Through the Window: New Media, Identity, and the Public Sphere
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.
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
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. 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.
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).
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).
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 ), 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. (http://Bodiesinc.ucla.edu).
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
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).
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).
a digital artist with a background in painting, attempts to help
a participant “imagine other ‘realities’”
with her 1995 artwork Osmose (http://www.mediaartnet.org/works/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
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).
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.
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.
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).
the Virtual and the Concrete: New Media Installation Art
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,
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). 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  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.
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.
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). 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.
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 http://www.i8.is/new/karin.html).
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).
video installation Tall Ships may be viewed as a complement
to Sander’s portraits of public faces (http://www.acmi.net.au/deepspace).
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
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
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.
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.
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 (http://www.ubs.com/4/artcollection/thecollection/a-z/simpson).
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).
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.
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.
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
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 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
 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.
 Susannah Reid, “The Jewish Museum Berlin---A Review,”
in Virtual Library Museen,www.vl-museen.de/aus-rez/reid01-1.htm (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.
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).