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reflection : biotourism
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Parables of a Bio Tourist
Transcript of presentation at the Banff New Media Institute
by Kim Sawchuk

The following text is the transcript of a lecture presented in September, 2002 at Quintessence : The Clumpy Matter of art and science visualization, a conference event held at the Banff New Media Institute.

Parable 1: Drink Milk
Picture this: it’s the summer of 2001 and you’re driving your truck back from the local Canadian Tire. As you round a corner on to a busy thoroughfare, your attention is diverted from the road to a large billboard hovering over the intersection. You take a second look — the billboard displays gleaming white bones: the very familiar and overused image of an x-rayed body part, set against a striking back background.

The x-rayed arm extends into a clenched fist. While every digit is proudly displayed, the thumb is prominently raised in the recognizable gesture of a thumbs-up sign. Except for the small logo in the corner, which you later recognize as the symbol of an association representing milk producers, there is a significant absence of text on the enlargement. Nevertheless, the meaning is clear: “Drink milk. Milk builds strong bones.” The evidence: nothing need be said or written - it's in the bones. We can see it. To see is to know.

Throughout the summer and fall [of 2001], Montreal bus shelters, billboards and subway posters displayed a series of similar x-rayed images, all vying for the attention of busy urban commuters within the saturated mediascape of this very busy city. Promoting, visually, the connection between bones, calcium, milk, and good health, the campaign was extremely popular, and a great bit of industry PR. It is also emblematic of a phenomenon that is central to my research: The transformation of bodies into landscapes, their re-creation as a bioscape for imagined travel, and the establishment of regimes of truth and knowledge by rendering the invisible visible. I call this proclivity “biotourism”.

With the development of x-ray photography in the late 19th century, images of the inner space of the body began to make new, and very different, public appearances. Early science films captured how the new wonders of technology might serve the emerging life sciences. There was, at this moment, a compulsion to narrativize science, but also to make people laugh at experiments in electricity: to be in awe and repulsed at the sight of the beating of a frog’s heart laid bare and wired; to giggle at the demonstrations of the scientist subjecting his intestinal tract to these marvellous new inventions. Many of these self-experimenters, of course, later suffered from cancer because of their exposure to high levels of radioactivity.

I’m not talking, in other words, about the role of visual representation, or “rendering” (a term I prefer), in the scientific process — as Bruno Latour has done — but the promotion of scientific endeavours in the media, in museums, in the realms of popular culture. How is science fictionalized? When are scientific imagings put on display, [when do they] choose to put themselves on display?

There is no question here of dismissing such visualizations as the mere vulgarization of the true findings of researchers in biology, microbiology, or biochemistry. For, in fact, such displays often emerge as the result of collaborations with doctors and scientists interested in making scientific knowledge public, or practices accessible. Public accessibility, of course, is one of the increasing pressures on scientists in the war [to secure] very minimal public funds for research, creating a tangled web of interlocking, interacting co-dependencies. Good PR is also important for companies. (Like, for example: Given Imaging, manufacturers of “the camera you can swallow”.) Because good PR can bring in new investors to fund research and development.

My choice of the life sciences is deliberate, for I think they bring us to our bodies, and to my own passion as a researcher, which has always been the corporeal dimensions of communications. The pleasures and frailties of our mortal coil — as individuals, as a species, as co-existing members of a life-world that encompasses more than the human. I think I spent far too much time as a child in hospital, and far too much time then imagining myself as a microbe.

One could trace the development of biotourism back to the first anatomical atlases and anatomical theatres of the mid-15th century. But this would be vast, sprawling (my project already is), and there is already lots of very good work out there. My focus, therefore, is on technological innovations such as ultrasound, electron microscopy, positron emission tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging. [These innovations] have transformed clinical practices — developments that were accelerated during, and then after, the Second World War predominantly.

Biotourism for me, though, has become not only a topic, but a working conceptual method. In the process, the researcher (that is, me) is transformed into a kind of perceptual persona that implicates her directly in the phenomena she is studying. I gawk, I look, I take pictures, I stand in line and buy tickets. But I also collect souvenirs (Oops! I mean research materials!) and data to confirm my findings. I include among these: my collection of travel magazines like LIFE and National Geographic; popular science journals from Scientific American to Discovery; coffee table books on the subject, such as Leonard Neilson’s Behold Man; television documentaries like Brain Sex and The Universe Within; Hollywood films such as Fantastic Voyage and Inner Space; and models and games, such as Operation and The Visible Woman from Skillcraft. Journeys are promised, thrills are advertised, secrets may be revealed, and I want to go along for the ride.

Parable 2 : Think Big
In studying biotourism, I have [delineated four aesthetic features that recur over and over]. And I’ve become interested in the idea of scale, and the relationship between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic. [Also,] space and the construction of a bioscape — in particular the rendering of the body into geographic kinds of features. I’ve been interested in the types of movement that are both imaged and re-created through simulated means: whether we’re figured as [going on] a journey or a tour; whether we’re in a machine; whether we’re walking around or within [the body]. And, finally, issues around sensibility, and their invocation through things like luminosity. And I’ve been particularly interested in issues around the sublime, from Burke’s notion of the sublime as agreeable horror, to the Kantian notion, which is different: which in some ways talks about the idea of mind over nature.

