It is hard to find VR content that doesn’t derive at least some of its value from the technological novelty that the medium represents. The so-called “gimmick” value still stops us from perfecting a form of expression that is truly native to the medium. It’s time to change that.
VR is not film. VR is not theatre. VR is not architecture. VR is VR.
This text is part of what I believe is necessary for this transition towards the goal of a full-fledged VR artistic practice. Key to that will be the concept of Ontological Design: design that is focused on the human experience and its essence. More specifically, Post-Architecture — the idea that architecture should not be concern with designing space in itself, but with designing people through space — will be taken as the point of reference. This text frames an intention to move past the current status quo in VR content.
We aim towards creating content that has a transformational function on its user. We move towards the creation of ontologically transformative artistic artifacts — in other words, we design people through virtual space. We are (post) Architects.
ESTABLISHING THE PLAYING FIELD
The connection between Ontological Design and Virtual Reality is important because of the immersive nature of the medium. Our canvas, as creators, has become much more vast and profound. Our canvas has now, more than ever, become perception.
As a very priviledged tool for the manipulation of perception, VR indirectly allows us to actively create it. For that, we should become familiar with the idea of “reality tunnels”. These are the actual things we want to design, because these are “objects” whose inherent energetic potency can trigger subjective transformations in the individual. Through them, we’ll design perception and we’ll design people. But first, let us define them a little better:
A “reality tunnel” is a subjectively perceived frame of reality that is particular to a specific individual. A reality tunnel is the individual’s worldview on a specific setting in space-time. It’s a collage of assumptions and perceptions that, when stringed together, form a perception and an embodiment of reality. It’s reality as we perceive it.
Man needs a map of his natural and social world, without which he would be confused and unable to act purposefully and consistently. He would have no way of orienting himself and of finding for himself a fixed point that permits him to organize all the impressions that impinge upon him. Whether he believed in sorcery and magic as final explanations of all events (…) or in the power of science to give answers to all human problems — from the standpoint of his need for a frame of orientation, it does not make any difference. (…) Even if the map is wrong, it fulfills its psychological function. But the map was never entirely wrong-nor has it ever been entirely right, either. It has always been enough of an approximation to the explanation of phenomena to serve the purpose of living. The impressive fact is that we do not find any culture in which there does not exist such a frame of orientation. Or any individual either. — Eric Fromm, “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness”
These “realty tunnels” can have as many and as diverse components as you could imagine. They’re our crutches for navigating the world; as Fromm says, they’re “maps” of our “natural and social world” — and of our inner world as well, I would add
They are what define social discourses, language habits and power relations. They are manifest in the way we talk, in our habits, in the way we connect ideas and in the way we deal with people. In short, our notion and our grasp on reality has a specific character and a specific flavor to it; endemic to our own life and to our own perception.
Everyone is immersed in one at any given moment. “Reality Tunnels” are so pervasive that it is hard, futile (or virtually impossible) to fully acknowledge them. We are to them like the fish is to water — totally immersed and almost always oblivious to the way it works, to its dynamics and ultimately to its presence.
Every kind of ignorance in the world all results from not realizing that our perceptions are gambles. We believe what we see and then we believe our interpretation of it, we don’t even know we are making an interpretation most of the time. We think this is reality. — Robert Anton Wilson
We are all immersed in reality tunnels. However, some of them occupy more of our time than others. To refer to the notion that there is one, dominant reality tunnel that takes up the majority of time and space in our lives, we will use the term “Baseline Reality Tunnel”.
Since time immemorial people have punctuated their baseline reality tunnels with moments, places and rituals designed to pierce its walls and expand reality and its meaning for us. In other words, if baseline reality is the rule, then there are certainly plenty of exceptions to it. Take the example of Jack:
Jack went to a festival and took LSD.
Jack fell madly in love.
Jack took a stroll in the park.
Jack plugged in his headphones to mitigate his perception of the presence of other people;
Jack was full of rage and participated in a riot destroying the city.
Jack was mesmerized and fascinated with the old tales and stories his grandmother told him by the fireplace in that winter evening.
Jack became a militant of a party and a political activist after becoming fascinated with its ideology and having been enthralled by the speech of its leader.
Jack joined the army out of a sense of patriotism and wanting to protect the people and the land he loved.
Jack loves to go to techno raves.
Jack participated in protests and pushed a rebellious anti-establishment message through his punk-anarchist ideology.
Jack obsessed over his latest painting.
Jack binge watched a TV show.
Jack went travelling to southeast Asia to dilute his existential angst from living in a world where his baseline reality asphyxiated any potential transcendent and transformational experiences.
Jack smoked marijuana and liked to write and draw.
Jack went to the movies.
Jack participated in a drug induced spiritual shamanic ritual in his family’s Amazonian tribe.
Jack once listened to music by himself and entered a supreme state of aesthetic arrest, which deeply spoke to him and gave him meaning.
