Reappraising the Disappearing Body and the Disembodied Eye through Multisensory Art

Maria Coleman
School of Art, Design and Printing
Dublin Institute of Technology
Ireland

Abstract. This paper examines the mind/body dualism inherent in western culture, tracing some causes and consequences of the ‘disappearing body.’ It considers the complicity of the ‘disembodied eye’ in privileging the intellect over corporeality and proposes the more holistic approach of interactive and installation art as an antidote to this age-old mind/body split.

The Disappearing Body

The evolution of mental history in Western culture describes the displacement by reason and logic of the body as an instrument of knowledge.

Bill Viola [26, p.234]

The body is a contested site where many of our cultural discourses are played out.

Stephen Wilson [32, p.149]

The forebears of western thought trusted their minds and doubted their bodies. Plato's allegory of the cave, written in the fourth century bce, teaches that the realm of the senses is arbitrary, amounting to little beyond shadow play. Sensual pleasures were recognised as leaden weights that dragged the vision of one's soul downward.

The Judeo-Christian story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden also portrays how the intellect was raised above the body in the collective imagination. In this story, the cumbersome fruits of knowledge brought a burden of disrepute and shame to the body. It was henceforth to be civilised, covered, dominated and controlled by the intellect. The bad reputation meted out to the body goes deeper than the necessity for fig leaves. Corporeality is further downtrodden behind layers of metaphor in the story. The treatment of the woman and the snake in fact compounds the misgivings about the body. As the female is presumably the more body-bound sex due to her bearing role in reproduction, Eve's temptation translates perhaps to the lure of bodily senses. In countless primitive cultures, the snake is a powerful symbol of life, sex, birth, death and rebirth. Our bodies connect us to all of the characteristics assigned to the snake: they define our sexuality, allow us to join the reproductive cycle and serve as our agent of life, growth, renewal and mortality. When the snake was cast down to crawl in the dirt, symbolically our sensual bodies were too.

Centuries of Christian dogma built upon this mythological foundation to transform the idea of humanity living in harmony in a physical earthly paradise into a vision of an otherworldly utopia, or heaven, where ethereal souls were loosed from their body-bound existence to dwell in eternal bliss. The conquered physical body of Christian thought was compounded again centuries later by Descartes's maxim Cogito ergo sum – ‘I think, therefore I am.’ In an attempt to distance himself from the mortal coil of the senses (‘Am I so dependent on the body and the senses that without these I cannot exist?’ [6, p.225]), Descartes imagined his sentient soul existing independently of his corporeality. ‘I think’ was far superior to his seventeenth-century mind than the ambiguity of ‘I feel.’ The sensual body was definitely not the chosen gauge of fact. Trusting intellect, science set about dissecting and cataloguing existence into discrete elements. This set western culture apart and allowed people to govern the natural environment and develop increasingly abstract thoughts and tools. This mind/body split has been a useful abstraction and has brought us to a unique, technologically advanced moment in history, but it also fosters dangerous delusions.

In the book Mind Children, roboticist Hans Moravec argues that protein-based life forms will be replaced by silicon in the future. He loosely adapts Moore's law of exponentially growing computing capabilities to predict that the next twenty years will see the development of robots with intelligence far superior to humanity's. His prophesies continue that robots will inherit the earth, and that our only avenue for survival will be to download our consciousness into the system, making it effectively immortal, transferring to new machines as required. An immense simulator would then recreate our complex reality. Moravec describes this as follows:

Now, imagine an immense simulator that is able to model the whole surface of the earth on an atomic scale, and that can run time forward and back, and produce different plausible outcomes by making different random choices at key points in its calculation. Because of the great detail this simulator models living things, including humans, in their full complexity. [21]

Marvin Minsky, a prominent figure in artificial intelligence research, hopes to decode and synthesise the brain, allowing a digital form of the brain to survive in more durable material after the death of ‘the bloody mess of organic matter’ (qtd. [30, p.17]). The philosophy of these ‘neognostics’ can be discerned in the work of many fields. The artist Stelarc believes that humanity's propensity for knowledge accumulation has superseded the significance of physicality.

