What is nothingness? Where is nothing? And where does nothingness come from? Nothing will come of nothing (Shakespeare, 1606, Act 1, Scene 1, line 99). The famous quote from King Lear1 seems disproved by physics: Everything comes from nothing and ends in nothing, at least according to our present state of knowledge. If one follows the Big Bang theory, i.e. the sudden and common emergence of matter, space and time before the great explosion, there was nothing: no space, no time, and no matter. The universe has been expanding progressively since the Big Bang until the expansion is halted by the great gravitation of black matter. The process then reverses: the ‘Big Crunch’, the great collapse, will be the end of the universe (Shrietar 2018, p. 573).2 In a sense, nothingness is paradoxically everything: “Nothingness is not [...] absence but an infinitive plentitude of openness” (Barad 2012, p. 16).

If space, time and matter emerged together, has there ever been an empty space? Answering this question seems equally impossible as the exercise of imagining nothingness. Nevertheless, I have been trying to create empty spaces since my early days of study. To me, emptiness arises when spaces are freed from everything superfluous or even disruptive to a pure experience of space. This includes decorations, fences, norms, compulsive consumerism or a fixed programmatic corset, as in the case of my diploma thesis “The inexhaustible Space”. My dissertation with the working title “Void Set - about Emptiness in Virtual Space” deals with empty spaces in art and architecture and interrogates various concepts and definitions of nothingness from physics and philosophy, focusing on quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, as well as eco-feminist texts and theories of New Materialism. I am pursuing a PhD in philosophy but am leaving behind a purely philosophical and media-theoretical discourse to expand my research through my artistic practice. Employing digital technologies, virtual reality and artificial intelligence, the thesis will empirically test theoretical findings and find new forms of artistic expression. The two projects presented here investigate digital body and space perception from a neo-materialist point of view, whereby artistic agency is attributed to both virtual space and digital technologies and tools applied. The first project observes dance movement or, more generally, bodily behaviour in an empty virtual space. The second project deals with synthetically generated sea horizons. The horizon line is characterised by its vast distance and the expanse created for the viewer, filled seemingly only with air: a symbol of emptiness. By juxtaposing these two projects, I aim to reveal the connections between bodily behaviour in virtual space and the fathoming of digital nothingness.

Since the work of Vitruvius, Da Vinci, Alberti, Semper and Le Corbusier, references to body-centred experiences of space have existed historically. The human being, or more precisely the human body, was regarded as the unchallenged standard and benchmark. In the age of digitalisation, virtual reality and all its associated interface technologies allow for new media-centred spatial experiences (cf. Weibel 2015, p. 31). Computer-based spatial experience and design play a central part in particular. Space has always been a central research focus in my practice. Beyond mere design problems of space, the conventional occupation of architecture, I am primarily concerned with questions of human behaviour in space, i.e. how spaces and their design influence the activities, the perception and, in a broader sense, the lives of their users. Following the development of tele-technologies and especially the massive expansion and almost ubiquitous presence of the internet – and the related observation that we reside almost permanently (or at least several times a day) in virtual data spaces – made my interest shift from physical, structural space to dematerialised, de-localised, digital data spaces in recent years. Via the internet and telephone, people not present in the same room can communicate with each other. Radio technology, which orbits around absence and empty space, poses a challenge to architecture, then. The discipline of architecture is called upon to shift its fundamental concepts such as materiality, gravity and volume into the realm of the virtual. In art, this shift took place back in the 20th century, and the theoretical theme of virtuality was addressed in numerous works and thought models. Peter Weibel’s theoretical and artistic work plays a central role in this discourse.

In the context of my PhD, I question how we interact in these data spaces, whom we interact with, the nature of these digital and virtual spaces, and their potential direction. In doing so, I adopt a critical stance towards existing data spaces, including social media spaces, which are mostly designed in a merely two-dimensional way and are characterised by constant overstimulation. I am searching for a digital space that is decelerating, soothing and improving the present situation.

