Simulated Realities: The Art of Jennifer Steinkamp

By Kimberli Meyer and Dr. Nizan Shaked

A pioneer of computer-generated immersive installation, Jennifer Steinkamp uses the projected image to raise philosophical questions about existence. The power of her artwork lies in the skillful use of contemporary life’s visual vocabulary—the digitally produced image—to reflect upon our time. Steinkamp’s work positions the viewer at the crux of experiential pleasure and critical perspective. Anchored in the tradition of art as a self-reflective process, her subject matter and imagery emphasizes responsibility and culpability, while her skillful mastery of media establishes active viewing conditions. The accuracy and subtlety of her work achieves a paradoxical simultaneity between immersion and distance: it opens a gap between the viewer’s experience and the understanding of that experience.

Steinkamp’s work defies clear-cut classification, crossing many cultural spheres. Key sources include experimental animation, avant-garde and structuralist film, pop art, feminism, minimalism, and the California movement of light and space.1 Rooted in the investigation of time and space and responding to the architectural environments that surround her work, Steinkamp’s installations transform the viewer’s physical experience of space and sense of reality. Precisely placed cosmic explosions, undulating abstractions, pitching waves, moving vortexes, fabrics spilling like rivers of mercury, shimmering flowers, and trees swaying to impossible winds populate the walls. Each of her animated images is created from scratch, using digital technologies without a source. Her “artificial natures,” as she refers to them, perform a wry, sophisticated synthesis of science, art, and popular culture.

Tropes of fantasies, narratives, fairy tales, and legends are thematic in Steinkamp’s work. Movement plays a primary role in supporting the art’s concept and narrative. In Eye Catching (2003), the legendary head of Medusa appears in a series of trees, but instead of a woman’s face there is a tree trunk, and in place of serpentine hair, branches move like snakes. As the images writhe elegantly and ominously, the ancient story is retold with Medusa representing female power rather than an evil force.  Rapunzel (2005) references the tale of a maiden betrayed by her parents’ inability to resist temptation, leading to her eventual entrapment in a tower by a witch. In the story, Rapunzel grows her hair long and is rescued by her suitor who climbs up it like a rope. In Steinkamp’s work, a splay of flowers sway like hair suspended from above. The alienated bustle of stems is eerie, and estranged from its native ground, it evokes a disconnection between beauty and satisfaction. Dervish (2004–2008) refers to a Sufi practice of spinning as a form of communication with god. In the work, trees attempt to whirl but are thwarted by their unseen root systems. Deadlocked into a motion of back and forth instead of around and around, the trees aspire toward the impossible with improbable grace, suggesting both despair and hope.  Digital animation allows Steinkamp to create the impossible, but rather than merely using animation as a tool, her work deliberately activates the viewer to question the implications of technology on human consciousness.2

Complementing the sense of wonder created by animation, the titles of Steinkamp’s installations often point the viewer to cultural or historical references present in the work. Jimmy Carter (2002), for example, is named in honor of the former United States president and evokes his legacy of peace and inclusive values. The viewer is positioned between the intensity of a physical experience dominated by perception and the world of associations connected to Jimmy Carter’s name. The work positions the viewer in an active rather than passive state of being and in so doing, introduces a possibility for critical reflection.

Entering into Jimmy Carter, a video installation tailored to fill entire walls of a given site, the viewer is struck by a disorienting physical experience of an enclosed space that is constantly transforming. The architecture appears malleable; in a room of shimmering light without edges, the viewer feels an entirely unexpected set of sensations. Perceptual vertigo is accompanied by a sense of delight at discovering that the swaying walls are a result of thousands of fluctuating, luminous flowers. That the flowers are moving back and forth, and their particular renditions and animation are what causes the solid architecture to seem elastic, takes a few moments to register.

