The "value" of particular artists after Duchamp can be
weighed according to how much they questioned the nature of art;
which is another way of saying "what they added to the conception
of art" or what wasn't there before they started. Artists question
the nature of art by presenting new propositions as to art's nature.
And to do this one cannot concern oneself with the handed-down "language"
of traditional art, as this activity is based on the assumption
that there is only one way of framing art propositions.
Kosuth (Art After Philosophy, 1969)
One can fly all over the earth in a matter of hours and days, not
months. We have the cinema, and color television, as well as the
man-made spectacle of the lights of Las Vegas or the skyscrapers
of New York City. The whole world is there to be seen, and the whole
world can watch man walk on the moon from their living rooms. Certainly
art or objects of painting and sculpture cannot be expected to compete
experientially with this.
Joseph Kosuth (Art After Philosophy,
Advance information about the concept of art and about an artist's
concepts is necessary to the appreciation and understanding of contemporary
Joseph Kosuth (Art After Philosophy, 1969)
This essay discusses an art based on the integration of telecommunications,
robotics, new kinds of human-machine interface, and computers. This
"telepresence art" can be understood within the wider
framework of electronic interactive art. At its best, interactive
art implies less stress on form (composition) and more emphasis
on behavior (choice, action), negotiation of meanings, and the foregrounding
of the public who, now transformed into "participants,"
acquire a prominent and active role in shaping their own field of
experiences. The role of the artist in interactive art is not to
encode messages unidirectionally but to define the parameters of
the open-ended context in which experiences will unfold.
It seems to me that some confusion has resulted from the almost
indistinguishable use of the words cyberspace, virtual reality,
and telepresence in recent electronic art theory and criticism.
This essay focuses on telepresence as a new art medium, but first
I wish to clarify the meanings of these three words. Second, I will
try to suggest that telepresence is a new kind of communicative
experience. Third, I will point out the primacy of real time over
real space as it pertains to this new kind of communication event,
in general, and to telepresence art, especially. Fourth, I will
comment on some cultural implications of telepresence beyond the
narrow field of scientific simulation. Finally, I will conclude
with a brief discussion of the telepresence installation "Ornitorrinco
on the Moon," created by myself and Ed Bennett especially for
the international telecommunication arts festival "Blurred
Boundaries" (Entgrenzte Grenzen II), that took place around
the world and was coordinated by Kulturdata, in Graz, Austria, in
Throughout the essay I will use the word media in reference to
all systems that allow transmission of information from one point
to another (television, telephone, modems, etc.). I will use the
phrase mass media more specifically in relation to systems that
transmit information unidirectionally from one point to many points
(television, radio, etc.).
CYBERSPACE, VIRTUAL REALITY AND TELEPRESENCE
The word "cyberspace" was first coined by William Gibson
in his sci-fi book "Neuromancer," where it meant "a
graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every
computer in the human system (1)." The prefix "cyber"
as used here comes from the science of "cybernetics" (from
the Greek "kubernetes," or steersman), first proposed
by Norbert Wiener in the 1940's to address control and communication
in animal and machine. In Cybernetics the notion of communication
of information joins biological and physical sciences, encompassing
under a general science automatic mechanisms and the workings of
the brain and the central nervous system. Topics usually understood
separately, such as mechanics, biology and electricity, are brought
together in the discussion of self-stabilizing control action and
communication, and man and machine are seen in analogous fashion.
Regardless of its pertinence, the ordinary use of the word memory
to describe the storage unit of a computer is an example of the
pervasive influence of cybernetic theory. It is also an example
of its subtle attempt to undermine the implications of traditional
philosophic concepts, such as soul, life, choice and memory which,
writes Jacques Derrida, "until recently served to separate
the machine from man (2)." Cyberspace is, therefore, a synthetic
space, where a human equipped with the proper hardware can interact
with a digital environment and with other humans based on visual,
acoustic and sometimes haptic feedback obtained from software.
The phrase "virtual reality," coined by Jaron Lanier
(3), is more generic than the term cyberspace. "Virtual reality"
depicts the new field of activity devoted to promoting human performance
and interaction in synthetic environments. These environments are
images representing computer data. The word "virtual,"
as used in computer jargon (e.g., "virtual memory"), can
be traced back to its earlier use in Optics, where a virtual image
is, for example, the one seen inside a (flat) mirror. A short definition
of virtual image holds that it is "seen at a point from which
the rays of light appear to come to the observer, but do not actually
do so (4)." Virtual images stand in opposition to the so called
real images, which are in fact formed outside a (concave) mirror.
A real image is formed "at a point through which the rays of
light entering the observer's eyes actually pass (5)." In Optics,
"virtual" stands for what is inside the mirror and beyond
reach, while "real" stands for that which is outside and
shares our three-dimensional bodily space. If we look at the surface
of the mirror as we look at the surface of the screen, as that boundary
that separates two spaces, the corporeal and the representational,
we notice that as opposed to the specular image the digital image
is formed on the screen through cathode rays actually projected
from within. The digital image on the screen does not require external
illumination as does the mirror to form its image. The digital image
on the screen projects light on us. It invades our corporeal reality.
