There was once this cave full of your most beautiful dreams

A review of Joseph Nechvatal's "Towards an Immersive Intelligence: Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality 1993-2006" Edgewise, New York, 2009, 93pp.

Erik Empson

Nechvatal's book, in large part a collection of essays that have appeared elsewhere, is an engaging, enjoyable and ultimately charming attempt to explore themes of selfhood and totality in the context of a critical struggle to overcome a complicated and complex epistemological conventionality that has emerged governing what we see and how we see it. The author, an innovator and practitioner of 'computer-assisted art' sees the medium as a way of going beyond the cynical act, beyond the apparent limits imposed by modern consumer society and its tyrannies of imitation and simulation.

For Nechvatal, 'it is in the hyper-logic of decadence, in the abuse of simulation itself that we might stage the site of contestation and negation today.' Everything is constructed and thus alterable, but parodic subversion is futile because mass society is able to absorb or negate the implied critique. However, 'by showing that everything, all visibility, all simulation is phantasmagorical, an exit from the current postmodern dead end of empty surfaces might be uncovered.'

Immersive intelligence is a form of conscious manipulation of virtual reality which allows for an extension of extra-sensory perception, extending into boundless space, allowing us to be more sensitive to peripheries. The ideal is a 360 degree visual sensation that allows movement towards the exterior. Framed, flat surfaces are raised into spatial constellations, conventional ordering of signs and facts, exploded.

That all-too human flaw, the desire for totality, the need for a more comprehensive deeper simulation adequate to but not in contestation with reality, resurfaces in Nechvatal's writings shorn of its dark, historical mantle of a universal ordering of space, reborn as the very experience of the self as it becomes more intelligent about that which lies beyond it. And there is probably nothing parodic in the fact that this archetype of modernity, grasping the totality, appears in this demand that art must not be synthetic and total, but also excessive, to spill over those boundaries in its reconnection with its audience. What is proposed here is an augmentation of experience not rooted in reductions to simple dichotomies, but issuing from free associational operations, out of complexity itself. For Nechvatal, excess 'thickens visuality', the internal energies of self can, in the discursive circuitry, be liberated and transcend our hollow consumer status.

There is a tension in these writings between the emboldening of the self and its subsumption into a collective experience. But this tension reflects the real worldly problem. We want to transcend limits on the self yet find that the self is a limit. We know that allowing the mind (or your boss) to regiment the self, can produce 'well-being', yet we know how well we are when we suspend this order. But Nechvatal's proposal for 'thoughtful languor' and 'technical transparency', two qualities that are crucial technologies of the common, is right, as is probably his seeming contradictory position where on the one hand (in the chapter on Spare) collective virtual experience loses the self, and on the other, the disembodied self (in the immersive art frame) through passion touches the infinite, leading to a 'generation of a hyper-embodiment where self-referential consciousness and unconscious self-perceptions' are expanded, enhanced and connected.

Another tension is apparent in how we position this virtual visual revolution against governed perception in terms of art history and theory. Is there an unwritten, unstated but privately held linear history at work here, could it be that the total aesthetic experience was, from the Palaeolithic theatre of Lascaux, Chauvet, Altamira, to the Pyramids and Athens, and is, the underlying goal of art? Or indeed, is digitalisation ' the corporate-sponsored de-cluttering of space and acceleration of time ' an end point of a linear history? Perhaps an immersive art has as many forms of progress (and to be fair I don't think Nechvatal uses this word) as there are disembodied selves?

It's exciting to read a healthy celebration of the medium and its possibilities. But maybe this all gives too much autonomy to the visual in its clamour for the whole. Lascaux is a testimony to many truths about humankind. For this reason it has also become the quintessential emblem of the very fact that we are separated from truths about ourselves. That we must swap the living, physically eroded body of the real site in all of its cloying dampness for its plastic twin; that a spectacle must be protected from the very effect of itself, somehow destroys it and reinvents it once more. This is the stuff of myth. The creation of Lascaux II has irreversibly changed the meaning of Lascaux. It has restored it by reconfiguring it (through digital technology) as a simulated surface and that is, no matter the cost, thoroughly undesirable ' the utter desolation of the original, a lesser crime. Surfaces are not bad in themselves, it is just that they are not the whole picture. Digital art has no real surface and that may well be a loss as much as it is a development. There was once this cave'.

little site banner