Immersive Imaginaries: Aesthetics/Politics/Practices

This lecture series investigates the concept of immersion in art and design from aesthetic, historical and political perspectives. Guest lecturers come from digital arts, curating, media studies, and the histories of science and technology from the ZHdK, Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (New York), Haus der Elektronischen Künste (HEK, Basel) and the Technical University in Dresden. Topics will include contemporary artistic practices in multi-sensory immersion, extended reality and history of VR and the arts, and art and artificial intelligence.

Christopher Salter | September 27th, 2022 | 17:15-18:30

Kristof Timmerman | October 11th, 2022 | 17:15-18:30

Sabine Himmelsbach | October 25th, 2022 | 17:15-18:30

Michael Century | November 8th, 2022 | 17:15-18:30

Orit Halpern | November 22nd, 2022 | 17:15-18:30

THE ARTS OF IMMERSION: Sensing, Bodies and Responsive Environments

The history and practices of “immersion” in the arts has long focused on the senses being transformed through melding them with technologies embedded into the actual physical world. As the French actor and theater writer Antonin Artaud wrote in 1938, the theater would be a virtual reality (réalité virtuel) – a doubling or “stand in” for reality. But now, the next wave of immersion seeks the opposite: to capture the senses in order to render a synthetic world that is “realer” than the physical one. In the words of computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland who invented the first head mounted artificial reality display in 1965, such an “ultimate display” would need to “serve as many senses as possible.” Thus, contrary to the idea that the senses are simply to be replaced by the prosthetics of artificial sensors, a different story seems to be emerging. Our senses are needed to drive and feed ever-new immersive experiences by being interfaced to the simulated world that we increasingly inhabit. Using my own artistic work as well as historical examples, this talk will give a critical historical and practice-based introduction and overview of the HS 2022 Immersive Arts Lecture Series.

Christopher Salter (USA/CH) is an artist, Professor of Immersive Arts and Director of the Immersive Arts Space, ZHdK. He is also Professor Emeritus, Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montreal and from 2014-2022, was Co-Director of the Hexagram network for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Technology, also in Montreal. His work has been seen all over the world at such venues as the Venice Architecture Biennale and Barbican Centre among many others. He is the author of Entangled (2010), Alien Agency (2015) and Sensing Machines (2022), all published by the MIT Press.

BREAKING THE FIFTH WALL: Immersion between live performance and virtual spaces

How can virtual performances draw spectators and performers into the virtual while connecting them in an immersive experience? Immersion is of all times and of all arts. Where different arts come together, a complete experience emerges, often bridging the traditional boundaries between spectators, medium and character. These performances balance on the border between performance, video and installation art. They appeal to all of the senses and explore spatial relationships, placing the spectator at the center of this sensory game. The fourth wall – the imaginary wall at the end of the stage between the audience and the performance space – has come down. But what if we take the spectator one step further? What if the spectator becomes the story, as if we, the creators, were the directors of one’s life? And what are the parameters that we must define, control and manipulate in order to provide such a complete experience? In both a presentation of his own artistic work, as well as compelling examples of other digital artists, researcher and director Kristof Timmerman attempts to map out the complexity and enormous potential of live performances within virtual environments.

Kristof Timmerman (BE) is a designer and director of digital performances and installations, working in the field of live, interactive digital environments and virtual reality. He worked for several theater companies, including the experimental CREW. In 2006 he founded the digital artist collective studio.POC Kristof is the chair and coordinator of MAXlab, the research group on the interaction between art and digital technology at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp. He is also a teacher and frequently consulted coach for VR productions and digital storytelling.


Mobile and extended reality technologies are opening new spaces and interaction possibilities for us. The immersion in virtual worlds by means of VR or the inclusion of the outside world in AR, in which the real world is overlaid with virtual images both open new perceptions, creating an alterity of our living world. Immersive image worlds are conquering the art world and these experiences are becoming a new field of action, as the exhibitions of the Japanese collective teamLab or the enterprise Superblue, a new branch of the New York based Pace Gallery, show. Sabine Himmelsbach will speak about these current developments and present examples from her own curatorial work at HEK (House of Electronic Arts), Works discussed range from interactive installations to AI, game environments or video installations which challenge, provoke, and explore how technology is representing, influencing, and changing our world.

