☆Aly Mei Orescanin☆
is a graphic designer based in New York City


Absorbing the liquid self: spiritual gateways in cyberspace


May 21, 2021

Grotto-heavens (洞天, dòngtian) are sacred Daoist sites in the mountains of the Chinese landscape. These natural and artificial caves are mythicized as gateways to transcendence and portals to other realms. 1 2 As we build tangible and invisible infrastructures for navigating our natural environments, we designate spaces for worship and meditation in order to make sense of the universe and ourselves. We must impart the same sanctity to the cyber dimension, which we have increasingly begun to subjugate. Through text and image analysis, this paper will apply Daoist cosmology of grotto-heavens to various cybernetic schools of thought, primarily Marcos Novak’s theory of liquid architecture, in order to assert that selfhood is reflected, distilled and dissolved through interaction with digital interfaces. Therein lies the possibility for transfiguration as the self is incarnated in virtual realms. This is not to subscribe to either a social or technological determinist perspective, rather, to reject this duality in favor of a fluid and shifting dynamic representative of the feedback loop between human interconnection with machines. Consciousness is liquid in nature, so are the technologies we create that mirror and augment our reality, so are the architectures we must inhabit.

Cyberspace is the system of interconnected networks that allows for global digital communication; it is often now used interchangeably as reference to the Internet, but can also refer to immersion in virtual environments. The term cyberspace was coined in the science fiction works of William Gibson, “Burning Chrome” and Neuromancer, and rose in popularity during the 1990s.3 Gibson describes cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data.” 4 We have begun to populate this novel realm, described by psychologist Timothy Leary as an “electronic frontier”, 5 with interfaces, economies and ever-amalgamating simulacra, as we increasingly digitize our fiscal and social living functions. Especially since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have flattened daily living practices into 2-dimensional Zoom windows or false mirrors. Rapid development of cyber infrastructures necessitates discourse over the immaterial realm in which we find ourselves spending more and more time within. Lance Strate delineated a taxonomy of cyberspace in 1999: “Three levels of cyberspace are identified, the first being ontology, which includes notions of cyberspace as a paraspace or nonspace, as well as the concept of cyberspacetime. The second level includes building blocks such as physical conceptual and perceptual space or virtual space. The third level is that of synthesis, including varieties of cyberspace such as media space, aesthetic space, dataspace, and personal and social space.”6 He establishes that cyberspace has an essence of being and creation, spatial and temporal qualities, and various infrastructures. We can further map a dimensional understanding of this space, and of the self as it performs within this space, using the physical landscape of grotto-heavens as a conduit.

The 10 Great Grotto-Heavens and 36 Lesser Grotto-Heavens were first organized systematically by Du Guangting (杜光庭) in the Tang Dynasty in Record of Grotto-heavens, Blessed Places, Ducts, Peaks and Great Mountains (洞天福地岳渎名山记, dongtian fudi yuedu mingshan ji).7 Sing-chen Lydia Chiang (蔣興珍), associate professor of Asian Studies at Boston College, writes that “the mountain grotto serves as a conduit to a paradisiacal realm fashioned after an earthly political establishment.”8 The most robust depiction of grotto-heavens in Chinese literature is perhaps the Peach Blossom Spring (桃花源記, taohua yuan ji), a fable originally dated to 400 BCE, which Chiang cites as the most influential work of Chinese utopian fiction.9 It narrates a fisherman’s journey along a river and his discovery of a hidden utopia within the river’s source, the mountain grotto. Scholar Franciscus Verellen also places grotto-heavens at the convergence of the mountain and the river, two sacred motifs in Daoist cosmology often depicted in traditional Chinese landscape paintings (see Fig. 01).10 These motifs will be extrapolated upon further in the paper as they are significant to understanding the positioning of grotto-heavens in Daoist cosmology, and subsequently, the positioning of the self in cyberspace.

Verellen describes grotto-heavens as an “interiorized ‘counter-universe’”,11 where rituals and practices of meditation and visualization, such as “swallowing the breath (yanqi 嚥氣)”, take place.12 The self embarks on spiritual passage into the grotto, simultaneously, the grotto becomes the embodiment of the self, as it turns inwards seeking meaning. He writes: “The human body is a grotto, visualized as a mountain landscape inhabited by gods...The grotto as an idealization of sacred space can be considered as the object and the product of meditative projection, the discipline that enables the adept to make the hidden world manifest and recreate ideal and remote spaces around and within himself.”13 We construct internal and external realms for contemplation and habitation; we create the digital realm for the same purposes. Donna J. Harraway, in her influential cyborg-feminist essay “A Cyborg Manifesto”, also makes cybernetic connections between internalized meditation processes: “In visualization self-help, the sufferer learns in a state of deep relaxation... to engage in a kind of meditation on the meanings of living and dying from an embodied vantage point in the microplaces of the postmodern body.”14 Cyberception, a term coined by British artist Roy Ascott, refers to “transpersonal technology, the technology of communicating, sharing, collaborating, the technology which enables us to transform ourselves, transfer our thoughts and transcend the limitations of our bodies. Transpersonal experience gives us insight into the interconnectedness of all things, the permeability and instability of boundaries, the lack of distinction between part and whole, foreground and background, context and content. Transpersonal technology is the technology of networks, hypermedia, cyberspace.”15 Both cyberspace and grotto-heavens have dimensional qualities and offer the possibility for transcendence and transfiguration.

