Through the Window: New Media, Identity, and the Public Sphere

Anna Dempsey (bio)

In the Renaissance, a painting was viewed as a “window” through which the viewer could gaze at Michelangelo’s Vatican or Raphael’s mythical Athens. The painted scene, which was considered to be an extension of the observer’s world, was constructed according to the mathematical principles of linear perspective—whereby the painted window represented a partial view of a world that could extend indefinitely in all directions. While many Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci were aware of the numerous distortions associated with this algorithm, artists continued to believe that linear perspective was a reasonable approximation of reality.[1] Even today, the window is both a metaphor and an actual model for mimetic representation. Creators of computer games and digital films incorporate a version of Renaissance perspective into their productions in order to simulate a windowed porthole onto a three-dimensional world. Given this history, it is not surprising that Microsoft would utilize this well-worn metaphor as a trademark for its operating system.

But the Microsoft trademark is not just a clever appropriation of an art historical metaphor. As Lev Manovich (2000) suggests, the window (or screen) has been the common framing device for most Western representational media. He contends that the digital screen incorporates a variety of pictorial and cinematic conventions such as painterly linear perspective, an immobile observer viewpoint, and the cinematic mobile camera.[2] Manovich bases his argument on Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s conclusion (1997) that every new medium is merely a reconfiguration or “remediated” version of an older one. In other words, the designers of hyper-real computer games are building on the mimetic and representational conventions apparent in a Renaissance landscape painting, a documentary photograph and a Clint Eastwood Western. All four are, in effect, transparent simulations of a reality that an immobile viewer in a fixed location can readily apprehend.

In contrast to the producers of hyper-real computer games and of movies such as The Matrix (1999), a film which seamlessly interweaves digital effects with live-action film sequences, new media artists have challenged the concept of a transparent realism, the eye as the privileged viewing position, and identity as fixed. Rather than simulating reality, artists such as Char Davies, Gary Hill and Karin Sander have attempted to create alternative worlds and geographies in which the gallery visitor is positioned not as a spectator but as an active agent in the artistic dialogue. They have created alternative spaces in which the “self” or identity depends on both the virtual and the concrete. For these artists, virtual space (whether cyber or gallery space) is not an illusory, artificial copy of the real world. Rather, it is an actual extension of it. As Rob Shields (2003) notes, though “’virtual’ is often meant to signify an absence, unreality or non-existence” (p. 19), it is in point of fact an actual “space. . . [moreover] it introduces multiplicity into the otherwise fixed category of the real” (pp. 20-21).

In this essay, I will explore the ways in which new media artists such as Victoria Vesna, Char Davies, Sponge, Karin Sander, Gary Hill, Pipilotti Rist, and Lorna Simpson break down the barriers between physical and virtual space and challenge the notion of a fixed identity or essential self. Moreover, given that interactive digital artworks can create, as Mark Poster suggests (2001), a “reconfigured” or counter “public sphere”(p. 187), I will also analyze whether digital art, virtual reality, and video installations can generate alternative public places where traditional definitions of identity and place no longer operate and where dominant cultural ideologies can be challenged. Though many geographers have long debated the definitions of place and the equally important concept space; I will utilize Doreen Massey’s (1994) notion of space as a geography of social interrelationships and place as a “particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus.” (pp. 154-5). Whether or not the latter is a genuine public place, depends as sociologist Sharon Zukin argues (1995), on whether it can elicit new “identities” (p. 294) or can as Rita Felski (1989) claims “offer a critique of cultural values” (p. 167, cited in Poster, 2001, p. 180). In other words, a public place is equivalent to a permeable, textured space that is accessible to all citizens and is one that is open to conflict and to dissent. The public sphere, in turn, is comprised of multiple public places that together represent a “plurality and heterotopia of discourses” (Poster, 2001, p. 179).

The Virtual or New Self in Cyberspace

To early cyber culture creators such as William Gibson (1984), the author of the seminal Neuromancer, virtual space is the “non-space of the mind” (p. 51). It is a place where the corporeal body cannot go, but the figmented, imaginative one can in order to interact, play, and invent new personas. For Gibson, it represents a “matrix” of pure thought molecules---a kind of utopia populated by free-thinking, liberated individuals. Though more recent critics may not regard cyberspace as the next utopia, they are optimistic about its potential to reframe contemporary experience. Ron Burnett suggests (2004) that computer “screens become portals to new ways of seeing and understanding” (p. 45). Cultural critic Pierre Levy (2001) posits that “watching dreams on a screen can open up new aspects of the self” (p. 135).

Indeed, many cyber or web artists have attempted to delimit alternative spaces in which the viewer can create a self that does not conform to gender, race and class biases that govern “real-time” human existence. For example, at MUDs (multi-user dimensional sites), visitors can enter virtual worlds and challenge conventional codes regarding identity. At Bodies INCorporated (originally accessible at the ZKM Gallery at Karlsruhe [1999]), Victoria Vesna has developed a site in which participants can construct new life-forms, or avatars. Prior to becoming avatars, visitors enter as “members” of a hierarchal corporation that adheres to the capitalist principles of the open marketplace. ( Each member chooses a skin color, gender, and a bodily shape/form for a new self or a wished-for “significant other” (Vesna, 2001, p. 302). Rather than merely assemble this new form, she must buy and trade body parts in the marketplace (or decide when to visit the necropolis). This acquired identity represents the material embodiment of abstract capitalist principles that frame Western culture. Vesna regards identity as fluid and malleable and, more importantly, suggests that it is a commodity like everything else in contemporary society.

