The Doors of Expression:The Work of Art in the Age of Quantum Processing Power

Forecasting the future of art is probably the most unmerciful of disciplines and the one, among other prophetic practices, that has consistently proven a historical impossibility. Hegel, the father of modern aesthetics, also happens to be the author of the most flagrant misreading of art history. He saw Romanticism as the last possible stage in art’s relentless search to give sensuous presence to the ineffable, declaring, in 1823, that “art is a thing of the past.”

Char Davies, Éphémère, 1998. Still from interactive, virtual environment.

Envisioning the art of the future has never been so urgent as it is in 2002, but critics of art realize they face a lethal methodological paradox since it has already become so apparent that any futuristic projection is inexorably doomed to failure. One way out of this paradox, however, would be to think of an aesthetics focused not so much on the concrete as on the possible: not on the object itself as a crystallization, but on the potentialities of art based on current and developing trends. More than a work of pure art history or even an exercise in art prognostication, this attempt could be seen as the task of a still-emerging field: a piece of “aesthetic-fiction.” If science fiction draws inspiration from existing technology to conjure up fantastic though possible scenarios, aesthetic fiction should find nourishment in current aesthetic tendencies to visualize a conceivable art for the future. What now blurs the line between science fiction and aesthetic fiction is that technology is also becoming (and increasingly so) a pervasive support of artistic expression and imagination.

Sterlarc, announcement for Fractal Flesh: An Internet Body Upload Performance, 1995.

Two salient tendencies, both related to a general spirit of expansion, define the sensibility that has permeated sculptural production since the early decades of the 20th century. On the one hand, the sculptural expands its scope of experience, losing its performed autonomy and turning from a mere object for observation into an arena of encounters. On the other hand, sculptors have explored and expanded the scope of reality by probing the limits of space, matter, and physical laws as the very conditions of possibility for sculptural expression. The current production of interactive digital art unfolding in multi-media installations, Internet interventions, and particularly in immersive virtual reality environments exacerbates these two tendencies to uch an extent that the very notions of “experience” and “reality” become themselves volatile categories. Thus, new, resilient frames of mind and morphing vocabularies are constantly being devised to respond to the pressing need for redefinition and resignification.

Sterlarc, Amplified Body, Laser Eyes and Third Hand, 1986. Performance at the Maki Gallery, Tokyo.

The historical shifts in the way we have related spatially to sculpture since the 19th century reveal this general move from the distanced experience of the idealized Neoclassical figure to the totally interactive, all-immersive scenarios of the very-late 20th/very-early 21st-century virtual environments. The recent history of the base (as well as that of the red rope marking the bounds of the visual and tactile territory of the sculpture) could indeed be a very telling one. In pre-modern times, the pedestal supporting a freestanding statue helped to create the illusion of autonomy. Modern sculpture, which reformulates the notion of the base, investigates the very status of this autonomy while promoting a corresponding sense of intimate encounter between viewer and artwork. This historical departure, already present in some staging by Rodin, was embodied early on in such diverse sculptures as Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (1914), Rodchenko’s Oval Hanging Construction N. 12 (c. 1920), Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1927), or Tatlin’s Letatlin (1931). These Modernist works strongly foreshadowed the postmodern stretching of the sculptural experience in which performances, land-art-scapes, or installations began to imply not just the aloof involvement of our sight but a profound investment of our bodies, minds, identities, and all our senses. However, and despite the recognition by the historical avant-garde of this expressive shift, Modernist sculpture merely seems to have occupied the unmarked white cubic space of the gallery, while postmodern sculpture succeeded in constituting its own spatial referent, radically solving the problematic of objecthood that haunted early 20th-century sculptural imagination.

Sterlarc, The Third Hand, 1980. View of performance series in Tokyo, Yokohama, and Nagoya.

If there is, however, a tendency toward the convergence of viewer and artwork, Tatlin should somehow be credited as its precursor; for it was his Letatlin that brought forward, in a very graphic way, the idea of a nonarchitectural art into which one could enter, and not just as a mere conceptual project but as a full-fledged three-dimensional bodily experience. It is indeed a puzzling coincidence that the futuristic utopias of this Russian Constructivist, with their industrialized, communist aesthetics of “real materials in real space,” should find such powerful resonance in the technology-driven artificial scenarios of early 21st-century capitalist art, with its unrelenting investigation and production of virtual materials in virtual space.

