New Realities Essay

New Realities: We Invented Digital. Now Digital is Reinventing Us.

During the 90s, an unprecedented cultural metamorphosis began, a radical transformation was initiated by the rapid integration of digital and the internet in our lives. The spread of personal computers along with the growth of networks allowed for the creation of a backbone, a shared nervous system in which we have developed new uses of communications, new cultural practices and social interactions within a computer-mediated communication system. The beginning of the 21st century has been marked by the ‘internetisation’ of the world, connecting a truly global collective community, and impacting the social, cultural and political context more than ever thought.

The project New Realities is an ongoing exploration of how these technological changes have shifted our perception of the world, opening up new opportunities for artistic and creative expression.

In the new reality we live in, there is a fundamental shift in human identity, enabled by access to mass social media, simulated worlds and virtual reality experiences. Platforms and tools allow us to create disembodied personas which operate outside of our physical bodies, and exist within screens. This paradigm provides unprecedented opportunities of identity construction and manipulation[1], and is proving to be an attractive place for artistic experimentation. But even if we all have become skilled at constructing personas in the virtual realm[2], by adopting one or multiple representations of ourselves, acting as alter egos or characters (avatars), it is fundamental to critically reflect on artistic work so to deepen our understanding of the implications these new practices have upon society.

New behaviours and codes of conduct have emerged from the use of the internet, demystifying the relationship between the individual and the collective, the artist and the audience[3]. Through the immediacy and the constant connection to the ubiquitous network, those identities and behaviours have started to merge with our physical forms. Moreover, the immersion in virtual reality experiences challenges ownership of our own physical bodies[4], posing new questions about the perception of the self, the collective, the environment and reality itself.

We are designing computers as extensions of our minds[5], crafting and carefully programming these machines to mimic our abilities and realise our desires. With the current advances in computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning, systems are capable of learning everything about the world, reaching new heights. Computer programmes are equipped to perform human tasks, translate spoken and written conversations, recognise and accurately caption photos, identify faces, drive cars, act as personal assistants, connect and interpret data to make decisions and even create works of art.

The machine that was once created by a human is enabled to act as an independent agent, a non-human autonomous system. Back in 1495, Leonardo Da Vinci conceived a humanoid robot that was capable of some human-like movements. Today’s robots could be our future playmate or the next exhibition curator, analysing and interpreting the features of a work of art. In the rise of artificially intelligent beings, artists and designers play a key role in defining the field of human-machine-interaction by experimenting and prototyping new systems, determining rules and unveiling paradigms. As we shape what these entities will be tasked with, the ongoing question is how these entities will fit in our world.

In the online world, people navigate the boundaries of privacy, ownership, presence and form. These boundaries are also being disrupted in the physical realm, which is undergoing a process of scanning, digitisation and abstraction. Digital representations of the environment and the natural space don’t necessarily act as a reflection of the physical - they are constructed scenes informed by the source which provide alternative means of understanding our surroundings and our place within them. In the virtual realm, artists and designers are constructing simulated spaces, fascinating new worlds where our understanding of presence and place is distorted. Philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco argued the need to clarify that these are just mediated experiences, like TV used to be, “the ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the ‘completely fake”.[6] But for those who grow up with this reality, it might not be confused or fake because it may well be their reality.[7]

According to influential media theorist Marshall McLuhan, artists are always ahead of technology offering us clues to understand the impact these technologies will have later on[8]. Although digital tools and new technologies have been widely used by artists during the past decades, only recently we are seeing these works exhibited in public spaces. This project illustrates a culture of continuous and complex transformation in which the digital tools we created are now acting as change agents, hence reinventing humanity.

This showcase includes the works of 12 contemporary artists and designers featured across three thematic areas: The Expanded Human, And Human Created Machine and Machine Created..., and Brave New Worlds.

Through this journey of art and digital creativity, we aim to provide new perspectives on the reality we live and anticipate the future we are all heading to: a future in which we can decide the role we want to play in order to leave a harmonious place for the next generation of inhabitants.

(Essay by Estela Oliva in collaboration with Carmen Salas.)

[1] Disembodied? Identity Construction in a Constructed World, Domenico Quaranta, 2011.


[2] What a virtual reality art show could say about the future of games by Keith Stuart on The Guardian, 2015.


[3] David Bowie speaks with Jeremy Paxman on BBC Newsnight, 1999.


[4] First Person Experience of Body Transfer in Virtual Reality, research by Mel Slater, Bernhard Spanlang, Maria V. Sanchez-Vives, and Olaf Blanke. 2010. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010564


[5]So You Are a Cyborg, Now What’ Joseph Tranquillo, Associate Professor of Biomedical and Electrical Engineering at Bucknell University. Article by Elizabeth Landau on CNN, May 2012.


[6] Travels in Hyper Reality, Essays by Umberto Eco (1986).


[7] Digital Dystopias, Interview with Lawrence Lek by Thomas McMullan, Alphr (2015).


[8] Interview with Marshall McLuhan, video (1967).