‘It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.’
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Poor Tom’s a-cold: and it’s cinema that shows.
As Lisa Cartwright notes in her book of the same title, ‘screening the body’ has gone nitrile-gloved hand-in-hand with the cinema screen. X-Ray film and moving image film are co-eval, although few scientists of the early twentieth century took their parallel evolution as far as Dr. James Sibley Watson. Best known among poets as the co-editor and publisher of The Dial magazine, Watson developed a technique of cinefluorography, making 2D and 3D X-Ray films of presumed-healthy volunteers (predominantly female) who drank a barium solution and then performed set gestures: applying lipstick, pouring a drink, shaving.
Soft tissues are rendered shadowy, if visible at all, by the X-Ray, so we see skeletons performing fluid, living gestures. Over 20 years from the mid-1940s, perhaps prompted by medical technology developments during WWII, Watson realised a cinematic technique for perfecting the Eurowestern memento mori, albeit with Death and the Maiden merged into a single, signifying being.
When Eliot was writing The Waste Land, there was no photographic or cinematic technology capable of observing the nervous system, let alone projecting it onto the screen. It is only with magnetic resonance imaging that his worst fears have been realised – or rather, literalised. It wasn’t exactly neurological visibility that Eliot feared, or that confused him; look at the prevaricating prepositions and conditionals of that second line. The unimaginable development of diagnostic imaging technologies was beside the point; Eliot, a terrified and irascible Kassandra, had foreseen what he found impossible to say: that cinema – the magic lantern – throws the nerves in pattern on a screen.
And doubly so: cinema, as it emerged as a narrative medium, developed in tandem with the new science of psychoanalysis and the emergent centrality of psychological theories in twentieth-century intellectual and popular culture. Psychological realism is a byword in narrative cinema. The pattern of our nerves – hopes, fears, desires, narcissistic defences – is thrown on the screen in the shifting shape of characters, whether acted or (as in Inside Out, to choose a pertinent example) animated. We watch our inner selves.
This dominant focus emerged for cinema, at (paradoxically) exactly the moment that the European Modernist literary and visual arts were pressing towards abstraction. And thus cinema became strongly associated (as are many forms of popular culture) with female viewers and feminised responses, whether distraction (as argued by Siegfried Kracauer), hysteria, arousal, erotic investment, sentimental engagement, or consumerism. What cinema threw onto the screen was also (secondarily and doubly) a portrait of Eurowestern society as emotional, irrational, eroticised, even ecstatic.
The magic lantern made visible all that was opposite to Enlightenment rationalism, all that European colonial heteropatriarchy projected onto those whom it Othered: here was its worst fear become the biggest spectacle in the world, for all to see.
The very development of the cinema itself, from a fairground medium of the open-air and the curious, strolling crowd to the contained, curtained dreamspace of the darkened auditorium in which the projector is hidden from sight, enacts Eliot’s anxiety. The positioning of the projector behind the audience is read by Jean-Louis Baudry, and then Laura Mulvey, as creating a scenario in which the viewer is sutured into identification with the (most often male) protagonist of dominant narrative cinema, thus fetishistically echoing the primal scene.
But, reading Eliot’s hysterical objection, we can detect another pressing wish-fear, one specifically diagnostic: that the projector is not only a camera depicting our fantasies, as performed by an actor who is an idealised specimen of ourselves, but that it is an X-Ray machine looking directly through us and throwing our nerves (our beliefs, emotions, reactions, anxieties, intelligence) in patterns (narratives, gestures, choreographies, story structures, rhythms of montage) on the screen: diagnosing our individual and cultural ills. Taken in combination with the post-Freudian reading, cinema is a psychosexual X-Ray machine that throws our neuroses and phantasies back in our faces, larger than life.
Film is (just) film, a two-dimensional strip of industrially-produced material painted with a chemical emulsion.
Film is that emulsion, the thin coating that reacts to light and produces the image. It is the fine, fragile (nitrate is highly flammable) strip of material on which the emulsion rests.
Film originally meant a membrane, caul or prepuce: an outer layer, permeable and translucent, a precarious container. It functions by almost not existing, by being vulnerable to rupture.
Film is a skin, in any language. Película (Spanish) relates to Latin words for skin and hide. X-Rays make skin and soft tissue transparent (although in pulp comics and science fiction, they only seem to render women’s clothing transparent), stripping skin from skeleton. Cinema wraps the luminous skeleton and nervous system in a translucent ‘film’ through which emotion and motivation are visible.
