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Towards an ontology of digital arts. Media environments, interactive processes and effects of presence

Andrea Giomi
p. 47-65


During the Nineties, the diffusion of information and communication technologies allowed a dramatic transformation in art practices. Radically new aesthetic experiences, such as tele-presence, immersivity, responsivity, hyper-mediacy and multimediality, emerge in the framework of the digital arts and call into question not only the traditional status of the work of art but also the fundamental relation with the beholder. The aim of this paper is to define a conceptual framework for the ontology of digital arts by identifying some ontological features that are distinctive to digital idioms. Such an analysis tries to outline how aesthetic and technical innovations affect our cognitive and sensorial relationship with technological artifacts. In the first part, the relation between technogenesis and ontology, as well as the key topics of the ontology of digital arts are discussed. The second part deals with the notion of presence. Despite traditional understandings of digital arts, mainly focused on immateriality, simulation and mediation, my analysis demonstrate how the notion of presence can provide an original perspective in order to understand the ontological status of the mediatized artistic practices.

In the last three decades the generalisation of information and telecommunication technologies has played a major role in the transformation of the arts, opening the field to important experiments in the domain of computer graphics, digital audio, robotics and motion capture systems… (Dixon 2007). Peculiar forms of aesthetic experience such as tele-presence, immersivity, responsivity, hyper-mediation and multimediality, progressively arise from digital arts and question not only the status of artwork but also, more generally, the foundational relationship between this latter and the recipient.

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Why an ontology of digital arts?

  • 1 On the contrary, Lechte (2012) asserts that the aesthetic experiences provided by the digital arts, (...)

1In the light of these recent innovations, the typical questions of the ontology of art, such as the investigation into the conditions for existence of an artwork as well as into its concrete and abstract nature and its uniqueness or multiplicity, would seem to require a radical revision (Thomson-Jones 2015)1. In this paper, I will try to outline the most relevant conceptual tòpoi of the ontology of digital arts with particular attention to those practices which incorporate the interactive aspect and which will be the focus of a specific analysis in the second part of this text. The interest of such an analysis lies above all in the need to identify ontological categories specific to those artistic experiences which, as a result of the high level of technical and aesthetic innovation, require unprecedented conceptual tools (Hansen 2004; Portanova 2013). In the first part, I will introduce the question of the relationship between ontology and technogenesis and then, briefly, some core issues resulting from the debate on the ontological status of digital arts. The second part will focus on a more specific matter, that is the question of presence. The argument that I intend to support is that, in a context historically focused on the aspect of mediation (Bolter, Grusin 1999) as well as of its simulation/illusion (Grau 2003) and immateriality (Dyson 2009), adopting the category of presence, which is especially important in the field of performance studies (Phelan 1993; Egginton 2007; Fischer-Lichte 2014), may provide an original perspective for the comprehension of the ontological status of contemporary media arts practices.


2The different approaches arisen over the years in the debate on digital arts seem to have in common at least a basic idea, according to which technological artefacts not only contribute to the optimisation of our cognitive and sensor-motor skills (Gehlen [1957]) but are above all a pole of continuous hybridisation between the human and the artificial spheres (Leroi-Gourhan 1964; Simondon 1958). In this sense, modern technologies can be considered as an extension of our central nervous system (McLuhan 1964), which favours a form of communication in which the transmission of information no longer operates through a linear pattern – based on distance and separation – but rather develops according to a feedback loop (Wiener 1948), within which technological artefacts assume a reticular (e.g. neural networks), adaptive (e.g. machine learning) and autopoietic (e.g. cellular automata, AI) morphology. Here it is to be highlighted that, thanks to virtual technologies, especially in the aesthetic field, the technological artefact has progressively changed from a media object to a media environment (Diodato 2014; Pinotti, Somaini 2016: 164-171) and  to an interactive process (Kwastek 2013: 48-52, 115-117).

  • 2 In this context, Benjamin introduced the notion of «optical unconscious». See also Krauss (1993).
  • 3 A similar argument have been used by Manovich (2001: 76), and, more recently by Carbone (2019) in r (...)