[T]he body has become profoundly obsolete in the intense information environment it has created. It's had this mad, Aristotelian urge to accumulate more and more information. An individual now cannot hope to absorb and creatively process all this information. Humans have created technologies and machines which are much more precise and powerful than the body. [24]

William Gibson, who coined the phrase ‘cyberspace,’ writes in his novel Neuroromancer of networked computers that enable a matrix of pure data with ‘bright lattices of logic unfolding across the colorless void’ [7, p.11]. This realm of data glistens with the particular kind of beauty only found in the harmony and eloquence of a mathematical equation. His male protagonist Case, who feels trapped by his body (he refers to it as ‘meat’), jacks into this matrix to enjoy ‘the bodiless exultation of cyberspace’ [7, p.12]. Interestingly, he does not lose the joys of bodily consummating his relationship with the heroine Linda Lee, fulfilling Stephen Whittaker's definition of a ‘cybernaut’ as ‘someone who desires embodiment and disembodiment in the same instant. His ideal machine would address itself to his senses, yet free him from his body. His is a vision which loves sensorial possibility while hating bodily limits’ [31] (qtd. [30, p.258]).

Gibson's Case ascends to the ‘light’ of cyberspace at the close of the novel, when a data version of him is fed into the matrix to live forever, a point from which it is clear that these anti-body sentiments superimpose neatly upon the Christian ideal of heaven, where the soul finally leaves the body to independently ascend to eternal happiness.

[I]n our time of social and environmental disintegration […] today's proselytizers of cyberspace proffer their domain as an idealized realm ‘above’ and ‘beyond’ the problems of a troubled material world. Just like the early Christians, they promise a transcendent haven – a utopian arena of equality, friendship and power. Cyberspace is not a religious construct per se, but […] one way of understanding this new digital domain is as an attempt to construct a technological substitute for the Christian space of Heaven. [30, p.16]

Michael Heim tells us that cyberspace is essentially unintelligible and inscrutable (even to experts) and acknowledges that these attributes were formerly attributed to God [12, p.160]. Its unintelligibility lies in the fact that the computers required to run the colossal switching stations at the heart of the telecommunications network are so complex that artificially intelligent subroutines have to design the chips and software that run them. The computers in effect design themselves, so in theory the network is infinite. However, despite their ‘infinity,’ these networks would not ‘grow back’ autonomously were they shut down. They are inanimate and unconscious, much like the floating sardine can pointed out by the fisherman in Lacan's anecdote: ‘You see the can? Do you see it? Well it doesn't see you!’ [16, p.95].

The views of Moravec, Minsky, et al. are extreme and arguably of limited consequence, but understated anti-body tendencies can affect our daily lives and lead us towards a denial of physicality, particularly in an era when technologies increasingly augment our lived experience. The necessity to be deskbound when interacting with computers (the portals to cyberspace) is a subtle extension of this predisposition, as is the stationary compulsion enforced on us by the cinema. Both phenomena are strong forces that divide us internally and from each other and the world around us.

When judging user interfaces, our usual standard of goodness is the efficiency with which one can progress from point A to point B using the application. At some point we must recognize that our lives are spent in between. […] [T]he quality of the experience provided by the computer interface has bearing on the quality of life itself. [14, p.422]

The phrase ‘our lives are spent in between’ rings deeply true in our accelerated culture. Planes, trains, automobiles and the Internet all strive to cut out distance and make our lives more efficient; it remains that in the time in between we are likely to be tapping keystrokes or sitting motionless, transfixed to moving images. Philosopher Paul Virilio believes we are victims of our own accelerated culture. He refers to the cultural effects of speed as ‘speed pollution, which reduces the world to nothing’ [27]. Technologies like the Internet and media of illusion like virtual reality (VR), which was initially developed for military purposes, are underpinned by an association with military precision and speed. Aby Warburg, writing in the 1920s, also felt speed was destroying the universe:

Telegrams and telephones destroy the cosmos. Mythical and symbolic reflection creates space for meditation or thought in the struggle for spiritual links between man and his environment, but this is murdered by split-second electrical connections. [29] (qtd. [8, p.227])

Performance artist Marina Abramovic agrees:

We use telephones instead of telepathy. With all the progress, we exchange computers for our sensitivity. We don't use our intuition or our creativity at all. Even if we have free time we switch on our television and will just be hypnotized by the programmes. [1, p.209]

Despite all the progress in media and industry, our physical bodies, our primary resource, evolve at a much slower rate. Speed has managed, however, to change our bodies: diets have been revolutionised by the transport of goods and the increased demand for convenience food. All the choice and convenience comes at the high price of refined, artificially preserved foods, which are not optimal nutrition for our bodies, and perhaps even detrimental to health. Abramovic met an old man on a train one day who had worked in a crematorium. He left her with this anecdote: ‘You know, forty years ago the temperature required to cremate the human body was 125 degrees [Celsius]. These days it is 715 degrees because the chemicals in our body have increased’ [1, pp.207-208].

