Between professional diagnosis and dumb fascination

Colin Hood enters the spirit of Justine Cooper’s Rapt

Justine Cooper, Rapt

Justine Cooper, Rapt

“What, however, I would ask, are the forces by which the hand or the body was fashioned into its shape? The woodcarver will perhaps say, by the axe or the auger; the physiologist, by air and by earth. Of these two answers the artificer’s is better, but it is nevertheless insufficient.” Aristotle, On the parts of animals

“I wanted to take it somewhere else…create a wandering footnote to the Visible Human Project…and something else again.” Justine Cooper took her own very live body through an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner and came out with the makings for what I could only describe as an un-hinged, immortal body clock.

Turn on the animated section of Rapt and watch it tick over…build, unbuild…and build again. Each time it re-assembles through a different axis and with different body parts; a body bag of bits and bytes, programmed to construct, destruct and reconstruct in unnatural patterns of growth and decay.

Six hundred image files were generated through the scanning software. Cooper went to work on them, outputting living/dead body slices into two formats for presentation. The high-end process consists of a rendering of volume elements into a series of black and white 3D animations.

The second—low-tech—output form for this work consists of a curtain wall of individually sliced film images compiled into what seems at first a static installation. Readings of the work vary with the degrees of transparency and opacity offered by the film material, as well as the viewer’s perspective—side on, front-on etc—on these quietly complex compilations of the total body.

On viewing the animated section, the spectator is ushered from masterful exterior views of this one squirming computer-made body to unanchored fly-throughs of tissue, bone, sinew and strange body cavities. For a moment an eye-ball rush through the white haze of solid bone structure triggers a brief and beautiful association with moisture-bearing storm clouds.

Cooper remarks, “The movement of the body would be impossible in ‘natural space’ but in this fractured space-time the body spontaneously produces itself—in faithful anatomy—and in contortion. Time appears to dematerialise the body and then reconstitute it, hardly the normal cycle of decay. If entropy gives time a direction, time becomes circular in this case, not linear.”

Some questions, however, remain unanswered: In what other ways could the raw body data be incorporated into objects/events that make art while acknowledging a debt to the technologies and output forms of ‘unlovely’, meaningful medicine? Cooper’s choice of output and process solves much of the mystery.

The combination of projected 3D animation and vertebral curtain of inanimate photograms into a single bifurcated space, mixes pictorial models, reproductive technologies—disturbing the continuity of ‘beautiful outlooks’ upon a digital landscape. While the animation may be viewed with detached mastery, the ice-block of body slice-pics effects a psychological dislocation between whirling ‘auratised’ digital finish and cool, opaque originary data.

In Rapt, Cooper gives medical imaging back to the patient. The advanced science of healing (it gets smarter and smarter—we still die for pathetic reasons) is converted into a ‘plain language’ piece of art. It’s a science show and a side show at the same time.

The work does not stand out in the field of progressive digital art. It draws back, bearing the scars, “the traces of the conceptual determination of the forms proposed by the new [medical] techne” (Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: reflections on time, Stanford University Press, 1991). It also falls into some shadowy space between digital optimism and photographic nostalgia.

Shuffle a stack of X-rays and CAT scans from a personal medical misadventure. Fold them into the time-warp between future professional diagnosis and the lay person’s dumb fascination with celluloid souvenirs of bodily catastrophe. You’ve just entered into the spirit of Rapt.

Justine Cooper, Rapt, installed at Sydney College of the Arts, March; video component screened in D.Art, dLux media arts’ annual showcase of experimental digital film, digital video and computer animation art, 45th Sydney Film Festival, June 5 – 19 and touring nationally, including MAAP, Brisbane.

RealTime issue #26 Aug-Sept 1998 pg. 27

© Colin Hood; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1998