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Embodiment, Virtual Reality and Quantum Enactments 

produced by: Chris Speed

This research project explores theories within quantum physics and virtual reality to form an artefact in service of my work as a computational artist. I will be untangling many threads and utilise a range of sources to build an argument. My hope is that drawing on these methodologies will help me to understand these complex fields of research and inform my practice.

This paper intends to raise questions such as how are contemporary artists influenced by quantum phenomena? And how can this give rise to new artistic ontologies such as virtual reality? Later in this essay I will also query how quantum physics could inspire new forms of polymorphic embodiment in virtual worlds.

But a question to ask could be why use VR to explore the quantum world? Especially since this critical distance signals a diverging path from my practise as an audio-visual performer. Beyond its initial novelties, VR has potential to democratise aspects of AV practise and incorporate users into the artwork itself. Relinquishing critical control could reward fresh perspectives on my work and allow me to develop as a practitioner.

In some ways this lack of curatorial agency invokes Barthes (2010) idea of "The Death of the Author" as now the user has full authorship and the artist shepherds’ computational processes for them to explore. Ultimately, this artefact is heading towards a virtual reality installation and performance, but first let’s dive into a brief history of quantum theory to see how this lays the framework for our journey. 


Quantum field theory explores the matter and energy of atoms on a subatomic scale. This was gradually developed in the mid-1920s through insights by notable scientific thinkers such as Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. At this smallest scale of fundamental physics lies critique, as contemporary theorists such as Karen Barad have challenged materialist readings and expressed doubt towards the theory’s Cartesian nature. As we shall see, Barad instead advocates her theory of agential realism as an alternative to traditional western sciences as it also considers non-human agents.

I have observed that this post-humanist viewpoint connects to some ideas explored within phenomenology. Barad (2007) expresses how “science and technology are actively remaking the nature of “the human.”” The connection to VR is evident as some may see wearing technology such as head mounted displays (HMD) as potentially posthuman.

Phenomenology is the branch of philosophical study which explores consciousness and our perception of the world around us. The sense of being there in embodied experience challenges our preconceived ontologies when it comes to the body. Embodiment and the subject object dichotomy allow us to reflect on technologies which can directly challenge these Cartesian notions. For example, bodily boundary is malleable in VR as virtual embodiment can be altered to any abstracted forms which Murray & Sixsmith (1999) refer to as “polymorphic representations.”

Virtual reality is interesting to look at through the lens of phenomenology as embodiment is useful for investigating the human body in relation to technological artefacts. VR as a cultural medium has evolved from panoramic paintings to military flight simulators, but the first head mounted display was the Sword of Damocles system created by Ivan Sutherland in 1968. Modern incarnations now allow for immersive affordances that traditional media simply cannot such as 360-degree view and user control.

The notion of a “cyberbody” (Murray & Sixsmith (1999)) is interesting to consider within this technoscientific loop. Virtual body ownership is a key illusion in VR and recreating bodily representation in a virtual space is essential to ground the user within the experience. Appealing to sensorimotor contingencies increases immersion and, with enough time spent in virtual worlds, embodied cognition could ease us into accepting fantastical experiences. This reliance on the body as an avatar for perception is reminiscent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological notion of the lived body which “acts in embodied, intimate and irreducible relation with the world” Ng (2010).

To challenge VR embodiment, my artefact will transcend beyond human shaped virtual bodies and extend to the metaphysical. As a form of critical fabulation, these speculative VR representations would be an artistic interpretation of scientific concepts. This would serve as a Gedanken experiment which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “thought experiment.” The structure of this report centres around duality, as it has been a recurrent theme throughout my practice. These Cartesian dichotomies have included subject-object, nature-culture and inner-outer space. Rather aptly I will use micro and macro scales to separate the two seemingly disparate fields of quantum theory and virtual reality.   


Many microstructures exist on a quantum level, Bye (2017) even believes there could be “other dimensions” at the base of our mathematical reality. Quantum Fluctuations by Markos Kay uses particle simulations to denote properties found in quantum theory such as wave-particle duality, superposition, entanglement and indeterminacy. Figure 1. (Markos Kay 2016) is a visualisation of one of these complex structures, however, Kay neglects to look at diffraction in quantum mechanical terms.