The Disembodied Eye

The Cartesian dualism that abstractly divided the human entity into the discrete elements of ‘body’ and ‘mind’ was complicated further by a collective focus on another of our faculties. Our over-reliance on eyesight has been complicit in the anti-body tendencies thus far outlined. The tendency towards a dominantly ocular understanding of the world is longstanding. Marshall McLuhan attributes this to the advent of written language, which substituted an ‘eye for an ear’ [20, p.94], giving previously oral information a visual and recordable form. This sea change towards assimilating worldly information primarily through eyesight soon saw the development of visual illusionary devices such as foreshortening and rudimentary perspective in the visual art of antiquity, devices famously revisited and refined during the Renaissance.

The development of perspective in the Renaissance was not just a technical innovation, it instantiated cultural themes such as the importance of sight, the privileging of particular points of view, the disregard of the other senses, and a faith in the ability to organise and dominate space. The power of contemporary media and representation derive from this dominance. [32, p.261]

The very fabric of our artistic tradition is woven from the threads of this ocular dependence, from painting to cinema, television and now the burgeoning field of virtual reality. Perspective encoded a particular viewpoint, initially acknowledging the physical position of the viewer. Eventually however, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea Mantegna began to play with this device, putting obscure centers of projection that were not physically attainable into their works. The vanishing point in Leonardo's Last Supper, for example, needs to be viewed from fifteen feet above the floor to be aligned to the viewer's body. Perceptual psychologist Michael Kubovy explains: ‘These effects achieve the goal of divorcing the viewer's felt point of view in relation to the scene represented in the painting, from the viewer's felt position in relation to the room in which he or she is standing’ [15, p.159]. Kubovy understands this as a kind of mind game that allows one to develop a virtual eye that can ‘leave’ the physical body through a flight of imagination to view from the physically unattainable point of entry. Further to its capacity to virtually extend our sensorial facilities he also attributes this roaming virtual eye with the impressive ability to ‘induce a feeling of spirituality, perhaps one conducive to a religious experience: a separation of the mind's eye from the bodily eye’ [15, p.159]. Painted in such a light, the subtle act of mental adjustment described as the ‘disembodied eye’ can be understood as complicit with the aforementioned tendencies towards a ‘disappearing body.’

This virtual eye, a potent cocktail of visual understanding and cognitive flight of fancy, quickly enabled humankind to think outside of its limits and distance itself from its corporeal gravity. With the magical wings of this virtual eye, western imagination set flight. Galileo employed it to make the monumental leap of decoding visual information from the heavenly bodies and realising the true spherical form of the earth and its cyclical orbit around the sun. ‘Perspective was not, as is so often and wrongly held, developed in order to reference the physical environment, but to produce space for contemplation, meditation and fantasy’ [4, p.78]. Here perhaps, lies one of the deeply grounded reasons why westerners understand themselves to be a divided mind/body. The disembodied eye and mind have afforded thought processes not previously attainable and set us free on a metaphysical realm.

The cinematic camera, like the high Renaissance painters, toys with viewpoints. Initially true to physically attainable frames (so physically probable in fact, that the first viewers of one Lumière film ran away as a train was apparently coming straight for them), filmmakers like D. W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation) eventually used the camera as a mechanical disembodied eye that panned, cut and focused to tailor attention.

[T]he relations of self, world and medium are reconfigured. Their interaction converges […] in the eye, which to take on this role as mediator, must leave the dog-eared bounds of sensual reality.[…] The pulse of disembodiment and recorporealization is the flutter captured so well in cinematic suturing of the gaze from shot to shot. [4, p.32]

Offered unlimited travel in the vehicle of the mind's eye, and using the skill acquired since the inception of perspective, the viewer registers the physically improbable viewpoint, and fantasises to compensate. As the flickering flame of the campfire mesmerised our ancestors, so we continue to be fascinated* by the glimmering light of the silver screen and we continue to lose ourselves to the dream. This stationary, private escapology obliterates the individual abilities of the audience, rendering them inactive, non-interactive and submissive.