But, like the real-time capitalist marketplace, virtual market forces do not entirely shape this cyber space. Vesna (2001) states that the Directors of the Board, whose physical forms are generally invisible to the eye, may inhabit the bodies of new members because the Directors are the “embodied principles” that run the corporation (p. 303). Thus, while the artist wishes to “challenge the usual idea of flesh and identity” by encouraging participants to create new and alternative genders, she paradoxically claims that factors outside the participant’s control can affect this identity construction (2001, p. 302). Presumably, this is to illuminate how all spaces are subjected to Foucauldian institutional controls. The creator of BodiesInc, in other words, hopes to create an alternative public sphere in which capitalist, patriarchal, and white cultural values are transparent. In other words, she clearly does not want this space to resemble Gibson’s cyber utopia where participants are omnipotent, molders of identities and body forms. Rather, Vesna has attempted to develop a hybrid space where, as Donna Haraway (1991) optimistically claims, the creation of a non-conventional, cyborg self may ultimately lead to a more knowledgeable actual self.

Not all critics believe that a hybridized virtual identity created at this or at other sites such as LambdaMOO will enable the visitor/participant to become more knowledgeable and aware of herself or an Other. Lisa Nakamura (2001) contends that cyber selves, in fact, are often just virtual extensions of the patriarchal actual self. She argues that many visitors to such sites simply appropriate racial or gendered personae as a form of “identity tourism” (p. 230). Moreover, she states that the assumed identities usually reinforce conventional racial and gender stereotypes that exist in the off-line world. Nakaumura concludes that many of the white men, who visit LambdaMOO and assume an Asian identity, do so because they associate Asianness with a heightened sexuality (p. 233). By appropriating Asian bodies, in effect they erase the Asian Other and with it the potential for genuine cultural discourse. As Jennifer Gonzales (2001) notes, it should not come as a “surprise that the traditional, gendered roles of Euro-American culture are rarely challenged in the visual representation of cyborgs” (p. 542). In other words, though Vesna has tried to call attention to the fluid nature of identity construction (something the user has some control over) and to the “hierarchal” constraints that the user can do nothing about, these newly created avatars generally offer “white men an enticing retreat from the burdens of their cultural identities” (Balsamo, 2001, p. 497). In addition, interactive web sites also offer participants a retreat from their bodies and may allow them to escape from the actual world. After all, it is the physical body not the cyber self that feels eyestrain and fatigue. Thus, I would agree with Rosanne Stone (2001) that “discovering---that bodies and communities constitute each other surely suggests a set of questions and debates for the burgeoning electronic community” (p. 525).

Yet there is reason to remain optimistic about the potential of artistic web sites to expand or to reconfigure the public square. Given that a public place is one in which a variety of social voices are present, cyberspaces could become public communal places because they can attract thousands of participants with different views. Though some visitors to BodiesInc. or LambdaMOO, may be identity tourists who imagine these sites as carnivalesque masquerades, it is still possible that they might “introduce[s] resistances to and breaks with these gender determinations” (Poster, 2001, p.185). Moreover, we have to recognize that “while the virtual may not be actual [that is concrete] it is none the less real” (Hardt, 1993, p. 16 cited in Shields, 2003, p. 25). Indeed, those who visit web-sites such as BodiesInc. could form real communities, which---despite the problems outlined above---offer possibilities for democratic participation in a new public sphere. As Nessim Watson (1997) contends, this complex process of rethinking “‘community’ may thus be the key to [more] representation in the public sphere” (p. 130).

In contrast to producers of screen-based web art, virtual reality artists dissolve the boundary between the actual and the virtual. Indeed, one could argue that an alternative virtual self would appear to be no different from the projected upright image that the prostrate infant sees of her future self in Lacan’s imaginary mirror stage. In both cases, it is the imaginary projection of the self that ultimately constitutes the Lacanian Real. As William J. Mitchell (1995) notes:

once you break the bounds of your bag of skin in this way you will also begin to blend into the architecture. In other words, some of your electronic organs may be built into your surroundings. . . . It is just a matter of what the organ is physically attached to. . . . So ‘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. Your room and your home will become part of you, and you will become part of them (p. 30).

This is not entirely fanciful. Although virtual reality machines are mechanically attached to the body, they may also be metaphorical extensions of both the self and the non-seen Other. The virtual extension of the self is, however, hardly a new development. The interior of Baroque churches, nineteenth-century painted panoramas, IMAX cinematic images, and religious rituals are all examples of virtual realities that offer the observer a chance to experience a world apart from his or her own (see Shields, 2003, pp. 1-17). Kathleen Forde (2001) concludes, that “what defines human consciousness is the ability to imagine other ‘realities,’ starting with the cognitive awareness of past and future. . . [thus] virtual reality is simply a technological incarnation of a timeless idea” (p. 90).

