CIHA London 2000.
Thirtieth International Congress of the History of Art
Art History for the Millenium: Time.
Section 23
Digital Art History Time
London, 3-8 September 2000

Dr. Oliver Grau <>, research project Art History and Theory of Virtual Reality, Kunstgeschichtliches Seminar der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Dorotheenstrasse 28, 10099 Berlin.

Ancestors of the virtual, historical aspects of virtual reality and its contemporary impact.

mtg Medien/Theorie/Geschichte
DFG-Projektverbund Theorie und Geschichte der Medien

Tel: +49 (0)30 2093-4295 (direct).
Tel: +49 (0)30 2093-4288 (Secr).
Fax: +49 (0)30 2093-4209.

 © each author has full responsibility in owning copyright on the texts and on the images they publish on this website


Computer-produced Virtual Art is thirty years old. Myron Krueger's experiments with responsive real time systems - sometimes flatteringly described as interactive - brought the artist's tradition of confrontation with new image technology into the domain of the high performance computer. Largely unnoticed, a number of artists have infiltrated high-tech research laboratories, to experience first hand today's image revolution, and themselves to develop new visual strategies. Sometimes they are even surrounded by groups of assistants who fulfil technical tasks, as in the workshops of the past. Here's a new kind of artist, developing the technology for his artistic goals, employed as a tenured researcher. It's a new constellation of art, technology and science, which brings artists forward as a matter of course, to discuss and publish their latest software or interface models in scientific journals and at international conferences. This Art is widespread.

Exipitions Sommerer
(Abb. 1) Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau have had nearly 100 exhibitions to date.

Although the technology of Virtual Reality has disappeared from the headlines, research into VR has become an international co-operative endeavour. The technological goal, stressed by nearly all the exponents of the world wide "Presence research", is as near a complete impression of immersion in the image space as possible.

At the basis of our research project in Berlin lies the thesis that the illusion of entry into the virtual image space is not as revolutionary as its champions claim. The seemingly a-historical image world of Virtual Reality descends from a fragmentary, discontinuous History of Immersive Art that has, as yet, hardly been engaged. From two main aspects of images, representation, and "presence, our focus is on the second. In the tradition of illusion, virtual image spaces are extremities, vanishing points in which the relationship between observer and image can be particularly closely examined.

The genealogy of immersive pictorial spaces - the first priority of our research project - took place in a broad and mainly European tradition of illusive image spaces, to be found in country houses and town residences. But illusive spaces were important for the general public too.[ 1 ] In each case the effect of immersion was the result of the newest illusion medium. The idea itself can be traced back to ancient times, and has found new vigour in the immersive strategies of Virtual Art. But of course, the breaks reflect the by no means straightproceeded development

The second investigative priority is the metamorphosis in our understanding of the image. It comes from new Interface design, interaction and evolutionary image processes which have an explosive impact. With this in mind we are co-operating with influential colleagues in the field of Virtual Art such as Charlotte Davies, Monika Fleischmann, Maurice Benayoun, Christa Sommerer and their research centres.

It's a wide-ranging approach, which tries to overcome technically limited attitudes and link the historical development with the contemporary metamorphosis of the image to make a material and theoretical contribution to the Science of the Image which MITCHELL, CRARY and BREDEKAMP have initiated.

In Immersive Art you often find an illusive space wrapping around the observer in -360. It is defined using -perspective, realism (colour, light and proportion), forming a -temporally and spatially unified image, cuttimg off the field of view completely from the real world - a media convergence, lending totality to the image[ 2 ]

(Abb. 2) Sphaere, schematic depiction.

Sacri Monti

Historically, VR has been used not only for private fantasies, but also as a public forum for religious or political spectacle.

In 1486, when the advancing Ottoman Empire was making pilgrimages to Palestine increasingly difficult, the ambitious project to replicate the Stations of the Cross on the Sacro Monte at Varallo was to formulate an immersive biblical Jerusalem. The most famous virtual installation on the Sacro Monte, the Calvary, was created by Gaudenzio Ferrari, who was much admired by his contemporaries and placed in the company of Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo.[ 3 ]

Sacro Monti I

Sacro Monti II

(Abb. 3 and 4) Gaudenzio Ferrari: Calvary, Sacro Monte/Varallo, 1518-22.

Ferrari's creations were made in the service of mimesis supported by techné. Some of his colourful, life-size, terra-cotta figures wore real clothes and wigs, and had glass eyes. At the core of his technique was the fusion of the three-dimensional foreground with the two-dimensional fresco-a sort of faux terrain that created the illusion of blending fresco and foreground. At night the chapels could be visited by torch-light, which heightened the impact of the illusion. On some days, pilgrims would arrive at the chapels in their thousands, and the monks leading them through the installations found it necessary continually to remind them that this was not the real Jerusalem. If the history of immersive media is partly obscure, in this case we have evidence of their highly suggestive power.

