• On Immersion: Editorial Essay
  • Julia Yezbick, Rachel Yezbick, and Emilio Vavarella
  • [7] On Immersion
  • 01/2021

When we first started to brainstorm about this collection in late 2018, we did not foresee the ways in which our world would change before its publication. Though it seems in some ways ironic, or even cruel, to think deeply about “immersion” now, as many of us have spent the last 8+ months immersed in our own quarantine “bubbles” and our connections to the world and to loved ones have been relegated to the many screens that now constitute our windows to the outside. It also can seem insensitive and unscrupulous to question the ways that first-hand experience and a “sense of being there” have shaped the epistemes that we are investigating here. But, on the other hand, it seems entirely apropos to ask ourselves what purchase do we give to first-hand experience over other forms of mediated interaction? Where does the immersive begin and end? How do various forms of media immerse us differently, and to what effect? And what is gained and what is lost in immersive media experiences as compared to other forms or modalities of mediated experiences?

This project began with a conversation about the peculiar ways in which immersion has been invoked in two seemingly disparate fields and sectors: cultural anthropology and immersive technologies such as Virtual Reality. From ethnography and other field methodologies to emergent media, immersive practices hold grand promises. Christopher Pinney argues that the parallel histories of anthropology and photography have entwined their essential premises such that the distanciation of the fieldworker could be poetically read as analogous to the photochemical processes of photography — the ethnographer when exposed first-hand to a different culture would come away with privileged, experiential knowledge, like film exposed to light (1992).1 Yet our bodies are fallible transmitters of experience and every anthropologist returning from the field knows well the quandaries that present themselves when they sit down to write having emerged from their place of immersion. How does one give a sense of “being there” (the most lauded measure of ethnographic authority)? Advances in immersive technologies such as AR, VR, and XR are built to do just that – provide first-hand experiences of other times, places, and realities. However, they raise new questions about what it means to witness an event or to have an experience, prompting us to ask: what is the relationship of our sensorial experiences to reality, and to what extent does it matter? Today, as our worlds contract not only into “bubbles” of physical interaction but also into information bubbles, we recognize that user-centric algorithms and the strong arm of capitalism are increasingly controlling and manipulating the platforms that dictate our social lives and, in turn, largely determining the ways in which we engage with and perceive our worlds. If the ability to be changed in some way by sensorial experience is no longer linked to shared realities outside of these bubbles, what politics of narrative and representation do we need to consider when consuming the commoditized package of narrative, media, and branding that virtual or augmented realities present (or any media for that matter)? In this vein, we come to recognize that immersion, just like cultural immersion, is not neutral or wholistic; it is limited and limiting; it is susceptible to individual subjectivities, proclivities, and biases; it is partisan and political, and thus has the potential to unite or divide, as we see in Young Joo Lee’s contribution to this collection.

Before we had the opportunity to contemplate our newly-cloistered lives, we met face-to-face at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in March of 2019. Together with Julie Malozzi, Critical Media Practice (CMP) Administrative Director, and Peter Galison, CMP Co-director and University Professor of History of Science and Physics at Harvard University, we convened a workshop that gathered together academics in the fields of media studies, anthropology, and science and technology studies; programmers/coders, artists, and curators to engage in cross-disciplinary and cross-sector discourse around key issues of immersiveness today. One critical question that emerged during our discussion was: what is an activity or experience that is not immersive? Certainly, immersion is a quality of experience that exists along a spectrum of intensity. Much of our lives are now spent in partial immersions. Whether we are in a virtual work meeting or talking on the phone or reading a book, these activities take us partially out of our immediate surroundings. But there are many deeper issues hiding just beneath the surface of this spectrum of immersiveness, particularly when they aim to present information, to represent others or their experiences, to solicit behaviors, or bolster ideologies. In what ways do immersive media exclude, misrepresent, or further perpetuate social, cultural, and political divides despite the promises, levied by some early adopters, of inclusion, equity, and empathy? What are the ethical, political, social, and aesthetic implications of one’s experiences in an AR/VR environment? And what kind of impact will they ultimately have in the world? While these questions guide our inquiries, we will leave the research on such matters to more able hands (See: Kamal Sinclair’s “The High Stakes of Limited Inclusion,” the first in the Making a New Reality series, as well as new collaborative initiatives such as Virtual Realities: Immersive Documentary Encounters in the UK, and MIT Open Doc Lab’s collaboration with IDFA DocLab on augmented reality).2

While so-called immersive media of various sorts have been around for decades, the entangled nature of immersive media with late-stage capitalism has rendered it a veritable influencer of consumption patterns, ultimately turning everything from our shopping habits to our political positions into a grand marketing scheme. In this edited collection, our contributors explore the history of immersive media through artworks that address VR and AR’s relationship to early sensorium machines and cinema, as well as through works that use the transportive qualities of 360 and first-person gaming to look at the frightening underbelly of late-stage capitalism’s user-driven politics.