Virtual reality, as it has come to be known, refers to any digitally generated environment (mostly three dimensional, at this point) that when accessed through a technology of interfaces creates an experience of immersion. Current virtual-reality interfaces allow for audio-visual interaction; and some rudimentary haptic connections already exist, providing fairly realistic representations for the sense of touch: pressure, texture, temperature, and so on. Interface technologies geared toward the more sophisticated and elusive senses of smell and taste will require further research and development. Technology thus allows for the possibility of translating and extending our bodies into the language of a totally reconfigurable dimension—although as of today, just the potential for being able to touch a virtual sculpture (let alone create within this tactile field) and to bypass the distancing schemes of galleries and museums would by itself constitute a revolution of uncharted implications. At any rate, virtual realities involving all sensory modes of interaction, like the ones conjured up in science fiction narratives, have left the realm of fiction to become concrete scientific projects. William Mitchell in City of Bits, his own utopian rendering of the future of architecture and urbanism, blatantly redefines the concept of inhabitation: “‘Inhabitation’ will take on a new meaning—one that has less to do with parking your bones in architecturally defined space and more with connecting your nervous system to nearby electronic organs.”

William Latham, still from Alternative Nature Series, 1990. Created with Mutator software.

What is both intriguing and fascinating from the perspective of virtual reality as a sculptural medium is that once we enter cyberspace, our bodies themselves become one more reconfigurable reality. Mediation through technology encourages the development of body and identity modification. As has been made apparent by the proliferation, since the early ’80s, of “Multi-User Dungeons” (MUDs), we will be able to participate in the simulated space as anything—micro-organisms, humans, beasts, gods, or even, if we wish, as pure matter or absolute void. Sociologists and software programmers alike are dealing these days with the limitations of any rigid notion of identity. Paradoxically, these virtually customized beings are called avatars, borrowing from Hindu mythology the concept of a deity descending upon earth while assuming some inferior material form, be it animal, monster, or man. Total modularity of appearance and identity, blurring of the lines dividing the analogous, carbon-based body from the digital silicon-based environment, and utter exchangeability or integration of subject and object will become expressive touchstones of this still-developing medium of virtual reality.

William Latham, still form created with Mutator software, 1989.

Australian cyber-artist Stelarc has become world famous for performances dealing with body augmentation. Stelarc has attached to his right arm an extra mechanical arm (Third Hand), extended his locomotive capacities through a six-legged pneumatically powered walking prosthesis (Exoskeleton), and connected his body to the Internet in order to become accessed and activated by remote agents through a touch-screen-interfaced Muscle Stimulation System (Fractal Flesh). These performances aimed at redefining the limits of sensory and bodily relations with technology are especially compelling since Stelarc brings to the still-cryptic world of digital art the particularly graphic expression of choreographed performances. He has kinesthetically, acoustically, and visually probed the body. He has amplified brainwaves, bloodflow, and muscle signals. Stelarc seems particularly interested in the engineering of external, extended, and virtual nervous systems for the body using the Internet: “Just as the Internet provides extensive and interactive ways of displaying, linking, and retrieving information and images, it may now allow unexpected ways of accessing, interfacing, and uploading the body itself. Electronic space becomes a medium of action rather than information. It meshes the body with its machines in ever-increasing complexity and interactiveness. The body’s form is enhanced and its functions are extended. Its performance parameters are neither limited by its physiology nor by the local space it occupies. Electronic space restructures the body’s architecture and multiplies its operational possibilities.”

Karl Sims, Galapagos, 1999. Sequence of stills from an evolutionary
3-D environment.

Yet not only the standard sensory modalities will be involved in the synthetically generated territories of cyberspace. Eventually, through artificially designed prostheses we will also have the opportunity to augment the perceptual range of existing senses to the whole spectrum of electro-magnetical and mechanical wavelengths (from X-ray vision to echo-location skills allowing for navigation in total darkness), turning the theoretical question of the limits of the biological base of perception and consciousness into a vaster field of aesthetic exploration. Aldous Huxley has described, in The Doors of Perception, the mechanisms by which mind-altering substances can open up a world of total awareness. The title of Huxley’s book is taken from the ever-quoted aphorism by William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Through the fetishistic technological utopianism that fuels the ravings of most techno-critics like myself, one could conceive of virtual reality as electronic doors of perception—with our senses becoming more and more reliant on infinitely amplified data-processors and our awareness gradually converging into a self-replicating collective consciousness plugged, in turn, into vaster and vaster realms. The question that would be both complicated to formulate and to answer, however, will then be: Whose perception are we talking about? But from a more unpretentious perspective, and despite the increasing enhancement of our capacities through technology, we realize that virtual reality is today far away from constituting doors of perception; it is much closer to becoming unpredictably wide doors of expression that would allow us not only to imagine but also to vicariously experience that infinite dimension of total awareness fancied by Blake.

