Entry #5 11.11.2021

The Artist is an Oculus

Christopher Michael
Illustration by Lynn Klemmer 

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.
From “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” by Richard Brautigan

Mysticism and the Possibilities of Virtual Reality

Humans have long had a need to create virtual spaces beyond our physical bodies. Storytelling, psychedelics, and ritual have been used for centuries to commune with other realms, making accessible that which our material bodies cannot reach. “Virtual realities” have connected humans to liminal, spiritual worlds that have no materiality, yet have been a very real part of nearly all cultures since prehistoric times. In the current, digital age, virtual reality is synonymous with interactive media technologies (i.e video games and animation), and, though these forms are often used for entertainment purposes, their capacity for mystical and spiritual uses has largely been overlooked.

Terrence McKenna, an American ethnobotanist and mystic known for his work with psychedelics, became increasingly interested in VR technologies towards the end of his life. In a 1991 lecture he spoke of the utopic applications of Virtual Reality [1], comparing VR to spiritual practices of certain aboriginal cultures and noting its similarity to psychedelic experiences in materializing the imagination. McKenna viewed VR not as a source of entertainment, but as a very important tool in creating a “cyberdelic” utopia defined by dreams and storytelling rather than industry and capital. Largely ahead of his time, Mckenna’s predictions about VR have become increasingly real in the decades that followed, his thoughts on the subject becoming an indispensable guide to this new, virtual world.

McKenna saw VR as an important cultural shift because, as he put it, “in the cyberdelic future, artists will rule because the world will be made of art”. [2] VR is largely dependent on artists to craft its aesthetics and to give virtual worlds their “physicality”. While software developers are usually credited for the creation of VR, artists are more often than not the ones crafting virtual worlds, not only forming an aesthetic but imbuing them with mythologies and their own sets of logic. As such, artists have an incredible opportunity with VR to create realms beyond the physical world where transcendent experiences can take place. However, as VR has been predominantly controlled by big tech and large entertainment conglomerates, these possibilities have seldom been realized.

French philosopher Michel Serres, speaking on his book Angels, a Modern Myth in a 1996 interview, explained the role of artists by proclaiming, “We are angels. Our job is about messages.” [3] Serres’ description of artists as angel-messengers is useful in bridging the traditional role of artists as storytellers and shamans, with our modern understanding of artists as those who present information. Throughout history, the artist's role has always been to merge contemporary culture with ancient traditions or spiritual practices in order to be, in Serres’ view, angels bringing messages to the world. While the methods that artists use have radically changed in the 21st century, our job remains true to Serres’ angel-messenger model, as we are responsible for bringing the spiritual and ancient into everyday life. In creating virtual worlds, artists have a new opportunity to create mystical realms that we could not access otherwise, and to utilize new technologies to create liminal spaces that our physical bodies could not reach.

Virtual Mysticism in Practice

While the spiritual possibilities of VR have yet to reach their full potential, there have been a number of artists working with virtual worldbuilding whose work examines virtual and expanded reality’s possibilities for mysticism. These artists use virtual technologies in order to create and examine digital spaces that exist beyond our bodies, calling to question the necessity of virtual world building in contemporary culture. Below are notable examples of artists that are exploring elements of “Virtual Mysticism” in various forms. Utilizing tools like video games and AI, these artists examine topics like the body, the origins of myth and culture, and futurism in a way that unites virtual technologies with mysticism and spirituality. As such, they are crucial models for artists who wish to work within Virtual Mysticism, and provide a jumping-off point for merging the virtual with the mystical in contemporary art.

A quick note - these examples are not strictly Virtual Reality (i.e entering another space through the use of a headset or other device). Rather they utilize similar technologies for similar goals of virtual world building. Where VR technologies like the Oculus are still relatively new and largely inaccessible, these three works demonstrate the principles through significantly more accessible channels.

