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CONTEMP ART ‘12

VIRTUAL ART: A TENDENCY IN CONTEMPORARY ART INÊS ALBUQUERQUE, TERESA ALMEIDA Introduction Virtuality is a reflex of contemporary developments in science, technology and art. It is mainly a feature of digital arts, related with a new world available due to technological evolution. In the context of this article Virtual Art refers to artistic and aesthetical proposals that are developed in an immaterial and non-physical context, meaning that it refers to artworks that are not an “object” in the sense of its material presence but instead ephemeral objects that do not permanently exist, which are transient. However, frequently virtuality in art can also be related with works which are only accessible with specific conditions and, therefore, will only be complete in its artistic and aesthetical sense when the public accesses to it, such as the net art works. The contribution of Marcel Duchamp to practice and theory in Contemporary Art, and the historical vision of Oliver Grau related with the first creative experiences with virtual or immersive environments, are starting points for a reflection which allow us to establish some characteristics of contemporary virtual art, leading to the exploration of some of its representative artworks. Duchamp, a new context in Art Marcel Duchamp, one of the most prominent artists of 20th century, decided to dedicate his efforts to approach art in a different perspective around 1913. By that time part of the art world reacted with negative surprise and only few friends and patrons tried to understand which were his main goals with the now famous readymade: an everyday object, withdrawn from its original context and placed in another space with a new identity. The experiences with the ready-made were a reflex of Duchamp’s inner thoughts and research, stating a specific interest in challenging traditional art conceptions and aesthetics apart from schools and movements, while creating “works of art that are not art” (Duchamp). With these works Duchamp tried to answer a question: “Can one make works which are not works of “art”?”1, thus creating pieces like Bicycle Wheel (Roue de bicyclette), 1913, or Fountain, 1917. The artist created a new category for the work of art, simultaneously raising questions that are decisive today for Contemporary Art, as those related with the original and its reproduction, shared authorship or collaborative creation, always trying to confront the observer with his own critic ability. Duchamp has had such an impact in art that his contemporary fellow André Breton, one of the surrealists, recognized his importance quoting him as the most intelligent artist of the century (Cross, 2006). However his main contribution was undoubtedly the intellectual redefinition of the work, the artist and the public, allowing the discovery of new paths in art today: “The most troubling aspect of Duchamp’s work is that they are not merely visual artifacts but rather works that embody thought processes, logical and poetic displacements that resist facile categorization or containment. While there is no unifying style that defines his work, no single thread or hidden message, Duchamp’s 65


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works compel the spectator to question the traditional categories that have defined the notion of the art object, the creative act, and the position of the artist.” (Judovitz, 1995, pp.1) The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même) most often called The Large Glass, created between 1915 and 1923, is another of Duchamp’s works. In this work the artist aimed to break with the academic traditions of painting: by working in a glass surface he wished to demonstrate that the concept is relevant for the art piece. Duchamp is still nowadays a great influence for artists. His work and theories are still influential for art students and artists, and as so his ideas are being perpetuated in the art world. Virtual Art According to Oliver Grau (2007) the enchantment for virtual, interactive and immersive spaces and environments has always been a constant in art since Antiquity, with the idealisation of sceneries as reproduction of reality and a search for realistic painting, and was followed by new discoveries in Renascence and Baroque periods, such as the perspective and the trompe l’oeil effect, which increased the artistic ability to produce virtual artworks. However, the condition of virtuality related with works from those periods is not the same as in Contemporary Art. Gombrich (2004) also draws our attention to this particular interest when explains, referring to primitive paintings in caves, that: “It is a strange experience to go down into these caves, sometimes through low and narrow corridors, far into the darkness of the mountain and suddenly to see the guide’s electric torch light up the picture of a bull. One thing is clear, no one would have crawled so far into the eerie depth of the earth simply to decorate such an inaccessible place.” (Gombrich, 2004, pp. 40) This statement shows how the creation of simulated spaces or artworks has always been a characteristic of human communication, probably related with magical rituals conducted by those primitive men. The first experiments with virtuality were conducted through the use of conventional media in the arts, such as painting and sculpture. Salle della Perspectiva, 1516-1518, by Baldassare Peruzzi, as mentioned by Grau, is an example of the use of mural painting with the intention to create a simulated virtual environment, in this case a view from the city of Rome. The artist developed his work trying to create an immersive sensation in a different environment, through the painting in the room walls. It was only by the middle of 20th century that new technological and communication developments led to an increased interest for virtual art. By then, the recent communication networks were being developed, and soon artists were using it as a way to express their ideas. Following the need for creation of virtual spaces and environments, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz created in 1980 the first networked, interactive and virtual performance where the public was the principal element. Hole-In-Space was an interactive installation composed by two screens erected in public buildings at Los Angeles and New York, where the public could interact with each other, in spite of the distance, through this innovative interface. It was the beginning of telepresence, which was further developed in more recent works. 66


