The Digital Human Document

Curator's Note

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.


Great clips, both beautiful and unheimlich.  The tension between what can be described as abstract but still belong to some understanding the real, comes to mind. Bernike Pasveer talks about the advent of X-ray photography (as, of course, does Akira Mizuta Lippit, and very elegantly too), and the process by which X-ray photography could be regarded as images that is referring to something real, namely our bodies. The X-ray images had been prefigured in visual culture by other images and charts of the human body, otherwise these new images of our insides would have remained removed from our actual bodies. Pasveer writes:

"There was no body “out there” waiting to be unveiled with the new technology – there never was or will be. This body had to be crafted carefully out of historically specific other bodies, in order to become a referent for the images. Only through the subtle work of rendering an object that matches an imaging technology, and vice versa, could and can images be read in terms of that object: as referring to it, as signifying it." (Bernike Pasveer, “Representing or Mediating: X-Ray Images in Medicine,” Visual Cultures of Science – Rethinking Representational Practices in Knowledge Building and Science Communication, ed. Luc Pauwels).

A really wonderful curator’s note Dan.  As always, while you and I often look at different media objects, many of our guiding questions often overlap.  I am particularly interested in your discussion of how we convert the human body into quantifiable data, as these are issues that pertain to my own investigation of archived audiovisual testimony.  When testimonies are rendered in forms that are increasingly digitized, cataloged, and then subject to dissemination across multiple platforms, what precisely is being made legible in the process?  The corporeal trace of the witness?  The sociological and historical data of the account?  The experiential charge of the testimony or the analytical insight?   Now at the expense of being perhaps too pat, there would seem to be a combination of each of these components.  But more importantly, you raise the pressing point in regards to your posted videos:  How do we mobilize considerations of authorship towards what Patrik aptly calls these “mediated bodies?”  In my own experiences with online testimonies, that authorial intervention often takes shape in the digital infrastructures and indexes set in place to quantify and catalog the cognitive aspects of testimony at the expense of rather than in conversation with its affective dimensions.

Good point, Patrik. Obviously, the length of the curatorial note precludes mention of many of the intellectual streams that these type of images suggest.

One thing that I want to add, beyond the work that you mention, is the connection between the quantification of bodies outlined here and the famous photographic work discussed by John Tagg and others in which the bodies of the criminals and the insane (and others bearing the linquistic marks of difference) are mapped for evidence of their deviance. As with so much that is "new" in a modernist sense, it brings with it the old as the only meaningful point of reference. But as is often remarked, our current moment does seem to have opened up possibilities that are in play with the digital (a Raymond Williams moment as opposed to McLuhan).

Freud, in The Ego and the Id reminds us that "the ego is always a bodily ego."  I think that explains some of the nausea I felt viewing the clips.  Dan writes that the images challenge the status of the document in terms of what is raw data versus documentary.  I think it also underpins Freud's claim that the ego is always bodily in nature. The document and the body here rely on a conception of wholeness that is being undermined by the images.   What these images show is that what we "are" is not what we "think" we are.  The human senses want to see the images a performance of what is possible with documentary technology, or as an attempt to get at the raw data of the body.  But there attempt demonstrates that there is no necessary stopping place where the raw data lies, the document or the body.

Ellen M. Rigsby, Saint Mary's College of California

Just a quick comment at this stage on a very provocative commentary.  It provoked me into exclaiming 'but the body is never mute!' which I think Dan's later comment about the ghostly face of the murderer which haunts the work and reminds us whose body it is. The forensic investigation of the body for whatever reasons requires that body to perform, through its personal identity or its identity only (!) as human. The slides and images will never be anonymous if cited if traceable to the Human Project - aptly named for both its abject and celebratory nature.

I'm principally interested in how we might think about the shift from the human document to its modality as documentary as registering  a new or different relation between poiesis [creative production] & aesthesis [sensory knowing]--subjectivity & affect. Moreover, given Dan's reminder regarding the coincident emergence of photography (i.e., to "document" deviance) and the prison (a la Bentham), how might we begin to think anew about the government of bodies [populations] & the management of live processes?

Heidi Rae Cooley, Editor Journal of Visual Culture, Assistant Professor of New Media Studies, University of South Carolina, 

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