The old cinema removes experience, making us see things along with (or through) a protagonist with whom we identify, and a plot in which we are caught. Such an approach tends toward not only a lack of viewpoint, of definition of whose experience it is, but also filters the power of sight into mere habit, dissolves insight into vicariousness. The spectator is reduced to a voyeur – which is, increasingly, the individual's role in society at large. [13] (qtd. [33, p.61])

Ken Kelman, quoted above, understands the cinema viewer to be ‘reduced to a voyeur.’ Invisible and non-existent, fixing a predatory gaze on her object of desire, the voyeur is gratified, her yearning not exposed by actions. Kelman links this condition to an atmosphere of social detachment. This potentially damning indictment of the phenomenon of the disembodied eye is compounded by Gene Youngblood's assertion that the lack of participation promoted by ocular reliance leads to a stagnant environment for the growth of ideas and learning. ‘If the information is redundant, as it must be in commercial entertainment, nothing is learned and change becomes unlikely’ [33, p.65]. ‘Participation’ in the cinema is on the subtle level of empathising with the characters. Its structure is pre-recorded, and consequently closed, allowing no response, be that vocalisation, applause or action.

The negative implications for the the ‘disembodied eye’ are clear. Despite the fact that this virtual construct is precariously divorced from its sensual home, it has nonetheless been instrumental in raising sight to a dominant cultural position, as the mediator of psychological experience and the arbiter of understanding, objectivity and truth.

In most languages of most cultures throughout history, seeing has been equated with understanding. The entire Indo-European linguistic system is filled with examples: I see, ya vizhu, je vois. Yet nearly twenty-four hundred years ago Plato asserted, ‘The world of our sight is like the habitation in prison.’ Recent studies in anatomy, physiology, and anthropology have lead to a similar conclusion. We have come to see that we don't really see, that ‘reality’ is more within than without. The objective and the subjective are one. [33, p. 46]

If seeing equates with understanding, then sensing by inference is a somehow clouded judgment. We tend to subjugate our intuition in favour of rationality, imagining an objective and truthful stance to exist despite the fact that each person is contained within his or her subjective body. Indeed, cognitive science and neuroscience teach us that the much-contested split cannot in actuality exist [17]. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson contend that reason is a by-product of our physical makeup and is profoundly shaped by corporeality.

There is no such fully autonomous faculty of reason separate from and independent of bodily capacities such as perception and movement. The evidence supports, instead, an evolutionary view, in which reason uses and grows out of such bodily capacities. […] Our sense of what is real begins with and depends crucially upon our bodies […]. [17, p.17]

The particular characteristics of our bodies define how we conceptualise and organise information about the world. The categories into which we group phenomena are limited to the number of neurons available to carry sensory information, and the colours we perceive depend in part on receptors in our eyes. In short, we assimilate the outer world through our bodies, and our bodies colour our view. ‘For real human beings, the only realism is an embodied realism’ [17, p.26]. Therefore, the dualisms that have defined us for centuries are arbitrary at best, and dangerous and delusional at worst. The twofold distinctions attribute positive traits like intelligence, objectivity and clarity to one pole, and labour, subjectivity and disorder to the other.

Putting the body back into the picture requires a mode of analysis that can complicate and unravel the simple dualisms that underlie its erasure, while still acknowledging the force and efficacy of these dualisms in creating cultural constructions. [10, p.6]

Perhaps this vigorous distinction was developed as a means to distance one's mind from mortality henceforth pinned solely on the body, with the mind striving to overcome finitude through achievements recorded by posterity. If so, our haste to disassociate ourselves from mortality removed our sense of wholeness. By distrusting bodily truths and intuition, we divided ourselves internally and splintered our wider relationship with nature. Bill Viola sees this as our major cultural malaise:

The larger struggle we are witnessing today is not between conflicting religious moral beliefs, between the legal system and individual freedom, or between nature and human technology; it is between our inner and outer lives, and our bodies are the area where this is being played out. It is the old philosophical mind/body problem coming to a crescendo as an ecological drama, where the outcome rests not only on the realization that the natural physical environment is one and the same as our bodies, but that nature itself is a form of mind. [26, p.236]

The Re-Emerging Body in Multisensory Art

If art and media are cultural barometers, they should reflect and address these issues. Morton Heilig, the inventor and theorist, saw art's role as one of emotional expression, with the aim of increased sympathetic communication. Writing in the fifties, he saw that art had a long way to go to achieve its goals, and that society at large badly needed its transformative input. He advocated that it address its audience holistically, communicating its message to all senses possible. His idea was to break the hegemony of the sterile dissection of human faculties, allowing more than just eyesight and psychological engagement. In his 1955 essay ‘The Cinema of the Future,’ Heilig outlined his vision for the potential improvements of the medium, based on insights into the nature of human perception that would transform it into a polysensory experience. ‘For all the apparent variety of the art forms created, there is one thread uniting all of them. And that is man, with his particular organs of perception and action’ [11, p.243]. His ‘methodology of art’ advocated that artists should be familiar with the workings of these organs of perception, intimately understanding the psychology and physiology involved.

