Art and the Emergent Imagination in Avatar-Mediated Online Space

This paper presents a framework for what is termed 'the emergent imagination' (developed through a recent PhD thesis) that arises out of the transitional spaces created in avatar-mediated online space; and argues that the conditions for 'the emergent imagination' are best generated where the experience of space is heterogeneous and where the plasticity of time-space relationships is articulated.


Far from the immensities of sea and land […] isn’t imagination alone able to enlarge indefinitely the images of immensity? [1]


This paper presents a framework for what is termed ‘the emergent imagination’ (developed through a recent PhD thesis) that arises out of the transitional spaces created in avatar-mediated online space, and it examines how contemporary notions of the virtual have changed our framing of the imaginary. According to Edward Casey, “imagination (in Western thought) is not securely situated in regard to such decidedly different acts as sensory perception and conceptual thinking.” [2] Perhaps this is because, “imagining is easy enough to enact as experience, but it is extremely difficult to capture in midair for the purposes of scrutiny and examination.” [3] This paper considers the importance of investigating imaginative experience in relation to the process of artistic creativity and practice and discusses the ways in which the ‘virtuality’ of avatar-mediated online space impacts on the ‘reading’ of the artworks created in the space itself. Referring to the heterogeneities of space explored in virtual worlds, the paper argues that whilst the virtual remains connected to time, the imagination becomes connected to space, and through this a new set of time-space relationships in virtual space can be articulated. 

Avatar-Mediated Online Space 

Since its inception eight years ago artists have been exploring the virtual space of Second Life where the act of creating is already mediated through technology. The Kritical Works in SL exhibitions were presented during 2008 and 2009 on Kriti Island, which acted as a laboratory space for ongoing artistic and imaginative practice research in Second Life. Central to the development of the space was the community of experimental artist practitioners who relied on a particular form of collaborative co-operation. The research began with a grass roots development from connections made within the space itself. As an artist-researcher, the main strategy was to create a presence on the platform and invite others to participate. Kriti was also a space for the presentation of the process of thinking in relationship to the key themes of the exhibitions, that of the imaginative potential of the space and the subsequent exploration of the relationship between physical and the virtual spaces. Following the realization of the exhibitions, interviews were conducted with six of the participating artists and analyzed for the artist’s insight in the context of creating immersive and interactive experiences in the Second Life space. The accepted format of the artist’s interview traditionally explores the tacit knowledge base of the artist’s experience and draws out any impact on the artistic process. However, a further method was used for the analysis that exposed a previously unacknowledged layer of experience for evaluation, that of the phenomenological method of Imaginative Variation. In this approach, the interviews were analyzed to uncover the essence and meaning of an experience, in this case ‘the artist’s experience of being a creative practitioner in virtual space.’

What criteria can be used to examine and make sense of the array of artworks produced in Second Life, and how can the practice undertaken there in the lifetime of the platform be reviewed in the context of contemporary art or New Media practice? What modalities of art are being explored within the space? The concerns appear varied and multi-layered. There is the continuation of the contemporary arts discourse in the Second Life space, there is the anarchy of social engagement and participation, and there is the recreation of painted virtual spaces where the issue is either their ability to come to life, or the ability to do the unimaginable, to walk around and be immersed in pictorial space. This play of the imagination incorporates the re-enactment of art and performance events. All of these movements and actions have come about on the Second Life platform during the last eight years.

Analyzing the Kritical Artworks

In his 2009 article, ‘The Translation of Art in Virtual Worlds,’ Patrick Lichty outlines a number of interesting questions with respect to artists working between the virtual, and what he terms the 'tangible.' He presents four modalities of art in which the modality “refers to the location and vector direction of the work’s relation between worlds.” [4] He suggests there are four modalites of art currently being produced in virtual worlds: the Transmediated, the Evergent, the Cybrid and the Client/Browser work. He explains:

This epistemological 'movement' within and between worlds has four basic structures; work that is essentially traditional physical art translated to the virtual, 'evergent' work that is physically realized from virtual origins, the virtual itself, designed entirely for the client/browser experience, and 'cybrids' that exist concurrently between various modalities. [5] 