Jack went to the Church.
Jack moved to France.
These are examples of Jack’s baseline reality being disrupted. They are crisis of “baseline reality”; exceptions to its rule. The power structures which determine how Jack relates to worldly things is momentarily disrupted. Jack’s reality is thrown off balance.
When Jack goes to the festival, he enters a collective reality tunnel in which people can take drugs and act by a different set of rules; “reality” is temporarily changed.
When Jack goes to the park, he steps out of the big-city’s main way of existing — working, running, making, hustling– and steps into a place that embodies a different reality, where meditation, play and leisure are not only allowed but a new norm. Jack would never think of laying on the ground reading a book in the middle of a busy avenue. “Reality” changes again.
When Jack goes to raves, the same thing happens, and he enters into a ritualized collective dance. It’s expected that people stand closer together than usual. It’s also generally accepted that people take alcoholic beverages and at times other drugs. The music is so loud that talking requires greater proximity between bodies. In these places baseline reality is also meant to be put aside for a few hours; “reality” changes again.
These examples serve to show two things. One is how, even within our own lives, reality is pluriform, since we effectively inhabit different “reality tunnels”- and two, that these different “reality tunnels” are meant to be interchangeable, and that their interchangeability works according to certain structures and dynamics. Generally, this structure is comprised of a main “reality tunnel” which has the majority of our energy and attention, and of many other “exceptional” ones.
So it’s fair to say that the expression “Virtual Reality” is a pleonasm. Just like “wet water”, it implies that there are instances where reality is not virtual. There are none. Reality is contingent on perception. And therefore it’s plausible to look for ways to manipulate it according to the properties of human perception.
“The I’m-Formation Age”, by Daniel Fraga
Heterotopia is a concept brought forth by the french poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault to describe a place (topos) of otherness (hetero). In his much cited text “Des Espaces Autres” Foucault defines heterotopias as places that have “the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invert the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect”.
What this means is that heterotopias are a sort of counter-sites, “kind of effectively enacted utopias in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality”.
Think of a city park, a church, the movies or a cruise ship. Think of Jack raving, going to a riot, looking at a screen or even at a mirror. These are all places where “reality” is transformed — and the subjectivity of the people who entered them transmuted.
The alternative reality tunnels that we have been defining and discussing are heterotopias of the mind, the heart and the spirit — they take you to other spaces, outside of baseline “space-time”. They are supposed to frame you — as a person — in a different light. They are magical places — sometimes for the best and sometimes for the worst — because they enchant our perception and make it function differently. They momentarily make us believe a different story about the world, about time and about ourselves. What’s more — and just as it happens with baseline-reality - we are the protagonists of these stories.
What happens in these spaces and in these moments — in these often magical and enchanting circumstances — the fabric of our so-called reality is bent, ripped apart, folded and transformed. Baseline reality is thrown off balance. We momentarily forfeit to play the role an buy the story of that which we’ve traditionally been conditioned to call “ourselves”. And while our attention, energy and thought processes are not actively maintaining that role, we find ourselves largely unbound by “baseline reality”. We enter a new jurisdiction.
Some people are said to be so charismatic that they have a reality distortion field. Steve Jobs is commonly cited as one, as is Bill Clinton, and Elon Musk. These are individuals around whom reality changes by virtue of the power of their presence, their persuasion, their charisma and the sheer power of their belief in a powerful personal reality. Yet it is not only people who have this power. Spaces also have that power. Within these spaces identity is diluted by the power of the moment of disruption — a moment charged with its own gravitational pull, so that no other identity can exist within it except for the one it precludes in its constitution. They are important nodes in the Matrix.
The engendering of an alternative reality tunnel can be such an energetically rich gesture that it opens a black hole in the fabric of reality. It creates a new here and now. It literally changes the world — literally, because it changes us, and “we” are the whole world.
This equates to generating a metaphorical gravitational pull that distorts meaning, identity and perception all around it. Time-Space bends — we enter the rabbit hole, so to speak. We step outside of the controlled walls of what we’re comfortable assuming as real, and enter a place where magic still lives, always one step beyond logic.
Put on the headset:
Illustration for the “Divine Comedy” of Dante, by Salvador Dali, depicting Dante commencing his journey.
POST-ARCHITECTURE and the ENGINEERING OF AWE:
How does go about engendering alternative reality tunnels? How does one open black holes in the fabric of meaning? Where are the rabbit holes? The actual means and the strategy by means of which the previous instances of “reality tunnel disruption” accomplish a degree of “imprinting” in the human ontological constitution can be manifold. There is no one formula. But if you look at each of them, you can find one thing in common.
When Jack participated in that riot, he was not himself. Seething rage and hatred possessed him.
At the church, Jack acts out every part of the ritual in such a solemn manner that he truly speaks to the Holy.
