Code and the Virtual – Week Six

Read: Chesher, Chris (2003). “Layers of Code, Layers of Subjectivity.” Culture Machine, vol. 5.

Screening: Tron (1982) or Tron (2010)

Further recommend sources
Watch: , iRobot (2004)

Read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2014)

As we discussed earlier in the session, the science and techniques of Cybernetics were developed following the World Wars of the last century. Remember the key components of cybernetics are control, command and communication.

It was the work of Norbert Wiener who took inspiration from the radar operator and the relationship between the user, the screen, and the region of space in which these actants were operating in a network. He was inspired by the system in which feedback loops are used to bring everything into alignment and function together in a cybernetic assemblage.

Wiener helped to create the first designs for self-guiding rockets, which were able to respond to environmental conditions on their own, and be programmed to independently negotiate its trajectory through a series of feedback systems to reach its target.

We typically associated the Internet as the product of the military industrial complex and the think tank DARPA with the creation of the internet or its earliest form the ARPAnet but almost all our media and communications technologies today are dependent on cybernetics and the ‘science of self-steering’ and the systems of command, control and communication that were pioneered within the complex.

Remember that Gregory Bateson’s work in the 1940s helped to extend cybernetics to the social realm and the behavioural sciences.

“Arguably, Bateson’s evolution from an ethnographer working in a modern and colonial ethnographic climate to a postwar cybernetician is symptomatic of this broader shift in the social and human sciences from discourses of race, ethnicity, and territory to those of behavior, communication, and environment.” (Halpern 2012 )

Bateson was interested in human systems and the concept of ecological balance and the role of negative and positive feedback systems. Bateson framed the role of information in the network as a form of constraint, a crucial element in any ecology, but particular for the command over and control of the system that exists in the multiple layers of social, technical and cultural significance.


This idea of layering is useful way to think about the themes and concepts in Chris Chesher’s article. ‘Layers of Code, Layers of Subjectivity in Culture Machine.

Cheser uses a metaphorical language to convey set of ideas describing computation, networks and cybernetics. It’s not far from the ideas that we discuss later in the session about the connections between descriptions of magic and technology.


The first layer, Cheser describes, is the computer’s power of invocation. Take a computer game, a word-processing program, or a social media app, each of these both instructs the user and gives them options. The screen cursor, he says, waits in “untiring subservience” but also defines “prescribed limits”:

My desires and intentions are constrained and directed through the narrow space that the cursor cuts into the computer-invoked page.”

Invocations give us the power and the ability to print on demand, to connect to the Internet and to call up a reference in a database.

Invocations enable us to tweet a message, or point a mouse and click, or copy and paste.

We can even translate these invocations into commands like ‘crtl+v’ and ‘ctrl+c’.

Think of invocators as specific cybernetic systems that have parallels in fantasy:

“In a magical and technological senses, the computer is the medium through which we call into presence new daemons: charmed dance floors, writing environments, databases, e-mails systems, electronic journals.

Each of these daemons that is invoked has a logic and an enormous economics of its own. Each offers the user some different kinds of power. As a new media from, it is not computation that makes devices distinctive, but invocation.

Computers should not be called computers, but invocators.” Chesher 2003.

Invocators are both constrictors and liberators. Institutions use them to police users and maintain authority – think about how the online enrolment procedure for subjects both gives you choices for your education but confines you within institutionally determined limits. Mobile games are “magical spectacles” offering distraction but delaying gratification and fulfilment, often behind options to pay for upgrades. 

Unlike churches, prisons, schools and factories that position individuals as subjects in relation to institutions (Foucault, 1977), ideology (Althusser, 1971), or a ‘big Other’ (Zizek, 1998), invocators don’t necessarily make users subservient.”


Invocators have simple operating rules, but in order to perform a task, a user must be away what avocations it presents.

Avocations are the result of invocational assemblages, they are layers which prescribe the limits of the invocations that may be performed: for example your phone, your tablet device, your laptop all do certain things and limit others.

