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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Digital Historiography: Virtual Reality
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 1999

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Source: Digital Historiography: Virtual Reality
David J. Staley

vol. 2, no. 1, April 1999
Article Type: Book Review
PDF: Download full PDF [19kb ]

Digital Historiography: Virtual Reality

David J.Staley

  • Body Mecanique: Artistic Explorations of Digital Realms (Columbus: Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, 1998)
  • Mary Anne Moser, ed. Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1996)

Historians of the future will be born of a culture that values the images, sounds and movement of video games over the silent, placid words of books. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that these historians might begin to encourage their apprentices to represent the past through similar visual/aural/kinesic environments. "Narrative" may very well unfold in visual, not written mediums. In the same way historians interested in written narrative often look to novelists for models and inspiration, visually-oriented historians might begin to look to artists for theories, analogies and inspiration. The video game—in the form of virtual reality technologies—raises interesting questions about the future of historical narrative in cyberspace.

In order to fully appreciate the narrative implications of VR, one needs to directly experience it. My wife and I experienced two such installations from a 1998 Wexner Center for the Arts exhibit titled "Body Mecanique;" both of which dealt with issues of narrative in cyberspace. The first, Dead Souls by Janine Cirincione and Michael Ferraro is a glorified video game, although my son's video games are far more complex than this display. The participant walks up to a dais and uses a joystick to navigate around a virtual space displayed on the wall in front. This is VR without the goggles and gloves that most people associate with the technology. The virtual space itself is minimalist and surreal; yet it takes only a bit of imagination to think of how historians might use such environments. For example, one might program the space to replicate an historic place, thereby allowing the viewer to participate in and experience the past. While such experiences might obviously include the battle scenes preferred by video game addicts or other such spectacles, one could also envision less extreme virtual scenes of everyday life.

Another installation, Artificial Changelings by Toni Dove, was far more interesting. The narrative in this "feminist history lesson" (27) is visual and aural and is moved along by the body movements of the participant, in this case, my wife Alexa Reck. By stepping on the electronically labeled pads on the floor, Alexa could either move the video images forward or backward in time, and could shift the direction of the narrative from the life of 19th century kleptomaniac Arathusa to that of Zilith, a hacker from the future. By moving her arms around, Alexa could influence the pace of the narrative; by standing still, the sounds and visual images also stand still. Again, the themes in this installation are abstract and artistic, and are activated by random, rather than deliberate, body movements. Historians might, nevertheless, think about how they might display more "realistic" images and sounds, and how viewer/participants might activate the narrative by their deliberate movement and kinesic interaction.

This exhibit is an extension of the notion, popularized by hypertext theorists, that the reader (or viewer) determines the reading order, or in this case, the procession of words and images. Cirincione and Ferraro seek "to build a narration that follows the choices a player makes." (19) In Toni Dove's virtual space, "narration becomes an interactive event." (27) Observing these displays also raised other issues that do not arise in hypertext theory. For example, I found Alexa's body movements more interesting than the surrealistic images and sounds; clearly, her actions were as much a part of the installation as the digital technology. In contrast, one rarely notices the act of reading, which for a print culture remains a solitary, silent and still activity. Imagine the image of St. Jerome in his study; now envision his digital counterpart gesticulating and dancing.

The exhibit guide offers striking still photographs from the Wexner Center installations; additionally, the works of Cirincione and Ferraro as well as Toni Dove can be accessed on line at (respectively) and (however, I would point out that these displays have to be experienced to be fully appreciated; the book and web pages are interesting, but do not replicate the experience).

The contributors to Immersed in Technology explore these and other issues raised by VR. They arrive from many disciplinary backgrounds: artists, engineers, computer programmers, writers, designers, academics, playwrights, architects, choreographers, filmmakers, but, alas, no historians. Nevertheless, historians who wish to understand the narrative implications of VR technology for historical representation will find this book evocative, if somewhat jargon-laden. Several themes course throughout the essays and artists' statements that make up this collection. Many of the contributors once again point to the blurring of boundaries between viewer and creator in the VR environment and the participatory role of the technology. According to media arts professor Margaret Morse, "When the 'reader' or receiver is virtually inside the scene or story-world in cyberspace, enjoying choice-making privileges about the order, direction, or pace of what happens next, he or she enjoys a role somewhere between that of a character and a narrator in the virtual environment."(199) Displaying the past in virtual environments will require historians to reconsider our assumptions about the consumers of historical knowledge.

Virtual environments need not be limited to the recreation of "real" places. Some artists and mathematicians, for example, are experimenting with "visual mathematics:" VR spaces which make abstract data concrete and kinesic. In one installation, "Topological Slide," the viewer "surfs" on a board that "moves" through representations of non-Euclidian surfaces. Mathematicians often speak of their abstractions as "objects;" this display effectively translates abstract geometry into concrete objects that can be experienced. As the multimedia artist Frances Dyson notes, intriguing epistemological questions emerge: "What would it be like to enter and interact with a 'space' of numbers? Could you call it a 'space'? Could you call a constellation of data an object or even an image?"(86) Historians exploring data in this fashion would inhabit an intellectual space shared by mathematicians, sculptors, architects and engineers.

Virtual reality technologies share much in common with video games, which leads several of the contributors to ponder whether VR will retain the masculine and misogynistic environment of video games. The "plots" of many video games, for example, feature visual and aural spectacles; as Toni Dove notes, in the virtual environment, "Narrative strategies shift away from character- and plot-driven stories to experiences that escalate physical and visual intensities."(275) Translating historical narrative into virtual environments will, by definition, change the form of historical knowledge; the technology might also reconfigure the content of that knowledge as well. Will historians choose to replicate the video game environment, thus recreating battle scenes and other extreme events, making "spectacle" the standard of historical narrative?

These contributors are well aware of the conflict between the military and commercial applications of VR technology on the one hand and artistic applications on the other. They are either realistic or cynical enough to recognize the political economy of cyberspace and the restraints this places on artistic freedom and creativity. Should historians explore the use of these (still expensive) technologies, we should be prepared to examine and perhaps even defend academic freedom, and to assert creative, as opposed to commercial, use of the tools.

Other political concerns in this collection deal with questions of the status of the body in cyberspace. Many contributors evoke the novel Neuromancer by William Gibson, and note the interface and blurred boundaries between organic body and digital technology that book envisioned, and which VR promises. For example, N. Katherine Hayles, in an especially well-reasoned essay, notes with concern the persistence in VR technology of the cyberneticist's fantasy of preserving mind at the expense of body. Historians accustomed to expressing narrative through writing might be ill-prepared for the theoretical discussion of the status of the physical body. Yet if historians begin to behave more like artists or sculptors of visual historical data, these theoretical questions will more than likely become a part of any methodological or philosophy of history course, perhaps influencing how we will think about virtual reconstructions, or museum displays, or habitable data.

We will not know for some time if this generation's preference for the visual is an evanescent fad or the beginnings of a cultural shift to what Walter Ong called "secondary orality." If we are entering a period of increasing aliteracy, hypertext—that is writing on the computer—may only be print culture's last effort to find a niche in an increasingly visual and kinesic digital environment. Perhaps the real future for the computer and history is object-oriented and experiential.