Diffraction phenomena is evident in many elements of wave behaviour as light, sound and water all exhibit similar patterns. In her seminal book Meeting the Universe Halfway, Barad (2007) characterises this as “when stones are dropped in a pond and the ripples overlap.” Diffraction optics play a huge role in VR as it is used in headset lenses for mapping displays to enable a “wide field of view” (James (2013)). Barad and fellow feminist theorist Donna Haraway also show us how to utilise diffractive techniques to structure our writing, as Haraway (1999) would say “diffract rather than reflect.”

Something that strikes me about Barad’s writing is it’s metaphysical and poetic exploration of quantum mechanics. Barad seems to have a distrust in classical physicists such as Niels Bohr and like Haraway frequently critiques aspects of the scientific method. However, Barad (2003) remarks how phenomenological Bohr’s observations can be at times, even commenting how his work questions “the related Cartesian belief in the inherent distinction between subject and object.” Ultimately Barad argues that the presence of human concepts, human knowledge and mostly human error have been regressive to the field of quantum mechanics. This position is reflected within my project, perhaps embodying the user within simulations of quanta could help develop a more posthumanist perspective on matter.

Barad’s theory of agential realism serves as an epistemological, ontological, and ethical framework which seeks to provide a posthumanist account on these issues. In Trevor Pinch’s review of Meeting the universe halfway, Pinch (2011) discerns three major points from agential realism. This includes grounding language in “material discursive practices”, extending the “limited notion of apparatus that Bohr (and most scientists) share” and “that humans themselves are produced by nature.”

By thinking laterally about how we approach science and nature, Barad believes agential realism could serve as a “new basis for ethics” Pinch (2011). This theory has guided the project’s development by extending my notions of apparatus within VR and using posthuman embodiment as a tool for encountering simulated quantum phenomena. 

Continuing with the concept of the posthuman, it is evident that modern technologies are remaking the very nature of what it means to be human. Through the devices we use every day, each of us are slowly reconfiguring our nature and escaping further into our own virtual realities. The boundaries between nature and culture are frequent topics within feminist technoscience which authors such as Karen Barad, Donna Haraway and Lucy Suchman have all addressed.

Looking to the vast expanse of the ocean, Barad (2003) uses the “visualising system” of brittlestar organisms as a metaphor for the points raised within agential realism. In a posthumanist sense, these autonomous echinoderms can consistently evolve their physical geometry and rework bodily boundaries. This gives me aesthetic inspiration for the artefact, particularly organic forms which could be viewed in VR exhibiting flocking behaviour which individually Reynolds (1987) refers to as ‘boids.’

Finally, Barad’s notion of intra-action, a reworking of the word “interaction” speaks of the collisions between human and non-human entities (Pinch (2011)). In computational art terms this makes me think of interactive particle systems and what would happen if we ascribed them individual agency? Much like Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, perhaps directly observing the stochastic particle formations in VR could trigger what Barad (2003) refers to as an “agential cut”, a sudden separation between subject and object.

To depart from these ontologies, I began to uncover audio-visual art influenced by quantum phenomena. For primary research I visited Libita Clayton’s Quantum Ghost exhibition at Gasworks. The piece consisted of three elements, an immersive sound installation, photograms and performances. As a critique on the ghosts of post-colonialism, Clayton traces the memory of her ancestors through raw materials associated with mining. Figure 2. (Libita Clayton 2019) shows the tunnel-like structure which housed a multi-channel audio installation consisting of field recordings collaged together with artist musician Jol Thomson.

The installation utilised a sonic archive of granulated audio recordings which reverberated through the space. Granular synthesis itself has many quantum implications as it involves splitting sound into tiny grains and resampling them on a microsonic scale. In the book Microsound by Curtis Roads, Roads (2004) writes about Dennis Gabor’s signal processing technique of “Gabor Analysis” and its origin within sonic insights from quantum physics.

Continuing with granular methods, another artwork which utilises this to great effect is Chris Salter’s sensory environment Just Noticeable Difference (JND). Figure 3. (Chris Salter 2010) is a photo of the installation in which users are submerged in total darkness and are engulfed by resonating microsounds. In writing about Salter’s piece, Mark Hansen refers to these micropractices as a “quantum of intensity” (Hansen (2015)). Depriving users of sensory affordances is an inescapable element of virtual reality, as Murray & Sixsmith (1999) observe comparisons between “embodiment” and “sensory deprivation.”

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In the macro elements of this report I will be analysing holistic structures of phenomenology such as consciousness. My first encounter with this philosophy was through Merleau-Ponty and his influential work the Phenomenology of perception. His account of the body, simultaneously existing as both subject and object, is worth revisiting when analysing ourselves in relation to the technological world.

