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Digibodies Online Exhibition and Synapse Online Forum
Panel Discussion with Kim Sawchuk, Jack Butler, Neil Gerlach, and Moira Howes
Nina Czegledy, an independent media artist, curator, and writer, divides her time between Canada and Europe. She is the project curator for Digitized Bodies Virtual Spectacles, a Canadian-Hungarian collaboration featuring a series of online and onsite events in 2000 and 2001. She presented research aspects at CAiiA1/2, ISEA98, and Invencao99. Her most recently curated exhibitions of electronic art include Choice (Stockholm, Skinnskatteberg, 1999), Touch:Touch (Toronto, Montreal, Regina, 1999), Gisele Trudel’s exhibition (Toronto, 1999), and Aurora (Toronto, 1998). Some of her interactive digital works are: Aurora and Aurora CD-ROM (Virtual Revolutions project), Digitized Bodies CD-ROM (in progress at C3 Budapest). Most recently, she has contributed to Reframing Consciousness (ed. R. Ascott, 1999), Media Revolution (ed. Stephen Kovats, 1999), “Mediated Bodies,” with Andre P. Czegledy, in The body caught in the computer intestines and beyond (ed. Marina Grzinic, 2000), and Digitized Bodies – Virtual Spectacles, with Andre P. Czegledy (Futures, 2000).
“The time has come for new alliances, which have always existed but for a long have been ignored, between the history of humankind, its societies, its knowledges, and the exploratory adventure of nature.”
Isabelle Stengers (with Ilya Prigone), “The Reenchantment of the World.” In Power and Invention: Situating Science. Trans. Paul Bains. University of Minnesota Press, 1997, p. 59.
How may we deploy the concept of representation as a way to clarify and render more complex the articulation of scientific practice, in particular those of biology, to society and popular culture? After first examining some classical definitions of representation, several linkages- and sets of relations that point to the dialogue between the biological sciences and cultural practices- are explored. First, the signification of science within culture and the media is examined, pointing to the need for more careful study of the positioning of scientific authority. Second the uses of representation from within the practice of biomedicine is explored by way of the work of Ian Hacking’s proposition that representation is inseparable from intervention. Finally the ramifications of the fissure that exists between the popular conception of science’s referent and the scientific conception of what its images represent are considered.
Following Stengers work, I hope to open up the possibility of creating an inventive, ethical and political alliance between the practice science and philosophic inquiry. As Stengers writes, “Science is certainly an art of manipulating nature. But it is also an attempt to understand and respond to questions that have been asked by humankind generation after generation.” (p. 33)
>>>Kim Sawchuk is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. She co-edited When Pain Strikes (University of Minnesota Press, 1999) and Wild Science: Reading Feminism,. Medicine and the Media (Routledge, 2000). She co-founded studioXX in Montreal, a feminist organization dedicated to questioning and promoting the use of digital technologies by women, and is currently on its board of directors. She is completing a book on C. Wright Mills’s political pamphlets and unpublished works, and her next (and solo) book project is tentatively titled Biotourism and sublime inner space.
The physical installation in the gallery, virtual installation on the web, and curatorial premise of Digitized Bodies Virtual Spectacles focus on the theoretical, ethical, and practical consequences of technologically realized biomedical visualization (imaging) of the body. I am more interested in the continuity between hand technologies (drawing, modeling) and digital electronic technologies than in their historical ruptures. To make my point, I will describe the visualization, modeling and imaging processes operative in these works in practical terms.
The history of my project to model the breath, the capacity to breathe, and the structural development of the lungs began as a scientific research commission for the Children’s Hospital of Winnipeg Research Foundation in 1978. The scientific question was: What is the structure of the breathing chambers of the human lung and how do they develop in the embryo? The evidence upon which all of my research was based was a series of sections through embryonic lung tissue at increasing stages of maturity prior to birth. The modeling process, involving visual analogy (visual likeness x is like y in demonstrable ways), produced a series of drawings, clay models, and photographs concluding in hand-built acrylic models that have been used for clinical and teaching purposes since 1980.
Development of the website “Embryogenesis of Breath” began in 1994 in collaboration with designer Tom Leonhardt and artist Sheila Butler. Analogical modeling itself, imaging by means of visual likeness became the object of the inquiry. The medical lung development models produced in the initial stages of the project exemplify the very nature of a “model.” They claim to represent the ideal, the natural condition/structure, the calm steady state of nature. “Embryogenesis of Breath” contradicts this scientific assumption by emphasizing the intrinsic role that visual thinking plays, in the form of personal artistic insights and aesthetic theory, in the construction of scientific models. The website thus both supports and subverts the myth of rational science.
