The Changing Image of the “Self” in the Digital Era (Interview with Marilène Oliver & Daniel Laforest)

by Zosia Czarnecka

On February 25th, TEDxUAlberta hosted its second annual conference. We had the opportunity to interview two of the conference’s speakers, Marilène Oliver and Daniel Laforest, about the crossroads of their work. In particular, we were interested in delineating how they each defined the difference between the “self” and the physical body, their thoughts on the implications of the digital era on our humanism, and how each of them uses their work to convey a message to an interdisciplinary audience.

Wnaderer Portraits-7Marilène Oliver works at a crossroads somewhere between new digital technologies, traditional print and sculpture, her finished objects bridging the virtual and the real worlds. She works with the body translated into data form in order to understand how it has become ‘unfleshed’, in the hope of understanding who or what it has become. Oliver uses various scanning technologies, such as MRI, CT and PET, to reclaim the interior of the body and create works that allow is to materially contemplate our increasingly digitised selves.

Marilène was born in the UK in 1977 and studied Fine Art at Central Saint Martins and then at the Royal College of Art where she obtained an MPhil with the practice based research project ‘Flesh to Pixel, Flesh to Voxel, Flesh to XYZ’ on the use of medical imaging in contemporary art and is currently completing an MSc in Medical Imaging at the University of Edinburgh. Oliver has exhibited widely in the UK and Europe in both private and public galleries including the Royal Academy, MassMoCA, Casino Luxembourg and Glenbow Museum. Her work is held in a number of private collections around the world as well as a number of public collections such as The Wellcome Trust, Victoria and Albert Museum and Knoxville Museum of Art. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Printmaking at University of Alberta.

Wnaderer Portraits-5Daniel Laforest is a Quebec-born professor of French and cultural studies at the University of Alberta. His work is situated at the crossroads of literature and medical humanities. He has been Visiting Professor at the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics, and is an alumnus of the Fulbright Foundation, as well as of the Banff Centre Leighton Artist Colony. His award-winning non-fiction writing and multimedia online projects explore the untold connections between the stories we tell and the material world we live in. Daniel believes that true creativity begins with the breakdown of the hierarchies between knowledges, experiences, and everyday things. He is passionate about interdisciplinary storytelling and its potential to transform the textures of our communities.

  1. What do you think is the greatest disconnect between the “flesh” and our “digitized selves”?

MarilèneA lot of my work has been inspired by Hans Moravec’s (an artificial intelligence expert) idea that in order to survive, we need to download our consciousness to the datascape. But then what happens to the physical body? This idea has been explored in movies such as The Matrix or The City of Lost Children. I was inspired by this idea of bringing flesh into the digital realm which led to some of my early pieces such as, “I Know You Inside Out”. When we try to make a digital copy of the body we start to think about what is really missing from our disembodied consciousness. When our consciousness isn’t channeled through the body, we begin to read communication differently. In person, I can sense someone’s expressions and it’s much more gratifying to speak with someone in person than digitally.

Daniel — I think the disconnect truly happens today because data has come to force open a transitional space, where there was none before, between the flesh of our body and the notion of health. We used to think of health in a direct causal-consequential relation with the body. Now with the looming revolution of mobile health technologies, we have sensors on our mobile devices (GPS, heartbeat tracker, footsteps tracker, etc.) that break down our body into so many functions that can then potentially be sent over to healthcare or insurance providers who will reconstruct an image of what our flesh/body/health is based on data alone. Data, to me, is the new and greatest disconnect.

  1.     How do you think the nature of decision-making and cognitive functions have been changed by our increasingly digitalized world?

Marilène — If we consider the recent political scene and communication there is a very clear disconnect between the flesh and our selves and the ‘truth’. When we’re not face to face with people it’s easier to be inhuman and cruel and not realize the repercussions of what you say. When you look at comments that someone has written on social media, no one would say that in person. There is no immediate repercussion online and so you can just walk away from a conversation online. In person, you sense emotion and angry words and I would hope that makes it harder for people to simply walk away.

Daniel — I’m of two minds about this. Like many others, I think our ability to focus and concentrate on single units or single structures of thought is drastically diminishing. But then again it’s not a one-way street kind of thing. The digitization of the world has also produced other effects that may favour incredibly detail-oriented thinking. It is quite similar to the revolution in online consumer distribution initiated by large providers such as Amazon. Instead of trying to sell a limited array of products to as many people as possible, they opted to sell as many products to as many niches as possible. Everyone can find “their” product online now, no matter how limited the interest for it may be. Transposed in terms of information distribution and cognitive processes, I think digitization and online connectivity favours the same in allowing for large scientific teams, for example, to break down a problem, or a process into manifold, very specific sub-sections and details. We may very well be thinking much more specifically now than mere decades ago.

  1.     You have both described your work as a crossroads between an art form and medicine. Why medicine specifically? Why not philosophy or psychology for example?

Marilène — I have always believed that MRI/CT scanners should not be seen as just medical instruments. These are just imaging instruments but because they are used therapeutically and diagnostically we associate them almost exclusively with medicine. To me, they are just like cameras. They are pieces of technology that I can use to make the most faithful digital copy of the human body. But these copies signify the vulnerability of the human body. These photos are fleeting moments in time showing fleeting states.

Daniel–I’m mostly interested in literature, storytelling and the narrative arts, which, if you exclude the avant-gardes, have for more than two centuries now been organized around the linguistic representation of what is, first and foremost, seen. Case in point: the long-standing and still dominant tradition of literary “realism”. Medicine, for me, is a discipline and a practice where modes of visibility are constantly being reinvented. Think of early symptomatology, of the advent of x-rays, of the first PET scans, of molecular computer visualization, or of the decoding of the human genome. For me, medicine, especially today, contains so many models and templates of visibility that can revolutionize storytelling. If only there could be more interdisciplinarity. This is mainly what I addressed in my TEDx talk.

