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Virtual Art
From Illusion to Immersion
Oliver Grau
MIT Press, Boston, 2003,
430 pages
ISBN 0-262-57223-0

A very profound book revealing a clear progression of ephemeralisation and the virtual in the history of (visual) western art. One of the essential books in the field, imho. Grau develops, in a clear and cogent style, one revelation after another, painting a concise picture and logical development within the field.
One can get the essence by reading interviews with him and also by going through his presentations accessible on his website, but its no substitute for reading the book. Grau writes very well (and its is beautifully translated into English) and its a pleasure to watch his thoughts unfold.

Numbing through exposure

A fundamental observation it made me aware of is Grau's concept of "numbing" to a new stimuli after a certain amount of exposure to it (Grau does not call it 'numbing', he describes the audience 'hardening' to a new medium). This allows conclusions about human perception and phenomenology. We are most receptive to new things in our environment and then this becomes invisible very fast: We numb to its newness and take it for granted. One can observe this in many areas. Once the mobile phone was a spectacular and "luxurious" device, while after a couple of years it has essentially become an everyday item without which to live is proving difficult. Instead of an awareness of the miraculous we complain when there is no network. (Another example of ingrained technologies that we become aware of only when they do not work.)

Grau writes: "At first, the audience is overwhelmed by the new and unaccustomed visual experiences, and for a short period, their inner psychological ability to distance themselves is suspended. This contention needs to be tested by comparative research on immersion, which as yet is only just beginning.
The connection between innovations in technologically produced illusions and putting the inner ability to distance oneself under pressure, may, for a period of time (the length of which is dependent on the illusion potential of the given new medium) render conscious illusion unconscious and confer the effect of something real on that which is merely appearance.
When a new medium of illusion is introduced, it opens a gap between the power of the image's effect and conscious/reflected distancing in the observer. This gap narrows again with increasing exposure and there is a revision to conscious appraisal. Habituation chips away at the illusion, and soon it no longer has the power to captivate. It becomes stale, and the audience are hardened to its attempts at illusion. At this stage, the observers are receptive to content and artistic media competence, until finally a new medium with even greater appeal to the senses and greater suggestive power comes along and casts a spell of illusion over the audience again. This process, where media of illusion and the ability to distance oneself from them compete, has been played out time and again in the history of European art since the end of the Middle Ages."
2003, 152

Out of context: The more striking thing is that it can wear off on a person who sees them often. For the rest of us, there's a hypnosis that overtakes you in the presence of whales; you want to be as close as possible, right now. You crave contact, and you have no idea why.1

1) Daniel Duane 2008, Sierra Club

Note to myself: Numbing: Our perception adapts to change. Brain plasticity.

We quickly “numb” to novelty and take it for granted. We only consciously become aware the instance our expectations are NOT fulfilled. (‘ready at hand,’ ‘present to hand,’ Heidegger. (Perhaps i am conflating "tools & media," "skilled activity vs task oriented activity vs. transparency"? ) But the more i 'use' something the more invisible/transparent it becomes.)
So the social richness, realism, transportation, immersion, etc. are relative values depending on exposure.

When 18th/19th century scholar Alexander von Humboldt received a reply to a letter within 2 weeks he experienced this as ‘immediate” and felt ‘connected.’

Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at tinker creek” muskrats: They can only perceive change/motion: “The wonderful thing about muskrats [...] is that they cannot see very well, [...]. Many animals are the same way: They can’t see a thing unless its moving. [...] In the forty minutes I watched him, he never saw me, smelled me, or heard me at all. When he was in full view of course I never moved except to breathe.”

Why can’t we usually remember the house that stood there where they are building this new house?

Kevin Kelly: “So amazing, But Nobody Is Happy”
Jon Stewart interview. We become blind to progress.

Why? Psychophysicist Tom Mitchell’s explains the phenomenon in his lecture on Machine Learning:

Christopher Alexander and Donald Norman are well aware of this phenomenon too.

last update: 4/20/02010 15:48

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