As humans we are dependent on social presence, which modern multiplayer Social VR applications seem to capitalise on. However, when the “sensory apparatus” of Merleau-Ponty (2002) is removed in solo virtual reality experiences, what remains as base reality? Marshmallow Laser Feast’s recent work We live in an Ocean of Air uncovers an interesting middle ground between these two distinctions. Figure 4. (Marshmallow Laser Feast 2019) shows how sensory experience is shared amongst participants. In a very literal sense, one feels as they are exploring both inner and outer space simultaneously as you wonder amongst a forest of virtual particles.

The breath sensing technology within this piece seem to be a contemporary update of the Osmose system by Char Davies. Similarly, Davies creates a sensory experience in which immersants use a breathing mechanism to navigate through an abstracted natural environment, see Figure 5. (Char Davies 1995). Murray & Sixsmith (1999) believe Davies harnessing the potential of the breath, as an alternative gestural interface, reflects “a feminist understanding of the body.”

But this mind and matter materialism I wish to challenge with my project, in hopes of expanding our perception by imagining ourselves haunting bodies outside of human experience. Jenna Ng describes posthuman identity within digital environments using the framework of derived embodiment, “as presence enmeshed with information” (Ng (2010)). Moving away from my initial binary interplay, I wish to now blur distinctions between human and non-human entities using new forms of alien phenomenology.

Vicki Kirby’s book Quantum Anthropologies devotes a chapter to deconstructing Merleau-Ponty’s vision of consciousness. In a similar rhythm to Barad’s reading of Bohr, Kirby observes parallels between Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about perception and the complexity of the quantum realm. Kirby (2011) argues Merleau-Ponty’s quantification of higher orders, such as Being, into “measurants” is almost scientific. This mind body dualism is further likened to wave particle behaviour when Ponty speaks of how we can individuate ourselves into a “new type of being” (Kirby (2011)).

Looking beyond Kirby’s quantum examinations of the material world, I have drawn further inspiration from the cosmic void. Jane Grant is an artist researcher who explores boundaries between scientific inquiry and artistic exploration. Figure 6. (Jane Grant 2017) her site-specific piece This Excited Surface, is particularly relevant as it directly draws upon Karen Barad’s writing. The sound-based work consists of a glowing yellow dish (representing Earth’s ionosphere) concealing floor speakers which replay a sonification of our sun’s activity. This interplanetary interplay interweaves cosmological ideas with a profoundly human desire for connection. Figuring human ontology through scientific phenomena is exactly what I want to ultimately achieve with this project. Virtual reality to me is a meditative practise in which we can safely experience altered states and look to inner space in order to understand outer space. 

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To ultimately draw conclusions on these two disparate fields has certainly been challenging and analysing my creation in relation to theoretical research is a cosmic undertaking. But nonetheless I hope Figure 7. (Chris Speed 2019) communicates the first stages of development for this posthumanist quantum VR experience. 

I used the Unity game engine to create a particle system which aligns to generative wave formations through Perlin noise. Some of the quantum ideas introduced by writers such as Karen Barad have directly inspired aesthetic attributes within the artefact such as the virtual camera’s emphasis on light waves and diffracted chromatic aberration. In future iterations, I will code interactive elements reminiscent of agential realist notions, such as using virtual (nonhuman) hands as an apparatus for diffraction.

Other iterative developments could include using granular synthesis with artificial intelligence to give each particle agency and a literal voice in the form of a sound grain. This multichannel VR performance will be situated within an immersive projection system to further embody the duality of inner and outer space content.

Ultimately this report has helped develop phenomenological understanding of my critical practice. Through embodiment into non-human phenomena such as particles, perhaps we could learn to better understand ourselves and our place within the universe? 

  1. ​​Barthes, R. (2010), “Death of the Author”, in Leitch, V.B. et al. (ed.) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2nd edition), USA: Norton, pp. 1322-1326.
  2. Barad, K.M., (2007), Meeting the universe halfway : quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Durham: Duke University Press.
  3. Roads, C., (2004), Microsound, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  4. Gabor analysis is a gaussian representation of acoustic signals within the time domain. 
  5. Kirby, V., (2011), Quantum anthropologies : life at large, London: Duke University Press.
  6. Kirby (2011) “The body’s senses are suggestively described as “measurants (mesurants) for Being, dimensions to which we can refer it, but not a relation of adequation or of immanence “ (1963, 103). As this is a wild and counterintuitive logic that Merleau-Ponty calls upon to explain perception and phenomena, it is worth noting its quantum implications here.””

