Char Davies, Forest Stream, from Ephémère, 1998
Forest Stream, Ephémère, 1998.
Digital still image captured during immersive performance of the virtual environment, Ephémère
Tree Pond, Osmose, 1995.
Digital still image captured during immersive performance of the virtual environment, Osmose


1. Your most well known works are Osmose and Ephémère. Did you anticipate during the creative process did that the work would have such a big impact, in both the technology and the art world?

I wanted my ideas to be heard and understood. Which they were (and weren't...)

At first, it was very gratifying when Osmose received such massive attention: in fact, my initial response as an artist was "I can die now..." but soon enough this changed to "I don't think people quite understand, I'd better try again". And so came Ephémère, which was really Osmose2, as it contained much of what we'd intended for Osmose but hadn't had time for. A third work was planned but I turned to writing instead.

2. And did you set out to re-define what was possible technically before embarking on the work?  

Yes, absolutely. I want to emphasize however, that my intention to re-define what was technically possible was predicated on the desire to re-define what the technology could be used for.

My work has never been about technology; but rather using it as a means to communicate my vision of reality. As I wrote more than twenty years ago, technology is not neutral; it reflects the values of the culture from which it has sprung. Accordingly, if one wishes to convey an alternative way of seeing the world, one must question the conventions inherent in the tools.

Conventions in early 3D computer graphics included linear perspective, Cartesian space, and objective-realism. At the time, such realism was highly sought after by the advertising/entertainment industries. (I was well aware of this as a founding director of the 3D software company Softimage.) Similarly, VR was grounded in conventions that reinforced the worldview of (male) engineers, the military and the gaming industry. These included the same striving for realism, a point-and-shoot-or-grab interface, and emphasis on achieving domination and control. To use the medium/technology differently, that is, for my own purposes, such conventions had to be subverted, or at least circumvented. In other words, the technology had to be "turned".

Summer Forest
Summer Forest, Ephémère, 1998.
Digital still image captured during immersive performance of the virtual environment, Ephémère.

When hiring John Harrison as the programmer for Osmose in 1994, I explained that semi-transparency was essential as a means of "undoing" conventional objective-realism. When he replied that this had never been achieved in real-time, I emphasized that we couldn't make the work without it, and he found a workable solution. Another example was our user-interface: I wanted to provide an alternative to the usual hand-held pointer/glove interface in order to reaffirm the role of the subjectively-inhabited flesh body in virtual space, and replace the urge to do-this-to-that with an attitude of tactful respect. To this end, we developed an interface based on breath and balance. The experiential effect of breathing/floating one's way through fluxing transparencies was more extraordinary than we expected.

While most of our goals had been laid out beforehand, there were many welcome surprises: our creative process, based as it was on the iterative approach I'd developed as a painter years before, was not a matter of executing a design or following a script – it was more like going for an exploratory walk in the woods, heading for light on the horizon.

In every instance, the ideas drove the technology, and the technology served the art.

3. With your work in immersive virtual space you sought 'to light a lamp in a dark corner'. Do you think this area has matured in the past 16 years?

I began writing out my ideas for Osmose in 1993, convinced that, as an experiential medium, immersive virtual space had the greatest potential to carry what I wanted to say.

When we began making the work eighteen years ago, most virtual environments remained within the framework of what I'd call conventional views of reality, whereby "users" walked or drove as if gravity-bound, across horizontal surfaces, manipulating virtual hard-edged objects in empty space. Even if they encountered strange architecture or avatars, their habitual assumptions about the world – as a collection of solid static "things" for human use – remained unquestioned.

As such, I believed that the medium's most profound potential was being overlooked. This is why I spoke of my desire to illuminate a "dark corner", in terms of drawing attention to what I believed was the medium's unprecedented capacity to serve as an "experiential spatial-temporal arena" for de-habituating, or de-automatizing, our everyday perception. There was an ethical aspect to this as well, for if people could experience a fresh way of seeing/being in the world, perhaps they might behave differently towards it as well.

For various reasons, I do not think this potential has been realized.


4. When you created Osmose and Ephémère there was no such thing as social media. Do you think this would have put your work into a different perspective or even led to different art forms?  

Immersion in Osmose and Ephémère, which involved wearing a head-mounted display (with stereoscopic visuals and audio) as well as a vest that tracked breath and balance, was intended to be solitary.

Nevertheless, we did enable an audience to witness the so-called journeys in real-time by projecting them as they were being seen and heard (and performed) by each immersant. This large-scale projection, which was originally stereoscopic, was placed alongside an illuminated scrim of the immersant's moving shadow-silhouette. Now, one can imagine that this live event could have been distributed across many screens, including smartphones, around the globe. Additionally, people might have been able to actually enter and/or influence the works from afar. And there would have been exponentially more public discussion, and so on.

Char Davies, Yearning
Yearning, 1993.
Digital still made with 3D software, mounted as Duratrans transparency in light box, 121.9 x 185.4cm.

