http://new . territories / appropriation . of . medical . discourse / art . com

Nina Czegledy and Inke Arns presented the material described in the following text during the afternoon programme at V2_Organisation Rotterdam on Sunday, January 21st, 14.00 - 18.00 hrs.

On an imaginary journey in the territories of current medical practice and visual art, we observe the disintegration of former boundaries and discover the emergence of a new discourse involving new metaphors and new mythologies. In the course of this voyage we witness the crystallization of a process which began in the Enlightenment and today is linked together by electronic technologies. Mediated by television, and lately the Internet, the concepts involved here, have contributed to the construction of a simulated reality in both medical science and art which imprisons attention and redirects it from the subject of the activity reproduced.

The relationship between medicine and art has been of long standing interest to scholars and artists alike, although a dichotomy continues to divide the analytic, deductive views prevalent in medicine from those who distrust the powers of pure reason and aspire to some form of life-experience such as action, memory, sensation or the reciprocity between art and creative power. Science, specifically medical science, considers reason to be the exclusive source of knowledge, and utmost emphasis is placed on abstraction and clinical detachment. The artist approaches his/her own reality quite differently. This approach is in more experiential terms.The broad difference between medical science and art is, to some extent that between objective synthesis and subjective simulation. However, as Wittgenstein wrote in Tractatus "even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, our problems of life remain completely untouched."

Has the image of the human body as a metaphor significantly changed? Examining German medical records from the early eighteenth century, Barbara Duden(1) discovered a perception of the body very different than the one we consider today: "...a body in which substances we would not recognize find pathways we would regard as anatomically impossible - a body dominated by humours, in which blood ebbs and flows, rather than circulates. Most contemporary historians encountering this alien body reinterpret it from the superior standpoint of biomedical science, transforming what people thought they experience into what science now permits us to know they really experienced."

The change in our perception is due to significant developments. Firstly there is much more scientific information available in the popular realm, offering the public seemingly direct access to previously unknown territories in medical science. It is not only the volume of information which has increased but also the transmitting media has diversified. The latest and perhaps the most potent channel of communication is, of course the Net. A second contributing factor in our changing perception is a shift from passive to active attitudes towards the control of our bodies on a personal level. The range of self-help therapies on offer seem to have empowered us with new capacities. Thirdly, due to the new visualization techniques of non- invasive medical technologies, our perception of our corporal selves has changed.

In her influential volume, Body Criticism , Barbara M. Stafford (2) wrote: "The computer-mediated milieu renders the body nakedly public. One result of the non-invasive imaging technologies in the area of medicine is the capability of turning the person inside-out. If the late nineteenth century developed the photographic sounding of the living interior through endoscopy, gastroscopy, cystoscopy and most dramatically X-rays, the late XX century revealed its dark core three-dimensionally through MRI projections.Using radio waves and magnetic fields, this technique for painlessly exploring morphology, nonetheless raises the specter of universal diaphaneity. It conjures up visions of an all-powerful observer who has instant visual access to the anatomy, biochemistry and physiology of a patient. Will this open- ended trend toward complete exposure give rise to the same sense of vulnerability, shame, and powerlessness that the eighteenth century associated with anatomization?"

According to Marshall McLuhan: any new technology, any extension or amplification of human faculties when given embodiment tends to create a new environment. A new environment creates new occupants and new occupations. Ironically in this new environment of digital visualization, the same software tools are used by all the new occupants: both the practitioners of the medical profession and by artists in their critical discourse of medical practice.

Advanced information technologies of interpretation have given raw data a malleability previously unconceived. For example, digital image interpretation and enhancement in medicine is one contributor to this change. The great quantity of articles published in the medical literature serve as a measure of the rapid visualization of this discipline. According to the Index Medixus, -a listing of medical journals worldwide -within the last five years, 2880 articles were published under the subject heading of image processing, 260 under computer assisted image interpretation and 496 under image enhancement. Specialized and by now well established subjects such as radiography, MRI imaging or CAT scans, are not included in these numbers.

