SYNAPSE INTRO – KIM SAWCHUCK

X-rays, endoscopes, CT-scans, PET-scans, MRI, digital mammography: these imaging technologies make it possible for medical scientists to peer into the body without cutting through the skin. With video monitors and robotic equipment, surgery becomes less invasive and less traumatic to the body. Technological devices visualize and enlarge somatic space, rendering images of our most infinitesimal cells, molecules, and genetic structures which allow for a more precise manipulation of our muscles, tissue, and bone. Although initially produced within a medical context, these renderings of the interior body are not only encountered in the hospital or doctor’s office. Since their earliest invention, such representations of the body have intersected with those of art and popular culture.

The Synapse Forum has been developed in conjunction with the Digitized Bodies—Virtual Spectacles project curated by Nina Czegledy. It takes up the questions that surround the rapid development of the digital imaging technologies which have recently reshaped biomedicine in ways that could have been barely imagined only a decade ago. It raises ethical and social issues about our faith in the power of seeing, and our desire to invest in advanced-technology medicine: Can we really trust science and industry to tell the whole story? And, it tries to understand the implications of the transmission of biological information via the media: What is it about inner space that is so appealing? What does our intimate connection to technology mean for us as we march into the next millennium?

My own project focuses on the history of the popularization of scientific images of our inner bodies. It explores, explains, and critiques the limits and potentials of this history in reference to the concept of biotourism. By biotourism I refer to the rendering of the body as a landscape and the attendant fantasy that we not only see our insides, but that we can travel through this somatic space.

It is my conjecture that there are five features essential to the phenomena of biotourism (all of which stand to be nuanced.) First, for biotourism to occur, there must be a transposition of scale. What was miniaturea cell, a virus, a bacteria floating in the bloodstreamis rendered gigantic. Second, an unveiling occurs: what was invisible, like a heart, will be revealed “to the naked eye.” Third, this movement into the body is often couched in enlightenment terms as a journey of light into darkness. Fourth, in biotouristic tales, the inner body, flesh and blood and bone, is interpreted as an inner landscape. Finally, this “bioscape” pictorially and discursively resembles the nineteenth century idea of the sublimeinspiring an attitude of awe and wonder at the power of nature. Biotouristic tales are tales of travel and discovery, if not by a real human being, as in the 1966 feature film Fantastic Voyage, then by the human eye.

My research also examines in detail four locations where biotourism is manifest: popular science magazines (eg. Scientific American); popular television science documentaries (eg. The Universe Within); museums, such as the Franklin Science Institute in Philadelphia; and, web sites and CD ROMs like The Vesalius Project and Body Voyage. In each case the “grammar” of the popular media form—to borrow a phrase from Marshall McLuhan—is interrogated in order to understand how media formats affect the way the inner body is depicted, and what this communicates.

For the purposes of the Synapse Forum I am collaborating with Robyn Diner, a PhD candidate at Concordia. Together we are conducting research on virtual anatomy sites on the web, sites that as we have learned cover a range of themes and topics of inner space. We are interested in sites that combine anatomical information on the human morphology not only for medical purposes, but also for the purposes of education, fashion, and entertainment. Using the trope of the tourist, Robyn and I will be posting our thoughts on doing this kind of “ethnographic work” in virtual space, as well as our top ten virtual anatomy sites, which we invite you to visit for your self.

To get the discussion started, I invite you to post a short description of the projects or work that you are doing, or to briefly elaborate on your insights, inquiries or issues that relate to some aspect of the theme of “digitized bodies” and “virtual spectacles.” As well as being a space of critical and creative reflection on art, medicine, and popular culture in the digital age, I invite you to engage in the process of collective story telling. Many of us have tales to tell of our own encounters with these new technologies for monitoring our bodies. Do you have a relevant story? Please feel free to post it. Welcome to the Synapse Forum. Kim Sawchuck

Chair – Kim Sawchuk