Interfaces to the Sublime

(De Rotterdamerung)

Dutch Electronic Arts Festival
25 November 1995

Introduction: The Ridiculous and the Sublime

We've entered into a new discourse - the articulation of the sacred as a theme within electronic art. Time now to speak of the spiritual dimension in our own work, not just in the sense of how this spiritual center informs us, but how it communicates through our work. In that sense, this paper is about agents, but these agents are divine.

The nature of the sacred is difficult to express in any human language. In order to place the sublime into a linguistic context, I'm forced to use metaphors - they'll approach what I mean, without touching it directly. The metaphor most appropriate to the current situation is of the transition of planet Pluto from the constellation Scorpio into the constellation Sagittarius.

Why choose a metaphor based in a pseudo-science like astrology? I want to provoke every ounce of your scientific skepticism; that's what this transition really means, it's a tiny trickle in a flood that will assault Western reason and supplant it with something more complete. The contrast between Scorpio and Sagittarius is illustrative of the ongoing revolution in the conceptualization of the self, and by extension, its interfaces.

Pluto is seen as the ruler of the shadow realms. As my own work as shown, the correlation between cyberspace and the shadow realm is more than accidental - both of them are describing spaces informed by being rather than physics, by emotion rather than reason. Both are empty except for the self. The CyberSamhain, an event held last year to create sacred space both within the Internet and real space, leveraged the correspondence between the two realms to produce an event which affected both.

Pluto has recently emerged from a long travel through the zodiac constellation of Scorpio, said to be the ruler of sex and death, the keeper of the genitals - deep and emotional and frightfully vindictive. Pluto in Scorpio came to its full fruition in two technologies which have matured in the eleven years of Pluto's visit - Sex Chat Rooms and Smart Wars. Imagine the idiocy of one hand on the keyboard while the other one generates an autoerotic simulation; against this, conjure the absolute precision of smart bombs reaching their targets in Iraq, sending a continuous television image until the picture fades forever. That is Pluto in Scorpio.

Sagittarius is seen as the ruler of Law and Philosophy, and so, as Pluto glides into its influences, we should expect our social contracts will be rewritten, that our holy books may be supplanted, and our culture will come to a new understanding of its place in the universe. It is an excellent time to overturn some apple carts, slaughter the sacred cows, and take a look at the philosophies which underlie our creative work. It'll be clear, by the time I've finished, that the works which impress us today are the ones which fully embody this new relationship between our self and our sacred nature - that is, as Pluto heads into Sagittarius, we give greater expression to our higher philosophies.

From Enlightenment to Endarkenment: Decartes' Golem and Oroboros

We hear a lot of talk - some of it at this conference - about the formation of a "global brain". The phrase itself completely reflects the dualistic mind-set of its inventors, and also reflects the disembodied being of a dead Western philosophy - Decartes' Golem, never really alive, but still quite animated.

We're entering an age which will see use of more emotional terms, like de Chardin's Noosphere - defining the layer of being (thought, emotion, action) which surrounds the planet. It's time to integrate our metaphors, especially when discussing something as profound as the Noosphere. The Noosphere has a body from which it acts, and this body has both physical and astral or energetic natures. The wiring of the planet - lately the Internet - provides proof positive of the existence of a physical body, and, as I will demonstrate, the astral body of the Noosphere is in formation - in fact, it is almost complete.

We're drifting away from the dry language of science into the wet, and indistinct language of emotion because we find that our reason can't actually articulate the existence of the Noosphere - we don't have a rational language for any being which exceeds the scope of the self. Our science sought to understand the nature of the self, and learned that the self seeks itself, and sees itself in everything. This is not reason, but it is. Along the way we've come to understand much about the universe outside the self.

So now we earnestly seek not enlightenment but endarkenment. We know our lighter natures so well that our darker sides could easily kill us. We must study the dark, because it is also of us. As the yogi moves toward enlightenment, he achieves endarkenment, and sees his worst nature outlined. This is purely natural and absolutely upsetting. This is also one of the functions of art, particularly of sacred art.

The dark being of the enlightenment is the body. It's that which the Cartesian nature would transcend to become wholly being without body. Yet, the further we travel in our technological development, the more we understand that the body has a transcendental nature which is absolutely vital to the being of man; you can not discard it, any more than you can discard the brain. We are not growing out of the body; we're finding out how to live within it. Like Oroboros, the snake who consumes his own tail, we reach out for the essence of the spiritual and come back firmly grasping our own flesh.

