Travels Through Hyper-Liminality: Exploring the space where digital meets the real

Through this panel we hope to further interrogate current contemporary understandings of this amorphous state of presence by generating discussion and argument around its nature.
Monday, 19 September, 2011 - 13:00 - 14:30
Chair Person: 
Dew Harrison
Paul Sermon
Ian Gwilt
Julie Penfold
Denise Doyle
Anita McKeown

Chair: Prof. Dew Harrison

On the threshold of crossing over being neither real nor virtual, an oscillation between two states of existence, online-offline, awake but
dreaming in a sub-consciousness state, the bubble between starting and
arriving, the in-between, a disappearance, the third space ...
Considering the diverse determinations as to what the liminal means in
our digitally driven culture this panel asks 'To what extent are artists
digitally facilitating convivial spaces where participants can engage
with and co-create an art work?'. Six different approaches are displayed within the panel expertise to interrogate digitally facilitated
liminality as either a transformative space of creative transcendence, or a convivial and social space where art can happen.

Digital media and new technology is reconfiguring our relationship with the world and is also affecting how artists relate with their public. Now technologies can help to position art into the everyday of people’s lives and activities, outside the gallery space. Digitally enabled new spaces have opened up where artists can engage with audiences in a participatory experience. Within the cityscapes of our urban environments ‘Big brother’ media and cctv surveillance allow for few informal, ungoverned social meeting places so it is the creation of interstices between the formal constructed and observed social spaces that artists are interested in, where unorthodox art can happen and engage directly with its audience. Digital media provides such relational opportunities but as virtual platforms where accessing them means stepping from one world to the other, a conceptual moving from one state of being to another. Contra to human-to-avatar experience, virtual objects are transformed into a solid materiality by crossing this threshold. The threshold is then a magic alchemical space, an interstice between the real and the virtual, a moment of change, of becoming other.

Artists continue to explore the notion of the ‘liminal’ that has arisen with the evolution of digital technology. Through this panel we hope to further interrogate current contemporary understandings of this amorphous state of presence by generating discussion and argument around its nature.

Questions to be raised:

Does crossing the threshold from real to virtual spaces require a transformative object or is this a matter of reframing our conscious self-awareness?

Can digitally enhanced material spaces allow a physical step through to an ‘other’ experience?

How do we freeze the moment of such passing to acknowledge our changed state of conscious being?

Is liminality a necessary and positive attribute to modern life in our technocratic culture?

Paper Abstracts

Liberate your Avatar: The Revolution will be Socially Networked

by Prof. Paul Sermon

This presentation provides a creative-practical perspective on Second Life through a survey of my work as a visual artist, set against a theoretical and philosophical backdrop that combines poststructuralism and semiotics. My practical examples of merged and created Second Lives draw on my mixed-reality installations in the form of encounters between Second Life and First Life. My aim is to provide a visual backdrop and practical examples to this underlying theoretical and philosophical discourse, where the disembodied participant and (re)-embodied avatar in my installations find themselves in an increasingly social and political second life context.

Whereas the underlying theoretical framework of this presentation clearly identifies a number of critical and philosophical standpoints ranging from a poststructuralist position that follows the linguistic and semiotic guiding principles of de Saussure to the formation of the ego in relation to the body image in Lacan’s mirror stage, it is the artistic outcomes of my own practiced-based research that identifies and pronounces these theoretical stances within my art installations. Through the development of these artistic works since the early 1990s a philosophical discourse has emerged through experience and practice rather than initiated by theory alone, but one that is now completely entwined where as an artist I feel both the theory and practice are at the forefront of my work.

Making and Reading Material Data

by Prof. Ian Gwilt

This talk will explore how the creation of physical artefacts based on data extracted from complex digital information systems changes the way we read, interpret and respond to complex information. Through the interpretation of scientific data collected on the relationship between 'age and dexterity/strength' the project discussed investigates how different visual translations change our relationship and understanding of data. Moreover, by reconceptualising digital information into a physical environment the research seeks to reveal how stakeholders read, perceive and respond to these different manifestations.

LabCulture and the Liminal

by Julie Penfold

LabCulture is a unique, dedicated Artists’ space for R&D where experimentation and exploration can take place. This paper will discuss the historical, conceptual and functional studio practice as an example of liminal space in action. Using examples of Artists’ process and practice, the paper will demonstrate LabCulture's ‘birth’ and historical role as go between, the conceptual linkages between creative process and institutions, and the Lab’s physical/digital function. It posits that contemporary being and self-awareness is already distanced from ‘reality’, “falling through the cracks, in the interstices of social structure" (Turner).

LabCulture is a viral structure.

It pops up wherever favourable, often hosted by partner ‘organisms’.

It is durational, temporary, capable of mutation.

It occupies diverse spaces and situations.

It offers physical and virtual platforms for meeting and action.

It works at the interface between interdisciplinary practice, architecture and the environment.