Despite their allure, the beauty of the gleaming flowers does not allow for pure gratification and joy. Upon confronting the work the viewer must quickly note the experience, articulate the movement of the flowers, and connect the sensations and visions to a recognizable experience. The language normally used by the viewer to articulate sensation momentarily disappears, suspending her between the poles of pleasure and unease. The sensual experience of the moving images is intoxicating, and the spatial disorientation is troubling. Perception and experience collapse in this state of nondifferentiation. Perception—the tool that translates what we know as  “reality” and the knowledge that tells the mind that the experience is not real—here implodes. The installation thus opens a gap between feeling and knowing, where the distinction between what is real and what is digitally produced by code becomes existentially disorienting.

In a sense, Steinkamp’s work brings to focus an aspect of our existence that has been articulated by Jean Baudrillard, a primary theorist of the postmodern condition. Baudrillard’s theory of simulation and simulacra has been influential to postmodern and poststructuralist thinking about art. Having brought semiotics and psychoanalysis to bear on social analysis in his early work, Baudrillard then defined the condition in which we now live as “hyperreal”—a definition with negative connotations. In Simulation and Simulacra (originally published in France in 1981), Baudrillard described “hyperreality” as a social order where reality is shaped by codes, models, and images that never originated in nature.3 Society in the late modern age, claimed Baudrillard, no longer functions and understands itself through material conditions, but rather through a system of “sign-value.” According to Baudrillard, social order is determined by an exchange that takes place through images and objects that stand for such relations as power and prestige, thus supplanting their use and/or exchange value with a false order of significance.4

Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacra is an extension of his understanding on how the sign functions to shape and govern our social order. Simulacra reproduces its own truth by leaving the human subject no space for distance or reflection. In her article, “From Imitation to the Copy to Just Effect,” art critic Kate Linker explains Baudrillard’s three orders of simulacra:

“The first, [Baudrillard] writes, that of the counterfeit, was born with the Renaissance in a sign finding value in emulation of nature, posing the metaphysical question of reality against appearance. . . . In [the] second order, corresponding to the modern period, signs no longer refer to nature but to human production; its models are the machine, energy, and the system of labor itself. The avatar is not the crafted analogue of nature, singular in form, but the plural, reproducible forms of series—forms reflecting the growing importance of technique. The industrial simulacrum, however, diminishes on entry to our period, the postindustrial period, characterized by the “simulacra of simulation” dominated by the code, the model, and the operational practices of the cybernetic world.”5

In our age, a simulation is no longer a simulation of something. Instead, reality itself is now generated by another simulation. In Simulation and Simulacra, Baudrillard identified that in today’s information age, it is the order of simulacra that determines reality because perception and understanding of reality are shaped by the consumption of information and images that he called “the precession of simulacra.”6 As opposed to its historical function as a fake—or as a copy of nature—simulacra in our day does not pretend to be what it is not. Instead, it reproduces an effect so similar to reality that the distinctions collapse. According to Baudrillard, difference is what should give reality meaning, the simulated being that which is not real, and the real being that which is not simulated. This way of understanding meaning has disintegrated and an implosion of difference has resulted in the condition of hyperreality. As he wrote, “simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” Simply put, life is now fashioned after an order, the media for example, that is already artificial and therefore perpetuates a false sense of reality.

Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra is relevant for the visual arts. His first order of simulacra corresponds to the ways artists have used naturalistic techniques for centuries to trick the eye and affect a sense of awe. Here it is important to remember that the affect of naturalism was never the sole aim: be they allegorical or didactic, naturalistic depictions represented both the act of copying and were examples of skills precisely directed to evoke moral content. The second order of simulacra—the industrial order—corresponds to the serial, industrially-produced art of minimalism and other movements of the contemporary age that drew their logic and aesthetic from the structure of consumer society, simulating an order by miming its logic rather than its visual appearance. The third order of simulacra, based on simulation, could be said to have affinity in the works of the Simulationists and other United States-based artists who have directly and indirectly become preoccupied with the ways in which language does not seamlessly communicate meaning, but rather shapes truth and value through its forms, style, and circulation.7