Char Davies, a digital artist with a background in painting, attempts to help a participant “imagine other ‘realities’” with her 1995 artwork Osmose ( In Osmose, she takes an individual on a physical adventure to a variety of seemingly inaccessible places. The participant, who controls her movement with her balance and through a chest attachment that monitors breath intake and outtake, dives and floats through a series of spaces where gravity and oxygen are no longer limiting factors of existence. Nor are boundaries. Through the monitors that cover her eyes, the spectator can see/feel herself passing around and through objects as though all physical limitations have been removed. She has apparently been transformed into a disembodied field of molecules that has been beamed into an alternative cyber reality.

Initially the participant or immersant is anchored in virtual space by a three-dimensional grid. The grid gradually falls away and she is free to float up to the tops of tree branches or if she inhales deeply to descend into the earth’s depths. She can also dive into a tree root or leaf or float above a forest canopy. Although the participant is aware that she is floating in a landscape, what she sees is a semi-transparent view. Thus, the participant is always cognizant of the fact that she is moving through a virtual, not physical space. To reinforce this awareness, Davies allows the immersant to go inside the philosophies and the conceptual, algorithms on which Osmose is based. She can ascend to “the conceptual superstrata of Osmose” where voices read the words of Gaston Bachelard and Merleau-Ponty or descend into “its twin in the underworld” where the actual lines of software code are visibly displayed (Davies, 2004, pp. 91-93). As a result, each immersant confronts the fact that an abstract or conceptual space is no less “real” than physical space. With Osmose, Davies dissolves the artificial boundary between the virtual and the concrete. Moreover, she enables each participant to experience her body---and thus the self---in an entirely new way. Davies notes that immersants “experience a heightened awareness of self-presence---paradoxically consisting of a sense of freedom from their physical bodies and a heightened awareness of being in their bodies at the same time” (p. 102).

Margaret Morse has pointed out that such adventures can be quite unnerving, particularly to those with asthma or other physical or psychological limitations. Morse (1998), who was encouraged not to give in to her fears but “to let go” when immersed in the machine language world of mathematical codes, concluded that “[d]espite my own reaction, I could understand the intention of the piece, [which was] to encourage the immersant to effectively ‘let go’ in a meditative experience that reconnects the body and the world” (p. 109). This is exactly what Davies had hoped. She did not want the participant in her virtual reality installation to regard it as “some disembodied techno-utopian fantasy” as though she were a player in a computer game in which the all-knowing eye searches for its latest “kill.” (2004, p. 69, 72). Rather she saw it as a way to “perceive ourselves and the world around us ‘freshly’” (p. 69). Davies (2004) hoped that she could integrate the virtual, immaterial experience with “the bodily felt, and the imaginary with the strangely real” (p. 70). She intended to create an alternative space in which “boundaries between interior self and exterior world become permeable and intermingled” (2004, p. 83). In doing so, she sought to integrate the private unseen spaces of the mind with those of the public cultural sphere.

Clearly, virtually real art does create alternative spatial experiences that are unlike anything we might apprehend in the physical world. Moreover, unlike a cinematic virtual space, which the viewer observes from a static viewpoint outside the screen, a virtual reality installation such as Davies’ positions the participant within it. According to Manovich, “[t]he real, physical space and the virtual, simulated space coincide. . . the screen has vanished.” (2001, p. 97). Rather than remaining in a stationary position, the immersant now has to physically move through concrete space in order to create and to navigate virtual space. Her body becomes an interface from which space unfolds. Though other museum visitors can watch her, the immersant is a solitary explorer of virtual space whose physical experiences there can transform her inner being. Although “we cannot fully anticipate what it means to experience that realm until we are ‘inside’,” as Morse (1998) concludes, nevertheless this experience is “far from immune from moral issues or the ultimate questions of life and death” (p. 211). Such questions are, of course, those that must be resolved in the public sphere.

However, can the ideas gleaned from the transformative experiences that occur with virtual reality machines actually be transferred to the public sphere? Indeed, artists who claim that they are enhancing our experiences and allowing us to apprehend a reality that is beyond our reach, may only be producing digital intoxicants or pixilated distractions. A digitized enhancement of experience, as Kevin Robbins (1996) concludes, may be equivalent to a “compensatory reality” (p. 103) or may be seen as a “protective container within which all wishes are gratified . . . and frustrations of the real world ‘auto-magically’ deferred” (p. 93). Thus, in creating virtual realities or even virtual communities, are artists approximating a physical world where new titillating experiences are substituted for the actual pain and lessons of the concrete world? By simulating the “thrill” of combat or the fear of drowning, are we lowering our threshold for accepting war or pain? More importantly, as Rob Shields (2003) notes, do we abrogate our responsibilities when we confuse images on a computer interface with actual bombing? Indeed, given the increasing number of intersections between physical reality and cyberspace, it is important that we find out “how ‘the virtual’ becomes a template for reacting to material events in everyday life”(Shields, 2003, p. 214).

