Essay by Tanya Toft

 

The “voyage” is a concept deeply anchored in Nordic identity. The word evokes ancient journeys into foreign territories, arctic sea travels, explorations across icecaps, expeditions to the far North, and odysseys into Nordic myth and worlds beyond our own[i]. Historically, the voyage has captured our curiosity of the unknown, places where we might discover new phenomena or extend our knowledge of the world. Today, the journeys we embark on are as much virtual as physical, and the voyage has come to also encapsulate our perceptual journeys—from the space of memory to the space of the digital realm.

The boundaries of our perceptual experience have expanded in our contemporary world. Perception in a digital age is a changing condition, affected by reflective surfaces, extended imagination, and fluidity of consciousness. We are constantly re-constituting ways of observing the world. In a contemporary context, the new “lenses” provided by digital technologies—from screens to optical devices and mediating surfaces—enable us to undertake perceptual journeys on which we explore spaces beyond our imagination, travel through time, experience time conjunction, and mediated representations of place. Our experience of the self in this digital-technological age is about trying to understand our perceptual relationships to our surrounding environment and its architecture.

In 1970, Gene Youngblood suggested that utilization of new technology—special effects, computer art, video art, multi-media environments and holography—was required for a new consciousness and for changing fundamental concepts such as intelligence, morality, creativity and the family[ii]. His book Expanded Cinema was the first to consider video as an art form, and it influenced the establishment of the field of media art. In the 1960s. the avant-garde movement investigated an expanded mode of perception in cinema, where the live image, the materiality of film and the body were brought together. Aiming to raise awareness of the political implications of common viewing habits, expanded cinema activated the live situation of “watching”. While the expanding modes of perception in the 1970s when Youngblood was writing mostly concerned the visual effects of film and television, today’s expanded modes of perception concern our encounter with the virtual image.

Voyage to the Virtual highlights the changing nature of perceptual experience in our current fabric of reality. The exhibition includes ten artworks of video, light sculpture, interactive media, and animation produced between 2005 and 2014, a period that has witnessed the proliferation of screens and reflective surfaces, fluidity of consciousness in social media, new optics and modes of orientation through mobile technology, and enhanced human perception of the environment through new optical, technological lenses. The perceptual sphere has been broadly investigated by Nordic contemporary artists, especially in the dichotomy of authentic and mediated and in the idea of inner space, and the place where the drives of the human psyche encounter images, symbols, and signs mediated through ever-new machines, lenses and interfaces. This aesthetic heritage of exploring spaces of deep reflection and close observation counters the contemporary condition of accelerating speed, demanding fast-paced attention and perceptual modes of superfluous scanning. In a virtual world transformed by the Internet and new technologies, artists continue to explore our perceptual sphere. The attention to the intimate, the deep, and the authentic that we find in Nordic contemporary art offers access to new modes of perceptual experience. In the darkened galleries of Scandinavia House, the artworks establish vantage points from which to reflect, refract, and re-encounter our environment: perceptual journeys into spaces beyond our material world and beyond the perception of the eye.

In the exhibition, the concept of the voyage is traced in subtle references to ancient Nordic history and mythology, for example in mediated journeys into nature scapes and of the human existential meeting with nature’s real and abstract environments, evoking voyages of ancient Nordic nomadic people. From these references to ancient and mythological Nordic voyages, the audience is led on journeys of a more introverted kind: mediated investigations of urban spaces, explorations of being and becoming, and journeys into abstract realms of perceptual experience. In Jacob Tækker’s animation Sea of Love (2010) for example, we are invited on a journey to the sea where the artist, multiplied, drifts in an orange rescue tube, evoking existential questions about a digital reality. Per Platou’s sound and video installation The Works (Wash) (2008)—a rough, unpolished walk across the salt flats of the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah and Nevada, captured via GoPro—evokes a memory of ancient Nordic nomads crossing the icecap. In Petra Lindholm’s video Empty Vessels (2014), in which the artist follows in the thoughts and footsteps of climbers on the peaks of one of the world’s highest mountains, the viewer is brought on a hypnotic journey into the cultural mindset of today’s goal oriented society. In Jette Gejl Kristensen and Peter Møller-Nielsen’s interactive installation Hyperkinetic Kayak (2010), viewers are invited to physically participate in the artwork and navigate, via an installed kayak, through graphic icescapes and geometric patterns on a journey into augmented reality, generated by their own movements and a daily data feed of Greenlandic air temperatures. And, Katja Aglert’s 32013 Years of Aurora Evolution (2013) creates a unique encounter with the “light materiality” of the northern lights, a natural phenomenon we may only discover on a voyage to the north—confronting us with our obsession with artificial light, which increasingly challenges our experience of natural light. These are journeys that expand our perceptual boundaries and evoke different forms of spatial experience.

