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Virtual Reality and the Three Modalities That Shaped the World

The Digital Art Foundation’s Concept Museum of Art hosted TAO Ya-Lun’s exhibition Archive or Alive? – Crossing through the Light Wall in 2018. Photo ©The Digital Art Foundation
immersive aestheticscyberspacevirtual reality

If “virtual reality”1 is not simply a “technique” but also a “medium” capable of “shaping the world,” what would such a world look like?


When it comes to political subjectivation, Slavoj Žižek noticed that Jacques Rancière addressed the crisis of democracy unfolding with the burgeoning mass media in the postmodern era by delivering his perception-based supplementary remarks on the historical debates over politics with a special attention to Jean Baudrillard’s treatise on “simulacrum.” Rancière identified three political categories, viz., the Platonian arche-politics, the Aristotelian and Hobbesian para-politics, and the social scientific meta-politics, arguing that the “post-democracy” propelled by mass media and sciences (as simulacra of opinions) manifests itself in the relational trinity of “the status of the visible, the image of the world, and the forms of political activities.” The rule of simulacra implies the unification of “sovereign citizens, positivist population, and scientifically informed population,” under which simulacra replaced actuality, eliminated “citizens,” and, of course, dispelled “democracy.” It amounts to the “regime of simulacra”2 as far as Rancière is concerned. According to Žižek, we need ultra-politics apart from Rancière’s categories that “negate the political.” Ultra-politics accounts for fascist declaration of “class war,” an approach that brings the conflict to an extreme via direct militarization as a disavowal of the political. In order to differentiate between the two types of totalitarianism, namely communism and fascism, Žižek specifically extended Rancière’s discussion about the relations among perception, appearance and simulacrum in addition to putting forward the following proposition: “Fascism is ultra-politics, whereas communism is meta-politics.” Žižek believes that Stalinist communist totalitarianism emerged exactly from the gap between “the appearance of equality-freedom (formal democracy)” and “the social actuality of economy, culture and all the other dimensions” in meta-politics. Here, “appearance” should not be understood in its literal meaning, but as a “form” capable of resuming and politicizing the socio-economic process. To put it another way, “actuality” falls behind “form,” yet the latter has political effect. Accordingly, the October Revolution broke out but “actually nothing happened,” since it left the entire social entity intact. In Žižek’s opinion, communism is diametrically opposite to right-wing fascist ultra-politics bound to become totalitarianism, which is why the former remains potentially capable of resisting the postmodern, mass media-based post-politics from the angle of meta-politics when confronting the political issues arising from the proliferation of simulacra in the era of mass media.3

If “virtual reality” is not simply a “technique” but also a “medium” capable of “shaping the world,” what would such a world look like? Source: Wiki Commons; photo by Douwe Dijkstra

Rancière and Žižek clearly associate “politics” with “world image” and “visibility.” Based on such association, they both articulated that “simulacrum” is an ineluctable issue for political theory and political philosophy nowadays. It is the grounds for the lengthy detour made above to the discussion of virtual reality. Besides, the reason Žižek is able to distinguish between communist and fascist totalitarianism is because he perspicuously transformed phenomena, appearance, simulacrum, actuality and the Real—what Martin Seel terms perception- and media-related concepts exhibiting “intentionally given modalities of thing”4—into the antithetical differentiations of “actuality/simulacrum” and the Real/appearance,” according to which Žižek contemplates appearance on four different levels; to wit, illusion, symbolic fiction, sign, and fundamental fantasy. Žižek believes that, in the era of mass media, the political situation does not negate the Real through simulacra in a way that thinkers like Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio and Gianni Vattimo celebrated, and is ergo freed from the age-old fetters imposed by occidental metaphysics. According to Žižek, simulacrum is tantamount to “cyberspace” and “virtual actuality.” The latter comprises actuality and simulacrum, which is why it conveys a “sense of actuality” but cannot create the Real. Nevertheless, the political negated at the level of symbolic fiction will return on the level of the Real.

Virtual Actuality and Virtual Reality

As Rancière and Žižek ponder over the threat from “simulacra” to “democracy” by putting both in the same theoretical position, a functional equivalence has had its grip on the relations between democracy and simulacrum as a “(phenomenological) phenomenon.” In other words, visible forms on the phenomenon level are necessary commodities for democracy to become subjective politics that appeals to people, and the “intentionally given modalities of thing” should show the validity of subjective politics as well.

