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Kent De Spain

Come in and Make Yourself at Home:
Colonization and the Body/Technology Interface
© 2001, Kent De Spain

Humans take up space.
We are physical beings who exist and move and breathe in space/time. We come to know ourselves and our world through embodied experiences and interactions. We talk and think in spatial metaphors: feeling ‘down,’ or moving ‘up’ the corporate ladder. We seem compelled to explore and/or colonize to actually place our bodies within any space we become aware of. And we consume, process, and excrete mass quantities of products that also take up space. Not just food and air. We also consume, process, and excrete endless objects and images artifacts of human culture that we give such names as ‘buildings,’ ‘artworks,’ or ‘garbage,’ depending on their function and cultural value.

But in the past few years, the creation of the internet and advances in multimedia technologies have humans interacting with and within what appears to be a different kind of space ‘virtual’ space or ‘digital’ space one that is associated not with the physicality of the human body, but with the ‘body’ of technology, with the machine. As both a dancer and a technology-based artist, this issue, and its critical and political implications, strikes at the heart of my creative process. So I’ve become interested in exploring some of the essential questions concerning the interface between the human body and virtual/digital spaces: Whose space is it? What kind of space is it? How are we relating to it? And what happens there when the human body meets the ‘body’ of technology?

Whose space is it?
There seems to be an almost biological bias toward understanding and utilizing spaces in relation to a species-specific point of view. In other words, humans see and use space in relation to human needs and desires. We ‘humanize’ space. In the same way, I suspect that, within their capabilities, ants ‘antize’ space. This ‘point-of-view’ bias logically stems from the fact that we share our spaces with each other, although this sharing occurs simultaneously across a range of scales. The humans and ants and dust mites and viruses that co-exist in this room ignore each other completely unless their mutuality rises to liminality, in the sense that some aspect of their spatial ‘desires’ conflicts with and affects one another. One important aspect of human spatial desire is to sense ourselves as the primary, even sole users of particular spaces, and to reinforce this primacy I think that we have learned to set the threshold of liminality very high. In fact, we even share the surface and interior space of each human body with millions of organisms that we only intentionally kill or expel when their existence negatively impacts our own.

So what does this tell us about virtual spaces? Although any similarity between conventional and virtual spaces has yet to be established, I believe it is at least logical to investigate the idea that humans will initially base their virtual spatial interactions on their experiences in other human spaces. If that is the case, humans will likely feel that virtual spaces are primarily or solely for their use, and will suppress awareness of any alternative spatial desires present unless they negatively impact their own.

But what else could be present in a machine? Could technology have spatial desires beyond those incorporated (I use that word and its implications intentionally forming a technological ‘body’) into it by human design? Skirting the more difficult and interesting question of what the spatial desires of computer hardware might be, there are some familiar issues surrounding software and virtual spaces that are instructive. Even though computer viruses, avatars, and agents are human creations, how and where they move within virtual/digital spaces is guided, but not specifically controlled, by their design and instructional parameters. Once launched, they can move into and out of a variety of systems all over the globe based on how they replicate or what they encounter. Because there are conflicting human intentions in the design and function of virtual ‘entities’ (one person is pleased to create and distribute a virus, another is just as pleased when her antiviral software identifies and destroys it), the presence and movement the spatial desire of such ‘entities’ can clearly conflict with human spatial desires. Consistent with the observations about real spaces, our threshold of liminality for virtual entities is set very high. ‘Cookies’ are a perfect example, in that they move easily onto the hard drives of most internet users without their explicit awareness. In all of these cases, the question of ‘whose space is it?’ takes on interesting implications. Or perhaps a better question would be: in interactions played out in virtual/digital spaces, who has home field advantage?

What kind of space is it?
If we only glance at the history of our relationship to space, it might be tempting to see virtual space as something fundamentally different, a profoundly new space requiring a profoundly new human (or post-human) embodiment. Perhaps that will turn out to be the case. But I would like to take this opportunity to try to place this concept within the context of other human spaces, because I believe that we have been preparing to accept and inhabit virtual spaces for millennia, and that virtuality is a logical and perhaps inevitable extension of two major human cultural phenomena: first, the use of ‘abstract’ spaces, either through the creation of new forms of space or the transformation of ‘real’ spaces for cultural purposes; and second, the technological extension of the space and time of the communicative ‘body.’