Peter Lunenfeld’s “Colloidal Suspension: Immersion and the Pedagogies of Making” explores the consumer-driven side of immersive tech as the subject of critical design pedagogy. After attending our workshop at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in March of 2019, he decided to take his Design Media Arts students at UCLA to Century City where Rem D. Koolhaus’ United Nude design company had set up an immersive marketing exhibit of their haute couture architectural footwear and their eye-catching “low-res” car. The pop-up utilized AR technologies designed by FLOAT LAND studio to run on platforms built by the AR/VR company Magic Leap. Lunenfeld situates their object of study within the historical context of immersive media, noting that AR/VR technologies are once again having “a moment” as headsets such as the Oculus Rift are hitting more mainstream markets and retailers and designers are utilizing virtual and augmented reality technologies to transform their marketing strategies. He also prepared his students for the field visit and their task to both make creative work and theorize/analyze the exhibit by engaging them in a series of discussions with other designer-scholars such as Dunne and Raby, Brenda Laurel, Anne Burdick, and Geert Lovink and Mieke Gerritzen. As a course in critical design, Lunenfeld’s aim was to help his students find a way to turn their design research into design practice. To delegate their efforts, he put the students into groups to (1) examine United Nude as a company and their use of pop-ups and speculative design, (2) analyze the use of AR technology in the exhibit as designed and implemented by FLOAT LAND studio, (3) research the ways in which Magic Leap was positioned within the “hype cycle,” and (4) to compare United Nude’s use of AR to other tech-heavy retail outlets nearby.

Lunenfeld writes, “There is little in the way of truly 21st-century innovative thinking about immersion, and even less critical design pedagogy in these areas” (this collection). Ultimately, his article seeks to fill this gap and provide a pedagogical model in which students critically examine and creatively respond to the intricacies of the “hype economy” at the heart of market-driven uses of AR. His piece highlights and links to his students’ critical design work adding many analytic and creative voices to the conversation on immersive technologies.

We, at Sensate, were very excited to have veteran designer and author Denise Gonzales Crisp collaborate on Lunenfeld’s piece. Entirely constructed within google spreadsheets, Gonzales Crisp’s design appropriates the cells and tabulations of an accountant’s ledger, molding them into new modes of engagement. She breaks the functional rigidity of the spreadsheet, utilizing the design elements in ways they were not necessarily intended. Gonzales Crisp takes this tool to an unparalleled level of craftsmanship, wielding the computer as a design tool of the visual arts. She draws upon the affordances of spreadsheets to provide scale, complexity, and detail, allowing readers to dive into the article and swim around. Her design practice encompasses an approach she calls the “decorational,” which aims to recuperate the decorative from the trash bins of Modernism, “‘to engage the discourse of ornament with that of rational design’, and to suggest that ‘function is completed by ornament.’”3 Since our founding a decade ago, Sensate has been committed to providing a space for scholarly work that takes its form as seriously as its content, understanding that design is not only a supplementary element but crucially shapes how and what we come to know about the world around us. We do not see decoration or aesthetics as an afterthought, but rather as thought itself. In this way, Gonzales Crisp’s decorational design fulfills this ambition by inviting readers to meander, to peruse, and get lost in the content in ways that the linearity of scholarly writing seldom allows.

When we approached Stephanie Deumer to discuss her contribution to the Immersion Collection for Sensate we immediately touched upon a wide range of issues and topics connected to different immersive technologies. We had all been thinking about immersive tech for some time, but, more importantly, we were thinking about ‘immersion’ in terms of the wider psychic and sociopolitical pervasiveness in which immersive technologies are inscribed. Such an approach has multiple advantages: it contextualizes immersive technologies within a longer history of sensorial immersion and, simultaneously, it expands the notion of sensorial immersion by showing how immersive technologies are immersed within all-encompassing systems of social reproduction.

One case that sits precisely at the intersection of all these issues and that was of particular interest to all of us is the rise of artificially intelligent assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana. What’s well known is that these AI entities have carved a significant space in the daily lives of millions of people. What is less discussed, however, is how such genderless nonhuman agents become immersed within a patriarchal capitalist logic, and re-emerge as feminized and fully inscribed within a framework of domestic and clerical labor. In other words, the logic of technologic power produces new gendered technologies while operating the reconfiguration from a ‘gendered embodied entity’ to a ‘gendered disembodied intelligent sound wave.’ This observation is the starting point of Deumer’s piece. On the one hand, she considers sub-divisions and partitioning, reductions, mirrorings, and disembodiments such as those operating between body and voice. On the other hand, she excavates an apparently absolute socio-technical immersion without any apparent ‘outside’.