Between the Virtual and the Concrete: New Media Installation Art

Jay Bolter and Diane Gromala (2003) argue that virtual worlds which represent escapes from or alternatives to physical reality do not make sense in our contemporary world (pp. 50-56). They contend that “mixed reality” interactive installations which bridge the boundary between the virtual and the concrete are more appropriate for the twenty-first century. To Bolter and Gromala, these installation spaces are public places in which the observer might confront conventional truths concerning identity, the body and the virtual. Not all critics agree that the gallery or museum space represents a genuine public place. For some, the museum reflects the values of the dominant cultural elite. Unlike the internet, it attracts select visitors who understand the coded language its exhibits speak. Clearly, that was the original function of the art museum. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art catered to the well-heeled leisure class who could visit the Museum during its limited opening hours (Duncan, 1995, pp. 48-71).

Contemporary museums, however, are quite different from their predecessors. The Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain and Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin are major tourist draws and thus influential public opinion-makers (over 350,000 visitors toured the latter even before it opened).[3] Though Huyssen derides the art museum as a “hybrid space somewhere between public fair and department store” (1995, p. 15), Carol Duncan suggests that a museum “as a form of public space,” can represent a place “in which a community may test, examine, and imaginatively live both older truths and possibilities for new ones” (1995, p. 133). Given that artists’ physical interventions in the public square can clearly influence civic discourse (whether Christo’s Central Park Gates [2005] or Chris Offili’s Holy Virgin Mary, 1996 at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensations show; or Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, 2005), it is important that museums showcase artistic exhibits that catalyze genuine public discussion about cultural issues that affect people’s lives. In other words, it is incumbent upon curators to “become ‘facilitators’’ of cultural discourse rather than “’experts’” or connoisseurs of valuable objects (Witcomb, 2000, p. 4). With this in mind, in the remainder of the essay I would like to explore how digital/video interactive artworks may transform museum spaces into public places where visitors actively engage with questions concerning identity, the body and the virtual.

In Jay David Bolter and Diane Gromala’s (2003) discussion of the SIGGRAPH 2000 Gallery, the authors describe the exhibits as “mixed-reality” installations which “could not be mistaken for either the ‘real’ world or a perfect imaginary world.” The Gallery represents, in fact, “a new paradigm in interface design” (2003, p. 128). The digital installation T-Garden (Sponge, 2000) for example,” is a responsive environment” where visitors can “dance with images” and thus create a “social . . . dynamical environment” (SIGGRAPH 2000, P. 71 cited in Bolter and Gromala, 2003, p. 116). To participate in this virtual spatial experience, visitors are required to wear brightly colored robes which contain audio speakers and censors. As they enter the dark room, ever-changing “polymorphous video and computer-generated textures” illuminate and animate the floor (2003, p.116). Bolter and Gromala (2003) state that “[w]hat matters in T-Garden is the experience that participants make for themselves within the space bounded by the walls” (p.117). Curators of the exhibit hoped that they would play with---indeed even perform---in this digital, architectural space. Moreover, when visitors interacted with each other, they could alter the virtual space and enhance their experience of it.

For the curators and artists involved in the SIGGRAPH 2000 Gallery, those who participate in this interactive space may explore new modes of being in the world. These new spaces underscore Henri Lefebvre’s contention that space is not an empty mathematical construct but a medium which both reflects and creates social life (1991).[4] It comes into being, as Rob Shields contends, through virtual as well as physical social relations. Though virtual relations are contributing factors to the creation of space, for Bolter and Gromala they should not be confused with the physical or actual. The chief curator (Gromala) of SIGGRAPH 2000, regards T-Garden as an “experiment in experience design” (2003, p. 117) that is grounded in the actual, physical environment. Unlike visitors to MUDs, visitors to the SIGGRAPH Gallery do not leave their bodies behind. Instead, they participate in a digital, interactive environment which allows them to experience their actual physical being in new ways. Presumably, as they “reimagine their relationship to their bodies” they can re-imagine the public sphere as a site which celebrates these new identities and new modes of existing in the world.

Other types of media installations also address questions concerning identity and the constitution of the public sphere. Karin Sander, a photographer and installation artist who has recently exhibited her work at the San Francisco 010101 show, explores these issues with her hybrid portrait gallery 1:10 (first exhibited at D’Amelio Terras Gallery in New York in 2000; also see With this installation, Sander undermines the authenticity of the individual artist as the sole creator of an art object and the model as the passive recipient of the artist’s gaze. She creates “sculptures” that are actually photographic copies of anonymous individuals who are rendered as plastic 1/10 life size free-standing objects (A. Gagnon, 2001, pp. 128-131). To obtain the portraits, she uses 3-d computer scanners to digitally record multiple, detailed likenesses of each participant. Each participant/model may then choose to have technicians “touch up” his or her likeness and create a new self that is subsequently displayed on a podium in a gallery. In creating this portrait studio, Sander demonstrates that self and identity---as well as the aesthetic judgments associated with the singularly produced art object---are essentially social constructs. Who really is the artist? Is it commercial or fine art? Moreover, is the final product sculpture, painting, or photography? Thus, Sander’s sculptures/photographs of “real” people force the museum visitor to address previously held conceptions about the traditional nature of “realism” and that of representational art (A. Gagnon, 2001).

