What is a Virtuality?

Title: “The Journey Between Reality and Virtuality Takes but a Moment to Open Your Eyes”                                          Artist: Alison James

So I wanted to talk a little about Virtualities and what they have to do with art for me. The term, “Virtuality”, is actually a very old philosophical term from thinkers such as Deleuze and Proust who talked about the virtual being “real” but not material. And in today’s sense of the word, the meaning has not changed a lot, just the context in which we sense what is virtual. Our online presences are very “real” to most of us, but these presences are not really material. Even in the case of the virtual online world, Secondlife, the materials we have are not REAL. These materials are in fact, ephemeral and exist online for so long as the servers hold out or the electricity stays on. Without our physical affordances, the online world does not exist and neither do the things we hold within that space.

What therefore is a reality? This is a concept that has been of great interest to philosophers for a very….long….time….Aristotle is well known for breaking down the questioning of reality into a branch called Metaphysics which “is concerned with the nature of existence, being and the world”(1.) But it was Descartes who coined the phrase, “Dubito ergo Cogito ergo Sum” in which the idea that in doubting the nature of existence, we think about existence, thereby proving our existence as it is illogical for us to deny our mind’s existence while at the same time using our mind to deny its existence. Therefore WE EXIST and it is our consciousness that percieves that existence. <deep breath>

There is a Reality-Virtuality continuum along which we travel from what is known as “The Consensus Reality” which is the physical reality we all share to “Virtual Reality” with mixed realities such as Augmented Reality and Augmented Virtualities being placed somewhere between the two (see diagram below) (2.). The state in which we exist along the Reality-Virtuality continuum is dependent upon our technology. And you have to also consider that for a reality to have meaning, it must be a shared reality. This shared reality has been expanded with the advent of language, writing, visual art, theatre, music….as well as digital technologies, both emerging (such as VR) and legacy (such as TV).

Fig-1-Representation-of-the-virtuality-continuum
Diagram:  The Reality-Virtuality Continuum

At the moment, we are still standing on the precipice of the VR revolution. It is not yet quite so affordable or commonplace as the home computer, but it is ALMOST there. Our ability to place ourselves within a situation that is REAL but not MATERIAL must have some startling impacts on the world of art, how we perceive it, how we make it, and how we interact with it. It is an expansion of our shared reality that will undoubtedly change the way we look at the world. (3.)

An interesting point was made by Jo Yardley in the podcast Drax Files (4.) in regards to new virtual worlds. Most people who have been living in virtual worlds look upon the first social worlds being released in headset assisted VR with some skepticism. What they are seeing be produced, is a lot like what they have currently been experiencing. But there are also concerns with worlds such as SANSAR that they will take the core of what made SECONDLIFE such a intrinsically creative world for the most amount of people and turn it into an economic exercise. That instead of the consumers of the world being the creators, that our creativity will have to come from what is given to us or purchased by us through the corporations that run the worlds. Which harks back to the disappointment of Jaron Lenier (5.) in that the original hope for VR was that it would expand our creativity, but instead was beginning to look like constraining our creativity in an illusion of control.

Second Life, is an interesting case in understanding virtualities. It is undeniably a virtual world, but is it a virtual reality? If we go back to the reality-virtuality continuum we must argue that Second Life does not fully immerse us into another reality. The world exists on a screen. If we turn our head away or flick to another window, the world stops existing before our eyes. Therefore, it is not really a virtual reality. I would, however further argue that it IS a virtual world and that for a lot of people it is representational of a virtual reality. It is a very fine distinction between the two, and I am more than happy to be corrected on my definitions.

This is not to say that the Virtual world of Second Life is not immersive. Because it is. Very much so. Especially with regards to community and art. I will leave talk of the community there for another day, however, because one of the reasons I chose to become involved in virtual world art was because of its utterly seductive immersive properties. I adore installation art. Art that you can walk into and around and interact with and that changes with time. Virtual World Art adds a completely new dimension to that in that you are not inhibited by the physics of the real world. You just have to watch the incredible art of DC Spensley a.k.a. Dancoyote Antonelli (SKYDANCERS!!! <happysigh>) (6), or experience the bittersweet stories of Bryn Oh (7), Or feel the overwhelming intensity of the pop artist de Moya at Moya Land (8) to touch the concept of that difference and the scope.

So, after that roundabout discussion, what IS a virtuality and what does it have to do with art? I believe the definition of a virtuality harks back to the classical explanation. It is a place that is REAL but not material. It is ideas and dreams that ARE realities. And what is art but a way of seeing and dreaming, and ideas brought to a real dimension? Therefore, to me, Art has a firm and clear place within virtualities as well as physical realities, past, present and future.

Refs:
Wiki Virtuality page
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtuality_(philosophy)

Second Life http://www.secondlife.com

1. The basics of Philosophy – Metaphysics
http://www.philosophybasics.com/branch_metaphysics.html

2. Realityshift (February 15, 2016) (accessed: 30/11/2016) The reality-virtuality continuum, and how augmented reality and virtual reality are different
http://realityshift.io/blog/the-reality-virtuality-continuum-how-augmented-reality-and-virtual-reality-are-different

3. New Realities are Imminent: How VR Reframes Big Questions in Philosophy|Aeon Videos
https://aeon.co/videos/new-realities-are-imminent-how-vr-reframes-big-questions-in-philosophy

4. Drax Files Radio Hour with Jo Yardley Show #131 https://draxfiles.com/2016/12/03/show-131-the-state-of-the-virtual-world/

5. Lanier, Jaron. (2010) You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. Thorndike Press

6.  DC Spensley Studios http://www.dcspensley.com/art/

7.  Bryn Oh http://brynoh.blogspot.com.au/

8. Moya Land in Second Life http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Studio%20Moya/234/127/22

Diagram
https://www.researchgate.net/figure/257171501_fig1_Fig-1-Representation-of-the-virtuality-continuum

2 thoughts on “What is a Virtuality?

  1. For another perspective, you might be interested in the introduction to Digital Anthropology (Horst & Miller, 2012). They unequivocably state that the virtual is no more or less material than that which preceded it, on the principle that culture can only exist through objectification – that objectification makes a thing material without it necessarily being physical. It’s a bit of a mind stretch, but I can see what they mean though not how it fits with more philosphical ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

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