That said however, I had no interest in the works serving as sites for social interaction or mass participation. Solitude, while turning attention to one's own sensations of being embodied in space and time, was key to enabling the perceptual transformation I was aiming for.

It's important to remember that, relatively speaking, these works were made a long time ago. In 1994-95, real-time rendering of the stereoscopic semi-transparencies in Osmose and Ephémère (along with live stereoscopic projection for an audience) required a half million dollar computer, and even then, the fastest frame-rate we could achieve was only 15-20 frames per second. Around 2003, we were able to port both works to a PC that cost less than 5K.

Who knows what we could have done if we'd had the technology available now, but to be sure, my philosophical goals would have prevailed.

5. 'I am not a techno-romantic. I do not believe in the techno-utopian view of virtual reality, of cyberspace', you said ten years ago. Did your view on the use of technology in the world of creative expression become more positive or negative over the past few years? And why?

My concern, which I first wrote about in 1990-91, is the same – but now, even more so.

It seems to me that, as a species, we are heading towards an increasing dematerialization of reality even while the planet is speaking louder on a climatic and viral scale. Perhaps as Heidegger suggested, there is a technological imperative driving this, an evolutionary trajectory we cannot control. (Laurie McRobert questioned my work from this perspective in her 2007 book Char Davies' Immersive Art and the Essence of Spatiality.)

Most recently, with the proliferation of social media, a deluge of creative expression is spilling over everywhere. But we humans are self-centered, and the din of our cyber-babble is drowning out all other voices from the planet. While the newest technologies are snapped up by global brands to further distract the consuming-public (who increasingly see the world filtered through electronic screens), few people seem to notice, or even care, that all around us, the non-humans and their habitats are disappearing. That this is not the main focus of our attention makes me ashamed to be human.

As McLuhan said:

"The function of the artist in correcting the unconscious bias of perception in any given culture can be betrayed if he [or she] merely repeats the bias of the culture [...]

In this sense the role of art is to create [...] counter-environments that open the doors of perception to people otherwise numbed..."(italics mine)

Marshal McLuhan and Harley Parker, "The Emperor's New Clothes"
The Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting, 1968, p241


6. It seems nature and technology were/are equally important in your work. Is that true?

If one translates nature as physis and technology as techne, I would say yes.

In this context, my interest lies not in nature as conventionally defined, but as physis – an ancient Greek term translated as the arising of something from out of itself, suggestive of the emergent life-force of nature, as in the presencing of being/s into existence. My attempt to go beyond habitual perceptions of the world as a "collection of objects" is founded on a desire to articulate what I sense lies behind/beyond/within the world's surface appearances – wherein nothing is solid, static or separate, and space is not empty, but rather all is in flux, an intermingling of comings-into-being and passings-away.

I came to this sense of reality decades ago, through studying the pre-Socratic philosophers, Mahayana Buddhism, simplified quantum physics, and, not surprisingly, ecology. I further explored such concepts through my art practice at the time, of painting still-lifes – culminating in a series of images of glass jars on mirrors, of light dissolving form in space through time – as seen through my own "uncorrected" myopic vision. Such research led to my longstanding interest in the reciprocal interlacing of the embodied perceiver with that which was being perceived. (My last painting exhibition, in 1987, was called Espaces Entrelaceés, long before I learned of Merleau-Ponty's concept of chiasmatic intertwining).

Regarding technology, I prefer to think of it as techne, another Greek word, suggesting not only craftsmanship but also the notion of bringing-forth or revealing (as in the related Greek words poiesis and aletheia). Such concepts have been a rich source of inspiration for my work.

I will not delve further here, except to say that, for me, it is impossible to speak about technology without referring to Heidegger's essay "The Question Concerning Technology" – in particular his concern about the instrumentalizing aspect of techne, whereby the world is exploited as a "standing-reserve" for human use.

It is not farfetched to say that, indeed, this has come to pass, as has the following:

"Meanwhile, man [...] exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth. In this way the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct.

This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: It seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself." (italics mine)

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays.
New York: Harper & Row, 1977. p 23-27.

More than half a century ago, Heidegger warned of the supreme danger we are in – whereby, through such technologizing, we ourselves will ultimately become standing-reserve. By chance, I write these words on the day that Facebook is going public: if one believes that social media corporations are delivering up their own users as "the product", then his words certainly ring true.

7. You have been making art in 2D, in film, in 3D and virtual reality and now in landscapes. Do think you'll ever return to 2D again?

The work I'm making now, and the work I made before this, is visibly present in work from my early twenties. Even though it was tentative, that which I've been pursuing all my life was already there.