Apart from identity issues, Sander also analyzes the nature of public museum space. The viewer does not look at individual portraits but at a collection of images and people. The people she “meets” are similar to any impersonal encounter one might have in a train station, University lecture hall, or at a grocery store. Unlike conventional public spaces where staring is not socially permitted, here the eye can scan the room and settle on any of Sander’s sculptures/portraits/people. Because of this, the observer is transformed into a store detective who monitors surveillance cameras. She gazes at slightly blurred representations of people who cannot gaze back. Indeed, an observer cannot view this collection of figures through a Renaissance window in the way that she would Raphael’s Athenian philosophers. Sander’s sculptures are not simply objects of the contemplative gaze. They represent subjects who have created their own data projections—their own real, but touched-up, unfixed images. It is the face they wish to project in public. In this regard, the public space delimited by Sander’s installation is a textured one. It is one in which immobile and active, real and virtual, constructed and deconstructed spaces exist in constant conflict with each other. Sander, so to speak, transforms this museum space into a public place which, to quote bell hooks (1991), “enables and promotes varied and everchanging perspectives, [it is] a place where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference” (p. 148)

The artist effectively questions the notion of an authentic (or essential, unchanging) self and redefines the relationship between subject, object and artist. Instead of producing either the predictable, somewhat idealized studio portraits we associate with weddings or graduations, or the psychologically searching shots of the fine arts photographer; she creates a distilled, but ironic commentary about traditional art-making, specifically craft. On the one hand, an observer cannot help but smile at the paper-doll-like cutouts. But on the other hand, she may wish to distance herself from the clearly manipulated images that capture a distorted fuzzy projection of life. Perhaps it is this projection that is so disturbing. The artist reminds visitors that everyday life is marked by transience, manipulation and chance. Moreover, her photographs are not documents of the actual past, but are visual distillations of the process of remembering. Sander’s blurry, retouched portraits might be considered as material embodiments of Henri Bergson’s concept of duration, the notion that existence is marked not only by what occurs in the present but also by virtual memories which unfold over time. Grosz (1997) states that what Bergson’s duration and “memory and consciousness bring to the world is the possibility of unfolding, hesitation, uncertainty” (p. 25; cited in Shields, 2003, p.27). In this regard, Sander’s portraits are also statements that that the past can never be faithfully produced. She highlights the fact that our memories of the past---and thus our sense of identity and of place----are always fuzzy reconstructions that we continually rework and confront in the present. As such, one could consider this installation space as an important component of a counter public sphere. Here, Sander confronts convention and offers a critique of how we make art and how we constitute identity. To use Poster’s words, she creates a space that is an “inscription of new assemblages of self-constitution” (2001, p. 187).

Gary Hall’s video installation Tall Ships may be viewed as a complement to Sander’s portraits of public faces ( Though Sander and Hill use different processes to produce their artworks, their goals are similar. Both artists attempt to bend, even remove, the boundaries that have traditionally defined how we make, view and critically evaluate art. While artists have always grappled with this concept, digital technology has allowed them to explore both hidden and heretofore unimagined spaces that the perspectival eye could never have traveled. In Hill’s video installation, visitors who move through the long, dimly lit corridor glimpse the spectral, barely visible outlines of individuals who appear to be slowly moving through space. The visitor inevitably stops to look at these strange figures, as though wanting to touch one of them. As such, the artist highlights our need to make connections—to communicate somehow with those who brush past us. More importantly, he offers up glimmers of an alternative, ghostly self that one can encounter in mediated space, in real time and not only through the omnipotent eye. Hill alters light, shadow, sound and movement and thus immerses the visitor in an entire sensory experience. This interactive space is not entirely virtual, because the observer apprehends floating ghostly images that can hardly be distinguished from the actual spectators. The visitor exists in a hybridized virtual world where her awareness of the physically real is enhanced by chance encounters with the spectral and with the actual. Hill’s installation is, in effect, a recombinant space in which the virtual and the physical collide.
The artist expands on the concept developed in Tall Ships in another video installation titled, The Storyteller’s Room (1998). This installation is comprised of a blackened room where the outline of other visitors and the room’s dimensions are impossible to envisage (K. Forde, 2001, p. 90). The irregular flashing of a strobe light provides the only relief from this all-encompassing dark. Unlike the ghostly but clearly distinct presences in Tall Ships, the bodies the viewer glimpses when the light shines are indeterminate. She is unsure as to whether she is looking at another person, an architectural element or simply a shadow. As such, the visitor inevitably becomes disoriented, uncertain as to her own placement in this claustrophobic darkness. Which is more real? Is it the body or the darkness? Once the eyes become accustomed to the blackened space, we see fleeting images of the city that as Forde (2003) suggests seem

to dissolve into transient windows on an outside world. . . In a sense, this is the conceptual art of the new millennium---art that affects our perception and challenges our standard modes of processing information. Its core is firmly rooted in making us aware of the hazy juncture of a physical world and a space that is more psychological or imagined (pp. 90, 92).

