Virtual Reality, Visual Sovereignty and the (Hungry) Settler Gaze

It is an understatement to say that this hunger for resources has not abated with time. xwelítem hunger may have begun with gold, but it quickly extended to forests, the water, and of course the land itself. In the twentieth century the hunger has grown for Indigenous artistic practice.

Dylan Robinson, Hungry Listening

Both my Wife and I have expressed how the Rift seems to make us feel hungry.
It always comes about when I get the odd bit of simulator sickness. It’s like my body no longer registers it as sickness and instead thinks I am hungry.

I wonder if this follows a similar, albeit reduced intensity, physiological mechanism to the brain thinking we are poisoned explanation that we have been seeing around lately, but because we are used to the Rift our brain just thinks we are ‘mildly’ poisoned and so it suggests to us that we dilute whatever it is we ingested with food?

AnotherAtreyu, posted on the Oculus Rift Community Forum

Hunger and Virtual Reality

What does hunger have to do with virtual reality? The comment I cite above, from Oculus Rift user AnotherAtreyu, connects it to the nausea that gamers experience when immersed in a virtual world—nausea induced by the brain’s confusion about where we are materially. The same thing happens when we are car sick. Our eyes and our ears tell us we are moving, but the body remains stationary. In VR, that confusion is amplified by degrees, because it is not just our sense of time an space that is being disrupted, but our relationship to story and the fourth wall. In fact, it is as if that wall, the frame that delineates the space between audience and narrative, has evaporated.

The experience of being subsumed into a story is what Jay Bolter and Walter Grusin identify as immediacy: the artist’s trick of effacing the frame, of convincing the audience that the boundary between art and audience has been whisked away. Immediacy is, as Bolter and Grusin suggest, at the pinnacle of what Western audiences desire from art. That is to occupy the space of the work itself.

All remediations, Jay Bolter writes, are “in pursuit of the same goal: greater authenticity and immediacy of presentation” (Writing Space 70). But what some audiences want from art, and what art wants from them, can be antithetical to an individual’s relationship to place, or how they understand themselves as “here.”

We are hungry as AnotherAtreyu suggests, because our bodies seek salvage from the poison of our experience of immediacy. The sickness that occurs when the physical self is included and excluded from two worlds simultaneously.

In AnotherAtreyu’s formulation, hunger is a response to the ways in which art, represented in immediacy, poisons us. It is a symptom of art. But hunger is also a verb, a means of approaching the aesthetic and is therefore not the only the symptom, but also the disease.

Dylan Robinson identifies hunger as a socio-political mode of aesthetic consumption. For Robinson, the “hungry” approach to the arts is symptomatic of a colonial drive to consume, to render the other as digestible, that is without the difficult to swallow bones of difference: “hungry listening is hungry for the felt confirmations of square pegs in square holes, for the satisfactory fit as sound knowledge slides into its appropriate place” (51).

What Robinson identifies as hungry listening, is, in many ways, a commentary on immediacy as a form of consumption. Hungry listening rejects the frame of cultural difference—what Jolene Rickard calls aesthetic sovereignty—in an effort make the object one’s own: to actually ingest it into the system so that the gap between self and other no longer exists. Like immediacy, as a representational form, hungry engagement of art erases boundaries:

To be starving is to be overcome with hunger in such a way that one loses the sense of relationality and reflexivity in the drive to satisfy that hunger. Hungry listening consumes without awareness of how the consumption acts in relationship with those people, the lands, the waters that provide sustenance.

Hungry Listening 53

Two forms of hunger are under consideration here, then. One is derived out of a need to temper the poison of the “immediate” media experience. One comes from a colonial-oriented drive to consume the aesthetics of the other. Both are acts of breaking boundaries, of disrupting sovereignty, of place and of body. What does it mean, then, to embody this hunger? What does it mean to accept it, as AnotherAtryeu does, as a consequence of an avoidable–yet still (apparently) highly desirable–poisoning?

