“Daydream. Segregation from Reality and Stream of Consciousness in Virtual Reality” is an essay I wrote for the catalogue of the exhibition Resonant Realities, curated by Tina Sauerländer. The catalogue is available for free download from this link.
Taking off from an amazing installation by MSHR, I wrote about how virtual reality devices can possible restore a form of immersion and aesthetic experience that is no longer possible, or extremely rare, in reality, where we are flooded by constant flows of information and distracted by the “ever-present assault of simultaneous impulses and commands” (Rushkoff, 2013). In this context, the particular form of immersivity that virtual reality makes possible, especially when mediated by VR headsets, can offer a less distracted aesthetic experience and encourage daydreaming.
If you are interested, you can either read the full text after the break or download the pdf. Enjoy!
Domenico Quaranta, “Daydream. Segregation from Reality and Stream of Consciousness in Virtual Reality”, in Tina Sauerländer (Ed.), Resonant Realities, exhibition catalogue, Deutsche Creditbank AG, Berlin 2021, pp. 28 – 33
Source Fold Compound Generator (2017) is an immersive installation by US-based duo MSHR, formed in Portland, Oregon in 2011 by Birch Cooper and Brenna Murphy. The work is part of the Nested Scapes series, which generated eight different iterations between 2017 and 2019, all underpinned by the idea of nesting different spaces and systems (which the artists call “landscapes”) within each other, and exploring the feedback relationships created between one and the other. The physical landscape includes vinyl wallpaper, which covers the floor and walls of the exhibition space, a sound system, a network of sensors that capture the viewer’s position, and a lighting system installed on the ceiling. The wallpaper is a brightly coloured, psychedelic visualisation of flowcharts symbolically representing the various elements of the scene: the spectator, the sound boxes, the units producing the sounds, etc. Besides serving as a backdrop for the action, these graphics have the specific function of materialising and mapping the virtual environment which the spectator, having entered the scene, accesses through a virtual reality headset. When the user puts on the VR headset, the two-dimensional map becomes a three-dimensional environment, along whose lines the user begins to move. In turn, their movement interacts with triggers positioned in the virtual space that set off the third nested landscape, the soundscape – activating and modulating a flow of generative music spatialised by the external sound system. Volume, frequency and sound channel then interact with the lighting system, generating a vibration that modifies the perception of the space circumscribed by the wallpaper and its RGB colour model graphics.
Although hard to explain, this nesting of spaces (real, virtual and sound) is extremely intuitive to experience. Wearing the VR headset, the users enter a virtual space with which they have already become familiar through the installation experience and they move through the real space in ways that are readable to the external spectator thanks to the mapping provided by the wallpaper. While the external viewers remain passive, they have a unique experience of the installation (not available to the user with the VR headset), which includes both the physical presence of the user in the space and his or her influence on the lights and the soundscape; the users immersed in the virtual space actively modify both the external space (although they cannot experience it) and the soundscape, which they share with the external viewer.
Nested Scapes explores and enhances two different levels of immersivity and fruition that occur, intentionally or unintentionally, every time virtual reality is presented in a public space. The external spectator is passive, the user with the VR headset active. The external spectator experiences how the virtual space conditions the way of using the body and inhabiting the physical space of those cast in the simulation: the inter-actor becomes the performer and the interface of a cybernetic system that acts on them. For the person wearing the VR headset, the outside world no longer exists: his or her immersion in a bi-sensorial space (visual and sound) inaccessible to outside observers is complete. This type of immersion seems to facilitate a new relationship with the work. Once the initial moment of adaptation to the environment is over, the stimuli from outside are excluded, the perception of time cancelled, and the discomfort of acting under the gaze of an external observer eliminated, Source Fold Compound Generator becomes a comfortable habitat for the user’s flow of thoughts; it invites them to explore randomly, to digress, to enter a stream of consciousness. This relationship does not betray the artists’ intentions, but panders to them: “Facilitating transcendental experiences is where it’s at for us. Viewers can create their own reality within a framework we can provide. And it’s a framework with extended rules from reality” (Cattelan, 2011).
In other words, it is as if the isolation and immersion of virtual reality were able to resurrect an aspect of the aesthetic experience that is now rare in an age of information overload, portable devices and art selfies. This kind of immersion comes from VR’s ability to fuse the double logic of immediacy (the directness of an experience) and hypermediacy (the emphasis of the medium used for the experience), as described by Bolter and Grusin in 2000. Virtual reality seeks immersion, it is a medium that tends to disappear, to generate a ‘sense of presence’, to make us forget the mediating role of the computer (immediacy). Its disappearance is made difficult by its apparatus, which continues, today as in the 1990s, to be very visible (hypermediacy), but the development of the medium continues to be driven by a tension towards transparent immediacy, which “comes from the illusion of three-dimensional immersion and from the capacity for interaction” (Bolter, Grusin, 2000, p. 162).
Subsequent years have shown that the power of successful interaction can be so strong that we forget the outside world, regardless of poor rendering, a poor or deliberately minimalist interface. The kind of immersion generated by playful interactivity can be enough to induce us to shut the outside world off without the need to force our senses into a sensory apparatus that inhibits the possibility of accessing it, such as a VR headset. This happens, however, by continuously engaging our attention, through constant stimuli and reminders. Moreover, the external world remains there, accessible the moment this continuous demand for attention becomes less intense, or when other stimuli exceed in intensity or importance those of the virtual reality in which we are immersed.
