Aline Veillat – Espace-milieu, or how gravity leads to artistic hypotheses as to the creation of a particular digital space – 2004

First publication workshop Space: Science, Technology and the Arts in collaboration with ESA/ESTEC, 2004


This paper is based on my work as an artist – work in progress, both theoretical and practical [1]. It tends to prove that, in many ways, experiments in microgravity are a necessary basis for research into virtual worlds. More specifically, the paper aims to show how ideas concerning gravity enable us to posit working hypotheses for a unique plastic experiment using sensory digital space.

My point of departure grew out of frustration with available digital 3D models. Based in conic perspective, they promise spatial creation, but where’s the space? Why is space absent? How could it be brought into play?

For the “quality, light, color, depth, that are there before us are only there because they awaken an echo in our body – because our body welcomes them” [2]. Merleau-Ponty tells us that all perception necessarily passes through the body. So ‘body to body’ is where we need to look for space. More precisely, the exploration into the thickness and matter of this space implies research using tactile perception and kinesthesia. The point is to get around the model, to find the roughness to rub up against, the gap to slide through. How to make it possible for everyone to ‘live’ something, have new perceptions, which is to say provide to each individual the possibility of building their own unique spatial construct?

Part A – Perception of space

Around Gravity

As inhabitants of the Earth, we are subject to gravitational pull. Weight has a fundamental role in our perception of kinesthesia: all gestures, whether intentional or not, real or interiorized, are deconstructed in transfer and management of weight. From the first moments of our existence, movement is, indeed, a necessary component in our perception of the world. According to neurophysiologist Alain Berthoz, “the nervous system needs gravity as a reference to organize the coordination of its movements” [3]. This reference is linked to exterior space, and does not vary in “size and direction with relation to the plan tangent to the ideal surface of the Earth” [3]. What’s more, it functions alongside the egocentric system located in the inner ear: “the semi-circular channels of the vestibular organ constitute a basic Euclidian reference which may be at the bottom of our geometric perception of space” [3]. And these references as a whole are part of finding another given essential to our balance and sense of orientation: the direction of the terrestrial vertical which is a direct result of the direction of gravitational pull. Yet “perception of the terrestrial vertical is the result of multi-sensorial compromise” [3].

Which is why, in order to better encompass what the perception of a singular space could be, it seems to me appropriate to take a look at the qualities of movement linked to weight by studying three different gravity situations. Underwater Gravity

Having always been more at ease underwater than standing on the ground, I started my study by analyzing that experience.

Mobility is in fact changed underwater; the water supports movements, supports the body (Archimedes’s principle), envelops it and brakes gestures. Since the body is in part liberated of its weight, being underwater gives an added degree of freedom. The body is also freed of its vertical orientation (determined by the inner ear) and is able to experience three dimensions.

Kinesthetic and tactile perceptions also change underwater, for the whole body is in contact with the water and thus feels the water element. Our body ‘envelope’ is as if expanded (it’s no longer a cage, just a caress) and at the same time doesn’t seem to be full of matter because it is no longer being crushed by our weight. It is experiencing lightness and fluid mobility. The body seems to be there without being there. It feels as if it exists only with its skin, through the caress of the water on the skin. The ‘cancellation’ of the body as heavy matter seems to me to lead to a body awareness not as a monolithic volume that is restrictive and fettering but as sensitive, light and supple: it’s an experience of interface, of the infinitesimal border between self and surround. In some way “the world is made of the same matter as the body” [2]. It’s a sensual space par excellence where movement is free, fluid, continual, supple, light, and slow.

It should be noted that some basic training and a bit of practice are needed for the quality of this mobility to be optimum. Earth’s Gravity

Then, in 1993, I saw Odile Duboc’s choreography for Projet de la Matière. This made it possible for me to study movement in earthly gravity, which is to say based in the integration of weight.

As a spectator, I experience dance as interiorized kinesthetic perceptions. By taking each gesture through to the very end, the dancers’ bodies almost have a fluid quality. I am entranced by the flux and reflux of this liquid world, running towards the ground, sinking into it, resurging, as if in fact prey to the pull of water.

