“Avatar”: The Idea of What’s Real Is Irrelevant (part 1)

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Part 1 of 3 in the series The Idea of What's Real Is Irrelevant

One of the common approaches to understanding pictorial images, especially in photography and film, is to consider them in terms of how real they are. Following the release of the film Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), this series of posts will explore this idea and the way it is being challenged by the recent achievements in image-making. The idea of what’s real has many aspects and layers to it, and has been a recurring topic in philosophical debates for millennia. These posts will obviously not get into all of them, yet it is interesting to try and observe what might be behind the contemporary everyday usage of this term with respect to pictorial images.

When we look at a pictorial image and say that what we see in it is real, there are several things that we might mean by that. For one, it could be a way of saying that we consider that what we see in it has an equivalent in the physical world. Also, it could be a way of saying that the technique used for making the image was that of photography. In some cases, it could be a way of saying that what we see in this image is consistent and believable enough to be considered as something that could have existed in the physical world, even though it might not.

Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Cathedral over a Town, after 1813

For example, the cathedral in Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s painting Cathedral over a Town may indeed seem very real. Not because the painting looks like a photograph, but because its visual contents are quite convincing and believable. However, in the sense of having a physical equivalent, that cathedral is not real because there is no (and never has been) such a cathedral in the physical world – it is Schinkel’s own invention which he made specifically for the painting.

The following example, however, challenges these notions of what’s real quite a bit. It is a video which presents several famous buildings using advanced computer graphics, combined with unmistakable personal talent. Called The Third & The Seventh, it was made by Alex Roman in homage to the arts of Architecture and Cinema. This beautiful video runs 12 minutes long, and it is highly recommended to watch it in full-screen view:

In the context of our discussion, the contents of this video are visually very convincing, and in this sense they surely seem real. Additionally, the places we see in it are also real in the sense that buildings just like them indeed exist also in the physical world. And yet, in the sense of ‘real’ as meaning ‘photographed’, what we see in this video is not real at all: Even though it looks as if this video was filmed on location, everything in it is computer-generated.

“Peripetics”: A Real Virtual Gallery

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What is a ‘virtual gallery’ or a ‘virtual museum’? Despite the widespread use of these terms, they rarely truly match what they attempt to describe. Commonly, the term ‘virtual gallery’ is used for regular websites that present a collection of works of art or some other form of images. The use of the word ‘gallery’ here is then a way of describing a service which displays visual content to the public, and the use of the word ‘virtual’ simply indicates that rather than doing so within a physical setting, it does so through the Internet instead.

However, according to The Virtual Space Theory, there is nothing virtual about that: ‘Virtual’ does not mean ‘digital’ or ‘Internet-based’, and it certainly does not mean ‘non-real’; Rather, the term ‘virtual’ describes visual objects that are located in virtual space, as opposed to being located in physical space or in someone’s mental space. Therefore, most of the so-called ‘virtual galleries’ are actually not virtual at all – they are simply online galleries (furthermore, we could even argue that they are not quite galleries either, but actually much closer to picture books).

So what would a real ‘virtual gallery’ look like, then? To begin with, we could say that if an online gallery does more than just present images in form of a regular web page, but actually also creates a virtual place in which the images are hanging on its walls, then we could also call it a ‘virtual gallery’. And yet, there is much more that is possible. Consider this very interesting example:

This video is called Peripetics and it was made by a team called Zeitguised using Computer-Generated imaging programs. It won the “Best Experimental/Abstract Animation” award at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, and the “Best 3D Animated Film” award at the Hyde Tube Festival in Paris.

From the point of view of The Virtual Space Theory, what I find to be most fascinating about this video is that it provides the unusual experience of visiting an art installation which is set in virtual space. Most of the six acts of this video are made to appear like a filmed documentation of a gallery space with works exhibited in it – except that it only exists in virtual space. Moreover, the virtual nature of this gallery is fully utilized just as well: The exhibits presented in each scene would hardly have been possible to produce as a physical installation in a physical gallery. The result is an art experience that would be quite unimaginable to achieve in any other way. Perhaps this art form should be called ‘virtual installation art’.

In addition to demonstrating a real ‘virtual gallery’, this example emphasizes a few further points. First, it shows that a virtual gallery does not necessarily need to be an interactive online service – in this case, it is rather realized as a video. Second, the contents of a virtual gallery do not have to be limited only to images – any object that could be created and put into the space of a virtual gallery could form the contents of an art exhibition in virtual space. And third, given the right context (as seen in some of this video’s acts), it might even be possible to present the content of such an exhibition also without the need for a virtual gallery as its setting.