Dogma to Data

By Jonathan Lovell

A Historical Study of the Ritual and Transcendental Experiences in the Immersive Multimedia Environments of the 1960-70s

Immersive Multimedia Environments (IMEs) are spaces that completely surround the sensory field of a person and project a wide variety of stimuli to that person from multiple forms of artistic and communicative mediums. Historically, examples of IMEs were exclusively found in religious architectures, which were saturated with sculptures and paintings and were used as instruments to enhance ritual performances. These IMEs bombarded ritual subjects with symbolism that structured their thoughts and psychologies, and sensations that suffused their bodies with physiological affects. In combination, these totalising experiences dissolved the boundaries between the environment and the self, triggering the evocation of transcendental phenomena.

This is the story of the growing integration between media and architecture; a history of our future.

The power of IMEs are no longer restricted to stand-alone religious architectures. The rapidly expanding collusion between technological and environmental systems includes the literal integration of computational processes and media expression into pavilions, buildings and urban settings. If these trends continue, our cities will be reformed into total IMEs that are absolute and inescapable, a situation that is expedited by recent developments in Augmented and Virtual Reality. This raises questions about the shifting ontologies of reality and simulations, and our epistemological abilities to understand these unstable conditions. In turn, how will these IMEs recalibrate our perceptions, physiologies and psychologies? As a means of exploring these current challenges, this research seeks to understand how architects, artists and designers have explored the cognitive and affective possibilities of IMEs, especially in their recurrent quest to inspire altered states of consciousness.

Image: Framework for analysing the Communication Process

Artists of the Expanded Cinema movement of the 1960s-70s, such as Stan Van Der Beek and Gene Youngblood, were actively engaged with these questions. They combined nascent electronic media with architecture as a means to manifest the rhetoric of the technologically-driven transcendentalism that was pervasive at the time. Spurred on to realise Marshall McLuhan’s predictions on the re-tribalising effects of electronic media, these IMEs were not merely formal or aesthetic exercises, but were experiments that used architecture and environments as the means of producing new forms of consciousness that would revolutionize individual identities and collective cultures. As a way of furthering the scholarship on this movement, this research contends that these projects should not merely be analysed by the terms of the technological-transcendentalist rhetoric that is immediately referenced by their creators, but should include the psychological, sociological and anthropological discourse that underpins and elaborates upon this rhetoric.

This research will conduct a cross-sectional and comparative historical analysis on three IMEs of the period, in order to determine how the creators designed into their projects the mechanisms that generate altered states of perception, physiology and psychology. Specifically, this research will explore the projects In the Labyrinth (1967), Cerebrum (1968) and Polytope de Persepolis (1971), by conducting interviews with the people involved and investigating archival materials. These case studies all exhibit unique combinations of architecture, media and performance art, but the key variation lies in their different spatial typologies – emphasising the architectural contribution in shaping the experiences, implications and applications of IMEs.

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