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Monday, 16 April 2018

Silvermines, X-Rays and The Medical Gaze

image by Liz Orton

Saturday 5th May at the Arnolfini in Bristol is the date for this brilliant symposium on the archive with speakers including Francesca Seravalle, Maja Daniels, Charbel Saad, Thomas Sauvin, Kensuke Koike, and Amak Mahmoodian.

It's a serious bargain at £25 for the day and takes place in the wonderful waterfront location of the Arnolfini, with fantastic food, drink and cake all available within a few minutes walk.

Buy your tickets for ICVL's Activating the Archive here.

In commemoration of this fact, I'm running a series of posts connected to the themes of the archive, the album, and the multiple histories they carry within them.

The image above is by Liz Orton and it shows the 30g of silver that you get when you process 1,500 x-rays. (And more on Liz Orton and her fascinating work on the medical gaze later).

That silver is the silver that is referred to in Thomas Sauvin's Beijing Silvermine, the project where Sauvin saved old negatives from recycling for silver - instead using them for recycling for art.

As well as the wonderful social and economic history contained in the images that he salvaged (after scouring through hundreds of thousand of negatives, there are also the books he produced and the collaborations he engaged on, including this one with Kensuke Koike.

I love this book shown below, made out of old studio images (printed super narrow  - using a quarter plate for economy) that amount to a fashion history of the most difficult years of the People's Republic. They come with a wonderful fan design (front of image on one side, back of image on the other), all tucked up into a yellow pvc box which the book doesn't quite fit into. But still, it looks great.

Back to Liz Orton, who works with archives related to the medical professions. Her latest project is  Digital Insides, a project which links to Orton's interest (and it really is an interest, maybe too much of an interest. Sometimes people say they're interested in something and, er, they're not...) in the medical gaze and how the medical profession, imaging and technology affect how the body and the person are seen and not seen in a medical context.

The image and the idea of the image are absolutely central to this because so often the person is mediated through the image (the photograph, the x-ray, the scan). This is a culture of photography where our understanding of the image, our reading of the image occurs within a very different frame of reference to less functional forms of photographing, leading to a belief in the image that is almost absolute.

But not quite absolute. Digital Insides looks to reclaim these medicalised images and recontextualise them in a variety of ways. Orton is looking at x-rays and using medical imaging software both to detach and then reattach these images from their original settings.

The images above were created using  radiology software, called Osirix, while the ones below come from a brilliant radiology manual on the positioning of x-ray equipment.

As Orton says, 'De-contextualised from their origin, these images speak of medicine’s relationship to both sex and violence, and the highly mediated between body and machine.  Further photographs re-enact other remembered radiographic encounters and experiences.'

'In returning the body’s volume, these images resist the desire of the medical gaze, to go inside. The digital surface -  a sampling of tissue, hair, water, air and blood – strains the indexical relationship between image and body.  It erases the usual identifying marks of the human being in the world. It also leaves traces of the image-making process: the machine itself, and the scan edges which produce gaps in data, like digital grazes.'

So it's another form of mapping, but one that has its foundation in the idea of how the body is controlled through imaging and resultant procedures - and highlights this control to disarm it of its power. Again, it's the old Wizard of Oz thing of pulling back the curtain to reveal the smoke and mirrors of how medicine can depersonalise and demean us.

This goes to the heart of photography, and the way photographic conventions (the grid, the plain backdrop, the linear image) have been used as a tool of power and control from Diamond, Duchenne, Charcot and Bertillon to the present day.

For more perspectives on the medical gaze, this review of  Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Natural Causes  presents a more humanistic  approach to the ways in which medicine controls;

'...medicine tends to be “eminence-based”, with patients in thrall to the doctor’s superior prestige. It’s no coincidence, Ehrenreich thinks, that most American medical schools still insist on the dissection of cadavers. That’s how living patients are expected to be – as passive and silent as corpses.'

Other statements in the piece reflect a more Jo Spence like concern with the power rituals of the (American) medical establishment and makes the link between medicine and crime.

'Gynaecological examinations “enact a ritual of domination and submission”, with the patient made to undress and be open to penetration, much as in the criminal justice system, “with its compulsive strip searches”.'

Look through Orton's past projects and you'll see similar connections forming between the medical gaze, crime and the scientific images - and the worlds they create. Because they do create worlds, and we believe in them. And that's the real power of images, their ability to influence how we see ourselves and others, and how a relatively short tradition of representation has the power to snap us right into a way of seeing that is both self-evident but also unconscious.

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