Boundaries are disappearing. Specifically, the boundaries between the virtual and the actual are disappearing. By “virtual”, we mean “any representation or appearance (whether optically, technologically, or artisanally produced) that appears ‘functionally or effectively but not formally’ of the same materiality as what it represents.” The virtual is a second-order reality. It is a representation. A substitute. An appearance of an actual reality.
The cinema screen and theatre stage are established spaces in which audiences understand where the movie’s or the play’s virtual realities lie.
The same clarity of boundaries applies to the media forms which purport to surround the viewer and “immerse” them in the virtual reality, typically through their apparatus or infrastructure:
The computer-generated environment of Virtual Reality (VR) occupies a user’s entire vision field. Yet, VR requires a still-clunky headset to be placed over their head for the user to view the scene. The user understands that the virtual reality they see is transmitted only through – and bordered by – the screens contained in the VR device.
CAVEs (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) are room-sized displays of multiple screens. Yet, even as the scene surrounds the viewer, the viewer still has to step into the room. They are in no doubt as to what is virtual and what is actual.
The visual attraction of the panorama entertained viewers in the late 18th and 19th centuries. These panoramas featured large-scale realistic paintings, usually of exotic settings or scenes, housed in specially constructed rotunda buildings. The panorama paintings were detailed, life-like, and perspectivally coherent. With clever lighting and positioning of the user at the centre of the painting, the panorama produced effects of profound belief. Apocryphal stories abound, such as that of Queen Charlotte reported feeling sea-sick on viewing a panorama of the British navy at sea. Yet its viewers understood that the panorama was an elaborate construction of illusion. They bought tickets to enjoy and marvel at the panorama’s virtuality. They entered elaborate passageways to access the panorama. The boundaries are clear: here is the virtual reality of the illusion; there is the actual reality of their world.
Yet artists, marketeers and content producers constantly push to muddy these boundaries between actual and virtual reality for novelty and entertainment. For instance, the marketing of the earliest forms of 3D cinema exploit the encroachment of the virtual into the actual as its prime thrill, as seen in the marketing poster for the 1953 House of Wax which promises that the film “comes off the screen right at you!”
Art also navigates and obscures these boundaries. For example, land art from the 1960s and 1970s sited art in remote locations by sculpting the land itself with its natural materials. In doing so, the work bypasses the traditional confinement of the frame that sets apart art from its surroundings.
Again, in the 1960s, Richard Schechner, with the Performance Group, founded and performed what Schechner later termed “environmental theatre” which aimed to eliminate the distinction between conventional audience and stage territories. On sets designed to deliberately encroach on the audience’s space, actors have greater space and flexibility of interaction with the audience, thus incorporating them into the performance. Virtual and actual realities again collide.
In 2020, the art collective, Skullmapping, knocked right on the head the idea of paintings’ frames as the boundaries of virtual reality. With modelling and animation, they produced “Rubens Cupid” as a video to show a cupid “escaping” from Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens’s painting, The Feast of Venus (1635-6), “flying” around the room in its newfound freedom.
Films similarly manipulate virtual and actual boundaries with inventiveness. For instance, the publicity campaign for District 9 (2009) deliberately leaked the virtuality of the film’s story world into the actual. Marketing a film whose story is set in a world shared in tension between humans and aliens who look like prawns, District 9’s advertising campaign included benches and kiosks which featured silhouettes of the film’s alien characters in their prawn-like shape, accompanied by an 1-800 number to echo the film’s story of policing aliens. The virtual reality of the film thus converges with the actual space of the city, signifying what architect Richard Koeck describes as a “redefinition of the boundary where a virtual campaign stopped and the physical space of the city began”.
The entire genre of “found-footage horror,” popularised by the late 1990s box-office successes of The Last Broadcast (1998) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), fuses the boundaries of virtual and actual realities with reflexive self-awareness. The genre’s main characteristic is that a substantive portion of the film, if not its entirety, is presented to the audience as “found” from cameras “recovered” from the story world, “recorded” by characters who have either “died” or “disappeared.” The effect is to present to the audience an object from a fictional world that now somehow exists in theirs, dissolving the partition between the audience’s actual reality and the virtual reality of the film’s world.
Surely one of the most memorable scenes of encroached boundaries between the virtual and the actual is the climactic sequence of Hideo Nakata’s horror film, Ringu (2001). The scene features its antagonist, Sadako, crawling out of a television screen to terrify another character in the film. In Ringu’s diegetic world, Sadako until that point had been a virtuality contained on the other side of the TV screen. Sadako entering her victim’s world is thus not only the disintegration of the boundaries between the actual and the virtual. It is also the undoing of a kind of apotropaic magic in those boundaries which had previously kept apart the malevolence of Sadako and now disintegrating before her victim’s eyes.
This shot of Sadako breaching the TV screen has become so inseparably and memorably associated with Ringu that advertisers re-created the visual trope in promoting Ringu’s sequel, Sadako 3D (2012). Groups of female models were hired to pose on the streets of Tokyo with television screens around their shoulders and their heads pushed out. Such is the resonance of this violation of boundaries – not just in its erasure, but the violent, gendered breakdown of its demarcations.