Inspecting the hundreds of articles on the enhancement and alteration of medical images we could ask the question, where indeed do we find "objective" truth or reality? We have become used to the standard manipulation of photographic images, however as George Legrady has noted "the digital image betrays no surface evidence of alteration. One must first suspect that the image is less than accurate; then one needs a computer with the right program to detect the changes.(3)

What is the significance of the increased appropriation and use of "artistic" scientific images by industry? As we just noted, recent advancements in hard and software technology have contributed to a new level of sophistication in the interpretation and presentation of digitalized medical images. The lure of these images is widely used by manufacturers of scientific instruments, pharmaceutical companies and software manufacturers in their advertising and promotion materials. Quite recently commercially produced medical teaching tools utilizing CD ROM technology, have become widely available. Consequently the costly development and use of advanced computer graphics is playing an important role in shifting educational responsibility from the teaching institutions to a commercially linked base. Television advertisements offer more explicit medical images to advance pharmaceutical products than ever before. While there is nothing novel in the use of realistic pictorial depictions by the advertising industry, the politics of the situation involve an altered, enhanced reality where the implicit rhetoric of the images prevail. Quoting again Legrady "Computer imaging can simulate and generate any type of imagery or "realities" one chooses. The ideological factor in the digital photograph is exponentially increased since the image promotes a form of meaning and value while appearing to merely represent the real."(3)

What remains to be determined is the true significance of the increased visualization of the medical sciences and the utilization of "artistic" scientific images by the industry. Prior to an analysis of the interpretation of art by medicine or medical science by art, we shall mention a few words on the rhetorical interplay between author and audience. According to the philosopher A.C. Danto: "it is the function of rhetoric to cause the audience of a discourse to take a certain attitude toward the subject of that discourse: to be caused to see that subject in a certain light... I am concerned only with the logical consideration that it is the intention of the rhetoric to cause attitudes, irrespective of the goodness or the badness of the motives in question." (4)

This quote gains further significance when we examine the interpretation of art in medicine through a curious and unrecognized trend in medical literature. Between 1991 and 1995 more than 300 articles appeared in peer- reviewed medical journals, focusing on the discussion of medical conditions and the diagnosis of individual artists. While these articles reflect the "objective" views of the authors, they also illustrate the gap between the perceptions of the medical community and the creative powers of the artists involved.

According to Danto:
"Metaphor is only the most familiar of the rhetoric tropes, each of which may with ingenuity be found to have a counterpart in pictorial representation.If the structure of the artwork is too close to the structure of the metaphors, then no paraphrase or summary of an artwork can engage the participatory mind, and no critical account of the internal metaphor of the work can substitute for the work inasmuch as a description of a metaphor simply does not have the power of the metaphor it describes, just as a description of a cry of anguish does not activate the same responses as the cry of anguish itself." (4)

How are then specific discourses of medical science refracted by artists?

"I am trying to make sense of contemporary science and its burgeoning technological infrastructure. As an aficionado in this domain, I feel regularly bombarded by specialized information that usually has a science fictional and even apocalyptic ring to it" wrote Nell Tenhaaf, a practicing artist, in her essay entitled Mutational Cravings. (12). In Species of Life, Tenhaaf showed electronically manipulated scientific teaching materials, such as models of DNA strands on which handwritten philosophical quotes were inscribed. While the images evoked biogenetic manipulations they also remained proper objects of science and thus served as an excellent example of the scrutiny involved in current art practices.

The increased exposure of new medical technologies resulted in an intensified focus on the philosophical, ethical and aesthetic considerations involved in various medical procedures. New venues of communication technologies have contributed to the re-examination of invasive and non-invasive methods and the "objective" depersonalized attitude of the medical establishment. In particular the "barrage of images and dictums issued by the socially and culturally authorized commercial media" (Chris Hill) have made a deep impact on the global art community.

While numerous exhibits dealt with this subject globally, such as Rites of Passage at the Tate Gallery, the scope of this presentation only permits examination of limited examples where the work of individual artists are interconnected with medical science. AIDS related art projects for instance, present a separate body of literature and are outside the scope of this paper.

A recent exhibition, "RX- taking our Medicine", at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Canada showed the work of seven artists. These artists in their concern about medicine and health care, crossed boundaries and explored territories "not normally associated with visual arts." wrote David McTavish, director of the Gallery.

The images in Barbara McGill Balfour's Melonamata in this exhibition- a floor installation of hand drawn lithographic prints - were based on epidermic cell structures derived from medical atlases. In her assay entitled: Enlightened Visions, Somatic Spaces: Imaging the Interior in Art and Medicine, Kim Sawchuk wrote of Balfour's piece: Melanomata transforms our relationship to this skin, just as medicine alters our view of the body: by enlarging its contours and highlighting its patterns. As spectators, we are engaged in the experiences of being miniaturized in relationship to our own self-image, our sense of scale inverted as we look at the surface at our feet. (13)

By re-positioning scientific imagery and provocatively shifting information in his photo collage:Enemies Within, John Baturin purposely manipulated the context of his work. Gestures and poses, based on Muybridge studies on locomotion, were appropriated for their emotive possibilities. Each gesture was then positioned against medical-photo representations of human anatomy. The resulting "synthesis of data" represented certain distortions which effected the "truth" - whatever the original intent, whatever the information.