3It is necessary, however, to underline another aspect, which is more specifically related to the perceptive and sensory nature of our relation to the world and to technological artefacts. As Benjamin [1936] had already understood, by employing certain technologies our body becomes used to perceiving ‘in a particular way’; it unconsciously becomes used to and adopts perceptive ways that it could not previously access2. In other words, through the technologically mediated aesthetic experience there is a sensory and cognitive modification in which our perceptive habits are technologically induced. Indirectly recalling this argument, De Kerckhove coins the term brainframe (1991) referring to the way technologies, and digital media in particular, provide a sensory and cognitive framework that affects our way of processing the information coming from the outer world. In this sense, the brainframe (related to a specific medium) structures and filters our perception of the world3. As Hayles (1999, 2012) pointed out, the level of automation of the digital-media-related processes of embodiment allows the operational capacity of technology to intertwine with our usual sensor-motor patterns. Starting from a similar perspective, Clark (2008) states that these mechanisms of incorporation definitively overcome the frontiers of the anatomic body and, through what he defines «cognitive prostheses», extends to the external environment, influencing the articulation of high-level cognitive functions such as memory, language and action planning. In this perspective, it seems clear that technological mediation should be considered today not only in terms of instrumentality but rather as an organic element activating a continuous bio-mediation (Clough 2008), that is a web of transformative interactions, within which human and technological properties develop in an interdependent and enactive way.

Towards an ontology of digital arts: From artwork to media environments

  • 4 Two major approaches can here be distinguished : a more ‘continuistic’ interpretation, that inscrib (...)
  • 5 Such features are often substituted by complementary definitions according to the context of analys (...)
  • 6 For more on this argument see Grau (2003).

4The techno-ontogenesis that we have described has important consequences on the way we produce, receive and transmit media artwork. In the ontological debate on digital arts a recurrent starting point is the analysis of the structural discontinuity between analogical and digital technologies4. The ontological nature of this discontinuity, elaborated for the first time by Goodman (1976) in aesthetics, is the basis of the theoretical reflection of Paul Crowther (2008), who identifies three elements that constitute ontologically the digital artefact, and they are type-token identity, morphing and interactivity5. The first two elements are related to the ontological fluidity of the artefact and announce the transformation of artwork from media object into a media environment. According to Crowther, the achieved level of sophistication of the digital image provides such an insistent and accurate illusion of tridimensionality that the digital origin of the representation is therefore concealed. If the use, whether in art or not, of illusion and simulation devices is not a specific aspect of the new media6, what characterises the digital dimension is the loss of difference between type and token, and therefore the rise of a «type-token identity» (2008: 164), which is founded on the indiscernibility of copy and original, of simulacrum and reality. Such a substantial identity entails a fundamental ambiguity in the digital medium. Especially in art, contemporary media practices contributed to the rise of a hybrid field in which the materiality of the perceptible world mingles with the immateriality of information at the level of their molecular substrata, so that the digital medium assumes what Kallinikos et al. (2013) define as an ontologically «ambiguous» character. In a further sense, this aspect is related to another element considered by Crowther foundational of the ontology of digital arts: morphing.

  • 7 On this topic, see also Kwastek (2013: 167-171). The German scholar proposes the term apparatus as (...)
  • 8 From this perspective, the notion of «bodies-in-code» can be related to the paradigm of the «virtua (...)

5Morphing is one of the consequences of the algorithmic origin of the digital medium and consists in the capacity of an image, for example, to incorporate elements of a different nature through the combination of source codes (for example, the capacity to generate algorithmically a 3D image through the spectral analysis of the shape of an acoustic wave). This ontological fluidity is evoked also by other authors: Manovich mentions an ontological «variability» of new media (2001: 56-63), Kwastek the «dynamic and modifiable […] materiality» (2013: 141), Ihde the structural «multi-stability» of technologies (2002: 106-109). As O’Brien (2017) underlines, although not directly referring to ontology of arts, Idhe’s categories (embodiment, hermeneutic, alterity, background) provide important keys to understand the ontological nature, if not of digital artwork tout court, at least of interactive and multimedia environments. Two main consequences can be especially highlighted: on the one hand, the structural stability of the artwork-as-object disappears in favour of a condition of open, changing and interdependent existence; on the other hand, also the temporal distance separating the artistic creation and the recipient is reduced, if not even erased, in favour of progressively immersive and fusional contact with the interface (Quinz 2014). In this sense, the artwork, which so often corresponds to the interface itself, loses its instrumental nature and becomes a media environment, that is, a zone of reconfiguration of experience in which the artwork and the recipient come to a mutual con-fusion7. Regarding this issue, Mark Hansen coins the expression «bodies-in-code», referring to a hybrid dimension of presence, in which the technological mediation of the interface and the media environment, then conveyed by interactivity and sensory feedback, leads to the fundamental dissolution of the putative boundaries that separate the body of the spectator-recipient from the physical space of the installation (or performance) and the digital space of the information (2006: 19-20)8.