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The Telegarden, 1995-2004, by Ken Goldberg (image 1), is a work that focuses this idea of telepresence: to be (not physically) present in a place, in spite of the geographical distance, through the use of interfaces such as Internet. In fact, this global communication network, which became available to public in general since the last decade of 20th century, is an important medium to mediate presence in The Telegarden, 1995-2004, Ken an interactive way. The Telegarden Goldberg was a project in which a community of virtual gardeners could access a real garden placed at Ars Electronica Museum at Linz, Austria, through Internet. The gardeners could, at distance, operate a mechanic arm, which allow them to perform all the necessary maintenance actions: to plant seeds, watering and pruning them, etc. According to Grau “The telegarden was a symbolic model for a postnomadic society that anonymously and collectively tended plants on a minuscule piece of earth” (Grau, 2003, pp.273). Although, virtuality in art also spreads from interaction or telepresence to more specific fields such as artificial life, represented by the work of Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau (among other artists). The artists developed several projects exploring the idea of artificial creatures created with biological inspiration: all the creatures in works such as A-Volve (1994) or LifeSpacies (1997) behave like natural elements: they feed, mate, reproduce and die. About A-Volve, a project developed as part of an artistic residency at ICC, Tokyo, the artists explain that: “In an interactive real time environment, A-Volve visitors interact with virtual creatures in a water-filled glass pool [...]. These virtual creatures are products of evolutionary rules and are influenced by human creation and interaction. Designing any kind of shape and profile with his/her finger on a touch-screen, the visitor creates virtual 3D creatures that are “alive” and swim in the real water pool.” (Sommerer, Mignonneau, 1999, pp. 167) It is possible to find several meaningful researches or opinions about the definition of virtual art. Frank Popper, in his book “From technological to virtual art”, creates a model of virtual art which is epistemological, ontological and with ethical implications, deriving from what he calls “global virtualization”. This author categorizes virtual art with a techno-aesthetic foundation, enabled by the sense of the artist and also well versed by the extra artistic implications of the artists’ works. “The virtual model I propose has not only epistemological, ontological, and ethical connotations but also aesthetical and philosophical “humanist” sides that should allow us to better understand the multiple existential changes that our society and every individual is undergoing at the present historically accelerated moment”. (Popper, 2007, pp.3) Through the examples presented here we hope to clarify the idea that virtuality in art is not a new feature. Nevertheless, this subject should be carefully 67


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approached having in mind that contemporary reality is somewhat different from other historical moments, and what today is named as virtual has scientific and technological influences that is not possible to disregard. The work of Virtual Art The research conducted in this article made possible to comprehend that today, and due to constant evolution in communication, informatics and technology in a general sense, everything is constantly mutating and evolving, and all the innovation of the 20th and 21st centuries transformed the work of art as object and concept. Furthermore, this research turned also possible to highlight and indicate some of the characteristics that distinguishes the work of virtual art, and make it a tendency in Contemporary Art: it is frequently immaterial and ephemeral, it is interactive and often requires the use of interfaces to mediate the contact between public and work. A global reach and a novel impact in traditional publics, leading to the development of new roles for the participants in the artistic context, are other characteristics of virtual art. “In a work of virtual art, in addition to interaction is the interface- especially the natural interface-that represents the central domain of artistic creation, which can be implemented with emancipator or manipulative purpose; both options are so closely intertwined that they are almost inseparable” (Grau; 2003, pp. 344) The existence of multidisciplinary work teams with shared authorship and the possibility of participation and collaboration demystifies, with a clear influence from Duchamp’s work and thought, concepts such as originality, authenticity or aesthetic value. In order to better understand the ideas discussed here, we will analyse some examples of virtual art works. Having in mind the structural importance of Internet to our contemporary way of living, and its ability to be used as a medium for artistic creation and promotion, we will firstly present a work of Internet art: a work of art created in, for, and only accessible through the net, meaning that it requires the use of Internet as an interactive interface for the contact with the artwork. “Through the Internet, global access to programs and image data sources has expanded in immense and incalculable ways. Artists from anywhere in the world can now participate in the creation of a work” (Grau, 2003, pp.257) Mass Ornament2, 2009, is a recent work by Natalie Bookchin (image 2), which allow us to explore the principles of contemporary virtual works. It departs from a specific inspiration in a film scene, and from there the artist explores the homemade video uploaded by social network’s users, using them to create her own virtual video work accessible through the net. Mass Ornament is, therefore, a recollection of several intimate moments where the individuals have recorded the same action:

