Volume 5, Number 1 (January 2008)
Author: Dr. Ralf Nuhn
Driven by my intermedia project UNCAGED (which was motivated by the idea to fuse virtual computer-based displays with their physical surroundings in a meaningful way and ultimately highlights the distance between the two domains), my current investigations, both artistic and theoretical, are focussed on the specific nature of the virtual. My specific focus concerns “if” and “how” the virtual is different from the real.
I am especially interested in Baudrillard’s concept of illusion, which (rather than the real), represents the true opposite of simulation. The illusion is vital in sustaining notions such as singularity, alterity, secret, and seduction, which provide a necessary counterbalance to our, in his view, over-rationalized and (technologically) fully realized world. Despite the dangers of over-simplifying or misunderstanding Baudrillard’s often ambiguous writings, I illustrate how some of Baudrillard’s ideas have informed my own artistic practice and research.
UNCAGED is a series of six interactive installations, exploring interrelationships and transitions between screen-based digital environments and their immediate physical surroundings.1 The underlying motivation is to “uncage” screen-based realities from the confines of their digital existence and to bring the remote computer world closer to our human experience. UNCAGED incorporates different electromechanical devices and automated sculptures which interact,
visually and acoustically, with computer generated animations and video images. Most of the exhibits are reminiscent of familiar games or feature modified toys, and participants can playfully engage with the installations via touch screens and custom-made tangible interfaces. For instance, the exhibit Blow Life is reminiscent of a fortune telling machine often found at funfairs. With their hand, participants have to cover a hand image in front of a computer screen . This activates an electric fan (mounted next to the screen), blowing an on-screen barcode like “grass in the wind”. In another exhibit, Bubblelabub, the screen display features a person blowing air into a tube. The tube is extended from the virtual image to a real glass bottle filled with water. Depending on the amount of
pressure applied to a squeezable interface at the front of the exhibit, the cheeks of the on-screen person will inflate or deflate, and the amount of bubbles generated in the water bottle will vary accordingly. Contrary to the exhibit Blow Life, where the airflow of a fan seems to trigger movements on the screen, Bubblelabub creates the illusion that air generated within the virtual domain can transfuse into the physical world.
In the first instance, I regarded this project as being an expression of artistic vision led by aesthetic and formal considerations and situated within a broader physico-philosophical framework. Arguably, the most relevant consideration in the context of this discussion was that by implying a direct physical impact on the virtual, screen-based image and vice versa, my approach seemed to challenge – at least in a metaphorical sense – Jean Baudrillard’s concept of a hyperrealist world where any direct experiences of the world are replaced by televised virtual images.2 In this spirit, and with reference to Baudrillard’s notion of computers being celibate machines, I also contemplated to give UNCAGED a second title, namely The Insemination of the Celibate Machine.
I should also mention at this point, that during the initial conception of UNCAGED I could sense a potential relevance of my approach to issues concerning computer sciences, i.e. in the area of human computer interaction. In particular, I anticipated that the practical work might be able to address certain issues regarding our difficulties to engage with computers in a meaningful and satisfying way, and, if not offer straight solutions, might at least suggest new directions to overcome these difficulties.
II. First Critical Evaluation of UNCAGED
The initial motivation behind UNCAGED was to release computer based realities from the confines of their digital existence and to bring the remote world of the computer closer to our human experience. This motivation expresses some degree of critical awareness about mainstream developments within digital technology industries. In particular, my own approach can be seen as an attempt to provide a possible alternative to the widely pursued area of immersive Virtual Reality, where the physical world is more or less excluded from the participants. In spite of this, as a whole I initially did not question the potential of digital technology to be incorporated within our lives in meaningful ways, but sought to undermine the dominant paradigm of their developments and applications. During the research and development phase of UNCAGED, and in particular after the work had been completed, I began to question the initial motivation behind the project. I believe that my reservations towards this, with hindsight, rather starry-eyed agenda arose from two coinciding, arguably interrelated, notions: 1) My critical examination of the work itself nourished the impression that despite the perceptual fusion between the digital and the physical world, UNCAGED actually seems to highlight the distance between the two domains. In my view, all six exhibits bear an underlying absurdity, which arises from the very fusion between their physical and digital components. For me, this absurdity ultimately hints at the fallacy of the initial motivation behind UNCAGED and, in a wider context, questions the very idea to seek in virtual worlds a place for meaningful human exchange and experiences. 2) Temporally coinciding with, but not necessarily causally linked to the creation of UNCAGED, my former enthusiasm for the computer as a working tool was clouded by a growing frustration and, to put it bluntly, my reluctance to spend a good deal of my life (isolated) in front of the computer screen.
Admittedly, in the light of my original motivation, one could argue that the very objective of UNCAGED was precisely about improving our relationship with digital technology, and that therefore UNCAGED could be regarded as a step towards overcoming my own frustration with the computer. I do believe that UNCAGED is successful in bridging the gap between the digital world and the physical world on a perceptual basis, and I feel the six installations incorporate digital technology in a rather enjoyable and stimulating way. However, the fusion between the digital and the physical world in UNCAGED only seems to work within the context of Media Art or games. Applied to “real life”, it does not offer much hope to make the digital world a more satisfying space with which to engage.