The ‘abstract’ nature of virtual spaces is necessitated by their elusive and complex locality. For instance, we know that the images which inhabit the ‘space’ we experience through computers is generated from coded data that can be digitally stored on a number of media hard drives, DVDs, and the like and we could point to actual, if miniscule, locations of those codes in the ‘real’ space occupied by those media. But because these are only components, fragments which might be pulled from a number of locations (local hard drive, distant web server, etc.) to form images or text, it seems clear that the actual space of digitized data cannot be equated with the experiential space of virtuality. And even though these fragments of data are accessed and organized by the primary processor (CPU) and temporarily stored in random access memory (RAM), both of which can be located on the motherboard of a computer, it also seems clear that such silicon chips are no closer to the experience of virtuality than the storage media.

Because humans are such visually-oriented creatures, it can also be tempting to try to locate virtual spaces in the computer monitors, projectors, and virtual reality visors that generate the visual images that we see and react to. That may seem logical in individual cases, but teleconferencing or telematic performance quickly muddies the clarity of this idea. Is the virtual space in the monitor at this end of the communication or at the other end(s)? Is the space therefore bi-local or even multi-local? Instead, we can solve this puzzle by creating and then interacting with an abstract ‘communicative’ space.

Abstract spaces have been essential to human culture from prehistory. Humans needed to carve special places out of a mundane world. Sacred spaces, ritual spaces, dance or theatrical spaces all represent the transformation of conventional spaces for special (even supernatural) cultural purposes. But our magic is not confined to ‘real’ space. Humans also have the ability to create wholly new spaces in which we can frolic, problem-solve, or even extend ourselves beyond our typical spatial limitations. Mental spaces, imaginary spaces, and mathematically-based n-dimensional abstract spaces such as Riemannian, projective, or topological spaces are all examples of this human power. Virtual/digital space is simply one in a long line of territories created, explored, and then colonized by humans. It is an abstract space with two primary functions: the storage and the transmittal of human communications.

At one time human communications were limited to immediate sensory experience, so the space of communication was restricted to the presence of at least two humans and the range of human senses (how far can you see a hand gesture? how far can you hear a shout or a whistle?). The technologies of literacy and art fundamentally altered the space and time of the communicating body, allowing the text and/or images of individual communications to be moved in space and persist in time. Digital technologies and media storage have simply made this extension easier and more compelling. The cost of this magic is the immediacy of presence. Humans receiving a ‘message’ are forced to reconstruct meaning and context in the absence of the sender of that message. In essence, humans must learn to infer communicative presence within absence. To do so, to close that gap between presence and absence, humans have had to develop the ability to extend ourselves our emotions and our intellects into a kind of abstract communicative space/time. In that abstract place we can feel ourselves engaged in an exchange of ideas, images, and emotions which does not, and perhaps could not, exist in ‘real’ life. To see a petroglyph is to somehow forge a communicative connection with another human who would not understand your language or your culture, and who did not necessarily intend to communicate with you. The persistence of that message points to one of the interesting issues with communication technologies, one which also haunts virtual/digital spaces, and that is the loss of control of the process of communication. If we create images and text apart from our own embodied presence, we no longer control or even know what has happened or will happen to our message.

In this way, imaging and recording technologies, and multimedia computing and the internet, make the space of communication exceedingly complex. Images of us, disconnected from our own intentionality, become separate virtual/digital entities; ghosts or replicants of our original embodied selves. We see the faces or hear the voices of humans in the process of communicating, except that they are not human faces or voices. Instead, we are provided with digital representations of faces or voices or images that have been deconstructed and then reconstructed in a new time or place, and we are required to use our facility in reifying the experience of abstract spaces to construct a meaningful semblance of discourse. The increasing quality of digital media and the speed of data transfer can greatly assist that process, making it easier to experience communicative presence. But that presence comes with a price. We are required to apply both discernment and faith because the power of digital media is such that, with the appropriate software and source material, I can construct an image of myself dancing in front of the Taj Mahal, or a make recording of a speech to rousing applause, without ever leaving the actual space of my room. ‘Believing your own eyes’ is a much more difficult task in the virtual/digital world.