Alexa Wright and Louise Wilson in RX- Taking our Medicine, as well as in an earlier show (Montreal, 1995), aimed at the demystification of modern medicine by showing the highly codified ritual nature of this discipline. "Wilson and Wright contend that the precision-driven instruments, diagnostic procedures and emphasis on objective data of specialized medicine leave the patent with little control over his or her own body." (14)

Alexa Wright said of Transplant I, a reconstruction of a cardiac transplant with a life size photo of an armoured knight in the background: "the transplanted body and the armored body present two opposed expressions of being. Both of them addressing some of the metaphors which exist around the body as malleable or invulnerable object." The audio recording of a heart transplant operation became the audio component of the exhibition enforcing the realistic effect of the installation. In an earlier exhibition, The Stranger Within, at Gallery TPW in April 1995, Toronto, Wright explored the surface of the skin as a barrier between ourselves and the outside world. In a series of large backlit photos freshly sutured surgical scars were shown in extreme close-up.The large steel boxes framing the images resembled the partitioned, anesthetized "site" of a surgical operation, however the viewer quickly realized that the disturbing scenario was extremely real and an everyday occurrence. From the artist's vantage point, "objective, impersonal" medical technology was conceived as an invading force undermining corporal integrity.

Louise Wilson showed Possessed. at the RX- Taking our Medicine exhibition. The magnetic resonance generated images of the human brain set on a revolving platform. The images changed according to the recorded voices of hypnotists. Images of the artist' sleep patterns were also included emphasizing different areas of the brain by introducing various colours. This hypnotic presentation suggested that just as increased specialization means a greater isolation and subdivision of knowledge, the imagery of the medical industry becomes more and more remote from its human context. "It is not surprising that at the present media artists would use dis-ease as a metaphor and an interactive strategy with audiences in order to deliver a cultural and social critique" - commented Chris Hill in her introduction to Feeling the Faults, Confronting Dis-ease Through The Mediated Body, a video program she curated for Hallwalls, Buffalo (1993). The tapes included controversial topics on public health care, such as AIDS education, reproductive rights or safe-sex eroticism. "In all of the tapes the viewer's own investments in behavioral and moral codes are called into question" - wrote Hill. (15) Among media artists, several concentrated on the dichotomy of the detached medical views and personal experience. Jennifer Bozick for example produced tapes "in order to investigate ideas about the medical notion of the body as compared to the highly subjective view of the body in pain." Kathy High investigated new reproductive technologies in her tapes from a feminist point of view.

In Medical ReVisions, curated by Robbin Ami Silverberg, the work of eight women were shown, including Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Sara Garden Armstrong. Armstrong's large light boxes in this show, offered a glimpse into the thoracic cavity, Bourgois showed us disturbing photographs of diseased eyes, while Kiki Smith's mixed media images fragmented and isolated parts of human organs. The mostly photo-based works in this exhibition were derived from medical science. Rather than acting as an explicit critique, they created a seldom expressed link between art and medicine.

This link was further articulated by Joyce Cutler Shaw in her article "Anatomy Lesson: The Body Technology and Empathy (17). In 1992, Cutler was the first artist-in-residence at the School of Medicine, University of California. Her drawings and multimedia works explore the human body and investigate the dehumanizing consequences of new medical imaging technologies. She wrote: "From the outset, it seemed my role would emerge from a borderland between the province of visual and poetic language .. and the domain in which medical terminology is critical: in which the physical self, the ethical self and scientific, technologically based medical practice connect and collide." Cutler commented on the new visual language created by advanced electronic technologies in medicine, where "flesh, blood and the wholeness of the tactile body are displaced with tonal and graphic images of parts".

In agreement with Cutler, we would like to conclude, that despite the objectified norm of medical science - our corporal self remains an "unrepeatable variation of the Homo sapiens theme."


1 Duden B. The Woman Beneath the Skin. 1991 Harvard University Press
2 Stafford B.The Body Criticism. 1993 MIT Press.
3 Legrady G in: Critical Issues in Electronic Media, 1995 State University of
New York Press, N.Y.
4 Danto AC.The transfiguration of the commonplace. 1981. Harvard University