Negotiating the In-Between: Space, Body and the Condition of the Virtual

Petra Gemeinböck
Key Centre of Design Computing and Cognition
University of Sydney

Abstract. As an artist working in the field of virtual reality, I explore dynamically emergent environments with immersive, interactive display systems, which enable me to produce performative realities in which the boundaries between the Self and the (alleged) Other become liquid. This paper addresses the representational issues and performative aspects of virtuality and, through discussion of two of my works, examines the ambiguities inherent in contemporary technological expressions of a more or less disembodied Self as it inhabits (tele-)immersive virtual environments.

The term virtual reality, although it seems oxymoronic at first, not only hints at a clearly drawn borderline between virtuality and reality but also an implicit hierarchy. It implies a virtuality that wishes to be real in the sense of a virtual real that is at best indistinguishable from the real we know – or at the very least from what we are able to imagine. Yet apart from a colliding connection of the virtual and the real, the term also evokes another concept of their relationship that emerges not from a process of negative differentiation, aiming for either real or virtual, but for both; something in-between emerging from a process of negotiation. The in-between refers to two fundamentally different notions of space whose only intersection is continuously negotiated by our Self: the physical presence in the space of performance and the performative presence of becoming in the virtual. The first one is real, secure, measurable and predictable, while the latter is virtual, uncertain, unscripted and unpredictable. Is the boundary between the two drawn by the contour of our body?

The actual relationship between the two, and with it the space of negotiation, is defined by the author and redefined or refined, respectively, by the participants. The realities of these virtual environments constitute themselves in simulations of our physical surroundings, worlds arisen from our fantasy or dynamic surroundings and emergent entities. Although a closed, pre-defined world seems more transparent and less ambiguous to its temporary inhabitant, it certainly is more likely to be repetitive. Pre-determined virtual environments rely more on being ‘representative,’ than a dynamic virtual reality that is in the process of unforseeable becoming.

In my virtual environment Uzume* (Figures 1, 2 and 3), implemented for one- to six-wall CAVE projection systems,** a sensitively responsive, dynamic environment surrounds the visitor, unfolding the communicative nature of a strange, virtual entity. Uzume [Japanese: whirling] is named after a Japanese Shinto goddess, whose strange dance seduced the sun goddess to leave the cave in which she had hidden herself. Although the virtual environment does not draw on Uzume's mythological context, it displays a strangely playful whirling behaviour that sensitively responds to every movement and gesture of the visitor. Yet it also evolves to some extent independently, and so it seems as if this strange world is consistently drawn behind a transformative mirror surface.

Figure 1: <em>Uzume</em>.  Photo by Victor S. Brigola
Figure 1: Uzume. Photo by Victor S. Brigola

Uzume's concept of ‘spacing’ was inspired by Henri Bergson's notion of motion preceding space: ‘Space is not a ground on which real motion is posited; rather it is real motion that deposits space beneath itself’ [1, p.217]. Its dynamic space unfolds in an unscripted becoming; shaped through the in-between of unfinished transitions, its liquid boundaries embody temporal behaviour rather than traditionally fixed architectural boundaries such as edges or planes. ‘One could say that the in-between is the locus of futurity, movement, speed; it is thoroughly spatial and temporal, the very essence of space and time and their intrication’ [4, p.94].

The environment's transitory nature evolves based on spatial representations of the temporal behaviour of nonlinear chaotic systems, so called ‘strange attractors.’ As they move around inside the CAVE projection space, participants traverse the attractors' parametric fields that are mapped around their body and thus affect the environment's current state. Uzume's space, however, is not devoid of any ‘medium,’ and during their physical exploration visitors likewise subtly transform a viscous fluid-like particle field in which the whirling structures are floating. The environment's acoustic response consists of floating sound objects whose shapes become individually modulated along the traces of the participant's movements. One of the most interesting aspects of the CAVE's spatial prosthesis is that it not only sensorially extends our body but its human-scale, three-dimensional imagery suffuses our entire person, almost like a second skin, a virtual layer, which we temporarily inhabit. Although many CAVE environments present a world that exceeds the (physical) projection space and is conventionally navigated through by the means of a joystick, Uzume's world is bound to the (physical) boundaries of its projection space, which can only be explored and bodily ‘occupied’ by the participant's physical movements.

