Breathe deeply: rise through a world of light streams and landscapes. Let the air out of your lungs and sink through the surface of transparent stone. The primeval rhythms of the body meet virtual reality in Ephémère, an interactive, immersive experience that redefines three-dimensional computer-generated art. This world is Char Davies' artistic vision, an ambiguous space, neither representational nor abstract, where the earth and the body dissolve into each other.

To experience Ephémère, the "immersant" (to use Davies' apt coinage) is strapped into a vest that measures breathing. The immersant's relation to Ephémère is mediated by breathing and body position, a strategy Davies adapted from her experiences scuba diving. There are no intrusive gloves for grasping or pointing—instead of manipulating the environment, the immersant inhabits it. The images themselves, and the accompanying aural environment, are provided through a head-mounted display (HMD). The experience is fully interactive. In addition to directing their activities by breath and position, users can also interact with Ephémère simply by gazing. Keep an image in one's line of vision long enough and it will pull the immersant into it, transforming to reveal new shapes and sounds. The world of Ephémère is in constant flux.

Ephémère opened June 26 (1998) at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where it runs until September 6. Participants book twenty-minute sessions in the apparatus. A viewing room is available for others to watch a projection of the experience, as well as the immersant's silhouette, cast on a screen to ensure privacy while at the same time poeticizing the relation, almost a dance, between the body and technology for the gallery viewers.

Char Davies is a Montreal-based artist whose interest in computer graphics, which she traces back to the mid-1980s, grew out of frustration with the limits of flat surfaces. Initially a representational painter, Davies, who describes herself as "extremely myopic," began in the early 1980s to paint the world as it appeared to her without her corrective lens: no discrete shapes, sharp edges, or resolute borders. Her painting moved toward experiments in capturing light and layers; she would paint, scrape, paint, and scrape some more in an effort to create a layering of light and colour on the canvas. But paintings take shape in two dimensions, and the images Davies wanted to create were three-dimensional. This desire lead Davies to SoftImage, which she joined in its first year of operation and where she has been until recently Director of Visual Research. She was a founding director, serving on the Board until the company was purchased by Microsoft in 1994, and has occupied numerous other positions as the need arose (co-writing the early user manuals, for instance). But she insists she is no technophile (her fantasy bumper sticker, she claims, would read "VR? I'd rather be diving"), but rather someone designing a new tool for creating the art she saw in her head. Davies' relation with SoftImage has been symbiotic. Her artistic demands pushed the limits of the software, while SoftImage gave her the resources to explore her vision further. Through the early 1990s, with SoftImage's financial and technological support, she developed a series of "lightboxes," still translucent images, which led to Osmose, Ephémère's VR precursor. In essence a series of lightboxes traveled through by an immersant, Osmose was proclaimed by Mark Pesce as "the first VR worthy to be called 'art.'" The world of Ephémère is less referential than that of Osmose, but they share the same themes: the inevitability of loss, the transience and beauty of existence.

Entering into the room where you don the headset is like entering the underworld: the passage is pitch black. A gallery employee assists you into the apparatus, and guides you through the basic maneuvers. Then, leaving your guide behind, you enter into the land of Ephémère. The starting point is a winter dreamscape, the most representational portion of the journey. Trees reach up to a white sky; a river runs through the snow-covered terrain. Most immersants choose to follow the river with their gaze, which, in the interactive world of Ephémère, means that they are soon submerging themselves in it. Or they gaze at boulders, seemingly solid yet insubstantial—which loom among the trees. This brings them into the realms evocative of an underworld, which are both earth and body. While these realms are distinct, the transition is subtle. The immersant's sense of location is challenged; movement is free-flowing rather than directed and logical.

For the first ten of the fifteen minutes in the HMD, most immersants actively explore the virtual space. But after habituating themselves to the subtle non-linear logic of Ephémère, some experience a collapsing of the distance between viewer and object, and their interaction with the work assumes a new form, less beholden to the notion of exploration than to contemplation. In the solitude of the headset, isolated from all other stimuli, one is no longer watching a computer program, but becomes a part of Davies' vision, a communicant with the bodies and rivers of light, and the rich, evocative aural environment.

But it ends, you must leave—the prolific world of Ephémère wanes, a vast still night sky ushering you back to the land of the mundane. The gallery employee assumes a mythic role, stripping you of your headset and vest and escorting you out into the world; she is your midwife and you are freshly born, without speech (at least for a few moments) but with wonder at the vastness and splendour of the world, and a sense of loss at its ending. Immersants have reported quasi-religious responses to Osmose, and no doubt Ephémère will elicit the same. Why does the work affect so many people in this way? Perhaps it is the effect of solitude on personal identity: a sense of aloneness that leads to a oneness with the surrounding world.

"I wanted to make work that is a testimony to the extraordinariness of us being here; how bizarre, splendorous existence is. And how ephemeral," Davies explains. Ephémère is thus both a celebration and an elegy. The natural world, threatened by an increasingly technologized and remote humanity, is fast disappearing from the planet, she notes. A concern with the mutability of life and the fragility of nature has provided a focus for her work since her earliest designs (she recalls a high school drawing in which the perspective is of a river from underneath —stone, roots, reeds, water and sky). The vigour and integrity with which Davies has pursued these issues over the years may explain Ephémère's powerful effect on participants, as well as why it is so much more than an experimentation with computer graphics. For Davies, technology is "a pencil": it is simply another way for her to realize the artistic vision she has nurtured over her career as an artist.

Because of the labour and range of skills required to realize her vision, Ephémère is also a collaborative work, which Davies notes she could not have put together without her team of "very brilliant people." George Mauro, who created the graphics, has worked with her since 1988, and has thoroughly absorbed her aesthetic sensibility. The images are built with SoftImage custom VR software, programmed by another long-time collaborator, John Harrison. Observes Davies, both Harrison and Mauro "appreciate the type of subtlety and contemplative attitude I'm trying to create." The same can be said of her sound team. The interactive aural component, evocative without being referential, is composed by Rick Bidlack; sonic engineer Dorota Blaszczak takes Bidlack's sounds and localizes them in 3D space, so that they change with images as the immersant floats through Ephémère. The final product, while specifically Davies' artistic vision, is executed by an inspired team, and is co-produced by SoftImage and Davies' new company, Immersence.

Perhaps the ultimate paradox of Ephémère is its durability. Immersion is limited to fifteen minutes, and each journey is unique. What you experience is based upon your physical being: breathing, moving and gazing. Ephémère is as transitory as the iridescent mayfly. And yet some participants report images and moments that return days later, luring them back not to that room in the National Gallery but to that part of themselves now entwined with Ephémère.

This article may include minor changes from the original publication in order to improve legibility and layout consistency within the Immersence Website. † Significant changes from the original text have been indicated in red square brackets.

Last verified: August 1st 2013.