Earthly gravity pulls the bodies of the dancers towards the ground, which serves as support. States of equilibrium oscillate around vertical orientation. And for that to happen, the dancers’ management of their weight distribution and the degree to which their muscles are toned must go hand in hand. Thus, to move body weight towards the ground, the movement is long, fluid, curved and continuous. Which means that tonicity is strong and that all of this takes place very slowly.

Even more than for underwater movement, this kind of tonic mobility requires a great deal of training in order to acquire a good knowledge and thus awareness of inner body perceptions. Microgravity

In 1995, I discovered the work done by Kitsou Dubois, a researcher and choreographer, who made a video documentary about her experiments with microgravity during the course of several parabolic flights [4]. This discovery was a seminal one for me.

I was struck, looking at the images, by the illusion of the absence of shock: the meeting of the body with an obstacle led to a change of direction but no perceptible crash or rebound. The impact on movement was an absence of rupture, temporal continuity. “When the body floats freely and weightlessly in space, movement is slowed. On the other hand, if you push away from a wall the push can cause rapid and constant speed since there is no gravity to brake it” [5]. What’s more, in Dubois’s video, the inertia of each movement seemed infinite: moving an arm up set the whole body into rotation. This was similar to something that happens underwater except that the weak gravity and the friction of water, which is heavier than that of air, are there to brake and reorient. This total coming along of the body following the movement of one member in a weightless place echoes an essential quality of the ‘dance of weight’ in which the movement of one member involves the whole body. It is true that this is more linked to gestural awareness and tonic mastery than it is to the physical characteristics of place.

This experience confirmed all the discoveries I’d made with underwater movement and with dance, but in a more striking and radical manner given the absence of gravitational pull and the weak friction of the air. What’s more, this particular place could be said to be invisible even if its influence on mobility is far from negligible. In fact, even more than underwater or in dance, the loss of weight and verticality references considerably disturbs what the body feels in space. The result is a need to ‘re-learn’ one’s body, to construct a new body scheme, so that the brain can re-organize around new principles in order to respond with the right tonicity. “In a three-dimensional, weightless universe you need to create subjective egocentric references since there is no longer a center of gravity” [5].

Since this is the case, after a great deal of training, spatial perception is entirely in the kinesthetic experience and in turn mobility reveals space. It is a manifestation of Merleau-Ponty’s assertion that “our body is not primarily in space: it is space” [6].


Consequently, isn’t the question rather that of the conceptualization and the creation of an espace-milieu (E-M)? Because it is definitely the milieu that induces a particular mobility, which stems from its physical, chemical, colorimetric, sonorous, odorous, climatic etc. properties as well as from our own self. Again, Merleau-Ponty has expressed this best: “perception is not primarily perception of things, but of the elements (water, air…), of the rays of the world, of things that are dimensions, whole worlds of their own, I glide along on these ‘elements’ and I am in the world, I slide from the subjective into Being” [7]. Couldn’t the E-M be defined digitally as a set of laws of movement, as a force field, a system in permanent evolution?

Latence, an experimental project I did in 1998, enabled me to bolster this hypothesis. The point was to make it possible to experience a space that you had to characterize from within by its constituting forces such as gravity, friction, wind, turbulence…This model had to be made perceptible through a form you could feel. For the project, the first step was to make one’s own movement – which is to say the movement of the digital world to be constructed – ‘visible’ in the real world. In order to materialize the forces at work, and its evolution in time, I made the aesthetic decision to use digital 3D veiling.

Here I join forces with the many artists who sought to make visible the existence and influence of the movement surrounding, encompassing, all things. Among other examples is that of Leonardo da Vinci of whom Paul Valéry said that he “tried to portray himself and ‘drew’ the forms of fluid air, nets of gaseous molecules along the surfaces attacking environment” [8]. The painter mainly used drapery – soft forms continually susceptible to new influences – to achieve this. Similarly, historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), in an essay on iconology written in 1893 about Botticelli’s Birth of Venus [9], notes that the figures in the painting are impassive and that the pathos is expressed in their hair and drapery: it is the dynamic forces of physical elements impacting on these that give them expressive movement. Deleuze put it this way: “third parties have come between body and clothing” [10]. The association could continue with the veils of dancer Loïe Fuller (18621928), who was interested only in the formation of space, the movement that engendered space and that ‘materialized’ perpetual movement and the potential of all forms to come. Generally, the forces of nature, or more precisely these forces as the sum total of flux in the surrounding element, become perceptible and visible in their meeting with matter and light. A wave exists as visible ‘form’ only as a triad [matter, dynamics, light], and is only a wave for the length of time of its formation. In the case of microgravity it is the body itself, through the quality of its movement, which makes the E-M materialize.

