color Beyond Kandinsky: Transcendence and new technologies

The year 2011 marks the centennial of the publication of Wassily Kandinsky's classic text, On the Spiritual in Art. Inspired by this anniversary, this project set out to explore the place of the spiritual in contemporary art and to propose a challenge to the current devaluation of the inner life that prevails within the art world in our market-driven era.

Beginning on Wednesday, March 30th, 2011, a ten-day virtual symposium moderated by Taney Roniger and Eric Zechman was held in this forum. The symposium closed on the evening of Friday, April 8th. Below is the full record of the proceedings.

Panelists invited to participate were: Suzanne Anker, Laura Battle, Connie Beckley, Anney Bonney, Deirdre Boyle, Nathaniel Dorsky, Jeff Edwards, James Elkins, Max Gimblett, Tom Huhn, Atta Kim, Roger Lipsey, Enrique Martinez Celaya, Joseph Nechvatal, Daniel Siedell, Charlene Spretnak, David Levi Strauss, Alan Wanzenberg, and Pawel Wojtasik. For participant biographies and other project details, please visit our site:


March 30th–April 1st: Session I: The Spiritual Then and Now

April 2nd–April 3rd: Session II: The Changing Shape of Art

April 4th-5th: Session III: Art and Its Audience

April 6th–April 7th: Session IV: The Artist in Society

April 8th: Conclusions


Friday, April 1, 2011

Transcendence and new technologies

Some of the talk about digital media, virtual reality, and transcendence that’s woven though the threads in this symposium has led me back to a question that I’ve wanted to consider ever since the symposium started. (In particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about Taney’s post on immanence and transcendence, Joseph’s post on electronic proliferation, and Eric’s “Defining the Spiritual, further” post.) What comes below is an imperfect and very incomplete riff on an incredibly complex topic, but it’s one that interests me a lot.

Transcendence is another one of those terms that’s hard to pin down, not only because it means different things to different people, but also because it changes meaning according to context. It means something very different in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (where it refers to the basic, everyday relationship of the individual for-itself to the objects of the surrounding world) than it does in the context of nondualist meditative traditions such as Advaita Vedanta (where it represents almost the opposite, in that the final goal is to surrender one’s identification with the ego in favor of a merger with all-that-is).

Rather than look for an overarching definition, I prefer to deal with transcendence on a case-by-case basis, not only because it’s a more practical approach, but also because I think there’s a lot of value in keeping the differences visible and considering what they mean.

Since the symposium started, I’ve been thinking a lot about Taney’s questions on transcendence, digital technology, and our changing view of nature. It seems to me like the three are very closely related, particularly in light of what’s happened with cutting-edge developments in electronic media since the 1990s.

Between the late 80s and late 90s, there was a lot of very utopian discourse going on about the potential for new technologies to change the way we relate to one another, and to radically change the world itself. A lot of that had to do with virtual reality and the freshly minted idea of cyberspace, but there were other buzzwords too, many of which are still floating around: technoshamanism, technopaganism, transhumanism, extropianism, cyborg theories, and so on. I remember a lot of optimism in the early 90s about the potential of these rapidly developing technologies to transform the world and our place in it. If you were an avid reader of Mondo 2000 (an edgier cyberpunk precursor to Wired), it was hard not to get caught up in gushing, gee-whiz accounts of how different the world would look in the 21st century. We were all headed for a 24/7 world of virtual reality, direct-neural-implant access to the information superhighway, and the opportunity to either replace our faulty and imperfect bodies with superior prosthetics, or chuck the whole thing entirely and upload out minds into an electronic cosmos where we would be assured of virtual immortality.

It took me a few years after the turn of the millennium to notice that all of that had disappeared, and a lot of the people behind the manifesto-speak had become pretty quiet. There were good reasons for that. Slow development of some of the technologies I’ve mentioned put a damper on things, forcing people to put down their pens and get to work on actually figuring out how to actually make them work. A lot of that work is still underway, and will probably take a while to bear fruit.