Moreover, I am highly critical of a rigorous separation of the material and the virtual. To think in terms of such a duality is simply misguided, in my view, as one space does not exist without the other, and this goes way back before the dawn of digitalisation. Virtuality, emotions, stories, memories, and legends have always been driving and articulating culture, similar to architecture. Consider, for example, cave paintings, among the earliest evidence of human culture: the paintings need virtuality, stories that are told and depicted, and memories and accumulated knowledge, equally as much as they need the material, caves and colours.

Unlike virtuality, digitality is technology-bound and represents a quite recent phenomenon. Previously, a disembodied and non-corporeal spatial experience was reserved for the select few, shamans, for instance. Now, digitalisation has opened the gates to a non-corporeal spatial experience for anyone with access to the internet.

The following question hence occurs to me: How can space be made for emptiness in the age of digitalisation with its frequently overstimulated data spaces? To what extent is the concept of emptiness applicable to digital and virtual space? How can synthetically generated sensory perceptions give rise to a notion of emptiness? How can digital/virtual space extend physical space?


In 2017, I encountered the medium of VR goggles for the first time. In cooperation with Damjan Minovski, the first prototype of the project head in a cloud was created within the framework of “kopf-head-glava”, a Carinthia-wide and interdisciplinary art project initiated by the Kunstverein Kärnten. We were invited by Architekturhaus Kärnten to contribute a piece that would deal with the theme of the head. Both of us being architects, we wanted to explore the space in our heads and therefore decided to use the medium of virtual reality. The aim was to expand visual sensory impressions through the means of virtual reality in order to gain a new perspective on built space. Memories, dreams or other virtual imagery are often more noticeable on an emotive level than a real material space that casually flows past our consciousness. We were intrigued by and wanted to investigate this discrepancy.

Günther Domenig’s Steinhaus (Domenig Steinhaus) served us as a stage and inspiration at the same time. Using a digital 3D model of the house, we were able to superimpose, merge and juxtapose the built with the virtual. Wearing virtual reality glasses, visitors can submerge their heads in the digital version of the space they just physically experienced (kopf-head-glava, head in the cloud).

Over the next two years, we further developed this first prototype. Several video installations accompanied the VR work.3 The project has been presented to the public several times, including at GIFF – Geneva International Film Festival in 2019 and at the Virtual Reality Hub at the Transart Festival Bolzano in 2021 (Schwarzer 2021). We have used 3D glasses and expansive projections to make the synthetically generated spatial structure perceptible through the body. The virtual spaces were designed exclusively using digital design tools. Various scales of objects and rooms, to vast landscapes and planet-like celestial bodies, are embedded in each other to create a virtual world. Head in the cloud wants to use immersive technologies to enable people to physically experience space that is not physically present. Although the perceived content was largely a product of our imagination, it resulted in a strong and believable physical perception of the visual and auditory stimuli. Within seconds, visitors became part of or even protagonists of this virtual fantasy world.

The project, and above all, the realisation that you indeed can experience physically non-existent space spatially, stayed with me and became the cornerstone of my PhD project.

The invention of various telecommunication technologies made it possible for people to communicate with each other without being physically nearby anymore since more than a hundred years. The “separation of messenger and message” (Weibel 2015, p. 30), facilitated first through the telegram, enables data to travel through space without the body of the messenger. If space was dissolved by the railway in the 19th century, and the resulting eradication of distance dissolved space, then the development of telecommunications eradicated time. Unlike a telegraph, which still had a mechanical component and hence had to stay in motion to deliver a message, a computer or television remains completely motionless. The only thing that moves is the data sent and received. This ultimately also dissolves the body (cf. Weibel 2015, p. 33). The development of tele-technologies thus inhabits a tendency toward immaterialism, which we can clearly observe in 20th-century art and culture. Exploring this concept of nothingness, especially through the form of sculpture, painting, and installations, marks the leap into modernity. Throughout the 20th century, numerous artists and thinkers of all disciplines have dismantled the existing convention of reality and its perception through acts of emptying: The silence, the void, the depth, the pause, the gap, the interstice, the free space – all these (visual) moments of stillness are gaining importance in Western art and culture. According to Copeland, the dismantling of conventions through acts of emptying, removing, destroying or emphasising nothingness is numerous, as his extensive survey Voids: A Retrospective can attest. This publication outlines the concept of emptiness in art, aesthetics, philosophy, religion, science, popular culture, architecture and music and addresses nothingness, emptiness, the invisible and ineffable, rejection and destruction (cf. Copeland 2009).

