Virtual reality art show envisions our selves as digital artifacts

Immersive works offer thought-provoking glimpses of how personal data shape our identity.

Know Thyself exhibit

The body electronic: “Know Thyself as a Virtual Reality” immerses viewers in artworks incorporating personal data such as medical scans and social media posts. (Photo: image capture from “My Data Body”)

Chances are, you’ve never seen an art show quite like this.

You put on a virtual reality headset and are immersed in a three-dimensional, 360-degree scene, invited to grapple with our embodiment in the digital world.

In one installation called “My Data Body,” the viewer sits alongside the magnetic resonance scanned body of artist Marilène Oliver, surrounded by a flurry of social media posts, biometric details and personal identification numbers. 

Hand controls allow the viewer to pull out organs as the accompanying soundscape, created by music professor Scott Smallwood and composer Stephan Moore to communicate the “sonification of data,” responds to the movement. Poetry by J.R. Carpenter completes the experience.

“We wanted to create a series of artworks that provoke thought about this virtual world we're inhabiting,” says Oliver, University of Alberta professor and co-curator of Know Thyself as a Virtual Reality along with colleague Lianne McTavish from the Department of Art and Design.

“What are we becoming, as we become more and more digitally engaged?”

Know Thyself started in 2019 with an interdisciplinary group at the U of A across the fine arts, radiology, rehabilitative medicine and computer science, says Oliver, adding that the team had to develop innovative VR software to accommodate the artists’ needs.

Five works are by invited artists, and two were created by the U of A’s interdisciplinary team. Installations include a bedroom scene that considers disability justice and empowerment through rest, another exploring ancestral heritage and forced migration, and one contemplating fear of MRI scans.

Many of the show’s artists worked with experts at the Peter S. Allen MR Research Centre to acquire high-resolution, magnetic resonance scan datasets of their own bodies to feature in their artworks.

The title of the show comes from the Latin phrase Nosce te ipsum, first appearing on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi to underscore the importance of knowing oneself in a social hierarchy.

“Now we’re saying you have to know yourself as a digital object or subject,” says Oliver.

While gaining popularity in video games and simulations, virtual reality is rarely used in artworks, she says. Know Thyself is partly inspired by a similar exhibition at Montreal’s Centre PHI.

“I wanted to bring that opportunity to experience high-quality VR artworks to Edmonton,” Oliver says. “For artists, there's so much potential working with virtual reality, because you can simulate an immersive world and control sounds, movements, interactions.”

To fully appreciate the show, viewers should see the artworks through VR headsets, she adds, through which they are completely immersed: “You can't recreate that through video.”

Know Thyself runs at the FAB Gallery until March 18 with a symposium and gallery tour on March 4.