Virtual Reality and Immediacy

Via immediacy, Bolger & Grusin give us further context from which to understand hunger and its relationship to media. Remediation works on the basis of two central tenets, both equally important to how the theory is conceptualized: immediacy and hypermediation.

The former is perhaps the more insidious, at least as it has been addressed in the literature, given the political implications of immediacy presenting itself as truth—an idea that Walter Benjamin connected directly to fascism in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

In the studio the mechanical equipment has penetrated so deeply into reality that its pure aspect freed from the foreign substance of equipment is the result of a special procedure, namely, the shooting by the specially adjusted camera and the mounting of the shot together with other similar ones. The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

According to Bolter and Grusin, audiences (namely white audiences; the authors do not address the impacts that race and cultural difference might have on their theory of remediation) desire immediacy in their storytelling: that is, they want to be fully and completely immersed within the space of the narrative, blissfully unaware of the technology that facilitates it.

This is not to say that audiences, historical or contemporary, believe the representation is real. Rather that “immediacy is the expression of a historical desire” (31) that demonstrates a willingness to suspend one’s disbelief for the opportunity to be immersed in a new world. The hunger of immediacy is perhaps best represented by Bolter angled Grusin in their discussion of pornography, which illustrates most plainly how desire is implicated in remediation. The cultural reaction to pornography (either desire or moral outrage) “stems from a belief in the immediacy of photography”. They continue,

The assumption is that the human models must have performed the act revealed in the photograph and that the image is caused by the reflected light that travelled from their bodies to the film. It is as if the erotic impulse could pass through the photograph to touch the viewer. (100)

Immersive Storytelling: A History of Oculus Rift

New, and increasingly affordable gaming systems like the Oculus Rift 2, are bringing immediacy into the home in powerful new ways. However, immediacy, as a form of representation in art, is by no means a contemporary phenomenon, but an audience compulsion towards immersive representation with a long-standing history in the Western art canon.

Bolter and Grusin trace that compulsion back to at least the Cartesian plane and the technologies of linear perspective made popular by Renaissance painters and architects.

Probably the most famous example of linear perspective, Raphael's The School of Athens (1509-1511) draws the viewers gaze to Plato and Aristotle.

To be perfectly clear, the desire for immersive media is by no means a universal concept. In fact, I argue, it is tied up in the colonial desire to “to penetrate, to traverse, to know, to translate, to own and exploit” what David Garneau adroitly names as settler scopophilia.

Robinson identifies this modality of aesthetic consumption as deriving from a colonial hunger to consume and thus, in the act of consumption, to incorporate the the aesthetic object within onself. He calls this a “settler’s starving orientation” (2), which he orients towards a particular way of listening:

Settler hunger does not merely extend to appropriation of Indigenous song, however. In the realm of inclusionary music between Western art music and Indigenous cultural practices, and particularly in the post–Truth and Reconciliation context, there has been increasing hunger for particular, and we could also say “more easily digestible,” forms of Indigenous culture and narratives.

Hungry Listening, 49

That immediacy, as a form of representational immersion, is perhaps a distinctly “hungry” form of visual storytelling, is made even more explicit when we hold technological evangelism alongside Indigenous new media theory. On the side of technology, and it’s capacity to immerse us in new worlds, Michael Benedikt (1991) writes,

The design of cyberspace is, after all, the design of another life-world, a parallel universe, offering the intoxicating prospect of actually fulfilling—with a technology very nearly achieved—a dream thousands of years old: the dream of transcending the physical world, fully alive, at will, to dwell in some Beyond—to be empowered or enlightened there, alone or with others, and to return.