Interactivity and performative ontology

  • 9 Interactivity can be broadly interpreted as a constitutive ontological feature as well as a peculia (...)
  • 10 For an overview, see the classic work of Popper (1975).

6As we mentioned above, interactivity is the third element detected by Crowther which is ontologically important for the digital arts9. According to the English philosopher, this notion basically refers to the possibility given by interfaces «to enter» the image. This argument is upheld also by Manovich (2001: 183). As regards human-computer interaction, interactivity can also be described as the subject’s capacity to act within a feedback loop with the computer system, thus modifying the representational environment in which it exists, becoming able to access a processual dimension of the aesthetic experience. This approach characterizes for example Roy Ascott’s theoretical and artistic perspective. Starting from notions dear to the cybernetic tradition, such as those of feedback and participatoriness, Ascott (2003) emphasizes how the use of interactive media in art has caused a dramatic repositioning of the artwork’s ontological status from object to process. This repositioning – experienced by other artistic practices arisen in the second half of the 20th century (participatory installations, performance art…)10 – is especially meaningful for interactive digital arts, in which live coding practices permit a continuous and real-time transformation of perceptible elements (gestures, physical presence, etc.) into abstract forms (code) and then again into other perceptible forms (sounds, images…). Similarly, Kwastek (2013: 114-115) highlights the fact that in interactive digital arts the aesthetic objects assume an essentially process-intensive aspect, given that the perceptible elements involved (mainly sound and visual feedbacks) are generated in real time and co-determined, in a variable way, by the degree of participation and the duration of the recipient’s experience as much as by the possibilities of manipulation given by the algorithm.

7Another fundamental contribution to this debate has been made by Hansen (2006). The American philosopher criticises the predominant ontological conception, based on the notion of immateriality of digital media, and fosters the idea that the sensory and cognitive experience provided by interactive arts favours the radical centrality of the body as processuality and in particular the centrality of proprioception. Hansen’s argument, which owes much to the notion of body schema (Merleau-Ponty 1945) and that of deterritorialization (Deleuze, Guattari 1980), consists in stating that, thanks to the medial experience of interactivity, the recipient encounters the artwork as lived action. In this experience the often oculocentric nature of technical-artistic devices is overshadowed in favour of a mainly embodied, situated and inactive knowledge resulting from the sensory feedback loop (sound, video, image, text…). In ontological terms, one consequence is that in the aesthetic experience of interactivity, work and reception are con-fused into the same processual existence (Couchot 2002: 23).

  • 11 The idea of the multiplicity of tokens as opposed to the abstract unity of the type has been develo (...)
  • 12 See, for instance, “Bandersnatch” episode (2018) from Black Mirror series.

