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Char Davies has been, to date, the only avant-garde artist to seriously work with virtual reality. Her take on the form is marked by a very nature-based, 'anti-Cartesian' viewpoint. I've never been able to experience one of her worlds - her works do not tour very far, for some reason. (Ottawa, London, New York, and Mexico City. That's it.) So let me attempt to describe to you art that I have never felt nor savored.

The environments of her two works (Osmose, 1995, and Ephemere, 1998) are both marked by three distinct differences from most virtual realities. The first is the lack of hard spatial rules; that is to say, moving west may not take you west. The destination you have in mind may shift, duck, bob and weave. It will change. The second is the attempt to model a diaphanous, glowing vision of nature into the hard, lines-and-polygons world of three-dimensional graphics. The third is the most innovative - the interface has been changed to allow breath measurements.

You don a full VR helmet, as many of you have probably seen in the movies. But you also put on a small chest harness tightly, so that your lung capacity and breathing rate can be measured. And you use your breathing like a diver does, exhaling to sink, inhaling to rise.

Osmose is a world with a tree (the Tree of Life, if I recall correctly) at the center, and different scenes you can swim to. The tree, a forest, a leaf, nature on many scales. But the title is based off of the word 'osmosis', which Davies interprets as 'transcending boundaries', so you can dive through the roots, through the earth, and find the substrata of the world - shifting planes of code. Or you can rise into the bright heavens. And you are left to explore and think, until about 15 minutes later, you begin to rise into a light as the world fades from view - a deliberate attempt to mimic a near-death experience.

Ephemere adds the elements of time, interactivity, and passive travel - you enter a world of lush plants and life, and a river cutting through the center. Enter the river and you descend down into the earth, and lower into the flesh, and through the three strata - the river acting as a blood vessel, branching. If you gaze at something, it will change, sprout, or open into another world that fills your vision, until the river carries you onward. As time passes, the plants grow, the body slowly dies, bones and ashes are left behind. At the end, all that is left is dust.

There are a few ideas present in the work, mostly a recoil from that Davies sees at a male-dominated world, full of hard mathematical concepts and Cartesian precepts (both the rigid geometry of the world, virtual or no, and Cartesian duality), one that uses nature as a tool of mankind. The ideas in this piece are fairly pervasive, and I do not want to go in them deeply without experiencing the piece. Otherwise, I may unfairly criticize Davies, because I do not understand where she is coming from, and besides, if the result is as beautiful as I hear it is, then I'll let the ends justify the means this time.

The pieces run on Silicon Graphics Onyx workstations; I am unaware of any technical obstacles that will keep them from running on today's desktop hardware, besides the clunky one-of-a-kind interface gadgetry. I hope that one of these works can tour widely with this drop in computing power.

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