Virtual reality blends the ideas of tangible corporeality (real)
and intangible representation (virtual). To experience virtual reality
one must, in a sense, enter the virtual image, i.e., one must be
immersed in cyberspace. The two concepts are inextricable.
As for telepresence, the coupling of robotics and telematics, we
must look at Robert Heinlein's short novel "Waldo," written
in the 1940s, to locate the fictional origin of the concept. He
tells the tale of Waldo F. Jones, a genius who suffered from a disabling
disease and who built for himself a zero-gravity home in orbit around
Earth. Using his impotent muscles without the constraints of gravity
he developed hardware ("waldoes") that allowed him to
perform teleoperations on Earth. He built waldoes with robotic hands
of different sizes, from half an inch to several feet across their
palms, which responded to the command of his arms and fingers. "The
same change in circuits which brought another size of waldoes under
control automatically accomplished the change in sweep of scanning
to increase or decrease the magnification so that Waldo always saw
before him in his stereo receiver a "life-size" image
of his other hands (6)." When Marvin Minsky wrote the pioneer
article "Telepresence" (7), he acknowledged Heinlein's
vision and proposed the development of a whole economy of mining,
nuclear, space and underwater exploration based on this technology.
Minsky: "Think how much more we could have learned with a permanent
vehicle on the moon. The Earth-Moon speed-of-light delay is short
enough for slow but productive remote control (8)." In the
same article Minsky also clarified the origin of the word "telepresence,"
which, he writes "was suggested by my futurist friend Pat Gunkel.(9)"
Telepresence, which seemed as improbable thirteen years ago as when
Heinlein wrote "Waldo," is quickly maturing as a new field.
In principle, telepresence and virtual reality coincide only when
a person immersed in the synthetic environment of cyberspace can
remotely control an actual telerobot in our tangible space and receive
feedback from his or her teleactions. On the other hand, researchers
are already implementing networked virtual reality. This means that
eventually several people from different countries will routinely
meet in a remote database and interact through their graphic projections
using telecommunication systems. In this case, then, we might also
start speaking of being "telepresent in cyberspace."
Telepresence is being pursued by scientists as a pragmatic and
operational medium that aims at equating robotic and human experience.
The goal is to reach a point in which the anthropomorphic features
of the robot matches the nuances of human gestures. In this search
for an "operational double," to use Baudrillard's term,
humans wearing flexible armatures will, scientists believe, have
a quantifiable feeling of "being there." While it is clear
that actions will be performed by telepresence on a more routinely
basis in the future, I do not think that the ability to execute
specific tasks which captivates scientists is what will interest
artists working with telepresence. It is certainly not what stimulates
me. The idea of telepresence as an art medium is not about the technological
feat, the amazing sensation of "being there," or any practical
application the success of which is measured by accomplishing goals.
I see telepresence art as a means for questioning the unidirectional
communication structures that mark both high art (painting, sculpture)
and mass media (television, radio). I see telepresence art as a
way to produce an open and engaging experience that manifests the
cultural changes brought about by remote control, remote vision,
telekinesis, and real-time exchange of audiovisual information.
I see telepresence art as challenging the teleological nature of
technology. To me, telepresence art creates a unique context in
which participants are invited to experience invented remote worlds
from perspectives and scales different than human, as perceived
through the sensorial apparatus of telerobots. The rhythms created
by this new art will be accented by intuitive interfaces, linking
and networking concepts, telerobot design, and remote environment
TELEPRESENCE: A NEW COMMUNICATIVE EXPERIENCE
It is clear that the old sender/receiver model of semio-linguistic
communication is no longer enough to account for the multimodal
nature of networked, collaborative, interactive telecommunication
events that characterize symbolic exchange at the end of the twentieth
century, be it in art or in the ordinary intercourse of our daily
affairs (10). As a hybrid of robotics and telematics telepresence
adds to the complexity of this scene. In telepresence links, images
and sounds are transmitted but there are no "senders"
attempting to convey particular meanings to "receivers."
Telepresence is an individualized bidirectional experience, and
as such it differs both from the dialogic experience of telephony
and the unidirectional reception of television messages.
We speak of the mass media as being means of communication, but
if we look carefully at the logistics of the mass media we realize
that what they produce is in fact non-communication. Baudrillard
says that mass media are anti-mediatory because communication is
"an exchange,(...) a reciprocal space of a speech and a response
(11)." How is this reciprocal space different from that of
the transmission-reception model made reversible through feedback?
In other words, when any television spectator phones in and participates
in a poll giving his/her opinion, is he or she in a reciprocal space?
Baudrillard doesn't think so: "The totality of the existing
architecture of the media founds itself on this latter definition:
they are what always prevents response, making all processes of
exchange impossible (except in the various forms of response simulation,
themselves integrated in the transmission process, thus leaving
the unilateral nature of the communication intact). This is the
real abstraction of the media. And the system of social control
and power is rooted in it (12)." Whether involving an exchange
between two interlocutors or not, telepresence seems to create this
space of reciprocity absent from mass media. The space created by
telepresence is reciprocal because the decisions (motion, vision,
operation, etc.) made by the "user" or "participant"
affect and are affected by the remote environment.