In retrospect, it is difficult for me to trace whether the absurdity perceived in the work appeared to me as a sudden revelation, or whether it was not always inherent in the conception of the work. From the beginning, there was a certain amount of humour and irony in my approach and I did not claim to offer practical solutions for improving our relationship with the computer. At the same time, there was also a great deal of personal amazement regarding the effectiveness of this very simple and direct way to link the physical and the virtual world, and, if at all, I did not perceive the absurdity of my experiments as a problem regarding the initial, “humane” motivation behind the project.
It is important at this point to address the term “virtual”. In the preceding text I have, at times, employed virtual to refer to the visual content displayed on a (computer) screen. However, the term virtual, and in particular the term “virtual reality”, demand further clarification. Michael Heim states that today we refer to many things as virtual, ranging from automated teller machines (ATMs) which function as if they were a human bank teller, virtual corporations connecting teams of workers located across the country, virtual romances flourishing through electronic mail and internet chat rooms to computer games. According to Heim these phenomena are “pale ghosts of virtual reality, invoking ‘virtual’ to mean anything based on computers”, and for him they belong to what he calls the “weak sense” of the term. What is more, according to Heim, this “weak sense of virtual reality grows increasingly fuzzy”, and now even television broadcasts are sometimes referred to as virtual reality.3
In contrast, the “strong sense” of virtual reality refers to a certain kind of technology and can be traced back to the computer scientist Jaron Lanier who coined the term in 1986. Virtual Reality, or in short VR, in the strong sense:
… is an immersive, interactive system based on computable information. These defining characters boil down to the “three I’s” of VR: immersion, interactivity, and information intensity. Immersion comes from devices that isolate the senses sufficiently to make a person feel transported to another place. Interaction comes from the computer’s lightning ability to change the scene’s point-of-view as fast as the human organism can alter its physical position and perspective. Information intensity is the notion that a virtual world can offer special qualities like telepresence and artificial entities that show a certain degree of intelligent behaviour. Constantly updated information supports the immersion and interactivity, and to rapidly update the information, computers are essential.4
On the basis of Heim’s definition I think that screen-based content of UNCAGED can be regarded as virtual “only” in the weak sense of the term. However, I felt inclined to continue with its usage because, in the context of my research, it seems to provide an indispensable antonym to the term physical. In the remainder of this paper, where appropriate, I clarify whether I refer to the strong or the weak sense of the term.
III. Revisiting Baudrillard
Since the beginnings of UNCAGED I have been interested in the writings of Jean Baudrillard. Initially, I took Baudrillard’s rather apocalyptic “prophecy” of a total virtualization of our world, or the “murder of the real”,5 as a challenge against which to measure my own approach, which seemed to imply a direct physical impact on the virtual domain and vice versa. However, in the light of my shrinking optimism in the possibilities of humanizing the virtual world of computers – or as I have put it before, to “inseminate the celibate machine” – I felt it useful to revisit and deepen my understanding of his texts, relevant to the issues at stake, with the hope to find some clues or answers to exactly why I had the impression that my project had failed. In particular, I was interested to explore further his accounts on the specific nature of the virtual and how it differs from the real.
As I am not a professional philosopher, I do not make any expert claims to comprehend his concepts within a wider socio-philosophical context either with regard to the entirety of his own oeuvre, or that of related thinkers. I am of course aware of the difficult relationship between Baudrillard and contemporary arts and, in particular, his rejection of artists who have pointed to his ideas as their conceptual source. However, I hold the view that even if my understandings might not necessarily reflect the full depth and implications of his concepts, they might nevertheless serve as useful inspirations for me to make new sense of my artistic practice and research.
Furthermore – and to some extent in favour of my intuitive interpretation – the very rationale to use Baudrillard’s work as a theoretical framework for analysis seems to be rather problematic. This is because, as I understand it, Baudrillard does not intend to provide any definite truths or concepts which could be applied directly to “real life”. In practising what he calls the process of “radical thought”, his texts rather have to be seen as provocations, mystifications and denials of any objective analysis. For Baudrillard:
Radical thought is a stranger to all resolving of the world in the direction of an objective reality and its deciphering. It does not decipher. It anagrammatizes, it disperses concepts and ideas and, by its reversible sequencing, takes account both of meaning and of the fundamental illusoriness of meaning.6
a) The real and the hyperreal
To most, Baudrillard is probably best known for his account of “hyperreality” based on the notions of the simulacrum and simulation. His ideas became widely acknowledged in the 1980’s through his publication Simulacres et Simulations (1981). The concept of hyperreality is also a good starting point for my own investigation, as his earlier writings do not seem to be of great relevance to my question of what exactly is the difference between the real and the virtual.