In addition to embracing Rancière’s idea of the co-construction between “subjective politics” and “phenomenological phenomenon,” Žižek regards such co-construction as kept within specific technical parameters, which is why he employs “virtual actuality” and “cyberspace” to refer to “simulacrum.” In the sentence in which the term “cyberspace” was mentioned en passant,5 the “virtual actuality” in Žižek’s sense and what we mean by “virtual reality” today are worlds apart in terms of technique and phenomenon. Žižek equates “virtual actuality” with “cyberspace.” The former is a pattern on the phenomenon level, and the latter a technical framework. However, virtual reality is a horse of different color. It refers primarily to the visual effects and phenomena produced via the head mount display. Setting great store by immersion and interaction,6 contemporary virtual reality is technically composed of three main parts: (1) projector screen; (2) (head-position or eye-tracking) sensor; and (3) computing element (transforming sensor data into screen content). In short, “virtual reality” is a collective term of related technologies, and “artificial reality” is perhaps a better term that tallies with its pattern on the phenomenon level.7

By revealing the difference between Žižek’s “virtual actuality” and the “virtual reality” in general use, we are able to identify two different “world” models preconditioned by parameter change: “simulacrum” and “immersion-interaction.” The greatest difference between the two models lies in the nature of “world,” that is, to use Sybille Krämer’s phrase, whether the “world” is a “conventional sign” or a “trace.” The former denotes the sign stipulated with intentionality in its meaning. Briefly speaking, the world as a conventional sign (be it the “world image” mentioned by Rancière, Žižek, or even Martin Heidegger to whom they allude) is completely symbolized with intentionality, in which every component has its own significance. In contrast, the world as a “trace” implies that there are “surpluses beyond sign-users’ intentionality and control.”8

In Ghost in the Shell, Motoko KUSANAGI enters the cyberspace via a head-mounted VR display to rescue her colleague who’re lost in the cyber-brain. Source: Wiki Commons; photo by Koichiro OHBA

Žižek refers to the “cyberspace as a whole” when equating “virtual actuality” with the “world as a conventional sign.” To refer to the entire cyberspace, there has to be an “observer” outside it, an observer in the “off-line” actuality. The “cyberspace as a whole” within the off-line observer’s line of sight is symbolized, rendering intertextuality possible among its various components. Žižek’s “virtual actuality” is reminiscent of the cinematic concept in the era of digital computation. In the 12th episode of Ghost in the Shell, Motoko KUSANAGI enters the cyberspace via a head-mounted VR display to rescue her colleague who’re lost in the cyber-brain, only to find that the owner of the head-mounted display is a director who built a cinema in the cyber-brain, a cinema screening his own films only. These films are so engrossing that all the visitors indulge in pleasure and forget home and duty. Such film-represented “virtual actuality” after the dawn of the digital age belongs to the world of on-line simulacra created with personal computers’ ability in digital simulation. TAO Ya-Lun’s VR series since Time Panorama were mostly underpinned by the theoretical thinking of such “virtual actuality.” In an interview about his work Archive or Alive? – Crossing through the Light Wall, a VR work dedicated to representing and archiving his previous spatial installation The Light of Historical Ending, TAO even stated that the VR version was able to embody the conceptuality of his work in a way that the installation version was not.9 Ranging from his sheer spatial installation State of Mind to his VR works, TAO’s oeuvre clearly indicates that his understanding of space and the entire world is symbolized, abundant and holistically meaningful. Only in such understanding can we account for the emptiness in State of Mind. Besides, the visitors were allowed to shuttle freely within the space enclosed by the installation, whose physical quality was eliminated by the dazzling brightness, because nothing was excluded from the shades of meaning afforded by the empty space. In contrast, TAO’s VR series since Time Panorama had no choice but to confine the visitors to the kinetic lookout, for the contemporary “artificial reality” was still too simple to be real, running the risk of exposing the factual truth that such a world is not real enough. However, it was more probably because that the “world brimful of signs” did not tolerate any crack in its narrative façade, and ergo, without any better option, the visitors should be restrained in a specific vista point.

The Digital Art Foundation’s Concept Museum of Art hosted TAO Ya-Lun’s exhibition Archive or Alive? – Crossing through the Light Wall in 2018. Photo ©The Digital Art Foundation

In an interview about his work Archive or Alive? – Crossing through the Light Wall, a VR work dedicated to representing and archiving his previous spatial installation The Light of Historical Ending, TAO even stated that the VR version was able to embody the conceptuality of his work in a way that the installation version was not.

