Week Four: Commodifying the Body

Paul Vanouse

Information Arts pages 189-190 describe an installation by Paul Vanouse. Vanouse is an artist who earned an undergraduate degree in pre-medical studies before becoming disenchanted with the “Western medical understanding of the body” and the United States healthcare system. In 1996, he made a piece titled Items 1-2,000: A Corpus of Knowledge on the Rationalized Subject. In this work, a human subject lies naked in a wax mold emulating  the process in which biological specimens are fixed with paraffin wax before they are thinly sliced by a microtome to be prepared for observance under a microscope. Above the nude model is a sheet of glass. It is suspended over the subject “in a manner analogous to that of a cover slide used atop the cross sectional slices in microscopy”. The key feature of this installation is that adhered to the glass are many barcodes that are strategically placed above corresponding parts of the body. Viewers are invited to scan the barcodes to reveal the hidden organ within the nude model below on two monitors nearby.

“Items 1-2,000”

Vanouse’s piece was shown in 1998 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in an exhibition called Reinventing the Box. This exhibit was intended to showcase technology-based art that has moved “beyond the box— meaning both the cubic confines of the hardware and the prescribed possibilities of pre-packaged software”. The participants interacted with this piece by using a scanner as a medical student would use a scalpel to “pry open” the human body and reveal what lies unseen below. However, unlike a medical student, the participants are not working with a corpse, but a living model. Vanouse’s goal was to draw attention to the “phenomena of de-humanization of the corpse as it is de-constructed and subsequently re-configured through dissection”. The co-curator of Reinventing the Box described that interacting with Vanouse’s piece caused the presence of the living model to eventually recede as the participant further explored the objective images and data of his body. Vanouse tried to balance this by having every third scan reveal a personal recollection of his time spent with cadavers as a medical student. Vanouse’s recollections centered around reintroducing empathy to the human subject instead of rationalizing and objectifying all medical processes as he viewed Western medical practices were guilty of.

Image from the National Institute of Health’s “Visible Human Project’

An important component of Items 1-2,000 is where Vanouse sourced the images of the internals of the human body. These images are NOT captured via CAT scan, MRI, or some other computerized radiology scans. These images were the results of the National Health institute taking a death row inmate who received capital punishment, filling his body with latex, and then slicing the cadaver into 2,000 thin slices to be individually photographed. Vanouse considers this act to be “the ultimate surveillant process (minute dissection)” of a prisoner and a prime example of the quantification and dehumanization of the human form.

“Items 1-2,000”

Items 1-2,000 addresses broader social implications. Vanouse explained that the familiarity of scanning barcodes to find prices combined with the action of “using a scalpel” creates the appearance of “a cashier commodifying and extracting value through the denial of the body as whole.” The body is now a “rational composite of itemized parts”. One of the main reasons why Vanouse became disenchanted with the medical field is the fact that Americans have limited access to healthcare. If we continue to rationalize, commodify, and improve imaging techniques, what will prevent insurance companies from further denying services based off of preexisting  conditions? What if future hospitals do have a barcode system in place and can charge you based off of whichever anatomical region your illness is impacting? We know certain illnesses cost more to treat than others, but are certain body parts worth more than others? If you break your arm, doctors might scan the arm barcode and charge you based off of whatever it says. The further we move away from empathizing with the human as a WHOLE (it as an x-ray of a broken bone, as a cross-section of a cadaver, as a medical condition that costs x amount to treat), the easier it will be to commodify the human experience and perpetuate discrimination.

-Rebecca Fisher


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