Rather than simulating a world-like scenario, the environment constitutes a situation of encounter in which there are neither specific rules to guide the partipant's interaction with the unruly surroundings, nor any pre-designed roles for the participant to inhabit. The relationship between the participant and the system develops through surprising, ambiguous interplay. Although the parameters of the underlying system are mapped to the spatial position of sensors worn by the visitor, due to the system's chaotic evolution, even the exact repetition of a visitor's movement would not reproduce a specific formation, but would rather result in multitudinous variations. As the ‘virtual opposite’ instantly responds to the participant's every movement, it still challenges the temporary inhabitant to explore its strangely whirling language code. Input and response thus become a dynamic interplay that creates a transforming mirror in which the participants' reflection is continuously transformed into something Other.

As a ‘dancing’ visitor, we never encounter the same space, the space never shows the exact same behaviour, we always however perform this space together with a virtual opposite that is less essential to control than to solicit and to recognize as independent. [7; my translation]
Figure 2: <em>Uzume</em>.  Photo by Victor S. Brigola
Figure 2: Uzume. Photo by Victor S. Brigola

Uzume grows more and more familiar during the process of the dialogue, and yet it will never be the same, never be known, but will perpetually surprise, confuse and provoke its human opposite. Conversing with Uzume is thus not unlike conducting a dialogue without knowing the language of the Other. Although we can make sense of the Other's gestural language, we are always committed to the uncertain scope of interpretation; the actual meaning is never revealed, never completely decoded, never fully confirmed. In her book Unmarked, Peggy Phelan has already impressively articulated the interrelation between representation and such a performative dialogue:

Representation reproduces the Other as the Same. Performance, insofar as it can be defined as representation without reproduction, can be seen as a model for another representational economy, one in which the reproduction of the Other as the Same is not assured. [8, p.3]

Although it is not the application's aim to seduce its temporary inhabitant into perceiving the virtual opposite as ‘alive,’ a system that behaves so variably and indeterminably is almost inevitably read as something ‘animate.’ And so it is our desire and capability to order Uzume's behaviours into narratives in which events can be causally related to one another that opens our access and at the same time drives our engagement with the mirror image. Some participants approach Uzume in a rational, strategic manner, carefully investigating the correlations between their input and parametric changes. Others play more intuitively or emotionally and develop dance-like movements, which almost correspond to the flowing lines. Some even talk to or yell at them. And I have often observed the moment when the visitor starts smiling the kind of smile that one smiles when caught talking to oneself [3]. Here the boundary where the illusion, still opaque, becomes transparent is perforated and traversable. Uzume's design purposely plays with the opacity of this boundary that is to be continuously negotiated. The theatrical qualities of the CAVE, such as the human-scale projection space, the first-person perspective, the stereo projection and sensors that integrate the user, create a powerful stage indeed. Yet it is neither through the capabilities of this stage nor its digitally mediated metaphorical representation that participants become embodied in the virtual world, but rather through the process of negotiating. The contours of this body, however, are flickering and liquid. And it is in turn the embodied Self along whose contours the negotiation unfolds.

Figure 3: <em>Uzume</em>.  Photo by Victor S. Brigola
Figure 3: Uzume. Photo by Victor S. Brigola

The issue of embodied negotiation complicates the access to such realities, for physical transcendence over space and distance is the long-cherished dream that virtual reality has sought to fulfil. Yet how then are we supposed to transcend the boundaries of Lacan's mirror plane and to enter the realm of the virtual Other – whether to exchange with, resemble or avert – as we are deprived of our enacted body, but only present in a ‘represented body, produced through the verbal and semiotic markers constituting it’? [6, p.xiii] Based on Merleau-Ponty's notion of the body-subject, embodiment is an essential condition for the formation of the context that enables relations between our Selves and Others. It also forms the context within which we relate to our surroundings and within which we can extend our Selves. The visitor's embodiment then allows for the sensors to connect the Self to a virtual space that, in Uzume, constitutes itself in response to the movements of our bodies. The body becomes thus the interface between these two spaces, the real and the virtual, and through its exploration, movement and performance we produce knowledge and provoke space, ‘for experience always gives us a composite of space and duration’ [2, p.97]. It seems that body and space are inescapably coupled to one another, as at least from an experiential viewpoint there is no such thing as ‘disembodied space’ and one ‘can really only talk about “space” as a result of an experiential body timing its actions’ [10, p.138].

