Transtechnology Research Seminar Series 2020-21

Vesalius at the Printers: Perception, Representation, and Vocabularies. A Scattered Seminar Series.

Last year’s seminar series brought considerations of the triad of fiction, image and apparatus to bear on our research process. This year we intend to consider the outcomes of research in relation to its mode of representation. As leitmotif we will take the work of Andreas Vesalius, (1514-1564) frequently referred to as the founder of human anatomy. Whether this title is truly deserved or not– as there were many precedents– Versalilus’ research methods and the representation of his ideas that he adopted c.500 years ago relate to much that we do today. He (and others before him) were not content with the orthodox accounts of the object of study and examined the methods and protocols that underpinned those accounts. He asked new questions and, against the grain of the times he became physically involved with the practice of dissection and came to different models of how we might talk about the body as a series of nested systems that were coextensive with other ideas about how the world might be understood.  While Vesalius may not have been the only anatomist, he has remained a point of reference in any history of the idea. The relevance of his work to our own research is the degree to which the way that he captured the insights of his practice contributed not only to their dissemination and acceptance but also, (and perhaps the most interesting question) how much the mode of representation contributed to the kinds of knowledge that he valued. In short what is the productive correlation between research methods and the representation of research findings. 

The virtues and constraints of academic publishing conventions have been widely discussed and critiqued. Of particular interest to us in the past has been how vocabularies form around topics that build an intellectual and (epistemic) solidarity (Rorty, 1989). While Latour (1987) picks this up and invites us to think about knowledge and the communities of production in science, the degree to which this critique has rehearsed the mantra of the artistic Avant Gard for the past 500 years is a less well trodden path. Vesalius presents an interesting case of this in the way that his knowledge claims were codified in woodcuts and other forms of print; media that reinforce the underpinning assumptions of human anatomy, health and its reflection in other knowledge structures. The way which Versalius’ work was presented was instrumental in its adoption in science for a number of reasons; representing innovations in format and distribution as well as in their fundamental approach to the (messy) body as source of empirical knowledge. The example of Versalius’ work offers a thematic frame for considering the ways in which innovations in research communication do not only influence the uptake of ideas, but their fundamental form. As researchers in creative disciplines, the questions of the relation between the knowledge that we are producing and its consistency with the representations that we use to share those insights effectively has already raised many discussions that we will seek to explore in the series as our provisional titles below show. 

Format: A Scattered Seminar Series:
We will begin on the assumption that for 20/21 the seminar series will comprise online meetings using video links. As in many of our previous series, in this year Transtechnology Research registered researchers will be using the seminar series sessions to present work emerging from the research questions of their projects to address the themes of the seminar series. In addition to this we will use video links to extend the programme with sessions with the Transtechnology Research alumni cohort with topic-led conversations.

In support of these dialogues this year we are keeping an online bibliography of the discussions to document the materials that are mentioned, recommended, or discussed.

Shared materials/Reading list

Zoom Chat Log

Dates and Provisional Titles 2020-21

All Sessions on a Wednesday Afternoon: from 13:00-15:00. Preceeded by lunch at 12:30.

14 Oct 2020
Dr Agi Haines, Dr Hannah Drayson, Prof. dr. Michael Punt. Versalius at the Printers: A Speculative Design Perspective.
11 Nov 2020
Lucinda Guy. A Cuckoo in the Wood and an Anatomy of a Radio Station.

This seminar introduces two approaches to thinking about the work of the Skylark project. The first section, A Cuckoo in the Wood – recording, reproducing and representing birds and trees in sound takes an expanded definition of ‘record’ to include musical imitation and scoring, mimicking and repetition as well as sound recording with analogue or digital devices, to explore how we listen, remember and recreate encounters with birds and trees, how we take apart and put back together the elements of experiences. In sound recording we can see a tradition of breaking things into parts to better understand and communicate their qualities, offering a sense of objectivity where the recording omits the presence of the person recording. This seminar will use the motif of looking down into woodland in early spring, the artist hears a cuckoo call, a sound that easily carries a mile or more. To the mind’s ear, it is distinct, musical clear. But recorded on a microphone, it is easily lost in the wider place – the white noise of the trees, the roaring of wind; the artist’s own breath and movement. Even before mechanical sound recording technologies became available, other recording techniques that aimed communicate the experience of hearing natural sounds such as bird song would use an instrument like a flute to mimic the cuckoo’s two-tone voice, performing in a similar way to using a highly directional microphone to filter out other sound. The cuckoo is known for being an imposter – a brood parasite (RSPB) who lays her eggs in the nest of another. Its song is also a musical imposter: a tonal melody, amongst the atonal environment. The second section of the presentation will take the launch of Skylark FM as a case study, to dissect the experience of broadcasting and listening to a new radio station, into its legislative, social, technical and economic components. A transmitter in a landscape, like the cuckoo in the wood, demonstrates the need for signal to emerge from noise and the many ways in which separation and filtration allow for a radio station to conform to legal requirements, and reach its audience.

