The Ephemerality of Being

But just because to be here means so much,
And everything here all this that's disappearing
Seems to need us, to concern us in some strange way
We who disappear even faster!
It's one time for each thing and only one.
Once and no more. And the same for us. Once.
Then never again.
But this once having been,
Even though only once having been on earth
Seems as though it can't be undone.

… Earth, isn't this what you want:
Rising up inside us invisibly once more!
Isn't it your dream to be invisible someday!
Earth! Invisible!
What is it you urgently ask for
If not transformation!

Rainer Maria Rilke [1]

Ephémère is an interactive, immersive audio/visual virtual environment which furthers the work begun in Osmose (1995).

In Ephémère there are two intertwined themes. One is the ephemerality of being, in terms of our fragile fleeting life spans as mortal beings embedded in a living, flowing world, among an unfathomable myriad of comings-into-being, lingerings and passings-away. The work's second theme is the symbolic correspondence between body and earth: earth as regenerative source, organic destiny, mythological ground. Within the work are recurring "archetypal" elements suggesting a co-equivalency between the chthonic presences of the interior organic body and the subterranean earth, whose meanings and behaviours are dependent on the behaviour of the participant and spatial/temporal context.

Ephémère is structured as a temporal progression, in terms of emergence and withdrawal of form; flow and ebb of visibility and audibility; and diurnal/nocturnal and seasonal transformation, as well as germination and decay. While the ephemeral is most usually associated with momentary manifestations such as mayflies, from a mountain's point of view, our own lives are as fleeting.

Nature as Ground

The iconography of Ephémère is grounded in "Nature" as metaphor, as is all my work of the past 15 years, as a means of reaffirming our biological and psychological dependency on Nature in the face of its ongoing devaluation and destruction.

No matter how far culture will go to destroy its connections to nature, humankind and all of our technology, good and bad, are inextricable parts of nature—the original determinant, the mother and matrix of everything, that all pervasive structure that lies beneath scenery, landscape, place and human history. (Lucy Lippard) [2]

Ephémère is fuelled by my experience of a particular place, a remote piece of land, part rural, part wild, in southern Quebec. While this land is not pristine, having been logged, cleared, ploughed, mined and grazed and now producing apples, all the earthly elements in Ephémère, as in Osmose, have their source here. Over the time I have spent on this land, its roots and rocks, seeds and streams, bloomings and witherings, have become numinous, as present in my imagination as in actuality. Wandering among their physical manifestations provides me with a much needed antidote to working with virtual-reality technology. They in turn appear in my work like apparitions.

Life Flow

As I began this paper, the nearby stream roared and flooded with the spring melt of a mountain's snow. Weeks later, rocks warmed in the sun and apple trees were in expectant bud. Soon after this paper goes to press, the stream will have slowed to a trickle, the forests will have leafed and faded and the apples will be ripening. Even on the most tranquil of days, a powerful force pours through here, through every element and creature.

This river of life and time, the inexorable force that pours through all things, is what concerns me. As Dylan Thomas wrote:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees Is my destroyer. And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent with by the same wintry fever. [3]

According to Heidegger, the Greeks called this flow "physis":

In truth, physis means, outside of all specific connotations of mountains, sea or animals, the pure blooming in the power of which all that appears and thus "is". [4]

The very immateriality, temporality and apparent three-dimensionality of immersive virtual space is well suited for manifesting such a concept. In Ephémère, besides the various comings-into-being, lingerings and passings-away and the transformations of illumination and spatial contexts, there are "flows" of rivers, root flows and body fluids streaming through the work.

Poetic Body

Ephémère, like Osmose, utilises an embodying user interface in the form of a vest that tracks the participant's breath and balance, enabling [her] to move through the work by breathing. A head mount is used for real-time display of stereoscopic 3D computer graphics and 3D localised sound. This device is also used to evoke a sense of spatial envelopment.This strategy serves to implicate the immersant within the space and grounds the work in interior processes of the physical body. [5]

In Ephémère, I have incorporated visual and aural elements that recall the mortal fleshy body of organs, blood and bone (referring not only to human but all bodies). As the mythologist Joseph Campbell has written:

Myths and dreams … are motivated from a single source—namely the human imagination moved by the conflicting urgencies of the organs (including the brain) of the human body, of which the anatomy has remained pretty much the same since c. 40,000 BC. [6]

Poetic elements of the organic body function as the substrata of Ephémère, under the fecund earth and the lush bloomings and witherings of the land. The symbolic correspondence or equivalence between body and earth is key to the work. Rocks transform into organs; rivers transform into veins, and vice versa. While I cannot completely articulate the rationale behind such metaphors, they have been present in my work for many years.

Some people in the burgeoning cyberculture imagine that one day we, as a species, will escape the confines of mortal bodies by merging ourselves with silicon. In this context, Ephémère can be viewed as an attempt to reaffirm our limitations, our mortality, our dependency on ageing bodies and an earth which will, for those of us now living, absorb our bones, dreams of cyber immortality notwithstanding.

Spatio-temporal Structure of Ephémère

As mentioned earlier, Ephémère is structured temporally as well as spatially and thus contains a progression of visual and aural events through realms of landscape, earth and body.

winter > spring > summer > autumn
Landscape: dormant > blooming > leafing > falling leaves > dust
Earth: > germinating > fruition > decay 
Body: > eggs > bones
r       i       v        e       r

If an immersant stays within the landscape for an entire session it will change around her, passing through cycles of day and night, from the pale grey of winter, through spring and summer to the climax and decay of autumn. The elements in the other realms transform as well: in the earth seeds become active then fade; in the body, eggs appear and ageing organs give way to bone. While the participant may spend an entire session in one realm, it is more likely that she will pass constantly between them, immersed in transformation.