This flesh is the ground for a new articulation of the sacred.

The Necessity and Practice of a Sacred Art

As Mircea Eliade points out, in The Sacred and the Profane, sacred space is where all space begins; without it, cyberspace could not have begun. You can detect this in the fictive evocations of cyberspace - Vernor Vinge, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson all articulated sacred themes in their works on cyberspace. As authors they understood that the unbounded imagination is immediately informed by the divine.

Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, puts its another way:

"If the work of the city is the remaking or translating of man into a more suitable form than his nomadic ancestors achieved, then might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?"

McLuhan hastens to point out that this collection of consciousness, long sought-after by advertisers, may not amount to a good thing. The matter is left to us to create a form of connection which preserves the self against the pressures of forces which would seek to dominate it. The sacred provides some defense against domination; it can create the place where the individual exists in communion with a greater whole.

In a paper presented at the Third International Conference on Cyberspace, I developed a model which can be used to apprehend the effects of electric media.

Following McLuhan, I cast electric mediations as amputations; they supplant a naturally-occurring ability or sensation with a technically mediated prosthesis. In immersive virtual environments, this amputation is complete, and it results in a dislocation of the self from the self. It's interesting to note that this situation is analogous to the soul's journey through the Bardos of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In a plastic universe, the dictates of being become the laws of the world; more simply put, the creation of a world necessarily implies the creation of a world view.

Furthermore, human communication is essentially shaped by the medium of communication - the medium is the message. All mediations engage humanity in a structural coupling which changes both. In this sense, the emergence of a sacred aesthetic electronic is the natural reaction to the discovery of a space in which we wish to place ourselves - but we can not set foot into this world until we have sanctified it. Hence, we bless our creations, declare them sacred and fit for humanity. Otherwise, we intuit, our creations will dehumanize us.

The fundamental practice in sacred art is the creation of a place for sacred being within any work of art.

Interfaces to the Sublime

Each of the four works I'll now discuss provide a space for a sanctified being, and in this, they stand out as works which transcend their medium and articulate the sublime.

In five years of intensive research in virtual reality, I've come across four works that stand above all the others. I've uncovered a singular feature that each of them have in common, though each expresses it very differently: all of them provide a profoundly embodied experience in a purely imaginal environment. The contradiction inherent in this situation may be one of the reasons why these works are successful - they mirror the Cartesian mind/body split, but in reverse.

At SIGGRAPH '94, Cole, Martens, et. al. demonstrated CyberFin, which was promoted as a dolphin swim-simulation system. In one of the first comfortable virtual environments, immersants were invited to lie down on a heated "vibrasonic pad", which acted as sonic transducer and subwoofer. Headphones sent spatialized audio into the ears, while ultrasonic transducers mounted on the forehead provided direct bone conduction for frequencies beyond normal hearing. The immersion experience consisted almost entirely of recorded dolphin clicks and songs, played through the system, into the immersant. The effect was most remarkable; it became possible to experience sound as a dolphin does, over the entire length of the body, and from a few Hertz up to 60 kilohertz. The eye was de-emphasized, as it is in the dolphin.

The enormous success of CyberFin - people waited over three hours to spend five minutes in it - proved that immersive technologies, when well designed, provide for an experience which can transcend human understanding. For a brief moment, immersed in CyberFin, I understood the nature of a dolphin's sensorium - how sound shapes their understanding, just as vision shapes ours. The creators called it an experiment in trans-species synestheisa, opening a window onto another domain of experience, very alien from our own.

The embodiment articulated by CyberFin is the embodiment within another species.

At the Second Interactive Media Festival, I was astounded by the work of the German design firm, ART+COM. Their entry, T_Vision, radically revisioned the concept of globe and database to produce a living model of the Earth, as it is, right now, using the networks of communications technology to gather and integrate information from satellites and host computers, producing a detailed simulation of the real. The fluidity of the interface - using a large ball called the EarthTracker like a globe to manipulate the model within the computer - was a perfect complement to the content. All of the components fit together so well it's hard to imagine any other interface to the planet, once you've seen T_Vision.

T_Vision functions as both real project and articulation of archetype. The real project will be years in the making - the actual database of T_Vision still covers only a tiny portion of the Earth's surface in any detail. Yet the power of the images it generates are so overwhelmingly emotional that even the T_Vision team find themselves in love with their creation, and others feel compelled to help them in their work. The emotional reaction is a recognition of the essence of the piece - that T_Vision embodies us in Gaia, and shows us something that we can't see on our own - our relation to the whole. In this sense, T_Vision is the electronic equivalent of a third eye, and one of the essential elements in an astral body of the Noosphere.

