Virtual Concrete:
Installation and Telepresence Works

Victoria Vesna



Silicon shapes our realities through implants in our bodies, the chips that drive computer technologies, the concrete we walk and drive on, and the elements of nature we preserve. In this article, the author provides a narrative account of the research involved in building two large-scale installations created during the years 1992-1995. Another Day in Paradise addressed the artificiality of planned communities; Virtual Concrete modified the common perception that there is a dichotomy between the material and the immaterial.


Sometimes permanent (i.e., energy conserving) transitions are called real transitions, to distinguish them from the so-called virtual transitions, which do not conserve energy and which must therefore reverse before they have gone too far. The terminology is unfortunate, because it implies that virtual transitions have no real effects. On the contrary, they are often of the greatest importance., for the, great many physical processes are the result of these so called virtual transitions.

—D. Bohm [1]

A large earthquake, more destructive than any other in the modern history of Los Angeles, struck on 17 January 1994 at 4:31 a.m. Officially, the earthquake lasted only 10 seconds. Eleven highway structures at eight locations in Southern California were destroyed, closing 14 roads. Residents and remote television audiences alike were horrified as freeways collapsed into large pieces of concrete within seconds. Communication moved into the virtual realm with analog lines down, as the Internet and cell phones became the established connections to the world.

Around this time, much talk in the media was circulating around censorship on the Internet and how related technologies may affect communication

and relationships between people. Virtual communication technologies, as planned by the military, were built to withstand both natural and manufactured disasters, providing an unparalleled opportunity to leave traces of ourselves. The concrete object, which was perceived to survive the test of time, returns to dust in the face of major destruction, while the intangible remains. If we are represented by the information uploaded on the Internet, what happens to our data bodies written into such space? Do the personalities and the relationships that develop out of these extensions of ourselves survive us as well?

I started visualizing how I might create a piece that connects the virtual and the concrete, and I searched for a definition of habeas corpus that to me held the philosophical key to the debate about cyberspace and censorship. Habeas corpus signifies the need for physical evidence in order to have a case; when activities are transferred into an intangible realm, the ground becomes shaky.

The resulting piece, Virtual Concrete, consists of six 3-ft slabs of concrete covered with large electrostatic (digital output) prints, along with light sensors and a computer connected to the Internet via a CU-SeeMe camera (Fig. 5) [2]. On the Internet, I established a Virtual Concrete WWW site ( concrete) to allow viewers to see the visitors/participants who walked on the concrete.

My starting point in the project was to invite Sky Bergman to photograph images of a male body and a female body covered with silicon implants and computer chip boards [3]. Working in Photoshop, I placed names of sex chat rooms from the Internet on top of the images of the bodies. My original intent was to act as a lurker/voyeur, randomly capturing snippets of conversations in the chat rooms as they occurred to use in the installation, but I soon realized that the names of the rooms themselves were far more seductive than the rather mundane and predictable conversations occurring within them. I was shocked to find some 9,000 rooms at one site dedicated to sex chat [4].

The photographs were printed larger than life—8 ft long [5]. Assisted by Les Fox, who had worked with concrete in the past, I experimented a long time to figure out how to transfer the images to the concrete without the use of paper [6]. We succeeded, seamlessly retaining the photographic quality of the originals; the resultant images, after bonding to the concrete, unintentionally resembled a sacred fresco (Fig. 6).

The text I placed on top of the images, almost unnoticeable, is erotically charged (Fig. 7)—gallery visitors had to bend over or crawl on the concrete to read it (Fig. 8). These "destinations" (sex chat rooms) were also announced during the installation in a matter-of-fact voice that was triggered by light sensors picking up the shadows of visitors moving over the installation, which also activated compositions of randomly cycling sound [7]. Occasional mentions of habeas corpus to provide proof of corporeal presence were included.

