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.

Call for TEDMED 2020 Artist

At the heart of TEDMED’s mission is the quest for a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. As tools for discovery, we recognize the essential roles that both science and art play in this pursuit. And yet, while science is rarely underappreciated in this search, art can often be overlooked. We believe that art serves an important role as a catalyst for innovation and creativity and provides the inspiration needed to birth new questions and new paths for scientific research. Art and science are inevitably intertwined, serving as inspiration for one another and constantly propelling us toward progress.

The roles that both science and art play in our health has been beautifully illustrated time and time again from our stage. At TEDMED 2018, Sound Alchemist, Yoko K. Sen, shared how dissonant sounds from hospital environments can become overwhelming to patients and can even run antithetical to the healing process. Yoko has dedicated her musical talents toward a better understanding of how sound impacts our emotions and she works to transform the auditory environment of hospitals with soothing melodies and tones. She’s the founder of Sen Sound, a social enterprise that aims to change the soundscape of medical spaces.

Similarly, award-winning architect Amanda Sturgeon discussed how we can rethink the design of spaces so that they emulate the surrounding environment, which has a positive impact on the occupants. Amanda and her team found that “biophilic buildings” – structures that embrace and borrow features found in the natural world – create spaces in which people are happier, healthier and more productive.

In 2018, the direct link between science and art was perhaps most strongly depicted in Marlène Oliver’s talk and art installation. Using imaging from MRIs and CT scans, she creates art that allows us to see how our digital selves exist in an abstract world of data. Every year, artists from across the artistic spectrum, contribute their talent and perspective to our program,  such as pianist Richard Kogan, painter Ted Meyer, art curator Christine McNabb, documentarian Holly Morris, improv performers Karen Stobbe and Mondy Carter, chef John La Puma, photographer Kitra Cahana, musician Gerardo Contino, and many more.  The talks themselves are also works of art. Each speaker carefully crafts their talk to share a unique gift with the TEDMED community. Even our speakers themselves become art, because an important part of our event design each year is to work with artists who create portraits of our speakers.

To come full circle, our 2018 portrait artist Marlene Morales Tollet is a perfect example of the art and science intersecting. Marlene is both a practicing ophthalmologist, specializing in comprehensive ophthalmology and oculoplastic surgery and an artist. We’ve been lucky to work with amazing artistic talent throughout the years, from widely acclaimed figures like Hanoch Piven and Victor Juhasz, to a collaborative project created by several RISD art students, to the fantastic work of Gabriel Gutierrez and Lauren Hess who were chosen from our community. These artists are invited to TEDMED and become an important part of our Delegation. Find out more about their beautiful work here.

LOOKING FOR THIS YEAR’S ARTIST
Again this year, we’re excited to begin a search for the artist or artists who will help us bring this year’s speaker portraits to life. As part of our search, we’re officially accepting artist nominations and applications for TEDMED 2020.

Just as every year, our chosen artist or artists will join our community for 3 days in Boston, MA at The Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, March 2-4 for TEDMED 2020 (travel and accommodations covered by TEDMED).  If you are interested, or know someone who might be, read on!

ELIGIBILITY AND TIME FRAME
This call is open to amateur and professional artists, and all art mediums will be considered. While not required, the artist would ideally have a close tie to health and medicine. This could take form in the following ways:

  • Experience in the medical community
  • Experience working with patients
  • A personal story connecting the artist to health and medicine

ABOUT THE PROJECT
The artist will need to produce roughly 50 portraits over the course of the next few months. Illustrations will be based on reference photos that will be provided. Final portraits will need to be delivered as high res digital files based on our specifications.

The work will take place between November 2019 – January 2020.

HOW TO APPLY
To apply (or nominate an artist), please send an email to art@tedmed.com. Be sure to include a work sample, a brief bio, any relevant links and details about the best way to get in touch (email, cell, etc.). If the artist is a good fit, someone from our team will reach out.

Application deadline: Midnight, October 4, 2019.

TEDMED 2016: Calling all artists

2016-02-11
Artwork by previous TEDMED artists.

At TEDMED, design is a core component of our brand. Every aspect of our event – both on-stage and off – is carefully crafted and designed to capture the imagination. To us, art is a powerful storyteller; we use it as a vehicle to share compelling stories from the fields of public health, medicine, science, and technology. Our stage program has featured a wide array of artists, such as anatomical illustrator Vanessa Ruiz, creative arts therapist Melissa Walker, fine art photographer Kitra Cahana, and bacteria artist Zachary Copfer. Committed to diversity and multidisciplinary thinking, we also integrate art into our social experiences at TEDMED. At our 2015 event, we featured “The Art of Saving a Life”, an incredible virtual and live artistic exhibit about the importance of immunizations, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

It doesn’t stop there. Each year, TEDMED selects an artist to create portraits of our speakers. In the past, we’ve had the honor of working internationally acclaimed combat artist Victor Juhasz, faculty and students from the Rhode Island School of Design, and internationally acclaimed Israeli author and illustrator Hanoch Piven. Each has brought personal vision and flair to the work, resulting in wildly different yet captivating illustrations. Their exceptional work was featured in TEDMED event and promotional materials, and was also incorporated into various elements of the event design to foster a creative, collaborative setting.

In 2015, we took a slightly different route in finding an artist. We love to experiment with new ideas and approaches, and decided to crowdsource nominations for artists from our own backyard – the TEDMED community. Our call for artists led us to the talented illustrator and designer Lauren Hess. This year, we’re doing it again. As we gear up for TEDMED 2016, we’re excited to recommence our search for an artist who can help us bring our speaker portraits to life. Our chosen artist will receive recognition on our website and in printed materials, and will be invited to attend TEDMED 2016 as our guest (travel and accommodations included).

If you’re interested, or know someone who might be, read on:

ABOUT THE PROJECT
The artist will need to produce roughly 50+ portraits in a 6-8 week timeframe. Illustrations will be based on reference photos that will be provided. Final portraits will need to be delivered as high res digital files based on our specifications.

ELIGIBILITY AND TIME FRAME
This call is open to amateur and professional artists, and all art mediums will be considered. While not required, the artist would ideally have a close tie to health and medicine. This could take form in the following ways:

  • Experience in the medical community
  • Experience working with patients
  • A personal story connecting the artist to health and medicine

The work will take place between May – July 2016.

HOW TO APPLY
To apply (or nominate an artist), please send an email to art@tedmed.com. Be sure to include a work sample, a brief bio, any relevant links, and details about the best way to get in touch (email, cell, etc.). If the artist is a good fit, someone from our team will reach out.

Application deadline: Midnight, April 15, 2016.