Virtual Reality, Integral Consciousness, and TSK

The following is a blog post from a couple years ago. I'm reposting it now because I've discovered a nice video of the virtual art installation the blog is based on, which I'll post in a reply below.

Recently, through an essay by Ron Purser (a professor at San Francisco State University and a writer on TSK, Gebser, and related topics), I was introduced to the fascinating virtual art of Char Davies. In the essay, Cyberspace and Its Limits: Hypermodern Detours in the Evolution of ..., Ron discusses the potential for VR technology and interactive digital media to undergird a collective cultural shift to integral/aperspectival consciousness, as the development of perspectival vision and art in 15th century Europe helped support the transition from mythic to mental consciousness (using Gebser's terms). Ron suggests that many current VR technologies (what he calls VR1) actually support a hyper-modern turn in consciousness -- a form of hyper-perspectivism, Gebser's "deficient phase" of the mental-rational structure -- but the recent emergence of creative, deeply interactive virtual media (VR2) may help support the collective evolutionary shift in consciousness and space-time perception that Gebser and Wilber envisage (and which TSK also describes).

In this blog, besides highlighting Ron's essay and directing interested readers to it, I wanted to introduce Char Davies' work. Davies has created two fascinating immersive virtual environments, Osmose and Ephémère, both of which allow participants to interact with luminous, responsive, multi-layered worldspaces, which provide "an intriguing spatio-temporal context in which to explore the self's subjective experience of 'being-in-the-world' -- as embodied consciousness in an enveloping space where boundaries between inner/outer, and mind/body dissolve." This is accomplished, in part, through the unique user interface -- a motion tracking vest, which is responsive to the user's breath and balance, allowing for a fuller, more embodied sense of environmental immersion than standard joysticks or data gloves.

The first virtual installation, Osmose, was designed by Davies as a vehicle for exploring embodied consciousness in relationship to space (e.g., the enactive self/world interface) and to de-automatize perception. Osmose includes a dozen worldspaces with which the immersant can interact, from natural settings such as Forest, Pond, Subterranean Earth, Lifeworld, and Abyss, to two "parenthetical" worldspaces -- Text and Code -- which are intended to evoke the conceptual "supports" for these virtual environments. According to the reports of approximately 25,000 individuals who have experienced Osmose to date, the immersants often experience profound shifts in awareness and perception, feeling "as if they have rediscovered an aspect of themselves, of being alive in the world, which they had forgotten, an experience which many find surprising, and some very emotional. Such response has confirmed the artist's belief that traditional interface boundaries between machine and human can be transcended even while re-affirming our corporeality, and that Cartesian notions of space as well as illustrative realism can effectively be replaced by more evocative alternatives."

The second virtual installation, Ephémère, builds on Osmose, extending the environment to include organic worldspaces (organs, blood, bone), and incorporating a complex spatio-temporal architecture which allows immersants to explore various "levels" of space as they undergo constant changes through time. While it is possible for an immersant to spend an entire session within one worldspace, "it is more likely that they will pass constantly between them, immersed in transformation. Throughout, the various elements of trees, rocks, seeds, body organs, etc, come into being, linger and pass away. Their emergings and withdrawals depend on the immersant's vertical position, proximity, slowness of movement, and steadiness/duration of gaze, as well as the passage of time: for example, in the earth, seeds sprout when gazed upon for any extended length of time, rewarding patient observation with germination, inviting entry into the luminous interior space of their bloom." As with the Osmose installation, participants report entering altered, contemplative states of consciousness within minutes after immersion.

Both installations represent the development of what Purser, in his essay, calls VR2 -- a creative, interactive tool with the potential to evoke and support integral consciousness.

"The integral potentialities of VR2 are apparent in several respects. The VR2 user, in constructing and interacting within a highly imaginative virtual world, draws upon long repressed magical and mythical dimensions of human consciousness. The richness and depth of the virtual world can inspire awe and appreciation for the myriad dimensions of consciousness that are co-present all at once. Virtual worlds in VR2 are evocative, requiring the user to consciously become aware of their participation in the figuration of appearances. Rather than repressing or disengaging the user's consciousness, VR2 turns the lights on, intensifying verition and active imagination. In other words, VR2 could open up human experience to a simulation of integral consciousness, providing a technologically mediated glimpse of a new vision, a new way of seeing the self in relation to the whole.

This is an exciting possibility, since it could potentially provide the capacity for people to express and participate in the creation of aperspectival virtual worlds. However, VR2 differs from VR1 in that it does not simply provide more surfaces to interact with, or a greater span of visuality. Rather, VR2 offers the possibility for entering into the interiority of space, of expanding inwardly into the depth of the image. In VR2, the user can, for example, see how a rainbow arises as an active construction or collective representation, involving both the user's perception, the image that is apparently distant, and the meaning-giving process that flows between percipient and the phenomena. In other words, the user would have the opportunity to actually experience what a participatory consciousness feels like in a VR2 environment. Experience within VR2 would evoke a meta-awareness of participation-as-observer."

I share Purser's excitement, and look forward to exploring this technology, if the opportunity arises. Just reading the descriptions of the Osmose and Ephemere installations, I am reminded of a number of my experiences working with TSK inquiry. For example, the following is from my TSK practice notes on 10/23/08:

It is evening and I have come to the school campus to walk the labyrinth under the trees. Following the winding narrow paths between the rows of stone, looping around the same patch of earth again and again from new directions, I think about how space accommodates form, how every movement and shape plumbs its seemingly infinite potential. I think about how these lines of stone both constrain movement and enact new potential, as our constructs similarly shape and guide our lives: so many ways that space can flower. We seem always to move within limits, but ... is there a limit to the forms these limiting borders may take? What richness is available for each new pattern to evoke, for each new pathway to enact?

As I move around the labyrinth, slowly tracing out this space within the larger space of the school gardens, sensing the movements of my body and the play of thought and image "within" me, listening to the rush of cars on the freeway not far away, I notice first a layering and overlapping of perspectives and spaces, which then seems to collapse and somehow become spaceless. Turning a bend on the path, sunlight streams suddenly through the branches of the tree, illuminating the motes of dust hanging in the space under the branches and the watchful squirrels, and I experience the whole scene as somehow virtual, a patterned readout which overlaps with other readouts -- other perspective-spaces -- without obstruction. I do not have the impression that the surrounding space I perceive isn't really "there"; rather, the patterned space in its all-at-onceness and givenness seems simultaneously not given, but read out, as the squirrels looking on read out their world, and the trees their own as well.

VR2 is certainly not "essential" for fruitful contemplative practice, but to the degree that it has the potential to evoke the sort of aperspectival space I described above, I think it could, indeed, serve as a powerful aid in the emergence of an integral/aperspectival cultural aesthetic.

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Comment by Balder on May 9, 2010 at 10:15am
Hi, Ed, I did have a post on IPS, which included a long excerpt of Ron's essay, but it didn't generate many comments. Was there another one besides this? If so, I think I must have missed it when I was saving content.
Comment by Edward theurj Berge on May 9, 2010 at 9:41am
I seem to recall that we also had a discussion thread on this at the old Gaia forum? Did you save it and if so, have a link?
Comment by Balder on May 8, 2010 at 1:22pm
Here is a Youtube video of Char Davies' virtual art installation, Osmose.

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