If cinema is the human condition’s psychophysiological diagnostic tool par excellence, who needs poets or poetry? Or more specifically: a classically humanist poetics, whether rational or Romantic. Cinema has abrogated both the power of insight (literally: of looking into and through the mindbody, and making images from it) and the means of dissemination, with its far-reaching beam.
Imagine that he crossed Millennium Bridge this May, not thinking that half-term had undone so many, and arrived at Tate Modern, and specifically at the retrospective for diasporic Palestinian installation and video artist Mona Hatoum.
Here he would find Hatoum’s I is another poetics, realised through diagnostic technology. ‘Corps étranger’ (1994) is of a piece with the technologically-informed conceptual body art of Orlan. Hatoum saw the postmodern potential in endoscopy, inserting miniature cameras into her body to produce a self-portrait that puns, from the title (Foreign Body) onwards, on Hatoum’s dual exclusionary or estranged status from the body politic as a Middle Eastern woman.
Hatoum has spoken about her sense of being surveilled by CCTV cameras on arriving in London as a student in the 1980s.1 The piece responds with a perverse and powerful insistence that surveillance become diagnosis: that it look beyond skin (colour) and secondary sexual characteristics into the physiology of embodiment, into innards far more subtly, if at all, marked by gender and ethnicity. The corps is also estranged through diagnostic imaging’s uncanny: its dislocation of Eurowestern classical ideas of the location of the soul, the intellect and the identity. The harder you look, the stranger the body becomes.
The title also puns on the Surrealist game/process ‘Corps (or cadavre) exquis’, invented to detourne assumptions of aesthetics and authorship, but also predicated on a violence to the (feminised) (and often monstrous) body.
The images are ‘foreign’ in that Hatoum had no preconceived ideas about what the cameras would find: she presents the images as self-reflexive exploration, a willingness to be foreign to herself through the mediation of visual technology, without which the work could not exist, and which can see what she cannot. It is only through the assertion of a different kind of authorship – politicised, rather than technologized; vulnerable rather than authoritarian – that coherence can be produced.
In Hatoum’s work/world, the body may be fragmented by its appearance as multiple circular projections on the floor of a padded, cylindrical installation space, but it also coheres through the contextual knowledge that the images are from the interior of one individual’s body – a specific individual, the artist/author. A displaced (estranged) sense of authorship and authority is asserted by an artist turning her body inside out for us, turning it into cinema.
Throwing up on the screen.
But is it cinema – as aesthetic mode and as technological toolkit – that is really turning diagnostics inside out here? What is gleefully throwing not only nerves but cloaca on screen, and in our face?
I would suggest that it’s Hatoum’s feminist approach to both moving image and medicine: inverting each to show the power relations that construct them, and the predication of those power relations on subaltern bodies. She negotiates (and asks the viewer to participate in the negotiation of) the insistence that visibility always be on the terms of the dominant power, which is always itself invisible behind its tools of surveillance (or authorship).
It is possible to say what one means, if one is willing to throw one’s nerves on the screen for all to see – but it means relinquishing power in order to diagnose its locations and effects.
Barbara Hammer’s found footage film ‘Sanctus’ (1990) makes a similar critical move, although not with the artist’s own body, which is on show – specifically as a lesbian feminist body – in many of her other works, from the utopian erotics of ‘Dyketactics’ (1974) to her meditation on surviving cancer in A Horse is Not a Metaphor (2008).
Hammer, as she explores in the short documentary that accompanies ‘Sanctus’, was researching Dr. Watson, who also co-directed, with Melville Webber, one of the first known American narrative films to make explicit on-screen reference to gay desire. As one of Hammer’s interviewees recalls, the resulting short film, ‘Lot in Sodom’ (1933), was shown to his Sunday school class – before it disappeared from the historical record.
Hammer included excerpts from ‘Lot in Sodom’ (which has been remastered from surviving 35mm elements) in her subsequent documentary Nitrate Kisses (1992), which X-Rays modern history for queer traces. The film excerpts are woven through interviews with older LGBTQ people as well as sex between multiple couples, performed for Hammer’s camera.