The title of the exhibition, Voyage to the Virtual, suggests a journey to somewhere beyond our physical location. Often when we refer to “the virtual” we mean something simulated, or artificial—something computer generated. In our familiar notion of “virtual reality,” the virtual might be understood as an idea of representation, in which the screen’s frame is considered to separate two spaces of different scale: the physical and the virtual—in the notion of hyperspace. The viewer exists in both these spaces simultaneously, but in separate dimensions. The virtual might also be understood as an idea of simulation in which the scales of the physical and the virtual are the same and continuous, where the ‘spectator’ is free to move around.[iii] The recent expansion of our sense of space and place through computer-rendered virtual environments is signaled in the exploration of a perceptual architectonic environment in Ann Lislegaard’s Bellona (after Samuel R. Delany) (2005). The installation is centered on a 3D animation of writer Samuel R. Delany’s fictional city Bellona, described in his 1974 science fiction cult classic Dhalgren as a psychological space beyond reason where time and space are out of joint. The scale and ambiance of the installation makes the representation of a fictional space gradually appear to be simulation of a virtual environment, a fictional blend of spaces we are part of but which still appear foreign and are impossible to fully make sense of.

In the exhibition, the notion of the virtual is explored beyond the understanding of something simulated or artificial. In 1911, the French philosopher Henry Bergson turned the optics of light rays into a metaphor for perception beyond the visual. He separated “the virtual” from its optical definition and made it a metaphor for perception, a philosophical concept announcing a reciprocal, intuitive passage between perception, memory, and imagination. In Bergson’s philosophy, the aesthetic image is an impression that affects us through somatic sensing (belonging to the body), not just the psychic (belonging to the mind). As a metaphor of contemporary perception, the virtual becomes a conceptual tool for describing our experience of the image as processual, rather than a fixed snap shot experience. Aesthetic experience, Bergson believed, takes place when an image schema (something between thing and representation that is mediated by a “medium”) affects the bodily schema, and, thus, the body is merged with the world through technologies of the image[iv].

Bergson’s philosophy projected a current phenomenological condition in which our perceptual voyages are changing with the evolution of the digital, in between perception, memory, and embodied experience. His ideas are reflected in a current return to phenomenology in the arts and academia, characterized by a renewed attention to how we experience appearances. This is a turn towards the corporeality of perception, towards the embodied, experiencing human, and away from ocular perception of the eye as our primary mode of experience. In the past decade in particular, this orientation has been explored in haptic artistic practices, involving multiple senses including the sense of touch.

This haptic quality is explored in the work Hyperkinetic Kayak (2010), created by Jette Gejl Kristensen in association with Peter Møller-Nielsen. The work challenges aesthetic experience in a bodily-sensual process of perceiving the image. Participants sit in a physical kayak and paddle on the sea “towards” a 3D virtual environment, which is between themselves and the screen. The viewer seated in the kayak produces the computer graphic framework from his or her movement, forming virtual graphic icescapes of beautiful, abstract, and richly colored geometric patterns, emerging and moving in the direction of the audience. The virtual image is connected to daily updates of actual measurements of the temperature in Qaanaaq in the North Western part of Greenland, and it changes in color and graphics as the temperature fluctuates. The work launches a live event, a virtual space produced in collaboration between the audience and the computer.

Hyperkinetic Kayak illustrates Bergson’s idea that our experience of the virtual is a state of perception that produces affect inside our bodies, in a mix of images and in duration.[v] We make sense of the world through this ongoing accumulation of images, shaped by affective experiences. In this light, we might consider how our everyday encounters with aesthetic images affect how we experience the structure and meaning of our world, since our capacity for perceptual engagement in visual phenomena is closely related to our being and becoming in the world. It matters what that capacity for perceptual engagement is like. Echoing the thoughts of Gene Youngblood, it is in our capacity for expanded perception that we might reach new modes of consciousness from which we can challenge the ideas that organize our contemporary world.

