Dancing Out the Threat of Corporal Obsolescence in VR

Curator's Note

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.


Thank you for this, Dillon!  I have now become fascinated with Sarah Rothberg's work!  You also have me thinking about what corporal obsolecence means. In sci fi tales of cyborgs, the organic fleshy body often gives way entirely (or mostly) to the cybernetic.  In Rothberg's work however some parts of our fleshy body are activated while recognizing that others cannot quite be reached (yet?) by virtual realities.  More specifically, our visual and auditory senses are activated but our sense of touch (and taste and smell) are not.  We (including I) may feel this as a loss of the sensual body--but in some sense it is not.  In a world of screens, we simply prioritize vision; in a world of voice command technologies we prioritize hearing and so forth.  New technologies, I presume, will enact other parts of the body differently (much as our fingers are now--as we speak--connected to keyboards).

this is super interesting, and really captures a lot of what i have also been thinking about in terms of vr's corporeal weirding. I think there is definitely something to be said for the 'limitations' of touch in VR, but also that these weird affectivities promote different kinds of strange potential (definitely linking w. body horror).

In contrast to the Okaeri artwork, there is a real focus on touch - 'an object has been touched by you' almost treated like a rewarding act -- but also emphasises the kind of ecological fascet of VR -- impressing that tacticility onto the world (we are touching and can be touched). I think its a really fascinating way of reminding the user that they cannot escape embodiment -- almost endrenched in corporeality as opposed to endrenched in world/disembodied. Spectral presence of body in virtual space (still a body but not-quite yours). Super cool that this then translates the hand into a mouse cursor...lots to play with in thinking about transition into virtual space. I think mourning physicality is a really cool analogy: I wonder if there is something too about novel interaction? Maybe its actually a hint that the physical and virtual are no longer binary opposites? 

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