This paper aims to map the 'neither here nor there' of individual artist's process and sensibility and offer it as a modus vivendi blueprint for the future.

Consortium, is active within APD networks [a-n, NAN, Turning Point SW] and is a Director of B-Side CIC.

Art and the Liminal: Imagination, Liminality and Avatar-Mediated Presence

by Dr. Denise Doyle

The ease in which we experience the liminal through technology mediated virtual space is even more pronounced when the space is avatar-mediated creating an oscillating state of existence between the virtual and the physical. Yet both consciousness and the imagination depend on this liminality of space. With a focus on the ‘threshold’ this continual ‘about to become’ is almost a necessary condition of being. Some virtual environments (or worlds) deliberately play with this ‘existential overlay to the physical’ (Lichty 2009: 2). Working with a new framework of the emergent imagination consideration is given to the transitional spaces created in artworks in virtual world spaces where aspects of the liminal come to the fore. This paper considers to what extent we can examine imaginative or liminal states that are, as Edward Casey notes, ‘remarkably easy to enter into’, yet their ‘very ephemerality renders [them] resistant to conceptual specification of a precise sort’ (Casey 2000: 6- 7). The paper considers to what extent transitional spaces share similar characteristics to the liminal. Does the liminal always find the point of the threshold? Does avatar-mediation (re)space the imagination to a place geographically distant from the body? Do we experience liminality in a similar way? Or is the liminal more closely bound to the temporal? To what extent are both conditioned by the virtual? The relationship between the transitional and liminal, and the avatar experience, sets out a particular view of the imagination and its elusive, and sometimes liminal, qualities.

Towards [Co-authoring] Communitas: The facilitation of becoming through participatory art / tech projects and the practice of place-making

by Anita McKeown

In ARISTOTELIAN PHILOSOPHY, the process of change from a lower level of potentiality to the higher level of actuality is known as becoming. Maslow refers to this process as self-actualisation, or to become more and more of what one is, or capable of becoming. 

In order for the process of becoming to take place the dissolution of the normative values or understanding of one’s self and context is necessary (Turner 2008). This dissolution, a liminal phase, although initially destabilising, can create an environment conducive to the individual’s values and normal modes of behaviour being reflected upon and transformed.

Digital technology, particularly the internet, ‘ a natural environment for liminality’ (Waskul 2004,40) in conjunction with open source software / culture and their inherent liminal qualities are considered as tools for the creation and production of liminal phases / liminoid spaces.

The paper introduces the role of liminal phases / liminoid spaces for the process of becoming, drawing from anthropological theories of Van Gennap and Turner, and the concept of individuation as argued through Maslow's concept of self-actualisation and Jungian psychology. Informed by these theories, the contribution of participatory art / tech projects for the practice of place-making is considered as a process of becoming, both for participating individuals and their wider context. (Place-making simply put is the process of people coming together in space to ‘make’ place.)

Through examples of participatory art/tech projects and the liminal phases / liminoid spaces they produce, the paper argues how the undoing of given understandings of place can occur, affording new understandings of place and the individual’s place within that context.

To conclude, the paper explores the potential of this process to produce communitas (social structure based on common humanity and equality rather than recognized hierarchy the participants and place involved) through the contribution of participatory art/tech projects within the practice of place-making, potentially a process of ‘becoming’ both for the participants and place involved. 


Witt, C. Ways of Being: Potentiality and Actuality in Aristotle's Metaphysics. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2003.
Turner, V.  Liminality and Communitas, in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction Press, 2008.
Waskul, D. D. Net.seXXX: Readings on Sex, Pornography, and the Internet. New York: P. Lang, 2004.

Bios of the Participants

Dew Harrison

Dew Harrison is a Professor of Digital Media Art and Director of CADRE, the Centre for Art and Design Research And Experimentation at the University of Wolverhampton, where she works as the Associate Dean for Research and Postgraduate Studies in the School of Art and Design.  As a practising artist with a PhD from CAIIA (Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts), her work continues to explore a theoretically informed computer-mediated approach to the territory between art, technology and consciousness studies in order to position a participatory concept-based art practice. This involves semantically associating ideas and concepts into non-linear multimedia form and digital outcomes have been shown both in the UK and internationally.  She considers the dialogue between the virtual (digital) realm and the real world, as a semantic space for creative exploration.  With over 50 publications to date, she is regularly invited to present at conferences concerning Consciousness Studies, Curation and Archiving, Digital Art, Art History, Interactive Gaming, and Museology.

Her practice is often collaborative as exampled in her most recent installation work ‘Shift-Life’ where she worked with two programmers and an animator. This piece was commissioned by Shrewsbury Museum Services for the International Darwin Bicentenary, and funded by Arts Council England.