Sabine Himmelsbach is director of HEK (House of Electronic Arts) in Basel. Trained in art history, she was project manager for the Steirischer Herbst Festival in Graz and in 1999 became exhibition director at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. From 2005–2011 she was the artistic director of the Edith-Russ-House for Media Art in Oldenburg, Germany. In 2022 she curated Earthbound – In Dialoge with Nature for the European Capital of Culture Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg. As a writer and lecturer, she is dedicated to topics related to media art and digital culture.

CONTESTING A “NEW MEDIUM”: Virtual Reality as Cultural Probe

The Art and Virtual Environments Project, produced in Canada at The Banff Centre for the Arts between 1991-1994, is one of the earliest large scale artistic initiatives employing Virtual Reality. Now twenty-eight years old, its organizational structure and political context, as well as the efforts, only partially realized, to integrate critical-theoretical concerns from the humanities and social sciences within an intensive experimental development and exhibition-driven production cycle are important for contemporary initiatives. From his perspective as one of the organizers, media theorist and musician Prof. Michael Century reconstructs the intent and actualization of the project’s three-part design: a transdisciplinary three-month residency of artists, engineers and critical theorists, with parallel rapid prototyping using low-end VR equipment establishing hardware and software requirements for a high-end production lab; an onsite and virtual seminar and publication informing an open call for full-scale commissions; a final production and exhibition phase including 10 completed artworks and critical analysis. Century will expose the challenges encountered and successes achieved in this effort at transdisciplinary creative and intellectual production, set against shifting Canadian policy priorities in the late millennium and the turn away from the immersion-intensive mythos of early VR to the network-centric concerns of the early internet.

Michael Century, pianist and composer, is Professor of New Media and Music in the Arts Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which he joined in 2002. Prior to joining Rensselear, he worked as an new media researcher, inter-arts producer, and arts and technology policy advisor (Banff Centre for the Arts (1979-93), McGill University (1998-2002), Government of Canada (1993-98)). He is the author of Northern Sparks: Innovation, Technology Policy and the Arts in Canada from Expo 67 to the Internet Age.

THE SMARTNESS MANDATE: AI and Ubiquitous Computing’s Impact on Art and Design

Smart medicine. Smart homes. Smart cities. Smart Grids. This talk traces a unique genealogy of the natural and human sciences in relationship with art and design to demonstrate how the long historical imperative to make our world ever smarter through ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligence, and perpetual “learning” has become the new logic of our present.  As Halpern, a historian of science with broad interests in the social-cultural impacts of technology will demonstrate, the mandate for ubiquitous and immersive “smartness” has changed the way we understand the very nature of society, economics, culture and environment for both better and worse. In other words, the smartness mandate is central to how we design and envision the future.

Orit Halpern is Lighthouse Professor and Chair of Digital Cultures and Societal Change, Technische Universität Dresden. Her work bridges the histories of science, computing, and cybernetics with design. She is the author of Beautiful Data (Duke UP 2015) and The Smartness Mandate with Robert Mitchell (forthcoming). As part of her work, she is also interested in digital cinema and multimedia documentary, architecture and design, contemporary art practice, animation, and literature.

Christopher Lloyd Salter

As of July 2022, Christopher Lloyd Salter, until now Professor of Design and Computation Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, will take over the Immersive Arts professorship from Christian Iseli, who will retire at the end of the Spring semester.

Christopher Lloyd Salter, an internationally known artist and the codirector of the Hexagram network for arts, culture, and technology, is the author of many publications, among which the acclaimed book Entangled: Technology and the Transformation of Performance (MIT Press 2010).

Public lecture: Christian Iseli

May 3rd, 2022 | 17:15- 18:30h | Cinema Toni, ZHdK | live-stream


Christian Iseli has been teaching and researching at the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK since 1995. He holds a professorship for Immersive Arts, heads the Immersive Arts Space and teaches in the MA Film program. After studying history, German and English literature at the University of Bern, Iseli was a director of documentary films and worked in editing and cinematography on feature films and documentaries.