According to Baudrillard – mediated by our contemporary mediascape, i.e. (reality) television, advertisements and (real-time) digital technology – Western societies are infused with simulations of reality, producing images and signs which are no longer mere representations of our primary reality but which have lost any reference to reality. To put it in Baudrillard’s terms, they have become their “own pure simulacra”.7
At first sight, the notions of the simulacrum and simulation often seem to be used interchangeably in Baudrillard’s writings. However, there appears to be a slight difference between the two as the term simulation bears rather the notion of process, whereas the simulacrum has more of a static image or system.8
Typically, due to their omnipresence and high-definition realism, simulated realities and the simulacra they produce are perceived to be more real than our primary reality and are therefore referred to as being hyperreal. However this does not mean that we take the hyperreal for something other than reality, but rather that it has become almost impossible for us to distinguish between the two.
According to Baudrillard simulation was, in earlier times, based on a representational model of the real but today the simulation of the real no longer bears any resemblance to the real. To illustrate this point, Baudrillard often refers to a Jorge Luis Borges fable, where the cartographers of an empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly. For Baudrillard this fable is the most beautiful allegory of simulation in the old days. By contrast, in contemporary Western societies the territory no longer precedes the map, but the map is created with no reference to reality whatsoever, and it is the map (the simulation) which is the model for reality:
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map […]. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory […] that engenders the territory […] Something has disappeared: the sovereign difference, between one and the other, that constituted the charm of abstraction.9
From this account of Baudrillard’s thought one could get the impression that he actually believes in the notion of an unmediated direct access to a primary reality, which is masked by an artificial, hyperreal universe. However, this does not seem to be the case. In fact, what we commonly refer to as reality is, for Baudrillard, itself nothing but “a particular case of simulation”.10
I have already said that, as I see it, to bring a real world into being is in itself to produce that world, and the real has only ever been a form of simulation. We may, admittedly, cause a reality-effect, a truth-effect or an objectivity-effect to exist, but, in itself, the real does not exist. […] Reality, as we know, has not always existed. We have talked about it only since there has been a rationality to express it, parameters enabling us to represent it by coded and decidable signs.11
Our understanding of the world as objective reality seems to be engendered by our overall trust, or at least indulgent belief, in science and technological progress, which aim at rationalizing and simulating our universe through logical and operational models of reality. This results in rendering the world absolutely transparent and explicable. It is in this way, that we experience, what Baudrillard calls, a “reality effect”. As a characteristic example of our quest to render the world completely objective and positive, Baudrillard refers to the Human Genome Project which seeks to uncover all the secrets of our human life, in order to rid ourselves of any imperfections, or negativity as Baudrillard would put it. According to Sherry Turkle, the Human Genome Project is often justified on the grounds to find the genetic codes of many diseases, so that these can be better treated, but there is also “talk about finding the genetic markers which determine temperament, personality, sexual orientation and, possibly, mortality”.12 Arguably, the ultimate aim of this project is then to clone the perfect, positive, immortal human being. As I understand Baudrillard, the enterprise to uncover the (biological) secret of human life by the total transcription and understanding of its genetic code is itself only a simulation or a model of an objective reality.
With this understanding of the physical world, Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal almost seems to lose any meaning. In a sense, the hyperreal and the physical real when understood as an objective real seem to belong to the same “family” of simulated realities. However, I would argue that whereas the notion of the hyperreal refers rather to a simulation of the real propagated by the contemporary mediascape, the notion of the real, as a form of simulation, is related to our comprehension of the physical world, which, in our case, is grounded in seemingly objective scientific knowledge and models of the world.
b) Radical illusion and the Other
For Baudrillard the opposite of simulation is not then the real but illusion, or better the “radical illusion” of the world. In his view:
…the illusion of the world is the way things have of presenting themselves for what they are when they are not actually there at all. In appearance, things are what they give themselves out to be. They appear and disappear without letting anything shine through. […] They signal to us, but are not susceptible of decipherment.13
The “material definition” of this radical illusion, according to Baudrillard, is the physical fact that in this universe nothing exists in real-time:
By the fact of dispersal and the relative speed of light, all things exist only in a recorded version, in an unutterable disorder of time-scales, at an inescapable distance from each other. And so they are never truly present to each other, nor are they, therefore, “real” for each other.14
Baudrillard further illustrates this physical foundation of illusion by our perception of the stellar system. It is well known that due to the time the light of the stars takes to reach us, we can perceive stars which might already have disappeared. The actual presence of stars in real-time is therefore an objective physical illusion. In the same way, even if our environment appears to be a homogeneous whole, it is in fact an illusion as nothing can ever be present at the same time, because the light of any being or physical object around us takes a certain amount of time to reach our sensory system.15
Baudrillard seems to suggest that with regards to his proper concept of radical illusion, this physical foundation of illusion has to be seen in a rather metaphorical way.16 From my understanding – being aware of possibly simplifying his concept – ultimately Baudrillard’s notion about the “illusion of the world” expresses his believe that there is something more, a kind of deep reality, or “the Other”, which hides behind the world of appearances through illusion.