  1.     How do you tell a story that is interdisciplinary, scientific, and entertaining for a public audience?

Marilène– My work always has to be very personal and it has to reveal some truths. I find it hard to be motivated to make a piece of work unless I am emotionally involved in it and revealing something about myself or my life. For example, in The Family Portrait, I reveal the hopes I had for my own family. My parents got divorced when I was 8 years old and this idea of a unified family was one of my personal dreams. Sharing something so personal not only brings in the viewer but it also makes the piece more meaningful.

Daniel–The simplest questions are often the best. Ordinary, everyday life already contains all the questions tackled by science or art. It’s a matter of knowing how to perceive, decode, and rephrase them for ourselves.

  1.     What do you perceive to be technology’s greatest gift to humanity and what do you think it has taken away from us? How will that shape us moving forward?

Marilène — That’s a very hard question and there are so many things I could say. One of it’s greatest gifts is that it has extended our vision in different forms (camera, MRI) and therefore has allowed us to understand more because seeing is knowing.

On the other hand, one double-edged sword of the 21st century in my mind is plastic. It’s not exactly a technology but it’s so involved in everything we use and I myself use it a lot in making my artwork for its transparency and lightness. Plastic has allowed us to have very cheap versions of things and mass produce everything to the extent that we feel compelled to buy it. Plastic does away with the joy of making and producing ourselves and having a physical personal relationship with an object. As a result, we no longer value the slow process of making objects without thinking about the trace or impact that the production has in the long-run. In addition it is now polluting our seas and land. I find the amount of cheap plastic packaging I throw away horrifying. The world would be a very different place without plastic.

Daniel–The greatest gift of technology to humanity is time-compression. For example, air travel has transformed geopolitics, family relationships, work, etc. Computer information processing has done the same for science, education, etc. What it has taken away from us is the “ecological mindset”. I believe time-compression (which, yes, is at the heart of capitalism) has separated us from nature more than anything else. Because most of our rhythms have become non-natural in its wake. It will probably continue to shape us forward by constantly reinventing the forms and the locations of labour (think of the self-driving car, which is the office of the future, for example).

  1.     Do you imagine the human body physically evolving in response to the digital era? What do you think will change?

Marilène — Jokingly….I think we will develop more dexterity in our thumbs and fingers. Ironically Michelangelo somewhat predicted that – David has a very big head and hands. Michelangelo chose to accentuate those features and perhaps he was suggesting that that’s how evolution needs to continue. But I think the most interesting relationship the human body has with technology is that thanks to the internet, we can track everything about our bodies (how much fat we have, how much we should have, etc). The idea that we simply wither away into piles of flesh is no longer the case. We now control our bodies much more – our bodies are things to control and not things to be controlled by.

This idea in particular resonated with me when I lived in Angola for three and a half years. In Angola, people don’t have access to medical imaging or very much medical care at all. The possibility of death is much stronger – more real. Angolans don’t share this idea of having control of their bodies and their lives and I think that’s something we should be very thankful for and not take for granted.

Daniel— Not much. I think this belief long-held by science-fiction is overrated. People who can afford it will always compensate (look at gyms today, look at yoga studios everywhere). While people who can’t afford it will continue to be affected in their health. At the end of the day, what spearheads physical evolution is economic inequality.

  1.     We’re often told to learn from our past or we will be doomed to repeat it. When people reflect back on the 21st century 100 years from now, what do you think they will highlight as our biggest success? What about our biggest downfall?

MarilèneThe digital era has allowed us to make distance negligible. We no longer have to physically be with people to be with them thanks to technologies such as Skype or FaceTime. At the same time however,  that is our biggest downfall because we become dehumanized.

Daniel— Our biggest successes will probably be information technologies and the eradication of so many widespread illnesses. Our biggest downfall will be our incapacity to globally think ahead by much more than a decade (which entails, for example, the worsening of global warming, petty electoral politics, etc.)

  1. Marilène, you use digital imaging in your work to show us “differently” and try to capture our relationship with technology and materialism. How does that translate to your opinion of today’s society?

MarilèneWe are losing our connection with materiality and physicality and losing our understanding of the pleasure of touching materials and spending time creating things. I fear that we are losing the idea that there is knowledge to be gained in making things through and with the body and that it’s not just about how we cognitively use our disembodied brains. By touching and making something physical, investing in embodied activities and relationships in real time and place maybe we can understand life in a better and more pleasurable way.

  1. Daniel, what exactly does “unfleshed” mean? Why is this important?

Daniel— Beyond my fascination for medical body imaging (and my consequent love of Marilène’s work!), I’ve never been much moved or impressed by the idea of “unfleshed”. I’m aware of its popularity among (mostly) ’70s-inspired radical philosophy movements such as deleuzianism, California eco-criticism, or the works of someone like Donna Haraway for example. I’m also aware of its relative centrality in today’s vogue for the idea of “posthumanism” in critical theory and cultural studies. But beyond that, the ’90s belief that the rise of internet would lead us all to become “cyborgs in cyberspace” (to paraphrase the title of a book by anthropologist David Hakken), has very quickly become super dated. We are still very much tied to our bodies, mind you. Spend a day in an emergency ward at the hospital, and then try to think of what it means to be “unfleshed”. As long as we experience desire and pain, “unfleshed” will remain a moot concept I think.

Banner photography: Daniel Laforest on stage with two of Marilène’s sculptures. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Tieh.

Portrait photography courtesy of Jordon Hon, TEDxUAlberta.

Speaker biographies courtesy of TEDxUAlberta.