Television Art, Ubiquity and Immersion.

A Dialogue of Translation with Joseph Nechvatal

by Yves Citton

In his extremely suggestive essay entitled “Towards an Immersive Intelligence”, artist and theorist Joseph Nechvatal defines immersive virtual reality art as “an art that has a continuous, coherent quality and strives to ambiently include everything of perceptual worth within its domain in an overall, enveloping totality that is concerted and without an evident frame or border”1. Television, on the face of it, is not a medium capable of providing any form of sensory immersion: compared to the Imax or to a trip through virtual reality goggles, its screen (even in its “giant” sizes) remains ridiculously small. More importantly, whereas immersion requires the intense capture of our full attention in the enveloping totality it artificially creates, our viewing of television is generally distracted and superficial.

Immersion, however, can be understood in a rather different manner: even if TV screens are tiny, and getting tinier as we will increasingly watch programs on our I-phones and I-pads, the TV of the future will be everywhere (or everyware, as Adam Greenfield puts it2). It may therefore be an exciting challenge—for theorists, but mostly for artists—to translate Nechvatal’s analysis, from sensory immersion through virtual reality devices, towards communicational immersion through ubiquitous TV. The following pages propose a (fictional) dialogue between Nechvatal’s quotes and an impersonal rhetorical procedure which attempts to translate his theorization of the viractual3 into possible ways for artists to experiment with ubiquitous TV.

Joseph Nechvatal – The entire benefit of addressing the ideal inherent in immersive omni-perception consists in the attempt to adhere to an exciting, transmissible hyper-state that exceeds, transcends and overwhelms our former territory. This transmissible hyper-state is only probable when the two fundamental grades of immersive sensibility, which I distinguish as cocooning and expanding, are in dialectical cooperation.

Ubiquitranslator – As television multiplies its specialized channels, as people can download millions of bits of reality captured by digital cameras and made accessible through YouTube, the tiny screens we carry around everywhere do provide us with a machinery of omni-perception. Of course, we can not watch all these millions of available programs. This omni-perception remains purely “virtual”: a potential which can never be actualized. My feeling, however, is that it does nevertheless create very strong feeling of excess. By the very possibility of watching all these programs we cannot actually watch, we are put in an exciting (and frustrating) hyper-state which, indeed, “exceeds, transcends and overwhelms” our subjectivity. From this point of view, the overwhelming nature of television may be reaching a crossroad. Greenfield’s everyware does provide us some form of “cocoon”. As it is increasingly easy to “see things that are far from us” (accomplishing the etymology of tele-vision), my level of protection and comfort increases: my garden’s surveillance camera can show me that the flowers need water, and I can activate the sprinkler from afar before everything dries up. As my bourgeois life is more efficiently cocooned, however, it also feels increasingly threatened by all the worrying things I can see fermenting all over the world, on the many (outer and inner) borders of my cocoon. Here too, the expansion of my visual and informational field is in a dialectical opposition-cooperation with my need of cocooning, even if, so far, everyware’s cocooning gadgets seem to trail far behind the overwhelming anxieties provided by TV’s images.

Joseph Nechvatal – In the sensory experience of immersion, when these two directions of sensibility—cocooning and expanding—connect and cooperate within a vast, synthetic, aesthetic, immersive topophilia, we sense that our being becomes subliminal. It is this sense of latent excess within immensity that draws the eye and mind in, and conceptually sublimates our being in the construction of an ontological state of hyper-being.

Ubiquitranslator – How could artists attempt to reproduce this “subliminal” experience on the basis of the features provided by ubiquitous TV? I believe this sense of latent excess describes very precisely our relation to the overload of ubiquitous information, which is both “excessive” and “latent”, since our access to it is only potential (we will never be able to see what we are promised to view). I am very much intrigued by the type of “hyper-being” which rises on the horizon of ubiquitous TV. Can you define it more precisely, insofar as sensory immersion is concerned?

Joseph Nechvatal – Total immersion challenges distinctive ontological beliefs about the limits of the self. In virtual immersion, conventional optic models may be surpassed. Immersed in a virtual reality simulation, we can “exchange eyes” with another person and see ourselves and the world from their vantage point or, in fact, see ourselves from any vantage point. With aesthetic immersion’s appetite to surpass visual confinements, the human subject is ready to escape and exceed previous limits and take a step towards the infinity implied in our expanding aoristic universe. The immersive, synthetic art model offers an alternative visual regime of and for the self-programming psyche in that mental-visual range is extended (via latent excess) and is counteractive to ontological foreclosure. In total immersion, self-programmable thought takes over the space around the constructed self and the meta-programming ego expands to fill the vastness of immersive excess by transference.