Baudrillard often describes the Other on the basis of sexual attraction. The “radical otherness” between sexual partners makes possible sexual seduction, and it is through sexual play and seduction that we discover otherness; that is, not only do we discover the Other in the sexual partner, 17 but also within ourselves. Ultimately, the notion of the Other seems to be a rather universal concept and it might be summarized as being everything which cannot be rationalised, reduced to scientific models, expressed in language (except, maybe, in poetry), simulated a priori, described by cause and effect relationships etc.
To provide a sense of the range of the concept of the Other, it can be experienced through “singular events” which take place outside the universe of already performed events through simulation in hyperreality; it can be found in symbolic exchange practised in certain “primitive” cultures which defies the logics of economic exchange and is exonerated from the idea of (commodity) value and production, characteristic for our own economy;18 it can be found on a psychological level, for instance, in the strange pleasure we take in irrational excess and surplus;19 and it can be experienced on a subatomic scale where matter behaves absolutely strangely, illogically, and does not follow our scientific models.20
To return to the Human Genome Project, I would suggest that the Other would be that part of human life which cannot be made transparent through the transcription of our genetic code. More generally, it is the Other which engenders the mystery of our world and resists our attempt to make the world completely positive. It is therefore also referred to as negativity. This does not mean that the Other is negative in a way of being evil, but rather negative in a sense of being the opposite of the artificial positivity or sameness of our world. However, due to our enterprise to homogenize the world and render it absolutely positive, an operation which is based on the ignorance of otherness, the Other is nowadays primarily experienced as Evil, e.g. new incurable diseases (like AIDS and cancer), terrorism (like the September 11 attacks), extreme violence (like hooliganism, the Columbine disaster), etc.:
In a society which seeks – by prophylactic measures, by annihilating its own natural referents, by whitewashing violence, by exterminating all germs […], by performing surgery on the negative – to concern itself solely with quantified management and with the discourse of the Good, in a society where it is no longer possible to speak Evil, Evil has metamorphosed into all the viral and terroristic forms that obsess us.21
Furthermore, Baudrillard is aware that modern sciences, i.e. the “subatomic sciences”, offer us other schema than that of our reality principle which seem to defy rationality, e.g. the theory of non-locality with its implications for the existence of an invisible reality that supports our world.22 Although this theory is widely accepted as a valid scientific hypothesis, it seems to have no practical impact on the conduct of most new sciences, like Genetic Engineering, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics, which operate on the basis of an “ontological simplification” of the universe and are “trying to persuade us that technology will inevitably produce good”.23 This notion coincides with Jutta Weber’s analysis of the contemporary techno-scientific narrative. Despite being aware, in principle, about the constructiveness of knowledge underlying their research, as a whole the techno-scientific community seems to conduct and present their research and creations as if being grounded in an objectively knowable reality.24
c) Virtual Reality
With the notions of the radical illusion and the Other in mind, let us briefly reconsider the above question about the difference between the hyperreal and the physical (objective) real. What seems to be the crucial here, is that even if the physical real has been made almost completely transparent by different models of simulation, in contrast to the hyperreal, on the level of physical reality we still encounter some “resistance” of the Other (unfortunately in the form of “true” Evil), which puts up against our project to render the world completely positive. For Baudrillard, Virtual Reality (VR) – understood in Heim’s strong sense of the term25 – forms a kind of synthesis between the notions of hyperreality and objective reality. VR appears, on one level, be a continuation or perfection of hyperreality:
…the virtual coincides with the notion of hyperreality. Virtual reality, the reality that might be said to be perfectly homogenized, digitized and “operationalized”, substitutes for the other [hyperreality] because it is perfect, verifiable and non-contradictory. So, because it is more “complete”, it is more real than what we have established as simulacrum.26
In my view, the notion of hyperreality describes a world where the simulation of the world is based on a rather loose almost incidental nexus of different “virtual media” – understood in Heim’s weak sense of the term – and their interrelationships with physical reality. VR, by contrast, is a more intentional and rigorous construction of a fully virtual world based solely on computational models of simulation:
With the very latest Virtual Reality we are entering a final phase of this enterprise of simulation, which ends this time in an artificial technical production of the world …Virtual Reality, the highest stage of simulation, the stage of the final solution by the volatilization of the world’s substance into an immaterial realm and a set of strategic calculations.27
On an ontological level, VR seems to be directly derived from our understanding of the physical world, as an objective universe, and our enterprise to make it completely positive. According to Baudrillard, in VR the radical illusion of the world will be finally extinguished:
It is in the Virtual that we have the ultimate predator and plunderer of reality, secreted by reality itself as a kind of self-destructive viral agent. Reality has fallen prey to Virtual Reality, the final consequence of the process begun with the abstraction of objective reality – a process that ends in Integral Reality. What we have in virtuality is no longer a hinterworld [a kind of deep reality]: the substitution of the world is total […] We have moved, then, from objective reality to a later stage, a kind of ultra-reality, that puts an end to both reality and illusion.28
