Why is 'virtual' often synonymous with 'digital'? I suspect that the term 'virtual reality' had something to do with it, as when it was coined in the early 1990's new visions of digitally-driven immersive experiences invaded popular culture. Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Lawnmower Man, Max Headroom, and similar media exploited early digital technologies to imagine a future of complex virtual environments.
But "virtuality"—the systematic approximation and representation of reality—existed long before computers. The adjective “virtual” has been in continuous use since the 15th century, and derives from post-classical Latin virtualis—possessing certain physical virtues. Adding the suffix -al—of or relating to that which is denoted by the first element, as in global, palatial, sexual—renders a broader and more applicable definition of “virtual”: “Senses relating to essential, as opposed to physical or actual, existence." To wit: “physical-like”, or “real-ish.” With this definition, virtuality not only existed before computers, but it would seem that humans have always been virtual. Early mathematics and painting relied on shadows—real-time projected images, and Renaissance painters sought verisimilitude with linear perspective. Our long pursuit of virtual technologies now meets a perfect engine in computation.
Born in 1975, I was a junior in college when Netscape produced the first web browser; this was the birth of the World Wide Web. I received my first email address upon entering college, and I remember being introduced to software like Photoshop long before they were commonplace. In the 1990s, emerging software caused at-times contentious debate between avant-garde futurists hoping to usher in new possibilities and seasoned professionals who took a skeptical stance on the new digital tools. Technical training in those days was equal parts “traditional craft” and “speculative futures.”
Caught in between two paradigms, I found myself nurturing two separate impulses: deep historical research into old, forgotten technologies and inquiry into new and future media. My resultant body of work reflects a process which is part reverse-engineering, part laboratory, part research art practice. And this interest is free of disciplinary constraint; In this site, I present projects across a wide variety of processes and media: design objects supported by crowd-funded initiatives (NeoLucida), video/performance pieces (Webcam Venus), mechanized sculpture (Profilograph after Dürer), fusions between the newest technologies and ancient techniques (Profilograph after Muybridge) and site-specific installation art (Windows).
In all of these speculative virtualities, the at-times forgotten connections between history and the future play major roles. Research and reverse engineering are critical tools I use to explore how our rich past informs our future technologies.
PABLO GARCIA is Associate Professor in the Department of Contemporary Practices at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Trained as an architect, Pablo's recent work has evolved from design-for-hire to internationally exhibited artworks, provocations and research studies. Previously, Pablo has taught at Carnegie Mellon University, Parsons School of Design, and The University of Michigan. From 2004-2007, he also worked as an architect and designer for Diller Scofidio + Renfro. He holds architecture degrees from Cornell and Princeton Universities.