Ubiquitranslator – In other words, contrary to common views which lead us to believe that being immersed into something implies that one is controlled, manipulated, blinded, fooled by what immerses us, your analysis suggests that immersion may allow us to gain some distance and claim some control over what we are immersed in. In find this insight extremely striking. It helps us figure out our relation to television: we all know that we are—quite literally—“programmed” to see this rather than that. In spite of all its shortcomings, TV did help us to “exchange eyes” with other people and see ourselves from different vantage points. The urge to “be on TV”, even if it is in the most debasing circumstances as in many Reality Shows, also illustrates this appetite to see ourselves from the other person’s vantage point. Our immersion in ubiquitous TV does contribute very powerfully to generate an appetite to surpass confinements, as many sociologists tell us when they try and understand what pushes migrants to leave their native place in hope of a better life. The appeal of Western TV may rest on an extremely “glamorous” (rather than latent) excess, but it does work as a force which makes people ready to escape and exceed previous limits. Now, what I find really counterintuitive is that this “counteractive force to ontological (and geopolitical) foreclosure” puts viewers in a position to meta-program what they are immersed in. It makes a lot of sense, though: not only do we know, when we watch TV, that we are “programmed”, but the very ubiquity of television, as it multiplies our vantage points, may allow us to meta-program what programs us. In fact, on a geopolitical level, we could interpret migrating flows towards rich Western countries as a way to meta-program Hollywood’s original program, which was to have the whole world admire the US, buy its products, but stay home… Migration itself, in such cases, could be an example of meta-programming what programs our behaviour—with the building of walls and the sealing of borders as a consequence of such meta-programming. Of course, your analysis is set on another, ontological, level. Here too, though, our immersion in a world permeated thru and thru by TV does tend to detach us from our original identity. In Spinozist terms, it does push us to experience ourselves as “modes”—with the French connotation of à la mode, referring to trends and fashions—rather than as “substances”.

Joseph Nechvatal – In situations of immersion, the ontological self ceases to think of itself as a substance or thing, and instead perceives itself as a continuously changing process of virtual-actual events in search of ever more well-being. The important apex of this process of immersion is not that of disembodiment, but rather that of disembodiment’s generation of a hyper-embodiment where self-referential conscious and unconscious self-perceptions become extended, enhanced, and connected through passion.

Ubiquitranslator – Applied to ubiquitous TV, this contains the nutshell of a major artistic program for the years ahead. How does TV disembody us? How does its increasing ubiquity, in miniature and portable forms, disembody TV itself from its traditional presence in the living room or in the bedroom? How does that exacerbate our perception of being carried in a continuously changing process of virtual-actual events in search of ever more well-being? More exciting even: what kinds of hyper-embodiment can we imagine on the horizon of this increasing ubiquity? And finally: on what kind of “passions” can we start to build up such hyper-embodiment? So far it seems that envy, lust, fear and pity are the main affects mobilized by TV as we know it, generating (or at least fuelling) along the way the hyper-embodiment of the capitalist economy, the global porn industry, the anti-terrorist crusades and the humanitarian network of new missionaries. The question is: how can artistic interventions empower other types of affects? Behind all these questions, raised by your insights, one feels the need to analyse more in depth, and more concretely, the type of images which need to be developed in order to contribute to alternative hyper-embodiments. We need to invent different ways to articulate what we see and what we (can’t) comprehend. The situations of immersion and of latent excess which you analyse force us to do so: it is, by definition, impossible to “com-prehend” what I am immersed in; the excess is located precisely in the fact that what immerses me has to be larger than myself, larger than my comprehension, larger than (my) life. How can we “view” without assuming we will ever be in a position to “see” what we look at? I believe this is what you try to understand in the last chapter of your book, where you discuss what “an art of latent excess” could look like. How would you define it?