As in Davies’ Osmose, each observer enters an imaginary landscape where familiar anchor points are missing or transformed. Unlike the participants in Davies’ virtual world, visitors are immersed in a womb-like void where insubstantial entities float by, enabling them to question the nature of their own physical existence and the definition of the traditional public meeting place. With his video installations, Hill transforms the notion of the public sphere by suggesting that encounters with virtual presences may be as real as with those whom we can touch. Unlike the virtually constructed avatars of BodiesInc., Hill’s virtual bodies materially confront actual bodies in concrete space.

In contrast to Hill’s all-enveloping dream-like space, Pipilotti Rist’s video installations engender real-world conflict between the imagined and the actual, physical self. In ([Absolutions] Pipilotti’s Mistakes), from the Submerging Series (1988), a viewer observes Rist struggling vainly to exert herself against barriers that physically block her movement. In one scene, she repeatedly tries to finish swimming a pool lap only to be forcibly pushed backwards or submerged under the water. The shots of her open mouth, awkwardly shaped as it gasps for breaths of air, are reminiscent of photographs of nineteenth century hysterics (E. Bronfen, 2001, pp. 80-91). These images of her mouth and of her ungainly, flailing body are both discomfiting and uncannily provocative. Like Hans Bellmer’s dolls or the Surrealists’ drawings of the exquisite corpse, they reinterpret the represented human form and its conventional relationship to beauty (in later scenes, the artist visually fragments the body and then puts it together as a rather frightening whole). Though this dismembered and recombined body metaphorically suggests the traumas and violence that many women have suffered, it is not simply a straightforward feminist image. Indeed, observers who gaze at Rist’s recombined or swimming bodies are not simply voyeurs. They are forced to actively respond and to not passively look because the artist’s face---which is quite beautiful under conventional circumstances---appears uncomfortably strange and ugly. As a result, most viewers want her to stop swimming, at the very least, to close her mouth. She offends with her strange expressions because she portrays images that are generally banned from a public recreational/artistic space. Rist, in other words, violates public decorum.

Though visitors may be dismayed or annoyed by the artist’s awkward expressions as she attempts to swim to the end of the pool, nevertheless they do respond positively to her. Ultimately, spectators root for Rist because of her seemingly irrational attempts to succeed. For the artist, it is the effort that ensures the victory, regardless of what the outcome might be. As Walter Benjamin has stated (1968 [pp. 253-264], 1977), it is only through such struggle that redemption is possible. Thus, in the artist’s endless but redemptive struggle, Rist repositions an ordinary object (the swimming body) in order to challenge and to recast conventional feminist constructs. As such, her refusal to accept clearly defined definitions of gender, has resulted in a portrait which blurs conventional boundaries between the beautiful and the ugly, the subject and object of the gaze, and the Self and the Other (Bronfen, 2001). In other words, there is no essential, unchanging self. Rist directly confronts the viewer and “forces” him or her into a public dialogue about gender, identity, and the rigid ideological values which confine and define us. She constructs, so to speak, a public space where conflict is open, may be voiced and even resolved. Because Rist encourages the articulation of non-conventional voices, she enables this gallery space to be transformed into Massey’s public place---or Poster’s reconfigured public sphere---where difference is accepted and a “plurality and heterotopia of discourses might be heard” (Poster, 2001, p. 179). As with the interactive installations discussed above, Rist challenges the notion that identity is essential or fixed. Moreover, she encourages visitors to recognize that existence is comprised of both the virtual and the concrete.

Other artists also challenge traditional feminist assumptions about the gendered self, public and private spheres, and the construction of identity. Lorna Simpson’s recent video installation 31 (2002) suggests that the images which define lived space, cannot be easily manipulated into a single narrative (whether of gender, race or art history). In this installation, thirty-one video monitors chronicle the thirty one ordinary days of a woman who seems oblivious to the surveillance camera that is recording her actions ( The viewer sees the protagonist engaged in such daily activities as brushing her teeth, speaking on the telephone at work, and turning off the lights to go to bed. Most of these images are equivalent to the banal activities with which all of us are engaged. Though the spectator could observe the linear narrative unfolding on one monitor, the ambient noise and flashing lights of the others would most likely distract her. Clearly, this is what Simpson expects. Moreover, given that the artist uses multiple screens and an immobile camera, she “replaces the voyeur’s gaze with the surveillant gaze, such that the fixed frame can be read as a kind of mechanized security camera” (A. D’Souza, 2003, p.89).

