body in our consumerist, product-saturated world.
Finally, from the phenomenological standpoint, while Merleau-Ponty views the body as ‘the
common texture of which objects are woven’ (1964), he never had to grapple with new forms of immaterial
bodies beyond the phenomenal, nor with questions about how we might weave new forms of ‘common
texture’ from them. This is up to us.
Part 5. Role playing and performance within VEs
Role-playing is direct since it engages both the physical and cognitive elements of our psyche.
Anyone entering into a virtual world is, by default, playing a role. At the most basic level, he is playing the
role of one willing, or unafraid, to enter into a technically mediated environment.
More importantly, the user is also playing the role that the virtual environment imposes on him by
the VE. In Placeholder, as mentioned, each participant takes on an animal persona such as a snake, bird,
spider or fish. To fully enter into the role, they must act like the creature whose form they inhabit.
Josephine Anstey’s ‘Thing’ character in her VE work The Thing Growing (2000), compels you to play a
starring role opposite itself: a strange and fickle creature you have freed from its prison, who is at first
grateful and then becomes increasingly demanding.
In any virtual environment that asks the participant to be other than his natural self, he must play
along with the role to get the most out of the experience. What happens, however, if the person is at odds
with that role? In my VE DarkCon, which had a military theme, the mission briefing gave some
participants an aversion to playing the lead role of the scout directed to find information. We found people
wanted to able to choose even in an ersatz discovery mission to play different parts. One participant
wanted to be able to see the world through the eyes of a refugee; others thought it would be more helpful to
achieving the mission’s goals to be inside the mind of one of the suspected rebels.
Role-playing in virtual environments ties neatly into Brenda Laurels’ concept of computers as theatre
(Laurel 1991) and relates directly to other performative aspects of virtual environments. The word
performance conjures images of the theater, which itself comes from the Greek word theatron, a place for
seeing, not simply in the sense of watching, but also as the deeper meaning to see to behold, grasp or
understand. Post-humanist theorists maintain that interaction with our technologies allows us to gain new
understandings of our self. Immersive virtual environments proffer exceptional insights, through expanded
concepts of body and identity and understanding of essence, agency and meaning in life.
In real life we put on different personas to perform specific social roles. These are often referred to as
masks. Within private, immersive virtual environments, we most often (though not always, depending on
the maker’s intent) play ourselves. Viewed thus, virtual environments become not so much a mask waiting
to be put on, as an enabling methodology, allowing us to cast aside the social masks that everyday conduct
requires. Despite some having equated the HMD to a physical mask, it can actually serve in reverse, a mask
that removes other masks. Because of this, I view the performance within the virtual environment more as a
metaphorical door that leads to an understanding of a private and personal self.
The view available to the observer of a person wearing VR gear is that of the physical body as a text,
the body as performer of the virtual experience for the enjoyment of others. This is a very different kind of
performance than the first person one from within the virtual environment. Many participants in virtual
experiences are not aware they are performing in a dual mode. However, there are few instances where a
participant is alone while in the environment; most often others are watching, listening and may themselves
be involved with either facilitating or observing. At some level, the participant knows this to be the case.
Such knowledge can engender actions that the participant intends to be seen. Yet, if the experience creates
deep involvement on cognitive and emotional levels, then the experient may become much less aware of
their body’s physical performance.
If an experience is convincing and meaningful, the experient primarily performs the text of the
experience, and not the reflexive meta-text of herself experiencing the VE. This private performance
requires no audience save the performer, observing the inwardly focused experience.
In many forms of new media, the performance aspects have a functional role. Grounding virtual
environments in embodied performances gives rise to particular phenomenological issues, some of which
may share philosophical territory with other forms of embodied performance, such as ritual, performance
art, theatrical or social roles.
Perhaps the most salient example of a private, performative experience is Char Davies’ Osmose.
Davies says the ‘Osmose swallows the participants suitably swathed in electronic gear into a sensuous,
luminous, and deeply enveloping dreamworld of cloud forests, dark pools and verdant canopies’. (in Erik
Davis 1998). Yet Osmose is unique in that is promotes both public and private forms of performance. Not
only is the experience itself so engaging that it ‘swallows’ the experient, Davies also allows an external
audience to observe the Osmose participant behind a screen, as a silhouette engaged in her personal
performance. Davies shrewdly imbricates both per- formative aspects in exhibiting her work, and resolves
any speculative conflicts thusly:
. . . Osmose is a powerful example of how technological environments can simulate
something like the old animist immersion in the World Soul, organic dreamings that
depend, in power and effect, upon the ethereal fire. Besides pointing to a healing use of
virtual technologies, Osmose also reminds us how intimate we are with electronics, in
sight and sound, in body and psyche. (ibid.)
Part 6. Performance, rituals and rites de passage
Performances in general, and VE performative possibilities in particular, can have meaningful and
significant effects on those who perform. Victor Turner (1979) cites experimental theatre evangelist Jerzy
Grotowski’s concept of the theater as a platform for a modern rite of passage, where the stage is done away
with, and the spectator becomes a participant in a liminal activity. According to Turner, Grotowski’s
concept goes so far as to imply the participants in his theatre will discover their essential selves through
these ritualistic performances without standard theatrical boundaries.