As for virtual reality: early heavy users of VR environments started reporting that they were coming back to the real world radically disoriented for long periods (a situation now called VR sickness). As a result, a lot researchers and engineers shifted their focus from the virtual toward the areas of pervasive computing (adding information processing capability to physical objects scattered throughout the everyday world), and augmented reality (adding virtual features to the physical world, as in Terminator-style visual displays that seamlessly graft an overlay of information into one's field of vision).

More recently, pervasive computing and augmented reality seem to be converging within handheld devices (like the iPhone) that make the whole data processing and information overlay package portable and extremely flexible.

(For a brief but good overview of the history I’ve just related, I recommend the essay “Augmenting Reality: Pervasive Computing, Spatial Practice, Interface Politics” by Luke Skrebowski, in the book Did Someone Say Participate? An Atlas of Spatial Practice, edited by Markus Miessen and Shumon Basar [MIT Press].)

The history (and failure) of VR interests me a lot, particularly because of the way that VR has sometimes been used to argue for a new kind of transcendence. A great example of this was two pieces of virtual reality art by Char Davies called Osmose (1995) and Ephémère (1998), each of which allowed a participant to experience a nature-like virtual world as a sort of disembodied presence, using only body tilt and breathing to navigate the different spaces. As of now, tens of thousands of people have experienced these two works, and Davies has reported that many have come out of them with a radically altered sense of self-identity, consciousness, and their own relationship to physical reality. The data are fascinating, but I’ve also wondered if/how things like novelty, sensory disorientation, and VR sickness come into play, and also whether the irony of using a computer-generated “natural” VR environment to give people an immersive experience of nature muddles things too much.

We’ve always existed with images and language as interpretive overlays that stand between us and external reality, but I’m wondering if things like pervasive computing and augmented reality are going to change the way we conceive of and relate to the physical world. When I first began to look into augmented reality and learned about things people were doing with it, I had brief visions of matter haunted with quasi-personified virtual presences, and of a shattering of the barriers between the physical and the virtual. Even something as simple as a mirror in a Toys R Us that reads the bar code of a Lego box and places an animated 3d model of the assembled toy on top of its reflection can be a little spooky the first time you see it, if it’s done convincingly. It seems like the ideas of consciousness uploads and fully immersive virtual reality are on the back burner for the time being for some very good reasons, but I wonder if these other, newer technologies are opening the door to some other type of radically transformed world.

I don’t really have an answer to this, but I’m wondering what some of you think, and also whether/how this relates to other things that now stand between us and the people around us, including online quasi-virtual worlds like Second Life or more pedestrian things like Facebook.


  1. Jeff, it *is* fascinating how all that hype we were inundated with ten years ago has dissolved. I remember being incredibly enthusiastic (and as a spiritually-oriented person, I take the word literally) at one point; it really seemed that we were entering a new age that would usher in a whole new epistemology and ontology. But I was young then. (Frank Gillette, for whom I worked as a studio assistant in my twenties, once asked me: "Do you know why the Young Hegelians were called the Young Hegelians?", with which I very much got the message.) Alas, it seems the vision of techno-salvation or tech-gnosis was rather pathetically utopian. I'm eager to hear what others have to say about this.

  2. An excellent overview of what we have experienced Jeff. All rings familiar and true to me (save for I never took Mondo 2000 that seriously). I was able to experience Char Davies’s Osmose when it was in New York and wrote about it some in my book “Immersive Ideals / Critical Distances A Study of the Affinity Between Artistic Ideologies Based in Virtual Reality and Previous Immersive Idioms”.
    Concerning transcendence at large, for me that continues to be a fantasy bigger than that of total-immersion in virtual reality. I might make an exception on the scale of the mini-specific, but I’m not even sure of that because I do not see an outside to transcend to, only multiple dimensions that instigate cross-overs between both the highest synthetic level and the slightest, most minute, discrete distinctions.
    I admit I formed this opinion after being immersed in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's work on a new epistemology based on the model of the rhizome. For anyone that may be unfamiliar with their rhizomatic epistemology: the rhizome is a snarl of vicissitudes so intertwined that it must give birth to different connected scopes of thought and perception (and art).
    Almost universally, spirituality has to do with a connected relationship - on one level or another - so I still find the rhizomatic a functional model.