9 Dec 2020
Stephanie Moran. Dog Muscles, Luminosity and Chromatic Experience: a Speculative Octopoid Aesthetics.

This seminar investigates what may or may not be continuous from one (nonhuman) body to another (human) body, in order to address the problem of how to mediate mollusc phenomenal worlds through storytelling practices. In posthuman ethics, there is much recent discussion of relations to and representations of other animals. These offer frameworks for human-nonhuman relations, often based on the idea that humans need to transform themselves and their ways of living and being in the world.

Vesalius’ depiction of a dog’s muscle and a monkey’s bone in a human body suggests a species overlap, projection or adaptation. This seminar considers how Vesalius’ dog muscle might offer a means of analysing fictional phenomenal worlds of octopuses. It reads this in relation to Graham Harman’s ‘weird formalism’, a theory based on the idea that the relationship between viewer and artwork theatrically constitute a new, third object. It then uses these ideas to examines octopus-based experiences of light and colour depicted in the storyworlds of science fiction novel Children of Ruin (Tchaikovsky, 2019) and immersive art installation Altered Ways of Being (Burton Nitta, 2020).

Suggested Reading: Introduction pp.1-11 and pp.23-29 in, Harman, Graham. (2020) Art and Objects, Cambridge: Polity Press.

A pdf with illustrations for the presentation and a copy of the suggested reading is available here.

6 Jan 2021
Linan Zhang. The Liberal Ironist’s Approach to Clinical Knowledge Sharing.

Last year’s seminar series, I explored Foucault’s account of how power has shaped our contemporary account of subjectivity. He admitted the contingency of our selected final vocabulary; yet his power structure argument limits our ability to propose an alternative to the society we have now. In this seminar, I wish to introduce Richard Rorty’s liberal ironism as an alternative perspective and discuss its application to knowledge sharing.

Liberal ironism opens a way of facilitating the interactions between individuals and social groups. Liberal ironists have the spirit of a poet, with a sense of the contingency of the language that is currently used and have a profound understanding of concepts such as the ‘truth’, ‘philosophy’, ‘moral’, and ‘conscience’ that are vastly distinct from that of liberal metaphysicians’. To be ‘commonsensical’ is its biggest enemy – it means to take for granted that statements formulated in these final vocabularies are sufficient to describe and judge beliefs, actions, and lives of those who employ an alternative set of final vocabularies. Although liberal ironists’ goal is not to justify a reason to care about suffering, their sense of human solidarity makes sure they notice sufferings and humiliations when they occur.

This seminar explores the potential application of liberal ironist theory to knowledge sharing. By identifying the non-ironist ‘common sense’ which was taken for granted by both of the sharing parties, I suggest that acknowledging and being aware of these pre-assumptions would facilitate knowledge sharing; such aim can be achieved by adopting a liberal ironist’s mind set.

3 Feb 2021
Karen Squire. Reconsidering the print-matrix as a co-conspirator in the production of knowledge.

Reconsidering the print-matrix as a co-conspirator in the production of knowledge
This is the story of how the demands, the restrictions, the resistance of the print-matrix helped Vesalius to see anatomy. Or rather how the spick-and-span, readable clarity of anatomy was revealed from out of the grub, grime and visceral mess of the actual human body. So, a dissection of this process, this production, will be performed – an anatomy of the printing of the anatomy– in a sense.

I will explore the idea that anatomy is the extracted, abstracted knowledge of the dissected body, a partner, a companion to a more empirical hands-on means of knowing, and in turn, how this extracted-abstracted knowledge was manipulated, constrained, shaped and produced ‘by’ the printing process needed to record and disseminate those findings. Further, I propose that these restrictions may have changed the way Vesalius knew how to cut into the body and will consider the idea that what we now think we know about the human body is the result of a collaborative production, an improvised performance with a retrospective script.

I will explore the odd qualities of the print-matrix itself in order to question its traditional, perceived role as an amanuensis of sorts; that is a dutiful inscription device, a faithful scribe; and examine what the innovations and qualities of the Vesalius’ woodblocks were which may have given them their minxy, active role in the way he arrived at his anatomy. Through this I would like to start to consider the possibility of the print matrix as copy editor as well as scribe, and then to reflect upon how this could help me think about my methodologies as I potter about the landscape setting fire to gathered matter – what knowledge might the print-matrix help me to dissect and discover?

3 Mar 2021
Sarah Turton. The emptiness of the ground between blue and soul; complementary epistemologies of art and science.