Deumer’s piece plays with these ideas of separation and immersion. Her artistic contribution takes the form of two written and illustrated essays that have been digitally layered and must be read ‘within’ or ‘through’ one another. This layering is both a separation but also a point of contact that short-circuits any rigid dichotomy between the two texts. She juxtaposes a text that revolves around Alan Turing’s ‘imitation game’ with a text focused on Jacques Lacan’s ‘theory of the masquerade.’ Here we have two kinds of imitation: one socio-computational and the other psychoanalytic — but not for this less technical. Deumer shows how this double imitation acts as a mirroring between human and artificial intelligence as well as between human gendering. This mirroring, she shows, leads to a twofold production: imitation-as-woman and woman-as-imitation. Deumer describes this double production as ‘an endless loop of subordination’ and her contribution to Sensate frames this process with surgical precision. Finally, she reveals how immersive technologies like Amazon’s Alexa are intertwined with all the problematics of social reproduction, including gender inequality and psychoanalytical transfers.

Can we think of immersion, then, not simply as something that takes place all around us, enveloping our bodies and sensoriums, but as something that is already present within ourselves and within our technologies? Is our mind always immersed? And, if so, in what? Deumer reminds us that the only real split between body and mind is the one produced by the operations of technological apparatuses like those discussed in her project. What mental models frame our thinking and the technologies we build? Are there forms of immersion that act from all around and forms of immersion that act from within? And is it possible to think about a creative ‘emersion’ not tethered to capitalist production– a kind of counter-movement that frees our bodies and minds from our conditioning? What lies beyond, or before, immersion?

Young Joo Lee’s contribution to the collection focuses on her own physical emergence from one country and her immersion into another, as it reflects on her emigration to the United States from South Korea by way of Germany. Her piece, “In between the state of Immersion and De-immersion” traces a portion of her body of work that contemplates borders, walls, and the physical and immaterial boundaries that delineate geopolitical entities. Lee used Sensate’s new “spatialized” tool to display her work in aggregate, allowing the reader to move through it as they might in a gallery or room. (Scroll right to see more of the work). The various elements of text, video, and images can be rearranged or played simultaneously to the reader’s preferences, capitalizing on the associative ways in which we make meaning intertextually. In this way the various components of her article are modular, shifting, and able to cross the main “wall” of her piece, “In Search of the Lost Tiger” (2016), a digital image of an 82-ft-long ink drawing documenting her journey along the Civilian Control Border of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The porosity of walls and borders is a theme throughout her work. What do borders actually keep out or in? Are they merely symbols of a chimera of purity – national or otherwise? In “Magic Kingdom” a web-based game she built using Unity, she highlights this porosity through a study of a particularly permeating liquid – a cologne. “Success” is the name of a cologne by former President Donald Trump’s brand. On Amazon, it has over 700 reviews and Lee plays with these in the piece as a commentary on notions of American freedom, masculinity, and economic success in a kingdom of capitalist automatons. In the game, the cologne bottles are lined up like soldiers guarding Trump castle, a distant but menacing spectre of economic power. Yet the cologne bottles are rendered as two-dimensional, thin and feeble; you can knock them over like a house of cards reminiscent of Alice’s encounter with the playing cards guarding the palace of the Queen of Hearts. The emasculated soldiers/cologne bottles/playing cards serve to protect the power of the monarch despite their flimsy reality. The user is immersed in this sea of cologne bottles, left to wallow in the absurdities of American capitalist ideologies, and ponder whether one can truly purchase “success.”

As this assemblage of Lee’s work demonstrates, the qualities of porosity and liquidity in the constitution of political subjecthood and citizenship are themes that she returns to often. She draws upon Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to illustrate the constructions of blindness and sight via one’s immersion or emersion from the cave and the lengths that humans will go to maintain their beliefs in their own constructed realities. In the context of this body of work, Plato’s Cave is not only an ideological cave upheld by beliefs in the sanctity of geo-political boundaries, but the illusion that these boundaries are themselves a reality entirely refracted, but nonetheless, deemed worthy of bloodshed to preserve.

“Political immersion” also entails polarization and the many ways in which both physical and ideological walls are built to contain and solidify a base. We see this in the elegant animation piece, called Borderline (2019, 11 mins), where two dots flirt on either side of a line, each contained by its bounding box. The dots metastasize and multiply but never manage to break free from their containment. This piece illustrates one potential reality of our current situation; a multiplicity of caves. Once so immersed, could the white dot ever see the black dot or would it be blinded by its neighbor’s unfathomable reality?