Annotated Bibliography & Reference List

Barad, K.M., (2007), Meeting the universe halfway : quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Durham: Duke University Press.

Karen Barad’s background in theoretical physics has contributed fresh perspectives on matters of science, philosophy and thinking beyond human agency. I will be predominately referring to Barad’s theory of agential realism in depth throughout the report as it considers posthuman entanglement within quantum theory. Barad’s insightful descriptions of diffraction phenomena and brittlestars are integral influences on the aesthetic attributes of my virtual reality artefact. Ultimately Barad’s advocacy for contemporary social change within the realm of science has opened my mind to fresh perspectives on matter and material discursive practises.

Kirby, V., (2011), Quantum anthropologies : life at large, London: Duke University Press.

Vicki Kirby’s Quantum anthropologies has been a valuable conceptual underpinning to my research as the text functions as connective tissue between the topics of quantum theory and virtual reality. Through the philosophical lens of phenomenology, her analysis of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of perception follows a similar rhythm to Barad’s theorising on Niels Bohr. A key research methodology on quantum mechanics and phenomenology, Kirby has contributed to knowledge practises that have greatly informed my interpretation of Ponty’s ideas on the body in relation to VR.

Murray, C.D. & Sixsmith, J., (1999), “The Corporeal Body in Virtual Reality” , Ethos 27(3), 15–343.

The Corporeal Body in Virtual Reality by Craig D. Murray and Judith Sixsmith reconfigures our relations to technology and the nature of embodiment in VR experiences by considering non-human avatars as an alternative vehicle for perception. Their research into “polymorphic” embodiment in virtual worlds has been the final piece of the jigsaw when considering the relations between Barad’s posthuman viewpoint on matter and Merleau-Ponty’s account of the body. Ultimately borrowing knowledge from their computational practice has allowed me to hopefully build upon their research and contribute to theoretical perspectives.

Barad, K., (2003), “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(3), 801–831.

Barad, K.M., (2007), Meeting the universe halfway : quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Durham: Duke University Press.

Barthes, R. (2010), “Death of the Author”, in Leitch, V.B. et al. (ed.) The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2nd edition), USA: Norton, pp. 1322-1326.

Bye, K (2017), Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Phenomenology of Perception’ & Embodied Metaphors, podcast, 18 August, viewed 23 April 2019, <>.

Clayton, L (2019), Quantum Ghost, installation and photograms, Gasworks, viewed 23 February 2019, <>.

Davies, C (1995), Osmose, immersive virtual reality environment, Montreal, Canada: Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA), viewed 10 May 2019, <>.

Grant, J (2017), This Excited Surface, site specific installation, viewed 15 March 2019, <>.

Hansen, M.B.N., (2015), Feed-forward : on the future of twenty-first-century media, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Haraway, D., (1999), “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others”, Politica y Sociedad, (30), 121–163.

James, P., (2013), Intel Claims It Can Improve Image Quality for HMDs — Daniel Pohl Tells Us How, Road To VR, viewed 11 May 2019, <>. 

Kay, M (2016), Quantum Fluctuations: Experiments in Flux, digital film, viewed 09 March 2019, <>.

Kirby, V., (2011), Quantum anthropologies : life at large, London: Duke University Press.

Laser Feast, M (2019), We live in an Ocean of Air, immersive virtual reality environment, Saatchi Gallery, viewed 19 February 2019, <>.

Merleau-Ponty, M. & Smith, C., (2002), Phenomenology of perception, London: Routledge.

Murray, C.D. & Sixsmith, J., (1999), “The Corporeal Body in Virtual Reality” , Ethos 27(3), 15–343.

Ng, Jenna. (2010), “Derived embodiment: Interrogating posthuman identity through the digital avatar” , 2010 International Conference On Computer Design and Applications, 2, pp.V2–315-V2–318.

Pinch, T., (2011), “Karen Barad, quantum mechanics, and the paradox of mutual exclusivity”, Social Studies of Science, 41(3), 431.

Reynolds, C.W. (1987), “Flocks, Herds, and Schools: A Distributed Behavioral Model, in Computer Graphics” , 21(4) (SIGGRAPH '87 Conference Proceedings) pp. 25-34.

Roads, C., (2004), Microsound, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Salter, C (2010), Just Noticeable Difference (JND), sensory installation, viewed 09 May 2019, <>.

Wilinski, R., (2015), [Tutorial] Particle Sea in Unity3D, Medium, viewed 23 April 2019, <>.