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Why are people interested in virtual reality and what can it tell us about who we are and what we might become in a digital world?

“As an artist, it’s a question I’ve been asking for decades,” said artist and media arts professor Marilene Oliver. “Now with virtual reality, when we really are completely immersed in the digital, I wanted to ask that question.”

In addition to her teaching work, Oliver is the co-curator of an art exhibit at the University of Alberta’s Fine Arts Building gallery called Know Thyself As a Virtual Reality.

“It’s based on a Greek maxim: Nosce te Ipsum, which was used in the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. In that time, it was: ‘To know your place within a social hierarchy.’

“Later you find it in anatomical engravings, where it’s: ‘To know thyself as a divine work of God.’ And now, the more we’re becoming digital, the more we’re creating these huge data sets of everything we do, we now need to know ourselves, I believe, as digital objects and subjects,” Oliver explained. “This is what we are called to do now to understand ourselves.”

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There are seven artworks that use virtual reality to explore different aspects of data and the digital aspects of human life. The works brought together many different disciplines including fine art, radiology, engineering, music, digital humanities and computing science.

Oliver explains one focus of the exhibit as: “Can we find a way to visually communicate what we’re becoming as digital beings?”

That’s where the virtual reality comes in. Donning a headset and hand controls, a person is immersed in data — the information, how it looks, sounds and feels — and can interact with it.

“In one of the projects that I was part of, called My Data Body, we try to create a body which you can take apart and dissect,” Oliver explained.

“It has many different data bodies in it. It has my MRI scan, all my social media data, my Google data, banking data, my data cookies and it’s put it in kind of this vessel that you can then take apart in an attempt to try and see it, to try and hold it, because how else can we see all this data that we’re generating?”

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Know Thyself artworks

Where are You?

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“aAron Munson has made a work called Where Are You? and that makes us think about how social media is changing the way our brain works and where we place our attention,” Oliver said.

Munson compared fMRI scans of their brain: neutral, after meditating and after using social media. People can use the VR headset to experience the three different brain scans.

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a vessel, a body, a home

“Chelsey Campbell has made a piece that is very peaceful and restful,” Oliver said. “It makes us think about how much work we constantly feel we need to be doing all the time. She stands against that and has created a very quiet space where you should just lay and enjoy the beauty of the room.”

In the VR experience, the user is transported to a domestic bedroom space.

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Ancestry & Me

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“We have another piece by Lisa Mayes, which actually isn’t with an MRI scan, but with her DNA data,” Oliver said.

“She sent off a sample to Ancestry and found out about her family history. She talks about how the scientific data recording somehow legitimized all the conversations that had been had in her family about her ancestral roots, which come from Ireland, from France, Scotland and Ghana.”

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The Nearest Window

“We have another artist who is presenting bodies that aren’t normally present in digital works, which are MTurk workers,” Oliver said.

Artist Dana Dal Bo looks at Mechanical Turk (MTurk) crowdsourcing.

“If you don’t know, Amazon has a service which allows you to employ, for a very little amount, this invisible labour,” Oliver explained. “People do surveys, they do a lot of AI processing … labelling data sets.”

The artist asked MTurk’s anonymous workers to take a picture of what they could see out of their nearest window and send it to her.

A mirror with no reflection

“We have the artist Nicholas Hertz, who’s made a work which is really about the experience of being scanned and the sense of feeling that data is taken from you and then not recognized, not really recognizing the results of those data,” Oliver said.

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Using VR, audience members can experience MR scans, the sounds and feelings they produce and the images they create.

Hertz also questions just how “non-invasive” this procedure is and what it’s like to see yourself reflected in this way.

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“We tried to create an exhibition which has many different perspectives,” Oliver said. “Maybe it makes people think: ‘OK, what would I do? How would I treat my data if I were making a VR artwork?”

She hopes the art makes people think personally and relationally.

“I hope firstly that they will think about all the bodies of data they have and how responsible they are for it and also how they interact with others.”

Know Thyself as a Virtual Reality

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FAB Gallery, University of Alberta

8807 112 Street NW

Feb. 21 – March 18, 2023

Tuesday – Friday: 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Saturday: 2 p.m. – 5 p.m.


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