Because the artist does not privilege any single point of view (or monitor), there is no narrative which the eye is compelled to follow. Observers have to decide where to look. They can either watch one monitor for twenty minutes or glance over at any of the others in order to observe the minute variations in the protagonist’s daily routine. Nevertheless, it is essentially impossible for an observer to watch the entire narrative unfold. Few individuals would have the time, inclination or patience to view the multiple videos for the extended period it would require to observe all thirty one monitors. Thus, rather than follow Simpson’s interpretation of this woman’s daily experiences, the observer must construct her own narrative. Citing Bergson, Shields (2003) notes that the “mind establishes a gap between stimulus and response which enables remembrance of experience (memories similar to virtual images in optics),” . . . and thereby opens the possibility of unpredictability and freedom” (p. 27). Because an observer of 31 creates her own virtual narrative using Simpson’s images as guideposts, she becomes an active agent in shaping her own encounter with the artwork---presumably an “unpredictable” or new type of encounter which undermines stereotypical conventions.

In contrast to most of the banal activities that Simpson documents, the artist does record events that are somewhat out of the ordinary. These are unanticipated, unplanned activities that throw a viewer off kilter. For example, she sees the main character dressed in hospital scrubs but does not know why the woman is in a medical facility. Thus, it is up to the spectator to fill in the narrative gaps that have led up to this event. The observer also witnesses the sensual pleasure that the protagonist derives from dancing with friends at a club. Spectators see the woman’s head thrown back, her mouth slightly opened, and her body rhythmically sway. As such, the dancing figure might appear to be the object of the gaze to which the black female body has frequently been subjected. But by jostling the camera and offering the spectator a blurred view of the dancing woman, the artist subverts the objectifying, all-consuming gaze (Rather, we seem to be there dancing with her). Thus, Simpson enables the viewer to regard the image of the woman as a visual symbol of sensual freedom. The protagonist’s evident happiness as she dances, underscores the potential pleasure involved in letting go of our own surveillance of our bodies and of our time. (A. D’Souza, 2003, p. 90).

The artist, to conclude, reclaims the self or the body that Western patriarchy has attempted to consume. In doing so, Simpson, like Rist, creates an alternative public place in which a woman can write her own narrative, confront her oppressors (whether the white male gaze or rigid feminist constructs) and attempt to define her identity as she chooses. By allowing the viewer to construct part of the narrative, the artist involves her in the artistic process. It would appear that Simpson recognizes that memories---virtual experiences---are an important aspect of this process. Moreover, in contrast to those who design virtual bodies at LambdaMOO or BodiesINC., the narrative each visitor “creates,” will also depend on others’ verbal or physical reactions. Because of this potential for communal interaction, Simpson transforms a gallery space into a public place in which contemporary cultural values regarding race and gender can be confronted. Finally, by including a blurred image with her “realistic” accounts of the protagonist’s daily life, the artist---like Sander--- reminds visitors that all thirty one video monitors are mediated images and are not windows onto an illusory reality.


Walter Benjamin’s unrealized hope that new technical forms of reproducibility will transform the public sphere may finally be realized with Simpson’s, Rist’s, Hill’s, Sander’s, and other artists’ digital or video installations. Because these artworks jolt us out of our complacency by altering expectations about a public space, they allow us to re-vision what a public place should be. Given that these artists challenge conventional, fixed assumptions about identity, the self, virtual experience and the meaning of the art object; they transform gallery spaces into “sites of a politics of difference”(Roy, 2001, p. 241). These sites, where the virtual melds with the concrete, closely match Doreen Massey’s (1994) concept of place as “constructed out of social interrelations,” which derive from a “connection” with those who are “outside” (69). Unlike Gibson’s cyberpunk worlds, these places are neither alternatives to reality nor tension-free utopias nor a hyphenated amalgam of the two (see Roy 2001). Rather, they function as Poster’s (2001) alternative public sphere where the dominant culture might be critiqued and multiple voices might be heard.

This does not mean that museum spaces are always genuine public places. Museums must continue to reconfigure themselves in order to meet the new challenges that globalization poses. Moreover, they must continue to reach out to a variety of groups (or publics) that have often been excluded from or marginalized in the public square. This should include cyber communities as well. Indeed, the public display of interactive digital screens in museums may enable us to more fully explore the interrelationship between the physical and virtual, the embodied and disembodied and the private and public spheres.


Balsamo, A. (2001). “The Virtual Body in Cyberspace,” In D. Bell and B.M. Kennedy (Eds.). The Cyberculture Reader (pp. 489-503). London and New York: Routledge

Benjamin, W. (1977). The Origin of German Tragic Drama, J. Osborne (Trans.),
Verso: London and New York.

Benjamin, W. (1968). Illuminations, H. Zohn (Trans.), H. Arendt (Ed.), Glasgow: Fontana.

Bolter, J. D. and R. Grusin (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bolter, J.D. and D. Gromala (2003). Windows and Mirrors: Interaction Design, Digital
Art and the Myth of Transparency.
Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Bronfen, E. “Focus,” in P. Phelen, H.U. Obrist, E. Bronfen (Eds.), Pipilotti Rist (pp. 80-91). London and NY: Phaidon Press.

Burnett, R. (2004). How Images Think. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press.

Davies, C. (2004). “Virtual Space,” In F. Penz, G. Radick and R. Howell (Eds.) Space: In Science, Art and Society, (pp. 69-104). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

D’Souza, A. (2003). “Candid Camera.” In H. Molesworth (Ed.), Image Stream (pp. 84-91). Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University.