In fact, virtual worlds stretch Blake’s notion of “infinite” from a scope that lies merely beyond our reduced awareness to some boundless territory extending beyond human imagination. Virtual environments radically reconfigure our perceptive and experiential premises regarding physical laws, temporal linearity, and stable agency. Cyber-sculpture (of which virtual reality scenarios are the ultimate manifestation) is not only free from the physical constraints of gravity, mass, motion, force, cause and effect, and so on, but is also naturally and fundamentally predisposed to search for a set of totally arbitrary, provisional, and personal universes with their own unpredictable logic, flexible mechanics, and fluid biologies.

Karl Sims, Action, 1994. Still from a simulated environment.

One could cite several distinct early 20th-century sculptural antecedents of this tendency toward the expansion of reality. Probably the most conspicuous among them are Duchamp’s speculations on alternative laws of measurement, causality, and the challenging notion of the infinite chain of dimensions; Rodchenko and Brancusi’s attempts to release the object from the constraints of gravity; Moore’s experimentation with the evolutionary laws of spatial mutation flagrantly rendered in his Composition 1932 but latent in the fluctuating, morphing shapes of his works; and Giacometti’s surreal exploration of the logic of the subconscious in pieces such as Palace at 4AM, which gives us the sense of inhabiting the blueprint of an otherworldly architecture. In fact, Andre Breton’s Surrealist manifesto could be seen as a manifesto of expansion as well: “To change life, to transform the world, to remake human understanding altogether.”

But then again, while the sculpture of the last century seems to operate on the level of spatial rhetorical tropes rather than on the actual, concrete creation of alternative realities, virtual reality attempts to get rid of the metaphoric freight of art by actually producing parallel universes that can not only be evoked but also fully experienced. Seen from today’s vantage point, the 20th century’s all-encompassing performances, displays, and stagings seem to be manifestations of a vaster historical drive that has compelled us to conceive of and plunge into the spectacles of parallel universes.

Karl Sims, Action, 1994. Still from a simulated environment.

Moore’s Composition 1932 (which itself appears as a whole active universe seen from the outside) seems particularly relevant to an understanding of the creations of another English artist, William Latham; for Latham has actualized that sense of a morphing shape (in time and space) produced by Moore’s prophetic piece. Latham’s “3D computer sculptures” (as he himself calls them) inhabit cyberspace and mutate in real time. And instead of the dark-gray, highly marbled African wonderstone used by Moore in Composition 1932, the materials used by Latham are purely mathematical algorithms. This is one reason why the assistants of this new breed of virtual sculptors are not welders, carvers, or casting experts but teams of programmers mostly sponsored by software and hardware giants, media corporations, or telecommunication companies—which, as things currently stand, are difficult to tell apart.

Together with IBM programmer Stephen Todd, Latham was among the first virtual artists recognized for the aesthetic use of a software called Mutator. Latham used this software modeled on the processes of evolution to randomly mutate the genes (that is, the underlying computer code) of a previously chosen form. Critic Jim McClellen has insightfully observed that Latham’s “seashell cyberdelia” or “viral baroque” forms scramble the sense of time and scale and deliberately blur the barriers between the technological and the organic. Latham’s own take on his virtual sculptures sheds light on this historical genealogy of the search for parallel realities: “What I am trying to do is to produce my own vision of the natural world, defining its rules, altering its genes, and building its structures…With a mixture of human creativity and evolutionary systems as embodied in computer software, one can produce extraordinary things, things that are beyond the human imagination. There comes a point when you cross the boundaries of what is familiar. The machine comes back with surprising results and you suddenly find yourself thinking, gosh, I’ve never seen things like this before.”

Karl Sims, Action, 1994. Still from a simulated environment.

Yet another artist recognized for having explored new laws of evolution and movement for virtual creatures living in virtual space is Karl Sims. His most conspicuous projects, Evolved Virtual Creatures (1994) and the 1999 installation Galapagos, consist of simulated environments where, as in Latham’s mutations, “beings” evolve in our presence, following both evolutionary and whimsical laws of interaction. The virtual block-creatures from the 1994 environment are the “survivors” from a population of several hundred creatures created within a supercomputer. Members of this large society are tested, through several generations of simulated Darwinian evolution, for their ability to perform a given task, such as the ability to swim, jump, follow a red light, or compete for control of a green cube. Those that are most successful survive, and their virtual genes containing coded instructions for their growth are copied, combined, and mutated to make offspring for the subsequent population.

Whether the works of Latham and Sims are 3D sculptures or just 2D images is, in fact, a trivial question, because even though we mostly see them on screen they are mathematically conceived to inhabit a 3D interactive, all-encompassing virtual space. But again, we should overlook the fact that some of these works are still in such a crude stage, since part of the digital art of the 1990s lies in the very exploration of the medium’s potential. And this is so much so that even today some critics still dismiss the aesthetic value of the medium, relegating it to the status of a mere novelty and its products to that of hip screensavers, upgraded video games and, in the best of cases, sophisticated NASA simulators. Nor does it help that both Latham and Sims have, in fact, abandoned the production of art altogether to move on to the production of video games and special effects software for the motion picture industry.

Karl Sims, Action, 1994. Still from a simulated environment.

Among those few cyber-artists who have left the stage of exploration of the medium and are already producing interactive environments of perplexing quality is Char Davies. In Davies’s Osmose (1995), for instance, she offers us an entrance through a 3D Cartesian Grid, which functions as a space of orientation, only to surprise us later on with a series of abstract, puzzling worlds. After donning a head-mounted display and a motion-tracking vest, the immersant is able to journey by means of breathing and balance, for, as Davies’s Web site claims, these environments incorporate intuitive physical processes as the primary means of navigating within the virtual world. By breathing in, the immersant is able to float upward, by breathing out, to fall, and by subtly altering the body’s center of balance, to change direction.

In contrast to Stelarc’s somehow violent, action-based performances of interface, we see, in Davies, other uses of virtual space. The experience of being spatially enveloped, of diving and floating rather than driving or flying, is key to Davies’s work. Stelarc says: “Electronic space becomes a medium of action.” Davies, on the other hand, declares: “Being supersedes doing.” These metaphysical differences, which in other contexts some may relate to issues of gender, have more to do with the medium’s potential to embrace all possible ontological and epistemological arrangements. It was probably a sense of this potential that prompted Friedrich Junger, already in the ’30s, to claim that “technology is the metaphysics of our century.”

Head-mounted stereoscopic visual displays, robotic prostheses, data-gloves, extended neural implants, motion-tracking vests, intelligent second skins, and the whole panoply of interface devices, will most probably become all-pervasive and invisibly merge with our bodies as have the other prostheses we already carry with or within us (from cell-phones and palmtops to contact lenses and pacemakers). In this way, intelligent endoskeletal technology will achieve critical mass and the boundaries separating the physically concrete, three-dimensional reality from the virtual one will inevitably collapse. This is a radical change that will affect our conception of art as the realm of mere representation—be it abstract or figurative. William Latham, who was interested in uncovering ideas beyond the human imagination, conceives of the computer screen as a gateway into another domain: “In some ways, people have realized that we can’t go very far into space but we can explore computer space. What’s even more fascinating is that this is a world that you invent then explore.”

Char Davies, Éphémère, 1998. Still from interactive, virtual environment.

A certain anxiety regarding the ontological status of the object defines most of the sculptural production of the 20th century. For the 21st century, one can already anticipate an anxiety regarding the ontological status of reality itself. This will result in different forms of challenging our most primary strategies for dealing with the basic referents of experience—body, consciousness, space, and time. Virtual space shatters the physics-bound, human-centered grammar of sculptural imagination. Not only is any “reality” possible, but also there need not be a solution of continuity between the “reality” and the beholder or between the beholder and yet another virtual creation. The concept of beholder will become more and more complicated as “identity” ceases to refer to a set of experiences unified under the abstraction of a self, indicating instead a constantly evolving, modular category. The very notion of “body”—essential to our present understanding of sculpture—could eventually be pre-emptied from material existence into electronic codified domains and become an infinitely reconfigurable allusion. The way we walk, stand, behave, the way we experience and posit our bodies in relation to sculpture has been an aesthetic issue (implicit or explicit) since the beginning of spatial representation; but radical changes in the production of art due to evolving processing power, interface technology, and computer-generated realities will (by 2020 or 2030) radically expand these issues and change the very nature of art as well. If this re-mapping of reality ever takes place, not only are the contents of art bound to shift but also the idea of art itself—the very question of what art is will be wholly subsumed under the more general and pressing question of what reality is and what realities could be.

And aesthetics will be inexorably absorbed by metaphysics and metaphysics by fiction; for art will probably not refer anymore to a procedure of object production driven by the need to grasp some ineffable aspect of human existence (as Hegel would have meant it to be); rather, it will refer to the abandonment of all explanations through the creation of alternative universes.

Pablo Baler is an Argentine novelist and art critic.