Report on The Virtual Worlds 2000 Conference : an island of negative entropy


Joseph Nechvatal

Something exciting happens when one looks at various subjects not for closed conceptual systems, but to find an ever-opening conceptual edge. This conceptual edge is more and more important today after we have learned that modernist reductionist assumptions are not easily changed by mere postmodern negations. For example, postmodernists typically reject scientific reductionism, but often assume a kind of fractionated cultural reductionism. Thus people stay trapped in the scientistic objectivist model because it is largely the only working one out there. What seems to be needed are self-mutating conceptual models to think differently with; self-re-organizing conceptual models that are never just the completed or inverted objectivity of the usual conceptions.

Hence, details concerning a plethora of new conceptual and procedural models shown and discussed at the Virtual Worlds 2000 Conference - which was held for three days in July at Pôle Universitaire Léonard de Vinci in Paris - might give us some sense of the many promising conceptual points found there - even though the private discussions I had with participants were often even more abstract and complex and not fixed to the topic I am reporting on here. But we all seemed to agree that we no longer needed a further contextual completion before we can reject any reduction of human processes to the completed/objectified kind, even while we still respect science and its logic as a recognizably special tool within a new art/science matrix.

Prof. Jean-Claude Heudin, director of the International Institute of Multimedia Lab and chairman of Virtual Worlds 2000, aimed to avoid any fall-back by starting off and catalyzing the conference with a succinct but stimulating talk on the conference’s goals, which, like the first Virtual Worlds conference in 1998, were to develop a discourse around the merging of Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Life (A-Life) - the study of synthetic systems that exhibit behaviors characteristic of natural living systems.

Unlike the first conference in 1998, this one was better organized as a single thread and even though there were three key-note speakers (Bruce Damer, Ken Perlin, and Claude Lattaud) they did not dominate the discourse. As a result there was very good rapport at the conference between the diverse international participants and a general feeling that virtually nothing is impossible with co-operational imagination. Cyborg imagery in pop culture, I suppose, has fruitfully fertilized this optimistic ontological feeling by imaginatively inviting people to experience their ontology through losing track of their bodies and becoming (what seems to be) pure consciousness - even though people all over the world have now grasped the fact that even dis-embodied self-conceptual models bring old conceptions of the sexual body with it because as the self becomes progressively more detachable from the location of the body, it becomes increasingly constituted through and in communication processes. The postmodern critique of the sexual/racial body and the problems it poses are now widely understood too, but many are bored by the constant stoppage, as every conceptual model of the body can be made to seem a fall-back into an older politics or metaphysics - and hence a backhanded re-affirmation of them. Thus the benefits of studying ontological complexity via apparently autonomous computational self-modeling systems.

This rhizomatic discourse embraces such diverse fields as advanced computer graphics for virtual worlds, evolutionary computational systems, simulation of ecological systems, simulation of physical environments, multi-agent on-line communities, evolutionary applications for cyber-art, and a host of philosophical traditions. Indeed, except for an overall idea of a coming immersive evolution, there was great diversity at this extremely informative gathering; a gathering of such intellectual breadth that one often felt like a mosquito in a nudist camp, buzzing from one promising approach to another, vampiricaly loading up on them all. But I found this diverse, interdisciplinary approach warranted, for with Virtual Worlds 2000’s emphasis on merging Virtual Reality with Artificial Life we come to a fundamental human exploration concerning the spatialization of consciousness relating to the recognition of life (a working definition of life is quite important to establishing whether an artificial system exhibits life or not – but such a definition is still under debate with some biologists insisting that life can only be found in certain hydro-carbon chains while Schrödinger and Von Neumann early on speculated that life is best characterized as islands of negative entropy, a.k.a. information). That doesn’t sound too high-minded, does it? – because the applications are rather banal; ranging from apparently intelligent computer game avatar simulations to system-bot on-line education and business uses. Well, even so, the high-mindedness is justified in that in Virtual Worlds 2000 a new kind of apparent art/scientific animism was being devised; a buzzing animism that incorporates the recognition of life in artistic, computer scientific, virtual worlds. Hence, Virtual Worlds 2000 continues the opening of a new discourse after postmodernism. Whereas Virtual Reality has largely concerned itself with the design of 3D immersive spaces, and Artificial Life with the simulation of living organisms, Virtual Worlds is concerned with the synthesis of digital living wholes (systemic synthetic worlds). Thus it continues to move us past the time when it was revolutionary to undermine the idea of apparent logical unities.