Duncan, C. (1995). Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. London: Routledge.

Felski, R. (1989). Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Forde, K. (2001). “Step into the Frame,” In San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Catalogue for 010101: Art in Technological Times (pp. 89-106). San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Gagnon, A. (2001). “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms,” In San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Catalogue for 010101: Art in Technological Times (pp. 125-140). SanFrancisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace.

Gonzales, J. (2000). “Envisioning Cyborg Bodies: Notes From Current Research,” In D. Bell and B.M. Kennedy (Eds.). The Cyberculture Reader (pp. 540-554). London and New York: Routledge

Grosz E. (1999). “Thinking the New,” in E. Grosz (Ed.), Becomings. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 15-28.

Haraway, D.J. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London and N.Y.: Routledge

Hardt, M. (1993). Giles Deleuze. An Apprenticeship in Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press.

Holtzman, S. (1997). Digital Mosaics: The Aesthetics of Cyberspace. N.Y.: Simon &

hooks, b. (1991). Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. London: Turnaround.

Huyssen, A. (1995). Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia. New York: Routledge.

Lefebvre, H. (1991). The Production of Space, D. Nicholson-Smith (Trans.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Lévy, P. (2001). Cyberculture, Robert Bononno (Trans.). Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press.

Lovejoy, M. (1997). Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media (2nd edition). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Manovich, (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press.

Markley, R. (2001). “History, Theory, and Virtual Reality.” In D. Trent (Ed.), Reading Digital Culture (pp. 297-304). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Massey, D. (1994). Space, Place and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

Mitchell, W. J. (1995). City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn. Cambridge MA: M.I.T. Press.

Morse, M. (1998). Virtualities: Television, Media Art and Cyberculture. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Nakamura, L (2001). “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.” In D. Trent (Ed.), Reading Digital Culture (pp. 226-235). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Poster, M. (2001). What’s the Matter with the Internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Robins, K. (1996). Into the Image: Culture and Politics in the Field of Vision. London and New York: Routledge.

Roy, Roy, A. (2001). “Epilogue: The Reverse Side of the World: Identity, Space, and Power,” In N. AlSayyad (Ed.) Hybrid Urbanism: On the Identity Discourse and the Built Environment, pp. 229-246. Westport and London: Praeger.

Shields, R. (2003). The Virtual: Key Ideas. London and New York: Routledge.
Siggraph 2000: Electronic Art and Animation Catalog (2000). New York: Association for Computing Machinery.

Siggraph 2000: Electronic Art and Animation Catalog (2000). New York: Association for Computing Machinery.

Stone, A.R. (2001). “Will the Real Body Please Stand Up?: Boundary Stories about Virtual Cultures.” In D. Trent (Ed.), Reading Digital Culture (pp. 185-198). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Vesna, V (2001). “Bodies INCorporated,” In Peter Weibel and Timothy Druckrey (Eds.). net_condition_art and global media (pp. 302-303). Karlsruhe and Cambridge: M.I.T. Press and ZKM Center for Art and Media.

Watson, N. (1997). “Why We Argue About Virtual Community: A Case Study of the Phish.Net Fan Community.” In S.G. Jones (Ed.) Virtual Culture: Identity & Communication in Cybersociety (102-132). London: Sage Publications.

Witcomb, A. (1998). Re-Imaging the Museum: Beyond the Mausoleum.

Zukin, Sharon (1995). The Culture of Cities. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.


[1] The philosophy underpinning realism and the linear perspectival “view” has been debated by art historians for many decades. Erwin Panofsky’s theoretical Perspective as Symbolic Form (1997, New York: Zone Books, originally, “Die Perspektiv als Symbolische Form” in the Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg, 1927), although widely criticized, remains the seminal text on this subject. For an insightful analysis of the essay, see Keith Moxey’s “Perspective, Panofsky, and the Philosophy of History” in The Practice of Persuasion (2001, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 90-102).

[2] See Manovich (2001) pp. 94-115 where he provides a “genealogy” of the screen. Although we often associate the screen with the cinema or with the computer, it has a much older history. Manovich details this history, along with that of other forms of new media.

[3] Susannah Reid, “The Jewish Museum Berlin---A Review,” in Virtual Library Museen, (retrieved 12/2004). A great deal has been written about Daniel Libeskind’s design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin---both in German and English.. Some have called it disneyfied architecture while others have regarded it as spectacular. Reid documents some of this history. For a more in-depth discussion about the history of a Jewish museum in Berlin and an analysis of Libeskind’s architecture see James E. Young (2000), At Memory’s Edge: After Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture, New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 152-183.

[4]Space and place are concepts that have been widely debated in the geographical literature. Apart from Lefebvre, a good place to begin would be with Li-Fu Tuan (1977), Place and Space: The Perspective of Experience. London: Edward Arnold. Tuan writes that space is unbounded and is something that we pass through while place represents a significant “pause” in this movement (p. 694).

About | Issues
© NMEDIAC & individual NMEDIAC authors, editors, and programmers.
About Issues Issues About