It was a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk. The observer came into direct contact with the image and was immersed into a situation, a presence, that involved him physically and psychologically in distant events.[ 4 ] The success of the image complex was so enduring, that the movement of Sacri Monti spread throughout northern Italy, as a sort of wall of pictures along the Alps. It was, so to speak, a counter to the Reformation, and the idea was exported to other parts of the Catholic World.

(Abb. 5)
Robert Barkers Panorama-Rotunde am Leicester Square, Aquatinta by Robert Mitchell

Like the Sacri Monti the nineteenth century panorama was a mass-entertainment sensation. Representations of nature provided a visual totality that allowed journeys through time and space. The sublime aesthetic effect of the horizon lent the viewer hitherto unimagined powers of sight. But out of the suggestive strength of the medium grew a second aesthetic component, the pictorial strategy of Immersion. This calculation influenced and formed the policy of suggestion of the Battle Panoramas, which after all accounted for a third of all Panoramas. After the Franco-Prussian 1870/71 the "dark side" of the panorama saw it's greatest popularity. Millions of visitors came to Berlin to see the zenith of illusive techniques, the Sedan Panorama of 1883. It was a fusion of art and science, based on the optical and physiological principles of Hermann von Helmholtz. It was the most expensive image of the time measured more than 7000 square feet, and brought the Battle of Sedan to the Alexanderplatz in Berlin.

(Abb. 6) Anton von WERNER and 13 other Painters, The Battle of Sedan, Berlin 1883.

It's difficult to guess the effect of a panorama on its contemporaries. They experienced the luminous scenery as a real battle, and the newspapers all over the country reported this on the frontpage. The Neue Preußische Zeitung wrote: At first the visitor is frozen... then he's afraid of the horses and feels compelled to draw back. The air seems to be filled with swirled-up dust... Trumpets bray and drums thunder."

With calculated precision, both the 360-degree image and the 3D interior concentrated the attention and hooked the observer. The image was not experienced as a self-contained object; indeed it negated the idea of a closed work of art, appearing instead as reality - everything was image. The technique was so effective that even in the 1980s, authoritarian societies like North Korea, China or Iraq, used the panorama as an instrument of nationalistic propaganda.

Despite the fast pace of change in media technology, the idea of a 360 pictorial space marks a continuum in art and the media in the twentieth century. At first nearly every new image medium was also arranged in 360, showing it to best effect. There are two kinds of image, one where the body is fully integrated (360 Frescos, Panoramas, Stereopticons, Cineorama, Omnimax and Imax Cinemas as well as CAVE)

Fresco Pompeji

EXPO 2000


Panorama X

(Abb. 7) 360 Fresco / Pompeji. (Abb. 8) EXPO 2000, Hannover.
(Abb. 9) CAVE. (Abb.10) Panorama

and one where the image is carried immediately in front of the eyes (Peepshows, Stereoskope, Stereoscopic Television, Sensorama and HMD).

Sensorama 1962

Stereoscope 1850

Stereoscpoc Television 1960

HMD 1995

(Abb.11) SENSORAMA, 1962. (Abb.12) STEREOSCOPE, 1850.
(Abb.13) Stereoscopic Television, 1960. (Abb.14) HMD, 1995.

Immersion is produced when art work and image apparatus converge, or when the message and the medium form a nearly inseparable unit. Then, in a moment of calculated "totalisation", the art work, for a limited time, permits conscious perception to become unconscious illusion. Looking back over the argument, the enduring aim of the immersion principle is to force the illusive medium beneath the viewers' perception threshold, and thus to maximise the conveyed message's intensity. The medium becomes invisible.
In this sense, the accrual of suggestive power is the main aim, and motivating idea behind the development of new illusive media. It is the drive, perhaps, to increase the artist's power over the observer, with greater suggestive potential, in order to establish new regimes of perception. Despite all attempts at standardisation image machines seldom remain as they were, drawn on by the fascination of increased illusion. It is an endless current, which, on closer inspection, shows even reliable media like the cinema to be the result of continual re-arrangement of technological splinters in a kaleidoscope of evolutionary development. With h(e)indsight, we can see the enormous energy invested in the invention of new illusive spaces.


Nowadays digital images offer not just objects, image space, and representations which were not possible before. Much more: we can observe the transition of the image into a computer-generated virtual space, autonomous and "life-like". It formulates an embracing visual arena. In the long evolving game of illusive media this is a new move, at the same time evoking the lasting aspiration of control over the observer through the image.