Today, the voyage is also a concept of mediation, between ordinary and uncanny, rural and urban, natural and artificial, and real and virtual. Much like the way imagination, fiction, and memory have always taken us on journeys to elsewhere while we remain physically located in one space, today we are “brought there” visually through the screen. The screen implies a certain tension between the material reality of built space and the conceptual reality of imaginary space, and it has become a familiar surface and metaphor through which we enter the virtual world. New lenses of mediated screens and surfaces have challenged our perceptual experience in contemporary society, as we must constantly navigate between real and virtual dimensions, or accept that these are increasingly one and the same.

The screen re-appears throughout the exhibition in metaphors of water, ice, and mirror, and in direct meta-reflections on how our perception is expanding with screens. The screen takes on multiple rolls, as a mirror for existential reflection, as in Elina Brotherus’s video work Wrong Face (2012); as a window between the real and the imaginary, as in Jacob Tækker’s animation Sea of Love (2010); as an optics through which the world is observed and modified, as in Anders Weberg’s Impressions videos (2010-2014); as a lens revealing disorder in a seemingly orderly world, as in Ann Lislegaard’s installation Bellona (after Samuel R. Delany) (2005); or as a skin encapsulating the unknown, as in Katja Aglert’s boxed light sculpture 32013 Years of Aurora Evolution (2014).

In philosophy, the screen has long been considered a surface through which we enter the psychological. In the metaphor of the mirror, evoking the theories of Jacques Lacan, the screen figures as a metaphor for intersubjective mediation and as a visual scenario for identity formation. In the reflective surface of the mirror, psychic space unfolds into physical space. In Elina Brotherus’s video Wrong Face (2012), shot on 16-milimeter film in a Manhattan loft, the viewer enters an intimate psychological space through reflections in mirrors, windows, and the cornea of the eye. Through these reflections, our perspective is carefully duplicated and we loose our spatial orientation in the loft space. The orchestrated reflections create a many-layered environment, and bring to mind the many layers of reflection that organize the fabric of our digital reality today.

The framed screen relies on an assumption about its mediated separation of inside and outside, a boundary between the perceiver and the perceived. As a condition for perception, the screen comes to set the stage for a withdrawal of the self from the world, as the self becomes a spectator against a world that becomes an object of vision. In A K Dolven’s video installation change my way of seeing I (2011) the viewer is drawn into the depths of an enlarged close-up shot of the artist’s pupil, as if investigating perception behind the eye. The video installation documents a performance in which the artist holds a Super 8 camera to her eye, and looks at the sun through the lens. In her doing so, the sun becomes an active observer “looking” at the artist’s pupil. Dolven questions who is watching or creating, and who is being perceived—the artist or the sun? This is turned into a spatial question: Who intrudes into who’s space? The piece evokes the internal nature of contemporary experience, which is not about the observation and decoding of an external phenomenon, but about questioning our perceptual apparatus and how it informs our comprehension of our surroundings.

On our journeys to the virtual, we explore the fabric of reality today. But what is this fabric? Up until the late 20th century, we believed, and to some extent we still do, in a form of “scientific materialism”. We understand that we live inside Euclid’s three-dimensional space organized by Einstein’s theory of relativity—the universal principle of physics that considers space as a boundless, three-dimensional extent in which objects and events have relative positions and directions. In this, we live in a single universal metric for space and time, and things cannot exist if they are not “physical”. In Olafur Eliasson’s Fivefold dodecahedron lamp (2006) the artist explores the shape of the dodecahedron, a figural symbol associated in Plato’s philosophy with a fifth element, aether, alongside Air, Water, Fire and Earth. The aether is not physical, but produces physical effects. The fifth element of aether is gaining new attention as it is related to a nonmaterial fabric of reality, a kind of hyperspace constituted by a reciprocal flow of energy and information[vi]. Reality is a fabric of space, and if our observations of the “materiality” of space are reductionist, that may effect how we understand our reality and ourselves within it. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said: “Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world”[vii].

