aAron Munson

Where are you?

Excerpt about Where are you? from Know Thyself as a Virtual Reality essay by Lianne McTavish

aAron Munson began his artistic research with an fMRI scan of his brain. He wanted the functional magnetic resonance imaging technology to map his brain’s activity before he embarked on two experiments. Then, Munson meditated intensively. He went to the Fine Arts Building at the University of Alberta and rested on a mat, surrounded by students who sometimes joined him. For a full week, Munson slowed down by turning his attention inward, toward his body. He subsequently underwent a second fMRI scan to record any changes in his brain’s activity. The next week was markedly different. The artist used social media continually, moving from Twitter to Facebook to Snapchat and TikTok, a platform that was especially addictive. Although Munson found the experience disruptive and somewhat bewildering, he took note of how the various algorithms created images of himself. The artist could feel his brain changing. This perception of cognitive mutability was reinforced by the third fMRI scan, which was distinctive from both the first and the second scan. 

The virtual reality artwork that Munson produced in collaboration with software engineers and medical imaging technicians features these three scans. The shimmering heads float in front of the viewer, showing different states of blood flow. Viewers can move towards and away from these medicalized heads, pushed and pulled by the soundscape created by Gary James Joynes. The white tracks positioned in between the heads are more interactive. These sections portray the parts of the brain that were stimulated by social media, and their interiors reveal colourful streaming videos that change constantly. Visitors to this virtual landscape can use their phantom hands to pick up, move, and inspect these flickering sections of the brain, with the controllers vibrating intensely as they do so. Visitors can consider this exhausting barrage of information from a novel and potentially slower vantage point. Though VR may seem overwhelming ⸻ and it may join social media in suffusing the perceptions of children in unprecedented ways ⸻ Munson enables participants to find stillness and seek reflection within it.

In keeping with these goals, the installation of Munson’s artwork in the gallery space includes a platform arranged in front of two screens.  The screens display his social media feed. One screen lays flat upon a plinth, which is covered with three-dimensional prints of Munson, frozen and trapped as he looks down at his mobile phone. Visitors can contemplate Munson’s condition while sitting comfortably before these screens after, before, or even instead of donning the VR headset.

aAron Munson (they/them) is a Canadian filmmaker, cinematographer, and multimedia artist. Their work tackles extreme human experiences, both far from and close to home, utilizing film,video, photography, and sound to create visual explorations relating to mental illness, memory, and the nature of consciousness. Their exploration of the impact of digital culture on mental health will help to visualize mental health as part of the virtual data body.

Artist – aAron Munson
Sound – Gary James Joynes
Unity development – Walter Ostrander
3D model refinement – Bhagyashree Zala
3D scanning assistant – Emma Rockwell
MRI Research Associate – Peter Seres
fMRI Processing – Avyarthana Dey, PhD (Neuroscience) candidate