The Gimzo and the Gaze: Discerning VR, the Virtual and Virtuality through a Select Micro-History—1977 to the present.

Tom Leeser


In 1988, Bay Press in Seattle published Vision and Visuality, edited by the cultural writer and art historian, Hal Foster. The book is a collection of transcripts and essays by historians, teachers and theorists who participated in a 1987 symposium, organized by Foster and the Dia Foundation on the “modes of vision.” Vision and Visuality was part of a series of publications called Discussions in Contemporary Culture.

The symposium investigated what Foster called the “given array of visual facts” as expressed through social, psychological and physiological contexts. The participants were reacting to established “principles of modernism” and a new “critical attention” to theories of the visual. Ideas were put forth from a nascent postmodern perspective, in search for “alternative visual regimes” that attempted to discern relationships and differences between vision and visuality.

In the book’s preface, Foster defined vision as a “physical operation” and visuality as a “social fact.” He pointed out a gap between the “datum of sight” and its “discursive determinations.” This gap between the two separates what we can see from what we are taught to see. He expanded upon this difference by stating that there is a modernist tendency to create “one essential vision,” a “natural hierarchy of sight” that privileges the perceptual mechanism of the body over a collection of “historical techniques.” He went on to propose that this hierarchy that delineates the gap between the physical and the psychic, the subject and the object, should be disturbed so as to challenge notions of modernism and the social and political power of Cartesian perspective. [1]

This brief essay looks back at Foster’s basic premise of alternative models of vision and extends his original consideration of visuality into the current realm of virtual reality (VR). The main issue regarding vision, contemporary discourse and history that Foster and the symposium participants raised collides directly with the current conditions and language of the virtual and virtuality, specifically as these two terms relate to the second wave of VR we are currently experiencing.

“No architect can build without being in complicity with commerce and industry”
-Brian Massumi

In the late 1980s, the postmodern tendency was to reconsider the state of authorship and originality. One way this reconsideration was articulated was through an anti-aesthetic process of pastiche and décollage. Beginning with architecture, these tendencies rapidly spread to other disciplines producing a subversion that imitated and copied content for the purpose of undermining the power and authority of the original image. This was a process that mined an exploding network of media sources for the purpose of critiquing culture and capitalism while recoding their historical intention with new calculations.

Along these lines, the artist Mark Bradford echoes this subversion when he describes his painting and installation process as a “rhythm.” Bradford considers himself, “a builder and a demolisher. I put up so I can tear down. I’m a speculator and a developer. In archaeological terms, I excavate and I build at the same time.” [2]

Bradford’s work is a twenty first century example of networked and critical excavations that find their basis in the formalist juxtapositions of the late 1980s and the later post-conceptual strategies that questioned the deference to historical grand narratives and their underlying institutional subtexts and meanings. Out of the 1980s emerged a detachment from art making that tended to privilege vision, allowing new media technologies to emerge that incorporated a more inclusive sensorium within a broader cultural dialogue. Both globalization and the speculative art market demanded a larger sphere of exchange and diversity. This expanded sphere included media projects designed to link an extended global community through systems of electronically networked distribution.

Telematic video connections via satellites were enabling artists to realize a “third space,” a potential for the demolition of both distance and duration. One such project, produced in 1977, ten years prior to Foster’s Dia symposium, was the Satellite Arts Project by the Electronic Café (artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz.) This project transmitted live video of performers and the public through a series of bi-coastal events that were staged in real-time. The Satellite Arts Project, an analogue precursor to the Internet, is considered one of the first attempts to telematically connect artists through a networked “space with no geographical boundaries” [3]

A later project by Nam June Paik called Good Morning Mr. Orwell, linked live performances in New York, Paris, Germany and Korea together on New Years Day in 1984. The project included work by artists Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Charlotte Morman among others. These early telematic projects emphasized multiple performers within a spatial and cultural heterogeneity, a shared pastiche that constituted a geographic decollage, a virtuality that resided outside of the broadcast confines of mainstream media. They did this by tearing away distance and employing “critical attention” to what Foster called “the given array of visual facts.” These works can be considered within the context of a “social fact,” a fact that undermined and disrupted traditional spatial hierarchies and purposely produced a media of electronic simultaneity that critiqued conventional linear broadcast television and the homogenized culture that it helped produce.