This complete substitution of the “real” world by its virtual double, or to put it more precise, the total elimination of the “original illusion”, the Other and negativity has been speculated on by Baudrillard as being “the perfect crime”, in his 1996 publication with the same name:
The perfect crime is that of an unconditional realization of the world by the actualization of all data, the transformation of all our acts and all events into pure information: in short, the final solution, the resolution of the world ahead of time by the cloning of reality and the extermination of the real by its double.29
By shifting to a virtual world, we go beyond alienation, into a state of radical deprivation of the Other, or indeed of any otherness, alterity, or negativity. We move into a world where everything that exists only as idea, dream, fantasy, utopia will be eradicated, because it will immediately be realized, operationalized. Nothing will survive as an idea or a concept. You will not even have time enough to imagine. Events, real events, will not even have time to take place. Everything will be preceded by its virtual realization. We are dealing with an attempt to construct an entirely positive world, a perfect world, expurgated of every illusion, of every sort of evil and negativity, […]. This pure, absolute reality, the unconditional realization of the world – this is what I call the Perfect Crime.30
However, in The Perfect Crime, Baudrillard seems to suggest that “fortunately, the crime is never perfect”.31 This is, because of our own human imperfections we will always leave traces, signs of imperfection, in the artificial, virtual paradise . By contrast, the undertone of his 2005 publication, The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (original French edition published in 2004 under the title Le Pacte de lucidité ou l’intelligence du Mal), implies that with the latest advancements in VR technologies, maybe his apocalyptic prophecies of the perfect crime might become reality. This change of mind would resonate with his revised assessment on the notion of the simulacrum, which, apparently, he put forward more as a provocation than something he really believed in. However, with hindsight, he later asserted that sadly, reality had proved him right:
…you are disarmed by the lamentable confirmation of your words by an unscrupulous reality. So, for example, you put forward the idea of the simulacrum, without really believing in it, even hoping that the real will refute it…32
IV. Considering UNCAGED Given Baudrillard’s Conception of Reality
Given my understanding of Baudrillard, one could conclude that there are four different notions of reality. First, there is primary reality, the realm we commonly refer to as the real world. According to Baudrillard, our primary reality is a world of appearances and we are only experiencing it as the “true real”’, because we seem to have succeeded in objectivising these appearances and, in this way, brought into existence a “reality-effect”. Importantly, in Baudrillard’s view, this reality-effect is merely a simulation of a true real as it is based on an ontological simplification of the world which ignores its ultimate strangeness or otherness.
Second, there is a virtual (in Heim’s weak sense of the term), hyperreal universe which is produced by our contemporary mediascape. Both realities seem to seamlessly overlap and it is increasingly difficult for us to make a difference between the two. What is more, it is actually the hyperreal which engenders primary reality.
Third, underlying primary reality, there is a more profound reality, a kind of “hinterworld”, which hides behind the world of appearances through the radical illusion of the world. To this third kind of reality we do not have direct access, but it is vital to keep alive the world’s mystery, the notion of the Other. Baudrillard suggests that in our artificial universe the illusion of the world is being destroyed by simulation and that the Other is now primarily experienced through forms of Evil.
The fourth notion of reality would be Virtual Reality (VR), where these last vestiges of the Other are lost, because in VR, there is no place for an underlying profound reality. This is because VR is a completely simulated world based solely on the actualization of computational data. When applying the above framework directly to UNCAGED, one could consider the screen-based domain of the exhibits as being an instance of the second notion of reality (the hyperreal or the virtual in the weak sense of the term) and the physical domain as being an instance of primary reality, the world of appearances. In this light, then, the idea behind UNCAGED to bridge the gap between the physical or primary world and the screen-based world of computers seems rather naïve. Not, though, in the sense that this project would be doomed to fail because of an unbridgeable distance between the two domains, as implied in my revised interpretation at the beginning of this discussion. Rather, because, according to Baudrillard, the virtual, hyperreal world is already inextricably linked with primary reality. In a sense, the perceptual fusion between the physical and the virtual artefacts of UNCAGED reiterates, at least in a metaphorical way, Baudrillard’s idea about the sameness between the “real” and the hyperreal; the idea that, ultimately, both are simulations. This viewpoint is underlined, on a more technical level, by the fact that not only the virtual but also all the physical artefacts of the exhibits (including the user interfaces) correspond with certain predefined algorithms within the computer. From this perspective, the physical world of UNCAGED appears to be highly evocative of our artificial and operationalized primary reality. Hence one could argue that the domain of primary reality in UNCAGED is certainly not a place where Baudrillard’s Other might be found. Or to put in different terms, contrary to my revised interpretation of UNCAGED, it is not the fusion between the physical elements and the screen-based virtual elements in UNCAGED which is absurd, but it is the world we are living in which is absurd, where the ‘real’ has itself become nothing but simulation.