The first appearance of Virtual Reality in the Internet is permitted by panorama-like formats Quicktime VR[ 5 ] XE "Quicktime VR" [ 6 ] and VRML. They enable Internet images to be extended statically in three dimensions. They are substitutes for VR and seem to be the result of a need to create illusory worlds in the Net. But in terms of today's picture theory, it is more profitable to investigate the visual strategies of interactive Virtual Art.

The resulting far-reaching transformation of our understanding of the image is shown in installations, like Osmose, which run on stand-alone systems not connected to the Net. Presumably they will find there way into the net as soon as bandwidth and compression technology allow. Osmose has provoked 70 mainly scientific articles in the last four years, a remarkable amount of attention by any standard.[ 7 ] Osmose is a visually powerful real-time simulation of a dozen nature and text zones. Participants navigate through the data space, seen on a HMD, using a chest-hugging rubber vest that contains devices sensitive to the body's breathing - a quasi natural interface. Just as when diving, the lungs fill and you rise. The impression for the viewer is deeply meditative, an effect which makes clear the psychological and manipulative power of Virtual art.


Since the digital image is not bound to any particular medium, Virtual Art can appear in many different formats and types. In Virtual Art, the ontological status of the picture is reduced to a beam of light whizzing over a screen. In the virtual picture existing images not only merge with acoustic and other sensory stimuli, but as a result of the spherical form, through all -360 degrees. Short-lived images create the effect of being, using real-time calculations. Real-time is the precondition for processual variability in the work and through it for the interaction of the observer with the image space. -Interactivity[ 8 ] engages the relation between author and observer, the status of the work of art, and the function of its exhibition. The work cannot exist, either technically or aesthetically, without the action of the public. If there is a balance between freedom of interaction and narrative dramatic plot, the "interactor" can be "steered" by the artist using internal goals dictated by the system. When there are virtual organisms in the image space, -agents, which behave subjectively and react to the observer, his feeling of being inside the image is intensified.[ 9 ] Autonomous agents are often shown as anthropomorphic or animal systems inside the simulated environment, with their own fate.[ 10 ] The representation of ones own physical body, an -avatar, in the image space makes the illusion of immersion still more persuasive. Pictorially incorporated into many-featured artificial bodies - themselves nothing other than images - we can experience unknown aspects of consciousness. I think our colleague Ingeborg Reichle is going to say more about this.

The Interface of the Virtual Artwork, particularly the natural interface, represents another area of artistic expression. It is inseparable from interaction, which can be used emancipatively as well as manipulatively, and interdependent with it. The suggestive potential of virtual image spaces makes the question of the interface important.[ 11 ] It determines the character and dimension of the interaction, and the degree to which the psychological boundaries are removed from the data.

With the recent appearance of -genetic art, the computer's image worlds seem to have come to "life".[ 12 ] Software agents inherit and pass on their phenomenology according to rules of evolution and propagation, as if they were real. "Genetic" information is recombined using crossover and mutation. The only limit is the selection framework chosen by the artist. Here is a further example of the power struggle between the artist and the observer. For image theory it is a revolutionary step: The directed use of the principle of chance permits unpredictable, irreproducible, transient, one-time-only images, images out of control.

Finally, the technology of -telepresence opens up new options, with global accessibility and the exchange of images over networks.[ 13 ] Telepresence is a mediated perspective that closes great distances. Perception will soon be enriched in the virtual environment, by including the so-called "lesser senses". This erases the abstract, term-generating, objectifying function of distance. Telepresence raises fundamental questions in telepistemology, that is, for our understanding of the way distance affects our capacity for knowledge and discovery.

Telepresence's media-led epistemology seems to be a paradox. It enables the user to be present in three different places at the same time: firstly, unavoidably, in the location in space-time determined by the user's body, secondly, by the means of teleperception in the simulated, virtual image space, and lastly, by means of teleaction in the place, for example, where a robot is situated, directed by the user's own movement and providing orientation through its sensors.

Telepresence's media-led epistemology seems to be a paradox. It enables the user to be present in three different places at the same time: firstly, unavoidably, in the location in space-time determined by the user's body, secondly, by the means of teleperception in the simulated, virtual image space, and lastly, by means of teleaction in the place, for example, where a robot is situated, directed by the user's own movement and providing orientation through its sensors.