8The considerations expressed so far suggest a conception of the aesthetic relationship between work and recipient in which the contemplative distance turns into an immersive experience, action, affordance and proprioception. In this perspective, we see that the different typologies of interactive creation (performance, installation, net art, interactive cinema, etc.) seem to converge – thanks also to an increasing intermediality – on a common ontology based on the idea of «action» (of the performer, of the artist and the recipient) (Irvin 2013). In the field of the ontology of art one of the first authors to propose an analysis founded on the performative idea of action was Currie (1989), according to whom artwork tout court can be interpreted as action-type. Stressing the process and action involved, a work is no longer identified with the material object resulting from that process. The action-type refers to a generic entity permitting multiple and performative realisations, which correspond to its tokens11. A similar argument is exposed by Lopes (2001) who, examining precisely interactive digital arts, underlines how, in this kind of artistic creation a multiplicity of tokens is possible, i.e. recipients-interactors’ performative interactions. In close connection to performance theory, Davies (2004) radicalises Currie’s argument, by elaborating an ontology based on the idea of action-token, in which the artwork is basically identified with the generative process or its «making». Unlike Currie, Davies’ idea of performativity completely focuses on the manipulation of the medium during the creative process. A further contribution on the question of performativity and interactivity is provided by Saltz (1997, 2015), who affirms a substantial type-token identity, very much along the lines of Crowther. However, according to Saltz, this identity is not based on the capacity of simulation of the digital artefact, but on the idea that, thanks to the interactive medium, the work exclusively exists during the interactor’s performative and participatory reception. Unlike Lopes’ theory, here the interaction with the artwork does not produce any token, as would be the case in a live performance of a musical score. The interactive environments created by the artist, in the field of installation as well as of performance and interactive film12, provide action with a context, in which the work appears as an original type alongside the interaction. Saltz’s theoretical contribution seems, therefore, to propose an interdependence of the recipient’s subjective experience of the interaction and the material (installation, type and quality of the sensory feedback) and immaterial (algorithm) conditions for existence of the interface. Whitelaw et al. (2009) highlight the fact that the peculiar nature of the digital artefact, especially in fields with a high level of interactivity such as generative art and game art, lies in its capacity to generate concomitant ontologies («strange ontologies»). From this perspective, the authors suggest that systems of specific realities only arise from the interaction between all the conditions for existence required by the recipient-interactor’s simulation and direct lived experience.

Presence, liveness and mediation

9The arguments presented so far allow me to draw attention to the following considerations: as embodied and situated experience, action plays a main role in determining not only the conditions for existence of the artwork – planning the recipient’s experience – but also the perceptible quality of its manifestation, that is, the specific way the media environment, generally audiovisual, takes shape through interaction; or, in other terms, the way the sensory feedback, generated by the algorithm, allows the recipient to become aware of themselves as a lived body through proprioception and movement.

  • 13 For a philosophical discussion see also Nöe (2012: 1-14).
  • 14 For an overview of the concept of presence in the field of the performance studies see Copeland (19 (...)
  • 15 For more on this argument see Zardi (2018) and Gallese (2020).
  • 16 The origin of such an ontological paradigm can be found in Beckerman (1979).

10Starting from this point, I would like to shift the axis of analysis to the notion of presence as quality of the aesthetic experience conveyed by the interaction with media environments. The possibility of using this category within the context of technological performance cannot be taken for granted, at least at first sight (cf. Pizzo 2018: 113-125). Since the 2000s, the notion of presence has received an increasing interest above all in the field of performance studies, and especially as regards artistic performance (Giannachi 2012). In this field13, presence mainly refers to an aesthetic quality whose bearer is the stage actor and which results from specific techniques of embodiment14. It is, therefore, not to be considered as an expressive quality but rather as a purely performative energy, which concretely takes place as an event in the real space and in the present time. Moreover, presence arises and coexists with the performer’s phenomenal body, physically resonating through the spectator’s body (Fischer-Lichte 2008: 98). In this perspective, presence always entails an empathetic and inter-subjective dimension related to the performer’s ability to activate embodied simulations of movement in the spectators: this theory is today widely upheld in the field of neurosciences and neuroaesthetics15. In the field of theatre, the most relevant contribution is Phelan’s ontology of performance, in which the notion of presence is considered as foundational to ontology itself (1993: 146-162). According to Phelan, presence is the condition for the existence of performance, that is, its manifestation as real «here and now»16. Its necessary qualities are, therefore, immediacy and ephemeral nature. With regard to space, immediacy indicates the complete lack of mediation between performer, space and audience (here-ness), whereas, as regards time, it represents the evenementiality of the performative action (now-ness). The ephemeral nature refers to a sort of ontological precariousness of performance, given by the fact that the authenticity of presence is proportional to its transience. In other words, the emergence of presence is always accompanied by a complementary form of disappearance. According to Phelan, these characteristics show not only that the ontology of performance is independent from other arts, but also that the notion of presence cannot be combined with any other form of technological mediation. Phelan’s anti-technological anathema deeply influenced later studies on performance and the related ontology. Fisher-Liche, one of the most eminent authors in this field, stated that technological mediation prevents presence from emerging, since it nullifies the autopoietic feedback loop mechanism, that is, the process of embodied transmission of the action on which the empathetic communication between the performer and the audience is based (2008: 68-69). Similarly, Giannachi (2012) states that virtual environments and new technologies are not able to produce real situated experiences of physical presence.


