Virtual reality artists have turned away from their expansive digital terrain that can appear to load infinitely, instead redirecting their focus on the immediate fact of embodiment that has both been lamented as the dead weight limiting VR technologies and mourned in the wake of ever-improving robotics, which have outperformed organic body parts now for decades. The cyber-utopian fantasy of an existence that can be easily programmed and reprogrammed that surrounds new media like virtual and augmented reality has prompted artistic concerns over phenomenology since all that is stopping one from coding a new world is the fleshy, fragile body. While choreographic endeavors are unhindered despite the threat of corporal obsolesce imposed by technological advances, theories on the body and dance can elucidate conceptual obstacles perhaps at the center of VR art, obstacles that both frustrate and inspire.
Two works by Sarah Rothberg—Touching a Cactus and Your Hands Are Feet—express anxieties and resentments toward the body by foregrounding limits on spectatorship, which are attributable to bodily limitations. In Touching a Cactus, Rothberg unravels an eighty-line poem of ominous musings that expand on the sensation of touching a cactus, which becomes inaccessible within her, or any, virtual reality. Of course, the object-choice of cactus is notable in that touching a cactus is typically painful. Touching a Cactus results in making the participant miss a sensation that they would not have wanted to initially experience. Presenting the experience of touching a cactus with an elegiac tone leads the viewer to mourn physicality in its entirety, which would include pain. Rothberg’s other VR works, especially Your Hands Are Feet, repeat a similar nostalgia for the organic body by imagining new forms of embodiment as visions of the uncanny. A consistent sentiment structures Rothberg’s works that suggests investing in the virtual potentially means abandoning the physical and her one piece Touching a Cactus leans toward the notion that it’s too late to go back.
Cecilia Sweet-Coll embeds dancers in her VR piece Annica, meaning “impermanence” in Pali, which places the digital outlines of dancers in a dark, glitching desert. In pieces likes Sweet-Coll’s, the viewer can only view the virtual reality from a fixed position while the images of dancers move freely in shifting locations. The dynamism of the virtual dancers is a direct reminder of the viewer’s fixed embodiment, barred from experience inside the virtual reality. Annica provides a viewer with the opportunity to see everything from a single point, but the price of sitting in the panopticon is that the body is no longer a container for meaning, only a constraint preventing one from entering deeper into the tantalizing artwork.
As artists continue to explore virtual reality, a stronger sense of the virtual can define what lies at a binary opposite: the physical. The possibilities that a new medium like virtual reality opens up might not mean that old media is willing to be replaced, but rather explored in conjunction with it. This may be especially true of dance when the medium is movement of the body.