In his article “Virus, Viralität, Virtualität” (“Virus, Virality, Virtuality”), published 2020 on the pandemic, the artist and theorist Peter Weibel makes clear that we no longer live in a local society, but in a ‘Fern-Gesellschaft’ (remote society) based on digital technology (Weibel 2020). Mass media has become an omnipresent and transformative part of our everyday lives. In Baudrillard’s words: “What the most radical critical critique, the most subversive delirious imagination, what no situationist drift could have done […] television has done” (Baudrillard 2011, p. 28).

The 1920s saw the arrival of television, in its first experimental form, and the radio onto the market. Suddenly, it became possible to perceive wireless voices and images informing about world events but also providing entertainment. On 29 October 1923, entertainment broadcasting began in Germany with music performances (SWR2 Archivradio). This enabled people of different locations to experience a performance jointly and simultaneously and thus to be brought together without being in the same room.

The effects of mass media have been further exacerbated by social media and the vast expansion of the digital data space. Melissa Gronlund notes that digitality and the internet have become an integral part of our everyday lives and have thus also found their way into art. She draws a distinction, however, between the internet of the 1990s and the revolutionary developments of the mid-2000s, which led to the massive spread of social media: Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and the iPhone (cf. Gronlund 2017, p. 2). Since then, we have been morphing into a ‘metaverse’, a term first coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson in his novel Snowcrash, which described a collective and communal virtual space. This positivist utopian notion of a transnational, global, digital collective, however, also reveals its flip side in the reality of the 2010s: abundance and sensory overload, constant hyper-efficiency, chronic simultaneity and equanimity are counteracted, for example, by the emergence of ‘cocooning’ (Popcorn 1991, p. 27) – an act of isolation from one’s social environment perceived as disruptive, unfriendly or even dangerous. In South Korea, experts who observed the rise of ‘digital cocooning’ in 2006 found that some people, thanks to wireless devices, lead a nomadic life outdoors, while others prefer to nestle at home (cf. Fien 2008, p. 13).

Moreover, a connection seems to arise with the psychopathology of our time: the state of being constantly online and the associated sensory overload cause syndromes such as burnout, depression and ADHD. Byung-Chul Han speaks of “neuronal power” and points out that for the first time in human history, an excess of positivity and not the absence of a protective authority seems to threaten people (cf. Han 2015, pp. 1-7).

John Kenneth Galbraith’s postulation of half a century ago has now come true: We live in the age of abundance – according to Galbraith, we are “the affluent society” (Galbraith 1958). As early as 1989, Jean Baudrillard wrote on the “obesity of all current systems” (Baudrillard 1989, p. 30), which increasingly lose their functionality due to the abundance of information. Abundance also causes overconsumption, and obesity is the result. “It is the demonstrative obesity of a system which thereby also communicates that it is so engineered, so technologically superior, that it no longer needs the strength and abilities of a more or less healthy body at all” (Holzwarth 2018, p. 118). The pursuit of the immaterial seems to have missed the mark after all: The longing for depletion has led to absolute satiation and is thus more topical than ever.

The title 1-NO1-100,000 was inspired by One, No One and One Hundred Thousand (Uno, nessuno e centomila), a humorous, tragic and philosophical novel about the complex multiplicity of the body, the soul and the self written by the italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. The novel was first published in 1926. Again we find ourselves in the 1920s, the same decade that brought forth the television and quantum mechanics. This is also the decade in which Malevich and Rodchenko declared the death of figurative painting with their abstract, monochrome paintings, thus removing any referentiality. In other words, the decade in which bodily perception was replaced by a new, then unknown perception. Now, a hundred years later, we know that we are dealing with ‘media centred perception’ (cf. Weibel 2015, pp. 31-51).