Part B – Hybrid Space


In the case of digital creation, spatial perception consists of the interlacing of the real and the virtual. Indeed, research that has been conducted with a view to finding a palpable E-M has led to finding ways for a return to matter, and it is primarily in the construction of a hybrid world that it will most evidently be able to manifest. Annick Bureaud sees the interface – which in its capacity as “the essential element of a perceptible work is the given form of information/matter” [11] – as the means of linking up the two worlds.

What is more, the visitor remains in the real world; he or she remains a ‘consciousness incarnate’ subject to biological evolution and needs. He or she is sensitive to the ‘place’ they are in (for example, even when people wear stereoscopic glasses that cut their vision off from reality, the wearer’s feet are planted on very real ground; and let us not forget that this real place could very well be underwater or in microgravity…) From the beginning the visitor’s level of involvement is directed. Consequently, dialogue with the virtual, if it exists, cannot discount the ambient reality: the dialogue is thus three-pronged [the virtual world, the real world, the visitor].

Around art

As we have seen, space appears for each of us through our movement, our kinesthetic and tactile perceptions. More precisely, even as the eye explores the worlds in successive jerks, the hand and body register a series of points of contact or kinesthetic sensations. What’s more, the movement of seeing and the movement of the body bring about a relative setting into motion of everything that surrounds us: this is what makes it possible to detect certain elements that stand out. And this information is not collected in a random or chaotic fashion: permanent synthesis guides the way and makes it possible to build a continuous world. We actively build, from the sum total of the autonomous parts, from the gestures in the space between, the development of movement in time, through anticipation, through inner and simulated understanding, that is to say via a synthesis of all our perceptions and knowledge. Perception is just that: an assembly of choices, which, through synthesis, make it possible to construct coherence and continuity. In that sense, perception is a decision, a simulated action. Fragmentations, In-betweens

And that’s the way we perceive the very present space in post-perspectival painting. Indeed, Cézanne (1839-1906), who pioneered it, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) who pursued it in a more tormented manner and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (1908-1992) who pursued it with method, used fragmented brushstrokes and color to crack open the perspectival model. It is as if structure, shaken by tremors or vibrations, has been welded here and there. By letting the stroke out of the bag, these painters thus achieve open space, which spreads like fluid all across the surface extending even beyond the canvas. These artists have given body to the forces of nature. In fact the brushstrokes are the carriers of the physical movements and muscular tensions of the artists in their experience of the world and thus are able to ‘make us live’ in turn, strong and particular sensations, in our tonic body. Movement is the vehicle of feelings, of perception – the latter has it origins in the ‘inbetween’, a place of vibrations, of tensions, which is perceived tonically in kinesthesia: this is where the creation of space comes from.

Fragmentation, transposed to a volume, thus unveils passageways for body density and glance. The perception of depth begins by confronting ourselves with the ‘near/far’ variations of volume. The same holds true if transposed to musical composition: fragmentation or the ‘in-between’ sounds yield breathing room, listening pauses, or spaces for the music. Examples of fragmentation of volume are Calder’s Mobiles, and J.R. Soto’s Penetrables; and for double fragmentation – of both volume and music – the pioneer work is Musik für ein Haus by K. Stockhausen.