Paul Sermon

Paul Sermon is Professor of Creative Technology and Associate Head for Research and Innovation at the School of Art & Design, University of Salford. He has developed a series of celebrated interactive telematic art installations that have received international acclaim. Through a sus- tained research funding income he has continued to produce, exhibit, and discuss his work extensively at an international level. Paul Sermon graduated with a BA Hon’s Fine Art degree under Professor Roy Ascott at the University of Wales in 1988 and received an MFA degree from the University of Reading, England, in 1991. He was awarded the Prix Ars Electronica ‘Golden Nica’, in the category of interactive art for the hyper media installation ‘Think about the People now’ in Linz, Austria, in 1991. He produced the ISDN videoconference installation ‘Telematic Vision’ as an Artist in Residence at the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1993 and received the ‘Sparkey Award’ from the Interactive Media Festival in Los Angeles, for the telepresent video installation ‘Telematic Dreaming’ in 1994. Paul Sermon was a nominee at the World Technology Awards 2005 and holds a number of external appointments that influence research policy. Since 2004 he has been an AHRC Peer Review College member, member of the NWDA funded North West Art & Design Research Group, Chair of Media Arts Net- work Northwest [ma-net], and advises on various international journal and conference editorials. External collaborations include the AHRC funded REACT (Research Engine for Art and Creative Technology).

Ian Gwilt

Ian Gwilt is a Professor of Design at Sheffield Hallam University who has shown interactive works at international new media events, galleries and exhibitions. He has a degree in Communication Design from Manchester Metropolitan University, a Masters in Multimedia, conferred jointly by the University of Balears, Spain and the Royal College of Art, London, and a Ph.D. from the University of New South Wales. He is a practitioner in the design of creative interactive media, with a broad understanding of digital design issues, which have been published in research papers, publications and exhibitions of his own work.

Current areas of research include: visual communication and social practice; information visualisation/materialisation; augmented artefacts and locations; hybrid creative practices such as design for museum interaction; interactive installations and augmented reality for mobile devices. His practice/thesis PhD examined how the computer-based graphical user interface can be seen as a creative/cultural artefact.

Julie Penfold

Julie Penfold has over 20 years experience of working across the arts and cultural sector leading and managing organisations, and delivering programmes. Since 1991 much of her work has taken place within artist led initiatives liaising at national, international, county and district levels.

Julie was co-founder in 1996 of artist group PVA. She is the current project director and coordinator of PVA MediaLab overseeing, producing and facilitating process based, research-structured activity with artists whose practice spans many disciplines. She is instrumental in the support and development of artists and their work through the lab’s commissioning and bursary programmes. She is working on a variety of partnership projects, leading commissions and outreach programmes with AONB/South Dorset Ridgeway, Jurassic Coast Arts, B-Side Festival, Big Picture Consortium/Ex-Lab.

Julie is the co-curator of a number of new media related events and exhibitions including:

LabCulture Residencies; Coast to Coast Symposia; Universal Value Commissions;

B-Side Festival; ReThink – ReThinkingTime [Substation Singapore].

Julie is a Director of LabCulture Ltd and is Dorset’s core contact for ALIAS Arts CIC. She represents PVA MediaLab at the Big Picture

Denise Doyle

Denise Doyle recently completed her research at SMARTlab Digital Media Institute, University of East London (under the directorship of Professor Lizbeth Goodman) where she undertook a practice-based PhD investigating the Artist’s experience of the Imaginary and Imagination in Virtual Worlds. She has developed a new framework for the Imagination that incorporates experiences of mediated spaces created through interdisciplinary research in Art and Technology. Denise recently guest co-edited a Special Issue on the Imagination and Virtual Worlds for the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, where she also sits as an editorial board member. She recently joined the editorial board for the International Journal of Performance Art and Digital Media. A recent collaborative artist residency in West Bengal, India, has developed new avenues for her research on the virtual, the imaginary and place. Her research interests include: virtual worlds, interactive film, philosophies of the imagination, practice-based research methods, and digital narratives.

Anita McKeown

Anita McKeown is an interdisciplinary artist, producer, curator and researcher working in the public domain, with a focus on the potential of open-source software / culture to transform space to place. She is currently undertaking a PhD within the SMARTlab Research Institute, University College Dublin, where she is also Artist-in Residence.

She has worked as Creative Director of Arts Services Un-incorporated (ASU) a not-for-profit arts organisation based in South East London, which she co-founded (2006). She was elected by invitation to the Royal Society of Arts (2008) and was the recipient of a prestigious Bravo Award (2005), the only non-U.S. citizen to do so to date for a digital public art project in Memphis TN.

Her experience of project development and management as well as cross arts experience within a range of contexts has evolved through her work with a number of organisations within the arts e.g. ART.e @ the art of change, Lewisham Youth theatre, Music in Prisons, Razor Edge Theatre Company and Heart N Soul Theatre Company.

Her work continues to be exhibited and performed nationally and internationally, recently completing a 3 month residency in Taos, New Mexico, resulting in, a collaborative, on and offline network project.