11Beyond the specific critical considerations, the core problem lies in the fact that, by interlaying levels of deeper and deeper mediation, technological environments induce an essential depletion of the expressive richness that was normally conveyed by the operators of body practices (gestures, posture, muscular tension, movement in space, facial expression techniques, vocality…). Moreover, relying on the processes of recording, codification and reproduction, new media contrast with the ephemeral nature of presence. For this reason, historically, a great part of philosophical reflections – and not only – criticised virtual technologies, by opposing simulation and artificiality to the authenticity of reality (Baudrillard 1981; Maldonado 1993; Žižek 2002) or the illusoriness of cyber-space to the authenticity of the body (Le Breton 1999), or even, by denouncing the mechanisation of society and art (Buci-Glucksman 2003; Virilio 2003). We should also notice that even the aesthetic and ontological reflection strictly related to digital arts has often endorsed a rhetoric of body’s obsolescence (Stelarc 1999), of the immateriality of the aesthetic experience (Dyson 2009) as well as of the mediatisation as paradigm of post-modern art (Auslander 1999). In particular, in his theoretical reflection Auslander directly criticises the myth of non-mediated presence (or ‘pure presence’). In the paragraph “Against Ontology”, Auslander strongly criticises the essentialist notion of presence, since this latter represents an a-priori only related to performance and, in his reckoning, should be replaced by the mediological notion of liveness. According to Auslander, the pervasiveness of information and telecommunication technologies is such that media environments, as our current main perceptive and cognitive framework, comply more than live performance with the demand for liveness. One of the main reasons is that, especially in the field of multimedia performance, digital media tend to prevail over the other semiotic units of the performative event. In other words, attending a live performance through new technologies live elements as well as digital elements are assimilated into the prevailing media, that is, the digital one. In this sense, the equation appears as: «Dance + Virtual = Virtual» (Auslander 1999: 38). The notion of liveness shows, therefore, that mediatised art forms (film, video, multimedia performance) present the same ontological characteristics of live performance (Auslander 1999: 51).

12In recent years there have been several attempts to show that the ontology of presence and the mediological notion of liveness can be combined. For example, Jaeger (2006) tries to propose a dialectic synthesis of Phelan’s and Auslander’s positions, by defining presence as the rise of the ontological openness that characterises performative corporeality: by adopting specific acting techniques as well as through digital media, it is possible to produce a reconfiguration of the body’s phenomenal matter as presence. According to Portanova (2013: 20), digitalisation of the physical body can appear as presence through the «effects» resulting from the real-time interaction of image and sound.

13Also Poissant (2015) prefers to talk about «sense of presence» and «effects of presence» as agents of the embodied relationship of the stage performer and media devices. Similarly, Pitozzi (2012, 2013) defines presence as the emergence of a perceptive tension between projection and retention, between virtual body (meant here both as technological body and as cognitive ability to simulate movement in space) and physical body. This tension results in «gradations of presence», that is, the different levels of intensity through which presence irradiates from the performer’s body into the space and becomes available to the spectator’s perception. Through the visual and auditory extension of the performer’s anatomy, new technologies – and especially those in real time (MoCap, bio-feedback…) – allow the marks of presence to circulate and to multiply.

Interaction, embodiment and deterritorialization of presence

14In line with this latter idea of the multiplication of the marks of presence (Pitozzi) or that of the effects of presence (Portanova, Poissant), I would like to conclude my contribution by introducing a final argument: within the transformative tension between, on the one hand, the perceptible and algorithmic conditions for existence of the interface – meant here not as device but, again, as environment and process – and, on the other hand, the enactment of the performer and the recipient, presence appears here as the emergent quality of the medial relationship. Moreover, although some typical aspects of the acting performance remain, in the medial relationship presence emerges as a peculiar deterritorialization of body’s anatomy. Deterritorialization and these effects of presence recall the interface’s ability to alter and modify the perception of the body through the emergence of the virtual dimension of movement and the soma-aesthetic potential of technologies.

