Virtual reality is the latest technological iteration of a never-ending human quest: the quest for new and better worlds that contrast with the chaos and ugliness of reality as we know it. As a digital artist, I can only feel inspired by its endless possibilities. Virtual reality is “virgin territory”.
And yet, what is being built in VR is often no more than reality twins. In the same way as science fiction and utopian novels, out-of-this-world virtual universes are very much products of our times. They are the latest step of a digital transformation of the physical world: life gamification, social networks and a VC-backed reality.
I can’t stop comparing virtual worlds to the exotic and romantic ones of modern saunas, spas and bathhouses. Themed rooms, exotic imagery, spa rituals and ubiquitous nudity are some of the means by which visitors are immersed in a mythology of sensuality.
Saunas are – in the same way as metaverses, gardens, museums and cabarets – what Michel Foucault calls heterotopias, “something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.”
What makes European saunas and bathhouses so special compared to other heterotopias is that they hardly make any headlines. They are not money-makers, nor do they fit into any cultural trend. This, I argue, allows for much more freedom and makes them much more interesting places to study.
Whether they are devoted to spirituality or sexual pleasure, their alternative framing of reality is a source of inspiration for what virtual reality, and life more generally, could be.
Here are four differences between saunas and virtual reality. They are based on a reflection that started 20 years ago with the publication of the Heterotopia of Walt Disney World (Philosophy Now, 2001), and serve as a complement to some of my more recent virtual reality projects.
Virtual reality is presented as a technological revolution that is very much anchored in our digital era.
Spa, wellness centres and bathhouses want us, on the contrary, to believe they are timeless. Entering into a spa is like escaping our era in history – without any clothes, watches and smartphones – as if we were going to experience, for a few hours, a more fundamental human existence.
Whether in quiet suburbs or behind unremarkable city centre facades, saunas teleport us to another reality that is suspended in time. Their fake caves, Greek temples and wooden chalets make our ordinary lives feel suddenly very distant. Our thoughts are more detached in their kitsch scenery. The distance liberates the mind and opens up our imagination.
It is impossible to enter a steam room or hot tub without thinking about the Romans and their rituals. Did they feel similar states of relaxation two thousand years ago in the thermae built all over Europe? I like to believe so. Being naked reminds me of all the fakeness of the outside world. This is the “magic” of saunas as of any heterotopia. Their role “is to create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory.”
Of course, this is pure illusion. For one, our naked bodies are anything but natural. They are the product of our society, its agriculture, food industry, vaccines, surgeries, teeth implants and epilation. Romans probably had a far more precarious relation to their bodies than we have today.
Also, what I imagine of the Romans is most certainly wrong. It is a mix of the Renaissance, romanticism, Hollywood and Italian epic movies.
Fake Arabic, Indian or Scandinavian settings hide all sorts of technologies: LED lighting, electrical Jacuzzis, air conditioning and concealed soundscape systems.
The difference from virtual reality is that this technology is not part of their narrative. Saunas don’t try to impress us with their technology. And it is much more liberating.
A second difference between bathhouses and virtual reality is the absence of Big Brother.
You will spot some cameras in saunas, but less than in your average metro station or supermarket. Their interiors are not meant to be taken in pictures and shared on social media.
Privacy is perhaps why sauna settings are unapologetic with their plastic trees, fake Egyptian hieroglyphs and other design elements that would be considered bad taste anywhere else. No media or cultural institutions pay any interest to what is displayed here. Europeans can live out their exotic fantasies without having to worry about artistic canons, cultural appropriation and other moral judgments.
The function of exotic settings is to transport visitors somewhere else and make them believe that their experience is age-old and shared among all cultures. They depict a multicultural world entirely devoted to sensuality.
A third difference between saunas and virtual reality is of course their relationship to the body. Virtual reality immerses the human body into an environment where it can hear and see things as if it were physically there. However, the physical body is invisible in it.
In saunas and bathhouses, the body is front and centre: inescapable, in all its physicality, sensuality, beauty and ugliness.
Saunas are a celebration of the body, but not a beauty pageant. Anyone who wants to enjoy its facilities needs to confront the reality of the body, the effect of ageing, and parts of the anatomy they would prefer not to see. This is the price to pay for the uncompromising sensual pleasure of bare skin, and the full health benefits of heat, steam, water and various skin products.
The body is not an invisible interface for experiencing reality, it is a part of that reality, a part that we are encouraged to acknowledge and employ in a way that brings us great delight.
According to Michel Foucault, ”a system of opening and closing is required in all heterotopias so that they can preserve their singularity.” The singularity of virtual reality is maintained through various gates: the cost of virtual reality headsets, knowledge of how to use them, virtual wallets and digital currency. Virtual reality is destined to become a money maker.
Saunas and bathhouses have never enjoyed the same level of interest from business investors; their market is too small and margins too thin. It is practical details that preserve their singularity. Because of their water facilities and compulsory nudity, smartphones and physical wallets must be left behind. Visitors need to wear bracelets to purchase food and drinks inside. And not many ads encourage consumption. Such carelessness would be inconceivable in virtual worlds.
Fashionable and lucrative places have limited bandwidth for indulgence and experimentation. They can easily inspire suspicion in their customers. Saunas and bathhouses have an economy that is less constrained, and they can thus be more generous.
Humanity needs alternative places and realities where it can explore and experiment with other narratives and social relations.
We will only get the virtual reality we deserve. The only restriction in its design is our willingness to challenge our own assumptions on what a better world really is.