Beginning in the 1990s, the Internet was shifting from an academic and governmental network to a more public and commodifed space through the emergence of the World Wide Web. In addition, new computer imaging technologies were being developed to replace analog video with new low budget digital systems of production and post-production. These new tactical systems provided artists a lower barrier of entry to the field, a means of production that could examine the social and political contexts of race, gender, sexual orientation and the cultural apparatus itself.

In 1991, the film theorist, Regina Cornwall wrote, “Where is the Window,” a seminal essay for the London based magazine Artscribe[4] In the article, Cornwall introduced VR to the art world as a “psychedelia of the 1990s, the telepornography of the future.” Invoking psychologist and author Timothy Leary as one of the boosters of the new technology, she described VR as a “consensual hallucination” within cyberspace, a well-known neologism coined by science fiction writer, William Gibson at that time. Cornwall defined this hallucinatory portmanteau as an alternative to our consensual social reality, a technical dream manifestation of Baudrillard’s simulacrum. She went on to use Frederic Jameson’s framing of postmodernism as “a period of history rather than a mere artistic style” to support the “hyper representations” of the new digital immersive experience. She wrote, “When VR is available as a cultural, artistic and social arena, virtual worlds will be there for the making and sharing.” She predicted that VR would challenge how we defined presence, visuality and identity, not just in cyberspace, but in the real world as well. However she warned, “VR might be taken over by the entertainment industry as yet another form of escape with bigger and better Disneyworlds. And that VR could become the instrument of the status quo.” Of course the oppositional and utopian ideas that VR could change our world for the better didn’t actually work out the way Timothy Leary and other techno-futurists had hoped. VR never realized its original transformative potential, retreating into technical hibernation within academic research CAVES (Computer Augmented Virtual Environments) in the mid 1990s, only to be excavated some twenty years later as yet another “next big thing” from Silicon Valley. Now VR is back, thanks to Google and Facebook-Oculus, positioned as a new form of “status quo entertainment,” raising the same “universe of questions.”

“Real but not actual, ideal but not abstract”
-Marcel Proust

Given the exaggerated promotion and marketing campaigns of trending VR companies, we should examine the words, virtual and virtuality, with the same historical and “critical attention” that Foster used when assessing the visual and visuality.

Gilles Deleuze wrote extensively on the virtual as a pre-condition of what is to be considered real. For Deleuze the virtual is the ideal that exists prior to the actualization of the object within our relative experience. He referred to the virtual as the potential for existence, the “genetic conditions of real experience.” [5]

For Graham Harman, who promotes an object oriented ontology; the distinction lies in the difference between an ensemble of unified objects that are visible and invisible; between “the real object that withdraws from all experience, and the sensual object that exists only in experience.” [6] Given Deleuze and Harman’s concepts of objects and the virtual, one could advocate for a complex and multivalent field of possibilities, an interdependency between the virtual and the actual and between the relative (sensual) and the absolute (real.)

These critical and philosophical terms are quite different from how the word virtual is used within current VR jargon. Virtual, in the commercial sense, is used as an adjective, not a noun; it defines an incomplete condition, almost reality but not quite. The entertainment industrial complex is not concerned with the theoretical definitions of reality or what actually constitutes a real object from a sensual one. Commercial interests have appropriated the term as an ambiguous label. Their intent is to sell VR as a new product, a means of escape, just as Cornwall had forewarned. The two-letter acronym in their view compresses the complex convergence of technology, the body and the social network into a future form of global entertainment.