The transmediator, according to Lichty, “tries to align the tangible and the virtual,” [6] and this movement is illustrated by the vector direction of the transmediated work from the physical world to the virtual world. According to Lichty, an example of work that is within this category is Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces (2005). A second modality of art are those built for the client/browser experience. The semiotics of these two modalities, the transmediated and the client/browser, are, as suggested by Lichty, “a straightforward affair.” [7] The Cybrids, according to Lichty, “are less concerned with continuity, but are interested in the differences and distinctions between worlds and scales.” [8] Both the Cybrid and the Evergent works demonstrate a “movement from virtual to tangible, which includes consideration of works existing in simultaneous physical and virtual components, [and] present more complex models.” [9] This complex play within and between worlds, in particular "the enigmatic liminal works that live between worlds," [10] those spaces that are potent for the imagination, already demonstrate an array of creative potential in the Second Life space. My own project entitled the Meta-Dreamer (2009) could be considered to be an evergent work based on Lichty’s proposition. Working with digital materialization expert Turlif Vilbrandt, [11] data was extracted from Second Life to create a digitally materialized object of my avatar, Wanderingfictions Story. By experimenting with digital processes and the type of material used, attempts were made to represent jade and clouded glass, amongst other textures. The end result can be seen in Fig. 1: the qualities of the figure are cloud-like and ethereal as though she (the meta-dreamer) is ‘almost there.’ [12]

The Emergence of Transitional Spaces 

The vectors of movement of the four modalities of art described by Lichty can be considered to denote the directions and creations of meaning between the physical or tangible world, and the virtual world, and movements within and between virtual spaces themselves. These vectors of meaning are, in the Transmediated artwork, from the physical world to the virtual; and the vector movement of the Evergent artwork, is from the virtual to the physical or the tangible. A third vector can be placed within the virtual world space and denotes a circular and self-referential movement within virtual and imagined worlds themselves. A fourth series of vectors move between the spaces denoted as Cybrid spaces where connections and augmentations of artworks are multiplied and duplicated. However, these vector movements could also be considered to be that of the ‘movements of the imagination’ itself. If the modalities of art and creation of imaginative effects are compared it appears that spaces in transition provide the movement where meaning is created. Through the research it was found that the imaginative effects created in the artworks and presented in the virtual world of Second Life arise out of four categories of transitional space: the surreal, the fictional/poetic, the emergent, and the spatio-temporal.  

An outcome of the research was the development of a new framework for the imagination (presented in diagrammatic form in Fig. 2). ‘The emergent imagination’ can be seen to emerge from both the heterogeneities of space created in the imaginative effects of the artworks and in the artist’s act of creating through a phenomenology of practice. The transitional spaces are at the centre of the framework itself and out of which ‘the emergent imagination’ comes into view. The conditions for the appearance of ‘the emergent imagination’ are seen both in the act of creation and in the outcome of the creative act itself. In the analysis of the imaginative effects of the artworks it was noted how the transitional spaces created suggest the presentation of space as a field of becoming. The heterogeneity of space created has at its base the multi-faceted experience of space and its changing relationship to time. Additionally, the phenomenological account of the artist’s experience of creative practice in the Second Life space suggests a varied experience of embodiment and imaginative experience. [13] The wide-ranging accounts of the artists indicated the extent to which time, space, and time-space relationships were central to this experience. In the creation of the framework for ‘the emergent imagination,’ the experience of embodiment and the associated imagination of the senses may explain the visceral and material responses to the phenomenological experience in virtual space.

Time-Spaces of the Emergent Imagination 

It is pertinent to consider Casey’s description of imaginal space, imaginal time and the imaginal margin (following his first-person phenomenological study of the imagination) with respect to the framework for ‘the emergent imagination.’ In describing his experience of imaginal time, Casey writes that in the felt presence, “not only was there no single temporal matrix extending throughout […] in each instance there was present a vague positioning of given items of content within a time span.” [14] In describing imaginal space Casey writes, “in spite of their diverse and often truncated character, these varieties of spatial expanse were nonetheless intrinsic elements of the imagined content […] for all such items of specific content are invariably presented as localized, if not strictly located, within imaginal space.” [15] Finally, with respect to Casey’s imaginal margin, it is described as, “the fading fringe found at the outer limit of specific imagined content […] being almost entirely featureless, it cannot be given any definite location.” [16] Echoes of the imaginal margin are found in the explanation artist Taey Iohe provides of her experience of allowing her mind to drift in the Second Life space, not knowing if she sees a half wolf or a half dog at the edges of the world as though she is describing the space of a dream or reverie. [17] With respect to Casey’s study, there is no real sense of the positioning of an imaginative experience in time and this is also the same for space. There is no real geography of the imagination in a physical, locatable, Cartesian sense and this is reflected in the heterogeneities of space experienced in avatar-mediated online spaces. A field (rather than a geography) of the imagination may be a more suitable account of the experience.