By the 1990s, the dystopic condition described in Baudrillard’s analysis became productive material in the hands of many artists. For those artists, the role of art lay in the investigation of the visual as a vocabulary that embodied structural and ideological hierarchies and values. Having a profound awareness of the function of media in varying aspects of society, the artists critically used their chosen media to not only analyze how artistic media functioned, but how these media positioned the viewer in the world. Sharing technologies and techniques with popular culture and media, they used art to investigate the very structures that Baudrillard said resulted in a negative loss of human relationships and authenticity. Photography, film, video, illustration, animation, and digital media were employed to make art and analyze their inherent structures and functions. The goal was not merely to use technology as a tool to make art, but to use artistic practice to investigate the power of the media over the contemporary subject and how the media shapes the subject’s place and consciousness in the world.

It is within this context that Steinkamp’s work developed. In a sense her works are a simulation of simulacra because they are all simulations with no direct correlation to reality. Yet Steinkamp’s work uses the tools of simulation with a critical distance to deliberately grant the viewer a perspective by obliquely engaging the simulacra. As such, her work functions as a prism through which we may view the condition in which we live, acknowledge our detachment from reality, and question the effect of simulation on humanity. Utilizing the computer as an instrument, she creates behaviors, perspectives, and appearances that seem familiar but in fact do not exist in nature. She produces sensation-rich installations but does not attempt to counter the domination of the hyperreal by denying its effects. She crafts enchanting experiences while folding in an analytical perspective, literally through titles that call for a reflection on consciousness with physical experience, and operationally by activating tensions inherent in the work’s media. By highlighting the intrinsic strangeness and uncanny nature of simulation, Steinkamp disrupts the transparency of the order of simulacra by exposing its seams.

Her series entitled Mike Kelley (2007–2008) consists of variable installations of trees named after Steinkamp’s former professor, an influential artist known for his interest in vernacular American culture and the way it shapes the psychology of its contemporary subject. Although at first glance the images appear like nature, the animations in the work both do and do not resemble life. Moving in a variety of paces and rhythms and hypnotic in their majesty, the animated branches expressively swing and the leaves gesticulate as each tree cycles through four seasons. The figure and some aspects of its motion are familiar, yet the trees seem strange, even menacing. The direction, hue, and intensity of the lighting never change, thus freezing some aspects of the image while keeping others in flux. As the trees cycle through the seasons, there is an emphasis on the discrepancy between the gothic lighting on the bark and the leaves. These subtle discontinuities disrupt the seduction of the mesmerizing image and illuminate its artificiality. The use of simulation is hence never naïve or utopian, rather, its uncanny qualities—the simultaneity of familiarity and strangeness—leave the viewer in a state of suspension. The romanticism of the image and its potential to substitute reality with an order based on a fantasy is what Baudrillard saw as a negative tendency of contemporary culture.

In a number of Steinkamp’s works, the viewer is positioned not as a passive absorber of images, but as an active participant directed to consider personal responsibility and culpability in relation to the work and its forms. This move opposes Baudrillard’s conception of the simulacra as an inescapable condition that supplants reality with a superficial surface of simulation. For the exhibition Neuro (2003) at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Steinkamp created Einstein’s Dilemma, an interactive video installation for the lobby of the Athenaeum, a place frequented by some of the world’s most eminent scientists. In the installation, motion sensors were placed around the lobby that triggered a reaction in the projected image, resulting in a visual rendition of multilayered and constantly changing explosions of cloud imagery. Projected overhead on the ends of the barrel-vaulted ceiling, the colorful, bright digital visuals contrasted with the neoclassical details and décor of the room, accenting not only how different aesthetics manifest their corresponding worldviews, but how shifting contexts throughout history have changed the meaning and ideological implications of aesthetic orders.

