Radical Immersions Conference

This post was originally published on Joseph Dunne-Howrie’s blog.

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This conference was organised by the Digital Research Humanities Association and looked at the impact new (and not so new) technologies are having on the ways art is produced and received by audiences. Speakers also explored concepts of immersion as they relate to information (or filter) bubbles on the internet.

Some of the questions papers addressed included:

What is the internet doing to our perception and experience of reality?

How can or should art respond to the paradigm of surveillance capitalism?

Why do we still talk about VR like it’s a new technology?

What realities should be immerse ourselves in to avert climate catastrophe?

One of the conference organisers Dani Ploeger kicked off proceedings with two provocations: ‘VR is dead’ and ‘The World Isn’t Real’. Those of us who have been following the post-truth conversation will be familiar with the second statement, but the first is some ways more shocking. VR remains a cutting edge technology in the cultural imagination despite the fact that it has existed since the early 1990s. Devices like the Occulus Rift are supposed to be bringing it into the domestic sphere, but the cumbersome headset remain a barrier to becoming fully integrated into our daily lives. I agree with Dani that the polymorphic medium of the internet has turned the real world into a virtual experience where our sense of the real is being constantly reconfigured.

The truth is dead. Everything is true. Nothing is real. The real is an illusion.

My paper ‘Communities of Crisis’ was based on my article ‘Crisis Acting in the Destroyed Room’ that is being published in Performance Research: Staging the Wreckage next month. I describe the internet as an amorphous network of digital spaces littered with media wreckage to analyse what the alt-right crisis acting conspiracy theory tells us about the ways political discourses and identities are constructed online. Vanishing Point’s devised performance The Destroyed Room is used as a case study of the breakdown of dialectical thinking on the internet.

In his keynote address Matthew Fuller made the important point that immersion in media is commonly framed as a negative experience because the boundaries of personhood are supposedly softened. Using Professor Bad Trip’s graphic art as an example, Fuller invited us to think of immersion as becoming water-logged ‘but perhaps finding capacities at the edge of transition’. Like being under-water or reading a novel, the phenomenology of immersion allows us to experience reality beyond ourselves whilst expanding our sense of self.

Maria Chatzichristodoulo gave a history of immersion in art and theatre starting from fluxus movement of the 1950s and sixties up to today with companies such as Punchdrunk and Coney. Focusing on the meaning of ‘radical’ in the context of immersion, Maria made me think about how one becomes many ‘I’s’ in immersive environments. This has a radical potential in moving the paradigm of the self beyond humanistic conceptions of the individual towards conceiving of the human as an informational-ecological entity that exists in symbiosis with pervasive systems.

About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

Joseph is a practitioner scholar in theatre and library information science. He teaches at several universities including City, Rose Bruford College, and UEL. His research interests include immersive performance, performative writing, digital culture, documenting and archiving, and audience participation. You can learn more about Joseph's work at www.josephjohndunne.com.
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