While I agree to a large extent and am fascinated by Baudrillard’s writings, I have certain reservations towards the extremity of his provocation that, nowadays, primary reality amounts to nothing but simulation. Generally, I feel that Baudrillard captures well the tendency of Western societies trying to objectivise and positivize the world around us and there are many indicators which, at least in principle, seem to confirm his “prophecies”. For instance, with regards to his claim that the Other has nowadays disappeared from the sphere of sexual attraction and seduction,33 one could easily think of many examples which seem to point in this direction: biological sciences try to reduce sexual attraction to a set of chemical reactions; we increasingly seem to look for and court with partners via virtual media and, in the more extreme case of “cyber-sex”, we even perform the sexual act itself via the Internet.
On the other hand, while this form of “exchange” seems to gain ever more popularity and acceptance within our society, I do not believe that it reflects our (sexual) life exhaustively. From a very personal perspective, I certainly cannot deny that virtual media have a strong effect on my daily life and might even, temporarily, inform my conception of reality. However, ultimately, I believe that I am well able to make a clear distinction between the hyperreal and primary reality. What is more, I would contend that my underlying apprehension of primary reality is of a rather transcendental quality, engendered by singular, personal experiences and an ultimate distrust in the objectivity of the world.
However, what seems to be the case in UNCAGED is that by combining the virtual world with primary reality, the latter seems to be reduced to the same ontological level as the former. Even though I have certain reservations to view the totality of primary reality as being pure simulation, in the way Baudrillard seems to suggests, the portion of primary reality in UNCAGED corresponds rather well with the notion of simulation. To repeat again, this appears to be the case on a perceptual level – in order to make a fusion between both domains in UNCAGED we have to consider the physical dimension from a point of pure appearances – as well as on a “real”, technical level – both worlds are actually controlled from within the computer. I would argue that, in a sense, UNCAGED could be viewed as a very acute, “perfected” form of the nexus between the hyperreal and primary reality. Or to put it differently, UNCAGED seem to substantiate Baudrillard’s argument that the hyperreal is nowadays the model for the real and that it has become impossible to differentiate between the two realms.
Finally, with regards to Baudrillards account of the perfect crime, which is largely based on the transformation of the physical universe into computational information, that is into Virtual Reality, one could get the impression that this is pure intellectual speculation or alarmist criticism bearing no resemblance to “real life” developments. However, there actually seems to be a “community”, including scientists from reputable institutions where VR is considered as “total resolution of the real, in which humans could escape from the world and into technology”.34 In what Heim describes as the “idealist vision”:
…world-wide networks that cover the planet will form a global bee-hive where civilisation shakes off individual controls and electronic life steps out on its own. …Individuals give and take freely. Compensation is automated for the heavenly, disembodied life. …Cooperate intelligence vanquishes private minds.35
This description resonates with Coyne’s notion of “technoromanticism”. According to Coyne, technoromantic (digital) narratives can be linked to certain historical traditions, i.e. the notion of idealism developed during different historic epochs. For instance, Plato’s concept of the real is based on a division of the world, first, into a realm of (deceptive) appearances which is accessible through our senses and, second, the world of ideas. The second being the intelligible, real world of universals and forms. This idea was later taken up and developed by Neoplatonists, including Plotinus, who asserted that the soul can gain access to the real but has to liberate itself from the world of matter through frequent ecstasies. This idealism is echoed by romantic idealist philosophers by the notion that the highest aim for the individual is to free oneself from all influences of the outer world and, thus, to arrive at a perfect unity of the soul. Coyne claims that in technoromantic narratives, the notion of “the soul is replaced with the mind, the means of ecstasies is immersion in an electronic data stream, and the realm of unity is cyberspace”.36
Maybe one of the most extreme exponents of this school of thought is the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence scientist Hans Moravec. According to a comparably soft reading of his vision for the not so distant future – which is remarkably similar to Baudrillard’s notion of the perfect crime – humans will disappear into cyberspace by transplanting their mind from the brain into artificial hardware. Once uploaded into cyberspace they will be able to move freely in simulated realities. “Like programs and data that can be transferred between computers, …our essences will become patterns that can migrate the information networks at will”.37 In cyberspace we will be able to join with other human and machine intelligence to form an enormous “bubble of Mind”.38 Notably, for Moravec, the essence of being human is reducible to our mind, that is our thoughts and awareness, which can be transcribed into pure computable information. In his view, physical reality, including our body, is a mere encumbrance which we should dispose of.