The World of the Real and the World of the Possible

Even the world as a conventional sign contains more than one modality. Based on modal theory, Elena Esposito holds that we should differentiate between “fiction” and “virtuality,” namely “real reality” and “possible reality.” “Fiction” is concerned with the “true/false” issue, whereas “virtuality” is anchored to that of “actualized possibility/latent possibility.” Esposito suggests that people tend to discuss the “possible world” in a way they deliberate about “simulated reality.” However, such an approach confuses fiction with virtuality. Simulation is no less than the modeling of “fictional objects.” Specifically, simulated reality regenerates certain qualities of “fictional objects,” which involves the relationship between “sign” and “referent.” In comparison, virtual reality produces “concrete thinking objects” as “alternative reality.” That is to say, virtual reality is not so much “false reality” as “real virtual objects.” In this sense, issues concerning “real reality” are excluded from the connotations of “virtual reality.”

Esposito demonstrates that the counterpoint relationship between “fiction” and “real reality” is a product of the course of (occidental) history. Analyzing the changes in three different dimensions (i.e., the centered perspective’s influence on spatial perception, the transformation of temporal experience by the temporality of fictional narratives, and the emergence of authorship), Esposito illustrates that the empirical structure of the differentiation between “self-reference/external-reference” since the 16th century on the continent of Europe has its own historical specificity. “Fiction” is based on the centered perspective that excludes the author from the narratives, which is deemed a manifestation of fictional possibility rather than that of realism. Different from the relationship between “fiction” and “real reality,” virtuality concerns possibility. The ancient occidental concept of possibility refers not only to imagined objects but also to mysterious ones. These objects are situated in different parallel worlds coexisting with the human world, and these worlds will exchange and blend with one another. As mentioned above, the world of the possible has been reduced to a world of fiction in modern times. Human memory is essential in classical antiquity, while in modern times, as printing technology has become the dominant medium, the demand for human memory has been passed on to books. Human abilities such as criticism and humor that were not acquired until modern times function exactly for bridging the gap between “external-reference (externalized memories)” and “self-reference (thought),” and this coincides with the distancing, non-interactive telecommunication.10 The co-presence of a single individual and multiple perspectives is unacceptable in modern times, because it compels the “author” to appear in at least one of the fictional worlds. In this situation, all the observers see no other things than the only world seeming identical in their eyes. The diversity of observers vanished, and the parallel worlds disappeared. However, the technology of “virtual reality” has been materialized nowadays. The “immersion-interaction” technique ensures the coexistence of parallel worlds. Therefore, in “virtual reality,” observers “present” the world rather than “represent” it, and the relations between observers and parallel worlds are no longer “fictional reality” but “reality of fiction.”11 Apart from the “possibilities of the Real,” the “possibilities of the possible” have been optional for us. Thus, “selection” becomes the primary approach for “observers” to intervene in “their relations to the world of the possible.”12

The Menu of Archive or Alive: the Digital Archiving Development of a Solo Dance by LIU Shou-Yuo. Photo ©The Digital Art Foundation

The form of “selection as per menu” is the chief reason behind today’s close similarity between VR’s image-based narratives and video games.13 Both the different viewing angles in the Digital Art Foundation’s Archive or Alive: the Digital Archiving Development of a Solo Dance by Shou-Yuo Liu and the choice among the rooms in La Camera Inssabiata by Laurie Anderson and HUANG Hsin-Chien are based on the expansion of the world of the possible. In addition to the menu model, Singing CHEN’s VR film Afterimage for Tomorrow allowed a single dancer to be simultaneously present in different aisles. Whether the spectators followed the dancer in whichever aisle or stayed put and looked around, they were well aware that they must choose from multiple possibilities and think about the opportunity costs involved. Of course, in terms of the narrative structure, the director intentionally enlarged or shrank the possible worlds. Sometimes the world of the possible behind the observers’ back was covered up, allowing them to choose from things within their line of sight. Sometimes a panoramic view of the world of the possible beckoned, inviting the spectators to approach or turn around. The images shown on the head-mounted display were so sharp that they either urged the spectators to reach out with their hands unconsciously, or made them feel that they detected the smell of the match struck by the dancer. Psychologically or physiologically, the spectators believed the reality to be real. It was not so much fictional as virtual.

The Residues of Meanings and the Transition of Reality

Apart from the VR works based on the two abovementioned worlds as a conventional sign, some works treat VR narratives as “traces (of the world)” left by VR technology. Unlike “sign,” “trace” functions in a pre-discursive, pre-semantic fashion. Traces do not “say” anything. They simply “display” something. Nonetheless, such “display” occurs incidentally and unconsciously. Traces are always left by something present previously yet absent currently. Hence, as we try to create traces with a certain technology for the spectators, the technology we employ has restricted the form of information transmission. The technologically imposed restriction on “information” or “meaning” is construed as “residues (without intentionality and meaning).” Krämer argues that we have to treat technologies as “media” and “apparat” rather than “tools” in Heidegger’s sense. This approach involves the way we understand “actions” as well as the reason why the “residues of meanings” will “return on the level of the Real.”