Unlike Grotowski, noted performance researcher Richard Schechner does not disallow the separate
audience within theatre’s ritualistic functions. In Ritual, Play and Performance (1976), he explains the
‘efficacy/ritual entertainment/theater’ as a general form of performance that embraces
the impulse to be serious and to entertain; to collect meanings and to pass the time; to
display symbolic behaviour that actualises ‘there and then’ and to exist only ‘here and
now’; to be oneself and to play at being others; to be in a trance and to be conscious; to
get results and to fool around; to focus the action on and for a select group sharing a
hermetic language, and to broad- cast to the largest possible audiences of strangers who
buy a ticket.
Virtual environments have much in common with Schechner’s form of theatre, but those that are
meaningful and private are closer to Grotowski’s concept. For now these ritualistic forms of virtual
environments are not common (Osmose and Ephémère excepted), but nonetheless important in what human
needs they address.
Phenomenology and semiotics are two ways of looking at a thing. The first embraces the corporeal
body; the latter makes of it a sign, even within its lived state. The symbol and the experience cannot co-
exist temporally. In living, in our direct experience, we are unaware of our meaning. It is only when we put
on the distancing goggles with their semiotic lenses that we can observe the signs engendered by that
experience. The views are complementary, but not congruent. We move back and forth between these
modes, experiencing and assimilating, in an endless dialogue that informs who we are, and how we will
respond to the next experience.
Ritual action, with its intrinsic, socially construed meanings, may be an exception because it provides
an immediate means of signification during the actual living experience, while at the same time, as Robert
St. Clair says (1992), it predates and precludes any linguistic retelling of it. Instead we have a multisensory
enclosure, a space apart that serves as a respite from the layers and simulacra (in Baudrillard’s sense) that
confound our day-to- day existence. Immersive virtual environments, imbued with meaning, are
opportunities for post ritual formulations, created by the shamanistic efforts of the modern, technologically
savvy artist. The VE experience itself must precede and inform any narrative retelling of it.
Our intimacy with technology its pervasiveness appropriates every- thing, from social activities
to those that press deeply into our private selves. Where is there escape? What respite do we have?
Paradoxically, immersive virtual environments may serve as an antidote to this constant flux of technology
in our lives. It is hard to be alone in this day and age, and yet, within Char Davis’s work, in a museum full
of people, and with spectators looking on, I could be alone with, and find myself at last.
In the act of concluding . . .
In setting out the terms of embodiment in virtual spaces, this paper also places the subject of VE next
to that of performance practice. It defines the terms: bifurcated body, presence and isochronal embodiments
and discusses forms of embodied representation, including avatars, and the mirrored self. The paper notes
the primacy of experience that must precede personal self- narrative, and considers the correspondence of
virtual environments to rites of passage and post ritual possibilities of virtual liminal states.
Most importantly, this paper argues that there will always be a need for our bodies to develop our
brains and, by the mysterious means of consciousness, our minds. The disembodiment of much of our day
to day living may push us further into new and unique means of bodily involvement. The ‘segmented self’
engendered by Hillis’ ‘polyvocal polyvalency’ of our increasingly fractured lives may desire a place of
unity, where the only self there is the one that is core to one’s consciousness. This argument takes forward
my study of immersive experience whilst also contextualising the concepts of self (and particularly
embodied ‘selves’) in relation to virtual environments.
Endnotes
1 Presence is a specific term used by virtual reality researchers to indicate the state where one believes that the computer mediated
world is real, to the exclusion of the physical world. Much work has gone into trying to find what induces a full state of
presence.
2 Most avatars in VR, if they exist at all, are not customisable, though the myriad representational possibilities inherent in digital
games may exert a strong influence on future decisions about representational form in virtual environments.
3 Krueger started working in unencumbered full body computer applications in the 1960s before virtual reality was named a concept.
He coined his own term for his work artificial reality and later wrote a book by that name, espousing his ideas. His term
never caught on, rather Jaron Lanier’s term, virtual reality, became the accepted designation for immersive environments.
4 Kreuger’s work brings to mind Lacan’s concept of the child’s first experiences with mirror, and how these encounters help form the
image of self. Krueger’s work is extremely attractive to children and adults alike, not only for, I suspect, its playful qualities, but
also due to the mirror image present during the interactions.
5 This was a state I found myself in recently. In one demo world, I had an avatar representation that was a graphical human figure.
When I looked down at my virtual body, however, I found I was a male figure, and a naked one at that!
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Contributor details: Jacquelyn Ford Morie is a professional artist and computer scientist, widely known as a
passionate VR maven. She is currently a Senior Scientist at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies in Los Angeles,
California. She has worked in both animation and visual effects entertainment (Disney, Rhythm & Hues Studios) and
has spent two decades developing virtual environments in US government-sponsored research laboratories. She has
recently completed her PhD with the SMARTlab, London. Contact: Jacquelyn Ford Morie, Senior Scientist/Project
Director, University of Southern California, Institute for Creative Technologies, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA.
E-mail: morie@ict.usc.edu
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