    "What is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not supposedly fixed terms through which that which becomes passes."
    -Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

  3. Hi, Taney. I was in exactly the same boat, very excited that all of the amazing transformative stuff I'd been reading about in science fiction books since I was a kid was right around the corner. As I remember, that was also the time when a lot of people in the life extension crowd were predicting that we'd be able to live 500 years by now. In retrospect, it's funny how quiet things got by 2000 or so.

  4. Re: the life extension crowd: How funny that does seem now! But the yearning for immortality is a very deep-seated emotion, and probably not one that can be eradicated easily with reason (if at all). I don't think anyone has mentioned immortality yet here; I wonder how it figures in current approaches to the spiritual. I like to think that my knowledge of being intimately connected with the universe on every level (I *am* it, in some sense) is enough, but then I'm not in a fox hole, either.

  5. Hi, Joseph. I like what you've said here a lot. It's been a while since I read A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari , and I never consciously thought of it in terms of transcendence at the time. In looking back at it, though, I think thought of the book as a vision of a plethora of individual transcendences that were open to people (possibly something like the mini-specific transcendecnces you hint at above).

    I agree that the idea of mass transcendence is a lot more tricky. I think I've always framed my own understanding of it in terms of Marshall MacLuchan's old arguments on the changes to mass consciousness that (supposedly) occur when new media come down the pike. I think that idea needs to be taken with caution, though, because of the fear it seems to have generated in some people that image-based technologies are destroying the written word (a belief I don't hold, the rise of radically abbreviated chat speak notwithstanding).

  6. All the above post and comments are very appreciated, I don't even have a chance to experience those VR works, but now they are about to retire. I definitely embrace D&G, hoping it will be pushed forward unceasingly. I need such a guiding philosophy ahead to look beyond current technologies, like S.L, f/b, or holograms...

  7. We cannot be too dismayed by our disillusioned techno fantasies - as fantasy and speculation helps us produce imaginatively. Even today. Perhaps spirituality also does.

  8. @ Taney again, re: the life extension crowd:

    That's a really good question. I don't really know how ideas of physical immortality fit into contemporary spirituality. There are plenty of traditions of physical immortality in older religions and spiritual movements. The most notable is probably the belief from Daoist inner alchemy that physical immortality is an inevitable result of successful practice.

    Western religion never really allowed for physical immortality (at least not before the the general resurrection at the end of time), but there have been legends on the fringes, such as the stories of the mysterious Comte de Saint-Germain, who supposedly claimed to be something like 500 years old.

    In the 20th century there was a lot of talk in some corners of the U.S. about immortal Ascended Masters, but that seems a little different to me. Guy Ballard (a.k.a. Godfre Ray King) of the I AM movement (a proto-New Age group that took off in the 1930s) got in a lot of posthumous trouble with some of his followers for leaving his body behind at death and not taking on something like the rainbow body that's discussed in a lot of Tibetan Buddhist texts.

    I know that Ascended Master teachings survive in some post-New Age circles, but I'm not sure about how (or if) physical immortality fits into contemporary spirituality.

  9. True, Joseph. Such is the beauty of science fiction too, I suppose. I'll take overwrought visions of the future over melancholic longing for the past any day.

  10. Re: Immortality in contemporary spirituality: I wonder if the increasing knowledge of how DNA works has relieved some of the urgency of the quest for physical immortality. If people now conceive of their own DNA imagistically (i.e., being able to visualize the double helix reifies it, makes it a "thing")and know that its replicants get passed into the bodies of their children, who in turn pass it on to their children... Maybe in some sense this satisfies the need for physical "preservation."