Osmose_ Davies 1995

Telematic Dreaming_ Sermon 1992

A-Volve Sommerer-Mignonneau

Murmuring Fields Fleischmann-Strauss

(Abb. 15) Osmose by Char Davies, 1995. (Abb. 16) Telematic Dreaming by Paul Sermon, 1992.
(Abb. 17) A-Volve by Sommerer and Mignonneau, 1994/95. (Abb. 18) Murmuring Fields by Fleischmann and Strauss, 1999.

But what is going to happen to Virtual Artworks? Which museum has tried to preserve creative activities in the new Media as in the old?

This art enjoys a considerable response from audiences at festivals and exhibitions world-wide. Nevertheless, museums have failed to collect and document it systematically. Curatorial and conservational attempts are only partially supported because of an information deficit..

It is axiomatic that the electronic media of digital art works become quickly outdated. It can be said without exaggeration that a full decade's worth of international media artworks is in danger of being lost. We need information about them and we need concepts and strategies to preserve them, in co-operation with computer centres, computer manufacturers and technological museums.

(Abb.19) Database / Art History Department of the Humboldt University.

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft therefore supports an initiative of the Art History Department of the Humboldt University to build up an international archive of Virtual Art. Chair: Prof. Dr. Horst Bredekamp; Research Position: Dr. Oliver Grau; Assistance: Ana Ofak, Anja Schmalfuß, Lena Bader, Christian Berndt, Arndt Roth, Patrick Hutsch. A high-capacity Internet database is being developed in co-operation with international Art and Science Institutions like CAiiA in Newport/Wales, IAMAS in Nagoya, the ATR in Kyoto, ZKM, GMD and others.

Collected materials are:

Discussions with experts like Sherry Turkle, Roy Ascott or Itsuo Sakane have always resulted in agreement about the importance of this kind of data base[ 14 ]. But we need a partner - and here I'd like to make a public plea - a partner who is able to support us with the necessary technology.

We don't want merely to record the genre of Virtual Art, the movement of technical assistants from lab to lab, the artistic and scientific inventions of the artists, or the currents of research money from Ministries and Sponsors. Much more, the data base is able to demonstrate how contemporary artists have used the symbolic form of the panorama as a starting point for their own work.

Virtual reality, in a technological, many-layered disguise, is the inheritance of an ideal illusionism that addresses all the senses, as in its paradigm, the panorama. If the observer gains a new power over the form of a picture through real-time calculations, interaction, and evolution, we stand before a dynamic image with the highest suggestive potential, an interactive, evolutionary, life-like picture space.

[ 1 ] For an overview my article: Into the Belly of the Image. Historical Aspects of Virtual Reality, in: Leonardo, (MIT-Press) 1999, vol. 32, no. 5, p. 365-372. .

[ 2 ] M. Jay, Downcast Eyes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays in Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); Jonathan Crary: Techniques of the observer: on vision and modernity in the nineteenth century, Cambridge/Mass. 1992; Horst Bredekamp: Metaphors of the End in the Era of Images, in: Heinrich Klotz (ed.): Contemporary Art: The Collection of the ZKM, New York: (Prestel) 1997, p. 32-36; O. Grau, "In das lebendige Bild: Die Virtuelle Realität setzt der Kunst neue Spielregeln," in Neue Bildende Kunst: Zeitschrift für Kunst und Kritik, 7, no. 6, 28-35 (1997);

[ 3 ] The contemporary aesthetic theory demanded along with the life-like representation of proportions, colors and perspective, especially the conveyance of passion (moto). See G. Paolo Lomazzo, Trattato dell'arte della pittura, scultura ed architettura, (Rome 1844) (1584). It was Gaudenzio Ferrari, who represented the category moto in Lomazzos Tempio della Pittura. Lomazzo, Idea del Tempio della Pittura, Bologna 1785 (Milan 1590), 40.

[ 4 ] Sesalli, Francesco: Breve descrittione del Sacro Monte di Varallo di Valsesia, etc, Novara 1566, Anonimo, Tractato de li capituli de passione: Questi sono li misteri che sono sopra el Monte di Varale, Milan, march 29, 1514, G. Paolo Lomazzo Tempio della Pittura. Lomazzo, Idea del Tempio della Pittura, Bologna 1785 (Milan 1590), 40.

[ 5 ] Two main impulses motivated this massive media project: the conviction that direct experience with one's own eyes would provide an enduring buttress of faith and the assumption that the Ottoman Empire's advance would soon make pilgrimages to Palestine difficult or impossible. (George Kubler, "Sacred Mountains in Europe and America", Timothy Verdon, (Ed.): Christanity and the Renaissance: Image and Religious Imagination in the Quattrocento, (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 415.) The success was overwhelming: Visitors came by the thousands. Canon Torrotti, according to Samuel Butler, Ex Voto, (London: J. Cape, 1928), 21).