This synthetic/emergent approach has opened possibilities that were missed by both foundational models and by their postmodernist negation. VR/A-life studies then systematically escape postmodernism’s either/or; we are neither just logical nor arbitrary. Hence, VR/A-life studies gets us past the postmodern alternatives as it systematically exceeds formulation and yet it is far from arbitrary. This approach can re-establish apparent empirical findings within a more critical omnijective context, rather than the strict postmodern disbelief in empiricism. And this is as it should be, for VR is not strictly a virtual enterprise. It is a fuzzy virtual-actual (viractual) one – thus a radicalization of classic Cartesian dualism - as with VR the electronic apparatus supplements both the body’s limitations and its classic imaginary spaces and mental possibilities as the equipment systematically supplements the mind/body’s powers of perception.

Moreover, as we are learning through the Human Genome Project, like everything, life itself has been succumbing to digital dematerialization. But with VR/A-life inspired life, life is even better characterized as a viractual process, rather than the digital substrate in which that process is embedded. This seems right to me, as our life has an apparent order that is more intricate than a single conceptual system. VR/A-life is clearly not static or fixed. It is dynamic.

Without dynamic viractuality, digital ontology encounters a major quandary as life re-mutates into binary modulation, re-structuring human reality again into a new breed of dualing Cartesianalities. But with the dynamic viractual socioepistemic ontology offered in the study of VR/A-life – which comes about through the particular viractual conjunctions of body and digital technology – we are enabled to construct new forms of intersubjective ontology and apparent ways to embody those ontologies … to slip into them, take them on, and live them out immersively to their outer edges.

While we might have once assumed spatial separation between the body and digital technology, the viractuality found in VR/A-life effects a recuperation of spatial absence through temporal presence. This viractual notion places us at once at the most general and limiting condition of our existence. Our bodily existence, or embodiment, is from this standpoint understood to have a viractual range of potential experiential modalities in relation to features of cultural and historical context.

As the interpenetrating of bodies with digital technologies continues unabated, becoming more and more seamless and pervasive, new domains of art experience and being-in-the-world become colonized by this ontological demand. Sure, VR/A-life research is currently devoted to synthesizing new and more seamlessly aesthetic ways to interface embodied ontology with disembodied computer intelligence. However, the majority of people today clearly do not show any special interest in Artificial Life or/and Virtual Reality as art – they perceive them exactly in the same way as they perceive the creation of any other specialized conceptual esoterica. Equally, people don’t comprehend their own ontological internal processes because how we define the extended viractual space of our life is always more than cognitive – like good art is. Therefore, the quintessential VR/A-life concept of emergent complexity via immersive genetic algorithms is a valuable conceptual model for art today in that much of its emergent computational work is organized in a "bottom up" fashion; focusing on local rather than global behaviors, while centering its ontology around poly-sexual cellular automata, neural networks, enzyme catalysts, nanotechnology, RNA strands, and immersive computer models of ecological systems.

But it is not just art. As Prof. Heudin indicated, VR/A-life is a major new ontological medium based on the collaboration of science, technology and art. With VR/A-life yielding up some useful insights into procedure, we might self-study our own organisms’ apparent behaviors and environmental interactions by studying our life as it might be. This is clearly not a counter-revolution against postmodernism but an emergent surpassing of it. Instead of mere postmodern pluralism we might create for ourselves an apparent complex unified ontology made up of emergent multiple-selves by involving a sophisticated steering of artistic applications into a fully ontological immersive context. Such an interplay between evolutionary self-representational dis-embodiment and emergent being-in-the-world embodiment is precisely the viractual issue found in all post-biotechnological applications of the computer, as demonstrated at the conference by both Jeffrey Ventrella’s and Tina LaPorta’s work.

By being taken up into an emergent viractual environment, the complexity of ontological life consciousness is re-represented in VR/A-life and, I would suggest, altered as the computer VR/A-life manipulator encounters emergent representations of her own bodies processes. Thus the VR/A-life inquiry will continue to unfold under its own weight from the point of view of the extended reproducing body, with the next set of emergent ontological questions necessarily having to do with how VR/A-life worlds (for they are always multiple) are constituted, what it means to have them, how they feel, and precisely how we may inhabit them aesthetically.

Note: The full list of participants - with the abstracts to their papers - can be found at
The full proceedings have been published by Springer LNCS/AI / and are available on-line on the Springer Web site: