Environmental Concerns in Virtual Worlds: Interactive Experience of Ephemeral Life Beyond Borders
Cansu Nur Simsek
The University of Texas at Dallas
Citation: Simsek, Cansu Nur. “Environmental Concerns in Virtual Worlds: Interactive Experience of Ephemeral Life Beyond Borders.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 24, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/024.e03
Abstract: The Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2016) is an interactive digital installation by an interdisciplinary art collective teamLab based in Japan. The title of the artwork urges critical questions and implications such as, are the butterflies or the participants beyond the borders of digital technologies in this work? How and why are these borders shaped? If we consider the digital butterflies as the substitute for nature, who has control over nature beyond borders, digital technology, or human? The work situates the human body not only as a part of its natural environment but also as the dominant factor for shaping nature's future as well as the work's. Participants become gradually more aware of their behaviors that impact the continuity and well-being of the natural environment through the experience of intimate interaction with the artwork, particularly with their physical touch. By building a digitized nature installation, the artists create an experience not to prioritize the illusory sense of visuality but to increase and manipulate social awareness of the natural environment. This media artwork presents an exceptional and timely experience with its comments on the contemporary ecological turn through the entanglement of humans, nature, and technology.
Keywords: interaction, body, senses, butterflies, nature, technology, agency, media art, teamLab.
teamLab, founded in 2001 by Toshiyuki Inoko in Tokyo, Japan, is an international art collective , an interdisciplinary group of various specialists such as artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians, and architects whose collaborative practice seeks to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, and the natural world (teamLab, 2021). In the Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2016), the collective teamLab projects real-time computer-generated butterflies on the black walls of a darkened exhibition space in the Borusan Contemporary while using a cave projection mapping approximately 350 square feet. The exhibition space constructs an immersive surrounding for the participants. This media artwork is a commentary on creating alternative ways of experiencing the interconnectivity of art, nature, technology, and humanity. teamLab critically engages participants through this interactive digital installation by providing experiences that are challenging provocations into social and environmental issues.
The dynamic and colorful digital images of butterflies created by a computer program get continuously rendered in real-time to fly arbitrarily between the borders of the screened projections and the naked wall. Upon entering the exhibition space, participants are not aware of touching the butterflies that result in their death. However, as there is no other way to see the whole show, the installation forces them to touch the animated images of butterflies. The participants become mesmerized by the colorful and charming butterflies, and the butterflies tend to follow their directional movements beyond the borders of the artwork. Hence, the virtual fluttering of the butterflies in the physical space creates an immersive experience through the suspension of disbelief.
To evolve the scenario, the dynamic images of butterflies fluttering around the immersive installation respond to participants entering the room. The work develops a sensorial and active engagement with real-time computation. The process of interaction between human-machine or human-computer, especially as an art form, enables audience participation (Sommerer and Mignonneau, 1997). So, as a characteristic of interactive media artworks that are “time-based and dynamic, interactive and participatory, customizable and variable” (Paul, 2008), the installation encourages participants to become a part of the work. In other words, the piece requires active engagements of its participants in order to trigger the movements of butterflied projected on the screened surfaces. However, in the absence of the participants, the butterflies hide, and the room gets darker and gloomy. Thus, the existence of the participants is a vital factor in terms of driving the possible ends of this work of art through their close proximity to the installation.
The installation initially identifies two different surfaces (the wall surface and the projected screens) where the digital butterflies flutter between their borders (Fig.1). Although the participants cannot easily separate the screen from the wall, the butterflies can move between those surfaces in a seamless transition. When the butterflies move into the wall surface, they face the risk of dying by the touch of the participants. On the other hand, when butterflies enter the borders of the screen surface, they are no longer affected by the interaction of humans. During this experience, the participants become conscious of their responsibilities towards the digital representation of nature through the recognition of borders that (dis)able their agency. By making the artwork’s frame visible to the human periphery, the participants become aware of the limitations of digital technology. Accordingly, this artwork shows the paradox of digital representations of the natural environment. It is not easily possible to foster virtual experience and feeling of the materiality of nature at the same time. However, the experience of touching reveals an instance of building affective relationships between the physical and the digital ephemera.
The proximity that potentially ends the artwork is the act of hand, namely, touching the images of butterflies. As the participants touch a butterfly projected on the wall, the digital form of the butterfly decomposes and finally disappears. In other words, the butterfly dies due to interaction with the human touch as the experience of the work cycles between life and death. Upon entering the room, the participants become the creator of the artwork by giving birth to butterflies. At the same time, their presence can be a reason for the ceasing of the work if they kill too many butterflies (teamLab, 2016). Thereby, the performance of the participants emphasizes the nexus of humans, nature, and technology. The flow of the installation mimics the cycle in the earth, as life itself is a repetition of life and death. Minoru Senda asserts that “… in traditional Japanese thought, life and death always existed together as equals, back-to-back, so to speak, and death was never concealed from everyday life” (1992). The experience also stresses the inevitability of death as being aware of the art installation means the destruction of nature when exposed.
Ephemeral Life of Butterflies Beyond Borders
The Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2016) implies a behavior of butterflies that can flutter beyond the borders of the artwork. The area beyond these borders becomes an organic and biological space, perhaps like nature, where the life cycle of butterflies depends upon the political interactions of humans. However, when the butterflies, the substitute of nature, enter the zone of the artwork (the space of the digital), humans cannot interact with butterflies that ultimately affect such a life cycle. The installation does not provide any instructions that inform participants’ decision-making on how and why their behaviors affect the butterflies. Here, the butterflies can enter the zone of the wall projection where humans lose the ability to engage with digital butterflies to leave a disruptive impact. Overall, the installation creates a contested space for the hegemony of technology over the representation of nature in which humans have given no agency to dominate and master. Thereby, the artwork conveys a discourse where technology can pose either a liberating or threatening space by the ethically situated coexistence of both human and non-human agents.
teamLab aims to recall the Japanese love and care of nature. As the relation between nature and humans reserves a special place in Japanese culture, teamLab’s pieces particularly explore, understand, relink, and reconstruct the interconnectivity of art, technology, and nature. According to them, “By turning nature into the art, we can gain a sense of the continuity of nature, that humans do not usually perceive” (Rosner, 2019). teamLab mostly takes inspiration from sensations that were lost in the process of Japanese modernization since the Meiji Restoration (Iwama, 2015). The Meiji period (1868-1912) brought Western modernity to Japan by its increased focus on industrialized fields of science and technology. However, due to fast technological and industrial developments in Japan, “the nature they have always claimed to cherish has become a victim of pollution” (Ferkiss, 1993). Therefore, as technology seriously plays a transformative role in changing the culture of Japanese people, teamLab rethinks the effects of technology on the culture of Japan and the relationship between nature and human beings with their artworks.
In the experience of the Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2016), participants might act consciously or instinctually towards what is waiting for them in the exhibition room. However, the participants can also decide to interact or not, in other words, to kill the butterflies or not. Following this, teamLab’s choice of that specific insect is one of the reasons that influence decisions given by the participants. The butterflies are harmless animals, and they aesthetically have an attraction that arouses the desire to catch or touch them. This experience can also recall the animals located in the zoos or circuses surrounded by spectators gazing at a distance. In “Why Look at Animals,” John Berger mentions that animals have secret meanings addressed to human beings. For instance, they have “magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial” (1974). Moreover, sacrifice is a sort of exploitation of animals for the sake of humans’ desires.
In Japanese culture, butterflies represent life, death, and womanhood (Arteingiappone, n/d). In this installation, digital butterflies represent these concepts by depicting the relationship between nature and humans. The ephemerality of the butterflies both signals the accelerating extinction of some animal species and reveals how fragile and responsive the ecosystem is to human actions. From a binary perspective, the female, identified with nature, signifies vulnerability just like the butterflies beyond the borders of culture - or technology in this context. In the words of Thomas Patin and Jennifer McLerran, “This identification is seen as the source of women’s oppression and inferior status since nature is associated with beings at lower levels of existence, who have not altered their environment through the agency of culture” (1997). However, nature is not a passive subject but rather always gives a response. There is no isolation in the universe as human and non-human beings, nature, and technology are interconnected. As chaos theory indicates, in a phenomenon known as the butterfly effect, a flap of a butterfly can be the cause of multiple events in different parts of the universe. The concept of interconnectivity that the art collective teamLab intends to address is closely related to the butterfly effect. In this installation, the chaos occurs in the form of the annihilation of the artwork.
Accordingly, the Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2016) raises questions about the agency of non-human animals. Can the digital representations of butterflies have rights in this immersive installation? Do they have a voice? Furthermore, can we think about nature’s agency? In her discussion of Bruno Latour’s approach to agency, Elizabeth Swanstrom suggests that he “…razes all agents to the same level of importance – all subjects are objects, all objects are subjects, and the agency is merely a by-product of their collective, amalgamated action. As such, all things deserve legal standing, that is rights” (2016). Although there is no mention of the agency of non-human animals, I argue that this installation is an invitation to become aware of the risky condition of the human-centered worldview. The participants experience the space of the work through their affordances of movement. They have limited agency to change the intended experience of the artwork. When the participants recognize that their action causes a destructive reaction, their blasé attitude supported by the immersive display of flickering images of butterflies becomes undermined. As the participants lead the way that butterflies may take, “the boundaries between artwork and viewer become ambiguous” (Rosner, 2019).
Human Interaction with Technology and Nature
What is the indirect implication for human agency in this digitized natural environment? The artists indicate that “we would like to explore the questions like what is a human being, what is the world for the human being, and the new society and new way of human-being?” (Lau, 2016). Here, the human is not only an observer but is an imperial power who owns the gaze. Like God’s position, their eyes as the authority look from a centered distance to nature. Therefore, human impact on the scenario holds primacy and their agency of touch ultimately affects the flow. However, as Jennifer Daryl Slack and Macgregor Wise point out that “agency is not just about human intention; many elements are involved in relations of agency, including technology” (2005). Thus, the roles of different agencies, such as the digital technologies applied in the production of this work, manipulate human actions. For instance, participants can change the flow of the work as digital technology partially empowers humans to meet their desires by touching and leaving an irreversible impact.
Following this assumption, the installation is a praise of technology at first glance. It is a compelling representation of nature, and most of the technical details stay hidden from the participants. However, in such media artworks, Christiane Paul indicates that “Technology is a medium, like paint or clay, for most new media artists. (…) the medium often lags behind the concepts that artists try to communicate, they must often push the boundaries or develop technologies to express their ideas” (2008). However, technologies are not just passive elements but active components in artistic experiences. Technology is a way of doing, making, and creating. Hence, technology is not only a tool for mere display in the work of art, but also it is one of the creators of the artistic experience. As in this installation, while digital technology is used as a medium to project creative expression, it also becomes the creator of the experience. The artists intentionally transform the medium into a leading partner, as it separates the zones of different modes of interaction.
To touch butterflies, the participants need to shorten the distance between themselves and the artwork. According to Walter Benjamin, distance is the essential factor for maintaining the authenticity of an artwork (2008). The human observer should be looking from a distance to feel the aura of that work. Moreover, Benjamin states that media images have lost their authenticity because they lost the distance. So, does not this media art piece have an aura? At this point, Kim Knight’s article on media image, interactivity, and the aura of the artworks suggest possible answers to this question. In contrast to Benjamin's argumentation, Kim Knight proposes that “authenticity is augmented by closeness” (2015). There is a correlation between increment in participation and aura. Similarly, in this work, the interaction with the digital reproduction of nature constructs a new aura. The participants become closer to the artwork by touching the butterflies that also reveal care and interest.
Finally, in an influential article, “On Touching,” Karen Barad asserts that “Touching is a matter of response. Each of “us” is constituted in response-ability. Each of “us” is constituted as responsible for the other, as the other” (2012). Barad adds that “And touch engages us in a felt sense of causality” (2012). Building on the concept of causality, touching leaves an impact as an affective communication between sensuality and physicality. The haptic visuality of the work Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2016) creates a bridge between the virtual and physical through the act of touching. Although participants do not make literal physical contact with a real butterfly, they can still feel the presence of their being on the surface by the tension of closeness. In this work, there is no distinct physical sense but an emergency of physicality through the creation of virtual butterflies. The action-guided experience transforms non-material digital technologies such as light, sensors, and images into almost tangible and ephemeral sources.
In creative expressions of environmental justice, media art and digital technologies foster different modes of interaction and multimodal sensorial occupation. Emerging forms of creative practice enhance alternative ways for working collaboratively with nature, exploring similarities through inclusion, and engaging the world of the future. By crafting the Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2016), teamLab emphasizes the necessity of constructing responsible interaction and dialogue between nature and human beings. As humans may not easily predict what comes next in the future, by engaging the participants with a responsive virtual environment, the installation aims to raise consciousness about the effects of actions for the possible future of nature. Although the artists mystify the working mechanisms of the installation by naming their tools as “non-material digital technologies,” the piece composes a pathway to be aware of the materiality of digital with the implication of finite nature. Rather than constructing a plastic sense of experiencing the political divide between nature and humans, the digital virtual natural environment of the Flutter of Butterflies Beyond Borders (2016) reveals an alternative way that nature can ever be present in building this empathic relation that is more directly sensible.
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