Whether the mirror surface in-between is rigid such as the computer screen or almost liquid and apparently permeable such as an immersive CAVE interface, the negotiation between the real and the virtual always takes place along the contact surface between the context of the embodied Self and the context of the represented, virtual Self (the transformed mirror image). A dynamic interplay, such as evoked in Uzume, not only creates a mirroring quality but also a liquid-like condition, in which the boundaries of the Self and the Other begin to shift, to perforate and to intertwine. Yet the virtual never poses a threat to the real, as according to Elizabeth Grosz, ‘it is a mode of production and enhancement of the real: an augmentation, a supplementation, and a transformation of the real by and through its negotiation with virtuality’ [4, p.90]. Negotiating the in-between does not reproduce an intermediate, safe, self-centred position nor does it recombine or simply juxtapose the two, but rather transforms both of them and produces thus something third, Other. And it is here, where ‘the desire for the difference between Self and Other, subject and object, real and representation breaks and begins to open the path for a decentered, mutual contamination’ [7; my translation].

The reflective and yet other, untouchable space presented behind such a virtual mirror surface is often evoked in discourse about Cyberspace. Katherine Hayles talks of ‘a second mirror stage: the Mirror of the Cyborg,’ constituted by the look into this diffusing digital mirror [5, p.186]. What if, however, we were able to ‘step through the looking glass’ and be present on the ‘other side’? Tele-immersive virtual environments create a mirror space that apparently allows for its participants to transcend the surface – and even the space – of the in-between by turning it into a passage to another, possibly remote site. Here, however, we encounter another, invisible and yet very material in-between: as the virtual mirror presents us with a systemic translator that forms an obscure veil of illusion rather than a magic doorway to the other side. As it is not clearly comprehensible for the local participant how the (apparently) incoming data arises and how the remote system is handling the signal and information processing of their local, outgoing data, this veil can indeed become an imaginative and performative transformer, assuming the role of a third, unknown performer.

In my tele-immersive installation Maλa – Veil of Illusion*** (Figure 4 and 5) the relationship between the participant's Self, its virtual image and the representation of the other remote participant(s) becomes the cast of something third, Other, that shapes the only layer in between two remote sites. In Hindu-Buddhist tradition, Maya [Sanskrit: illusion] stands for the constant movement of the universe, so powerfully masking the essence of all matter that the phenomenal world of reality can only be perceived behind a ‘veil of illusion.’ In the installation, the idea of Maya's ‘veil’ is translated into an elastic membrane, a meshwork of interconnected particles, whose two sides are split apart and networked in order to become a three-dimensional, performative looking glass visible at each remote site. As the participants move towards the screen, Maλa's virtual veil seems to extend and allow one's self-reflection to reach to the ‘other side.’ Yet the more one tries to touch the Other, the more one's flickering self image melts into the Other's projection. The two participants feel transformed and entangled in one another inside this veil as the underlying system, a third, unknown participant, produces the liquid traces of something Other that are apparently able to exceed the boundaries of the in-between.

Figure 4: <em>Maλa – Veil of Illusion</em> (gold corresponds to local data, blue to remote data)
Figure 4: Maλa – Veil of Illusion (gold corresponds to local data, blue to remote data)

The installation sites differ from CAVE environments such as Uzume in that they use only a single-wall projection system to which the virtual veil is apparently sutured. The participants communicate and interact with one another by means of web cameras so that the veil in between is transformed according to what the system perceives, interprets and reinterprets as three-dimensional interference. Each participant's bilateral mold is continuously transformed by the play of the force interaction among the particles that form the veil's mesh. Although Maλa apparently enables its participants to enter the veil from any remote location, ideally both sides are networked locally and presented on site. For only this seemingly paradoxical configuration allows for participants to experience the underlying system's reinterpretation (on the other side) and hence to explore their Selves transformed in-between.

Maλa – Veil of Illusion explores the performative relationship and ambiguous interdependency between Self and Other in the context of a computer-controlled interplay of resistance and representation. In contrast to Uzume, here the mirror literally becomes the surface of encounter that – since Lacan – determines our split mode of being. As Maλa's two-way mirror interweaves the participant's own traces with the traces of someone other (remote), the encounter with the Other, outer world, thus takes place inside the mirror. In addition to the veil's force play, Maλa's mirror also splits the present into two directions, confusing actual and virtual, present and past. As if the mirror were imbued with memory, short sequences of the participants' mirror image are stored and sporadically blended with the current input; allegedly appearing from the other side or engendering a multiplicity of presence. The third, Other, thus not only parts from the participants' spatial presence; it evokes its own traces of the past by interleaving ghost-like layers of memory into the evolving dialogue.