We can now state the third law of our methodology of art: ‘The brain of man shifts rapidly from element to element within each sense, and from sense to sense in the approximate proportion of sight 70%, hearing 20%, smell 5%, touch 4%, and taste 1%, selecting one impression at a time according to the needs of [the] individual [...].’ These unite into the dynamic stream of sensations we call ‘consciousness’. The cinema of the future will be the first direct, complete and conscious application of this law. [11, p.248]

Unlike today's cinema, which isolates a few senses, thus restricting our experience, his vision was for something altogether more subtle and real. As he candidly put it: ‘If man can have intimate moments in life with his peripheral vision, stereophonic hearing, smell, and touch, so can his art’ [11, p.250]. He foresaw that once one hundred per cent of the field of view was addressed, as well as the other senses in varying degrees, the biggest concern of the artist would no longer be narrative, but how to lead attention, for individuals would focus on different information according to their particular interests. The viewer then must shake him/herself out of the lazy habits of the current formula, and work to search for meaning in the production. They will find that their inner truths are the ideal impetus for this endeavour.

‘Realism,’ or, in aesthetic terms, ‘experience,’ is that something which is created by the unity of the outer world with the inner. No matter how extensive the artist's means, he must use them to provoke more of the spectator's participation, not less. For without the active participation of the spectator there can be no transfer of consciousness, no art. [11, p.247, emphasis in original]

Heilig's work puts forth striking developments on Richard Wagner's theory of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk.’ Though Heilig focuses more on the senses, Wagner's focus on an interdisciplinary art has the same thrust. Both agree that the human body is the primary artistic material. Heilig saw that the preverbal stories of primitive humans (recounting perhaps an incident with an animal) were the first inklings of art, which relied purely on bodily gestures to transmit important knowledge. Wagner, too, felt that the future lay with actual bodily humanity with all its vitality in the form of the actor who would reunite the disparate threads of art in ‘bodily portrayal with all its wealth of movement’ [28, p.7].

An important step towards the readmittance of the multisensory and participatory body came with the Dada art movement, born in the furnace of World War I Europe. Its goal, according to Dada artist Hans Richter, was to ‘bring forward a new kind of human being’ [22, p.65]. This aim was to be realised through a mixing of consciousness and unconsciousness, chance and purpose.

The official belief in the infallibility of reason, logic and causality seemed to us senseless – as senseless as the destruction of the world and the systematic elimination of every particle of human feeling. This is the reason why we were forced to look for something which would re-establish our humanity. [22, p.58]

Chance and the underlying synchronicity it allows permit genuine experience to be an art material, which, Dadaists believed brought them ‘closer to the source of all art, the voice within ourselves’ [22, p.50]. The performance art of the sixties picked up this mantle and attempted to deal with ‘life in the round.’ An art practice was developed that was more event-based, temporary, body-centered and collaborative. Formerly disparate art forms intermingled, and the audience was invited into a more active role. Everyday mundane actions were celebrated with a new piety, and conceptual boundaries dissolved, paving the way for a ‘total art,’ with the body and psyche of the artist as the primary material. In the work of artists such as Marina Abramovic, Vito Acconci and Daniel Burren, the human as integrated mind/body re-emerged with primeval potency, placing our corporeal selves before us in a live, striving, shamanic, performative sense.

Today's installation art, which increasingly involves a technology-enabled interactive element, also carries hopes for a multisensory art that celebrates an integrated mind/body. It is a plural zone that marries visual art, sound, theatre and cinema into an inclusive art that envelops the entire human sensorium. MoMA curator Robert Storr describes installations as ‘complete immersion environments,’ asserting that once the proscenium arch had been removed, the division between actors and audience became blurred [25]. The installation artist is in effect setting the stage for discourse between the viewer and artwork, providing unexpected scenarios where our visual and intellectual routines are confronted or disturbed, and we are entreated to engage with, or act upon, the new stage. Nicholas de Oliveira attests that installations must refer to and dismantle the supremacy of cinema as the foremost place of communal immersion. He writes:

