I’ve interviewed the University of Alberta’s Marilene Oliver before, but it was in a group, over Zoom. So I expected this in-person, one-on-one interview, at the university’s FAB Gallery, to be more personal. But I never thought I would rip out her heart.
Oliver started at the U of A 20 years ago, teaching visual and media arts. And from the beginning, she was sure she’d someday be able to make three-dimensional, virtual reality artwork out of medical imaging scans. “Things like MRI and CT scans — the data is volumetric, which means the images have depth. So I always knew this would be possible.”
The possible became real when she worked with some “fabulous collaborators in computer science in radiology” to make a work of virtual art for the 2019 exhibition Dyscorpia. “But even in the time that we made that project, apps were being released, code was being released, that meant that what we could do at the beginning of the project changed radically by the end. And I wanted to continue with it. So I managed to get funding to make a larger team of researchers to work on it.”
“It” is Know Thyself as a Virtual Reality, a seven-piece exhibition, each of which features a virtual reality headset and hand controls that take you around the world and into the bodies of some of the artists themselves.
After a brief demonstration, I sit down at My Data Body, an artistically rendered full-body medical scan of Oliver — plus much more. Her 3D avatar teems with words downloaded from her social media and phone data — old logins and passwords flow through her arteries and veins, biometric data imprint her retinal and dental scans, and facial recognition micro-measurements flow through her body while her heart holds emojis and her intestines digest website cookies.
I hold her hand, then remove her arm and throw it into the virtual air. I grasp her skull, do my best Hamlet impression, then place it back in her body — for now. I grab her other arm, use it to scratch her head, then toss it away too. Then, like Kano from Mortal Kombat I rip out her heart and hold it like Mola Ram from Temple of Doom (it does not burst into flames).
The other pieces — five of which were created by invited guest artists — aren’t as medically spliced, but they all “invite visitors to explore and question the different virtual worlds they have created, placing their own bodies and embodied experience of being digitized at the centre.”
One piece digitally brings you into the artist’s bedroom by first placing you on a literal bed. Another brings you to a large empty office space that hides the artist’s data among unattended computers. There’s a carousel that spins in a room with doors that take you to a field in Ireland or busy city street in China.
It’s a trip, in many ways. And the medium and subjects can be both disorienting and dark. The digitization of humanity is happening so fast we can’t possibly know exactly how it’s changing us. This exhibit — which despite being a 20-year culmination of work and thought, still feels like a beginning to Oliver — doesn’t attempt to provide answers. But it prompts plenty of questions.
“How can we work with our data to make art work? The way were are changing as data-people is changing all the time, and there’s no way you can keep up. It’s scary, and I wish I was wrong. Heidegger said that we would be constantly enabling data and organizing data. And he was right: The more data we create, the more we have to manage it, and the more we have to create systems to try and manage it. But this exhibit shows that it can also be beautiful, because every artist has a different way of thinking about their scans, thinking about their data.”
Know thyself at the U of A’s FAB Gallery until March 18.