On Simulation — reaction essay to ‘Digital Currents, Art in the Electronic Age’

1.‘Digital Currents, Art in the Electronic Age’


In the book ‘Digital Currents, Art in the Electronic Age’, Margot Lovejoy brings us through the history and evolution of Art in light of the coming of the digital age. My personal insights and opinions will be in reaction to the Sub Chapters: the most advanced form of interactivity is hypermedia : virtual reality and ‘Digital Simulation‘ — the sections in which Lovejoy attempts to decode the relevance and complexity the realm of ‘Alternate Reality’ has in this digital era and also the consequential struggle artists face, having to reconcile the similar yet innately polarising spaces of reality and virtuality.


2. On Simulation (Personal Thoughts)

initial thoughts

After reading the section of Digital Simulation, listed below were the initial concepts I pondered about to myself:

When does a representation of Reality became Virtual or Hyper Real ?

With the idea of a single physical reality being diminished in the contemporary digital age, is Virtual Reality still considered an ‘artifice’ or has it earned its right beside ‘Physical Reality’ as an established ideal?

On the importance of Hardware and how it paradoxically enhances the ‘non -physical, virtual experience’?

What makes an effective design of a virtual space?


When we think about Simulation, we are often aware that it is not ‘real’ or that it exists as some sort of imagined virtual entity modelled after elements rooted in our physical world. It is almost impossible to imagine or create a completely virtual space from ‘scratch’ — one that has no recognisability visually or cognitively. It is this ‘human handicap’ that inevitably and inextricably tethers Virtuality to Reality. Virtuality in itself hence often acts as mirror, extension, modification or re-interpretation of Reality. One could even argue that a successful Virtual Space (artwork) has to reflect at least fundamental elements of reality in order to engage with the viewer.

For example, in Peter Weibel’s ‘The Wall’ which Lovejoy discusses, a simulacrum is projected onto a large screen (a digital image of a wall), as the viewer walks past the screen, a camera captures his/her silhouette and warps the projected wall. As the viewer moves, the wall further distorts relative to his/her movement. The viewer then becomes part of what is being viewed in real time. Titled The Wall, The Curtain (Boundary, which), also Lascaux’ the work then becomes a modern metaphor of a ‘digital cave’ with the walls being the projection of the brick wall and the drawings being the ‘silhouette’ distortions. Here we can see how the artist has made a link to a pre existing real notion (Lascaux Caves) within his virtual space. Hence when we interact with the piece, we are intuitively coerced into making the interaction more profound.

Lascaux Caves

Weibel’s “The Wall” also explores the butterfly effect, based on Aristotle’s philosophy that we are all observers in a realistic and objective model of the world we inhabit. Weibel exaggerates and portrays this effect by allowing us to directly manipulate our present space. The virtual curtain acts as a non -discrete, mouldable extension to our immediate physical surrounding.

In essence, virtuality has no physical mass or matter. It is purely ‘visual’ or ‘aural’. It is the morphing of pre-existing cognitive notions we have that manipulates us into recognising it as ‘hyperreal’. The photograph of an image is not real. However it is not virtual as the level of transcendence between the two realms is zero. Compare this to what might be a projection of an image on water. The way the light inconsistently projects or refracts around the ripples of waves of water before it, distorts the image into a more obscure entity or rather the image of the image plays with our senses, resulting a high level of transcendence into virtuality. We can hence see how easy it is to cross over from reality to virtuality.

Nike Ad Projected on Flat Surface

Nike Ad Projected on Water Surface

However, we live in a highly complex contemporary digital age presently. It is one where the idea or rationale behind a sole true reality has diminished. Instead we acknowledge the existence of multi-realities within realities, some existing as dimensions of the other. With the advent of technology and social media for example, our social media persona or profile has its own unique reality separate from our real self. There is also heightened interactivity between these seemingly separate entities, enabling them to coexist and react to each other. As such, no one defined reality has influence over us . This phenomena then leads us to the notion of ‘hyperreality. A ‘new’ reality that is not based on physical rationale but rather, commands, algorithms and obscure intangible ‘digital building blocks’. It is no longer ‘imagined’ since it has no tether to any logical reasoning. Instead it is a spontaneous culmination of ‘miniaturised units, from matrices, memory banks, and command models’.

(Classical Physics) Reality – Virtuality – Hyperreality (Quantum Physics)

If we were to draw parallel to physics, hyper reality would be the quantum realm — contained within our observable physical world, yet completely different in the way it defies the laws that bound conventional matter. For example in quantum theory, a particle’s past state can be predicted from its future state. Consequently, Schrodinger’s Cat, Relativity and other quantum concepts suggest the possibility of time travel which is yet to be achieved in the realm of classical physics. The quantum particles, dark matter etc are similar to the building blocks of matrixes and commands, which operate the ‘hyperreal’. They exist on the same plane as their neighbouring entities  but are subsets in the way they interact and are ‘lawless’.

