This is a rewrite of a blogpost published in swedish before. I made it for Inpex 2012 edition of the infamous silver bible aka. The Swedish Dance History vol. 4. It’s situated in the very end of the book btw.
What happens to our capacities to look and see when our senses are dominated by an image world? Who can we become? Video glasses are just about to hit consumer markets (although still pricy and bulky). Who knows if it will be used in everyday life, but anyhow it could definitely be a tool for artistic development. So let’s talk about the possibilities of enfolding visual immersion.
James Cameron, famous for for blockbusters such as Titanic and Avatar and a lot of crap had some interesting ideas too. To his merits one could mention the script for the Terminator movies as well as the commercial failure Strange Days (1996). It’s not a good movie, but it should concern us.
My guess is that Strange Days was written in the backwash of the LA riots in 1992, which followed a well known dramaturgy (frequently replayed during the uprisings in Europe as well as the Arab world in recent years). Four white cops beat up a black guy. They are all declared innocent by a white jury. An “amateur photographer” (so retro I know) captured the whole thing, which made the reality of the situation very obvious. The anger that erupted led to a wave of revolt, looting and general mayhem. 53 persons where killed during the riots, many of them shot by police and military forces. (Oh, memory is short.)
The LA riots in many ways foregoes the protest movements that grew during the nineties, such as the globalization movement. When state violence is visualized in such an inevitable way revolt will follow. The images are verification of a common experience of suppression, that can be shared through the imagery. Cameron probably had some presumptions because he set Strange Days in the future. More precisely the fateful night of new years eve 1999, at the dawn of a new millennia (#1 anti-climax of our lives). LA, which is also the stage of the movie, is depicted in a carnevalesque state of emergency.
“This is not like TV only better”
At the center of the action is a new media technology circulating on the black market. The tech makes it possible to record short clips (think Youtube), containing all the sensory experiences that a person have when the recording happens. By mounting a helmet that sends sensory stimuli directly into ones brain anyone can relive or re-experience the same event from within.
The clip that sparks the plot contains a recording of a police assault as discussed above. Another clip was shot during a robbery and ends when the robber in a hitchcockian manner falls from a roof – the difference being that this time we follow the subjective gaze all the way down – POV.
I thought Strange Days was more or less forgotten, but when I checked for it in my book shelfs it shows up here and there. Bolter and Grusin describes the fictional media technology pretty well in Remediation:
“This is not like TV only better,” says Lenny Nero in the futuristic film StrangeDays. “This is life. It’s a piece of somebody’s life. Pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex. You’re there. You’re doing it, seeing it, hearing it . . . feeling it.” Lenny is touting to a potential customer a technological wonder called “the wire.” When the user places the device over her head, its sensors make contact with the perceptual centers in her brain. In its recording mode, the wire captures the sense-perceptions of the wearer; in its playback mode, it delivers these recorded perceptions to the wearer. If the ultimate purpose of media is indeed to transfer sense experiences from one person to another, the wire threatens to make all media obsolete. Lenny mentions television, but the same critique would seem to apply to books, paintings, photographs, film, and so on. The wire bypasses all forms of mediation and transmits directly from one consciousness to another.
The media thus conceals itself, experience seems instant, what Bolter and Grusin call immediacy. Immediacy is described in relation to an opposing mode: hypermediacy, where the medium presents its own mediumship, such as when the camera is revealed as a camera by blur or image distortion. Oddly enough, hypermedia seems to be an equally successful strategy to create credible and compelling images, but that’s a parenthesis in this context.
Abuse turned inside-out
The sensory clips in Strange Days are raw, uncut and often violent or erotic. They are recorded on cassettes susceptibly MiniDisc-looking. There’s a really disgusting scene that is hard to rid off your mind. A man put a recording device on himself and a playback device on a woman, then he ties and rapes her. She looks at her body from the outside and how he approaches it. She can also feel how he is enjoying the abuse. Thus, she becomes co-driver in the body of the raper, and is forced to enjoy the situation through him. This makes the abuse even worse.
This gap, to see yourself from the outside, to be a body that has disconnected from the consciousness is of course a daunting and exciting condition that obviously meet certain trends in media development, but in Strange Days it is taken to its extreme. My hacker friend Leo told me about how the shady group Hack Canada experimented with relatively simple techniques experimented to re-stage the setup.
Telepresence and wetware hacking
HC have a section where they describe various attempts to hack the brain, one of them is TelePresence Bi-Autoerotic Intercourse:
Remember that scene in the movie Strange Days where the killer used some bizarre futuristic neural recorder technology to transmit what he saw and felt to his victim as he raped and killed her? So from her perspective it was like she was raping and killing herself, and getting-off on the act. Well, there won’t be any rape or killing here, but I realized I had all the gear kicking around to do something similar to this. Using a Virtual Reality Head Mounted Display and a miniature video camera, a person can see themself having sex from their partners’ perspective. Telepresence Bi-Autoerotic Intercourse… phuck yourself.
In the above setup, one can visually experience how it is to fuck with oneself while physically staying in ones own body. The hacker crew underlines that the kick is all about moving the consciousness out of ones own body.
Foremost, the sensation of telepresence when viewed through an HMD is quite mind-blowing. It’s as if you have left your body. The disembodied feeling is further complicated upon seeing oneself from another person’s perspective. When the camera wearer holds their arms out and starts coming at you, and touching you, ones mind really takes a twist. The other persons arms seem like your own, and suddenly you feel very vulnerable and trapped, it’s like assaulting yourself and you can do nothing about it. Very disorienting. Don’t get me wrong, it is great fun and great entertainment.
The setup can also be doubled, so that both parties see the situation from each other’s perspective:
Anyway, back to the sexual experience. Holding the Camera and viewing from a variety of disembodied third person perspectives is very stimulating and unique. Many intriguing variations are possible and it makes for good foreplay since regular forms of foreplay are restricted by the bulkiness of the HMD. Now, as far as how stimulating you will find all of this depends largely on your intellectual openess and your level of priggishness.
There are not many artists who have started working in this direction yet. An exception I found was Me and the Machine by Sam Pearson and Clara García Fraile. They made a nine-minute film as seen through video glasses and simultaneously “portrayed” sensory by a dancer. How well it works is hard to see from the documentation. Perhaps the gap between the viewer’s movements and camera movements are too big to fool the brain, but our mind is generally good in making sense out of diverse input.
Well, we can only find out by starting to experiment with it. In short: Turn on, tune in, drop out.