This presentation examines the medical illustrations of Versalius’s 16th Century Fabrica and the 12th century Blue Beryl or Four Tantras – the illustrations for which were created in the 17th C. by Gyatse. It considers how the illustrations in these works can help us to think about transcendental practices through the theme of ascension. The presentation will engage with the practitioner and patient techniques that Blue Beryldescribes in its text and illustrations. These representations of the body and the descriptions of the Buddhist tantra practices include subtle body healing practices. According to Geoffrey Samuel these relate to a level of functioning that is ‘quasi –material’ and ‘intermediate between conventional concepts of body and mind.’
The presentation will consider the promises that these texts make about resurrection, healing, rebirth and mastery over death. In particular it will ask how these texts address the question of what is under the skin? Does scientific reductionism lead to the emptiness all the way down that Middle Way Buddhism proposes? Gaston Bachelard ‘s idea of ‘epistemological blocks’ will serve as a frame for this analysis along with his description of the medical-psychiatric technique of Robert Desoille in Air and Dreams as a preparation for ‘Ascensional Psychology”. According to Bachelard, these blocks are created by certain ways of thinking that prevent the progression of science. Making a case for an epistemological rupture between science and the art, he proposes the need for a complementary epistemology. Rethinking the concept of ‘epistemological ruptures’ that incorporate old knowledge into new and complementary paradigms can be adapted into new frameworks for thinking about the body.

31 Mar 2021
Jo Dorothea-Smith. The Anatomy of Visual Spaces; quantum biology and apparatus.

What is a molecular account of vision? This is a description based on investigative practices, originating in observation, anatomical dissection and discovery that also integrates knowledge from the non-biological discoveries of physics. This seminar will use the writings of Tom Cornsweet, a psychologist specialising in vison to open a discussion about eyes. It will incorporate conceits of visual spaces and will question the heterogeneousness of seeing. Using retinal scans, images and information from biological research, sharing knowledge that demonstrates the eye is more individual than a fingerprint and that notions of the generalities of seeing can be challenged. These distinct and divergent properties in combination with phenomenal experience make all beings with vision into stakeholders in any account or description of the visual. The second part of the seminar will ask questions about what ideas of the quantum might raise for camera apparatus, its ability to replicate vision and any comparisons to the eye. The camera and the authority bestowed upon it is powerful, has explanatory force and also and specific histories that can be problematic, but it is not an organic visual system. This seminar will consider the reasons why it is different to the eye. How does the camera operate in relation to the quantum? Is it dynamic in the same way as a being with agency? By highlighting areas of divergence could it be un-coupled by molecular descriptions of vision?

21 Apr 2021
James Sweeting. Hauntology as an inverted future.

The seminar will be concentrating on the recent statements made by Sony’s PlayStation division regarding past digital content no longer being available for its consoles, as well as altered strategies going forwards concerning restrictive creative output. This case study will establish the core in exemplifying the underlying hauntological form that is becoming increasingly present within the videogames industry. Whilst nostalgic elements are also present within the medium, this is comparatively more overt than the strategy employed by certain videogame publishers. In which the industries inability to live up to past expectations at providing the latest high-tech experience is instead replaced by careful management of its past and present content to mask the lack of creative innovation.

Supporting this seminar will be an examination of how the case study supports and is supported by an understanding of hauntology. In that videogames could now be seen as facing similar difficulties as other industrial creative industries. By the time they have matured they become unable to imagine an alternative future, instead, looking towards the past to replace the future. This is separate from the application of nostalgia upon the medium though, which, despite linked, invokes different interpretations.  

These recent statements (and subsequent actions) support a hypothesis that the videogames industry has become beholden to its past, counter to the forward-facing persona it has long-established for itself. Yet, there is also self-realisation of this, hence why actions are underway to take control of this, not for creative gain, but as a means of producer control.

The aim is to highlight the logic of the capitalist strategy behind removing access to digital videogames on past consoles. Potentially enabling Sony in the future to resell new versions of this past digital content when demand has been artificially inflated due to the previous removal of supply. Thus, the artificial manipulation of supply and demand, when combined with Sony’s other strategy of focusing on continuing existing Western blockbuster franchises via sequels and remakes, result in a videogame form on its consoles that purposefully is incapable of escaping its past. With minimal attention paid to its future aside from continual profit. Albeit at the cost of creativity, risking the move to a creative cul-de-sac, one which almost killed off the industry four decades ago.

19 May 2021
Laura Welsman. Reading between the lines: Operation and Representation in the Diagrammatic and Anatomical.

I will focus on two examples, the woodblock prints of Andreas Vesalius in De humanis corporis fabrica libri septem (1555) and the acrylic paintings of Paul Laffoley, (1935-2015)  in representing metaphysical systems. Observing how both Vesalius and Laffoley utilised the visual arts in order to represent holistic systems, we may be able to recover ways in which arts practice has provided a means of engaging with truth that offer perspectives that lie outside of reductionist codification methods that govern the ways we acquire knowledge. This research speaks particularly of the challenges of bottom up brain modelling methods built on General Systems Theory, as the emergent phenomena that arise from hyper-complex biological systems such as the brain or body cannot be fully accounted for in reductionist models.