If T_Vision expresses the whole, OSMOSE explores singularity. Char Davies' multi-year research project into the evocative powers of immersive virtual environments, OSMOSE achieves something we've not seen before - a synthetic environment which embodies the sacred nature of the self. The essence of OSMOSE is embodiment in another body - the astral body. Through a combination of interface and content, a careful balance is struck between being and doing. You're more than an observer within OSMOSE, you're a participant, and because breath and balance are used as the navigation controls, the experience is immediate and complete. The body, confronted with this interface, gives into it. The suspension of disbelief found in older media becomes the place for being in an immersive medium. That is the essence of the sublime interface.

Every aspect of OSMOSE is designed to evoke quietude - and although the scenes are naturalistic, they are not natural. This space is about the feelings associated with nature, and not with nature itself, so the immediacy of the experience is essentially personal. That OSMOSE has a profound and immediate effect is absolutely certain. Char's kept a guest book where immersants log their comments after they pass through. Quite often, they report feeling angelic, floating through a numinous world; some report that they've lost their fear of death - OSMOSE's last views are of a world receding, in light, from the immersant. That these comments are applied to a work of art is singular, of a work of electronic art, unprecedented. OSMOSE is the millennial equivalent of the cathedral at Chartes, creating a space for sacred being in the medium of the age.

For two years I've single-mindedly pursued the development of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language as a sort of Rosetta Stone of cyberspace, allowing people to focus on content rather than technique, and equally providing a way that this content can be shared - through the glittering hyperspace of the World Wide Web. But this is not enough. VRML is perceived as being a visual protocol - an intersection between graphics and networking. Yet, human experience, human emotion lies mostly outside the eye. The eye is sterile, intellectual, and detached. The ear is emotional, immediate, and present. Our Web - which we've been madly building without asking why or for whom - has been crafted to the dictates of the eye; hence we're laden down with the intellectual baggage of our thoughts, rather than the song within our hearts.

The WorldSong project seeks to amend this, by developing the oral and aural equivalent of T_Vision - which, despite its incredible strengths, lacks a significant aural component. Working with Dr. William Martens, one of CyberFin's designers, and the staff at ART+COM, and Paul Godwin, I am prototyping a system which allows for the location of sound, both sampled and real-time, anywhere on the planet's surface. We demonstrated the system, publicly, at the Doors of Perception conference, two weeks ago - although still embryonic, the elements are in place for a much broader application of these principles.

In its final forms, WorldSong will have several aspects; one can be thought of as an aural accompaniment to the images generated by T_Vision, provided by all of the people on Earth, opening onto a depth of emotional experience impossible with images alone. WorldSong can also be thought of as having one's hand on a radio dial capable of tuning in any of the stations on the planet; just turn the planet to tune the dial. Finally, it will also be the millennial equivalent of the meditative song space of ages past, where people anywhere on the planet will be able to join with others in song. This song space will be mapped onto the surface of the planet, so that it will be possible to journey from place to place in the WorldSong space, traveling the Earth's cultures embodied in voice, in the ear, in song.

This is just around the corner - we'll be demonstrating it next summer - and yet it sounds utterly fantastic. That's because we too often overlook the obvious at our feet, because we're entranced with the mirages at the horizon. We've been promised a brave new world of disembodiment, silence and intellect; instead we'll receive a more welcome gift - the music of the spheres.

Conclusion: Away on the Aeon.

Pluto in Sagittarius - more than anything else - means that we'll be questioning our approach to our work. We won't be satisfied with intellectual curiosities that simply "demonstrate a point"; we want gnosis, the direct experience of our being, and won't be satisfied until we have it. That implies that our categories will shift enormously, the critique of electronic art will finally establish a discourse of its own, no longer dependent upon technology or the languages of other media. That marks a maturing, an entering into a set of qualities which could be called adult.

If that's what this is, then we've only barely begun to see the kinds of works we're really capable of. Before this decade, precious few works of electric art articulated a sacred aesthetic; sadly, this informed the entire field. If great artists steal, as Picasso noted, we need to place our great treasures on display - works like T_Vision, OSMOSE, and Cyberfin, so that a legion of dedicants can appropriate, refigure, and rend the numinous visible. For now, we reach through the interface, to find the hidden part of ourselves: our divinity.

Rotterdam 22 November 1995