15I would like to argue this thesis through the brief analysis of three ‘classic’ digital artworks. Each of the presented works can be related to one of the categories adopted by Poissant (2013) to describe the «effects» and «gradations» of presence. The first artwork is Biped (1999), one of the masterpieces of digital dance, resulting from the collaboration of Merce Cunningham with the group Reverbed (Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar), specialised in developing new MoCap-based techniques of graphic animation. The piece is characterised by the original dialogue between the dancers’ physical bodies and the ephemeral dance of their digital doubles back-projected on translucent screens that are part of the stage design. One of the most relevant aspects of the work is the generating process of these digital shapes. First of all, avatars’ movement patterns are realised through motion capture sessions, in which the dancers took part. Thanks to the recording of their dance sequences, it was possible to mould movements that could correspond to Cunningham’s specific aesthetic research. Then, through the use of Lifeforms, a software for computer-assisted choreographic composition, and the use of Character Studio for the graphic animation, the composed movement patterns undergo a treatment that transforms the original sequences into different perceptible shapes. Despite the lack of live interaction between dancers and digital avatars and although graphic animation sequences are projected according to chance operations, the spectator is actually impressed by the extremely living appearance of the figures stylised on screens, which, despite their digital nature, emanate an authentic presence. However, this ‘authenticity’, that is, the ability to evoke a living dimension of presence, cannot be reduced to a mere effect of realism or mimetic illusion. The projected figures do not aspire to a mere formal likeness (consider, for example, their huge size or the deliberately stylised and hand-drawn trait of avatars). Authenticity is rather conveyed by a presence gradation that is defined by Poissant as «trace» (2013: 27-28), i.e. the ability of a sensory print to metonymically evoke a body that is absent or present in form of a different materiality. In this sense the dancers’ body anatomy, deterritorialized through several processes of digitisation and codification, does not disappear but remains in form of combinatory pattern that allows the spectator to perceive a presence extended and multiplied by graphic animations. Motion capture and animation operations, in keeping with Cunningham’s choreographic practice, are able to evoke a specific kinaesthetic quality and dynamic in form of environment, showing particular idiosyncrasies related to the different dancers. In this form, the different articulations of both the physical and the digitalised appear as combined in the spectator’s perception. The effect of their presence is the persistence of a body’s transition, that is, the articulation of a sensation of movement at the recipient’s level, whatever the origin or material constitution of this body, whether in the flesh or in pixel.


16In Fractal Flesh: Split Body: Voltage in/Voltage Out (1995-96), the use of tele-presence technologies allows Stelarc to re-elaborate the recipient/spectator’s participatory role. In his work, the artist is physically in Luxembourg while the audience is attending the video-projected performance in Helsinki, Amsterdam and Paris. The peculiarity of this work lies in the fact that the audience can interact with the performance, sending signals through a display set in the three venues. The sent signals, connected over the web, are transformed into electric charges controlling some of Stelarc’s movements through electrodes placed on his body. Stelarc’s body is, therefore, structurally split in two [split body], the right part is independent whereas the left one is tele-controlled by spectators-interactors. In this case, the emergence of presence is declined in two forms. On the one hand, the audience’s presence, as a performative action, extends over the web and through the electrodes concretely resonates in Stelarcs’ involuntary movements. On the other hand, the performer’s presence, his phenomenal «here and now», modified in real time by distant feedbacks, is deterritorialized across the web and multiplied on screens not as an opaque fragment but as hybridised anatomy able to reflect the performative interaction of the audience. We should point out that these two aspects of presence that we have briefly described cannot be reduced to a mere ‘interactivity’ of installation. In accordance with the definition of ‘tele-presence’ proposed by Poissant (2013: 29), Stelarc’s performance gives rise to a «long-distance contact» that – because of the dramatic character of the proposed experience – can hardly be reduced to a mere control or to a simplified form of physical contact between two people in the flesh. Fractal Flesh provides an inarticulate dimension of presence, in which distance (the web and the real-time streaming) and proximity (Stelarc’s involuntary movement and voluntary choreography) match and generate a paradoxical entity (the performer’s reticular and ‘fractal’ body). In this sense, Stelarc’s presence articulations (the reproduced images, the embodiment of the electric charges into involuntary movements) become an extreme enactment of the audience’s agency and emerge from the close relationship between the recipient’s perceptive operations (such as his ability to simulate movements in his mind) and the digital technologies that produce and multiply the marks of physical presence.