  11. Re: DNA: That's possible. It fits well with the older and more widespread notion that having children is a kind of immortality, but it adds a tangible specificity that the folk version of the idea lacks.

    I've always considered the idea that passing DNA on is a form of immortality to be kind of bogus, because it ignores the survival of the ego, which seems to me like the basic point behind the quest for immortality. It makes rearing kids look kind of like Shelley's Ozymandias.

  12. Ah, but the degree of ego-investment in child rearing is not to be underestimated. But we digress!

  13. The topic of the child has reminded me of I book I read in 1972 on non-transcendental spirituality (correct me if I am wrong here): Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. And this reminded me of Suzuki's impact on John Cage and Cage's huge impact on American art in the 60s and 70s via Fluxus. So perhaps there has been a bigger hidden spirituality embedded in American art than we may have assumed. Hmmmmm. What do you think?

  14. Yes, the influence of Zen specifically and Buddhism in general on American art has been enormous. The show at the Guggenheim a few years back called The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia (curated by Alexandra Munroe) revealed many of these hidden undercurrents. (The exhibition catalogue, by the way, is gorgeous and full of insightful essays by a number of scholars, and Max Gimblett, who is on our panel here, was in the show.) I was surprised to learn that artists such as Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, Sam Francis, Lee Mullican, and Gordon Onslow-Ford (not to mention the more obvious ones such as Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Richard Tuttle) studied Buddhist thought and were influenced by its concept of sunyata, or emptiness. I'm glad you brought this up, Joseph, because indeed Buddhism does offer a powerful model for a non-transcendental, non-theistic, here-and-now rather than there-and-then based spirituality. Perhaps Max will say something more about this. I believe we also have a number of other practicing Buddhists on the panel (Pawel Wojtasik, Atta Kim, and Max are the ones that come directly to mind.)

  15. I remembered, from somewhere, Yoko Ono pointed out that the NY avant-guard movement was basically influenced by oriental philosophy, Japanese Zen in particular. I guess I read it from her book Grapefruit or some remarks of this book. Duchamp had been a good friend of Cage, they had common interest in the oriental, and had a performance of playing chess one night. they had two groups of people playing together. with electronic device under the chess board. according to the movement of the chess, different electronic sounds were made. they said the concept was that intellectual people can play very chance music... I think chess related event are spiritual, as it was a standard spirit-nourishing practice in ancient China, though it's dead now.

  16. Joseph, it was another Suzuki, the scholar Daisetz Teisaro (D.T.) Suzuki who influenced Cage. D.T. Suzuki's lectures at Columbia were famous among artists in the 40's and 50's. Agnes Martin, Rauschenberg, Philip Guston, Alan Ginsberg were influenced and inspired by them. And I agree with you, there is a hidden undercurrent of spirituality embedded in a lot of American art in places where we normally would not look for it, for example in the work of Bruce Nauman.

  17. Might we consider Jungian psychology's influence on Jackson Pollock (and other AE and Surrealist artists?) as another buried spiritual influence on American art? Is Carl Gustav Jung considered a spiritualist? Does his interests in alchemy and astrology qualify him as such?

  18. I'd say Jung is very much considered a spiritualist, which is why he's fallen out of favor among "right-thinking" intellectuals (I mean right as in correct). The archetypes alone put him in that category -- i.e., their transcendent, universalist nature.

  19. Re immortality: Reincarnation is basic to Theosophic teachings, and they have an intriguing version of how we retain information from life to life. When the body dies, and each sheath slowly disintegrates (physical, emotional, mental), a single atom remains containing all of the data an individual has acquired in all past lives.... and this atom becomes part of the soul in its next reincarnation. At rebirth, memory is usually obscured.. but obvious in, say, a child prodigy who plays the piano.

  20. I saw the show "Malevich and the American Legacy" today and the above logic of suppressed spiritual intentions embedded in American art again came to mind based on Malevich's spiritual goals. I know that the spiritual ideas that Malevich attempted to embody in Suprematism are difficult to summarize, for his writing is often vague and mystical. Can anyone help me here with them?