Peggy Ahwesh - She Puppet

Fig. 1: She Puppet 

She Puppet is a seminal piece of video art from the American artist Peggy Ahwesh that uses the video game Tomb Raider as its canvas. In the video, Tomb Raider’s protagonist, Lara Croft, explores the landscape of the video game, dying over and over again while text from mystics and philosophers Sun Ra, Fernando Pessoa, and Joanna Russ are read aloud by voice actors. Ahwesh’s aim in creating this piece was largely to explore the use of a woman’s body in video games through a feminist perspective. In doing so, she called into question what it means to be a human controlling an on screen body - especially one that experiences multiple deaths. She Puppet raises ontological questions about the human-on-screen, and asks us to reconsider our relationship to the control of these virtual characters.

Ahwesh’s work centers an experience unique to video games and the virtual world by examining the ability to die multiple deaths in the same body. In virtual worlds, the body becomes an expendable, rather than finite, resource, being able to take on forces that our real world bodies could not. To be a human controlling the on-screen character is to experience a semblance of immortality, navigating the world unafraid of death. Spiritual practices have long focused on immortality and the afterlife, advising not to fear death by promising lives beyond the world and our body. In a space like Tomb Raider, this becomes reality as those controlling Lara Croft experience her reincarnation over and over again.

By including passages from Sun-Ra, Pessoa, and Russ, Ahwesh makes explicit that the experience we are viewing is one imbued with mystical qualities. The works Ahwesh chooses are centered around what it means to be conscious and inhabiting a body, especially around concerns of identity and transcendentalism. The use of these texts transform Tomb Raider into a transcendental space, and watching Lara Croft's deaths becomes a mystical experience. In She Puppet, Ahwesh transforms the virtual world into a liminal, spiritual place where we are asked to reckon with the limitations of our own bodies, and the possibilities that exist for us in the virtual space.

Ian Cheng - Emissaries

Fig. 2: Emissaries
Emissaries is a virtual simulation project from the American artist Ian Cheng. To create the piece, Cheng utilized AI softwares and predictive technologies to construct an animated world with its own sets of logic and mythology. Emissaries is functionally a “video game that plays itself”, with Cheng programming characters and environments to act on their own in order to solve a set of issues. Characters try to convince one another to overcome challenges without any human control, repeating situations and coming to new conclusions as the project goes on. Audiences take on a god-like position while viewing the simulation, watching Cheng’s characters explore and expand their autonomous world.

At the center of Cheng’s work is an exploration of consciousness and myth building. In each chapter of the trilogy, the characters come into new relationships and understandings of consciousness which help them to resolve conflict in increasingly creative forms. Cheng was largely inspired by the book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, which argues that our consciousness came into being through learned behaviors and culture, rather than inherited traits. Following Jaynes’ thesis, Cheng has described consciousness as being an “app” that humans have only been able to download for the latter part of our history, arguing that consciousness and culture are a relatively new tool for humans. [4] As such, Cheng seeks to explore the origins of consciousness and myth in Emissaries, providing visualizations of how our modern consciousness may have come into the world.

By centering consciousness and myth, Emissaries gives viewers a top-down view of humanity. Spiritual practices have long sought to make humans conscious of their role on the earth by encouraging a macroscopic view of human life, a tactic Cheng utilizes throughout this trilogy. When watching Emissaries, we see our own origins reflected on screen and the experience becomes a unique opportunity to contemplate our ancestral cultural relationship. As such, Cheng creates a virtual space in Emissaries where we can watch the origins of culture and myth unfold on screen, producing a meditative state for its audience.

Pierce Myers - Acid Terraforming

Fig. 3: Acid Terraforming

Pierce Myers’ Acid Terraforming is a video piece that introduces a number of speculative worlds to its audience, each presenting alternatives to our current moment of ecological crisis. The work is structured similar to a video game, with a main menu that allows users to choose various theoretical scenarios with names like “Flight-shaming Greta Social Credit” and “Xenofeminist AOC Monarchy”. Each option brings viewers to a different virtual world, where speculative technologies and ideologies are tested out in various scenarios. Myers uses 3D animation softwares in order to examine and analyze potential leftist strategies for solving ecological crises, utilizing virtual world building to put futurist theories into practice. Taking its name from Mark Fisher’s “Acid Communism”, Acid Terraforming uses virtual realities in order for audiences to envision alternatives to our current moment of capitalist collapse.