Throughout my career, I've moved from one medium to another, always in an attempt to more effectively express what I wanted to say. Thus, when the stasis of painting proved inadequate, I turned to film. When I first glimpsed 3D computer graphics in the early 80's, I immediately recognized its potential for transcending the 2D picture plane. Since suitable software was non-existent, I became involved in building a software company. Soon after however, 3D CG also became limiting, for even if I was ostensibly creating on the other side of the picture plane, I couldn't take my audience in with me, nor could I escape the "frame". Consequently, I began making immersive virtual environments, whereby the viewer, now participant, could effectively float through enveloping, fluxing, translucent and sonorous landscapes that responded in real-time to his/her behaviour as well as gaze. I was also writing throughout this period, and in 2005 received a doctorate from the University of Plymouth (CAiiA) for a 150,000 word dissertation that situated my work within a phenomenological approach to immersive virtual space. Eventually however, after many years of exhibiting, publishing and lecturing about the medium's potential for re-sensitizing us to wonder, I no longer felt as compelled to communicate to others. Instead I wanted to "commune", to engage directly, with the source that had inspired me, which was land.

"Land", with its encircling horizons (and specifically here, of forest and fields, in southern Quebec along the Vermont border) could be described as the ultimate immersive environment, with the exception of oceanic space, as I've written elsewhere. All the elements that virtually populated Osmose and Ephémère (and infinitely more that were missing) exist here, in their own mysterious actuality. This place, even if human-altered over the past century, is not human-made, and thus presents an unfathomable otherness, or rather a myriad of othernesses, all subjects engaged in their own complex processes of being. Working with land – note I say "with" – is essentially about being-in-relationship: as such, it is extremely humbling, for I will never understand all that is happening here, nor will I live long enough to see the work I make mature. Accordingly, my creative vision now extends past my small lifetime, with an accompanying desire to care for and protect this place and its inhabitants after I'm gone.

Installation view of live performance of Ephémère.
Immersant seen through shadow-silhouette screen, at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 2003.

But all this is bittersweet, because from my vantage point in this particular place, evidence of the effects of global warming and habitat loss is everywhere. Indeed, it appears that nonhuman "nature" as we knew it in our childhoods really is disappearing. Regardless of what the "techno-utopians" say, no amount of technological invention or creative expression (unless directed towards turning this around) can compensate for such loss. We may indeed be heading into a future where not much exists on this planet except us, and the bright shiny things of our making.

Perhaps my turning to "land" has been a necessary antidote for having spent so much time in computer-generated virtual space. Conceptually however, my use of various mediums has not been not a linear progression, but rather a circumferal expansion in which they are all enfolded: for example, I still think like a painter – for that was how my perceptual/philosophical inquiry began – and I would not, could not, be doing the work I'm doing now if I hadn't learned first to think in-the-round and amid-the-flux in immersive virtual space.

In answer to your question, yes, I have begun working in "2D" again, as in drawing. However, whether I draw in situ here in the forest, or in my studio in San Francisco, the simple lines I make do not appear to me as static, lying flat upon a two-dimensional material surface: instead they seem to float as if suspended in luminous three-dimensional space. I find myself drawing into that space as if immersed, at the very threshold of my perception, in an attempt to describe the "multiplicities of becoming" around me. (An analysis of such recent work can be found in Fran Dyson's 2009 book Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture.)

For years, I have experienced a strange slip-sliding between the virtual and the actual. For me, 2D, 3D, material, immaterial, are no longer separate categories. Instead, I inhabit all of them, think and work in all of them, simultaneously. As such, I hold the actuality of this land in my mind, spatially and temporally, as if indeed it were virtual.

I have found that the creative process of composing with earth, stone, water, light, flora and so on, is much the same as constructing virtual environments – whether moving earth to round a hill, placing boulders to curve a space, or transplanting trees. All of this is intended to not only heal a damaged landscape, but more essentially, to amplify the extraordinariness of what I sense is already here, so that others may see as I see. (Yet the challenges are much greater because of the Otherness involved, such as the will of water, the density of matter, the phototropism of trees, the unpredictability of weather, not to mention the increasing threat of invasive insects and disease...)

Such work has in turn deepened my own understanding: now, when I am in the forest, I no longer travel from A to B amid a collection of separate "things" – instead I pass among my fellow beings, all of them presencing into the present, not only around me, but more importantly, with me, our co-existence, our shared "isness" in this particular time and space, an astonishing mystery. This land flows through me: I am its human.


8. In an earlier interview you mentioned you might introduce technology there in the future. Did you do this? And in what way?

Yes, I have introduced "technology" here, with a long-term project underway. I have never thought it is wise, however, to speak of such work before it was done.

I will say the following though: once again it involves "turning" a technology, pushing it beyond its standard commercial uses in order to manifest what I sense, how I see. To achieve this, its conventions must be subverted, its language and values questioned, and new software tools developed. Again we are creatively rambling through the woods, not entirely sure of what might befall us on the way. When we emerge from the other side, I'll let you know....

And now, it is dusk and springtime is calling, so I must go.

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Last verified: August 1st 2013.