Baudrillard formulates the problem of lack of response (or irresponsibility)
with clarity, but to solve the problem, to restore the possibility
of response (or responsibility) in the current configuration of
the telecommunications media would be to provoke the destruction
of the existing structure of the media. And this seems to be, as
he rushes to point out, the only possible strategy, at least on
a theoretical level, because to take power over media or to replace
its content with another content is to preserve the monopoly of
verbal, visual, and aural discourse. The probing of the structure
of the mass media and the creation of parallel structures which
defy the persuasive nature of unidirectional transmissions is a
key concept to artists exploring interactivity.
In a growing tendency observable since the sixties, when videotape
and communication satellites became the major vectors in forming
the grammar of television, many important social events (both of
a progressive and conservative nature) have been experienced as
media events. Recent examples would include the historic democracy
movement in China and the Gulf War. Not that these events have become
the content of special programs; the new phenomenon is in that for
us these events take place in the media. Thus, it comes as no surprise
that Chinese crowds were cheering American reporters as heroes and
asking "Get our story out!" and that missiles sent to
Iraq transmitted from their own perspective images of their targets
as they approached them, until the very moment of the explosion,
when all we saw was a noisy screen. What one observes here is that
the meaning of actions no longer results purely and simply from
the actions themselves, from negotiations between co-present inter-actors;
meaning is now generated directly in the domain of reproducibility,
in the realm of the ubiquitous and unidirectional image. Telecommunication
media now seem to abstract everything, from their own pseudo-mediation
process to the massacre of a population. It all becomes abstract,
spectacular and, in a perverse twist, entertaining.
Telecommunications media now efface the distinction between themselves
and what used to be perceived as something apart, totally different
from and independent of themselves, something we used to call reality.
Baudrillard calls "hyperreal," or "hyperreality,"
this lack of absolute distinction between sign (or form or medium)
and referent (or content or real) as stable entities. In what is
likely to be his most celebrated essay, "The Precession of
Simulacra," he once again acknowledges McLuhan's perception
that in the electronic age the media are no longer identifiable
as different from its content. McLuhan knew that it is the new pattern
introduced by a new medium or technology which provokes the social
consequences of the medium or technology Ñ and not a particular
program content. But Baudrillard goes further saying that now "there
is no longer any medium in the literal sense: it is now intangible,
diffuse and diffracted in the real, and it can no longer even be
said that the latter is distorted by it (13)." One could say
that the fusion of the medium and the real is particularly true
in telepresence, since one can actually perform and change things
in the real world from far away.
Television is of particular importance here because it is the mass
medium par excellence, the most influential medium worldwide (as
compared to books, movies, magazines, radio, newspapers, computers,
etc.). It is easy to see that television's influence will grow even
stronger once high-definition TV and computers become integrated,
and once fiber-optic networks become as ordinary as the introspective
Walkman. I mention the Walkman because in its private sensorial
experience it can be seen as the epiphenomenon of a society that
chooses to remove itself from public space. Away from the public
space, we experience socialization as phone conversations, TV watching,
or through the electronic Agora which is the Internet (or networks
such as the French Minitel system). More and more the phenomenon
that used to be thought of as "direct" experience becomes
mediated experience without us really noticing it. To "get
in touch" (touch!) is to make a phone call, as the ubiquitous
American advertisement reminds us. People are getting married after
having developed personal relationships over the Internet, the worldwide
computer network (14). From a technological standpoint we are not
so far from routinely touching someone remotely through a phone
call by means of force-feedback devices. Like in Heinlein's "Waldo,"
the dream is of being there without ever leaving here. At different
levels we subordinate local space to remote action, promoting what
Baudrillard so succinctly described as "the satellitization
of the real (15)." What we understand by communication is changing
because physical distances between spaces no longer impose absolute
restrictions on certain kinds of bodily experiences (audition, vision,
touch, proprioception - i.e., sense of limb position, mobility,
etc.) as they once did.
In his essay "Signature Event Context," Derrida pointed
out the multivocal nature of the word communication. "We also
speak of different or remote places communicating with each other
by means of a passage or opening. What takes place, in this sense,
what is transmitted, communicated, does not involve phenomena of
meaning or signification. In such cases we are dealing neither with
a semantic or conceptual content, nor with a semiotic operation,
and even less with a linguistic exchange (16)." It is this
opening, this passage between two spaces, which defines the nature
of the particular communication experience created by telepresence
art. This opening is not a context for "self-expression"
(of the author or of the participant); it is not the channel for
communicating semiologically defined messages; it is not a pictorial
space where aesthetic formal issues are structurally relevant; it
is not an event of which one can clearly extract specific meanings.
Baudrillard has suggested that to restore the responsibility of
the media would imply a reconfiguration of the architecture of the
media. So it is up to contemporary artists to investigate new media
configurations in order to generate new aesthetic experiences that
incorporate bidirectional or multidirectional communication forms.
The basic structure of the telepresence installations I create with
Ed Bennett involves at least one regular phone line through which
the participant controls a telerobot in real time. Through the telerobot
the participant gathers images and hears the sounds in the environment.
The communication event created by telepresence art undoes the polarizing
categories of "transmitter" and "receiver" and
restores, in an unprecedented reversal, the primary sense of the
word tele-vision, empowering the participant with the ability to
decide what and when he or she wants to see.