It is important to underscore these issues given the critical condition of the emerging medium within a neoliberal economy and from a historical and political context of technology and power. The co-option of personal data by corporations through social media products has demonstrated that monetized surveillance has an influence on public policy and personal freedoms. In the 2015 San Bernardino attack, the FBI accused Apple that its corporate resistance to their request to access the iPhone data was simply an issue of marketing. [7] “Apple’s current refusal to comply with the Court’s order, despite the technical feasibility of doing so, appears to be based on its concern for its business model and public brand marketing strategy,” Justice Department attorneys said at the court hearing. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO responded, “The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand.” [8]

This court case regarding “digital privacy” touches on the political question of privacy and the future of VR’s anticipated growth in emergent markets. The growth of VR that is being considered relies on future telematic experiences, networked through a virtuality that is coupled with data tracking and accumulation. Mark Zuckerberg wrote after Facebook purchased Oculus that VR “is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.” [9] This notion of a total networked experience can have unconsidered legal implications that impact issues of privacy, harassment, surveillance and the further commodification of our bodies through data collection. It also presents a question regarding territory, inclusivity and the possibility of encoding, delineating boundaries and branding certain types of actions and people as deviant, giving privilege to codified definitions of normalcy within a global authoritarian network. Computerworld magazine recently stated in a 2015 article that “VR technology will map our every movement, including our facial expressions. In some cases, it will automate a movement like walking, while mimicking the movement of our faces, heads, hands and torsos.” [10]

Simone Brown, Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas has discussed this idea of biometric “dataveillance” that includes behavioral traits that track body movement, gait and facial expressions in her book Dark Matters. Her research focuses on the issues of race and surveillance, historically and currently in the United States. She comments that biometrics will be used to reveal a “truth” about a subject in spite of the subject’s claim. Browne also traces the use of biometric techniques back to the eighteenth century for purposes of tracking the migration of “black people on the move” through detailed record keeping. [11]

In this cultural context, we need to understand how VR functions as a loose compound metaphor to describe what Cornwall called “status quo entertainment” and a platform for Facebook’s new social networking products. Technically VR is a mechanical object that evokes a singular representational environment based on a scripted experience. It functions as a monad, a singular device that seeks to take its user outside of their world, abducting their somatic perceptions, and replacing them with a phantom possession embedded within a fictional gaze. Generally, it has rendered this appearance as a projection and an alternative Umvelt. If there is a latent experimental and oppositional tendency that can emerge to upend and re-purpose this consumer and industrial regime, time will tell. It will depend on how we answer Cornwall’s “universe of questions” and Browne’s concerns about presence, control and identity.

For Foster, the visual is the physical act of seeing by a subject that is being perceived through the gaze of the larger social condition. For Deleuze, the virtual is the genesis of the real, an absence that is really a presence. For Cornwall, original VR is an extension of a historical and cultural avant-garde based on radical artistic experimentation. To Google and Facebook-Oculus, VR is not necessarily virtual or reality; it is a tag for a technological networking device, manufactured for the largest possible audience.

VR, as perceived by the body through the combination of software and hardware, is an index to a larger set of cultural and political questions of a contemporary virtuality. To be considered within Foster’s definition of a new critical attention, VR and virtuality requires a retro avant-garde impulse, a hacker’s sensibility that can subvert the entertainment industrial complex and actualize the possibilities that reside outside the boundaries of the “dataveillance” network. In conclusion, we can consider the virtual as that which is physically imagined, and virtuality as a rhythm and a socially actualized fact.


1. Foster, Hal, editor (1988). Discussions in Contemporary Culture, DIA Art Foundation, Number 2. Vision and Visuality. Bay Press.

2. Art 21. “Politics, Process and Postmodernism”.

3. Electronic Café. Satellite Arts Project, 1977.

4. Cornwall, Regina (1991). “Where is the Window?” Artscribe No. 85 January-February 1991

5. Smith, Daniel and Protevi, John, “Gilles Deleuze”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

6. Kitchens, C. Juliette (2017). At Home in the Whedonverse. McFarland. pg. 105

7. Adam Nagourney, Ian Lovett and Richard Pérez-Peña, The New York Times (Dec. 2, 2015).

8. Selyukh, Alina, NPR (Feb. 19, 2016). two way/2016/02/19/467385553/doj-lays-out-its-legal-case-for-why-apple-should-help-crack-an-iphone

9. Zuckerberg, Mark, Facebook (March 25, 2014).

10. Elgan, Mike, Computerworld (Nov. 2, 2015).

11. Browne, Simone (2015). Dark Matters. Duke University Press pp. 89-92