According to Steinkamp, Einstein’s Dilemma “was made as a response to the world situation between Iraq, the United States and England.”8 The interactive installation was dependent on the viewer’s motion to trigger the explosions. The viewer was therefore compelled to consider her own influence on the artwork and by extension, on the political situation of the time. The interactive component of the work served to stress the fact that scientific knowledge is not neutral. It is well known that sources of funding directly influence research conducted by any given institution. The fact that some science research is heavily supported by the military affects both the ways knowledge is pursued and the results of research process. Writing about her work for her website, Steinkamp refers to the fact that the role of military power had been of great concern to Einstein and that he invested much energy to warn the world about the potential dangers in knowledge building and the application of scientific research.

Einstein’s Dilemma emphasized personal responsibility, posing ethical questions about artistic and scientific practices. Einstein’s findings could have been used in multiple ways—it was not he who applied the knowledge to create machines of destruction. In that respect, every person entering Steinkamp’s installation was held implicitly responsible because ultimately, the application of scientific knowledge is influenced by policy, politics, and scientists who work with politicians. Collectively, as citizens, artists, and scientists, we all hold both power and accountability. The burden of considering the unintended consequences of one’s actions is therefore not just Einstein’s, but everyone’s dilemma. From the scientist who does not reflect on the implications of research to the policy-maker who misdirects the use of knowledge; from the consumer who blindly acquires products to the viewer who passively absorbs entertainment; all that triggered Einstein’s Dilemma had to consider how their actions contributed to the creation of an “explosion.”

Steinkamp’s work often responds to the architecture and institutional profile of the exhibition’s host. For the Los Angeles-based J. Paul Getty Museum’s exhibition California Video, Steinkamp was asked to create a work for a specific architectural detail. She produced Oculus Sinister (left eye) (2008), an artwork that nodded to the recently renovated Getty Villa in Malibu, a 1970s copy of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Steinkamp created a projection that covered the inside surface of the oculus with imagery of lava flow and steam that moved with the rolling violence of natural catastrophes. Though the colors of the animation were artificial, the pyroclastic motion reproduced an awe of natural forces. Trepidation was reinforced by the placement of the artwork above the viewer in the contemporary version of an oculus.

The original Roman Villa of the Papyri, a seaside retreat for Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, was buried in A.D. 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted over Pompei and Herculaneum. The villa was covered in sixty feet of ash that quickly turned into volcanic concrete. It was rediscovered in 1752 when workers tunneling for treasure unearthed the multiterraced house and its extensive library. The Getty copy of this villa in Malibu represents classical art, philosophy, education, and truth. Yet the building is itself an architectural impersonator, a fantasy based on an interpretation of an antiquity. In referencing this copy, Steinkamp also alludes to the Roman Empire in the title’s reference to the Pantheon in Rome and its iconic “oculus,” or eye of god.

In the title Oculus Sinister (left eye), the eye refers to the left eye of the god, as sinister literally means left. According to Webster’s dictionary sinister also means “presaging ill fortune or trouble” or “accompanied by or leading to disaster.” The title is apt for a work that alludes to a devastating volcanic eruption. Yet the double meaning of the title makes ambiguous the connotations of sinister. Is the gaze of god to be considered sinister and if it is, which definition of sinister is being employed? Does the term “left eye”—specifically indicated in brackets—repeat, translate, or supplement the word “sinister?” Indeed, the title and the piece itself makes clear multiple layers of doubling, displacing, masquerading, copying, and encoding.

Created in reference to a copy (the Getty Villa) that represents historical events, the work was projected onto an architectural detail (oculus) that is also a historical referent. Thus when Steinkamp connects the Roman Empire to contemporary American culture, she also points to how museums tell stories of human civilization and reminds us that histories are always products of their time. In other words, Oculus Sinister (left eye) illustrates that history is itself a form of simulacra. Furthermore, the embodiment of the eye of god recalls perception and meaning in architecture. The Pantheon transports its message to the occupant by positioning the visitor’s body in relation to the heavenly symbolism of the oculus. Sky and earth are connected through architecture as light pours in and the human, even if emboldened, is humbled. This logic is echoed in Steinkamp’s use of light to render allegories of western civilization as a tension between mastery of culture and science against humanity’s vulnerability to natural phenomena. In effect, the piece is a complex allegory of humankind’s relation to nature—thus it connects the first and third order of simulacra.