REAL TIME AND THE DISAPPEARANCE OF DISTANCE
At a near subliminal level we are experiencing a significant change
in the way we carry out even our most ordinary affairs. What seems
to be at the core of this change is the fact that real space and
the very notion of distance are becoming increasingly irrelevant,
giving up their once privileged status to real time and the commuting
of sound and images (including text). I believe that this undeniable
change cannot be examined only with enthusiasm or reluctance, because
technophobia and technomessianism are two sides of the same coin.
I'm interested in understanding to what extent these changes will
reinforce social and cultural codes already in place and to what
extent they will create new ones, generating unpredictable contexts
where different artforms will emerge.
Paul Virilio addresses such questions as they concern the new social
role of the image and telepresence. Suggesting that live transmission
of video images over great distances becomes in itself a new kind
of place, a "tele-topographic locale," he states that
a tele-bridge of sorts, made of sound and image feedback loops,
gives origin to telepresence or telereality, of which the notion
of real time is the essential expression. This telereality, he says,
supersedes in real time the real space of objects and sites. In
other words, we now see the continuity of real time overcoming the
contiguity of real space. It seems to me that we experience this
new condition daily, when we are in the office or studio and activate
by remote control our answering machine at home to retrieve recorded
messages or when we withdraw money from an automatic teller machine,
after interacting with a machine that by its turn communicates with
a remote mainframe. The impact of fiber optics, monitors and video
cameras on our vision and on our surroundings will go beyond that
of electricity in the nineteenth century: "In order to see,"
Virilio observes, "we will no longer be satisfied in dissipating
the night, the exterior darkness. We will also dissipate time lapses
and distances, the exterior itself (17)."
In consonance with Baudrillard's perception of the new informational
landscape, Virilio advances the notion that we do not inhabit or
share a public space anymore, as we used to do before the electrification
of towns. Our domain of existence or socialization is now the public
image, with its volatile, functional and spectacular ubiquity that
commands identity, surveillance, relationship, memory and, ultimately,
life and death. To the notion of a phenomenology of perception as
epitomized by Merleau-Ponty he will oppose a logistics of perception,
the meaning of which becomes more obvious in the piercing gaze of
scientific imagery and in satellite surveillance, which will instantaneously
map the body of the patient or of the enemy territory. The strategy
of vision will anticipate the strategy of the assault (against a
virus or an army), and will be a powerful weapon in itself. With
the use of real-time video in surveillance systems and, in the near
future, also through the Internet, the introduction of video technology
in apartment buildings, and the popularization of the camcorder
and the videophone, social behavior is changing. One can expect
strategies of vision to develop on a more personal level.
For Virilio, one of the most important aspects of the new technologies
of digital imaging and of synthetic vision made possible by optoelectronics
is the "fusion/confusion of the factual (or operational) and
the virtual," the predominance of the "effect of the real
(18)" over a reality principle. In other words, everything
now involves images in one way or another. Not necessarily images
in the traditional sense of representation, but images of light
that are part of the contemporary landscape as electricity invaded
towns in the late nineteenth century, an "electronic lighting."
Images now are invasive and they are used by such diverse social
groups as artists and the military. The role of the image, Virilio
says, is "to be everywhere, to be reality (19)."
He distinguishes three kinds of logic of images, according to a
clear historical development. For Virilio, the formal logic of the
image is the one achieved in the eighteenth century with painting,
engraving and architecture. In traditional pictorial representation
it is the composition of the figure that has primary importance
and the flow of time is relatively irrelevant. Time is absolute.
The age of the dialectical logic is that of the photograph and of
cinematography in the nineteenth century, when the image corresponds
to an event in the past, to a differentiated time. At last, the
end of the twentieth century with video, computer and satellites
is the age of the paradoxical logic, when images are created in
real time. This new kind of image gives priority to speed over space,
to the virtual over the real, and therefore transforms our notion
of reality from something given to a construct. Virilio says that
to some extent the lesson of the new technologies is that reality
has never been given, it has always been acquired or generated.
Our images never really duplicated reality, they always gave it
shape. The difference is that previously a functional distinction
could still be made on more solid grounds.
A great deal of our social experience takes place through sound
and images transmitted throughout the globe via telecommunications:
regular or cellular phones, unidirectional television, cable's pseudo-interactive
shopping channels, desktop teleconference systems, fax and data
modems, the new wristwatch-beeper, and so on. In all cases the actual
space that disconnects the interlocutors is not an impediment to
interaction because what really separates them now is the different
The shortest distance between two points is no longer a straight
line, as it was in the age of the locomotive and the telegraph.
Today, in the age of satellites and fiber optics, the shortest distance
between two points is real time. The ability to commute information
instantaneously, to send and receive sound and images immediately
("i-mmediately, or with no apparent medium or means?"),
accounts for the decreasing social relevance of the extensity of
space in regard to the intensity of time. As a consequence, speed
is no longer expressed only in miles or kilometers per hour, but
also in bauds or bytes per second. More than ever, when in need
to actually dislocate our bodies through the environment we express
the contiguity of space by means of a temporal deferral or delay.