“Avocations provide the languages in which invocations are spoken, the platforms on which they are made, and the vectors along which they are articulated. Invocator platforms are built and stabilised in layers — application, operating system and hardware. A user’s invocation must cross all avocational layers to take effect. If a user tries to utter a command that is not supported by any one of these layers, it will have either no effect at all, or, worse, produce an unanticipated result. Therefore mnemonic and graphical conventional mechanisms are higher-level avocations that help users to compose invocations that will perform correctly.”

An avocation constructs, what Adrian Mackenzie calls a ‘margin of indeterminacy’ (2002: 26).The avocation constrains the domains of possibility, but remains open to be further informed: “The keyboard only offers a limited number of characters, but this still leaves open an enormous set of things that may be typed.” says Chris Chesher.

Twitter also works in this way: you could previously only have 140 characters but you can type whatever you want.

The haiku is another form of avocation.

The constraints of the system allow for a massive number of unique combinations.

Avocations provide the languages, or the operating systems, in which invocations are performed; the platforms on which they are made, and the vectors along which they are articulated. Avocations serve to generate the desires, imaginations and identities of users:


Vocations are sets of invocations in avocational layers which produce vocational authority.

Think about how photoshop is linked with graphic design, credit card databases are linked with bankers, criminal databases are linked to police, employment databases are linked to social security,  secret files and records withs spies and surveillance, and even more locally systems used to administer student enrollment produce the vocation of the student.

Vocational authority can be most loudly heard within institutional databases.


Histories of Virtual Reality

Virtual optical interfaces can be traced to examples of 360-degree art in the panoramic murals that began to appear in Italian murals in the 1560sAt first floor level, Baldassarre Peruzzi painted the main salone with frescoes of a grand open loggia balcony with city and countryside views. The perspective view really only works from a fixed point in the room otherwise the illusion is broken.

The notion of the 3D goggles has been around for a long time, and Stanley G. Weinbaum proposed a google glasses like system for virtual reality in the 1930s in his short fiction called the “Pygmalion’s Spectacles, which included his hypothetical design for goggles that would display holographic recordings of fictional experiences.

Morton Heilig was famous in the 1950s for his “Experience Theatre”, which was an attempt to include all the senses in the cinematic experience, by expanding the view to encompass the individual audience and attempted to include them in the onscreen activity. Heilig built a working prototype of his virtual reality device, called the Sensorama in 1962, as a large cabinet device that had to be sat inside. The prototype had five short films and stimulated the senses of sight, sound, smell, and touch. This is a concept that we see emerge time and time again, just recently plastics for 3d printing became available that would give off different aromas when used. The use of smell and body posture has been also anticipated in the immersion effect.

In 1968 Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull, create the augmented reality (AR) and VR head-mounted display (HMD) system. Rudimentary and exceptionally heavy, the HMD was supported from the ceiling. The device had a basic user interface and a wire-frame virtual environment and was called The Sword of Damocles.

In 1990 Jonathan Waldern, a VR PhD, demonstrates “Virtuality” a Computer Graphics exhibition staged at London’s Alexandra Palace. His garage startup company would go on to produce the Virtuality as a line of virtual reality gaming machines found in video arcades and adventure parks and game stores in the early 1990s. I remember playing these multiplayer at about the same time that i first reader Neuromancer in 1992. The VR machines delivered almost real time (less than 50ms lag) gaming via a stereoscopic visor, joysticks, and networked units for multi-player gaming. Virtuality was the first mass-produced, networked, multiplayer VR location-based entertainment system. Costing up to $73,000 per multi-pod Virtuality system, they featured headsets and exoskeleton gloves that gave one of the first “immersive” VR experiences.

The famous, or infamous, Virtual Boy was created by Nintendo and was released in Japan and in North America in 1995.

In 2014 Facebook [invested] $2 billion into  Oculus VR[Palmer Luckey] created his first VR prototype at age 18 in his parents’ garage in 2011, which was a headset that included a 90-degree field of view. Luckey developed a series of prototypes over ten months increasing the range to a 270-degree field-of-view, while also decreasing size and weight.The 6th iteration was named the “Rift,” and He first started Oculus VR in order to facilitate the Kickstarter campaign

9,522 backers pledged $2,437,429 to help bring this project to life.

The VR unit relies on a series of cybernetic feedback loops between the CPU, the Worn device, the user’s Body, and the graphic output and visual display which is also an input device for the on screen direction and movement.