17Char Davies’ artistic research rather focuses on the recipient-interactor’s autopoietic ability to merge into the immersive space of interaction. In Osmose (1995), one of the artworks most often cited by digital art historiographers, the Canadian artist explores the possibilities given by virtual reality, in order to investigate the phenomenological relationship between proprioception and space. Unlike the first prototypes of virtual reality which were based at that time on a Cartesian relationship between space and movement, Davies’ immersive installation is characterised by the use of a motion-capture system, which employs - in addition to the classic head mounted display – particular sensors able to detect breath and balance, so that the recipient-interactor is provided with a perceptible form of connection between their own proprioception and the sensor-motor exploration of space. Virtual experience here becomes greatly immersive not only due to the hyper-realism of 3D environments, but also thanks to the sophisticated work of sound spatialisation aimed at producing psycho-acoustic effects related to the perception of depth and height. As suggested by the title, the installation intends to create «an osmosis» between the work (and the virtual space) and the recipient (and his inner perspective space). In this case, presence appears phenomenally as a variation or dilatation of the corporeality experienced by the interactor, whose sensory and motor geography is constantly reconfigured through the discovery of an ever-changing «here and now». In fact, the peculiar way in which kinaesthetic and physiological data are affected by the transformation of the audiovisual environment allows presence to emerge as a perceptible variation of space, which, because of its fusional relation to the recipient’s body, becomes a vital element able to generate an embodied simulation of movement. Like «trace» and «tele-presence», «immersion» can also be included among the presence effects conveyed by media environments and interactive processes. As we have seen, the kind of presence that characterises the specific case of Osmose does not occur as a manifestation from the outside but as an emergence from the inside, through the recipient’s proprioception. In this context, the here and now, core aspect of the definition of presence, primarily arises as a form of somatic awareness of the spectator, who becomes aware of themself as presence, connecting variations of the audiovisual environment with the reconfiguration of their sensory geography (both in sensor-motor and imaginative terms).


18Starting from the analysis of technogenesis, we have seen how digital artwork, especially in the field of interactivity, loses its traditional status of ‘thing’ and merges into the recipient’s perception as a media environment and interactive process. In this sense, the artwork’s conditions for existence shift from a formal and material a-priori (the score, the text, the creative process, the concrete realisation) to a interdependent relationship connecting the artwork and the embodied subject of the experience; and this suggests the fluid, variable and hybridised aspect of digital artwork. As already observed, this relationship develops as a somatic awareness of the interdependence between action, the artwork’s perceptible transformation and the way this latter retroactively affects our body. For this reason, my proposal is to consider interactive experience by adopting the notion of presence and in particular by focusing on the declination of this notion in the field of ontology of performance. In contrast to the traditional arguments on the immateriality of digital media as well as to the anti-media approach of performance studies, the works that we have analysed show that the question of presence is a core issue in order to understand how technological mediation affects not only the works’ inner structures but also the conditions for its reception. We should point out that, whereas in the field of performance it was traditionally defined as simply referring to the physical body and the unity of space and time, in digital arts presence becomes rather an environmental multiplication of its composing marks: this is the process to which I refer as deterritorialization. Deterritorialization does not simply means the fading of the expressive consistency or of the empathetic potential of the performative body. On the contrary, the extensive and intensive nature of interfaces makes it possible to amplify and, sometimes, to reveal the potential of visualisation inherent to the body and, especially, to movement (meant here as organic system of sensor-motor, cognitive and imaginative-projective articulations). In this sense, in the field of the ontology of digital arts presence can be understood first of all as the emergence of a complex series of present but still imperceptible tensions (movement patterns conveyed by Cunningham’s virtual dancers, the ‘pathetic’ effects of tele-presence on Stelarc’s body, the emergence of a somatic and proprioceptive awareness of the recipient of Osmose). In all these contexts, presence is an atmosphere (in its many declinations) able to make things resonate (bodies, media environments, audiovisual feedbacks), producing an echo effect between the environment and the physical body connected to devices. Through the perception and the perceptive alteration of these marks, the recipient elaborates embodied simulations that allow them to enter a dimension of empathy with the work and the performer as well as with the system of virtual transformations generating atmosphere gradations and presence effects. On the basis of these considerations, I suggest that the notion of presence might represent a relevant category for the ontology of digital arts, especially with respect to interactive processes. Its ontological value lies in the fact that, in art, media environments allow us to become aware not only about the possibility of presence to manifest itself in different gradations of materiality (physical, digital, in light and in sound…), but also about the fact that any manifestation of the body or of movement is first of all a process, a transformative phenomenon resulting from the recipient’s perception as an ever-changing here and now of the virtual anatomy.