The mediation of our ocular-perceptual experiences by technology is a premise for the making of Anders Weberg’s Impressions videos, a series of investigations of various cities that the artist visited for the first time from 2010 to 2014. In the videos, Weberg looks through the lens of his mobile phone and make abstract investigations of places and atmospheres. The beautiful, poetic videos reflect the new forms of perceptual experience that are mediated through technology, and—as forms of snapshot memories—they simulate the blending of real and fictional (or memory) space that is not only happening on a screen but in our very perceptual apparatus.

Our perception of the fabric of our urban environments changed with technologies of augmented reality. Augmented reality refers to the enhancement of one’s current perception of the real environment by computer-generated content, such as data and graphical overlays. It is related to the notion of mediated reality, in which a view of reality is modified by computation. Since the mid 2000s, we have been familiar with augmented reality overlays in the public sphere via mobile applications running on smartphone devices. With the recent introduction of wearable technology with optical head-mounted displays (e.g. Google Glass), the borderline between our real and virtual world has perceptually dissolved, and the fifth element now referred to as hyperspace might soon pose perceptual challenges beyond our comprehension of relative space. While the Internet and new technologies continually transform the virtual fabric of reality, artists continue to challenge the premises that define our perceptual sphere.

 

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[i] Among the well-known Nordic voyages that feed to a collective memory and have contributed to anchoring the concept of the voyage in a historic and contemporary self-understanding, we find for example in the Norse Myths the journey of the hammer-wielding god of Thor, associated with thunder, lightning, storms, and the protection of mankind, who together with Loki went to the home of the giant Utgard-Loki, to battle the giants. Among the many viking voyages is for example those of Leif den Lykkelige, son of Erik den Røde, who was the first European to discover North America around year 1000, what he named Vinland, one of the important stories about how the Nordic ancestors contributed to the discovery of the world – several hundred years before Christopher Columbus discovered America. Centuries later, the Dano-Norwegian Lutheran missionary Hans Egede’s journeys to Greenland were expeditions to search for the old Norse settlements in Greenland with which contact had been lost centuries before, and he founded Greenland’s capital Godthåb, now known as Nuuk. Explorer expeditions continued in the travels of Vitus Bering, who in 1728 discovered that Asia and America are two separate continents, and in 1741 was the first to map the west coast of Alaska. Explorer expeditions took a more anthropological nature with the journeys of the Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, who in 1902-1904 went on The Danish Literary Expedition and was the first European to cross the Northwest Passage in Greenland via dog sled. Between 1912-1933 Rasmussen went on a series of seven expeditions between, known as the the Thule Expeditions and became known as “the father of Eskimology”. Later in 1947, the Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyredahl went on an expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian Islands on the raft named Kon-Tiki after the Inca sun god, Viracocha. The journey is the centre point for several of the fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson, for example in The Flying Trunk, The Little Mermaid, and the Ugly Duckling, which is based on the writer’s own educational journey in life, which was a common challenge to young dannede Danish men in the early 19th Century. Anderson’s famous quote encapsulates his notion of the importance of the journey to one’s being in the world: “To move, to breathe, to fly, to float; To gain all while you give; To roam the roads of lands remote; To travel is to live”. Also in the children’s stories of Swedish Astrid Lindgren the voyage is an existential idea to the young girl with supernatural strength, Pippi Langstrømpe, whose identity is largely founded on her stories of her father’s profession as king of a tribe in a country far away; and in the Lindgren story The Brothers Lionheart, the two brothers Tvebak and Jonatan both pass away and travel to Nangijala, a world beyond life.

[ii] G. Youngblood. 1970. Expanded Cinema. E.P. Dutton; 1st edition.

[iii] The distinction between the virtual as representation and simulation is made by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, 2001, p. 112.

[iv] H. Bergson. 2001. Matter and Memory. Martino Publishing, Mansfield Centre (first published 1911).

[v] Ibid., p. 60.

[vi] In contemporary particle physics, the aether has its counterpart in the zero point field and in a kind of “quantum foam” with its endless array of virtual particles bubbling momentarily into our reality and vanishing just as quick.

[vii] A. N. Whitehead, 1915, “Space, Time, and Relativity,” p.165.