Q & A with Digital Age Artist Marilène Oliver

TEDMED: In your 2018 TEDMED Talk and exhibit, your work depicted a digitized future. What have you learned through the process of creating this work?

Marilène Oliver: I would say that they also depict a digitised present: the majority of my daily life is spent creating and moving packets of data around and the fact that I can now be represented as a high-resolution scan dataset pretty much sums how I understand and know myself! Understanding and questioning how we are digitised – both our physical bodies and our digitized activities – is fascinating for me, as it offers powerful metaphors to think about what and who we are becoming in the digital age. Equally, finding the right processes and materials to creatively re-export and materialise that scan data has been very important. There is no question that transparent materials were best for making my early stacked sculptures, then I needed to work with neon materials so that certain features could be highlighted and tagged. Now I am working with virtual reality: material concerns could disappear completely. Reflecting on the choices that I make in order to create artworks made from scan data teaches me a lot about my relationship to digitisation.

TM: Your work has strong scientific elements in it. Have you always had an interest in science?

MO: My interest in science has grown as my work has developed. I soon realized when I started working with scan data that many of the possibilities of the technology were not available to me (both practically and poetically) as long as I didn’t understand the science behind it. I started by reading as much as I could and trying to teach myself but when I needed more structure and reliable content I applied to do a long distance MSc in Imaging at the University of Edinburgh. This has helped me greatly, not only to understand the actual science of imaging better, but also to understand the rigid structure and pressures of scientific research compared to artistic research, but there is so much I still don’t know and it feels impossible to keep up! I strongly believe in interdisciplinary research and now at the University of Alberta I have been able to bring together a fabulous team of radiologists, computer scientists, digital humanists and nurses. We are currently developing projects that will allow us to create virtual and augmented reality artworks which is very exciting.

TM: In your Talk you discuss the challenges using MRI data posed, such as it being slow to acquire and could not be reformatted, which led you to use CT scans for your muse Melanix. What other challenges did you encounter when creating your work using digitized bodies?

MO: As I explained briefly in my talk, one of the most challenging times for me was moving to Angola and waking up to the fact that Melanix was not only a medical dataset that I needed to think about as a creative resource and material, but also a symbol of first world privilege. Until moving to Angola, I had taken scan data more or less for granted, but working with Melanix in Angola where the majority of the population had little or no access to public healthcare, let alone the possibility to be scanned, caused me to radically rethink my practice and my relationship to data acquired to cure rich white people when there were still countries with endemic malaria and people still die of tetanus poisoning every day. Making art with medical data in Angola demanded I realize my position as a privileged white woman of colonial heritage, which ashamedly I hadn’t considered until that time. This technology and these concerns are far from global and digital privilege is a huge issue that threatens to exacerbate the disgusting inequalities in the world.

The ethics of data anonymization is also something I find problematic. I understand it in medical research, but when it is being used to create artworks, I question whether this is always the ‘right’ solution. I have made scores of artworks using the Melanix dataset yet I have no idea who the original subject of the scan is. I would hope the work I have made would please the original subject if she were to know about it, but as we learn more and more how the digital data we generate is used and abused by government and corporations and other individuals, I think there has to be better discussions and global agreements about the ethics of data ownership.

TM: What are you currently working on? What is your inspiration for this work?

MO: Since my talk, I have made two virtual reality artworks and sculptural installations using a new high-resolution MRI dataset acquired with researchers at the University of Alberta. Deep Connection is the first work we made using virtual reality and was inspired from experiences using the Body VR app which allows 3D medical scan datasets to be loaded into virtual reality space as a semi-transparent block of data.

Photo Courtesy of Marilène Oliver-“Deep Connection”

When the viewer enters the Deep Connection, they see a scanned body lying prone in mid-air. The user can walk around the body and inspect it, lie underneath it and walk through it. The user can put their head inside the body: dive inside and see its inner workings, its lungs, spine, brain. Using a virtual hand, they can then take hold of the figure’s outstretched hand, trigger a 4D dataset and see figure’s heart beat and lungs breathe. When the user lets go the hand, the heart stops beating and the lungs stop breathing. Deep Connection has an interactive soundscape made by Gary James Joynes made from recordings of the MRI scanner. When the user holds the figure’s hand a human voice sings a beautiful mourning song. The VR experience is part of a sculptural installation created using the same MRI data. The installation is comprised of a row of 3 sculptures of bodies into which the VR hardware is embedded/housed. The sensors are embedded in the chest of the outer two figures, and the inner figure holds the headset, controller and guards the workstation.