Through this artistic experiment, I want to investigate computer-based experiences of the body and space and thereby approach the digital concept of the body. I want to learn more about how the human body behaves in and towards the virtual, digital space in order to find new ways of bodily perception and performance that oscillate between the physical and the virtual. Time-based body interfaces extend the physical capacities of the human body to include the digital dimension. Virtual spaces allow empathy, mirroring, proprioception and interoception to be explored in new ways. Sensor technology allows precise detection and reproducibility of the most complicated movement sequences. Above all, reproducibility implies a paradigmatic shift, as previously featured in the performing arts: movements can be repeated, but the exact movement exists only once and is perceived singularly by each viewing subject.

The main research focus is the dancing body in virtual space: a dancer who dances with their digital self – as if in a mirror-game. The 1-NO1-100.000 project began with a workshop in collaboration with Cenk Güzelis, Anna Rita Cedroni, and Juan Jesús Guiraldi. Cenk is an architect, a PhD candidate and a university assistant at ./studio3 – Institut für Experimentelle Architektur (Institute for Experimental Architecture) at the University of Innsbruck. Based on his personal PTSD4 experience, his dissertation explores Serious Games, Avatars, Companionship, Social VR & LARP5 (Live Action Role Playing) and explores new social norms between humans and non-human bodies. By incorporating a theoretical-speculative approach into a series of embodied XR projects, Cenk similarly explores new, technologically mediated corporealities (cf. Güzelis). An example of this is Artificial Awakening, a 60-minute non-verbal, three-stage, rotating ceremonial journey. The collective live VR performance for which Güzelis designed the virtual spaces is a collaboration between performing artists, virtual reality developers, AI experts, and machine learning engineers. Artificial Awakening is a groundbreaking format using VR technology that allows the audience to watch the ceremony via remote satellites in other locations (Cenk Güzelis, “artificial awakening”).

Anna Rita Cedroni is an Italian architect with extensive experience in the design of theatres and other cultural buildings. She has devoted herself to dance since childhood and is professionally trained in Axis Syllabus, Butoh and contemporary dance. Juan Jesùs Guiraldi is an Argentine dancer, choreographer, teacher, and director of the dance company Una Constante, which he founded. He is the artistic director of Movimiento Constante, a platform for researching bodily movement in Buenos Aires, as well as the director of the post-graduate school EME (Especializacion, Movimiento, Experimentacion).

With the help of a motion capture suit, a full-body suit equipped with sensors at the joints, physical movement data is recorded and transferred to virtual space, where it can be replayed and experienced again through VR glasses.

The VR goggles are wireless to ensure freedom of movement as much as possible. For Guiraldi, this was the first exposure to such technology. We gave him some time to get used to the suit. He put on the suit and started to warm up. Meanwhile, we were able to make some adjustments to the software that received the recorded movement data wirelessly. During the transmission, interference signals or small glitches occurred, and some information was lost. This was caused by the reflective metal shelves in my studio, which also reflected some of the signals. The software, however, offers different types of noise reduction. After a while, the settings were optimised. Guiraldi meanwhile observed the digital avatars’ movements on a screen, somewhat similar to observing oneself in the mirror of a dance studio. He reported that he had to express certain movements much more strongly and extravagantly in order to give his digital avatar’s movements the desired expressions. After this period of adjustment, Guiraldi began to dance in the physical space. He danced alone for about five minutes.

The recorded movement data was saved and exported so that it could be loaded onto the VR glasses. That required a detour via the gaming software Unity, from which we exported an app to be loaded onto the goggles. During this phase we also designed the avatar. To increase an alienating effect, we decided to work with a digital female body. The body is naked, yet not depicted realistically, but rather in the shape of a data cloud. After all, we were concerned with encountering an alien, digital body, not with accurately reproducing a human body. Accordingly, the 3D model used was merely an empty shell, a surface, the skin, i.e. the dividing layer between the inner and outer worlds. We chose a translucent, red-glowing material that surrounds the digital body like an aura: a reference to the first layer6 of the subtle body, which is neither exclusively physical nor exclusively spiritual and goes beyond the Western dualism between body and soul (Wikipedia “Subtle body”).