Since the dawn of mankind nature has been observed, measured, codified, predicted, manipulated, and represented. Nature has always been described in mathematical terms, and mathematical theory has been derived from human comprehension of nature. Now, patterns related to long-term structures can be visualized through digital intelligence. Computer models claim to predict phenomena—from geological and climatic events to the evolution and extinction of species—to the behavior of neurological systems. Evidence of realities long understood yet not exactly visible can now be visually delivered through data manipulation. Steinkamp’s work posits its philosophical intervention in the relationship of technology to nature.

But like with earlier technologies such as photography and film, the relation of representation to nature should not be assumed, taken at face value, or go unexamined. Major philosophers that have influenced twentieth-century thought—such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger—insisted that the role of philosophy is to question the methods and assumptions posed by science and technology, especially science’s claim to truth. It was within this philosophical trajectory that postmodern theories of knowledge continued to question how we have come to know, understand, and believe in the knowledge systems that we develop. In much of Steinkamp’s work, the simulated image is used as a philosophical device that points to the construction of history through models and replicas, but also to the ways in which simulacra comes to stand in for nature in order to approximate its behavior. Equating the simulation of nature with the simulation of history, Steinkamp’s work undoes knowledge and the mastery of technology by poetically emphasizing its limits.

Ultimately, Steinkamp’s animated installations echo the sign of the times. Her work intervenes into the crux of hyperreality not as mere simulations, but as a theory of the simulacra.  She does not merely use technology to create a mirage. Instead, her work deliberately manipulates technology’s outcome to position the viewer at a vantage point that exposes the supplemental nature of the simulated surface. Rather than neutralize reality and support indifference, her three-dimensional digital animations turn upon themselves with strange techniques that expose the tensions between what one feels and what one knows. Despite the fact that her installations are never short of dazzling, it is not easy to surrender into the fantasy, as the visionary world she creates is always disrupted. As such, Steinkamp’s artwork resides between philosophy and technology. While philosophy questions the role of science and technology, art questions the very forms that make knowledge visible. Far from a loss of agency, in Steinkamp’s work we find statements about humanity’s potential for a life of equality and peace.

1) For a thorough account of Steinkamp’s development and influences see JoAnne Northrup, “Juniper,”in Jennifer Steinkamp, (San Jose: San Jose Museum of Art; Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2006), 18–95.

2) For streaming video, images, descriptions, artist statements, interpretations, and other information, see Jennifer Steinkamp’s artist website: http://jsteinkamp.com/index.htm.

3) Jean Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994). Baudrillard’s concept of the “hyperreal” differs from Umberto Eco’s use of the term in his book Travels in Hyperreality, trans. William Weaver (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Janovich, c. 1986), in that Baudrillard used it as a category for analysis, rather than a description of a phenomenon.

4) See Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (Saint Louis, Missouri: Telos Press, 1981). In his early work it can be broadly assumed that Baudrillard was referring, for the most part, to post-industrial societies and their influences.

5) Kate Linker, “From Imitation to the Copy: to Just Effect: On Reading Jean Baudrillard,” Artforum, April 1984, 44.

6) Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” Simulation and Simulacra, 1-42.

7) The publication of Simulations in the United States (Semiotext(e), 1983), had a direct effect on a group that came to be known as the  “Simulationist” artists, influences which Baudrillard himself renounced as impossible. On the reception of Baudrillard in 1980s New York see Silvèr Lotringer, “My 80’s: Better Than Life,” Artforum, April 2003, 194-197, 252. Lotringer cites Baudrillard who said: “there can’t be any simulationist school […] because the simulacrum cannot be represented.” The “simulationists,” ranging from Peter Halley, Philip Taaffe to Jeff Koons, used Baudrillard’s theories as a justification to reintroduce outmoded techniques as “simulations” of art.

8) Jennifer Steinkamp, artist website, http://jsteinkamp.com/html/art_documentation.htm.

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