Designing Enactive Co-Presence with Humanlike Characters in Cinematic Contexts

Talk by Pia Tikka (Enactive Virtuality Lab, Tallinn University)
Tuesday, 18th October 2022 @ Research Academy

The scope of technologies available to filmmakers is expanding and apparently opening new avenues of storytelling. My focus is on the application of new findings in the fields of psychophysiological tracking and machine learning in order to create virtual characters, whose behavior resembles that of humans in the most natural ways. 

In this talk Pia Tikka will share some recent updates in this fast developing domain and discuss their possible applications to the co-presence of human participants and humanlike virtual characters in narrative contexts. This  implies a range of multidisciplinary challenges. The core research question is what types of roles can the filmmaker give to machine learning and psycho-physiological tracking in the process of creating humanlike behaviors in narrative settings. The discussion draws from the holistic embodied approach to the mind,  which in my view provides useful explanatory frames for my claims. The talk aims to inspire discussions related to the use of adaptive artificial characters in the future of virtual storytelling.

Pia Tikka is a filmmaker and EU Mobilitas+ Research Professor at the Baltic Film, Media, and Arts School (BFM), Tallinn University. Her filmography includes international film productions, feature films, and interactive VR installations. The founder of the NeuroCine research group and Enactive Virtuality Lab, she has published on the topics of neurocinematics and enactive media, and written the book Enactive Cinema: Simulatorium Eisensteinense (2008). She is Adjunct Professor of New Narrative Media at University of Lapland, fellow in the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, and member of the European Film Academy. Currently, she focuses on biosensor-driven virtual storytelling.

Book Launch: Conflict Minerals INC.

Thursday, June 30th, 2022, 16:30 | Immersive Arts Space, ZHdK

The term “conflict minerals” regroups artisanal tin, tantalum (coltan), tungsten and gold originating from war zones in Central Africa. In his book, Christoph N. Vogel tells the story of how well-intended efforts to solve a global problem have led to white-washing and abetting the continued exploitation of Congo’s resource wealth.

Conflict Minerals INC focuses on a topic that is also addressed by a a joint production of the Immersive Arts Space and the Department of Geography of the University of Zurich. The exhibition Kamituga | Digital Gold allows insights behind the shiny surface of the mobile tech industry and invites the visitors to engage with the concrete challenges and living conditions of artisanal gold miners in the region of Kamituga (Democratic Republic of Congo). [more]

No registration is needed. | Location: Immersive Arts Space, 1.J30, entrance via gate to film studio. > See map here.

Immediately after the book launch, visitors can take part in the LabInsights: The Immersive Arts Space presents new developments from current projects. [more]

Public lecture: Réjane Dreifuss

March 22nd, 2022 | 17:15- 18:30h | Cinema Toni, ZHdK | live-stream


Réjane Dreifuss has worked as a dramaturge and project manager for the theatre company sonimage. Together with the author and director Igor Bauersima, she has written and directed theatre plays under the pseudonym Réjane Desvignes, in which digital technologies played a crucial role in the creation of narratives. Since 2016, she has been teaching and researching the influence of digitalization on theater, with a particular focus on the generation of new narrative forms.

Public lecture: Christina Zimmermann

March 22nd, 2022 | 17:15- 18:30h | Cinema Toni, ZHdK | live-stream


Christina Zimmermann  is an artist/filmmaker and senior researcher at Lucerne University of Applied Arts and Sciences. She also works as a film curator for the Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival. Her research interests focus on experimental film narration, dramaturgy, theories of perception, and film philosophy.