Guiraldi was now able to put on the VR goggles and meet the generated avatar of red light, endowed with his previously captured motion sequences. Juan danced again, though no longer alone and no longer only in physical space. Using the glasses, he danced with his digital avatar in a completely empty and virtual space. His movements were recorded again. This experiment was repeated a third time, with Juan now encountering and interacting with both avatars: By superimposing time-based 3D movement data, the artist’s presence in the space was condensed.

Juan was interviewed after each of these experiences. First of all, he reported that the VR glasses had an extremely beneficial effect on him. Usually, he has to spend great energy and concentration to block out the surrounding room, the light, the different materials, the noises and other disturbing factors in order to fully concentrate on his body. Being able to dance in a completely empty space allowed him to feel proprioception and interoception to a much higher degree than he, the accomplished professional dancer who danced several hours a day, is usually able to perceive. During the first overlay, the first encounter with his virtual self, he felt a high degree of identification and empathy, “almost love”, as Juan described, being clearly emotionally touched.

The movements that had been performed shortly before still lingered in his muscle memory. Encountering these familiar movements and recognising his own physicality and emotionality, though captured in and expressed through a virtual female body completely unknown to him, made him understand that he was meeting and dancing with himself. He felt the need to catch and embrace himself. Bernard Stiegler calls this effect ‘tertiary memories’: according to him, humans and technology are inseparable. Technology precedes the individual insofar as they are thrown into a technological world that always already contains memories inscribed from the outside that shape the individual as such (Stiegler 1998, p. 246). Juan emphasised how interesting it was to him since, already knowing the next movement, he tried to be one step ahead of the virtual body, to surprise the avatar, in a sense. On a temporal level, a paradigmatic shift occurs from a purely physical improvisation, which always lags slightly behind and constantly tries to minimise its response time to make the performance as fluid as possible. Nevertheless, it remains a back and forth, action and reaction, a kind of repartee. It is a temporal consecution. The past became the future in this experiment. Temporal linearity, a principle of the performing arts, was broken. Juan and Jesus were dancing together.

After Juan met and interacted with the two avatars, he was filled with excitement. Love no longer played a role, “it was pure passion”, he reported. This was a seductive play of sorts, a ménage à trois, competing with his previous avatar in the same way the two avatars courted his attention. He also perceived a clear spatial difference. Only the field of tension between him and the avatar was perceptible in the first experiment, an intermediate space into which he could never step into, delimited by his body and a sense of absolute orientation which became completely void of meaning. In the second experiment, Juan was in the very centre of the space. The spatial perception and the spatial relationships of the three bodies became prominent, even though the scene was completely empty besides these bodies. Juan reported that no matter where he was going, he was always “between” the bodies and could only perceive his body in relation to others. Juan couldn’t help but mentally triangulate, that is, measure the space.

The workshop resulted in videos and pictures of all three digital dances as well as a virtual reality app. The app allows visitors to experience these dancing bodies spatially. On entering the virtual room, visitors see their own hands. That way, they can relate their body to the dancers. The work was shown at the Angewandte Festival 2021 at the Postsparkasse. A text and some pictures were displayed on the walls, and the glasses were attached to a pole so they would not be stolen. The same wireless glasses were available that Juan used. On the last day of the festival, I took the glasses to the inner courtyard of the main building at Oskar-Kokoschka-Platz. Children are always the most curious. And this held true for the festival as well. My six-year-old friend Luka was so enthusiastic about the work that she immediately asked her father whether she had enough money in her piggy bank to buy a pair of such glasses. Luka danced enthusiastically with the digital bodies and caught the attention of many adult visitors.

Not for the first time did I observe that children are much more curious and open to technology. Children can deal with it naturally and playfully and thus also convince adult sceptics of the physicality and spatiality of digital and virtual media. As an architect, the most amazing aspect of the experiment was the spatiality of this absolutely empty scene.

The app is open source. Anyone who owns an Oculus Quest can download it and use it freely.

If two visitors enter the room at the same time, they can see each other’s hands, no matter how many thousands of kilometres separate them.