One can then (fearfully?) speak, as Baudrillard and Virilio have
done, of the simulators of leisure or stationary travels of the
future, teletourism that will take place in our own homes. The virtual
skiing salons currently being developed by NEC in Japan are just
Discussing the new cultural and aesthetic conditions of a society
that increasingly manipulates more information than objects, Abraham
A. Moles states that the human spirit is now having to adjust to
this new situation in which images and reality become more and more
identified with one another. I find this to be nowhere more patent,
in terms of applied technology, than in new virtual reality systems
under development by NASA (20) that allow a person immersed in cyberspace
to mediate force at a distance. In this case, the operator or user
acts or performs at the level of reality and virtuality simultaneously.
"As we enter the age of telepresence," writes Moles, "we
seek to establish an equivalence between "actual presence"
and "vicarial presence." This vicarial presence is destroying
the organizing principle upon which our society has, until now,
been constructed. We have called this principle the law of proximity:
what is close is more important, true, or concrete than what is
far away, smaller, and more difficult to access (all other factors
being equal). We are aspiring, henceforth, to a way of life in which
the distance between us and objects is becoming irrelevant to our
realm of consciousness. In this respect, telepresence also signifies
a feeling of equidistance of everyone from everyone else, and from
each of us to any world event (21)."
This new blending of reality and images and the "feeling of
equidistance" are, like most consumer technologies, the consequence
of research originally carried out for strategic and military purposes.
Telepresence will soon leave the laboratories and become more accessible,
as happened before with the telephone, radio, television, and computers.
We shall not loose sight of this, even if our sight is now blurred
with images of a new kind, images that themselves illuminate the
environment. The equidistance we share is felt as a media phenomenon,
if such a distinction can still be made, because of the process
of intermediation of real space promoted by real-time telecommunication
apparatuses. This equidistance means approximation as much as it
means distancing. The subordination of three-dimensional bodily
space to real time is a process of abstraction that continuously
blurs the distinction between images and reality. It brings the
most tragic news from Bosnia or Somalia to the same sphere of entertainment
as sitcoms and talk shows.
Telecommunications systems are used for overt or disguised entertainment
and surveillance, for democratic and anti-democratic propaganda
and for new forms of imprisonment. Today, remote surveillance is
found in public areas, such as the subway, or in private environments
such as office and apartment buildings. Remote surveillance systems
are also available for the domicile. During the Tian an Men Square
bloodshed, in Beijing, Chinese military warned journalists that
they would be shot if they photographed army units on the streets
of the city. CBS news anchorman Dan Rather was forced by Chinese
officials to shut down his satellite hookup, and so used videophones
("transceivers") to transmit still-video pictures over
regular phone lines from Beijing to New York, and from there to
rest of the world. Reporters like Richard Roth in Beijing used a
cellular phone to speak live on TV from Tian an Men Square over
pictures which galvanized world opinion. During the Gulf War, the
American government released pre-recorded video sequences transmitted
in real time by a missile, from its own perspective, until the moment
of the explosion. The images were broadcast to show the missile's
precision (which one obviously reads as military supremacy). Videophones
are also being used to control multiple offenders incarcerated in
their own homes. In some American states convicted drunk drivers
are prisoners in their own houses under a strict regime of electronic
surveillance. A computer at a local police headquarters phones the
offender at random up to 15 times every 24 hours and orders him
to transmit his picture after performing a simple task ("turn
your head to the right," for example) to confirm real-time
action. The computer also asks the offender to blow into an alcohol
tester and to send a picture of the resulting numbers.
Virilio reminds us that through telepresence, "the inhabitant
of telematic places is in the position of a demiurgue: to the omnivision
of the trans-appearance of things, it is added another divine attribute,
i.e., omnipresence from afar, a sort of electro-magnetic telekinesis
(22)." The use of remote surveillance for social control is
already rooted in our public space, and now its scrutinizing gaze
invades the privacy of the home.
LESS SIMULATION, MORE STIMULATION
If we look at the domain of virtuality not only as punishment but
as business as usual, from police headquarters to the corporate
world, we notice that Virtual Reality advocates like to suggest
that their systems are doing, and will do wonders for simulation
and visualization. The dream of omnivision resurfaces, this time
turning the invisible visible. At SIGGRAPH '91, in Las Vegas, I
had the opportunity to try several virtual reality systems, all
in one room where the show "Tomorrow's Realities" took
place. This turned out to be quite an interesting experience, since
I was able to compare the way my body reacted while I experienced
some ten systems. One of the systems I tried involved precisely
the idea of surrogate tourism mentioned before and was the one which
left me with the most vivid memories: "Mountain Bike with Force
Feedback for indoor Exercise," from University of North Carolina
at Chapel Hill. It used a 10-speed bicycle with a resistant device
attached to the rear wheel. As the user rides around in a synthetic
countryside he or she can change direction by turning the handlebars.
The rider sees the synthetic environment by wearing a head-mounted
stereo display and the pedaling resistance changes according to
the type of terrain.
