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By Susie Ramsay

(This text was first presented at the National Arts Centre in Mexico City in November 1994 and later published in Kunstforum International #133 Feb-April 1996, edited by Florian Roetzer).

A brief encounter with virtual reality would probably convince most of us in the dance community that we have no part to play in the so-called technological revolution. Although Russian American anarchist Emma Goldman was referring to another revolution, her famous quote, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution," would be an appropriate response to most mainstream VR applications. But are there different notions of virtual reality that are not only relevant to us in the dance community but that position us as the experts? Indeed, some current trends in art, theory and science seem to be pointing in that direction.

Confusion and ambivalence about virtual reality predominate in the dance community with standard reactions ranging from skeptical, apprehensive and proudly ignorant to intrigued, excited and hopeful. We need to address our assumptions about the field of emerging technologies so that we can distinguish well-founded suspicions from misguided fears and reasonable hopes from absurd expectations. But how does a dancer educate herself on the slippery topic of VR? Is it a thing or an idea? Virtual reality is both a technology and a way of thinking and the two are linked.

Some of our suspicions about technology in general has to do with its associations to ecological destruction, weapons of war, mindless entertainment, escapism and failed promises. This is a magazine ad for a VR amusement arcade in the US: 'Because reality sucks. Here's the deal. Reality has toxic waste spills, transmission overhauls and bad hair days. VR, on the other hand, has nothing but totally fun games played in a strange yet stylish headgear. Which would you prefer?'(1) Although the ad is meant to be funny, it nevertheless reflects an attitude that the VR industry is trying to capitalize on. In the pledges the VR industry makes to seduce us -extending and augmenting our physical body, heightening our senses, traveling in exotic and impossible worlds, flying, 'morphing' with other people, animals and objects, transforming our identity, intensifying our sexual experience, freeing ourselves from our body, living out all our fantasies, etc., -there is an interesting contradiction between the promise to excite the body and, at the same time, the promise to abandon it. What the VR industry is really wanting us to buy into can be summarized in a slogan we have heard before: better living through more and better technology. It is selling us the fantasy that we can have control over our destinies and that we can escape our conflicted lives all without consequences on our real bodies and on our real lives. But how does the hype about new technologies compare to our experience of them? How often are the promises fulfilled?

In our interaction with most computers, we use very little of our body's muscular and sensory potential. In VR applications, the points of contact are usually the head and the right hand and hand-eye coordination is about the only skill required for a successful interaction. This skill usually amounts to pushing a button or squeezing a trigger -actions that communicate to the computer one bit of information and equal an on-off switch in their level of sophistication. Movements of the head are also very limited as the VR helmet is heavy and constrictive, attaching to computers by a series of short cables. Many people who have had an opportunity to put on a VR helmet have found it to be an anti climactic experience with its low-resolution imagery and simplistic interaction.

The rationale behind the design of the helmet becomes immediately apparent when looking at its origin. Most of what is understood as high technology today was researched and developed for military applications.(2) The US Military has used the VR helmet since the 70s to serve as an 'intelligent' artificial assistant to fighter pilots who were having to deal with increasingly complex planes. In his helmet, the pilot sees 3D graphical representations of what the computer has deemed essential information. This way, and with only limited movements of the head and hands, a fighter pilot can concentrate on performing other tasks such as hitting his intended target. (In 1991, the American military used this technology in its war against Iraq.) Although the video-game industry has applied this model very successfully, it is no big surprise that the VR helmet designed for physically-restricted fighter pilots would translate into a very inappropriate instrument for dance.

By acknowledging the built-in bias in its hardware and software applications we place VR technology in a social, economic and political context and resist the temptation to see it either as a new, revolutionary technology or a random development. Virtual Reality is a logical evolution of the Judaeo-Christian, individualistic, patriarchal, dualistic and militaristic culture from where it comes. A tradition, we can't forget, that has always marginalized and degraded the physical body. The most popular cyberspace narratives, for example the one proposed by William Gibson in his 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, reflect this idea: the body, often referred to as "meat" and seen as an impediment to immortality, is abandoned by the mind to travel through data banks of digital information.(3) In the dance community, we naturally feel threatened by this vision of life that views the body as unnecessary, even abhorrent, and that consequently denies the value of our profession, our skills, and our rich and varied experiences of the body.

The dance community is not alone with its feelings of apprehension about technologies that promise to replace the organic with the artificial. There is an increasing and generalized anxiety about the seemingly unstoppable and unpredictable advance of technological logic and its global repercussions. As we enter the digital age, neo Luddite movements with their anti-technology ideology are flourishing, perhaps in direct proportion to the new virtual class of hi-tech true believers and utopians who see salvation in the unconquered "spaces" made up of computer bits. For most of us just trying to deal with the present, neither glorifying the past nor glorifying the future seem like viable options.