I certainly wish to continue the investigations described above, ideally in the framework of a research project. I would like to repeat the experiment several times with other dancers or possibly even more dancers. Additionally, I would be interested in designing different VR environments to investigate the effect of space on dancers even more intensively and precisely. In a further iteration, the virtually experienceable or danceable places could be designed to be modifiable through the body and its movement through gesture control. In this way, the reciprocal effect of the dancer and space can be investigated. In my opinion, this field of research is important and relevant to developing methods for re-evaluating the concept of the body and further exploring questions of physical expression and the coexistence of virtual and physical space.

Stephan Doesinger’s ‘bastard space’ (Doesinger 2008, p. 17), as well as Weibel’s writings on ‘disappearing architecture’ (Flachbart 2005), and ‘machine-based spatial experience’ (Weibel 2015), reveal theoretical approaches in which materiality or physicality and digitality are not understood as separate instances, but merge into one another. This is epitomised, among others, by the work of Rafaël Rozendaal, a visual artist who uses the World Wide Web as a canvas (Jordan 2017). Back in 2010, Rozendaal brought the internet and its inclusive character into real, physical space with BYOB (Bring your own beamer). BYOB is a series of one-night-exhibitions, inviting various artists to bring projectors. BYOB is open source and can be organised by interested parties all over the world. “The more the better” (Rozendaal 2017).

One of the greatest potentials that I believe digitalisation offers is the contribution to enabling and building a posthumanist, postcolonial societal structure and thus dissolving the dualisms and binaries responsible for the historical injustices in our society: discrimination against women, the oppression of colonised peoples and the exploitation of nature, to name three examples among many more.

Gender, age, race, and ethnicity pose problems that do not seem surmountable in maintaining a humanistic view. Also troubling to theorists is the way in which the separation between humans and the world – between subject and object – has the ominous result of driving the destruction of the (ecological) world. The subject – meaning the human – has apparently been too concerned with itself and has neglected its environment, animated and inanimate, to such an extent that we are now confronting massive environmental catastrophes that require us to rethink in a radical way (cf. Poe 2011, p. 154).

In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Coole, Frost and a number of well-known voices from the New Materialism movement establish the foundations for a materialism that takes seriously the idea that things, like people, are actors (cf. Coole 2010). Karen Barad’s ‘Agential Realism’ proposes that meaning does not exist a priori, but only emerges through viewing, measuring or other forms of interaction. As proof, she draws on the historical, scientific double-slit experiment, one of the most famous experiments in physics. It shows that small particles of matter are somewhat akin to waves and suggests that the very act of observing a particle, or the choice of measuring instrument, has a dramatic effect on its behaviour. In Brand’s reasoning, precisely these interactions, or rather ‘intra-actions’ – a term coined by Brand – dissolve the hierarchy between active (human) subject and inanimate object, in contrast to conventional interaction. These are ontological machines; object and subject thus become equal actors (cf. Barad 2007, pp. 97-132).

The intra-action between humans and machines plays a particularly important role in my work and my understanding of digital art. My project 1-NO1-100.000 was created with this mindset as well. The purpose of this experiment was to enable interaction with a digital self through the use of digital media to research self-perception. In this process, the term ‘self-empathy’ emerged. Is there such a thing? What would access to such a self-reflection tool enable? What would it imply for the individual and what consequences would it have for our society? It seems more appropriate to use Haraway’s concept of ‘diffraction’ here. Diffraction is contrasted with reflection, the traditional way of thinking and producing knowledge. According to Haraway, reflection is “the same displaced elsewhere”, whereas diffractive seeing and thinking create something different, something new, by focusing on the “interference patterns on the recording films of our lives and bodies” (Haraway 1997, p. 15). Seeing and thinking diffractively implies, for Haraway, a self-responsible, critical and accountable engagement with the world, as it enables us to be more attuned to how differences are created in the world and the particular effects they have on subjects and their bodies (Haraway 1997, p. 273).

In the project deep empty-wide open I investigate the visual perception of empty images and their affective potential. Investigations into visual tranquillity and spaciousness are important for me to develop artistic proposals for digital-virtual empty spaces by using digital media to contribute to reducing the omnipresent and constant sensorial overload. Affectivity is a psychiatric term coined by Eugen Bleuler at the beginning of the 20th century to describe the totality of emotional and mental life. Bleuler also developed what he termed ‘udenotherapy’, from the ancient Greek οὐδεν – ouden – “nothing” (cf. Peters 2007, p. 679).