Cinema provides the dominant cultural experience that installation must explore. Film has been instrumental in setting the viewing conditions and expectations for today's audiences as it envelops the spectator in an overwhelming spectacle of narrative, sound and vision. [5, p.23]

True to Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk, works by the American artist Matthew Barney blend installation, theatre and film in a vague, evocative mix. French artist Pierre Huyghe melds music, theatre and installation in his L'expédition scintillante: A musical (2002). The work features three 'acts' set on three floors of a building, which is programmed so that light, weather (temperature, simulated fog, etc.), music and performance follows a script. A physical space that demands corporeal presence to be activated, the installation has an open outlook as to what constitutes an art material, and so engages the compound character of modern life. As the installation continually assembles information in unique combinations, the focus no longer resides on discrete art objects but rather on the sensations induced.

Experience is mediated through the body; the degree to which our sensory faculties are stimulated is linked to the impact that the experience has on us. […] The way we think about space is therefore wholly experiential and is reliant on a series of stimuli, which renders our perception of it much more fluid and transient. [5, pp.49-50]

Ernesto Neto's installation Walking in Venus Blue Cave (2001) literally softens the boundary between the body and the surrounding architecture. Polyamide material creates a skin-like interface that takes tactility in hand, while turmeric is used to give olfactory stimulation. Art critic Ina Blom uses the term ‘immersive mode’ to describe this type of experience ‘in which the subjective awareness […] appears to merge with the artwork, so as to create the sensation of a new more powerful experience of totality’ [2] (qtd. [5, p.49]). Visuals no longer have to be the seat of meaning in such art. Light, fog, smell, texture and space can be the avenue for dialogue, with the body of the audience being the essential component.

Marcel Biefer and Beat Zgraggen's God (1998) creates an ironic place of worship where the spectators are provided with a changing room to take off their clothes before confronting an abstract light sculpture: ‘God.’ Of course the shared nudity of the audience is the inferred ‘real’ contact with the ineffable. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Quaing's, Cultural Melting Bath (1997; 1998) is a rock garden with thirty tons of rocks from China, arranged around an herbal bath according to feng shui principles to bestow good qi energy on the gallery and visitors. Visitors are invited to bathe communally, and the shared human intimacy is perhaps the crux of this beneficial energy. Works such as those outlined above are addressed directly towards the body and seek to highlight its status as ‘a walking sensorium’ [33, p.363].

Interactive art can potentially combine sensory experiences with opportunities for action, fun and descision making. David Rokeby is a recognised talent in the area. His Very Nervous System (1986) tracks the movements of a person through video tracking in an open space, and these actions trigger synthesised sounds. Though invisible, the system transforms a normal outdoor site into a nuanced musical instrument. He sees these interactive systems as microcosms in which viewers/participants can become aware of the reaction to their actions and possibly therefore the consequences of their behaviour. Much as a sensitive animal like a horse might react in amplified ways to one's presence, these works acknowledge company, and allow us to practice for the real world. Rokeby elaborates: ‘By providing us with mirrors, artificial media, points of view, and automata, interactive artworks offer us the tools for constructing identities – our sense of ourselves in relation to the artwork and, by implication, in relation to the world’ [23, p.153]. German media artist Monika Fleischmann also sees such works as providing a symbolic exercise:

What is important is to push back the boundaries of perception and, whenever possible, to climb over these. The Greeks invented theatre to externalize the drama of life lived at the symbolic level. […] Interactive theatrical illusion spaces are used for trying out new scenarios. Reality is treated ‘as if.’ In the virtual space, we practice for reality and live with a feeling of ‘as if.’ As if we are dreaming, as if we are flying, as if we are dying, falling, sliding, going into orbit, as if we are existing. (qtd. [32, pp.734-735])

Technology-enabled interactive art not only offers choice and fosters participation but also presents opportunities for more heuristic computer/human interfaces. Crucially it seeks to engage the entire repertoire of human movement. Though never acknowledged as a ‘sense,’ the joy of movement is innate and expressive, and our ‘colonisation’ of it, in our checking of our body language and the strict formulation of movement and contact activities in civilised society, is perhaps an indication of how private and dear we hold it. Fleischmann states her aim: ‘I want to recover the senses of the body and to observe the dynamic gesture of different gender and culture [sic] in interactive media. If we don't support digital art and media culture, the quality of life will be lost through the dominance of machines’ (qtd. [32, p.734]). Michael Heim, a prominent voice on Virtual Reality acknowledges that technology threatens to further subjugate our physicality.