While the immersant is able to move vertically through the landscape, earth and body by breathing in or out to rise or to fall, another means is possible: the river. The river is a constant element flowing throughout the work. When gazed upon or followed for any length of time, it transforms into an underground stream or artery/vein (and vice versa) bringing in their appropriate visual/aural surroundings. Even as the participant roams among all three realms, by rising/falling or via the river's transformations, no realm remains the same, changing through time, ending in dissolution.

All the transformations which I have described are aural as well as visual. While the visuals pass through subtle changes of visibility and non-visibility, light and shadow—and in the case of landscape, progress from the relatively literal to the abstract. The sound is also in a state of flux: Interactive and localised in three-dimensions, it flows between melodic form and mimetic effect in a state somewhere between structure and chaos, adapting moment by moment to the changing spatio-temporal context and the immersant's behaviour.

In addition to the various transformations described above, there is another kind of transformation in which the perceptual faculties and imagination of the immersant are deeply implicated. The visual aesthetic of Ephémère, like Osmose, is based on extensive overlaying of semi-transparent three-dimensional forms, creating a constant variability of the perceptual field, causing semiotic and sensory fluctuations which are channelled within the larger meaning of the work.

Seed, from Ephémère.

Finally, in Ephémère, there is a subtle inter-responsivity between selected elements and the immersed participant. These iconographic elements include germinating seeds, rocks and the river as already described. Their behaviours depend on the immersant, responding to proximity, slow movement and/or gaze.

While the creative process associated with Osmose resembled the constructing of a  perceptually-mesmerising, immaterial stage set, the making of Ephémère has been exponentially more complex, both conceptually and technically. The process has resembled the creation of a virtual opera, consisting of the development of a myriad of visual and aural elements, whose various comings and goings must be calculated in relation to each other, the progression of the work and the immersed participant, in real-time.

The Net of Life and Time

As I write, dusk has fallen and my ears are filled with the dizzying, deafening sound of shrieking frogs and crickets, creating a sensory vertigo, similar to the state of reverie which I and others have experienced in Osmose.[7]

This land is the muse behind Ephémère—at this moment, a velvet envelope of mountain evening, silent rocks, flowing water, insistently budding flora and shadowy fauna stealthily engaged in the business of their own lives. Here I am immersed in an unfathomably complex, inexorable flow which pours through a myriad of channels, whose embodied forms are, as Henri Beston wrote in 1928:

Brethren…not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the Earth. [8]

Ephémère is an attempt to express all this.

These days however, due to a litany of consequences of human attitudes and actions, the rich biodiversity of Nature is diminishing. On this particular piece of land, fewer songbirds return in spring to nest, frogs and salamanders have less young, and the maple trees are dying. In some ways, Ephémère is a lament, not only for the ephemerality of our own lives, but for the passing of Nature as we have known it.


The construction of virtual landscapes in an age of environmental crisis is fraught with implications. All digital constructions of "virtual reality" and cyberspace are ideologically-laden and most serve to reinforce the cultural value system which Henri Lefebvre has labelled the "reign of King Logos" [9]. Such constructions may also serve to distract from earthly responsibilities and the very wonder of being embodied among all this, here now. However, alternative approaches to the technology are possible. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, such usage is the responsibility of artists:

The function of the artist in correcting the unconscious bias of a given culture can be betrayed if he merely repeats the bias of a culture without readjusting it. In this sense the role of art is to create the means of perception by creating counter-environments that open the door of perception to people otherwise numbed in a non-perceivable situation…. In an age of accelerated change, the need to perceive the environment becomes urgent. New environments reset our sensory thresholds. These in turn later affect our outlook and expectations. [10]

While our habitual perceptions may lead to the forgetting of being, the paradoxical qualities of immersion in a virtual environment—if constructed so as not to reinforce conventional assumptions and behaviour—can be used to open doors of perception. In this context, Ephémère is an attempt to reaffirm our poetic and mythic need for Nature, returning attention to our fragile and fleeting existences as mortal beings embedded in a vast, multi- channelled flow of life through time.

Today the apple trees are blossoming: tomorrow the blossoms will fall back to earth.


1. Rilke, Rainer Maria. 1922. "The Ninth Elegy", in The Duino Elegies (Trans: David Young) New York: Norton and Co., 1978.

2. Lippard, Lucy. 1997. The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. New York: The New Press, p. 11.

3. Thomas, Dylan. 1937. "The Force that Through the Green Fuse [Drives the Flower]†", in Collected Poems 1934-1953. London: J.M. Dent, p. 13.

4. Haar, Michael. 1993. The Song of the Earth: Heidegger and the Grounds of the History of Being. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, p. 8.

5. Davies, Char. 1995. "Osmose: Notes on Being in Immersive Virtual Space", in Digital Creativity, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1998. London: Swets and Zeitlinger. ISSN 0957-9133. First published in the Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Arts Conference Proceedings, Montreal: ISEA'95.

6. Campbell, Joseph. 1988. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. New York: Harper and Row, p. 12.

7. Davies, Char. 1997. "Changing Space: VR as an Arena of Being". In Ascott, R., ed. 1997. Consciousness Reframed: Art and Consciousness in the Post-biological Era. Proceedings of the First International CAiiA Research Conference. Newport: University of Wales College. ISBN 1 899274 03 0. Also (in expanded form) in Beckman, John, ed. 1998. The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation and Crash Culture, Boston: Princeton Architectural Press.

8. Plumwood, V. 1993. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. New York: Routledge.

9. Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 407.

10. McLuhan, Marshall, and Parker, Harley. 1969. Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper and Row, 241, 252.


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: Sept. 16th, 2008.