What I found compelling was not so much the technological tour-de-force,
but my body's response. My whole body was engaged in the activity
of riding this bike, which meant that I was not propelled only by
my vision but by the coordination of my whole body. I was, however,
not able to disregard the fact that I had two tiny pixellated LCD
screens so close to my eyes. The result was a mixture of fascination
(for being immersed kinesthetically in cyberspace) and discomfort
(since my eyes never quite adapted to the screens and my body felt
suspended and groundless). Perhaps, the most significant of all
was the fact that I sustained conversation with the person who was
in charge of the demonstration throughout my journey, maintaining
through phatic language a link with the exterior reality. Language
was the only bridge between the two worlds, the only link that helped
me preserve my balance and that kept me from getting completely
sick from the experience. Language helped me keep in perspective
that there I was, in that room, stationary on an actual bike but
moving with a synthetic bike, listening to the sounds of the synthetic
world and to this real person's voice at the same time, but seeing
only a digital landscape. I needed a bridge, and language provided
me with it.
I tell this story because to me it illustrates the excitement in
exploring the bidirectional path between two planes of experience,
or more precisely, between two spaces. Language in the case of my
virtual bike ride was not so much a means of communication, in the
traditional sense of the word, between myself and my guide. Language,
in this specific context, was a means of communication between these
spaces, like an open door separating and joining, creating the feeling
of equidistance between two rooms. In the telepresence installations
I create with Ed Bennett, we use remote vision to bridge two or
more spaces. This remote vision, in its turn, operates simultaneously
at a metaphorical level. By creating a context in which the participant
experiences the remote environment through the images that he or
she gathers at will by pressing the keys on the phone, our telepresence
installations use the screen metaphorically as that which mediates
The traditional philosophical debate on direct or mediated perception
of reality reemerges with renewed interest today. In "T*l*pr*sence,
naissance d'un nouveau milieu d'exp*rience (23)" ("Telepresence,
birth of a new milieu of experience), Jean-Louis Weissberg indicates
what he sees as the phenomenological predicaments of virtual reality.
Despite being one more case in which the word telepresence is used
to indicate performance in cyberspace, with no mention to telerobotics
whatsoever, Weissberg's essay cleverly points out connections between
Merleau-Ponty's discussions of vision and what Weissberg refers
to as the "applied phenomenology of NASA's laboratories."
In "Eye and Mind" Merleau-Ponty had already criticized
the operational models of science as a construct; he had also mentioned
Panofsky's reading of Renaissance perspective in order to reveal
perspective as one among other possible forms of construction of
the world. In both cases, the constructs are abstracted from that
body caught in the fabric of the world which generates them. For
example, science uses instruments that "sense" phenomena
that the human body doesn't respond to and the technique of perspective
promotes cyclopean vision, which doesn't represent stereopsis and
other aspects of human vision. If scientific thinking deals with
"the most 'worked-out' phenomena, more likely produced by the
apparatus than recorded by it (24)," Renaissance perspective
tried to found an "exact construction" but was only "a
particular case, a date, a moment in a poetic information of the
world which continues after it (25)." Rejecting Cartesian rationalism
Merleau-Ponty states that one cannot "imagine how a mind could
paint" and that in fact it is in his or her actual body --
not the body as bundle of functions but as an "intertwining
of vision and movement" -- that the artist changes the world
into artworks (26). Observing the indissociability of vision and
motion, Merleau-Ponty underlines that the body is immersed in the
visible, that it sees and is seen, that it sees itself seeing. Changes
of place, Merleau-Ponty writes, form a "map of the visible,"
meaning that what is within reach of sight, the visible world, is
also within the map of motility, "the world of my motor projects."
"My movement," writes Merleau-Ponty, "is not a decision
made by the mind, an absolute doing which would decree, from the
depths of a subjective retreat, some change of place miraculously
executed in extended space. It is the natural consequence and the
maturation of my vision (27)."
The very idea of telepresence in art plays on the notion of this
"change of place miraculously executed in extended space."
This miracle, of course, is not achieved by a mental command but
by the use of specific instruments (telerobot, videomodem, telephone,
video monitors, etc.). This equipment, which in science would be
used for data-collecting, in art is used as a means to address the
complexity of our perception in the age of media. If we once thought
of images only in terms of mirror reflections, pictorial representations,
or mental recollections, today electronic images command the map
of the visual and of the motor projects of humankind. That is why
Virilio spoke, as I mentioned before, of a logistics of perception
replacing a phenomenology of perception. Electronic cameras invade
all spaces (including the limits of the galaxy and the human body,
during surgery) and electronic images on screens become indissociable
from other elements in our landscape.
The screen, then, acquires a particular significance. In our telepresence
installations, the screen is both the bridge to another place and
that which makes vision possible. But this vision doesn't separate
what it sees from where it sees it, it doesn't separate space from
objects, since all are brought to the same layer. This layer, by
its turn, is a black and white, pixellated image, which breaks action
into instants, which invites participants to generate "maps
of the visible." The low-resolution image which forms the bridge
to the low-resolution environment draws attention to itself and
makes no effort to disguise itself as that clear window that commercial
television strives to be. The screen, then, is as much a part of
the process of seeing, as the movements made by the participant
in consonance with the telerobot. The point here is that we humans
do not see just because light shines on objects around us exciting
our retinas, but because of a code or a network of meanings are
in place prior to our seeing, allowing us to recognize these illuminated
objects as meaningful forms. "Between the subject and the world,"
writes Norman Bryson, "is inserted the entire sum of discourses
which make up visuality, that cultural construct, and make visuality
different from vision, the notion of unmediated visual experience.