As it stands today, technology rarely acknowledges the fragile web of energies in the internal human body. Technology works more like human strip-mining than like yoga practice. It pulls the upper-body ever further into the tunnel of technology and offers nothing to restore the resulting imbalance. [12, p.58]

Quite optimistically, Heim feels that VR will liberate the ‘hunchback computer user’ who is almost fastened to a monitor, transforming her into a ‘radiant body’ [12, p.57]. If Heim is referring to the VR that uses head-mounted displays and datagloves, it is worth remembering that these are just one step away from monitors and mice, and actually more intrusive. One might question how liberated a body can be when tethered to a device whose initial prototype was nicknamed the ‘Sword of Damocles’ because its cumbersome weight threatened to decapitate its wearer.

Through the subtle use of sensors and tracking devices, it may be possible to foresee a future when humans are not ‘extensions’ of bulky machinery, but rather that the machinery will adapt to humanity. Theorist Sean Cubitt sees partnership between humanity and technology as the way forward. This modus operandi would leave neither party dominated or depleted, and the human would act as the dynamic animating force. He writes, ‘The digital yearns for the organic with the same passion with which the text longs for the reader’ [4, p.35]. New media artist Brenda Laurel corroborates this view of technology as irrelevant without the person with her concern that software development tends to overemphasise what the program can do instead of what a person can do with the program, despite the fact that ‘a computer-based representation without a human participant is like the sound of a tree falling in the proverbial uninhabited forest’ [18, p.2].

Myron Krueger was combining artistic concerns with computer science as early as 1970. His projects link position- and gesture-sensing technologies with intelligent video installations that have networked or AI capabilities. The audience is generally unfettered by body-mounted equipment, since he strives to subvert this convention.

I have a profound personal prejudice against wearing devices on any regular basis. I suspect that I am not alone. Therefore, I believe that human interface research will branch in two directions. One fork will have the objective of completing an artificial reality technology that includes force and tactile feedback, using whatever intrusive and encumbering means that are necessary. The other fork will pursue an interface that merges seamlessly with the rest of our environment. [14, p.420]

Krueger's output generally travels along the latter fork in this road. Through subtle sensing technologies, he aims to engage even computer non-literates in immediate, intuitive ways that urge them to be creative in their interactions. VIDEOPLACE (1970) is one such work. In a darkened room, one sees a live image of one's silhouette on a projection screen. Once motion is registered, the system retorts with graphics, video effects and synthesised sound. The system includes a number of unique effects: standing in a central position in the room holding one finger aloft enables you to ‘draw’ on the screen, while a spread hand erases this drawing and a closed fist disables the function. A horizontal open hand induces an interactive graphic creature, ‘Critter,’ who is programmed to climb up the edge of your shadow and dance if it gets to the top of your head. If enclosed by shadows, Critter attempts escape, exploding and appearing elsewhere if it fails. When the system is used with networked telecommunications, two people in different locations can interact through their silhouetted images. Scale disparities are used to add interest in such a scheme.

The second person can exist on a different scale. Thus, we have juxtaposed the giant hands of one person and the shrunken image of another. These hands can lift a tiny person and suspend him from a graphic string dangled from a giant finger. Inevitably, the tiny people wonder if it is possible to swing on the string. Sure enough, when they move from side to side, imparting energy to their images, they begin to swing back and forth. An opportunity has been offered and accepted without a word being spoken or a manual consulted. [14, p.419]

Though the actual visual qualities of this system are rudimentary by mimetic cinematic standards (‘Critter’ for example would not look out of place in an early video game like Space Invaders) the symbolic depiction is reinforced by the fluid instinctive nature of the physical communication. The intelligent system enables the surprise of discovery as repertoires of movements announce their possibilities. Corporeal involvement suspends disbelief in the visual illusion, which the viewer after all realises is based on her or his own living form. Krueger has noted that we tend to have a very strong psychological tie to self-images, reacting to perceived touch to them. The artist elaborates: ‘some people reported a sensation in their finger when they touched the image of another person […]. [I]ndividuals have a very proprietary sense about their image. What happens to it happens to them. What touches it, they feel’ [14, p.418].