What I want to focus on in the time I have left to me is one part of the project: The transposition of scale. But first, a commercial break: a quote from Susan Stewart’s On Longing, a book I like very much. She says, “The secret of the microscope is its transformation of the miniature, which can be viewed with a single perspective, into the gigantic, which can only be taken apart piece by piece.”

And now a poem, from John Donne’s The Devotions:
It is too little to call Man a little World;
Except God, Man is a diminutive to nothing.
Man consists of more pieces, more parts than the World,
than the World doeth, nay than the World is.
And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in Man,
as they are in the World, Man would be the Gyant,
and the World the Dwarfe, the World but the Map
and the Man the World.
If all the Veines in our bodies, were extended to Rivers,
and all the Sinewes, to Vaines of Mines,
and all the Muscles, that lye upon one another, to Hilles,
and all the Bones to Quarries of stones,
and all the other pieces, to the proportion of those
which correspond to them in the World,
the Aire would be too little for this Orbe of Man to move in,
the firmament would be but enough for this Starre,
for as the whole World hath nothing
to which something in Man doth not answer,
so hath Man many pieces, of which the whole World
hath no representation.

This theme of the macroscopic and the microscopic, of corporeal expansion and reduction, has a long history, of course, in the Western tradition of literature. Books such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, render in words the vertiginous, hallucinogenic feeling that one can shrink, or conversely, become an entity that is larger than life. But if we can’t shrink the human body a la The Fantastic Voyage, or distribute hallucinogens in museums (particularly children’s ones), then we can scale up and try to create the illusion of immersive inner-body travel.

So I turn to today’s topic: The culture of display in children’s museums, science centres, and theme parks, which have made large scale anatomical models (usually in very bad plastics, I might add) a central feature of their exhibitionary practices. Indulging in a pedagogy of the grotesque, it would seem that curators and exhibition designers just can’t get enough of enlarging singular, individual human body-parts to make anatomy more entertaining: amusing, yet educational for both adults and children. The result of these aggrandizements and disassemblings is the re-creation of a literal traffic through organs: a series of movements and pathways through familiar landmarks and landscapes of what is supposed to be a familiar body.

At the Franklin Science Center, for example, a booming heartbeat beckons you to climb the stairs into its large, plastic arteries. At Body Odyssey one travels through a plastic tunnel of intestines to slide down a tongue. At Eureka, another children’s museum, children and adults are sheltered from above (from what I don’t know) by a winking, blinking, giant brain that hovers. At Body Worlds we are invited to walk around the plastinates of Dr. Von Hagens, and see better, close up, what is both immediate and distant: our own tumultuous carnality, fixed in resins; our musculature stretched beyond belief.

Becoming a biotourist turns one into a voyageur and voyeur — not only of displays, but of the human interactions in them. I’ve been looking at museum-goers look. And they go not only to look — they point together at parts of their own anatomies gone wrong, they indulge in the hypochondriac within. They share stories and fables of their own unstable and phantasmagoric corporeality, and their morbid late-night fantasies and fears.

Maybe now I’ve just been to too many of these exhibits — I’ve become somewhat disenchanted, jaded. What intrigues me now is the limitations (which I once found kind of wondrous and fascinating: the inside being turned out, and the outside in) of these kinds of scalings: by their logic of representation, and their fidelity to some sort of perverse notion of proportionality. For there is a kind of reductionism at work in these displays, which I think ends up curtailing one’s imaginary journey through these fictionalized inner spaces. And I suppose one of the problems I have with these displays is not that they aren’t realistic enough, but in some sense that they simply aren’t virtual enough.

There is a fiction of literalness put into place that simultaneously denies the way that data is generated and transformed into the visual, and denudes the corporeal of its virtual dimensions of potentiality — of its transformations.

I wonder how such sensations (inner corporeal sensations, which are complex) might be put into place so that viewers may not only play, or be intellectually challenged, or learn, but [also] experience a kind of re-enchantment with inner nature. What kind of reasoning might be needed to help us not only to dominate this inner nature, but to understand it, so that some kind of happy co-habitation might be possible?

Parable 3 : Size Matters
Here I turn to an article in New Scientist that, I must confess, I tracked down after reading Brian Massumi’s wonderful book Parables for the Virtual. I’m entering, I have to say, out on to strange waters, if not out on to a limb — and I feel like I’m going to fall off. I really am not sure I understand what’s happening here.

However, let me try to paraphrase: Physicists working with biologists at research labs in New Mexico claim that bodies exist simultaneously in a two-dimensional, three-dimensional, and four-dimensional spatial world. To illustrate how this conclusion came about, science journalist Roger Levin begins with a rather simple but gruesome question that we can imagine, but that we may not want to picture. Quote: “A mouse falls down a mineshaft one thousand metres deep. Provided the ground is soft, it gets a slight shock and scurries away. A rat falling down the same mineshaft is killed. A man is smashed to pieces, and a horse splashes.” The message is simple: in biology, size matters. Big time! I’ve been thinking about this.