Between retina and world is inserted a screen of signs, a screen
consisting of all the multiple discourses on vision built into the
social arena (28)." This linguistic interpretation of visuality
agrees with Merleau-Ponty when he says that our eyes are "more
than receptors for light rays" and that the gift of the visible
"is earned by exercise (29)." This interpretation uses
the metaphor of the screen as that which mediates our experience,
a screen which catches our vision in a network of meanings agreed
socially. In this sense, perhaps, all "presence" is somewhat
removed, remote, caught in an oscillation between presence and absence.
Merleau-Ponty: "voir c'est avoir distance," or "to
see is to have at a distance (30)." The use of the video monitor
in our telepresence installations is meant both as a door or passage
between two spaces and a metaphor for our mediated experience of
an intelligible world. As an artwork, "Ornitorrinco on the
Moon" is not concerned with scientific simulation but with
promoting aesthetic stimulation of the presence-absence experience.
ORNITORRINCO ON THE MOON
Ornitorrinco (Platypus, in Portuguese) is the name of the telepresence
project I have been working on with Ed Bennett since 1989. In that
year the project was experienced for the first time in a link between
myself in Rio de Janeiro, accompanied by Brazilian art critic Reynaldo
Roels Jr., and Ed Bennett in Chicago (31). In 1992 the installation
"Ornitorrinco in Copacabana" was unveiled publicly at
the SIGGRAPH Art Show, in Chicago (32). Three miles separated SIGGRAPH
Art Show visitors from the actual site of the installation. Now,
the installation "Ornitorrinco on the Moon" between Chicago
and Graz, especially created for "Blurred Boundaries",
adds real-time sound and takes place across the Atlantic Ocean.
The basic structure is similar to previous installations: when participants
in Graz press the keys on a regular telephone they control in real
time the vision and motion of the telerobot Ornitorrinco in Chicago.
The numbers on the key pad of the phone are treated as spatial coordinates
(press 1 and turn left, press 2 and move forward, press 3 and turn
right, and so on). When the participant presses 5 he or she stops
Ornitorrinco in Chicago and requests that an image be sent back
to him or her in Graz. Ornitorrinco responds to the motion request
in real time. Because of the limited bandwidth of regular phone
lines, it takes approximately 6 seconds for the image to be formed
on the remote screen. It is worth mentioning that telecommunication
time delays between Earth and the Moon are approximately 3 seconds,
and time delays between Earth and Mars are close to 30 minutes.
In an art context, the rationale of remote communication belongs
to another order of experience than science. It is a matter of exploring
on the level of the aesthetic that which is the material expression
of a change in the cultural patterns of our society: the subordination
of real space to real time. The moon here is not the Earth's natural
satellite, of course. Those looking for mimetic lunar motifs in
the installation will have their expectations frustrated. The moon
in this installation is an image among other images, where the participant
moves about at will, encountering here and there elements of surprise,
discovering every now and then spaces not explored before. This
exploration originates a "subjective cartography". The
participant tries spontaneously to map the space based on samples
gathered along the way. The samples are gathered not from a human
scale, but from the perspective of the telerobot Ornitorrinco (approximately
two feet above the ground). Each "map of the visible"
that results from each experience is, therefore, unique in its difference
to paths explored by other participants. Each mental map is particular
to each experience, which is to say that each participant forms
a different conception of the actual space. The actual space is
therefore vicariously multiplied, corroborating the irrelevance
of its factual data. In our telepresence installations the features
of the actual space (geographic location, size, color, materials,
etc.) are irrelevant; it all takes place as an image, the image
being the place. The participant only gains access to the space
through pictures he or she gathers while moving telerobotically in
real time. The actual space is not to be experienced by humans locally,
in person, as an installation in itself, but rather as ephemeral
and fleeting images perceived through a single regular phone line
"Ornitorrinco" is both the name of the telerobot and
of the telepresence art project Ed Bennett and I continue to pursue.
Ornitorrinco combines telecommand with a minimum level of autonomy:
when collisions occur, it moves back and turns away from the obstacle.
This prevents the remote participant from getting stuck in a corner
and from getting entangled with objects in the environment. Ornitorrinco's
current configuration is not final, and neither is the interface
with the participant. Both will continue to evolve as we investigate
new possibilities. At present we are sketching ideas for new installations
as well as discussing new forms of sensorial feedback from the remote
site. Remaining consistent with the concept of geographic displacement
that characterizes the titles of our installations, we are currently
preparing "Ornitorrinco in the Sahara", in which we plan
on incorporating color and networking.
An art that addresses the cultural, material and philosophical
conditions of our time must manifest itself with the means of our
time. Some of the alternatives for this new aesthetic are real-time
interactive installations, robotics and telecommunication events.
Seen together these possibilities define a zone of intersection
that can be precisely termed "telepresence art".
Originally published in English and German in Teleskulptur,
Richard Kriesche, Editor (Graz, Austria: Kulturdata, 1993), pp.
48-72. A shorter version appeared as "Telepresence: A New Communicative
Experience", Epipháneia, N. 2, March 1997, Salerno,
Italy, pp. 53-55.
1- William Gibson, Neuromancer (New York: Ace Books, 1984), p.
2- Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore and London: John
Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 9.