In the second scenario, “Orthodox Holy Trinity MegaChurch Ecosystem”, Myers examines worldbuilding and God-Building through the lens of the Russian Orthodox church. Mixing documentary footage of an Orthodox mass and audio of a discussion on God-Building with a virtual megachurch that Myers has designed, Myers attempts to tie Russian Cosmism and God-Building practices into contemporary discourse. God-Building was a Marxist-Bolshevik theory which sought to abolish organized religion, but understood the importance of  having “meta-religious” context in society, seeking to create a type of “religion of humanity”. While Marxists of this time sought to destroy traditional religion, they recognized the importance of symbolism and ritual and wished to build their own meta-religions within Communist doctrines. In his virtual reality megachurch, Myers parodies ideas of God-building in the modern age, with his parishioners dawning hazmat suits and praying with a giant Robot in a church adorned with the flag of California. In doing so, he draws a line between the largely atheist early Marxists with our largely atheist contemporary capitalist ideologies.

By examining God-Building in a contemporary, capitalist context, Myers points toward the ritual and symbolism inherent in modern society, especially as it relates to new technologies. While western societies are largely considered to be atheist, or at least separated from formal religion, we still practice certain rituals and superstitions. Myers particularly takes aim at the tech industry, the flag of California in his megachurch possibly making fun of the cult-like worship of Silicon Valley. As a speculative work, “Orthodox Holy Trinity MegaChurch Ecosystem” asks how we may use ideologies of God-Building and world building in order to bring humanist myth and ritual into leftist politics. While his megachurch is largely parody, it theorizes how a religion of humanity could be important in building alternatives to capitalism.

The Artist as an Oculus

The artist is an oculus, making portals to liminal spaces that would otherwise go unseen. As artists, we have always been tasked to bridge the gap between the material and the spiritual world. While western capitalist society shakes its head at animism and ritual, artists know that these connect us to our ancestral heritage and to worlds beyond our understanding. Although there is a tendency to look at Virtual Reality and virtual world building tools and see them only as objects, artists should understand them as tools of mysticism that can guide us in our spiritual lives.

Virtual reality still lies in the control of big tech and corporations like Google, which has been detrimental to using these technologies for Virtual Mysticism. It is our responsibility, then,  to do what we can to ensure these technologies are used in a way that can enrich our spiritual lives, and to resist the narrative that VR is simply for entertainment purposes. With Virtual Reality, artists have an opportunity unlike any before to connect to folkloric and mystical worlds, and to transcend beyond our immediate reality.︎

Christopher Michael is an artist and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. He is interested in folklore, mysticism, spirituality, and their relationship to new media and virtual reality.
You can find him on Instagram as @c11111hris_

[1] Note: I use Virtual Reality (formal, capitalized) to refer to VR technologies like the Oculus, whereas virtual reality (uncapitalized, informal) I use to refer to the concept from a more general, theoretical point of view.

[2] Hincliffe, T. “Terence Mckenna’s ‘cyberdelic’ predictions for Virtual Reality 25 years On”. Sociable.co, 2015. https://sociable.co/technology/terence-mckennas-cyberdelic-predictions-for-virtual-reality-25-years-on/

[3] Flint. J. “Michel Serres’ Angels, A Modern Myth”. Mute Vol 1 https://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/michel-serres-angels-modern-myth/

[4] See this interview with Ian Cheng by Kasper Bech Dyg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TO6Luilc4Bo

Fig. 1: https://www.frieze.com/article/no-masters-cinema-peggy-ahwesh
Fig. 2: http://iancheng.com/emissaries
Fig. 3: https://www.bigwindow.org/archive/

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