Big species, it would seem, are not simply small species scaled up. And what researchers on the problem of scaling as it’s related to physiology are thus asking are speculative questions that I find intriguing. Such as: whether a mouse could be the size of a cat and maintain the same features in the same proportion right down to its blood vessels (A question I’ve been told that Galileo [also] asked). Organisms are three-dimensional, and when they increase in size, two aspects of their physiological geometry must change — but they do so at different rates. The surface area of the body increases in two dimensions, while our volume increases in three. (We stretch in strange ways.) Because we need the surface area of our skin to dissipate the heat produced during metabolism, if a mouse were to increase to the size of a cat, and all of the proportions remained the same, it would self-immolate. So, our physicists and microbiologists are proposing mathematical models to understand proportionality and scaling [that apply] to all of life. And I wonder: Will this allow them to turn mice into cats? (I’m not always sure what the goal is.)

This debate about the possibility of one law of scaling for all doesn’t really interest me. Well, it does — but I can’t understand it. And as a non-scientist, I wouldn’t know how to begin to critique or comment on it. One of the side-effects of these speculations, however, is fascinating to contemplate, and I’m trying to imagine it. For it provokes a challenge to how the body has been visualized within the displays I’ve been tramping through, and inspires me to think, perhaps, of how one might create better displays if one was so inclined.

[Here’s another quote from the article in New Scientist:] “All multi-cellular organisms apparently have a fractally organised, branching network of tubes to transport nutrients around the body. And this is the fourth dimension. The structure of these resource distributing networks is structured in a hierarchy of repeating branches, where any part of the network looks like any other part, at all scales. By miniaturizing this structure, no matter what the size of the organism, the nutrients, therefore, can be delivered to every section of the organism with maximum efficiency. One cannot simply scale up because the capillaries at the farthest reaches of these branching spaces have an optimal size that must be maintained. And for this reason, our New Mexican scientists claim that this maintenance of scaling, by the way of a process of a fractal branching structure, implies that there is a fourth dimension.”

So organisms, apparently, mathematically speaking, inhabit different spatial worlds simultaneously. We live in a world of three dimensions, perhaps, while our skins, which are our interface with this three-dimensional world, obey one set of laws. However, apparently, our internal anatomy and physiology occupies some kind of four-dimensional world, to maximally optimize scaling, so that the surface area of the capillaries’ volume must always increase fractally.

As Massumi writes, “Geometrically, then, a body is a space-filling fractal of a fourth dimensionality, between a two-dimensional and a threedimensional volume. Conceiving, indeed, representing the body thus, as only a two-dimensional — or even as a three-dimensional — structure places and replaces these bodies back into a Euclidean grid space, occluding its topological, processual, fractal-like features. It ignores the corporeal abstract materiality, and the fact that we live, in some senses, between worlds. Not just in worlds of tumultuous carnality and dynamic processing, but between two, three, and four dimensions.”

Parable 4 : Traveller, Defend Thyself
“Okay,” you may be thinking, “so what’s her point? That science museums should change? That they’re bad for ignoring the body as a membrane, a topological surface that folds back on itself, where the interior and the exterior are not so discreet? For having bad plastics?” Well, here I want to [take you to] Disney — or rather, to EPCOT, which stands for Experimental Prototypes of Communities of Tomorrow, at Disney World in Florida; where there’s the Wonders of Life pavilion, co-sponsored by Metropolitan Life (an insurance company of course). Which outside of its doors features the monument of the twenty-first century: the giant DNA strand, which is another kind of aesthetic feature of many of the science exhibits I have visited.

This pavilion features two displays: one called Cranium Command, and the other called Body Wars. In the first, we enter into an animatronic robotic display that takes us into an antechamber, and then into a theatre, where we are literally supposed to imagine ourselves entering into the head of a thirteen-year-old boy (frightening!) who must be subjected to military-like discipline for not keeping his emotions under control. In the second, we take a stationary journey on a ride-simulator, where we are fictively miniaturized, and fictively enter in to a human body to remove a sliver that has invaded.

I have a question — many questions I suppose — for myself: Are such visualizations co-extensive (and in what way?) with cultural and political attitudes that treat our bodies as three-dimensional enclosed boxes, as spaces of containment, as territories where the organs become landmarks, monuments, perhaps to be guarded and protected at all costs? “It is a hostile world or environment out there” — [this is what is being] said to us. Nevermind that it may be of our own creation. In this, the skin is depicted and visualized as acting — not as our largest organ, as a breathing, porous surface with edges that fold in — but as a border for Fortress Body, shoring up a self-other dynamic. In this, medicine is created as a defence system against enemy invasion.

Can you see where this Manichean logic of interiority and exteriority, which ignores the wonderful complexity of our physical and geographic topologies, may lead? I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Kimberly Sawchuck is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Concordia University.

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