“Doing nothing”, in Latin otium,7 already had a meaning more than 2000 years ago. The Epicurean idea of otium favours contemplation, compassion, gratitude and friendship (cf. Dillon 2006, p. 48). Two things give me access to such a state of mind: nature and art. It should not surprise, then, that the notion of ‘digital nature’ plays a major role in my work. The digital data space and digital design tools enable the discovery of unknown forms, dysfunctional, evolved, liberated and empty spaces, such as the structures of the machine hallucination project: Refik Anadol uses enormous data sets and machine learning algorithms to generate simulations of abstract data landscapes reminiscent of natural topographies, which have a similarly calming effect on the viewer as real nature (Anadol 2021).

This focus on the visual, among all possibilities of perception, is owed to the human preoccupation with seeing as the main sensory perception, in contrast to other living beings who perceive their environment rather through the sense of smell or touch, for example, or through pressure waves in water or air. In Western culture, seeing is not just relegated to perception but also closely linked to cognition. This is equally evident in language, as “to see” can also be used in the sense of grasping an idea: seeing is understanding. 

According to studies by the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, perception is based on an internal reconstruction of the external world. In particular, one’s own personal experience plays an important role. Further, the importance of the visual system in humans is evident since one-third of the human cerebral cortex is devoted to processing visual information (Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics 2018).


To empty the picture, I chose the horizon as a theme. The horizon has always symbolised emptiness and spaciousness for me. It suggests a yearning to me and thus has affective potential. Yet the formal and technical character is also important to me, as the image of a horizon has also been emptied out in terms of representation. All that remains is the horizon line, a borderline between the texture of the earth and the sky. All further steps of a perspectival visual composition disappear. The contradiction between the two-dimensionality created in this way and the endless depth of the image fascinates me.

The borderline is reminiscent of Barnet Newman’s paintings, though in his case, the line is usually a vertical one. Newman’s paintings are concerned with perception as well, specifically with self-perception. He wanted viewers to establish a relationship to their own scale through his paintings and thereby to the viewing self and the place from which the viewing took place. To him, the feeling of this space held something mysterious but also metaphysical, as it allowed him to access his own totality. This individuality is characterised by being separate and yet connected with others at the same time (cf. Sylvester 1998, p. 537).

The separation, to feel or discern this difference, corresponds to Haraway’s diffractive seeing and thinking mentioned above. The simultaneity of separateness and connectedness reminds me strongly of Barad’s Intra-actions: “Intra-actions are practices of making a difference, of cutting together-apart, entangling-differentiating (one move) in the making of phenomena” (Barad 2012, p. 7f).

Using deep learning, I wanted to examine how much I could lend artistic agency to an algorithm so that it would produce images that hold precisely this affective potential and function as a mental blank space for me. In the lecture and tutorial “Machine Learning in Practice”, led by Martin Gasser and Nariddh Khean, which I attended in the summer semester of 2021 at the Institute of Arts and Society, Cross-Disciplinary Strategies, I became familiar with the principles of machine and deep learning, a simple form of artificial intelligence. During the tutorial in the group, guided by Nariddh Khean, I learned to train a so-called “pix2pix GAN model” using the Python programming language. In simple terms, pix2pix means comparing one image with another. Such an algorithm can transform a line drawing, for example, into a photorealistic image. You simply have to feed the algorithm with enough matching image pairs: a line drawing and the corresponding photorealistic image. GAN means Generative Adversarial Networks and refers to algorithms that learn unsupervised. This means that the target value is unknown in advance, and the machine tries to recognise patterns starting from a featureless noise. This traverses through several hundred generations and is achieved by two mutually interacting neural networks, a so-called generator and a discriminator. The generator produces new images, and the discriminator checks them by comparing them to a test set of prooved data. Through this feedback loop, the photorealistic image finally crystallises from the noise.

My intention was to establish a correlation between the horizons – defined by their imaging components such as colour tonality, frequency of waves and clouds – and myself.