Doreen Massey, in an essay responding to the work of artist Olafur Eliasson, attempts to illustrate a set of relationships between time and space by using a narrative account of a journey between Manchester and Liverpool. In the process of traveling she suggests, “if movement is reality itself then what we think of as space is a cut through all those trajectories; a simultaneity of unfinished stories.” [18] Furthermore: 

Space has its times. To open up space to this kind of imagination means thinking about time and space together. You can’t hold places and things still. What you can do is meet up with them […] ‘Here,’ in that sense is not a place on a map. It is that intersection of trajectories. [original emphasis] [19]

If each space has a particular time, as Massey implies, then the transitional spaces that have been identified in avatar-mediated online spaces may also have a particular time attached to them. Not only, then, are there heterogeneities of space but also different sets of time-spaces that can also be located in the Second Life experience. The time-spaces of ‘the emergent imagination’ may also share their qualities with mythic time. Of mythic stories, Jay Griffiths writes:

[They] talk time out of mind, charm time and trick time, clogging it or stretching it: fables make time fabulously paradoxical, a stubborn blot on the face of clock-time but true to the time of the psyche, where past present and future are kaleidoscoped. [20]

Even Gaston Bachelard writes in the Dialectics of Duration of different levels of temporal experience:

As soon as we had acquired through mediation some skill in emptying lived time of all its excess and ordering the different levels of temporal phenomena into a series [we] saw that between this passing of things and the abstract passing of time there is no synchronism. [21]

All of these expressions suggest a plasticity to time as a lived experience, but also to the specificities of time-space relationships.


Sean Cubitt suggests that in online arts it is in the combination of a “spatialisation of time” and “the remaking of actual-virtual relations’ that the peculiar ephemerality of online arts makes new sense.” [22] The very notion that Cubitt expresses here is the very set of relationships discovered to be at the centre of a framework for ‘the emergent imagination.' The analysis of the imaginative effects of the artworks presented in the two virtual (and physical) gallery exhibitions of the Kritical Works in SL project demonstrates a mode of artistic exploitation of the particular combination of user-generated and avatar-mediated spaces. These virtual, sometimes liminal and always transitional, spaces that emerge from the artworks are complex and multi-layered. A further analysis of a phenomenology of the practices of artists in avatar-mediated online spaces reveals that the imagination is experienced as embodied. A materiality to space is identified through an imagination of the senses that responds to the presence of the (imagined) body of the avatar. Here, the conditions for ‘the emergent imagination’ are best generated in avatar-mediated online spaces, where the experience of space is heterogeneous and where the plasticity of time-space relationships can be articulated.   

This paper explored some of the philosophical implications of virtual worlds, through an examination of the concept of the imagination as that concept is seen in light of the pervasiveness of the virtual in our everyday lives. The thesis presented here posits that it is precisely in the generation of ‘the emergent imagination’ in avatar-mediated online spaces that we can best enrich our ‘real world’ lives, by applying some of the emergent experience of the plasticity of time-space relationships and the heterogeneity of space itself to our lives in the world around us.

References and Notes: 
  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 183.
  2. Edward Casey, Imagining (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000), 19.
  3. Ibid., 4.
  4. Patrick Lichty, "The Translation of Art in Virtual Worlds," Leonardo Electronic Almanac Vol. 16, No. 4-5 (2009): 1-12, (accessed January 5, 2010).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Turlif Vilbrandt is an expert in the field of Digital Materialization. He is currently undertaking his PhD research at the SMARTlab Digital Media Research Institute, University College Dublin.
  12. Denise Doyle, Kritical Works in SL II (Wolverhampton: CADRE, 2009), 15.
  13. Denise Doyle, "Artist Interviews," Art and the Emergent Imagination in Avatar-Mediated Online Space, (PhD Thesis, UEL, 2010), 243-299.
  14. Edward Casey, Imagining (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000), 52-53.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Denise Doyle, "Taey Iohe," Art and the Emergent Imagination in Avatar-Mediated Online Space (PhD Thesis, UEL, 2010), 267-272.
  18. Doreen Massey, "Some Times of Space," Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Report, ed. Susan May, 11 (London: Tate Publishing, 2003).
  19. Ibid.
  20. Jay Griffiths, A Sideways Look at Time (New York: Penguin, 2004), 66.
  21. Gaston Bachelard, The Dialectic of Duration (Manchester: Clinamen Press Limited, 2000), 18-19.
  22. Sean Cubitt, "Internet Aesthetics," International Handbook of Internet Research, eds. Jeremy Hunsinger, Lizbeth Klastrup and Mathew Allen, 169 (Netherlands: Springer, 2010).