Joseph Nechvatal – It is an art that puts forth an aesthetic élan of superabundance which reconceptualises art in terms of simulation so as to grant art an unbridled zone, free of the good manners of simple simulations. Thus, an art of latent excess takes us away from the habitual focus of the picturesque and potentially liberates us inwardly from the infringements stemming from the deluge of mass-media images. In the art of excess, the focal point is never circumscripted. Instead of nicely proceeding towards an expedient comprehension and appraisal, immersive latent excess actually opens up an oppositional anti-mechanistic space of self-adumbration by revealing loose limits of our solipsistic and hedonistic inner circuitry.

Ubiquitranslator – A ubiquitous simulation without assignable global focus, haunted by its superabundance and bridled by “good manners” and bad habits of undue focusing: this seems to provide a very good definition of TV as we know it. How can artists transform this deluge of mass-media images, which already creates a situation and a feeling of latent excess, into something like “an art” of latent excess? “Defocusing” has been a rather trendy catchword over the past years, but there must be a good reason for that. Usually, we think of the focus in terms of center, but what you are interested in is not so much to question what is at the center of our gaze, but rather what cannot be circumscribed on its border. The dialectics between cocooning and expanding reappears, in more directly visual terms, as a dialectics between the need and the impossibility to frame (a picture, an issue, a narrative). What could TV art look like if it took on your challenge “to open up an oppositional anti-mechanistic space of self-adumbration”? Your take on the “defocus” slogan seems to invite artists to work on nuances, on shades, on adumbration, on fumes. I believe this is linked to your use of the notion of sfumato, which you elaborate when, in order to illustrate an art of latent excess, you draw your main example, not from a contemporary artist mobilizing the newest magic of virtual reality, but from the Apse in the Lascaux Caves…

Joseph NechvatalSfumato composition is a smokey technique used for decreasing the separating dramatic force and physical presence of isolated figures in a work of art, by immersing them in a fumey, semi-imperturbable pose. Sfumato is the seductive, subtle, smoothy imperceptible gradation of dark colours which approaches a smoggy unity, useful in the creation of psychological atmospheric effects. With sfumato we see the seeds of a visual counter-tradition in opposition to the crisp, detached, geometrical optics of clean simulation. As a result of the seductive sfumato excess encountered in Lascaux’s Apse, I had the peculiar feeling of being flooded over by a cloud-like image cesspool of deep meanings I could not decode. The Apse represent a thrusting off of optic and mental boundaries, and thus is a complex mirroring of our own fleeting impressions which constitute the movement of our consciousness; the perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.

Ubiquitranslator – On the face of it, one could see sfumato techniques as the direct opposite of all the technological efforts made to generate a picture in High Definition. The old TV picture was sfumato, because of low definition, because of the inherent limitation of the medium. As it is the case in music with a genre like noise, however, the greater definition allowed by new technological developments allows artists to reclaim past “defects” into meaningful gesture: low fi, scratches, sound distortions and Larsen effects gain a charm of their own, as soon as they are chosen rather than imposed. Similarly, an art of latent excess, applied to TV, could use the properties of HD in order to reveal the aesthetic properties of low D. This could be a sensual way to make perceptible the weaving and unweaving of ourselves, through the defocusing and deframing of the fleeting impressions which constitute the movement of our consciousness, as we watch television. This type of artistic gesture may be particularly appropriate for our age of ubiquitous TV: the focusing and framing of our attention was already pretty loose when the TV sets were posted in our living room or in front of our bed; it is bound to become even more unstable when we watch TV programs on our I-Phone or I-Pad, waiting for the bus or sitting in a subway. It may very well be our attention itself which is becoming more sfumato and noisy in the age of ubiquity. 17 000 years after Lascaux, 2 500 years after Plato, the planetary cave of ubiquitous TV has become our planetary horizon. While we agitate ourselves ever more frantically within the cave, it may be up to TV artists to project new types of ubiquitous images on this new type of ubiquitous wall.


1 Joseph Nechvatal, Towards an Immersive Intelligence. Essays on the Work of Art in the Age of Computer Technology and Virtual Reality (1993-2006), New York, Edgewise, 2009, p. 24.

2 Adam Greenfield, Everyware. The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, Berkeley, New Riders, 2006.

3 Nechvatal defines the viractual as “the merging of the virtual with the corporeal (the actual)” (op. cit., p. 86). All further quotes by Nechvatal (heavily re-edited) come from pages 27-38 and 81-88 of his book.