New exhibition explores human connection in a virtual world

'Dyscorpia' draws on diverse disciplines from fine arts to computing science and medicine to look at how technology is redefining the limits of our bodies.

Geoff McMaster - 23 April 2019

Standing before Marilène Oliver's interactive video installation, you are invited to strap on a virtual reality headset to behold a human body assembled from images taken from magnetic resonance imaging scans.

As you reach out to hold the figure's virtual hand, you notice her heart begin to beat. Her lungs fill with air, and she begins to sing.

These signs of life continue until you release her hand, when everything stops.

"It's about that vulnerable moment in our lives when we need someone to be there with us," said Oliver, a University of Alberta visual artist. "Can artificial intelligence ever do that?

"But that, of course, is what is happening-robots are being made to serve as companion bots. Is that what we want for humanity, or is it too late (to even ask the question)?"

This virtual experience of human connection, and the questions it raises, are part of a new U of A multimedia art exhibit called Dyscorpia: Future Intersections of the Body and Technology, which explores the limits of the body in the 21st century.

Opening today and showing until May 12 at the U of A's Enterprise Square campus, it features the work of some 30 artists and thinkers from disciplines as diverse as visual art, design, contemporary dance, medical humanities, virtual reality, sound creation, computer science and creative writing.

All of them, including a few international presenters, explore the question of what it means not to know the limits of our bodies in the face of new technologies, said Oliver.

"Technology is invasive in most of our lives and is also an extension of the body," she said. "How does this make us rethink our bodies, and how we see inside our bodies?"

The exhibit was inspired by Montreal artist Isabelle Van Grimde's Eve 2050 project, a futuristic video installation and stage production exploring similar themes. Her installation will be featured in Dyscorpia, said Oliver, and the stage production will come to Edmonton next fall with the Brian Webb Dance Company.

Dyscorpia is arranged under four themes: Virtual Intelligences and Artificial Bodies; Electrified Anatomies; Stories in Flesh and Bytes, and Out on Our Limbs.

Designed and curated by Aidan Rowe, the exhibition showcases work by contributors including visual artists Sean Caulfield, Liz Ingram, Holly de Moissac, Blair Brennan, Kasie Campbell and Brad Necyk, and sound artist Scott Smallwood.

There are also contributions by digital humanities scholars Astrid Ensslin and Geoffrey Rockwell, and computing scientist Vadim Bulitko.

"Vadim builds these simulated worlds where AI can evolve and intelligent agents can learn from what they do and become better at surviving," said Oliver.

In Bulitko's interactive installation, a number of geometric shapes increase in size and energy, and produce offspring by eating the surrounding grass, the availability of which is determined by the movements of viewers who approach.

"When humans enter into the space of the installation, cameras capture their movements and they become the grass," said Oliver. "We are speculating that the AI will learn to predict how a human enters into a space, and how it can therefore find grass, eat it, become stronger and create offspring."

Other works take up questions of the pressures of climate change on the body and its conceptual origins in Renaissance medicine.

"It's really about what technology is doing to the body, and how we can think about that with very open eyes, and find different ways of looking at it so we make informed decisions," said Oliver.

Dyscorpia will also feature a symposium on April 27, bringing together some of its contributors.