Placing an image derived from the viewer's own body at the centre of the presentation thus has immense psychological impact. Reflecting a body's unique shape and dynamic movement gives that viewer physical empowerment. It involves viewers and their choices in the unfolding drama. Crucially this scheme is the polar opposite to the still compliance required of the cinema watcher. Unlike the subtle psychological self ‘reflection’ through identification with a hero/heroine in a movie presentation, Krueger's viewers are present individually in an immediate way. Here at last physical engagement rather than cerebral involvement brings about the transformation and ‘transferal of consciousness.’ Though the surface novelty of VIDEOPLACE might seem at first a frivolous engagement, when put in context with its unique ability to make untutored users instantly active and to allow creative, physically empowered expression and interpersonal interaction and play, it points to a future that might, importantly, overcome ‘the sedentary tyranny of existing systems’ [14, p.420].

Integral to this work's success is the gesture-driven interface that ‘merges seamlessly with the rest of the environment.’ It places the acquired knowledge of decades of technology at the service of the embodied user, sensitively adapting to the user's behaviour rather than requiring user adaptation. Cognitive science might describe such a designed environment as ‘external scaffolding,’ other examples of which might be infrastructure, customs, languages, organisations, countries, email networks, etc., each constructed to aid our modern existence. This ‘scaffolding’ in fact allows us to build simple actions and thought processes into complex systems. It might be attested that this scaffolding is what makes us intelligent.

[A]dvanced cognition depends crucially on our abilites to dissipate reasoning: to diffuse achieved knowledge and practical wisdom through complex social structures, and to reduce the loads on individual brains by locating those brains in complex webs of linguistic, social, political, and institutional constraints. […] Our brains make the world smart so that we can be dumb in peace! [3, p.180, emphasis in original]

The notion of an embodied mind that moves in a ‘scaffolded’ smart world is gaining credence and momentum and calls into question the presumed nebulous heights of pure intellect. It embeds the mind back in its fleshy home. It paves the way for the specialised, segmented western world to reconverge in the service of holism. Works like Krueger's VIDEOPLACE pioneer this path and thread a needle across the perceived mind/body split. ‘Mind’ and its constructs work in harmony with ‘Body,’ while ‘Body’ teaches ‘Mind’ how to engage with and play with the system. Interactive artworks of this ilk directly subvert the inherited problem of mind/body dualism. Communion with such a work requires an integrated mind/body approach.

The tendencies in interactive art to think first of the audience and second of the means to address them is a welcome change and promises to be a more wholesome and natural persuasion than traditional approaches in both art and technology. As the interface evolves to adapt to and partner with the human agent, a holistic, interactive ‘total art’ will ensue that allows for impressive media envelopment that might do more than just be an entertaining illusion, and instead accelerate understanding of subsumed aspects of our humanity. If one takes inspiration from theories such as those propsed by Heilig or Wagner, or perhaps from the art that draws on such theories, the indications are that the disembodied mind and eye that so powerfully divorced us from our sensorium may be increasingly challenged by a ‘total art.’ Artists such as Bill Viola realise the crucial need for such an art:

In my work the visual is always subservient to the field, the total system of perception/cognition at work, the five senses are not individual things but, integrated with the mind, they form a total system and create this field, an experiential field which is the basis of conscious awareness. This is the only true whole image. [26, p.268]

Rationality has marched countless advances through our lives, but at the expense of our sense of wholeness. In thought, action, art and life our anti-body tendencies need checking in favor of nurturing the bodies and ecosystems that allow us and our abstractions to exist. Philosopher Karsten Harries recognises this imbalance:

The old Adam fell when his spirit awoke and let him see his own nakedness. The new Adam will be born when his spirit is brought as a sacrifice. Man having suffered the pains of individuation, having emancipated himself from the mother and from the home, finds that the price he has paid for his emancipation is too high. His world has become meaningless and he wants to return. [9] (qtd. [22, p.92])

The broader need to integrate body and mind, corporeality and spirit, may be currently viewed as a larger and urgent necessity on a worldwide scale, as we continue to plunder our physical and environmental capabilities for short-lived materialist ends. It could be cautioned that apocalyptic nightmares mark the dead end of the over-simplified mind/body cul-de-sac. We may have to redress the balance to return the mind to its rightful home in the body, and the burgeoning field of multisensory interactive art may be an invaluable tool in this process.

Note

*
The word fascinate comes from the Latin fascinare, which refers to the ability of dancing flames to attract attention.

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About the Author

Maria Coleman is currently engaged in a practice-based Ph.D. at the School of Art, Design and Printing, Dublin Institute of Technology entitled ‘Body Responsive Media Environments.’ She holds an honours degree in Fine Art (Sculpture) from Limerick School of Art and Design, and a first class honours M.Phil. in Music and Media Technology from Trinity College Dublin.

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