Today, this muddying of the boundaries between the actual and the virtual intensifies. The key to the meaning of the virtual is its sense of the “almost”: the virtual as “almost a particular thing or quality.” The virtual as an “almost” is therefore crucially also about its nature as something falling short – being nearly there, but not quite – and therefore in some way diminished, incomplete.
However, in the intensification of blurred boundaries, the virtual signals its increasing dominance over the actual. This is The New Virtuality. It is not only about the virtual being seen, perceived and felt as real. It is about how the virtual – as space and as reality – overwhelms the actual. And therefore how the virtual shapes the actual, and, in so doing, becomes the reality that drives society in how it works, lives, pays and plays. The New Virtuality is about this ascendency of the virtual, and the demonstration of the power it now wields. In that ascendency is also about the breakdown of bastions that colours the complexities of contemporary times. The erasure of what used to be positive, separated and distinct differences between what is true versus not; good versus evil; here versus there; fact versus fiction. It is about a loss of clarity, and an even greater uncertainty in regaining those bearings.
A coda, then, of two scenes.
On the late evening of April 12, 2015, “the world’s first hologram protest” took place in Madrid against the imminent imposition of a controversial Citizens Safety Law. The new law would render illegal, among other restrictions, citizens’ gatherings in front of government buildings without permission, with the definition of “government buildings” ranging from universities to hospitals. The “hologram protest,” created by civil rights organisations, artists and others around the world, appeared as projections on a hidden screen of dimly illuminated human figures filing before the government building in the style of a conventional protest march.
A similar protest took place in Seoul in February 2016 before the Gwanghwamun, or the main gate of the Geyongbok Palace (Blue House), after a request to hold a live rally there was rejected by police.
Notwithstanding the symbolic and technical achievements of these “hologram” protesters on the streets, there is clearly no mistaking these wispy, ghost-like images for actual protesters. But that is not the point. The amalgamation of the virtual and the actual here is not about passing off one for the other. Rather, it is about recognizing the boundaries between the virtual and the actual as new grounds for contesting oppression: that these projected bodies are virtually here only because they are forced to be actually elsewhere. It is a new assertion of protest by literally translating power into actual and virtual realities.
The second scene. The 2019 Spider-Man film, Spider-Man: Far from Home, has an unusual villain. This villain is Mysterio (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). He is a special effects whiz. His superpower is to harness large-scale holographic illusions to fool all the characters in the film, including Spider-Man (played by Tom Holland). These illusions appear as realistic multi-sensorial simulations which surround Spider-Man, even following him as he moves.
The twist in the film, then, is that the virtual itself becomes an antagonist. The real threat in this superhero world is not the usual death and destruction wrought by the villain, but the bewilderment and disorientation in being unable to distinguish between the actual and the virtual. Spider-Man’s traditional vanquishing of the villain thus takes an untraditional route, albeit one in complete keeping with contemporary times: to defeat Mysterio, Spidey has to first break Mysterio’s illusions. Only by mastering the discernment between illusion and reality could Spider-Man finally triumph over Mysterio, whereby he slays the villain and restores order by re-asserting the diegesis’ “reality.”
Both scenes colour The New Virtuality. They capture the flavour of contemporary times in the fakery, post-truth, and (mis/dis)information that lie at the heart of The New Virtuality, signalling renewed contestations between the virtual and the actual. Contemporary visual culture is thus not only an era of virtuality in its glorious hyper-realism. It also spells new rationales and beliefs for our actions and reactions, and in the process, what we will politicize, defend, and fight for.
Definition of “virtual”: Anne Friedberg, The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006), 7.
Panoramas: see Bernard Comment, The Painted Panorama (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000).
Queen Charlotte feeling seasick: G. R. Corner, The Panorama with memoirs of its inventor, Robert Barker, and his son, the late Henry Aston Barker (London: J. & W. Robins, 1857); reprinted from The Art Journal, February 1857, 7, as cited in Markman Ellis, “The Spectacle of the Panorama,” British Library online (last accessed 21 July 2022).
“Environmental Theatre”: see Richard Schechner, “6 Axioms for Environmental Theatre,” The Drama Review: TDR 12, no. 3 (Spring, 1968): 41-64. Also see “Environmental theatre,” The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance, ed. Dennis Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 190.
“Rubens Cupid”: written and directed by Filip Sterckx; 3D modelling and animation by Filip Sterckx, Antoon Verbeeck, Birgit Sterckx, as taken from https://skullmapping.com/project/rubens-cupid/ (last accessed 22 July 2022).
Richard Koeck and the city: Richard Koeck, Cine-scapes: Cinematic Spaces in Architecture and Cities (Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2013), 147-149.
Definition of “virtual” as “almost”: Cambridge Dictionaries Online.
Madrid hologram protest: see Zachary Davies Boren, “Spain’s hologram protest: Thousands join virtual march in Madrid against new gag law,” April 12, 2015, Independent online, https://www.independent.co.uk/tech/spain-s-hologram-protest-thousands-join-virtual-march-in-madrid-against-new-gag-law-10170650.html (last accessed 22 July 2022).
Seoul hologram protest: see News from Elsewhere, “Holographic protest against South Korea march ban,” February 1, 2016, BBC online, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-35459735 (last accessed 22 July 2022).