I trained the (pix2pix)GAN model to generate synthetic horizons that correspond with my perception.

I needed two data sets for the time being: Horizons and portraits. On the one hand, I used photographs of horizons that I collected on journeys in the period before Covid19: They were experienced and taken by myself and are thus connected with my memories. The second set of data comprised my reactions when perceiving each image, measured by my facial expressions. By using a small script that showed me the horizons in a slideshow while snapping a picture with my laptop’s camera, I was able to photographically document my facial expression while looking at each horizon. These two data sets were used to train the model.

The fully trained model could then be fed with new profile images of mine to generate the synthetic horizons independently. This dataset consisted of the still images of a zoom lecture I gave during the second lockdown in the seminar “Matter and Meaning: Why we know what we know in Physics” (Tanja Traxler, Cross-Disciplinary Strategies, summer semester 2021) on Karen Barad’s text What is the Measure of Nothingness? Infinity; Virtuality; Justice (Barad 2012).

I call the resulting images ‘digital paintings’, whereby it becomes impossible to discern whether I or the machine painted them. To me, this is a legitimate proof of concept that digital technologies can achieve artistic agency and that a clear separation between object and subject has been abolished.

The resulting pictures are reminiscent of impressionist paintings. According to Weibel, Impressionism was the only movement among historical, artistic genres that reacted to the shift from body-centred to the machine-centred experience of space and time, not through the choice of subjects but through its style of representation (cf. Weibel 2015, p. 31f). The same applies to deep empty-wide open. The unusually small size of the images is caused by the algorithm used. They are 256 square pixels in size, which would correspond to 0,2 k. It would be easy to enlarge the images later, but I consciously refrain from doing so and thus position myself in opposition to the “obesity” of the ever larger and higher resolving image overload. The texture of images also indicates the technology. The clearly recognisable pixels appear interwoven, and the overall appearance is blurry. This indicates the homogeneous noise the algorithm proceeds from and tries to structure. Adding more feedback loops would have reduced it completely, as explained above, and would have allowed an exact imitation, a photorealistic photograph, to be obtained. As I have repeatedly mentioned, however, I am interested in diffractive seeing and thinking, that is, not in imitating my own visual and photographic abilities, but in observing how the algorithm sees and thinks. Now and then, my profile is discernible in a cloudlike shape, which testifies to the inseparability of subject and object.

I would like to develop the project further to an interactive installation, whereby live horizons are generated that continuously morph in response to alien viewers. To ensure responsiveness, viewers must also share data analogous to the third data set. In a feedback loop, the recorded user data and the generated image shall continuously influence each other. The viewer can control the images generated by their facial expressions. At the same time, their data is influenced by the images they generate but also by the images they perceive once again. Thus, the viewer slips into my skin on an abstract, emotional-visual level. The installation would thus attempt to record my emotions: It shows how I perceive my environment – a digital self-portrait of my affective being. In Barnett Newman’s words: “The painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there …” (Sylvester 1998, p. 537).

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Fig. nr. 1: screenshot of head in a cloud © 2MVD 2019

Fig. nr. 2: QR code for the video trailer of head in a cloud on Vimeo © 2MVD 2019

Fig. nr. 3: QR code for the video chalkroom & head in a cloud © Transart Festival 2021

Fig. nr. 4: screenshots from the VR work 1-NO 1-100.000 © Valerie Messini 2021

Fig. nr. 5: screenshots from the VR work 1-NO 1-100.000 © Valerie Messini 2021

Fig. nr. 6: QR code for the video 1-NO 1-100.000 © Valerie Messini 2021

Fig. nr. 7: Download link for the APK to install on your Oculus Quest 20 © Valerie Messini 2021

Fig. nr. 8: ocean 60 from the series deep empty - wide open © Valerie Messini 2021

Fig. nr. 9: ocean 58 from the series deep empty - wide open © Valerie Messini 2021

Fig. nr. 10: ocean 30 from the series deep empty - wide open © Valerie Messini 2021

Fig. nr. 11: ocean 16 from the series deep empty - wide open © Valerie Messini 2021

© Valerie Messini 2023. All rights reserved, including the reproduction of extracts or figures.