How are we relating to it?
Regardless of how we understand virtual/digital spaces, humans are anxious to enter and explore them, to maximize their use of them. And why not? We created these spaces for our use. But what interests me is whether we have carried our politics of conventional spaces forward into the virtual/digital world. As an American, I am part of a culture which has been deeply shaped by spatial concerns: our ancestors came to a ‘New World’ and believed in ‘Manifest Destiny’ in settling the ‘frontier.’ Given the depth of that spatial concern, it is not at all surprising that virtual/digital spaces have taken on the mantle of a ‘new’ frontier.

The character of the American people both our fearless and democratic self-reliance and our racist and violent self-concern can be easily seen in the spatial desires of the American frontier. Because even though the American concept of the frontier an empty land, there for the ‘taking’ is compelling and stimulates a flow of new ideas, it also carries a history of social injustice because it conveniently overlooked existing people residing there with an alternative culture of use. Such a history marks the linguistic distinction between settling a frontier and colonization. That history also shows that colonization is actually a progression of spatial desires which overlap and then replace their predecessors. It is easy to see this progression by drawing parallels between the settling of the American West and the development of the virtual/digital world. We have seen:

The Explorers and Guides
The Free-Range ‘No Fences’ Ranchers
The Utopian Visionaries
The Farmers and Town Builders
The Lawmen
and The Empire Builders

Over the past two decades we have been witnessing the domestication, the colonization, of virtual/digital spaces, and such an idea raises questions: Is this new frontier simply reinforcing the social hierarchy of conventional spaces? Will the marginalized and invisible remain so in the virtual world? Virtuality, in essence the lack of embodied physicality, was supposed to be a space which facilitated the ultimate democratization of our society. No longer inescapably tied to the cultural markers which define gender, or class, or race, or ethnicity, we would be able to stride into our digital future without our cultural baggage. Although many have played with this freedom (like being virtually transgendered for a day), most of us are too busy performing our identities to want to become invisible enough to slip into a color-blind future. We have not even lived up to the utopian values of the early ‘free-access,’ ‘no one owns the internet’ pioneers. Although the rise in corporate and government control of both access and content on the web has not yet prevented anyone from posting just about anything they want (that is, if ‘anyone’ happens to be on the ‘haves’ side of the ‘digital divide’ with access to both the equipment and the knowledge), if corporate content becomes overwhelming in both visibility (sheer volume of content) and quality (let’s face it, cutting edge technology drives the market and is always just beyond the financial means of most users) it may make independent content ‘virtually’ invisible.

My concern with the politics of virtual spaces extends beyond social policy. I am also intrigued by our process of ‘humanizing’ this new terrain. Historically, as humans move into frontier spaces, they bring with them personal and cultural artifacts that work to transform the unfamiliar into the familiar. There is an irony at work here. Why leave familiar spaces if you feel compelled to bring them with you to new terrain? But whether humans are running away from the old or toward the new, they fill their wagons with Grandma’s rocking chair and mother’s needlepoint axioms. Virtual/digital spaces seem no different. The desktops on our monitors have photographs of the kids. Our emails to the relatives contain video attachments of the family at Christmas dinner. As we move more and more toward the digitization of our culture, with DVDs and digital cameras and the like, digital spaces are becoming the storehouses of human memorabilia. They are replacing desk drawers and closets and boxes in the attic in a way that clearly shows our lack of understanding about the fragility of digital media or the continual obsolescence of the software and hardware that translate a specific set of ones and zeros into wedding photos.

We are continually creating and then colonizing new virtual/digital spaces sort of like endlessly building and filling up new closets but the concern goes deeper, because the frontier has always seemed so large that we fill part of it with the things we no longer want, or the things we even forgot we had put there. In the most human of ways, virtual/digital spaces have become not only the repository of desirable human images and text, but also obsolete and objectionable ones. They are not only archives and attics, but dumps. Any search on the web will produce some useful information, but it might also link you to calendars of ‘upcoming’ events that happened three years ago, or maybe porn sites or skinhead propaganda. As humans have expanded into new territories, ever have they dumped their detritus in the spaces they’ve left behind. That may also explain more about our motives for moving on.

But the flow of traffic across the border of the digital frontier is not unidirectional. Even though I have been concentrating on how conventional politics and conventional images have infiltrated the virtual world, it is also important to point out that our virtual interactions have begun to alter our experiences of conventional spaces. A social (as opposed to geometric) way to understand the concept of ‘distance’ might be the relative difficulty of establishing a communicative link between any two people, but the technological extension of the communicative body has literally bridged the gap: across political borders, across oceans, even across cultural barriers. So much so that the ‘exotic,’ if defined as cultural or physical distance, is an endangered species. And where at one time cultural change (think: the Renaissance) might have begun like a ripple in a pond, moving from a center outward, now ideas and images can bypass the intervening ground and burst forth instantly from internet nodes anywhere in the world. Although the earth is unchanged in either mass or circumference, the place simply feels smaller to us now.