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1 On the contrary, Lechte (2012) asserts that the aesthetic experiences provided by the digital arts, and especially the use of digital images, should be properly inscribed within the tradition of the ontology of arts and the history of western iconic production.

2 In this context, Benjamin introduced the notion of «optical unconscious». See also Krauss (1993).

3 A similar argument have been used by Manovich (2001: 76), and, more recently by Carbone (2019) in relation to the issue of the «screens».

4 Two major approaches can here be distinguished : a more ‘continuistic’ interpretation, that inscribes the differences between analog and digital images within the coherent evolution of western icons, and a more ‘discontinuistic’ perspective, that relates the emergence of digital optical manipulation to a real ontological shift. For more details see Pinotti and Somani (2016: 146-152).

5 Such features are often substituted by complementary definitions according to the context of analysis. Diodato (2013) focuses on multimediality and interactivity, Cecchi (2016) and Montani (2010) refer to interactivity and intermediality, while Thomson-Jones (2016) articulates her analysis of digital media around the notions of interactivity and transmissibility. Here, last concept refers to the binary, virtual and reproducible nature of the code.

6 For more on this argument see Grau (2003).

7 On this topic, see also Kwastek (2013: 167-171). The German scholar proposes the term apparatus as a peculiar ontological model for the analysis of the interactive digital arts. Unlike other alternative concepts such as instrument, device and medium, the notion of «apparatus» stresses the environmental nature of the work of art and the interface.

8 From this perspective, the notion of «bodies-in-code» can be related to the paradigm of the «virtual body» as it has been defined by several scholars such as Diodato (2013: 9-23) and Portanova (2013: 8-10). According to these authors, the «virtual body» can be defined as a hybrid and environmental entity which emerges both trough the phenomenalizing of the algorithm (provided by sensory feedback and interaction) and by the digitisation of the physical body (provided by motion capture techniques).

9 Interactivity can be broadly interpreted as a constitutive ontological feature as well as a peculiar aesthetic category in digital arts history. For a comprehensive survey on this topic see Kwastek (2013).

10 For an overview, see the classic work of Popper (1975).

11 The idea of the multiplicity of tokens as opposed to the abstract unity of the type has been developed, over the years, by several non-analytical philosophers such as Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, Roman Ingarden and Mikel Dufrenne. For an overview see Morawski (1977) and Livingston (2016).

12 See, for instance, “Bandersnatch” episode (2018) from Black Mirror series.

13 For a philosophical discussion see also Nöe (2012: 1-14).

14 For an overview of the concept of presence in the field of the performance studies see Copeland (1990: 28-44) and Féral (2012: 29-49).

15 For more on this argument see Zardi (2018) and Gallese (2020).

16 The origin of such an ontological paradigm can be found in Beckerman (1979).

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Andrea Giomi, «Towards an ontology of digital arts. Media environments, interactive processes and effects of presence»Rivista di estetica, 73 | 2020, 47-65.

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Andrea Giomi, «Towards an ontology of digital arts. Media environments, interactive processes and effects of presence»Rivista di estetica [Online], 73 | 2020, online dal 01 février 2021, consultato il 23 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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