According to Coyne, these kinds of extreme positions are tolerated and institutionalized as an acceptable eccentricity by a more mainstream discourse within the technoscientific community.39 However, this apparently more rational discourse seems, on closer looks, to be “based on similar fundamental shifts in the understanding of the being of nature and humans”.40 For instance, in his book Being Digital (2005) Nicholas Negroponte, leader of the MIT Media Lab, accounts for possible negative effects of wrongly employed computer technology. Further he asks us to be cautious about fanatic claims in the Moravec fashion regarding the possibilities offered by digital technology in the not so distant future. Despite a certain critical awareness about digital technology, on the whole, Negroponte clearly embraces our “becoming digital”. His short-term vision is an environment where increasingly more aspect of our lives are assisted and enhanced by computer technology and he celebrates that “the global nature of the digital world will increasingly erode former and smaller demarcations”.41 Appearing more subtle and realistic in his argumentation, in the end, just like Moravec, he seems to dream of a life fully immersed in the virtual: “’Beam me up Scotty’ is a wonderful dream, but not likely to become true for several centuries”.42
From the beginning I was opposed, more or less intuitively, to the idea of immersive VR, where the physical world is more or less excluded from the participants. Needless to say, after my engagement with Baudrillard my rejection of VR has, if anything, become rather more intense. I am willing to fully subscribe to Baudrillard’s illustration of how VR viewed in its ultimate consequence would put a final end to the mystery, or the Other of the world. For me, his account provides a metaphysical backbone to my intuitive rejection of VR.
In this discussion I have provided two different critical evaluations of UNCAGED. My first intuitive analysis resulted in my view that due to the underlying absurdity of the exhibits – which arises from the fusion between their physical and virtual, screen-based components – UNCAGED ultimately seems to highlight the difference between the virtual and the physical world, rather than bridging the gap between the two domains. By contrast, in my conclusion of a further evaluation, which was informed by Baudrillard’s conceptions of reality, I have argued that the idea to bridge the gap between the virtual world of computers and the surrounding physical environment could be regarded as being rather naïve. This is because, according to Baudrillard, our primary, physical reality and the virtual, hyperreal world are nowadays already inextricably linked with each other. In Baudrillard’s view, there is ultimately no difference between the two domains as both are simulations of an objective reality based on an ontological simplification of the world, which ignores its ultimate strangeness or otherness. Even though I do not fully subscribe to the extremity of Baudrillard’s assertion that primary reality amounts nowadays to nothing but simulation, I have argued that the problem with UNCAGED is that by combining the virtual world with primary reality, the latter seems to be reduced to the same ontological level as the former.
On the other hand, perhaps in a more positive light, one could claim that UNCAGED actually puts a very ironic slant on Baudrillard’s ideas. This is because, once we consider UNCAGED as a reflection of our simulated universe – comprising of a nexus of virtual artefacts and physical appearances – we are confronted with a grotesque exaggeration of the matter. In my view, this irony is engendered by the extremely direct and simple approach of UNCAGED, or better, by reducing the rather complex technical-scientific-psychological-sociological-historical nexus between the “real” and the hyperreal to a series of straightforward one-to-one relationships.
VI. Epilogue: Beyond UNCAGED
At the very least, my theoretical reflections on UNCAGED – based on Baudrillard’s ideas about the real and the virtual – have provided me with a new heightened sensitivity with regards to the role of (digital) technology in my artistic work. As a first, very direct response to UNCAGED – in a kind of spontaneous abreaction of my increasingly critical view on digital technology – I have created CCT (2004-2005), which is a series of apparently computer controllable, networked toasters. Essentially, the work aims to parody our obsession with
computerizing and automating an increasingly large part of our environment. The idea to connect a toaster to a computer network seems totally absurd to me and, as I hoped, the work has been received with a great deal of humour and amusement by various audiences. However, as I found out later, in an ironic twist, the very idea to integrate toasters within a computer based network had
already been put forward by Nicholas Negroponte, an exponent of the aforementioned “idealist community”. Admittedly, the following quotation contains some degree of humour, but seen in the overall context of his book Being Digital,
I think we have to assume that he is ultimately quite serious:
Appliances today have all too little computing. A toaster should not be able to burn toast. It should be able to talk to other appliances. It would really be quite simple to brand your toast in the morning with the closing price of your favourite stock. But first, the toaster needs to be connected to the news.43
In a subsequent project, Cyber-Spatialism (2005), I created a series of canvases in which computer connectors are inserted. Cyber-Spatialism refers to
Luigi Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale – Attese (1958-1968), which is a series of slashed canvases. As the title suggests, Fontana’s work was informed by his concetto spaziale (spatial concept), which, in part, can be considered as an attempt to overcome the illusionistic representation of space in painting by
introducing physical space.44 By substituting Fontana’s slashes with computer connectors, Cyber-Spatialism implies an extension of the canvas into cyberspace, and, thus, attempts to address the notion that in today’s world physical space is increasingly being “replaced” by virtual space. With regards to colour, patterns and relative dimensions, Cyber-Spatialism is closely based on Fontana’s “originals” in order to make the relation between the two series more perceptible.