As with meditation and visualization practices, to enter cyberspace is to leave your body and social identity behind. David Holmes describes cyberspace as “the electronic meeting place where disembodied communication takes place.”16 We have advanced to an era of increased focus on interactivity, bringing the individual into virtual and augmented realities.17 Virtual reality is total immersion into a simulated environment, a metaverse positioned within our larger simulation of physical reality. The most literal connection between digital environments and grotto-heavens is perhaps the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE), a specific technology for immersive installations. Named as a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the cave, we can directly see concepts of illusion and perception being engaged and challenged. Once the self is embodied in the virtual world, traditional taxonomies of identity, like age, gender, location, class etc., cease to apply. The user, subject of cyberspace, can create and occupy any persona. Our development of and within this virtual dimension has altered spatial and temporal perceptions of reality, if not eroded these boundaries entirely. Founders of digital rights non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mitch Kapor and John Perry Barlow seem to suggest the latter, noting, “Certainly, the old concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context, based as they are on physical manifestation, do not apply succinctly in a world where there can be none.”18

In contemporary Chinese photographer Taca Sui’s documentation of grotto-heavens (see Fig. 02), we can observe the same flattening of landscape often employed in traditional Chinese paintings (see Fig. 01). Light and texture is compressed to contrast two forms-- light and dark, and concave and convex. This dichotomy is representative of the collapsing of exterior and interior surfaces that creates the grotto (interior space) within the mountain face (exterior). This merging of dual forms into a new entity reflects the formation of the self, as an individual that both interiorizes and extends outwards, both shaping and being shaped by its surroundings. Architect Camile A. Silva finds a similar convergence of the self in cyberspace, writing, “The ‘coming-together’ of matter and spirit, or mind and body, not only defines the state of virtuality after experiencing immersion, but it also encounters, in this state, new forms of perceiving space.”19 Ascott also understands the self as it operates between dualisms, “To inhabit both the real and virtual worlds at one and the same time, and to be both here and potentially everywhere else at the same time is giving us a new sense of self, new ways of thinking and perceiving which extend what we have believed to be our natural, genetic capabilities.”20 Harraway’s cyborg is a hybrid creature that traverses the boundaries between human organism and machine.21 Marcos Novak’s neologism “trans-architecture” describes an architectural practice that functions between both physical and virtual parameters, while deconstructing them. The ephemeral nature of cyberspace necessitates paradigms for cyber architectures that can shift in flux with these realms, embodying the nature of the grotto and the self.

Novak also coined the term liquid architecture as an “architecture that breathes, pulses, leaps as one form and lands as another. Liquid architecture is an architecture whose form is contingent on the interests of the beholder; it is an architecture that opens to welcome me and closes to defend me.”22 This idea of refuge lends itself to the image of a cavernous mountain opening inwards to enclose the intrepid explorer. Liquid architecture in theory is not necessarily limited to cyberspace, and it is perhaps best visualized in motion, by an audio-visual performance directly inspired by Novak’s article (see Fig. 03). Novak writes, “The architect must now take an active interest not only in motion through the environment, but also account for the fact that the environment itself, unencumbered by gravity and other common constraints, may change its position, attitude, or attribute.”23 The lack of rigid boundaries in the digital dimension begins to realize a dematerialized image of the self and its enclosures, disembodied, amorphous and liquid in nature.

We describe performing online activity as “surfing the web.” Following the naming structure of computational systems as hardware and software, the human system can be considered as “wet-ware”.24 The grotto-heaven is where the river is birthed from the sacred mountain: “An out-flowing stream is a frequent iconographic feature in the depiction of grottoes, showing the mountain’s interior as a source of life, of renewal, and as a place of passage-- the stream providing the link of communication.”25 Water winds its way through other spiritual architectures as well. “A fountain is generally associated with the act of ablution...the sound of water has the capacity to impart a sense of tranquility and spirituality, symbolic of metaphysical cleanliness,” Imdat As writes, in his architectural analysis of traditional Ottoman and Turkish mosques.26 He presents a case for a new paradigm of religious structure-- the “convergent mosque”, which engages both physical and digital space, and cannot exist without the other. “The mosque of the information age can function as a ‘village well’, and theoretically, the entire Islamic community can be brought around it, in ways that could not be imagined prior to the digital age.”27 The nature of cyberspace allows for unprecedented globalization of cultural and regional knowledge. Once the self has been dissolved in this digital communication network, it can begin to disseminate and extend towards larger groupings of selves, towards culture and community. One study found that Inuit Elders felt a sense of connection towards their cultural heritage while experiencing 3-D virtual renderings of traditional Inuit dwellings.28

