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Char Davies

Char Davies, Osmose, 1995
Char Davies, Rose Tree, 1995 Char Davies, Tree Pond Red, 1995 Char Davies, Rocks and Roots, 1995
Char Davies was born in 1954 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She was educated at Bennington College (Vermont, U.S.) from 1973 to 1975 and received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Victoria (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) in 1978. Davies is now a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy of media arts at the University of Wales College (New Port, Wales).

Originally a painter, Davies became interested in the possibilities of computer graphics and animation and in 1985 joined Softimage, shortly after its founding. She played many roles within the company, sitting on the board of directors (1988-1994) and serving as vice-president of visual research (1988-1994) and director of visual research (1994-1997). Since leaving Softimage in the late nineties, Davies has pursued an active independent artistic career using the technologies she helped develop at Softimage. In 1998, she founded Immersence Inc. "for the purpose of pursuing artistic research in immersive virtual space." (1)

For her work in computer graphics, Davies received the Prix Distinction in Computer Graphics at the Prix Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria) in 1993, the Prix Pixel Image at Imagina (Monte Carlo, Monaco) in 1991, and an honorary mention at the Prix Ars Electronica in 1990.

Both of Davies' successful interactive virtual reality installations, Osmose (1994-1996) and Éphémère (1996-1998), have been exhibited all over the world, garnering much recognition and critical acclaim. The two works have also been shown in many different contexts, both artistic and scientific. For example, both spent an extended period installed at a dream and nightmare research laboratory in a hospital in Montreal. Osmose and Éphémère have been exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from March to June 2001 and at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), in Melbourne, Australia, from Decembec 2003 to February 2004.

Davies' first series of computer works is titled Interior Body Series (1990-1993). This series of digital 3-D stills is composed of seven Duratran colour transparencies in large light boxes - Blooming (1990), Leaf (1990), Stream (1991), Root (1991), Seed (1991), Yearning (1993), Drowning (Rapture) (1993). These nature-based precursors to the imagery found in her subsequent virtual reality installations, explore the symbolic possibilities of a natural world made technologically vibrant. These experiments in 3-D representation echo certain longings Davies had in her painted works.

"I'm using the computer as a tool. It doesn't define the art. The graphics was developing in my work as a painter 15 years ago. For example, an oil painting I did in 1981 was full of lights and flecks. The reason I got involved with computers is that the content that I wanted to express as an artist and the aesthetics that I developed to express that content are isomorphic. At one point, painting was no longer adequate as a medium for expressing what I wanted to say. I wanted to describe an enveloping space. How do you describe an enveloping space on a flat plane?" (2)

Even though the 3-D stills brought Davies closer to the immersive experience she was searching for, they were still insufficient in their distance.

Produced by Softimage Inc., Osmose debuted at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal in 1995. This interactive virtual reality installation with live sound, is hailed by many critics as one of the very first true virtual reality artworks. The piece requires the visitor to use a stereoscopic head-mounted display and an interface vest in order to experience several virtual worlds (3). The vest and headpiece measure lung capacity and motion, and this data is translated into the user's own real-time experience within the virtual worlds. If users lean forward, they are guided forward through a world. If they inhale, their body is virtually lifted up into a higher world, allowing for a floating or weightless sensation.

In Osmose, breathing is being used in a very specific way, not only for the navigational aspects but also to help people reconnect to the body which puts them in a certain state of mind. This in turn affects how they interact. Osmose is based on getting people into the state where they let go of the urge to be in control. Most interactive technology is about being in control. When you're playing games, you're being rewarded for your skill in being in control, your quick reflexes. (4)

This feeling of "ecstasy," as Davies calls it, is central to this work and indicative of her commitment to challenging the limits, and rules of engagement that are so much a part of interactive technologies. Osmose, taken from the word osmosis, the biological process involving passage from one side of a membrane to another, is exactly that: a corporeal and temporal passage to another state of being where users are aware of themselves and able to upset their own personal "baggage" filled with Cartesian dualisms. The personal experience of the work is a journey through phobias and individual limitations. Margaret Morse describes her reaction to the piece:

"I experienced several of the worlds in the piece as an occasion for panic. Like many asthmatics, being underwater makes me deeply and instantly afraid. Evidently, even when the water is symbolic, I experience it viscerally as water and as everything smothering that water means to me. Consider also that I have a math phobia and that one of the worlds in the piece consisted of machine language which scrolled upward faster than I could escape it by breathing in more and more." (5)

Osmose is indeed an immersive environment, and Davies went on to explore the possibilities of this type of envelopment in her next piece. Éphémère premiered at the National Gallery of Canada in 1998 in a solo exhibition partly funded by the Daniel Langlois Foundation. A more fluid and ambiguous set of virtual worlds and imagery awaits the "immersant" in this piece, as Davies transforms elements from nature (rock, tree, bodily organs, bones) into transparent, navigable, ephemeral environments.

As in Osmose, navigation is based on the participant's breath and balance, which are analyzed by a complex computer system linked to the body via an interface vest and stereoscopic head-mounted display. Despite the technological encumbrances, immersants undergo a rather gentle series of experiences thanks to the necessary regulated breathing and Davies' contemplations on what it means to be situated in a virtual, interactive world. Éphémère illustrates Davies' interest in expanding the borders of interactivity. According to the exhibition's organizer, Jean Gagnon, the work proves "that the new high technology so commonly associated with the male world and masculine toys can be used in the service of a different aesthetic, and that poetic principles appropriate to that aesthetic can in fact exist". (6)

Angela Plohman © 2000 FDL

(1) Char Davies, Immersence Home, (accessed September 7, 2000): http://www.immersence.com/

(2) Char Davies quoted in Carole Lee Craver, "Char Davies' OSMOSE," SGI Animator Vol. 1, no. 2 (1995): 17.

(3) These worlds include a world of text and literature, a forest, a clearing, a pond, a leaf, the ground, an abyss and a world of computer code.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Margaret Morse, Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1998) : 209.

(6) Jean Gagnon, "Dionysus and Reverie : Immersion in Char Davies's Environments" in Éphémère (Ottawa : National Gallery of Canada, 1998): n.p.n.