Me, Myself and MRI

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A personal introduction to the project by lead artist, Damian Murphy

...suddenly, on the computer screen for all to see, was the inside of my head...this was my brain; this was me.
In the summer of 2006 I underwent a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scan at York Neuroimaging Centre(YNiC). Fortunately this was for scientific research purposes, rather than due to some medical emergency, as one of my colleagues had been investigating the shape of our outer ears and how they relate to our perception of sounds coming at us from different directions. Apparently the best way to get a 3D image of the ear is using an MRI machine - naturally! Like all of the subjects who make up this exhibition, I was nervous, interested, and felt very lucky to be given the opportunity to see my brain - without having to worry about what the results would show up.

I was in the machine for an hour while various tests were run, and after realising nothing bad was going to happen to me, and once I had got used to the loud noises that were involved with running the tests, it was actually rather hypnotic and relaxing. With the measurements complete I was shown into the control room and then suddenly, on the computer screen for all to see, was the inside of my head. If this wasn't enough the images were adjusted further and then just my brain could be seen - slowly spinning and floating on the screen for like some kind of strange cartoon or computer graphic - except this wasn't just any brain or abstract image - this was my brain; this was me.

Soon after I had my MRI scan I met up with Mark Hildred and John Oxley and I told them what an interesting process it had been. Soon we began talking about the idea of what an MRI image offers as an insight in to the subject being scanned. Are these images any more or less valid than a traditional portrait or photograph of that person? Does the ability to see inside our heads tell us any more about what makes that person an individual?

During this period there was a portraiture exhibition at York Art Gallery, featuring examples from the National Portrait Gallery's collection. This included Sir John Sulston's portrait by Marc Quinn. Sir John Sulston was one of the leading scientists working on the Human Genome Project. This is not a traditional portrait as it consists of a detail of Sulston's genome, obtained from a sample of his DNA. It provides an absolutely unique representation of the subject in the portrait - our genome and DNA provide the fundamental building blocks of who we are. Very soon we had our own building blocks in terms of an idea for a unique digital portrait exhibition.

At this point, project manager Kirsty Halliday became involved, taking our ideas and helping us refine them into specific aims and objectives. Photographer Kippa Matthews joined the creative team and our basic outline for a digital portrait exhibition based around MRI data started to take shape. The next stage was to identify the other organisations who would help make the project a reality.

We talked with Sam Johnson at YNiC about the practicalities of delivering this kind of project; Archbishop Holgate's School, a local secondary school with Science College status, identified a group of pupils we could work with; York Art Gallery and Impressions Gallery provided artistic input and guidance; York Hospitals Trust, Impressions Gallery and the National Science Learning Centre all expressed an interest in hosting the exhibition; and the National Science Learning Centre (NSLC) also provided additional science and education links. The NSLC also seemed the obvious place to launch the exhibition, given its leading position in the development and promotion of excellence in science teaching, and its proximity to many of the partners involved.

With the partners in place and a detailed outline of how the project would run, the next step was to secure funding. The focus on the use of biomedical data in the form of MRI scans, meant that the project was an ideal match for the Wellcome Trust's Arts Awards - a funding scheme set up to support imaginative and experimental arts projects that investigate biomedical science. Our bid to the Wellcome Trust was successful and a further bid to Arts Council England provided additional support for the exhibition tour.

The project finally began in December 2007 with the first in a series of workshops at Archbishop Holgate's School.

Damian Murphy, Lead Artist and Artist Responsible for Sound, Me, Myself and MRI, February 2009.

This video interview shows lead artist Damian Murphy discussing the background to the project:

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