In the work Render Ghost developed by NAXS Corp, the spectators were required to put on specific VR equipment before entering the virtual space post-produced by the artists with animation. Source: NAXS Corp; photo by Etang CHEN)

Take NAXS Corp’s work Render Ghost for example. The spectators were required to put on specific VR equipment before entering the virtual space post-produced by the artists with animation. After taking off the helmet, the spectators may find that, instead of going back to their daily lives, they are still situated in a “real” world whose atmosphere approximates that of a virtual space. The bits and pieces of Styrofoam danced in the space, creating an enchanting, psychedelic world. By adding a “transitional world” amidst virtual reality and the actual quotidian world, this work established a three-level structure which enabled the spectators to take action not only in the VR space but also in the transitional world: “actions” penetrated the level of sign, which rendered the spectators’ actions symbolically significant and occurring within “media” (even though the spectators couldn’t see their own actions reflexively). The symbolic actions were not genuinely done until this phase. The technology-induced surpluses of meaning did not spill over into the actual quotidian world and confuse the Real with virtuality.

This article differentiated among three modalities of VR works; to wit, “virtual actuality,” “virtual reality,” and “transitional reality.” “Virtual reality” prevails in the “world as a conventional sign,” “transitional reality” exists in the world of “actual reality,” and “virtual actuality” can be found in both types of world. When tackling the issue of “surpluses of meaning,” the modality of “virtual reality” relocates the surpluses into the “world of the possible,” and holds that the second-order observers developed “selection” as a solution. In contrast, “transitional reality” lends a “transitional world” amidst virtual reality and the actual quotidian world as the means to solve this issue. The three modalities are probably the identifiable major models of narrative and installation in the field of VR image creation in Taiwan nowadays.

immersive aestheticscyberspacevirtual reality
This article differentiates between virtual reality and virtual actuality. The former refers to the simulated experience similar to or different from the real world, while the latter refers to real-time virtual immersion in real-world venues. Such a differentiation is essential in the following content.
Jacaues Rancière, La Mésentente: Politique et philosophie (Paris: Galilée, 1995).
Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology, 2nd ed. (London: Verso, 2009).
Martin Seel, “Medien der Realität und Realität der Medien,” in Sybille Krämer, ed. Medien, Computer, Realität: Wirklichkeitsvorstellungen und Neue Medien (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998).
See note 3.
The interaction here mainly refers to the interplay between “head/eye movement” and “observed ambient change.” Other types of physical interaction is not included in this article.
Given that a new consensus on the concept of “reality” has not emerged yet, I temporarily apply the term “artificial reality” for the purpose of engaging it in meaningful dialogues with the modalities of “reality” that do not totally rely on artificial images, such as augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and extended reality (XR).
Sybille Krämer, “Das Medium als Spur und als Apparat,” in Sybille Krämer, ed. Medien, Computer, Realität: Wirklichkeitsvorstellungen und Neue Medien (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998).
See the artist interview on YouTube. (retrieved on 25 Nov. 2019).
Elena Esposito, “Fiction and Virtuality,” in Sybille Krämer, ed. Medien, Computer, Realität: Wirklichkeitsvorstellungen und Neue Medien (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998).
The concept of “design fiction” formulated by Bruce Sterling is able to encourage dialogues in design practice because, as Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby noted, we can place “design” in the world of the possible where it stands in a relationship of mutual reference with “industrial production” and “market,” two non-real or fictional “conceptual design” beyond “reality.” For details please see Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013). Dunne and Raby equate “concept” with “fiction,” which obviously follows the dichotomy of “theory/practice” in modern times.
To put it differently, this implies “observing the dependence on observers.”
Today’s VR image narratives can be roughly divided into cinematic and video-game modes. The former keeps the minimal amount of narratives and substantially reduces the scope of interaction, while menu and large-scale interaction are characteristic of the latter.
WANG Po-WeiWANG Po-Wei is an art critic specializing in media theory, contemporary art history, sociology of culture and art, as well as art/science/technology (AST). He translated Niklas LLUHMANN’s book Liebe als Passion: Zur Codierung von Intimität in collaboration with ZHANG Jin-Hui. He was an assistant researcher at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum before he works as the artistic director of the Digital Art Foundation.
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