The Digital Human Document
by Dan Leopard — St. Mary’s College of California
March 02, 2009 – 03:22
What interests me about the Visible Human Project (represented by the videos at left) is how it foreshadows changes in the notion of the “human” as documentary evidence. Researchers at the project generated the visible human data set by freezing cadavers (one male, one female; the male, the body of an executed murderer), then repeatedly slicing off micro-thin layers from the surface of the body (which revealed more of the interior at each slice) while digitally photographing each layer. This created a large series of cross section images of body anatomy at discrete intervals. The biometric coordinates of each image were mapped (in reference to pre-existing anatomical knowledge) and then the data set – the images and the numerical information – was provided via the Internet to researchers (and artists) throughout the world.
This transformation of the human body into a set of quantified data (along with the aesthetic beauty of the abstracted images of each layer) suggests a need to re-examine the status of the document. An old question within documentary studies: at what point does an image, sequence, testimony, archival footage become documentary proper and cease to be simply a document – the raw, brut material that traces lived experience? This question arises anew in the face of the serializations, modifications, and simulations available to media producers through the digitalization of the document.
And with documentary film studies still fettered to an implicit form of auteurism (for example, which filmmaker created which significant work?), the quantitative analysis of what it is to be human takes on increased importance as documentary studies moves into the shadow cast by the digital document. Here is where documentary meets science studies, as research in mapping human agency – through a focus on the emotions or cognition – over takes the mute evidence provided by the body. But now I have exceeded what is necessary in this short curator’s note. Nevertheless, it seems necessary to mention the quantification of affect as it is to draw attention to the ghostly face of the murderer that flashes past as the flipbook’s pages cycle through. This blink of a face summons forth ethical questions inherent in the data set, not the least of which results from the human body taking on the status of algebraic object.
When the human document has been significantly re-worked, re-imagined enough to stop being merely a document and to become transformed into a documentary, the precipice of new documentary modes has been reached. The videos accompanying this note are not documentaries, but, by virtue of the artifice of the flipbook and the musical accompaniment, they transcend, however slightly, the quantified data out of which they grow.
All of the themed curatorial notes that follow throughout the week will address the new modes opened up by the interplay between the digital and the documentary.