When Jack goes to the park, he can forget himself and his problems and just let his thoughts run free, diving into himself.
When Jack goes to the movies he forgets himself and gets lost in the story, vicariously acting his desires and wills trough the characters.
When Jack travels he realizes he’s not bound by the personality of his daily life and feels freer by interacting with different people in different places, situations and cultures.
When Jack takes drugs in a festival he gets lost in a ritual-like trance state where aesthetic and artistic rapture bequeath him with a sense of awe towards life that will make “everyday life” pale in comparison.
When Jack skydives, the sheer adrenaline is enough to make him truly get “live in the present moment”, bringing him to the edge of the “now” in a thrilling and ecstatic way.
Living in France, Jack stepped inside a part of his personality and identity which he was unable to access steadily back home. He became immersed in being a somewhat different “Jack”, due to the context and the circumstances.
When Jack goes to the stadium to watch a game of football, he becomes part of a collective being with the same desires and wishes, which makes him feel good and part of something greater than himself.
These “disruptors” are ways to imbalance the individual’s footing on its main “reality frame(s)”.
Now, here’s my vision:
Reality tunnels can be one of the most sophisticated ways of encoding information — like a massive, overarching hieroglyph. In them lies encoded a living, vital unconscious entity — informational artifacts that are energized by our trust and our acceptance in them. Through our conviction we breathe life unto them, and by means of the principle of reciprocity, we also breathe a different kind of life unto ourselves. As we design our tools, they design us in return.
Therefore way Post-Architecture intends to achieve true ontological creative power is by creating intimate and personal heterotopias. We will create reality tunnels that re-codify the individual’s non hereditary DNA, i.e. our externally manipulable blueprint. We will create massive, holistically designed hieroglyphs, through which people’s subjectivities will be steered with great power, great precision and great choice. We will have the tools to practice freedom better.
We will create heterotopic crisis in baseline reality and emulate the magical rabbit hole present in the myths and enchanted legends. When this is done, when you put on the headset, it will not simply “trick” your eyes. It will make your soul truly believe in the rapport it is having with the “reality” at hand. This will not be a mere gimmick for the senses, a sleight of hand. This will be an experience for the psyche and for the whole being. You won’t just be immersed in a “cool new technological device” that “simulates reality”. You will be immersed in a fundamentally, deeply perceived and embodied disruptive reality tunnel. Just like in the examples given before.
Post-Architecture is the notion that Architects (and creators of all sorts) should not concern themselves with designing space in itself, but designing people through space. It states what we have been saying — that through spaces (virtual or otherwise) creators can greatly define a person’s habits, behaviors, identities and even subjectivities. And to perform this work we will cross the borders of psychology, persuasion, philosophy, step into marxist critical theory, literary theory, gestalt design practices, transhumanism and wherever else we may be required to go.
There shall be no limits to what can be creatively employed in the design of this “spatial hieroglyph”, because we want to create the ultimate Gesamtkunstwerk. There is no limit between people and the space they occupy; they are one continuous entity. To interfere with one is to interfere with the latter. A true Gesamtkunstwerk encompasses the individual. Post-Architecture is fundamentally holistic. It is the creative discipline that occupies itself with the creation of reality tunnels.
Can we harness the force of the great waters of unconscious perception, always one step beyond logic and safe knowledge?
Post-Architecture is the architecture of the post-human. It has become possible to a large extent because today, we can acquire an almost total control over the individual’s sensory apparatus (within certain contexts). We can now be completely immersed into a place where our sensory perception is 100% artificial and the outside world truly eclipsed. It can easily look like a grim prospect — but that’s why we must step up and claim the ontological power this holds and use it for ourselves. One must override the integral accident with noble purpose.
Post-Architecture’s intent has also become possible to formulate because philosophically, we have inherited from Post-Modernism an almost complete deconstruction of human experience, to the point where it has been broken down into tiny little pieces and the relationships between them. But we do not want to equalize them all, nor do we want to dwell on whether they are real or not. We will step up and create masterpieces out of them.
The individual should be immersed to the point questioning baseline reality, so that upon removing the headset and returning to the so-called “real” world, the person would find something distinct. Yet it won’t be the outside world that is different. It is the person itself who has changed. Upon entering the journey of a “disruptive reality tunnel” of our creation, the person undergoes change through the wise and carefully guided transmutation of mental states, which happens vicariously through the artifacts we produce, as creators.
To quote my friend Florian Deadman, who sometimes gets incredibly caught up in his sacred reverence for Beauty:
“These are living artifacts. This is a living work. What we pursue has a will of its own. Change the world. Make yourself. It is our duty, our highest and most holy duty; to ourselves and to the world we fell into — to pursue the tools and the goals of Ontological Design through the creative artifacts we are given to bequeath unto our fellow Man.” — Florian Deadman
From our journey down the rabbit hole we will bring magical gifts, true wonders of the world.