In her CD-ROM She Loves It, She Loves It Not: Women and Technology, San Francisco artist and critic Christine Tamblyn outlines the links that the development of computer technology has had to the perpetration of violence: "...girls and women opt out of technology because they reject its goals and values: the development of weapons of destruction, of boring and dehumanizing work processes and products designed with artificial obsolescence in mind."(4) In a 1993 article in High Performance, Tamblyn talks about the recent phenomenon of body piercing, tattooing and branding as reflecting our disenchantment with the failed promises of technology. She thinks this 'New Primitivism' is nostalgic for 'reality' that cannot be simulated.(5) The real pain of a needle is an authentic experience and the permanent mark it leaves on our body is both a proof and a reminder of that experience. We are unsatisfied and disillusioned with promises of a pain-free, easy life when our experience of it includes helplessness, sickness, suffering, aging and dying. A definition of VR that excludes this reality is incomplete. The body might be a scary place for us to be in the late 20th century but it is still our home.

At 4CyberConf held at the Banff Centre in the Rockies in May 1994, Canadians Loretta Todd (filmmaker), Ahasiw Maskegon-Ishwew (performance artist) and Leroy Littlebear (lawyer) formed a Native panel that questioned the desire for Virtual Reality. They discussed how a different view of history, or nature, or technology, or of God would create a different virtual reality. And they asked: don't Native communities already have virtual reality?(6) Littlebear invited us to a mountain just outside the Banff Centre's Conference room where we could each spend a couple of nights alone. According to him, at the end of this pilgrimage we might find ourselves at the beginning of understanding virtual reality.

These voices from feminist and Native communities remind us that there are many possible realities and consequently as many possible virtual realities. So what do VR's promises offer us that is new if we have and always have had the possibility to achieve heightened or altered states, to augment our senses, to visit different psychical spaces and to feel the fluidity of identity? An important social tool throughout history and in all cultures has been this ability to transform one's world, using mediums such as music, dance, meditation, language and even drugs. We can either respect or abuse the power this ability of transformation engenders; but clearly any transformation has repercussions.

What is exciting and promising about Virtual Reality for dance is not the helmet paradigm but rather alternative models of reciprocal action concerned with a human-machine interaction that engages more of the body's wide range and variety of physical skills. Currently, a growing group of international artists and scientists are experimenting with interfaces that are more intuitive and that physically and conceptually incorporate the whole body. Myron Krueger is a pioneer in the area of non-encumbered VR experiences and has since the sixties theorized and developed interfaces that have tried to adapt the computer to the human and not vice versa. In the video demonstration for his piece Small Planet, a VR piece that lets you fly over a graphical representation of the planet by waving your arms, Krueger explains that he is not going to let us fall and hit the planet until he can find some way to make us feel pain when we do.(7) Technology has a reputation for distancing us from the consequences of our actions -an extreme and frightening example is a fighter pilot dropping real bombs but only seeing video game-like graphics- but this idea of VR tries to bridge the distance between action in the virtual world and consequence in the real world.

Carolina Cruz-Neira, a former dancer, is a VR pioneer and one of the inventors of the CAVE, a VR tool developed in recent years. The CAVE is a room-based immersive audio-visual environment where the roof, floor and walls serve as projection screens. The user moves in this room wearing stereoscopic glasses so that the virtual images appear in 3D. Restrictions include the fact that the sensors measure only head and hand positions and still require a cable connection to the computer. But what is worth noting about this paradigm of interaction is that the body is not displaced onto a screen representation, as is often the case even with non encumbered applications, but participates as a presence in the virtual environment. It reflects a change in thinking: when going to cyberspace, bring your body.

Finally, another VR paradigm investigates not going to cyberspace at all but bringing it to us through 3D holographic projections into real physical space. One way to visualize this is by recalling the scene in Star Wars where R2D2 projects a miniaturized image of Princess Leah who then appears as a presence in the room. Artists such as Michael Naimark, Toni Dove and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer have attempted to achieve this effect. Using a spinning camera, Naimark filmed people in a room and then projected the movie onto the same room with a spinning projector, creating ghost-like presences. Dove achieves a more volumetric illusion by projecting images from various angles onto modeled 3D scrims. Lozano Hemmer, in a telepresence piece, has used intersecting beams of light to indicate the 3D position of remote participants.(8) Ideas of Virtual Reality that reconcile virtual action and real consequence, that insist on the material body and that use real physical space are already more interesting for dance.

