Recent developments in image-making techniques have resulted in a drastic blurring of the threshold between the world of the image and the real world. Immersive and interactive virtual environments (VEs) have enabled the production of pictures that elicit an unprecedented reality effect, creating in the perceiver a strong feeling of “being there”, namely of being incorporated into a quasi-real world. In doing so, they conceal their material mediateness (by simulating immediateness), their separateness (by aiming at unframedness), and their referentiality (by emphasizing presentness), paradoxically challenging their status as images, i.e. as icons: they are veritable “an-icons”. Subjects relating to an-icons are no longer visual observers of images isolated from the real world by a framing device (be it the pedestal of a statue, the frame of a painting, or the cinema screen); they are experiencers living in a quasi-real space-time that offers multisensory and synaesthetic stimuli and allows interactive sensorimotor affordances, promoting an environmentalization of the image.

Nowadays, these experiencers are digital natives who grow up interacting with touch screens from their earliest years; but in relation to immersive VEs they are still “immigrants” who need to acquire familiarity with an-iconic transformations of sensibility. However, given the pace of technological development and the huge amount of economic and scientific investments in virtual reality (VR) on a global scale, digital aniconic natives are to be expected in a very near future. Head Mounted Displays (HMD) are already in use as new interfaces for personal computers (Oculus Rift and HTC Vive) and video game consoles (Sony PlayStation VR), or mimicked by low-budget smartphone wearables (Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR). Virtual Retinal Displays (VRD, like Magic Leap One) and increasingly cheaper and standalone devices (Oculus Go) have already been released in 2018.

AN-ICON aims to develop “an-iconology” as a new paradigm able to address this challenging iconoscape. Because of the complexity of such an iconoscape, its approach needs to be articulated in a transdisciplinary way and to adopt a transmedial perspective. The project will be structured in three tightly interconnected Research Clusters: A) HISTORY: a media-historical investigation will provide a taxonomy of the manifold an-iconic strategies and dispositifs (e.g. illusionistic painting, pre-cinematic devices, 3D films, videogames, head mounted displays), taking at the same time into consideration significant countertendencies; B) THEORY: drawing on phenomenology, visual culture studies and techno-aesthetics, the research will clarify the specific nature of an-iconic involvements and identify the key concepts for their understanding; C) PRACTICES: a socio-cultural section will explore the impact of an-iconic environments on contemporary professional domains as well as on everyday life. An-iconic applications have become a cutting-edge topic, raising ethical, legal, and socio-political issues that will be specifically addressed by the project. Assuming the fundamental historicity of perception, AN-ICON will tackle this urgent challenge that is going to radically change human relations to images and to experience as a whole. The three clusters will converge towards the following overarching question: to what extent is this new iconoscape promoting a novel interplay between the body and technology, and so modifying human sensibility in its individual and social articulations?