In ‘Sanctus’ she inverts this strategy, queering Watson’s X-Ray films by passing them through an optical printer to achieve effects such as repetition, reversal, colour tinting, superimposition, multiplication, alteration of speed, and freeze framing, which alter – queer – both our gaze and the bodies that receive it. Towards the end of her film, the film strip with which she is working is placed at an angle to the optical printer’s frame, so that the sprocket marks are visible in a diagonal line at upper screen left. Looking askance or askew, we see the operations of power – and the possibility of resistance.
Optical printers are using in film restoration work, and Hammer’s careful and caring re-photographing of Watson’s work is also a restoration of the bodies that he subjected to radiation; many of the experimental subjects were poisoned by their participation in the tens of thousands of short films, made with exploratory but not diagnostic purpose. Hammer makes visible the cost of experimentation without ethics, of the rendering of certain bodies as étrange, estranged from the body politic and thus disposable.
Ara Osterweil writes that ‘Hammer re-establishes empathy, but she also restores the possibility for a desirous exchange of looks, in which the body of the subject can signify something other than a medical statistic.’2 A mutually-desirous sexuality is counterposed to the cinematic-diagnostic: nerves may be thrown on a screen, but the energies with which they hum remain secret and resistant, recoverable then by the optical printer’s perverse incursions of luminous colour.
By its daring to touch the film, so the film touches us.
An X-Ray, in and of itself, is not an image of emotional, neural or psychic energies and systems. It is ostensibly objective, mapping only the dense matter of bones and masses such as tumours.
And yet, as Hammer and Hatoum show, diagnostic imaging technology throws the nerves in patterns when reframed on an aesthetically-encoded screen. As any drama viewer knows, a scene in which an X-Ray is held or pinned up to a radiographer’s light box is a shorthand for a life-changing announcement: a discovery, a diagnosis, a divergence from the supposedly normative narrative.
Reframed outside conventional narrative and its often-sentimental signifiers, and simultaneously beyond the normativising surveillance of the medical-industrial complex, the X-Ray or endoscopy diagnoses how we see and asks what other organs and optics we might see with. Rather than insisting we rely the evidence of our eyes, the diagnostic technology of feminist art asks us to trust our gut when we ask, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’
With thanks to Selina Robertson and Ricardo Matos Cabo for sourcing and screening Barbara Hammer’s ‘Sanctus’ and ‘Dr. Watson’s X Rays’ as part of The Apparitional, at Birkbeck Arts Week 2016.
Quoted in Noopur Tiwari, ‘Mona Hatoum on Her Work “Corps Etranger” (Foreign Body)’, Noopur Tiwari Blog, April 6, 2014, https://noopurtiwari. wordpress.com/2014/04/06/mona-hatoum-on-her-work-corps-etranger-foreign- body/
Ara Osterweil, ‘A Body is Not a Metaphor: Barbara Hammer’s X-Ray Vision’, Journal of Lesbian Studies 14 (2010): 195.
Baudry, Jean-Louis. ‘Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus’. Trans. Alan Williams. Film Quarterly 28/2 (Winter 1974–75): 39–47.
Cartwright, Lisa. Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. 1922. Facsimile edition, ed. Valerie Eliot. London: Faber & Faber, 2011.
Hammer, Barbara (dir.). ‘Dyketactics. 1974. 16mm film, Color/Sound, 4 min.
—— ‘Sanctus’. 1990. 16mm film, Color/B&W/Sound, 19 min.
—— ‘Dr. Watson’s X-Rays’. 1991. Video, Color/Sound, 22 min.
—— Nitrate Kisses. 1992. 16mm film, 67 min, B&W/sound.
—— A Horse is Not a Metaphor. 2008. DVD, Color/B&W/Sound, 30 min. Hatoum, Mona. ‘Corps étranger’. 1994. 1 cylindrical chamber, 1 video projector,
4 ceiling-mounted speakers, 1 video, PAL, colour, stereo sound, 30 mins. Exhibited as part of Mona Hatoum, Tate Modern, London, 4 May–31 August 2016.
Kracauer, Siegfried. ‘Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces’. Trans. Thomas
Y. Levin. New German Critique 40 (Winter 1987): 91–96.
Mulvey, Laura. ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Screen 16/3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.
Osterweil, Ara. ‘A Body is Not a Metaphor: Barbara Hammer’s X-Ray Vision’.
Journal of Lesbian Studies 14 (2010): 185–200.
Watson, James Sibley and Melville Webber (dirs). ‘Lot in Sodom’. 1933. 35mm film, B/W. Silent, 28 min.
©2021 Litmus Publishing