Immersion and Creative Practices

March 16th | Marcus Maeder 17:15- 18:30h

April 13th | Felix Stalder | 17:15- 18:30h

April 27th | Maike Thies | 17:15- 18:30h

May 4th | Hannah Walter | 17:15-18:30h

May 11th | Christian Iseli | 17:15-18:30h


Marcus Maeder, Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology

Since its creation by the musician Brian Eno in 1976, the term ambient has undergone significant change. The musical style has developed into a framework of reception and terminology within which computer/digital music as well as visual art are conceived and received. The term ambient opens up a context of artistic and social practices reflecting a reality that is increasingly created by and transported via media technologies. Modern constructions of immanence are examined by using biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s concept of Umwelt, which he postulates as a world-generating context of body, cognition and environment. Accordingly, ambient can be understood as a sort of mimetic ceremony, producing extremely complex yet coherent images of the world. In the talk, a phenomenology of the sounds found in current digital music as well as associations and meanings elicited by them are presented.
Ambient is a compound of spaces in which a reflection of the world takes place, created through artistic, social, geographical and increasingly virtual devices. The idea of space as the expansion of thought, enclosing its infinite movements as an absolute horizon is implied by the concept of immanence proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. In Ambient, a soundtrack of immanence is created, a polyphonic sound of the environment as we experience it, which makes the world in its diversity imaginable and possible to experience. In this, the possible, the utopian, is constitutive of immanence: Prototypically, experimentally and as a projection, it is created by the participants of a mimetic ceremony, of an ambient situation, by the artists and their audience.

Marcus Maeder is a sound artist, researcher and composer of electronic music. As an author, Maeder has written on a number of topics in the fields of sound art, artistic research and digital media. Maeder studied Fine Arts in Lucerne/Switzerland, Philosophy in Hagen/Germany and currently pursues his PhD in Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich. He runs the music label domizil, which he founded in 1996. Maeder has worked as an editor and producer for the Swiss radio station SRF and has been working as a researcher at the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology (ICST) of the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK since 2005. On an invitation by French President François Hollande, Maeder presented his sound art installation/trees: Pinus sylvestris/at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference COP21. In 2017 he presented his installation “Espirito da Floresta” at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington DC – the same year in which he and Roman Zweifel received an honorable mention for ”treelab” at the STARTS Prize, which was offered by the European Commission at the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz/Austria.


Felix Stalder, Department of Fine Arts, Digital Culture

Immersion is not necessarily a technical issue, but rather can be seen as a type of relation to the world. This relation – quite distinct from the “critical distance” championed by enlightenment thinkers – can have three different qualities: escapism, control, or co-existence. Escapism allows one to immerse oneself in an experience that is fully self-contained and aims to have no consequences beyond it. The ride on a rollercoaster would be an example of such an immersion. Control goes two ways: Either immersion allows an actor to control his/her environment to a much higher degree than it would be possible outside the immersion, or, the actor becomes subject to an unprecedented degree of control by those setting the parameters of the environment. Both types of control can, of course, co-exist at the same time, as they do in racing simulators. The third quality of immersive relationship enables the expression of a deeper relationship with an environment, in which the actors exist within a world that is so large and complex that no ‘outside’ view is possible. It expresses a condition of partial, situated experience and action, allowing the experience of mediated immersion to stand for existential co-existence with multiple others itself. Many immersive installations in contemporary art, for example, by Ilja Kabakov or Christoph Büchel, aim to produce this kind of quality.

These different qualities are not mutually exclusive. How all three of them shape the overall quality of the work is a question of the intention driving the design of the immersive situation.

Felix Stalder is professor for Digital Culture in the Department Fine Arts of the Zurich University of the Arts. His work focuses on the intersections of cultural, political and technological dynamics, in particular on commons, control society, copyright and transformation of subjectivity. He not only works as an academic but also as a cultural producer, being a moderator of the mailing list and a member of the World Information Institute as well as the Technopolitics Working Group (both in Vienna). Among his recent publications are «Digital Solidarity» (PML & Mute 2014) and «The Digital Condition» (Polity Press, 2018).


