Last Friday, the 10th of February, I and some other forty curious spectators, gathered at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, to witness the artist Phillip Warnell swallow a pill camera and discuss the view of his belly with consultant gastroenterologist Dr. Simon Anderson.
The event took place between 3.00pm and 8.00pm, which was approximately the time needed for the pill camera to make its way through Warnell’s digestive tract and transmit images, via sensors attached to the artist’s body, to a computer which downloaded them for us to see on a screen. While waiting for the pill camera to do its job, curator Lisa Le Feuvre led us through a series of papers given by historian of science Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, marine biologist Anne-Sophie Cussatlegras and cultural theorist Ric Allsopp. Film clips were also shown, for example of The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, and a practical demonstration of the phenomenon of bioluminescence – glass tubes containing luminous marine organisms – provided a congenial complement to the sight of Warnell’s pinkish intestines.
The event, which revolved around Warnell’s performance titled Endo/Ecto, gave rise to a number of interesting topics such as the role of self-experimentation in science, the collaboration between art and science, the wish to make the opaque body transparent, visibility and invisibility, material and immaterial representations of the body and technology versus living organisms. Whereas self-experimentation has a genuine place in the history of science – a history which both includes heroes such as the German surgeon and laureate Werner Forsmann, known for his self-experimentation with cardiac catheterization in 1929, and stereotypes like the protagonist in The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, dropping X-ray tincture into his own eyes – artists making use of their own bodies are of a more recent date. Although Warnell’s interdisciplinary art is very much in tune with issues concerning the significance of mediated images in postmodern society, his method, as suggested by Bettyann Kevles, has more in common with scientists who pursue knowledge by way of self-experimentation. Certainly, the quest for unrefutable truth isn’t Warnells. Still, his performance evokes uncertain feelings towards the body, usually associated with questions of medical, scientific and ethical nature.
Besides blurring the borders between art and medicine, Warnell’s performance also raised questions about the issue of authorship in art. The Endo/Ecto couldn’t have come about, if it hadn’t been for the companies that deviced the endoscopical capsule and the sensors, the supercomputer which was used to download the images and Dr. Simon Anderson, who had previously performed an endoscopical examination of Warnell’s abdomen and who was our medical cicerone this afternoon. In this regard, Warnell shares a similar interest in artworks as research projects, with for example, the French artist Matthieu Briand, who makes use of a wide range of digital techniques in his exhibitions. The encounter between art and science is also something that is being explored by the The ArtsCatalyst, an agency dedicated to projects which bring art and science together in new and unforeseen ways. Not surprisingly, Warnell sees himself more as an interdisciplinary artist and researcher than as an artist in the traditional sense of the word. Like a laboratory scientist he is dependent on other people who he either collaborates with directly (Dr. Simon Anderson), or indirectly (the company behind the pill camera).
The main attraction this afternoon at the ICA was of course the images of Warnell’s stomach, which were projected on a screen as the artist and Dr. Simon Anderson discussed what we actually saw. I believe I was not the only one in the audience who had expected more of this conversation. Actually it was more of a chat, as if the two men were still in Andersons consulting room back at St. Thomas Hospital. Maybe they were just too shy to talk about such personal matters in public; Warnell did indeed seem rather uncomfortable, walking around with a belt of sensors strapped around his waist. Anyhow, the whole thing was quite impressive, especially when the pill camera located an E or a C, paste letters spelling the title of the performance, which Warnell had swallowed along with the camera. After having illuminated the walls of the stomach for us, the camera continued on to the sturdy intestines and we all felt like the crew members of the Fantastic Voyage film, voyaging into unknown space, only the destination of this unmanned spacecraft was not so spectacular and we weren’t invited to see the end of the film. Still, what we saw was enough to stir up questions regarding the function of medical images and how they can be charged with different meanings and interpreted in different ways, depending on where they are shown and on who does the talk.
For me, the strongest impression with Endo/Ecto was simply the fact that art as well as medicine depends on technology in order to achieve corporeal transparency. Bioluminescent organisms on the other hand, are capable of achieving transparency by themselves. This was very well illustrated when the glass tubes containing bioluminescent organisms, were passed around among the audience. When shaken, the glass tubes were illuminated with a green phosphoric light which lit up the dark auditorium. For Warnell and Anderson, the transparent body can only be achieved via compact and solid technology, the pill camera, the sensors, the computer, and even then one can wonder whether the accomplished effect has anything to do with transparency at all. Probably more with the opaque body, be it the stomach of Warnell or the deep dark see where bioluminescence has evolved. By then, for some reason, I had become thirsty, so I wandered off in the London night, in search for Guinness.