Mass Ornament2, 2009, Natalie Bookchin 68


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all of them are dancing at the private space of their homes. However, this private action is transformed into a public performance when the video is uploaded online, and accessed by other users. The work by Bookchin, in spite of its immateriality it is not ephemeral, but as a virtual object requires the use of Internet as an interface to enable the contact between public and work. It also raises questions regarding collaboration: the final work is only possible due to the use of videos previously shared by users. It is not a collaborative work in terms of creation of a multidisciplinary work team, but it clearly presents a shared authorship between public and artist. Osmose, 1995, is another virtual work by Charlotte Davies3 (image 3), and an example of collaborative work, developed with the support of a work team that helped the artist to express her ideas, clearly stating the importance of the contribution of other fields of knowledge to current creative work. In this work Char Davies proposes an alternative virtual reality, considered a three-dimensional Cartesian network: it is an immersive and interactive installation where a world with natural and organic influences is recreated in a three-dimensional way, allowing the public to enter a new space and experience new sensations, where breathing and balance act as interfaces. Grau consider this piece an icon of life, fertility and also regeneration that is present approximately in every culture (Grau, 2003). “Osmose put people in a safe but unfamiliar environment in which they Osmose, 1995, Charlotte Davies could experience their bodies and perceptions in new ways. […] Many visitors to Osmose reported experiences such as “being in another place”, “losing track of time”, “unable to speak rationally afterwards”, and euphoria.” (Wilson, 2002, pp.701) Conclusions The article presented some ideas regarding the historical fundaments of virtual art, presenting its characteristics in the context of Contemporary Art. It also has demonstrated how the artistic work and thought of Duchamp has contributed for art today. Nevertheless, it is obviously necessary to clarify how both perspectives are related in this research: Contemporary Art could not have presented, today, this overwhelming openness to new conceptual, artistic and aesthetical approaches, if Duchamp had not have tried to break traditional artistic and aesthetical concepts by early 20th century. Of course, some may argue that his contribution is not so important as we are trying to demonstrate, but can one imagine Contemporary Art without the previous participation of this intriguing artist? Also, it is probably due to his new artistic approach, and to technological development and evolution, that the ever-existing interest for virtuality was explored again, in different contexts 69


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and perspectives. Virtuality is, therefore, a tendency in contemporary digital art, because the inspiration and use of technology enabled artists to explore creative worlds only existing in their minds. By exploring those worlds, the public faces a new way to experience the self and its relationship with reality and beyond. Art has always been a starting point for understanding the world in which we are living, and today we witness an enormous renovation of technology with the artist not being immune to it. And this means that the rising of new expertise allows the development of new ideas in the concept and creation of Virtual Art. Bibliography CLAIR, J. 1977. Marcel Duchamp. In: POMPIDOU, M. N. D. A. M.-C. N. D. A. E. D. C. G. (ed.). Paris. CROS, C. 2006. Marcel Duchamp, London, Reaktion Books. GOMBRICH, E. H. 2004. The Story of Art, London, Phaidon Press. GRAU, O. 2007. Media Art Histories, London, The MIT Press. GRAU, O. 2007. Arte virtual: da ilusão à imersão, São Paulo, Editora Unesp. GRAU, O. 2003. Virtual Art: from illusion to immersion, Cambridge, the MIT Press. JUDOVITZ, D. 1995. Unpacking Duchamp: art in transit, Los Angeles, University of California Press. KUENZLI, R. E. & NAUMANN, F. M. 1991. Marchel Duchmap Artist of the Century, Cambridge, MIT Press. PAUL, C. 2008. Digital Art, London, Thames & Hudson. POPPER, F. 1997. Art of the Electronic Age, London, Thames & Hudson. POPPER, F. 2007. From technological to virtual art, Cambridge, the MIT Press. RUSH, M. 2006. Novas Mídias na Arte Contemporânea, São Paulo, Martins Fontes. STILES, K. & SELZ, P. 1996. Theories and documents of contemporary art: a sourcebook of artist’s writings, London, University of California Press. SHANKEN, E. 2009. Art and electronic media, London, Phaidon Press. WILSON, S. 2002. Information arts: intersections of art, science and technology, Cambridge, The MIT Press. Acknowledgments The authors Inês Albuquerque and Teresa Almeida would like to thank FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia for financial support (SFRH / BD / 46133 / 2008 e SFRH / BPD / 73356 / 2010 respectively). (Endnotes) 1  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/style/longterm/books/chap1/ duchamp.htm 2  http://bookchin.net/projects/massornament.html 3  http://www.immersence.com/

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VIrtual Art: a tendency In Contemporary Art  

Virtuality is a reflex of contemporary developments in science, technology and art.

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