[ 6 ] Imparticularly after the Council of Trient, they followed a stategic iconographic program against the Reformation: Orta (1576), Crea (1589), Varese (1589), Canavese (1602), Graglia (1616), Oropa (1620), and Domodossola (1656). The movement of the Sacrimonti spread throughout Italy and was eventually exported to France, Portugal, Spain, Mexico, and even Brazil.

[ 7 ] Compare the bibliography as well as the one from Solftimage.

[ 8 ] Technological: KRUEGER 1991, SMITH 1994, BOWMAN 1999; Arttheoreticly classical: ASCOTT 1966. On artistic interaction: HUHTAMO 1993 and 1997, on the net: ASCOTT 1989 und 1992. More distictioned and general to the term of interaction, but without any referenses on art: FAßLER 1996; From a philosophical point of view: KRAEMER 1995, for the internet: SANDBOTHE 1997; From a sociological point of view: ESPOSITO 1995. Diffrent arttheories on interactiv computerart are reported at the graduated work of HUENNEKENS 1997; On criticism of the interaction: GRAU 1994; On interactiv computerart of the 70. and 80.: DINKLA 1997, also arthistoricaly: DANIELS 1998 ( DANIELS 1998 and, informed by Dinkla: SCHWARZ 1997.

[ 9 ] Compare HEETER 1992, S. 264ff.

[ 10 ] Compare MAES 1990, S. 49ff; As well THALMANN 1994.

[ 11 ] Classical: BOLD 1984, more up-to-date: HALBACH 1994, GRAU 1997b.

[ 12 ] The "Belebung" of artifical rooms (by genetic algorithms, agents etc.): GOLDBERG 1989, SCHÖNEBURG 1994, KUSAHARA 1996, SOMMERER/ MIGNONNEAU 1996.

[ 13 ] GRAU 2000.

[ 14 ] What scientists and artist say about the database project: Sherry Turkle: "I agree completely, that we risk losing a generation of work." Roy Ascott: "A most important and much needed project" Itsuo Sakane: "I hope your success in realizing the new type of databank archives for the coming age." Edmond Couchot: "I agree with you that there is an urgent need for an international archive of virtual art." Victoria Vesna: "it is important work!"



The seemingly unprecedented phenomenon of virtual reality actually rests on a deep tradition within the history of art. The idea of transposing the audience into an enclosed, illusionary visual space manifests itself in various ways depending on the subject matter and media of a given period and was not born with the invention of computer-based virtual reality (VR). This kind of virtual reality insulates viewers from other impressions, surrounding them with a spatially and temporally illusory environment which completely fills the field of vision. Its core idea reaches all the way back to antiquity and has been expansively revived in contemporary VR-art. Virtual Reality revives a central idea about the connection between man and image. Cult frescos with an immersive effect found in the Pompeiian Casa dei Misteri (60 BC), Baldassare Peruzzi's Sala delle Prospettive in Rome (1516) and the Sacri Monti movement (1500-1650) represent stages of this aesthetic vision. Historically, VR has been used not only for private fantasies, but also as a forum for public spectacles in religious and political life.

In the 19th century the image machine Panorama achieved hitherto unknown dimensions of the immersion effect. The forerunners of VR can be found in nearly all art historical epoches and media. Also film has developed by reaching out into more diversified sensual adresses, representing excrescence and extension of its basic configuration of the screen (Cinèorama-IMAX...).

It is important to stress that visions of new illusionary media have their roots in the scientific-technological as well as the artistic field. Art consequently not only reacts to forms of new media but often inspires their creation. Between the two is a characteristic interplay that can be traced throughout the history of art and media.

The more intimately the interfaces nestle into the body, like in the VR-installation Osmose (1995) by Char Davies, and the more vivid the images appear, the more intense the illusionary dispersal with the total dataspace, the immersion. Constant calculations in real-time give computer-images the illusion of beeing transformable and dynamic: pictorial action is determined by the interaction of the user, resulting in an interactive narration in the axis of time. Play, fast transforming images and "schocks" become new expressions of the artist. By means of the envisaged separation of all senses from the real - everything becomes image. In the dynamic virtual environments a very fragile centre of art is put into question: the gesture of distance by the recipient, which allows critical reflection in the first place.

By creating an illusion and addressing all the senses of the human body, virtual reality reveals itself as the technically developed heir to illusionism as it made itself felt in its paradigmatic representative, the Panorama.


Oliver Grau is researcher in the project Arthistory and Mediatheory of Virtual Reality at the Humboldt-University in Berlin supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. Grau has published and lectured in Europe, Asia and America on media art and it's art history.




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