3- Jaron Lanier: "I made up the term 'virtual reality'. Originally
the term referred to systems that used head-mounted displays and
gloves that were networked together so that people could experience
a shared meeting place in the virtual world and have the ability
to design the world with simulated tools while they were inside
it. I made up the term to contrast this technology with "virtual
environment" systems, where you focus on the external world but
not on the human body or the social reality created between people."
See Lanier's interview to Tim Druckrey reproduced in Digital Dialogues;
Photography in the Age of Cyberspace, Ten.8, Volume 2, N* 2, p.
4- E.B. Uvarov, D.R.. Chapman, and Alan Isaacs, The Penguin Dictionary
of Science, (Middlesex, UK: Penguin, 1983), p. 212.
5- Op. cit., p. 211.
6- Robert A. Heinlein, Waldo & Magic, Inc. (New York: Ballantine
Books, 1990), p. 133.
7- Marvin Minsky, "Telepresence," in Omni, June 1980,
8- Minsky, op. cit., p. 48.
9- Minsky, op. cit., p. 47.
10- Eduardo Kac, "Aspects of the Aesthetics of Telecommunications,"
in SIGGRAPH '92 Visual Proceedings, John Grimes and Gray Lorig,
eds. (New York: ACM, 1992), pp. 47-57.
11- Jean Baudrillard, "Requiem for the media," in Video
Culture, John Hanhardt, ed. (New York: Visual Studies Workshop Press,
12- Baudrillard, op. cit., p.129.
13- Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), p.
14- See Tracy LaQuey with Jeanne C. Ryer, The Internet Companion
(Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992), p. 8, and Barbara Kantrowitz
et alli, "Live Wires", Newsweek, September 6, 1993, Volume
CXXII, N0. 10, pp. 43-45.
15- Jean Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication,"
in The Anti-Aesthetic; Essays on Postmodern Culture, Hal Foster,
ed. (Port Townsend, Wash.: Bay Press, 1983), p. 128.
16- Jacques Derrida, "Signature Event Context," in Limited
Inc (Evanston, IL: Northwestern, 1990), p. 1.
17- Paul Virilio, L'Inertie Polaire (Paris: Christian Bourgois,
18- Paul Virilio, La Machine de Vision (Paris: Galil*e, 1988),
19- Interview with Paul Virilio in "The Work of Art in the
Electronic Age," Special Issue of Block, N. 14 (1988), Middlesex
Polytechnic, Hertfordshire (UK), p. 7.
20- Scott S. Fischer, "Virtual Environments: Personal Simulations
& Telepresence," in Virtual Reality; Theory, Practice,
and Promise, Sandra K. Helsel and Judith Paris Roth, eds. (Westport,
CT and London: Meckler, 1991), pp. 101-110. On page 107 Fischer
writes: "The VIEW system is currently used to interact with
a simulated telerobotic task environment. The system operator can
call up multiple images of the remote task environment that represent
viewpoints from free-flying or telerobot-mounted camera platforms.
Three-dimensional sound cues give distance and direction information
for proximate objects and events. Switching to telepresence control
mode, the operator's wide-angle, stereoscopic display is directly
linked to the telerobot 3-D camera system for precise viewpoint
control. Using the tactile input glove technology and speech commands,
the operator directly controls the robot arm and dexterous end effector
which appear to be spatially correspondent with his own arm."
21- Abraham A. Moles, "Design and Immateriality: What of It
in a Post-Industrial Society?," in The Immaterial Society;
Design, Culture and Technology in the Postmodern World, Marco Diani,
ed. (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1992), pp. 27-28.
22- Virilio, L'Inertie Polaire, p. 129. Virilio coined the term
"trans-appearance" (p. 108) to indicate that in this age
of real-time transmission of sensible appearances it is no longer
light alone that lets us see, but its speed. Virilio: "Transparency
is not only that of the appearance of objects seen at the instant
of the gaze. It suddenly becomes that of appearances transmitted
instantaneously over distance; therefore I propose the term TRANS-APPEARANCE
of 'real time,' and not only the TRANSPARENCY of the 'real space'."
23- Jean-Louis Weissberg, "T*l*pr*sence, naissance d'un milieu
d'exp*rience" in Art Press Sp*cial, Paris, H.S.
N* 12, 1991, pp. 169-172.
24- Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Eye and Mind," in The Primacy
of Perception and Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the
Philosophy of Art, History and Politics, James M. Edie, ed., (Evanston,
Ill: Northwestern, 1964), p. 160.
25- Op. cit., pp. 174-175.
26- Op. cit., p. 162.
27- Op. cit., p. 162.
28- Norman Bryson, "The Gaze in the Expanded Field,"
in Vision and Visuality, Hal Foster, ed., (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988),
29- Merleau-Ponty, op. cit., p. 165.
30- Merleau-Ponty, op. cit., p. 166.
31- Eduardo Kac, " Ornitorrinco: Exploring Telepresence and
Remote Sensing," in Leonardo, Vol. 24, N* 2, 1991, p. 233.
32- Eduardo Kac, "Towards Telepresence Art," in Interface,
Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design, The Ohio State
University, Vol. 4, N* 2, November 1992, pp. 2-4. See also SIGGRAPH
'92 Visual Proceedings, John Grimes and Gray Lorig, eds. (New York:
ACM, 1992), p. 39.