The Space and Performance of Virtual Reality

Neal Harvey (2008). The Space and Performance of Virtual Reality PhD Thesis, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, The University of Queensland.

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Author Neal Harvey
Thesis Title The Space and Performance of Virtual Reality
School, Centre or Institute School of English, Media Studies and Art History
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 2008-09
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Professor Joanne Tompkins
Total pages 246
Total colour pages 15
Total black and white pages 231
Subjects 20 Language, Communication and Culture
Abstract/Summary In this dissertation’s study of virtual reality (VR), I focus my attention on two prominent types of VR: real virtualities and virtual realities. I argue that both are composed of performative acts of spatial production and that through the study of those acts, researchers can isolate and describe the difference between these two tropes of virtual reality. My thesis focuses on Henri Lefebvre’s theorisation of social space as the most detailed and appropriate spatial theory for such a process while Victor Turner’s liminal theory of social and ritual performance provides the necessary performative methodology to complement Lefebvre’s. My use of these theories allows researchers to identify the difference between social spaces that produce new spaces and practices, and those which reinforce the spatial paradigm that generated them. The process of identifying these differences further clarifies Lefebvre’s complicated description of social space, but it also provides a platform for researchers to distinguish between the two different types of virtual reality. Through a detailed examination of three ostensibly different examples of VR, I argue that virtual realities ought to be considered primarily as realities made virtual while real virtualities should be discussed as virtualities made real. In doing so this thesis advances the study and application of Lefebvrean thought whilst opening up new directions for virtuality studies. I have chosen to explore three case studies that, through their difference, foreground their spatial and performative nature. By focusing on distinctly different and atypical case studies, I highlight the methodology described in this project and its suitability (or otherwise) for discussing VR. Focusing firstly on Google, I explore the virtual reality of the World Wide Web, perhaps the most ubiquitous example of a virtual reality. The sheer pervasiveness, uptake and constant evolution of the World Wide Web means that it requires constant academic attention. Google is the page through which a staggering 53.3% of Web users access the Internet and to say that most people are actually browsing Google’s web instead of the actual web is by no means an under statement. Google, like all other search engines, has its own formula for determining results and rankings for search queries. Google is not, as many people would like to think, an objective map of the Internet. It relies so heavily on users’ data in relation to their search query (which pages they click on, how long they spend there, whether they click back) that apart from the virtual algorithms that it uses to articulate the process Google could be said to be constituted solely by the real world practices of its users. Secondly I explore an example of the other type of VR, a real virtuality. Though the Gothic cathedral may not traditionally fall under the rubric of virtuality studies, the building itself provides an excellent example of the interaction of space and performance required to bring into existence that which was not there before. The Gothic cathedral is a concrete resolution of the actual/virtual dialectic and provides a unique opportunity to test my methodology’s ability to describe both types of VR and highlight the distinction between them. Whereas much of what constitutes virtuality studies centres on what I am calling the virtualisation of reality (online chat rooms, virtual banking, etc) – spaces that represent virtual others of real world entities, the Gothic cathedral represents the reverse of this: the realisation of a virtuality. The Gothic cathedral is unique in the context of this thesis for it is first and foremost a physical building rather than an onscreen other. It is a real virtuality in this thesis because, while concrete, there are some aspects of its reality that remain essential rather than formal and are dependent upon parishioners’ performance in order to be made ‘real.’ The final case study of this project represents the future usefulness of my methodology. In following up the work on exploring the suitability of describing a Gothic cathedral alongside Google, the last chapter of my dissertation explores the suitability of describing theatrical space as a VR. Similar to the Google chapter, this chapter focuses on a digital VR tool recently developed by Joanne Tompkins at the University of Queensland called the Online Theatre Project. The Online Theatre Project (OTP) represents a unique approach to the documentation, digital conceptualisation and archival problems that present themselves to a working theatre company in its everyday practice. The OTP is a server-based modeling and archival tool that allows users to draw, model and design their theatre production in real-time and then house their data on a remotely accessible server. Any notional description of theatrical space is necessarily a slippery one, given the relative youth of such studies and this project positions itself in this ever evolving debate by suggesting that the Online Theatre Project actually provides a description of what theatrical space entails where others have not. This thesis argues that VR space is dependent upon a constant spatial and performative production process. It illustrates how Lefebvre’s conceptualisation of the production process is most suitable for describing that production process and argues that re-imagining Lefebvre’s definition with the assistance of Turner’s everyday performative theory of liminality affords researchers the chance to differentiate between real virtualities and virtual realities. In doing so this thesis advances the study of VR, by proving that it is possible to discuss such complicated subjects in spatial and performative terms instead of the dominant real or un-real ones. Further, I outline the necessary adaptation of Lefebvre’s spatial triad that can be undertaken to prove its usefulness in many other aspects of VR studies.
Keyword space, performance, virtual reality, Lefebvre, theatre, Google, gothic
Additional Notes 139, 140, 142, 146, 148, 151, 155, 175, 177, 179, 180, 182, 183, 191, 192

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Created: Tue, 15 Jun 2010, 12:02:18 EST by Mr Neal Harvey on behalf of Library - Information Access Service