Perhaps what makes our consciousness human is not just our occupation of our corporeal vessels, or the space we are inhabiting in any given moment, be it physical or virtual, but the shared feelings of meaning we can inspire and extract from interconnectedness. Ceila Larner and Ian Hunter warn that there is a danger in losing our wet, human qualities to the digital medium, “As we move into virtual reality we run the real risk of exchanging our mortal souls for a future haunted by a wraithlike simulacra of our outlived incarnations, sailing for ever through cyberspace to the leitmotiv of the Flying Dutchman.”29 There is some irony to the logistics of water conveying the human experience into cyberspace, as water will literally destroy physical digital electronic components. Yet as we hurtle towards the singularity (the moment at which our exponential technological growth brings an end to the anthropocene), it is imperative to deconstruct the digital hegemonies of the dimension we are increasingly occupying, to bestride the division between human and machine, to venture inwards before we can nurture sustainable cyber relationships, interfaces and architectures that are communally minded.

The act of entering cyberspace is the act of entering a new realm, like entering the grotto-heaven. The mountain is the machine, the place for rebirth, the landscape that inspires digital pilgrimage. The river is the self, the stream of consciousness and communication integral to the human experience. Therefore, the grotto-heaven must be everything that can take place at this intersection, the possibility to be distilled through cyberspace into a more pure form. Only digital introspection can clear the increasingly turbid division between the material and immaterial. Our digital infrastructures must allow for a fluid nature aligned with shifting technologies, and of the self as it ebbs and flows between physical and virtual worlds, towards compassionate connectivity and enduring cultural and communal resilience.

  1. Sing-chen Lydia Chiang, "Visions of Happiness: Daoist Utopias and Grotto Paradises in Early and Medieval Chinese Tales," Utopian Studies 20, no. 1 (2009): 97-120.
  2. Franciscus Verellen, "The Beyond Within: Grotto-heavens (Dòngtian 洞天) in Taoist Ritual and Cosmology,” Cahiers D'Extrême-Asie 8 (1995): 265-90.
  3. Lance Strate, “The Varieties of Cyberspace: Problems in Definition and Delimitation.” Western Journal of Communications 63, no. 3 (1999): 382-412
  4. William Gibson, Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books: 69
  5. Maggie Toy, “Architects in Cyberspace.” Architectural Design, no. 118 (1995): 1-113.
  6. Lance Strate, “The Varieties of Cyberspace: Problems in Definition and Delimitation,” 382
  7. Verellen, "The Beyond Within: Grotto-heavens (Dòngtian 洞天) in Taoist Ritual and Cosmology,” 265-90.
  8. Chiang, "Visions of Happiness: Daoist Utopias and Grotto Paradises in Early and Medieval Chinese Tales," 97-120.
  9. Ibid, 98.
  10. Verellen, "The Beyond Within: Grotto-heavens (Dòngtian 洞天) in Taoist Ritual and Cosmology,” 267.
  11. Ibid, 276
  12. Ibid, 269
  13. Ibid, 281-282
  14. Donna J. Harraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 149-181
  15. Roy Ascott, “The Architectures of Cyberception,” Architects in Cyberspace, Architectural Design, no. 118 (1995), 38-41
  16. David Holmes, Virtual Politics: Identity & Community in Cyberspace, London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1997.
  17. Sonia K. Katyal, “Technoheritage,” California Law Review 105, no. 4 (2017): 1111-172.
  18. Toy, “Architects in Cyberspace,” 9
  19. Camile A. Silva, “Liquid architectures: Marcos Novak’s territory of information,” LSU Master’s Theses, 902 (2005). 29
  20. Ascott, “The Architectures of Cyberception,” 38-41
  21. Harraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” 149-181
  22. Novak, Marcos. “Liquid Architectures of Cyberspace.” Cyberspace: First Steps, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992.
  23. Toy, “Architects in Cyberspace,” 44
  24. Ibid, 26
  25. Verellen, "The Beyond Within: Grotto-heavens (Dòngtian 洞天) in Taoist Ritual and Cosmology,” 267
  26. Imdat As, "The Digital Mosque: A New Paradigm in Mosque Design," Journal of Architectural Education (1984-) 60, no. 1 (2006): 54-66.
  27. Ibid, 54-66
  28. Peter Dawson, Richard Levy, & Natasha Lyons, “‘Breaking the fourth wall’: 3D virtual worlds as tools for knowledge repatriation in archaeology,” Journal of Social Archaeology, 11(3): 387-402.
  29. Toy, “Architects in Cyberspace,” 26