In the case of the installation Latence, the screen is fragmented into multiple bands of transparent silk muslin. Composition and sound are also multiple: eight distinct tracks for eight separate areas. These areas and the bands of fabric are placed in the depths of the exhibition space. Here screens are no longer barriers preventing people from walking around; their opacity does not block the field of vision. Rather, the screens offer a kind of resistance for the volume and movement of the body to come up against and to experience a sensation of ‘near/far’ all around it. The Vertical

We have thus seen that in order to have a sense of ambient E-M active movement is necessary. However, in microgravity, Kitsou Dubois has shown us that in the absence of a vertical frame of reference, we have to build – using our proprioceptive and kinesthetic senses – an awareness of an egocentric subjective point of reference, vertical or not. This enables us to center ourselves, find equilibrium, and avoid vertigo. The reference makes it possible for us to construct our own kinesthetic space from which we can open ourselves to the perception of an exterior E-M. A reference point is necessary to begin and maintain the perception of exterior space. Ultimately it is a dialogue of the space triad [virtual world, real surroundings, and body].

We should note that the vertical, which is indispensable to build a world and to be in the world, can sometimes be found in the tormented spaces created by Van Gogh, most often in the form of a cypress. The tree ensures that we do not drown in what we are looking at and can link up with our own interiorized vertical. Metaphorically, this reference is a pause, a silence, a breath. As such, it is linked to certain ‘in-betweens’ like the ones that punctuate music, dance, or architecture. And it is through the game around it that movement can develop. In this spirit, let us mention an architectural realization in which there are no visible verticals or horizontals: the landing-stage in Yokohama, Japan, designed by FOA London (2002). The stage is a deformed construction that moves towards the water and looks as if it has been sculpted by the forces of the sea: waves of wood and metal, a perfect hybridization of the two worlds. Our visual and kinesthetic perceptions wobble, float, and impact our stance and perception of space as a whole. The ‘horizon’ of floats at one end and the verticality of skyscrapers at the other echo our interiorized verticality and make this dialogue of spaces possible.

Part C – Unexpected Dialogue


As far as digital spaces are concerned, interactivity contributes to perfecting the materialization of the virtual world by increasing the hybridization. Indeed, interactivity makes a dialogue possible that engages visitors more strongly. Here, the notion of perception/action takes on meaning. The meeting of spaces can start.

Which is to say that on one side there is digital capting and identification via dialogue of the visitor’s intent; something is created by a transformation of the digital which wouldn’t exist without this encounter (this is considered in real time: the exchange seems to be almost instantaneous and, if it isn’t, the space in between gives it meaning). For digital has this ‘capacity’ to be open to the exterior (via peripheral captors) and at the same time to be transformed by exterior events originating in the world outside the computer, which become information, ‘useful’ digital data – we should note that the idea of transformation tends to exclude purely ‘reactive’ systems where the answer is pre-established by the programmer/creator and in no way changes the virtual world. These changes are made ‘visible’ by transformation in the real surroundings (via interfaces). On the other side, a partner, the visitor, invents a behavior in response to the changes in his or her surroundings, in this hybrid world. Thus, the exterior, in its power to impact on the digital course ‘in the process of becoming’, makes it possible to re-launch and thus maintain the dialogue.

There are, in architecture, cases of ‘total’ hybridization that confuse real and virtual worlds: one of the first of these was the Fresh Water Pavilion (1997) [12] designed by architect Lars Spuybroek of NOX Architects – this was ‘behavioral’ architecture, deformable, that evolved as a result of what the people visiting it did and changes in the weather!


We have seen that a dialogue only makes sense if it evolves constantly into something new for all parties concerned. On the other hand, I am convinced that a digital world only makes sense if it is conceived of and made as an ‘other’, if it possesses new properties, which is to say, if it offers the conditions needed to experience unique perceptions. Specifically, I am interested in the interactivity possible with artificial intelligence (AI) processes. These processes, just like experiments with microgravity, add to the experience that feeling of strangeness sought for new perceptions.

Indeed, an autonomous system, called ‘intelligent’, seeks the best possible organization for each new situation in response to changes in the environment. It has its own decision-making capacity as to what it will do so that its actions are not imitations, repetitions of pre-programmed basic functions. This capacity corresponds to a capacity for learning that progresses with each variation from the outside. It never stops reinventing answers to the new ‘constraints’ set by the environment: decisions on how to move, how to evolve, how to react to things. It is absolutely unpredictable each time. Thus, the behavior of an AI process results in surprises that hold the interest – and the engagement – of the visitor.