Putting the headpiece on is very much like putting on a mix of  Ned Kelly’s Helmet and Tony Stark’s Iron Man visor – it’s a mix of the primitive and the advanced.

Video for Elders Reacting to the Oculus Rift


[The Virtual Yellow House Project]

The Yellow House was the brainchild of Sharp and filmmaker Albie Thoms, modelled on the failed artist community set up by Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France, during the late 1880s (Thoms 2012). Set up in Macleay Street, Kings Cross, by Australian artist Martin Sharp in 1970, and running through to early 1973, the Yellow engaged local, national and international artists who visited the three-storey terrace building and helped shape the artistic and cultural development of this experimental and communal space. Painting, music, theatre, film, puppetry, light shows and mixed-media performances were held in Spaces with titles such as the Stone Room that were filled with textured walls, artistic recreations of famous artworks such as The Great Wave by Hokusai, and sculptural pieces which became one with the immediate environment.

Over the next three years, the 3-storey terrace at 57-59 Macleay Street became the site of a living, breathing artist community. The exterior was painted yellow, and the interior became an art history museum, with the walls, ceiling and staircases painted and sculptured, and installations put in place to reflect the tastes and interests of anybody who cared to participate. Art, music, drama and film were created, performed and exhibited at the Yellow House by its residents and visitors until the doors were closed early in 1973. The building became an exhibition gallery, artist’s studio, performance space, living quarters and meeting place.

The re-creation of the Yellow House in a 3D virtual reality (VR) environment will make use of contemporary photographic and audiovisual archives applied to technologies such as the Oculus Rift, to facilitate art historical, media, communication and graphic design studies. Resources to be utilised include photographs taken in the Yellow House by photographer Greg Weight and artist George Gittoes, over 30 hours of film footage from Yellow TV produced by Albie Thoms, ABC television documentary and news footage, original building plans from the City of Sydney Council Archives, and oral history accounts by those involved. This material will be used to create a replica space in 3D and add original textures to that virtual space. The prototype developed for this project will, in the initial phase, enable students and researchers to interact with University of Wollongong Library collections focused on Australian counterculture art and publishing movements during the 1960s and 1970s. T

The project will also create an open-access teaching and learning tool which can be freely used, modified and adapted for a broad range of applications beyond recreation of the actual Sydney-based Yellow House. These applications will include interactive exhibition spaces and 3D digital archives sourced from the library and archival collections external to the University of Wollongong. For example, the State Library of New South Wales has a dispersed collection of material relating to the Yellow House and the art of Martin Sharp, whilst the archives of Albie Thoms are located in the National Library of Australia and National Film and Sound Archive collections in Canberra.

The primary aim of the Yellow House project is to provide an opportunity for students, academics and the public to engage with library and archival collections in new, innovative and productive ways, and demonstrate the active application of curriculum‑driven, technology-enhanced learning experiences. It will create an open access 3D, immersive and interactive VR gallery based on the Yellow House. Using Oculus Rift and similar virtual reality technologies, students and researchers will enter the virtual Yellow House gallery and engage with its historic elements, learning from, and being actively stimulated by, the experience.

In addition, they will be able to modify and adapt their own Yellow House room using the open data object created as part of the project.

The VR experience will serve as a virtual gallery space for experimentation and collaborative experiences between academics and students and as a means for experiencing not only the University of Wollongong Library’s expanding digital collections but also other relevant material brought to the space by the participants.

In the first instance, the Yellow House VR gallery will be available to students to present their own work and use the virtual gallery as their own space.

The Yellow House web portal will provide the gateway to the virtual reality Yellow House space, along with open data files of this product for reuse, experimentation and redesign by others.

It will be an extension of existing work undertaken by the University of Wollongong Library, including the acquisition and digitisation of significant historical Australian collections: including OZ magazine Sydney (1963-9) and London (1967-73), the Garry Shead and Martin Sharp edited Arty Wild Oat (1962) magazine, and Richard Neville’s The Living Daylights (1973-4).

The Yellow House portal will be integrated with the Library’s existing Digital Collections portal (University of Wollongong Library 2015), and include the technical capability for students and other users to share their experiences and stories regarding experiments with the open source files, thus offering students a new model in which to engage with content.