Crucial to Lee’s exploration is the process of emerging from a space of immersion. The emersion, or process of coming out of something that was encompassing, in some ways, correlates to the anthropologist emerging from the field into the space of presumed or feigned ‘objective’ distance; the space to write up one’s findings. This process of immersion/emersion is a sticky one. Lived experience is viscous. It has cohesion. No one emerges unchanged, though few know how to articulate and comprehend the changes. The ways we experience the world are rapidly changing, and so too, the experiences that ‘stick’ in the formation of selves, opinions, beliefs, and behavioral patterns. The ways in which we disrupt and analyze these formations must adapt accordingly.

Twenty twenty has shown us the extent of our existence that does not rely on where our bodies lie. Walls may hold us in prison cells or on one side or the other of the US-Mexico border, but so many other aspects of our selves permeate, seep, and pour over and beyond. Walls, boxes, and containers have an existential imperative for us to believe that they are necessary for our immersion, when in fact, it is that which pays no heed to the functionality of walls that immerses us. As human sociality continues to adapt to its increasingly mediated world, we must continue to ask ourselves: in what ways do immersive technologies of all kinds perpetuate the systems of social reproduction that pervade our lives? What are the values that retain, and that we want to retain, of “being there”? How is immersion being reconfigured by new media technologies? And how do we respond to these changes? This special collection, On Immersion, is our attempt to begin to grapple with these questions.

 

1. He writes: “One line of poetic speculation might propose the following: the new heroic fieldworking anthropologist/ethnographer located the ‘afar’ which Rousseau had long before identified as essential for the study of ‘Man’ as a definite place (‘the field’) to which the anthropologist had to be indexically exposed for a recognized period (about two years in the Malinowskian model). A combination of the Durkheimian stress on the importance of distanciation as a guarantee of ‘social facts’ and anthropologists’ position as members of imperial and colonial metropoles meant that nearly always ‘the field’ was a place characterized as ‘remote’ (Ardener 1987) — the inverse of the ethnographers own society, a foreign periphery. The anthropologist’s exposure to data thus occurred during a period of inversion from his normal reality, a stage which is formally analogous to the production of the photographic negative when the all-important rays of light which guarantee the indexical truth of the image are allowed to fall on the negative’s emulsion (this analogy was first suggested by David Tomas — personal communication).18 Photography is thus revealed to be much less and much more important than we had thought. The anthropologist has taken on to his own person the functions of a plate of glass, or a strip of film which, having been prepared to receive and record messages in negative form during a moment of exposure in ‘the field’, is able, after suitable processing, to present them in a ‘positive’ state in the ethnographic monograph.” (1992:82).
2. Links to work on inclusion and ethics in AR/VR: https://immerse.news/the-high-stakes-of-limited-inclusion-908e8f6deda0, http://vrdocumentaryencounters.co.uk/, http://opendoclab.mit.edu/mit-opendoclab-idfa-doclab-announce-new-2-year-augmenting-reality-initiative/, all accessed December 29, 2020.
3. Alice Twemlow, Denise Gonzalez Crisp. 2005. “Denise Gonzales Crisp: The decorational.” Eye Magazine, Vol. 58. Winter 2005. Accessed at: http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/denise-gonzales-crisp-the-decorational, December 2020.

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Acknowledgements: The editors would like to thank our contributors to this collection: Peter Lunenfeld, Denise Gonzales Crisp, Stephanie Deumer, and Young Joo Lee for their patience and fortitude, as well as all the participants in the workshop at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study: Shari Frilot, Katerina Cizek, Lisa Messeri, Orit Halpern, Peter Lunenfeld, Young Joo Lee, Francisco Alarcon, Nick Fortugno, Peter Galison, Julie Malozzi, Lindsey Lodhie, Kikko Paradela, and Ben Gaydos. This special collection was supported in part by Harvard University’s Critical Media Practice secondary certification program through funding by the Mellon Foundation. Design by goodgood Detroit; Web and programming by You vs. Jesus; Spatialized tool development by Lucas Vocos. Special thanks to Julie Mallozzi, Peter Galison, and Cozette Russell, and those at the Radcliffe Institute who helped to facilitate our workshop: Maura Madden, Wendy Frohlich, and Justin Gillis.

REFERENCES

Pinney, Christopher. 1992. “The Parallel Histories of Anthropology and Photography,” in Anthropology and Photography, 1860-1920, Ed. Edwards, Elizabeth. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Twemlow, Alice and Denise Gonzalez Crisp. 2005. “Denise Gonzales Crisp: The decorational.” Eye Magazine, Vol. 58. Winter 2005. Accessed at: http://www.eyemagazine.com/feature/article/denise-gonzales-crisp-the-decorational, December 2020.