The CU-SeeMe camera was a constant source of technical problems, many of which had to do with the use of public reflector sites on the Web [8]. People who use reflectors normally like to log on and continue working while the camera silently watches and projects them over the Internet. Viewers may stumble onto some mundane conversations that are colored by the excitement of communicating in this way but that do not really say much. Many sites are simply rooms or images that for some reason someone feels compelled to project to the outside world. Therefore, it came as a surprise to us that our using the reflector site as a window to an art project was actually considered an interruption and misuse of space. For example, one of our favorite sites was at the University of Hawaii, because it was never too crowded and we were able to keep an uninterrupted signal for long periods of time. We would log on and "park" Virtual Concrete, much to the dismay of the local systems administrator who was utterly perplexed by the repeated appearance of concrete in space. He took it upon himself to police not only his site, but every other site that we tried to log onto. As soon as he would notice Virtual Concrete appearing on a public reflector site, he would quickly notify its system administrator to warn them about the ubiquitous concrete "living up to its name," becoming, as he put it, "dead weight" [9].

The WWW site had a small window that streamed video from the gallery showing the installation and the people interacting with it. I was pleased with the audience reaction at the gallery, but felt that the web site could more thoroughly engage a greater audience. In an attempt to create a more dynamic situation, we decided to put up a simple questionnaire on the same web page as the video of the installation. The questionnaire asked the users their names, gender and what the body meant to them. To my surprise, we had more than 1,000 responses in less than 2 weeks [10].

Although the piece was digital in basis, once concretized and granted a physicality, it could be accepted by the art world and enter into a gallery or museum space, a space where the object is usually considered sacred and untouchable.1 wanted the audience to be able to walk on the concrete bodies in pure irreverence, to trespass as they moved on the piece. I must confess that the concrete was also a tongue-in-cheek statement about the digital artist working within the confines

of the museum. The relationship of the artist and curator has significantly changed, although we still have to adhere to certain traditions endemic to the institutionalized spaces of the established art world. I enjoyed the fact that in the group show where I was the only artist working with the Internet, my work was by far the heaviest.


Thanks to Robert Nideffer and Alan Liu.

References and Notes

1. D. Bohm, Quantum Theory (London: Constable, 1951) p. 415.- - Back

2. CU-SeeMe was developed at Cornell University. It allows live video to be received in a small-screen format at 24 frames per second on a Macintosh or PC with a standard modem and telephone line.- - Back

3. Sky Bergman, a photographer and assistant professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, photographed the bodies. Tom Sepe, a performance artist, was the male body we photographed.- - Back

4. 1 encountered some 9,000 rooms on one site dedicated to sex chats: rooms included Sherrv arid Bliss; Rods Annex; The Kinky Friends of Latex-Loving Laura; Wife-Watchers Special; Trial-Fuck (for Beginners); Rick's American Bar—As Time Goes By; sweet sweet bedroom of sex; The Dark Side Desert Lounge; Aimee's—Ladies Only—But guys welcome to lurk!!!; Mark's area to chat to Invicta; Puddles Playpen; I'm wet and need my mommy, etc.- - Back

5. Harry Bowers, photographer, teacher and director of Cactus Research and Development in New York, sponsored and printed the large electrostatic prints.- - Back

6. Les Fox, who recently finished his studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, had experience with concrete and helped me figure out the method of bonding the prints to the concrete. The material was funded by the David Bermant Foundation.- - Back

7. Kenneth Fields, also known as GustavJava and kf.0e, composed the audio that was triggered by the sensors. The Audio File Format (AIFF) File was programmed in Macromedia Director by Jan Plass.- - Back

8. Reflectors is a UNIX- or Windows-based application that allows multi-user party conferencing and sharing of audio, text and graphic data. Reflector sites are servers dedicated to public reception and transmission off these activities.- - Back

9. Quotes are from email sent from the disapproving system administrator to other system operators.- - Back

10. The event prompted another work, Bodies INCorporated ( ).- - Back

Manuscript received 27 February 1996.

Victoria Vesna, Virtual Concrete, installation at the Veered Science exhibition, Huntington Beach Art Center, California, electrostatic photographic prints bonded to concrete, motion sensors, audio, Macintosh computer, QuickCam connected to the Internet, 1995. (Photo: Sky Bergman) Electrostatic photographic prints of bodies covered with silicon implants and computer chip boards were bonded to concrete by the artist, along with names of sex chat rooms found on the Internet. The resultant pieces uncannily resemble sacred frescos. To read the texts, visitors to the exhibit had to get close to the concrete by bending or crawling over it. The activity in the gallery was recorded by a CU-SeeMe camera and transmitted via the Internet.