Most of these stimuli come from the same information sources as the one in which virtual reality immerses us: the device we are playing on or the one we keep next to us, in our pockets or our purses while interacting with a simulated reality. As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff has so effectively noted, digital media tend to impose on us their notion of time, which is based on discrete units and not continuous like the human one (Rushkoff, 2010); this means that the flow of information we are immersed in is delivered to us in real time, and forces us to respond in real time. Vibrations, sounds and notifications constantly solicit our attention, distracting us from what we are doing. This, according to Rushkoff, imprisons us in the present, denying us any possibility of looking beyond it: “Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up […] It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now – and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is […] we tend to exist in a distracted present […] reacting to the ever-present assault of simultaneous impulses and commands” (Rushkoff, 2013).
Rushkoff calls this condition ‘present shock’. Ian Bogost, perceiving it as an exploding of the work sphere outside the boundaries to which capitalist society had relegated it, called it, in the same year, ‘hyperemployment’ (Bogost, 2013), remarking that being a ‘technology user’ means feeding the platform economy (Srnicek, 2017) with personal data which, aggregated, analysed and organised, become the raw material on which their business is built. This constant employment in the service of our devices – and the extractivist economies that design them – prompted the art critic Jonathan Crary to speak of late capitalism as a 24/7 society, engaged in eroding and enhancing any moment of life, including sleep (Crary, 2014).
This continuous hijacking of our attention has not spared even the sphere of artistic experience. Visiting an exhibition or a museum in the age of mobile devices has become an infinitely less focused experience than when we left the information flow at home (Quaranta, 2020). Whether we use our smartphones to respond to a notification, or take a photo or selfie in front of, or inside, artworks, or to seek information about what we are looking at, each of these activities fragments the moment of experience. Instead of restricting them, exhibition contexts are increasingly and explicitly encouraging them, in the realisation that scattering the images reinforces their presence in the internet’s economy of attention, and stimulates public participation.
But there is another dimension that, according to Crary, risks being compromised by the 24/7 condition: our ability to abandon ourselves to an uncontrolled flow of thoughts. “One of the forms of disempowerment within 24/7 environments is the incapacitation of daydream or of any mode of absent-minded introspection that would otherwise occur in intervals of slow or vacant time” (Crary 2014, p. 88). Crary’s comment converges with the rediscovery of the daydream by neuroscientists such as Marcus E. Raichle, who in 2001 called it ‘the brain’s default mode’, founded on a network of neurons that allows for more fluid and non-linear thinking (Raichle, 2001); and by psychologists such as Daniel Levitin, for whom this “distinctive and special brain state is marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, and a relative lack of barriers between senses and concepts” (Levitin, 2014). According to Levitin, the alternation between daydream and functional thinking is necessary to recalibrate and rest the brain; but daydreaming is compromised in the contemporary world by two conditions that have emerged in the digital age: information overload and multitasking.
As MSHR’s work demonstrates, the particular form of immersivity that virtual reality makes possible, especially when mediated by VR headsets, can help solve these two problems, offering a less distracted aesthetic experience and encouraging daydreaming. Canadian artist Jon Rafman notes: “I imagine a past where one could have an immersive experience simply by looking at a painting. Now, because I am so inundated with data and images, I am continually distracted […] Do I need to be ripped out of reality, and placed into a simulation, to have a coherent, focused experience?” (Rafman 2017). This is not a feature, but a possibility of the medium. The software of the main headsets on the market offers libraries brimming with options; the demanding interactivity of many video games and virtual reality applications leaves little room for digression. The relational nature of virtual chat rooms also constantly solicits our attention, rather than stimulating reverie. Virtual reality art experiences can be hyperactive, disorienting, overflowing with sensory stimulation, engaging and involve a social dimension as well. But when they want to be exploratory and meditative, as in the work of MSHR, Rafman, Rachel Rossin, Melodie Mousset and many other artists working with VR, they have all the tools to be so. Sensory isolation from the real dimension, losing a sense of time and the inability to document the experience create conditions for enjoyment that, outside the virtual, are now very rare; in some ways, they restore a ‘pre-digital’ mode of experiencing art, and offer the viewer, as MSHR say, a context in which they can build their own reality.
Bogost, I. (2013), Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User, The Atlantic, November 8.
Bolter, J. D., Grusin, R. (2000 ), Remediation. Understanding New Media, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Cattelan, M. (2011), MSHR, Muse Magazine, December 2011.
Crary, J. (2014 ), 24/7. Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Verso, New York.
Levitin, D. J. (2014), Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Penguin, New York.
Quaranta D. (2020), Between Hype Cycles and the Present Shock. Art at the End of the Future, Nero, Docs # 6.
Rafman, J. (2017), Jon Rafman, Artforum, November 2017, vol. 56, n. 3.
Raichle, M. E. et al (2001), A default mode of brain function, PNAS, vol. 98, no. 2, pp. 676-682.
Rushkoff, D. (2013), Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Penguin, New York.
Srnicek, N. (2017), Platform Capitalism, Polity Press, Cambridge (UK), Malden (USA).