In a 1994 article in Dance Theatre Journal, dancer and writer Susan Kozel concurs that dance-friendly conceptions of Virtual Reality exist. She states that, 'VR can be defined as using computer technology to extend the inner space of a person outwards' and suggests that, 'it is through flesh and not in spite of it that we gain access to the virtual.'(9) Kozel perceives one of the models for VR borrowed from dance: 'The experience of dance refutes the implication that computerised cyberspace brings a new fluidity or physical experience, instead, physical experience can be seen as the paradigm which inspires the liberating movement in cyberspace.'(10)

At a conference on virtual art in Madrid, artist and VR engineer Will Bauer reminded us that the human body is the real sophisticated high-tech device: man-made technology is really very simple and crude at present when compared to the biological technology produced by genetic evolution.(11) As dancers, we can consider ourselves experts at certain physical and mental skills that are now the focus of much VR research. In our training, we are constantly asked to receive and process highly complex information. We learn to perceive the connection between body and self as fluid in order to achieve certain physical tasks in time and space: using visualization we continually redefine the body map and its boundaries, de-stabilizing and reconstructing our perception of self. We continually train our senses of vision, hearing, smell and touch; and our proprioceptive sense and our vestibular system are exceptionally developed. The proprioceptive sense allows us to know our limb and body position in space and in relation to one another; whereas our vestibular system tells us whether there is any change in their velocity. The field of VR is developing sensors and displays so that, according to VR researcher Warren Robinett, these sensed and imperceptible phenomena 'can be rendered visible, audible or otherwise perceptible to a human being.'(12)

Ironically, this extensive research and interest in skills that we develop as dancers might bring about a new recognition and appreciation for our art and craft. At the same time, the dance community will get an opportunity to understand more about its profession. For example, the sensory system studies that Robinett talks about might help us in learning more about our individual movement patterns, how movement communicates, and why the combination of language with visualization and hands-on techniques are so successful in our training. These are all extremely exciting possibilities that may help demystify our profession. Already there exist new technology applications in areas such as notation, research, education, preservation, composition and performance.

The dance community should avoid the trap of confusing its dislike and distrust of the uses of technology with technology itself -no matter how much the two seem inextricably linked. We have a few choices in dealing with the inevitability of new technologies and it is important that we get a foot in the door. One of them is taking advantage of research that has direct implications in the field of dance. Another is misappropriation: using technology in ways for which it was not designed. And finally, developing new applications that don't yet exist designed with our needs in mind. The success of future technologies for dance depends a good deal upon dancers' involvement in its conception and development. Dance will get the tools it asks for. We don't necessarily have to become computer programmers, although that's one possibility, but we do have to learn to communicate with those who do know. As dance artists, we might find that Virtual Reality is something we can dance to.


Susie Ramsay is a Canadian choreographer, dancer and writer based in Madrid. She co-organized the Fifth International Conference on Cyberspace 5CYBERCONF (Madrid ,June 1996) and is a correspondent for the German online journal Telepolis.


(1) Magazine advertisement for "Cybermind Virtual Reality Centers" in the USA.

(2) Pomeroy, Jim, "Black Box S-Thetix: Labor, Research, and Survival in the He(Art) of the Beast," in Technoculture, Constance Penley and Andrew Ross, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992).

(3) Gibson, William, Neuromancer (New York, NY: Berkley Pub. Group, 1984).

(4) Tamblyn, Christine, Franklin, Marjorie and Tompkins, Paul, "She Loves It, She Loves It Not: Women and Technology," CD-ROM (Canada: 1993).

(5) Tamblyn, Christine, "Boy's Club, Craft Hut, Carnival or Cyberspace?," High Performance, No. 62, p. 56-63 (Summer 1993).

(6) Todd, Loretta, "Are There Cyber Indians?," Abstracts of papers at the Fourth International Conference on Cyberspace, May 20-22, 1994 (Banff, Alberta, Canada: Banff Centre for the Arts, 1994).

(7) Krueger, Myron W., Artificial Reality II, video (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991).

(8) Lozano-Hemmer, Rafael, El Rastro. Presencia Remota Insinuada, Exhibition at ARCO 95 Madrid, February 8-14, 1995 and catalogue (Madrid, Spain: Fundacion Arte y Tecnologia, 1995).

(9) Kozel, Susan, "Virtual Reality: Choreographing Cyberspace," Dance Theatre Journal, vol. 11, No. 2, p. 34-37 (Spring-Summer 1994).

(10) Ibid.

(11) Bauer, William N., Arte Virtual Roundtable Conference, February 15, 1995 (Madrid, Spain: La Fundacion Arte y Technologia, 1995).

(12) Robinett, Warren, "Synthetic Experience: A Taxonomy, Survey of Earlier Thought, and Speculations on the Future," unpublished article distributed on the Internet.

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