Cyberspace: First Steps 131

What Benedikt identifies as transcendence, however, Loretta Todd, sees as an extension of the colonial mindset. Todd argues that virtual reality is a means for settlers to escape the physical landscapes they have laid waste to via colonialism and capitalism (1996). According to Todd, who, for context, is writing five years after Benedikt, cyberspace is escape:

It is not so odd, then, at this stage of late capitalism in the project called western culture, that cyberspace is ‘under construction.’ It has in fact been under construction for at least the past two thousand years in Western culture. A fear of the body, aversion to nature, a desire for salvation and transcendence of the earthly plane has created a need for cyberspace.

“Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace” (1996)

According to Candice Hopkins who reads Todd against more contemporary cyberspaces, “Todd asserts that [for Indigenous peoples] there is no disconnection from the material world: All relationships—mind and body, human and nature, hunter and prey—are interconnected and symbiotic.”14

In this sense, as Hopkins identifies, Todd sees cyberspace as an abstraction of home and homelands invented by Western a culture that perennially, “has to [have] somewhere else to go.”15 As such, Todd asks, “would we [Indigenous people] have created cyberspace?” And she answers definitively, “I think not—not if cyberspace is a place to escape the earthly plane and the mess of humanity.”16

Visual Sovereignty and Virtual Reality

So what does Indigenous visual sovereignty look like in spaces of representation built on immediacy? I am thinking most specifically here of virtual reality. Jolene Rickard calls for a visual sovereignty that disrupts the colonial gaze and makes space for the unique positions that Indigenous nations take up within the aesthetic:

There is a need to expand art criticism and visual theory to include a discourse read across Indigeneity, colonization, and sovereignty. Critics can readily see gender inequities due to the naming and canonization of the concept of feminism, yet they struggle to factor in an Indigenous perspective. Sovereignty could serve as an overarching concept for interpreting the interconnected space of the colonial gaze, deconstruction of the colonizing image or text, and Indigeneity. Thus, informed scholars and critics would understand how to discuss Indigenous visual culture within a framework of sovereignty with an understanding of the unique legal position Indigenous nations have in relationship to settler colonial nations in addition to the discourse around decolonization

Jolene Rickard, “Visualizing Sovereignty in the Time of Biometric Sensors”

Hypermediation and Digital Sovereignty

If immediacy represents the (colonial) drive to be immersed in another world (or the new world), then hypermediation is the act of resisting immersion and making the frames through which we view content discernible and thus subject to critique: “hypermediacy offers a heterogeneous space, in which representation is conceived of not as a window on to the world, but rather as ‘windowed’ itself—with windows that open on to other representations or other media” Bolter and Grusin 2000).

A classic example of hypermediation, for instance, is the inclusion of a television in a videogame or YouTube video. It can be argued that by including the “old” media in the “new” the latter media encompasses the former and therefore striving more deeply to suspend the viewers’ disbelief and efface all traces of its mediation.

However, Bolter and Grusin argue that it is more productive to consider the ways in which hypermediacy draws our attention to mediation and therefore the ways in which all of our experiences are mediated—even those we assume to be immediate. As they put it, “in every manifestation, hypermediacy makes us aware of the medium or media and (in sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious ways) reminds us of our desire for immediacy.” It is through the awareness facilitated by hypermediation then that we are afforded the opportunity to think critically about the frames that work to shape and steer our actions and experiences.

Parallel railway tracks are the most common contemporary example of linear perspective.  

If you google “vanishing point” you will almost certainly encounter a swath of railroad track receding into the distance. Railway tracks are a great way to illustrate linear perspective. However, the connection between form and content (i.e. tracks & vanishing point) unintentionally compels us towards another way of thinking the relationship between representation and settler colonialism. Inasmuch as the railway was the physical technology through which colonialism was enacted (Duarte 2017), linear perspective is perhaps the representational technology through which that railway is imagined.

Hypermediation is not the solution to settler colonialism. How could it be? But it does offer a way to think about the ways in which the immersive gaze of colonialism is naturalized. How can we use that knowledge to make the frames of colonialism more visible to white settlers?

See the Novel Alliances New Media reading list here

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