While the telematic dialogue of Paul Sermon's Telematic Dreaming (1992), for instance, transmits and superimposes the dreamers' body images, Maλa – Veil of Illusion rather forms an elastic passage in which the bodily impressions of remote ‘passengers’ touch and melt into one another. Maλa's passengers, however, cannot prevent their image from becoming something fluid, boundless, slowly diffusing into the Other's image. The more it diffuses into the mirror space, the more tangible it becomes on the other side, up to the point at which it breaks the mirror. Maλa's passage, as it apparently connects two remote sites, never actually opens up, and its passengers are thus forever caught in the in-between, as the only way out of this passage is to shatter it. It only opens at the point at which this force play becomes unbalanced and eventually unstable, resolving the in-between into black nothingness.

Figure 5: <em>Maλa – Veil of Illusion</em>. The edges of the passage on both sides (sites).
Figure 5: Maλa – Veil of Illusion. The edges of the passage on both sides (sites).
Gilles Deleuze … identifies a reciprocal interaction between the virtual and the real, an undecidable reversibility, as if the image could take the place of an object and force the object behind the constraints of the mirror's plane. Each makes a certain imperceptible contribution to the Other, not adding any particular feature or quality but a depth of potential, a richer resonance [4, p.80].

Opposed to a ‘passive’ mirror reflection, the virtual projection seems to gain more active, ‘material’ power over the real object, for it is able to redefine, amplify, and even genuinely recreate the real. In the force play between two or more real spaces, an inverted, negative space emerges, in which the real and the virtual can shift places – negotiated secretly in-between [3].

Virtual reality often is envisioned as a medium that enables us to enter otherwise inaccessible spaces, including the externalization of our imaginations. The representation of these spaces, however, still reproduces the alleged Other as the Same and emerges from scientific politics that understand scientific progress as the ability to make something (repeatedly) visible, something not seen before [9, p.18]. The medium thus gets torn apart between the desire to create alternate realities that are ‘as real as possible’ and the disenchantment with the failure to produce such seamless illusions. Yet what about spaces and encounters that we cannot imagine, whose meaning only unfolds in an event of becoming, an encounter between bodies that transforms and releases something from each and, in the process, produces virtuality? [4, p.70] Could we, then, be able to inhabit virtual spaces without expecting the Other to become actualized as the Same? Playing with Uzume or Maλa never seamlessly closes the gap between the Self and the Other. Although this resistance provides us with a distance, it is a distance that the player is not necessarily the one to control and in whose shifting in-between we might find precisely what we cannot face up to: the Other mirroring our Self. Yet it might get even more complicated, as according to Slavoj Zizek,

[B]y the mirage of a ‘virtual reality’, the ‘true’ reality itself is posited as a semblance of itself, as a pure symbolic edifice. The fact that ‘a computer doesn't think’ means that the price for our access to ‘reality’ is that something must remain unthought. [11, p.44]

Unthought and ineffable, the real – and as I strongly suspect, likewise the virtual – is that which resists representation.


The virtual environment Uzume (2002) was implemented at the Competence Center für Virtual Engineering (CCVE), Fraunhofer Institut für Arbeitswirtschaft und Organisation (IAO) in Stuttgart; in collaboration with Roland Blach and Nicolaj Kirisits. The application is part of the CAVE art collection at the Ars Electronica Center in Linz, Austria.
The Cave Automated Virtual Environment (CAVE®) was designed at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois in 1992. Is a ten-foot cubed spatial projection system that allows users to experience real-time generated, three-dimensional virtual environments. Users must be coupled to the VR system by means of a head sensor, mounted on a pair of LCD shutter glasses, and two hand sensors. The two fundamental characteristics of this system are the human-scale stereo projection, which allows the projected images to appear to flow three-dimensionally into the installation space, and the real-time adaptation and response of these images to the present input of the sensors attached to the participant's body.
The installation Maλa – Veil of Illusion (2003) was implemented at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory, University of Illinois at Chicago and the CCVE, Fraunhofer IAO, Stuttgart.


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About the Author

Petra Gemeinböck is an architect and media artist. In her environments, Petra explores the issue of presence and identity formation in relation to computer controlled systems. Petra is lecturer in Digital Media at the University of Sydney and has a university teaching position for ‘Reactive Architecture’ at the Vienna University of Technology.

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