What happens when the human body enters and/or interacts with technological spaces?

Although there are metaphoric uses for space, the primary human relationship to space involves actual physical occupation. But how do we occupy, or at least physically interact with, a world of electronic impulses? There are a number of answers to that question. One is that we don’t occupy that world physically, instead we learn to pretend that we are.

The process of pretending occurs in several ways. One is the digital representation of the shapes and objects of conventional human spaces, like making our screens into ‘desktops’ with files and folders and trashcans. Another is to create abstract virtual spaces which replace ‘real’ spaces with the same function, such as chat rooms and private rooms. A third way stems from the mapping and animation of three dimensional objects and spaces onto two dimensional screens so that we can imitate the visual experience of moving through both familiar and fantastic environments. We can also use our creations digital entities such as avatars and agents to move through the virtual spaces which are their native terrain, and we can vicariously saddle up and ride these creatures at dizzying fiberoptic speeds. Lastly, we fill digital spaces with images of ourselves living and moving in conventional spaces: talking-head teleconferencing around boardroom tables, on-line video clips of news events, close-ups of human body parts spammed to our email accounts. Often now, if we want to see what is happening in the ‘world,’ we look into the television or computer monitor instead of looking out of the window.

A second way we can enter the virtual world is by inventing more and more effective means of digitizing aspects of human physicality to create virtual human images. Digital video, motion capture, sophisticated video and animation software that permits the seamless integration of multiple camera signals from varying angles, all help to create a digitized body compelling enough to care about.

A third answer, probably the most intriguing to a dancer like myself, is that we invite technology into intimate human spaces or even onto or into the human body itself. Our electronic portals into virtual spaces have a physical presence in the conventional world. We often touch and move and hold these objects more closely than the humans in our lives, and this small partnered dance creates a familiarity, a comfort, even an intimacy, that facilitates our connection with an abstract space. I think that all of us can remember the uncanny sensation of simultaneous proximity and distance we sometimes experience when the voice of a distant loved one comes out of an object held in the intimate space next to our ear. Such interactions, which emphasize haptic and kinesthetic information, are creating a kind of hybrid space where human actions slip easily across the technological barrier, and can sometimes have simultaneous effects in both the virtual and conventional worlds, and responding to feedback from the technology itself. Motion capture is an interesting example, where dancing in a ‘real’ but ‘technologized’ space simultaneously creates an entity dancing in digital space.

The past decade has seen a number of artist/technologists working to expand the possibilities of humans moving and even dancing with and within virtual spaces. In some ways it is surprising that dancers would want access to this terrain. It is a world that lacks the mass, the gravity, the sweat and breath and effort of human movement. Yet our primary entry points to the virtual world are screens and projectors, and a visual field is a fertile site for movement invention.

Some of these artists Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser of Riverbed Studios are a good example have used motion capture, animation, and 3-D spatial design to make human movement and humanoid figures in digital space have some of the same compelling kinesthesia as dancers in our physical world. More than that, they have tried to imbue a subtle sense of individual agency into virtual entities with roots in human movement, but who exist and interact only in abstract space.

Other artists Hellen Sky and John McCormick of Company in Space, or Jeff Miller and Sita Popat have worked to establish a physical interaction more fully integrated into virtual/digital space. In these works, two or more humans, sometimes on different continents, separately enter a virtual space where their digital representatives can move together.

Finally, some artists Stelarc, Mark Coniglio and Dawn Stopiello of Troika Ranch, and others have technologized their conventional performance spaces and even their own bodies, so that human movement can trigger, or be triggered by, light, sound, visual images, or electrical currents from the ‘body’ of technology.

Regardless of how we enter or interact with the virtual/digital world, the human truth is that we will carry our values, our images, and our spatial desires, into the new frontier. But will we be sensitive enough, open enough, to notice how a different kind of space, and the ‘body’ of technology that creates it, posits a potentially alternative political and social reality? Will we colonize our virtual creations and set them to work reinforcing both what we like and hate about ourselves? Or will we move with our digital partners and discover where this new dance leads?