Virtual Art by Oliver Grau has a promising subtitle: From Illusion to Immersion. In Virtual Art, Grau studies new-media art and in particular virtual reality. Not unlike the method of Murray, Grau places virtual reality in the tradition of what he calls “illusion spaces” (Grau 4). Although it seems that Grau does not define illusion spaces, the goal of images as illusion spaces is to reduce or eliminate the psychological distance between viewer and “image space”. Grau does not explain the notion of image space, but I assume he means the space being represented in the (pictorial) representation. This seems to match Bolter and Grusin’s notion of the historical desire for immediacy and (therefore) illusion.
Grau starts his historical account with frescoes dating from 20 years BC and through the development of the image he moves towards a comprehensive description of the aesthetic, social and economic factors of the panorama, as introduced by Robert Barker in 1789.
Robert Barker’s panorama
That this art form is central for his approach of the history of images, seems to lie largely in the cultural context of the panorama. Grau places the panorama in the cultural historical context where art forms were beginning to be used not ‘just’ to represent reality, but to constitute alternative realities. (1) Faux terrain (2) and later photography and film, all feeding the wish to exchange physical reality for a fictional reality by hiding their own embodiment as media. In otherwords, depicting reality becomes creation of another reality.
Grau’s historical overview ends, in line with the goal of Virtual Art, with an extensive discussion on new technologies being used to create virtual realities. Although Grau cannot hide his enthusiasm for computer generated virtual realities, he nuances his enthusiasm by placing the technological developments in a historical perspective. With this, he makes clear that the connotation of our present use of the term virtual reality is not exclusive to the realm of the new technological paradigm. Virtual reality has been pursued with panoramas and other art forms, and therefore immersion is a central concept in the history of representation. Grau gives an explanation of how immersion is achieved:
Immersion arises when artwork and technologically advanced apparatus, message and medium, are perceived to merge inseparably. In this moment of calculated “totalization”, the artwork is extinguished as an autonomously perceived aesthetic object for a limited period of time. Then conscious illusion, as in the weaker form of trompe d’oeil, can shift right around for a few moments into unconscious illusion. (Grau 340)
For Grau immersion thus occurs in a situation in which an object (a medium) and its representation merge in perception and this fusion is, for a given period, seen as one aesthetic object. This view of conscious bewilderment can, for a few moments, turn into unconscious illusion: immersion. Why for Grau the moments of unconscious illusion are short remains unclear (and somewhat counter intuitive), but perhaps this is because the medium is “fooling” or tricking the observer: eventually he or she will find out. Again, as with Murray, we see here what Bolter and Grusin call the desire for immediacy: a truly immersive experience must be preceded by the disappearance of the medium offering the representation. Grau calls this illusionism and remarks about his use of examples: “The examples discussed here demonstrate that a constant characteristic of the principle of immersion is to conceal the appearance of the actual illusion medium by keeping it beneath the perceptive threshold of the observer to maximize the intensity of the messages that are being conveyed. The medium becomes invisible” (Grau 340). One of the examples, the panorama developed by Barker, consisted of several landscape pictures arranged together. The set of landscapes involved manipulations of perspective, fooling the observer into believing to see a real landscape and therefore rendering the medium “invisible”. Immersion occurs the moment the observer shifts from conscious illusion (seeing a landscape in the panorama) to unconscious illusion (seeing the panorama as the landscape). According to Grau, new media and technologies like 3-D simulations, sensory suits and virtual reality employ the same strategy, that of “fooling” the observer into being unconscious of the medium by making the medium invisible.
The strive for immediacy
Grau’s perspective on how immersion should be pursued becomes clear when he delineateshis use of the term immersion. In chapter one he limits his study to only those alternative realities that intervene with perception, which offer “particularly through their totality, the option of fusing with the image medium, which affects sensory impressions and awareness”. (Grau 13) With this, Grau emphasizes the difference between “non-hermetic effects of illusionistic painting, such as trompe l’oeil, where the medium is readily recognizable, […] image spaces that are delimited by a frame that is apparent to the observer, such as the theater[…]” and “[forms that are] suitable for communicating virtual realities in a way that overwhelms the senses.” (Grau 13, 14) Grau discards a great deal of media when it comes to immersion, arguing that “these image media [in their delineated form] stage symbolically the aspect difference. […] For this reason they do not form part of this study”. This difference is the difference between object and representation or the medium and what is mediated. This at least gives the impression that the understanding of immersion that Grau holds for his study is based on the need of an overwhelming sensory experience. This must be embodied in a medium that surrounds the viewer and on top of this can convincingly hide its own nature or materiality. A painting is therefore not what Grau calls immersive, but a panorama or faux terrain is. The painting does not conceal its being a painting, while the panorama and faux terrain do. The spatial dimension is essential to Grau and largely determines whether a viewer finds him- or herself involved in a different reality.
It is clear that immersion, and thus illusion, plays a dominant role in the history of representational art for Grau. He finds his view supported by technological developments such as the panorama, photography, film etc. For Grau, mankind is pursuing the creation of an ultimate virtual reality that is, at least on a sensory level, indistinguishable from reality in which the virtual reality is embedded. This goes beyond a realistic representation of reality: an indistinguishable representation or creation is pursued.
Virtual Art is an interesting study in which immersion and immediacy are placed in the history of illusionist pictorial representation. Although this again points towards the role of media in pursuing immersion, it is still unclear what exactly happens when the observer experiences it, except for being under what Grau terms ‘unconscious illusion’. This notion remains quite vague in the end. The focus on media to represent, but also to its hiding itself from the observer, leads us to the question of the importance of the medium. Is a medium, or even a representation needed for immersion to occur? Murray did also seem to entail a tension between seeing in new media and technology a potency to achieve immersion, but also seemed to suggest an important role for imagination. The preceding question will be taken up later. In the next post we will look at Ryan’s explanation of immersion and how to achieve it.
1 A more comprehensive philosophy of the function of art can be found in Arthur C. Danto’s The Death of Art, heavily influenced by Hegel’s End of Art-thesis.
EDIT: Jacob van der Linden corrected me on note 1: It should have read Arthur C Danto’s Transfiguration of the commonplace. Thanks Jacob.
2 Faux terrain is used in panoramic paintings. It realizes a smooth transition from the painting to its surroundings, for instance by placing characters from the fictional world of the painting in the real world in which the painting is located.