This critical review of Grau's book on Virtual Art appeared recently in
INTELLIGENT AGENT written by Patrick Lichty.

"...virtual image spaces of the computer... (are) not the revolutionary
innovation its protagonists are fond of interpreting it to be. The idea of
virtual reality only appears to be without a history; in fact, it rests
firmly on historical art traditions, which belong to a discontinuous
movement of seeking illusionary image spaces."
Grau, Virtual Art, p. 339

In this statement, Oliver Grau sums up what is probably the most significant
contribution this book makes to the study of New Media Art. With many
instances of novel technologies, creative or otherwise, proponents have
asserted that current practices constitute the pinnacle of human knowledge
to date or represent a degree of novelty that distances them from history.
The examination of the historical context of technological media, especially
in the arts, has been scant to date. In this book, Grau brings a refreshing
perspective to the topic by illustrating that the genre of immersive spaces
has been actively pursued since classical times, and, I might even argue,
since the caves of Lascaux were painted. This approach refutes the
Fukuyama-esque assertion that new media art is either separate from history
or a terminal point of the same. Conversely, Grau points to Adorno's
admonitions about placing contemporary art in a continuous history,
suggesting that there is nothing new under the sun. What needs to be
considered here are the points of difference in the sites throughout
history, and this is one of Grau's other points.

Grau begins his analysis of immersive spaces throughout pre-modern times at
the Roman Villa Dei Misteri at Pompeii, an initiation site for the sect of
Bacchus, and moves on to Bismarck's commissioning of the grand panorama of
The Battle of Sedan, which was completed in 1883. From Pompeii to Berlin,
Grau constructs a narrative of the context of the culture, politics, and
representative function of the various spaces -- from the ecstatic to the
devotional to the propagandistic -- and reveals how the various techniques
of construction reflected the agendas of the constructors. The idea that new
technologies have largely served to inscribe agendas of power upon the
masses is not new, but used as an analytical context for this subject from
ancient Rome to today raises important questions about the social function
of immersive spaces.

>From Sedan, Grau takes a relatively brief sojourn through Modernist
immersive spaces, including Monet's panorama in Giverny, Prampolini's
polydimensional Futurism, Schwitters' Merz theatre, the Cineorama, the
Futurama, Heilig's famed Sensorama, leading up to the contemporary IMAX
theatre. In his (rather brief) exposition of these modern spaces of
immersion and illusion, there is a distinct shift from the panoramic
rendering to the expansion of the cinematic as space of illusion, and to
Sutherland's development of the Head-Mounted-Display, which brings the
reader to the contemporary era.

To contextualize the issues of immersion in contemporary virtual works, Grau
considers numerous pieces of virtual art, including Davies' Osmose,
Benayoun's World Skin, Naimark's Be Now Here, as well as other spaces that
consider the role of immersion in the representation of identity, the
political, and the monumental. In many of these cases, such as Shaw's Place
2000, and Benayoun's World Skin, the agendas of power are translated quite
clearly from antiquity. However, in the case of Benayoun, this is done more
subversively as the virtual 'photographers,' in a direct metaphor taken from
Marey's photographic gun, literally create 'holes' in the landscape through
their act of taking snapshots of the landscape. Grau relates this metaphor
once again and brings the virtual into a historical context quite nicely
while illustrating contextual differences in the cultural and technological
functions of the work.

The remaining segments consist of sections on telepresence and genetic art,
covering most notably Penny's Traces and Kac's GFP Bunny. Although
meticulously researched and well framed in the rubric of illusionism, Grau
falls victim to the fin-de-millennium tendency in new media scholarship to
be overly inclusive in light of a movement (i.e. New Media) which is so
chimeric and multifaceted as to make any comprehensive analysis difficult at
best. Although Grau does wonderfully at making a case for the inclusion of
the telepresent and the genetic in his text, this seems to come at some cost
to expansion on the rich history of immersion in the 20th century. Likewise,
the sociopolitical analysis constructed in the pre-modern section shifts to
a markedly theoretical treatment in the postmodern era. Although this may be
indicative of the cultural framing of the periods involved, or the fact that
the book is a translation of a recent revision, I felt a desire to read
Grau's analysis of the differences between the pre- and postmodern spaces of
immersion; not for the purpose of merging current VR into a unified
historical discourse, but for examining the issues of difference amongst the
various installations, so one could see the continuities and discontinuities
between the various periods.

Virtual Art is a landmark volume in that it is one of the first to begin
placing new media works into a historical framework with a sensitivity to
the shifts in expression that are evident from antiquity to the present day.
In an era that often considers history to be measured in months or decades,
Virtual Art lends a sense of perspective and insight that is sorely needed
in new media discourse. As a reference work, the massive bibliography is
truly impressive, and is worth the price of the book in itself. However, if
there were to be further incarnations of the book, I would love to read more
on Modern-era immersive spaces, and have more comparative analysis between
the pre- and postmodern while staying firmly in the realm of VR and the

Perhaps I might seem a bit critical in places, but it is only because the
book held my attention for over three hundred pages over a period of three
months. Grau has created a volume that will likely be used as a canonical
text in the study of virtual reality for some years to come, and will
probably not gather much dust on my shelf, as it will be a valuable resource
in my further research of the past and present of virtual reality.

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