Even though I would contend that my critical attitude towards digital technology, expressed in these post-UNCAGED projects, has been strongly influenced by my reading of Baudrillard, I do not in any way claim that they are works of art to Baudrillard’s liking. He might reject this kind of work as being mere ironic reflections of reality.45 However, my own view on art does not necessarily correspond with Baudrillard. I feel it is a valuable function of art to highlight and question socio-philosophical phenomena, and I believe that irony is a useful tool in doing so. With this in mind, I would like to assert that, while my endeavour to inseminate the celibate machine might ultimately have failed, I am nonetheless determined to strip it bare.
About the Author
Dr. Ralf Nuhn is Intermedia Artist and Research Follow, Lansdown Centre for Electronic Arts Middlesex University, London, UK.
1 – For further illustration of UNCAGED, including photos and video documentations of all six exhibits, please visit the project website at: http://www.telesymbiosis.com (link no longer active 2019).
2 – See Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c 1990). Translated by James Benedict. London and New York: Verso, 1993:79-80; Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication (c 1987). Translated by Bernard Schutze and Caroline Schutze. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:11ff.
3 – Michael Heim. Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford, 1998:3.
4 – Ibid.:6-7.
5 – Jean Baudrillard. TheVital Illusion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:61ff.
6 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). Translated by Chris Turner. London and New York: Verso, 1996:104.
7 – It should be mentioned that the notion of the simulacrum acquires a special meaning in Baudrillard’s writings. According to Baudrillard the simulacrum is defined as an image that has “no relation to any reality whatsoever”, as it is produced by simulation rather than representation of the real (Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and simulations (c 1981). Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:6).
9 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulations (c 1981). Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:1-2.
10 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). London & New York: Verso, 1996:16.
11 – Jean Baudrillard. Passwords (c 2000). London and New York: Verso, 2003:39-40.
12 – Sherry Turkle. Life on the Screen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995:25.
13 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). London and New York: Verso, 1996:16-17.
14 – Ibid.: 52.
15 – See Ibid.:51; Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:71.
16 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:74.
17 – See Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). London and New York: Verso, 1996:115 ff.
18 – See Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil. London and New York: Verso, 1993:16.
19 – Ibid.:53.
20 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). London and New York: Verso, 1996:14.
21 – Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c 1990). London and New York: Verso, 1993:81.
22 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). London and New York: Verso, 1996:54; Jean Baudrillard. Passwords (c 2000). London and New York: Verso, 2003:45.
23 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). London and New York: Verso, 1996:18.
24 – Jutta Weber. Umkämpfte Bedeutungen: Naturkonzepte im Zeitalter der Technoscience. Frankfurt: Campus, 2003:150.
25 – Interestingly, Baudrillard’s definition of VR as “immersion, immanence and immediacy” seems to resonate with Heim’s “three I’s of VR” which are “immersion, interactivity, and information intensity” (Jean Baudrillard. The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (c 2004). Oxford: Berg, 2005:31; Michael Heim. Virtual realism. New York: Oxford, 1998:7). Without implying any direct influence between the authors, I feel that this overlap substantiates my approach to consider Baudrillard’s notion of virtual reality in the light of Heim’s strong meaning of the term virtual.
26 – Jean Baudrillard. Passwords (c 2000). London and New York: Verso, 2003:39.
27 – Jean Baudrillard. The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (c 2004). Oxford: Berg, 2005:34, 44.
28 – Ibid.:27.
29 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). London and New York: Verso, 1996:25.
30 – Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:66-67.
31 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). London and New York: Verso, 1996:7.
32 – Ibid.: 40.
33 – Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime (c 1995). London and New York: Verso, 1996:100-101.
34 – Ibid.:115ff.
35 – Christopher Horrocks. Marshall McLuhan and Virtuality. London: Icon books, 2000:44.
36 – Michael Heim. Virtual Realism. New York: Oxford, 1998:41.
37 – Richard Coyne. Technoromanticism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999:10.
38 – Hans Moravec. “The senses have no future”. InJohn Beckman (Editor). The Virtual Dimension: Architecture, Representation, and Crash Culture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998:88, 93.
39 – Richard Coyne. Technoromanticism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999:106.
40 – Armin Medosch. Technological Determinism In Media Art. MA thesis. Brighton: Sussex University, 2005:23.
41 – Nicholas Negroponte. Being Digital. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995:237.
42 – Ibid.:12-13.
43 – Ibid.:213.
44 – See Enrico Crispolti. “On the creative adventure of Fontana”. In Enrico Crispolti (Editor). Fontana. Milan: Charta, 1999:32, 37; Andreas Hapkemeyer. “Lucio Fontana – Arnulf Rainer: Über Grenzen”. In Andreas Hapkemeyer and Marisa Vescovo (Editors). Lucio Fontana – Arnulf Rainer: Über das Bild hinaus. Vienna: Folio Verlag, 1995, no pagination; Tommaso Trini. “The last interview given by Fontana”. In Fontana, exhibition catalogue. Amsterdam: Stedelijk Museum, 1988:34.
45 – See Jean Baudrillard. The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Semiotext(e), 2005:27.