As an extension of this self-reflexive critique, the site incorporates an open conference page where artists, scientists, and philosophers have generously responded to the site in open dialogue.
The visual likenesses I experienced (constructed? discovered?) in my original scientific breath and breathing research have never left my imagination and have now become deeply embedded in my art practice. The video projection, “All Changed, Changed Utterly” reifies the analogical likeness imaging process. By dissolving one picture through another, and one medium through another, “All Changed, Changed Utterly” claims likeness in important ways, for example, the pattern of ice forming on an Arctic lake is like the subtle geometry of the developing, breathing chambers of the human lungs is like the tiling patterns in Islamic art is like the architecture of soap bubble agglomerations, etc. The ineffable, unnamable experience of these likenesses is realized at the moment of transition between one image (identity) and another.
By means of digital electronic technology, “All Changed, Changed Utterly” moves my process of analogical visual imaging from the single focus of the scientific question to the deep-level, emotionally apprehended, multiple questions posed by the art experience. In this sense, the “Embryogenesis of Breath” website and the video projection installation “All Changed, Changed Utterly” exemplify my hybrid practice at the intersection of visual art, cultural criticism, and experimental embryology.
>>> Interdisciplinary artist Jack Butler’s works bridge between the visual pleasure of art and the rational demands of science. He has exhibited installations, video projections, computer animations, and performance works internationally. His work is in private and public collections, including the National Gallery of Canada. Butler has degrees in Visual Art and Philosophy and 30 years of experience as a medical model-builder and published researcher in human development. He has taught at many institutions, including Carnegie Mellon University and, most recently, at the Banff Centre for the Arts and in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of biotechnologies: those that intervene in individual bodily processes (gene therapy, genetically modified food) and those that administer the social body. Although most public attention is focused on the former, my presentation will address the latter, which currently takes the form of a data bank for storing the DNA of convicted offenders. What is this DNA data bank? How is it being used? What limits should be placed upon it? How is the government presenting it to citizens? What are its potential impacts on Canadian society in terms of how this particular biotechnology can be used to regulate the social body?
>>> Neil Gerlach is an Assistant Professor of sociology at Concordia University, Montreal. He holds degrees in education, law, anthropology, and sociology. His research interests include the ways in which business rationalities are entering into the management of a variety of social institutions, and also, the related changes in forms of social control through the spread of surveillance strategies and the introduction of biotechnologies as forms of social management.
I will begin my contribution to the panel with a brief explanation of two different types of identity at play in philosophical discussions of the self. Distinguishing between these types is important their conflation has led to many problems in philosophy and elsewhere. One of these problems concerns the reduction of self-identity to scientific or medical concepts. One need only think of the lure that reductive genetic definitions of the self have for us, even as we may be repelled by them. But the weight that reductive views of the self carry in our understanding of our own identities stems, in part at least, from a confusion between the different senses of identity.
After discussing the different types of identity, I will suggest that biomedical imaging cannot constitute a self (there is no individual to be found there), but it seems clear that this imaging has great power to transform our view of the self in both beneficial and harmful ways. I will use two striking examples from the bioethics literature to demonstrate the ease with which medicine can, in certain cases, “decide” where the boundaries of the self the boundaries of people should lie.
Finally, I will return to the electronic art project at hand, better equipped to say what I find so valuable about it. This project is a refreshing, substantive resistance to the reduction of whole persons to their elements. It demonstrates how technology can be used positively and can newly render the self’s connection to ever-widening levels of reality. Given what I perceive the strength of medical authority to be, it is imperative that we become engaged, critical participants in the technology that images us. While the images found in Digibodies Online are haunting, beautiful, striking, informative, and (sometimes) deeply weird, they hit right where they are needed most: in our concepts of self, concepts at risk of being sterilized by unreflective uses of technology.
>>> Moira Howes received her PhD in philosophy from the University of Western Ontario in August 1999. Her dissertation research focused on the nature of the personal self and various conceptions of the immune self found in theoretical immunology. She is a visiting Assistant Professor at SUNY Buffalo, where she teaches biomedical ethics and introductory philosophy. Her research also extends into feminist philosophy of science and medicine, and she is currently working on a feminist critique of reproductive immunology combined with an analysis of self-concepts used in reproductive immunology. In addition, she loves to participate in discussions about art, science, and medicine. She says, “I stuck it out through five years of biology mainly because I thought it was beautiful!”