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What is 'Virtual'?

The virtual is a term that simply distinguishes itself from ‘reality’ – it is always a representation of a reality whether a ‘realistic’ one, a fantastical one or any one on the spectrum in between. The virtual is not limited to the digital realms of present day but includes a long history of created spaces that have utilized different mediums and modes of representation. These include the ancient fresco rooms, such as those found at Pompeii’s Villa dei Misteri, and panorama rotundas, popular in the late 1700s and early 1800s, as well as the many iterations of the virtual explored throughout art history- arguably from cave paintings to paintings made in atmospheric perspective, to the Renaissance’s obsession with linear perspective, to Impressionism and Cubism. Each form of representation requires the user to enter that particular regime of representation. For example, in order to understand a cubist painting and enter this virtual space, the viewer must view it cubistically.

Perception is also a form of representation of reality, conceived through a relationship with previous experience. We continuously experience “controlled hallucinations”[1] (or in the case of psychosis, “uncontrolled perceptions”). All experience is "the cognition of objects as they appear to us, not as they are.”[2] Collective agreement on these ‘hallucinations’ becomes what is considered reality.

This understanding of the virtual allows us to deduce that since perception of reality is not equivalent to that reality- rather it is a subjective representation of reality- it, then, too, is virtual. This follows with the Kantian argument that everything is virtual since reality can never actually be understood. It is always understood through a representation of itself. Alternatively, since reality is always perceived as a representation, then we can conversely say that there is no such thing as the virtual- the virtual is reality.

[1]Terminology used by the cognitive and computational neuroscientist, Anil Seth (professor at University of Sussex).

[2]Louden, R.B., Kant, I., 2006. Kant: Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. P.32.

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