Maike Thies, Department of Design, Game Design

The constant presence of technology in our daily lives triggers our expectations and hunger for immersive experiences. Even established cultural institutions can no longer ignore the fundamental digital shift to stay relevant. Of course, this tendency is not without significant impact on Zurich University of the Arts’ curricula and the creative economy.
Science fiction literature, theatre, films, museums and games, in particular, have shaped our idea about immersion. While it seems that the desire for total immersion and a rush into virtual spheres is increasing on the user’s side, the quality and degree of the immersion cannot live up to the demand. It becomes apparent that an immersive experience cannot be created by technical know-how and state-of-the-art infrastructure alone.
The media artist Ed Atkins once said that “Immersion is not a warm bath”. In my lecture, I would like to follow this thought. By presenting a selection of international artists’ projects I want to highlight the way the arts and design can develop meaningful immersive experiences and call for more interdisciplinary cooperation.

Maike Thies is a research fellow in the field of game design at Zurich University of the Arts. Her research activities focus on interactive theatre, narrative spaces, immersive arts and speculative design. She is interested in the curation and development of interdisciplinary formats, dealing with the potential of digitization for arts and design. On behalf of the Bachelor Design, Maike curates and heads the interdisciplinary lecture series Kein Kino at the Toni Kino, focusing on “new realities and diverse futures”. She is also responsible for REFRESH, an interdisciplinary, international festival initiated by the department of design and the Immersive Arts Space. Maike is a member of Digitalrat ZHdK.
Further information about Maike’s research interests may be found at, and


Hannah Walter, Department of Cultural Analysis, Transdisciplinary Studies

I coupled myself with a violin,
I charged myself with a battery,
I infused myself with electricity,

I incorporated a machine

I become vyborg

We are a creature of reality
We are a creature of fiction
We are a porous corpus caring for capricious circuitry

We create us anew again and again
Here and There
We beam us up into a hole in space

we touch and we breath
we send and receive
we perceive
we repeat we delete
we bend we experiment
we listen we cite
we host we write
we improvise we fantasize

We present
… the practice-based PhD project “Becoming Vyborg. Sonic Cyborg Fictions in Sympoietic Telematic Systems“, which refers to notions of embodiment in relation to technologically mediated environments.
It approaches its research questions in the framework of the research group of the SNFS-funded project “Dis/continuities in Telematic Space” which focuses on spatial and bodily interactions between remote stages.

„By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.“ (Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto”)

We investigate
… immersion through the figuration of the “cyborg”.

Hannah Walter is a violinist/violist. She is becoming a vyborg.
HannaH holds numerous scholarships and has won prizes at national and international competitions. She is a founding member and the artistic director of the transdisciplinary Collective Mycelium. In their productions they experiment with collective working processes and new concert formats.
Currently HannaH works as an academic assistant in the Master in Transdisciplinarity and as doctoral student in the SNFS-funded project “Dis/continuities in Telematic Space” and the Research Focus Transdisciplinarity of the Zurich University of the Arts.


Christian Iseli, Immersive Arts Space

Since the 1990s, the term immersion has been primarily used in connection with game theory, virtual reality and other technology-supported art forms. Yet it also refers to a long tradition in art history of creating illusions. As manufacturers of illusions and dreams, the producers of films have continually aimed to improve the immersive quality of cinema for their audiences.
Larger screens, stereoscopic 3D-images, surround sound and sensory experiences with shaking chairs or odors were commercially oriented but short lived extravagances of the analog era. Experimental filmmakers also sought to perfect the illusionist quality of their craft. Under the term Expanded Cinema, they fostered ideas of spatial narration and holographic representation. Later, digitalization brought along a whole range of innovations: the rebirth of stereoscopic 3D, higher frame rates, high dynamic range and 3D audio all fed into a new era, advertised as immersive cinema. In recent years, practically all international festivals have introduced sections for virtual or mixed reality experiences. Even though these emerging formats necessitate different ways of storytelling, they promise to bring Andre Bazin’s idea of ‘total cinema’ to reality.

Christian Iseli has been teaching and researching at the Zurich University of the Arts ZHdK since 1995. He holds a professorship for Immersive Arts, heads the Immersive Arts Space and teaches in the MA Film program. After studying history, German and English literature at the University of Bern, Iseli was a director of documentary films and worked in editing and cinematography on feature films and documentaries.