Lovejoy also mentions that hypermedia is the ‘most advanced form of interactivity’. Artists working with VR, are increasingly creating 3D, immersive landscapes which allow people to explore them via some sort of extension or intermediary gear. Computer monitoring tracks their every movement (depending on the sensors connected to their physical gear) enhancing the veracity of the interaction. It is important to note then, that virtuality is very deeply rooted in tangible hardware; it is not simply a detached, imagined space we can freely delve into. To experience or ‘enter’ the realm of virtuality, our body needs to ‘synthesise’ with specially developed gloves, tracking suit, VR Gear etc. We essentially need to come into physical contact with ‘machine’ for us to transcend into these obscure alternate realities. On a psychological level, the act of momentarily (for the duration of the interaction) ‘modifying’ our body into semi cyborgs, invokes a sense of disassociation from our physical body and reality. It ‘strips’ away any innate bias we have pre-interaction, and throws us in deep as clean slates. However, we still have our cognitive and emotional functions preserved, allowing us to then develop ‘new’ perceptions and opinions from our interaction with this unfamiliar virtual landscape.

Lovejoy discusses Artist Brenda Laurel who calls VR costumes ‘prostheses for the imagination’. In her work ‘Placeholder’, participants enter a dark cave where creatures which exist as petroglyphs, entice them to approach close. On approaching each, the participants “become” the creature, assuming its physical features and experience spatialized distortion of their own voice through the HMD (head-mounted device) speakers.” This then allows us as the participants to fully disassociate from our bodies, adopt a completely different one and experience the creator’s virtual narrative. The process of navigating freely as a digital ‘sentinal’ being  is overwhelming and euphoric. We have to take directions from the artist who ultimately has control over the virtual landscape through the boundaries they have set. Laurel’s ‘Placeholder’ hence is an example of Human – Machine – Human interactive system.


Placeholder : https://vimeo.com/27344103


With this in mind, we as creators have to acknowledge that we define the constraints and parameters of our intended virtual/alternate environment/space. Lovejoy describes how conceptualisation of VR spaces results in the dilemma of ‘freedom’ and ‘restrain’. She talks about VR artist Perry Hoberman who believes freedom of choices and a non discrete fluidity in the flow of interaction results in a more meaningful virtual experience. 

“With interactivity, it’s better to have nothing to say than to try to say something. It’s better for meaning to come out of the interaction rather than controlling the experience.”  — Hoberman

This idea of non-linearity and spontaneity can even be applied to a very simple Human-Machine-Human mode of interaction to see its affect. For example in Kazuhiko Hachiya’s ‘Inter Dis-Communication Machine’, two participants have their visual perspectives swapped. Hachiya talks about how the  perceived real world is different for each person (hence, the users are essentially experiencing a simulation when their sight is replaced by the other).  In this set-up, there were no restrictions or a prescribed set of options to confine or control the interaction. Hachiya even designed the machine to accommodate for the possibility of sexual intimacy between the participants. This then allowed the participants to process their virtual environment in any way they wanted and have that manifested physically (intentionally and unintentionally), in an organic and natural manner. It results in a more profound and impactful experience.



If as an Artist we were to instead limit possibilities, users will eventually be conscious of their lack of ability to affect their virtual environment the way they want to. They will be aware of the artist’s intervention to coerce an intended outcome, making the virtual space ‘less real’. We should always aim to make virtuality as convincing as possible as a legitimate entity capable of offering the same sensations reality offers us.

Concluding Thoughts

The above mentioned concepts are highly relevant to my group’s final project with involves simulated clocks and time.  Our installation involves the layering of physical hands of the clock above projection of a clock. The intersection of hyperreality and reality intensifies the interactivity. The video itself is a simulacrum—with an added melting effect to reference Dali’s ‘The Persistence of Memory’ . By choosing a subtle yet powerful distortion, we will be able to simulate a virtual modern interpretation of Dali’s melting Clock. This will also effectively display a contention between the real and virtual which is relevant when we think about what ‘real’ time is as opposed to ‘perceived’ time. Technology has also affected our perception of time and this juxtaposition between a mechanical clock and a virtual one perpetuates a psychological and uncomfortable feeling when viewed by the participants.

The projections are a form of simulation as the speed of the ticking, depending on the users’ action will all occur at ‘unreal’ rates.  We aim to create a convincing enough alternate space such that line between ‘mechanical’ time and the sped up ‘simulated time’ gets diminished the longer the length of interaction.

‘The Persistence of Memory’ , 1931, Dali

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