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3.3.2 Art visualizing biodiversity in sustainable aquatic environments

This section provides a contrast to the previous one, introducing eco-visualization projects that are far more technically involved and thus require more sustained collaboration between artists and scientists. Betty Beaumont, Char Davies, and Brandon Ballengée have taken on long-term visualization projects that promote sustainability and environmental stewardship. Some have lasted as long as twenty years; many of the projects are still in development. All of the artists surveyed in this section are dealing with issues of biodiversity primarily in aquatic environments.

Other media artists like Char Davies have succeeded in moving beyond a prototype of a virtual environment to stimulate awareness of nature. Davies, in collaboration with programmer John Harrison and others, has created two interactive three-dimensional VR environments: Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998). Both installations allow viewers to navigate the environment using their breath. Osmose directly challenges the way that three-dimensional graphics favor Cartesian spaces and introduces a new spatial aesthetic to evoke natural environments using the computer. Art historian Susanne Ackers explains the gist of the interaction:

For Davies, Osmose is trying to create an environment of being still and just being-allowing things to come to you-rather than always doing, getting, conquering and moving forward. That stasis is so antithetical to our culture of doing [75].

The key element of this eco-visualization is the unique interaction design that allows participants to navigate a virtual river through controlled breathing and a focused gaze-alluding to practices of Eastern meditation. Participants in Osmose must don a modified diver's costume consisting of an interface vest and a stereoscopic viewing helmet, know as a head-mounted display (HMD). Inside the helmet are two small LCD screens that create a stereoscopic effect, as well as stereo headphones. The vest and HMD connect to a computer and sound processor. As the fully wired participant looks around-left, right, up, down-the computer calculates the participant's exact point of view within the virtual scene via motion-tracking sensors in the interface vest and helmet. The Osmose software generates three-dimensional virtual environments with corresponding audio in real time in response to the participant's head position and breathing patterns that are measured by the vest. The artist describes the interactive interface as follows:

The experience of breathing in to rise and out to fall facilitates a convincing sensation of "floating", as if the participant's body were gravity free. This un-usual sensation is intimately known by scuba divers, who use breath and balance to subtly control body buoyancy and maneuver in oceanic space.The sensation of floating tends to evoke euphoric feelings of disembodiment and immateriality, which we intentionally amplify through our enabling the participant to see through and virtually float through everything around them. At the same time however, we deliberately confound these sensations by paradoxically grounding the experience in the participant's own body, i.e. in his or her own breath and centre of balance [76].

The visuals for Osmose are not based on real time data. Only the interaction, the participant's breathing rate and head position are measured in real time. In fact, the graphics were inspired by the artist's long time experience as a painter and as a nature lover. Davies developed her sketches for the visuals at her own woodland retreat in Quebec. The most amazing component of this visualization of ecological topography is precisely its connection with the body. Imagine the experience—we breathe trees; we breathe water. The participant inhales to rise and float through a forest. Exhalation speeds descent into a mountain stream animated with glowing water bugs. With the interface, the artist portrays her philosophy that life is "a river with infinite rivulets pouring through time." The artist intends the unique visuals of the virtual reality piece to raise questions about contemporary definitions of nature:

This land is but a microcosm: worldwide, wild places of the earth are being dramatically altered due to a litany of human attitudes and actions. Meanwhile, public attention is being directed to the virgin, untrampled territory of cyberspace. And what of virtual reality? Can virtual representations of nature return our attention to the nonhuman living world-conversely increasing our appreciation of the complexities of the natural environment? Or will virtual environments proliferate at the inverse rate of the disappearance of the real-as some sort of psychic compensation? Perhaps the very act of creating virtual environments such as Osmose and Ephémère point out the danger that soon computer-generated simulations may be all we have left [77].
Tree Pond , above, is a digital frame captured in real-time through HMD (head-mounted display) during the live performance of Char Davies' Osmose (1995), an immersive virtual environment [79].

On a philosophical level, Davies hopes that her virtual environments, through their use of transparency and ambiguity as well as the body's breath, can enable an experience for the viewer whereby the various elements within the works become de-objectified. In so doing, it is her intention to renew our sense of perception of nature, evoking a 'questioning' of that which we habitually take for granted [78]. Immersion in VR works like Osmose could also have powerful effects on the psyche of the viewer due to the kinesthetic connection that the artist creates between the body of the viewer and the spaces of nature.

Creating a sympathetic connection between human bodies and nonhuman ones is an important step toward communicating the need for equality between all living creatures. Davies attempts to forge new bodily experiences with an imagined nature in virtual reality.

[. . .]


[75] Susanne Ackers, "Consciousness, Art and Media: Reflections on mediated experience." Available at: http://www.immersence.com/index.html (December 25, 2005) † specifically www.immersence.com/publications/2001/2001-SAckers.html. This article was also published in Dimensions of Conscious Experience. Paavo Pylkänen and Tere Vadén, eds. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company (2001), p. 179-189.
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[76] Char Davies' quotation is available online at: http://www.immersence.com/publications/char/CDavies-VirtualSpace_2004.html (December 27, 2005) † moved to www.immersence.com/publications/char/2004-CD-Space.html and in Char Davies, "Virtual Space," SPACE in Science, Art and Society, François Penz, Gregory Radick and Robert Howell, eds. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press (2004), pp. 69-104.
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[77] Char Davies, "Landscape, Earth, Body, Being, Space, and Time in the Immersive Virtual Environments Osmose and Ephémère," in Women, Art, and Technology. Judy Malloy, ed. London, England: The MIT Press (2003), p. 322-337. Also available online at Davies' website: http://www.immersence.com/publications/char/CDavies-Landscape_Earth-N.html#11 (December 26, 2005) † moved to www.immersence.com/publications/char/2003-CD-Women-Art-Tech.html.
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[78] Davies' intentions were communicated in an email exchange on January 5, 2006.
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[79] A video of the Osmose installation experience is available online at: http://www.mediaartnet.org/works /osmose/video/1/ (December 26, 2005).
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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: September 19th 2013.