February 17, 2020

This text was written about my aquatic VR experience, Spaced Out.

In my latest VR project, SPACED OUT, I have crafted a poetic experience which uses the first waterproof VR headset from BallastVR. SPACED OUT allows the visitor to float above the surface of the water and breathe with a snorkel, while being immersed onto the lunar surface. In this immersive installation, I have attempted to explore the theme of dissociation, both as content and a user’s experience, bordering psychology and poetry. 

Based in Paris, I am an activist, focusing on providing support to victims of sexual violence. As a survivor of rape myself and after two decades of healing, I have joined a French NGO, Association Parler, created Sandrine Rousseau, a former MP and prominent member of the French green party, EELV. This is an association of people, who are allies in their recovering journey and share their experiences, their strengths and their hopes as victims of sexual violence. I am a discussion facilitator and created a first-of-its-kind monthly support group, only for male victims. The meetings are a friendly zone for those who seek support outside their professional therapeutic or legal council. My healing journey, similar to others, had reached a final stage when I began to realize the core of my suffering is a state called dissociation, a complex post-traumatic stress disorder. 

According to Paul F. Dell in his Psychiatric Clinics of North America, dissociation is any of a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experiences by some victims of multiple forms of childhood trauma, including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality, rather than a loss of reality as in psychosis. Dissociation is commonly displayed on a continuum. In the case of someone with a history of trauma (sexual violence or others) pathological dissociation involves dissociative disorders, including dissociative fugue and depersonalization disorder with or without alterations in sense of self. These alterations can include: a sense that self or the world is unreal (derealization) and separate streams of consciousness, identity and self (depersonalization). In mild cases, dissociation can be regarded as a coping mechanism or defense mechanisms in seeking to master, minimize or tolerate stress. At the non-pathological end, dissociation describes common events such as daydreaming, absent-mindness (aka spaced out), or altered states of consciousness. 

The experience of being in a virtual world while being in the water creates a literal immersion. Putting your head underwater immediately makes the experience another impression of reality. Your body slowly dives when you stop moving; earth-gravity is defied. Sounds are perceived differently, even through the body via bone-conduction. Wearing the BallastVR headset DIVR you feel weightless; the virtual camera creates an illusion of movement in your body. Those who experience SPACED OUT often comment they felt deep relaxation and a thought-free mind, in line with one hour of meditation. It’s worth mentioning that with aquatic VR, there can’t be motion-sickness because the inner ear experiences different gravity. When someone first hears about this waterproof VR headset, doubts and concerns are expressed: How does one breathe underwater? How not to sink in water? How to avoid the embarrassment of being in a swimsuit in front of others? How not to hit other visitors in the water? The pattern of these questions revolves around the body experience in relation to oneself and others. In that sense, there is a resonance between inside and outside. Worries are verbally manifested as signs of internal turmoil. 

SPACED OUT introduces a character with a human body and a moon head. The trajectory goes from earth to the moon, and then within. Eventually the VR experience finishes with a sense of fusion between mind and body. The moon-man finds his head back, he is no longer spaced out. The duality of the moon and earth is a symbol of our dissociative nature; the journey is at the same time outward but intimate as well. 

With SPACED OUT, I wish to accomplish a reaction from the visitors. Nevertheless, I am a poet and not a therapist. Immersed in a pool while wearing the world’s first VR underwater headset, visitors float in a virtual world. The touch of water brings a unique personal experience, challenging daydreaming and dissolving absent-mindness. Even for a few seconds, I hope the visitors become aware of their body or pay attention to what is happening around them: being in the here and now.

Beyond trauma and pathology, as human species, aren’t we “spaced out”? Living in cities and being slaves to routine, didn’t we lose a sense of connection between mind and body? Perhaps, through ‘cybernetic sensuality’, we can make a re-connection with ourselves via digital technology which uses cyber-aesthetic feedback to allow us to feel the caress (and bite) of a transcendental experience…