In the face of processes like this – their strangeness – the visitor has to learn, has to try to understand, or rather adapt to, having ‘a world all their own’. Consequently, he or she has to accept being lost, has to accept being asked to reconsider the way they communicate, being a stranger, having to re-learn how to move, how to behave: in short, he or she has to find a new way of being in this singular world.

All this requires time to adapt, to become familiar with the new. But isn’t that true for all art appreciation?


In conclusion: doesn’t trying to get people to experiment with a hybrid E-M aim at offering a journey into otherness, as every work of art tends to do?

Indeed, my research into an E-M is in league with the hybrid worlds of ‘intuitive’ installations that can be apprehended without user instructions. To be more precise, my wish is that each participant go from being an art exhibit visitor to ‘visitor-stroller’, or even ‘stroller-traveler’. For the encounter with the desired hybrid E-M must pass through “the perception of the elements (water, air…), of the rays of the world” that Merleau-Ponty evokes: it must be an E-M arrived at from the inside, through the forces in action that engender movement. And it is this ‘choreography’ that leads to singular movement: from kinesthetic perception to kinesthetic perception, the stroller-traveler is constructing a new world. Thus, this multi-sensorial ‘walk’ is driven by the desire for ‘discovery’, for somewhere that is perhaps different, and enables everyone in his or her own way to feel and build space, alone or with others. Also, in this dialogue of spaces, the objective of the walk is not what’s important: it is behavior, rhythm, the Stimmung, or mood, and the length of time that count. A desire for a bit more slowness and poetry could be at work. The idea is to make it possible for everyone to find their own rhythm, that is to say a subtle readjustment of their own alternating states of tension and relaxation. For rhythm is not cadence, it can’t be metronomed: it is the flux between the notes, between the strokes, between the bodies.

Which is why the exploration and knowledge of all worlds that offer particular conditions and are revealed in a dynamic, in a particular movement, are sources of inspiration – in particular, worlds of the infinitely vast or the infinitely small and worlds created in other artistic or literary fields.


[1] VEILLAT, Aline, Espace-milieu: espace numérique envisagé comme espace palpable, PhD dissertation, unpublished, Université Paris 8, 2002.

[2] MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice, L’œil et l’esprit, Ed. Gallimard Folio Essais, 1964 nouvelle éd. 1997, pp. 19-21. My italics.

[3] BERTHOZ, Alain, Le sens du mouvement, Ed. Odile Jacob, Paris, 1997, pp. 107-122, pp. 45-50.

[4] DUBOIS, Kitsou, Conférences CYPRES, Mouvement et Comportement, Ecole d’Art d’Aix en Provence, mars 1995. Notes taken during the lectures.

[5] DUBOIS, Kitsou, Actes ISEA, Symposium International des Arts Electroniques, Montréal, 1995.

[6] MERLEAU-PONTY, Henri, Phénoménologie de la perception, Ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1945 nouvelle éd. 1998, p. 173.

[7] MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice, Le visible et l’invisible, Ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1964, p. 267.

[8] Introduction by VALERY, Paul, in, da VINCI, Leonardo, Les carnets de Léonard de Vinci, Tomes 1 et 2, Ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1942.

[9] WARBURG, Aby, Essais Florentins, Ed. Klincksiek, Paris, French trans. 1990, original Ed. 1893.

[10] See on the expressive motion in Botticelli by Deleuze, in DELEUZE, Gilles, Le pli. Leibniz et le baroque, Ed. de Minuit, Paris, 1988, pp. 164-167 – see also MICHAUD, Philippe-Alain, Aby Warburg, et l’image en mouvement, Ed. Macula, Paris, 2000.

[11] BUREAUD, Annick, “Pour une typologie des interfaces artistiques”, written in July 1999 and published in a collective work supervised by POISSANT Louise, Interfaces et sensorialité, Ed. Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2002.

[12] Fresh Water Pavilion, exhibition FreshH2O eXPO, 1997, Neeltje Jans, Netherlands.

© Aline VEILLAT & Leonardo/Olats, mai 2004, republished 2023.