Last spring, Christopher Lloyd Salter took charge of the Immersive Arts Space at Zurich University of the Arts. Being an artist, scholar and technologist, he embodies the foundation of immersive arts.
Every complex dish starts off with plain, simple ingredients, to which the creative process adds a layer of complexity. The same goes for the immersive arts. If you tap right into them, you might not follow. But by understanding the different components, you will be able to get a taste of things. Like so many other words, “immersion” originated from Latin, where “immersio” describes the process of physically submerging or being absorbed in something. For Christopher Lloyd Salter, the new head of the Immersive Arts Space at ZHdK, immersion is the act of losing the separation between self and environment. If we add a philosophical layer, we could quote Einstein’s “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” Thus, separation is nothing but an illusion, so that there is no need for immersion. But that’s just one layer, one we don’t want to get caught up in. So, let’s get back to Salter, whose own life contains multiple flavours and in which philosophy is just one component.
Failure as a driving force
Salter has lived and worked in numerous places, including Canada, the United States and Germany. He arrived in Switzerland in June 2022, with first-hand experience in economics, continental philosophy, theatre, art installations, a passion for sound, texture, light and architecture, always underpinned by emerging technologies and borne by his fascination for their impact on human behavior and psychology. And he enjoys cooking. His favourite dish is spaghetti and clams because of the salt-watery, briny taste. Speaking of flavours, Salter says that his own artistic work is rooted in the interdependence between bodies and environments. How they mutually shape, influence and transform each other in increasingly technical environments. That is, how we become part of a new environment enabled by the latest technologies. Here we find tension, a key component of his work: “There’s a tension between the experience of being overwhelmed, that something has become too much to grasp and the possibility to look at it rationally, critically.” Like the shadow following the sun, being overwhelmed is a human experience closely linked to technological evolution and accompanied by the possibility of stepping out and critically observing that development. For Salter, that core element of tension is inevitable.
But Salter isn’t simply interested in using the Immersive Arts Space as a site for technology-demos. He’s interested in giving his students the opportunity to explore their curiosity. And being curious is deeply linked to bravery. “Failure is the driving force behind innovation. And being part of a culture that dreads and fears failure, I want to embrace it. Giving my students the opportunity to try and fail as a continuous process.”
But to return to the essence of the story — and to Salter’s vision: the Immersive Arts Space is a place where people get to interact, connect, and playfully emerge. But for him, the key ingredient of the immersive arts, is not the baseline of technology, science and art dissolving into each other but rather the experience of another kind of lived time. In this sense, Christopher Salter’s most immersive experience was fundamentally analog: when he witnessed traditional Noh theatre in Japan, fourteenth-century theatre rooted in repetitive rituals spanning several hours. For Salter, the hypnotizing, almost transcendent effect completely absorbed him and threw him back to the days “when humankind made art for the gods.”