Viewers play 'games' with cell samples from their own bodies and those of others.
An Art & Biology Installation -  Stephen Wilson

Exhibited  in  Animal Nature Show  2005
Regina Gouger Miller Gallery | Carnegie Mellon University and
Digital Body Show at the ICA in London, 2006 (documentation version)
Further revisions 2006-8

View video documentation of IntroSpection installation   (quicktime    15,5 mb )

View sample microscopic  images from the mouth 
View IntroSpection Slides  (resize index to column on left)

 IntroSpection invites people to question the status of microbiological imagery.  They are asked to play games with data projections of cells from their own bodies and those of others.  Even though the cells come from samples they take from their own mouths, the landscapes they see in the projections look like artificial worlds; the entities they interact with seem like alien creatures.  The presentation of the cells in a context of a game further complicates the matter.  The creatures we see in games are usually fictions, artificial intelligences.  The images in IntroSpection purport to be real. The participant just swabbed their mouth, prepared a biological slide, and inserted it in the automated microscope.

The tension about the reality/artificiality of the images is critical.  The installation reflects on our culture’s increasing focus on the microbiological.  Human traits, capabilities, and identities are searched for at the unseen cellular and genetic levels.   What should we make of this trend?  How should non-scientists participate? It is urgent that the public develop deep literacy with microbiological tools and concepts.   Emerging generations of networked, automated microscopes may usher in wider access just as the microcomputer did in its realm.  This installation appropriates this emerging technology by reverse engineering it so it can become part of media art.

The installation's status as hybrid scientific/medical enterprise and media/game asks questions about access to scientific and medical protocols and new worlds made accessible by science.  The contradiction of interacting with these alien, unfamiliar life forms (which are nonetheless intimately connected with our bodies) focuses on the boundaries between self and non-self.  The request of visitors to surrender cells or body fluids brings home the often unspoken intimacy of biological research.

(See section below for more on theoretical perspectives)

Visitors are invited to play four ‘games’.  1.  Explore   2. Mystery   3. Match  4.  Blow-up

Explore: Visitors pick areas of their own cell sample for microscopic inspection by moving in the installation space. Motion detection creates a homunculus on screen whose movements parallel those of the visitor. The event seeks to demystify biological research methodology by asking visitors to engage in a mini-study of their own body as part of media art

Mystery - Where Did This Come From?:  Visitors try to identify what place in their cell sample is the origin of a blown up mystery image.  The installation  invites viewers to contemplate the micro world and to reflect on a biological era that must work at this unseen level relying on instrumentation for access.

Match:  A FBI wanted poster from the future replaces fingerprints with images of cell samples from a randomly selected prior visitor.  The viewer is challenged to identify which of six previous viewer portraits is the person who gave the samples. The event asks viewers to reflect on the changing nature of identity when so much cultural attention is focused on the microbiological level. With successful identification, visitors are rewarded with lights flashing in the environment and a sample of the prior visitor's recording of an answer to questions about things on the inside - such as "what is inside of you?" "how do you know what is inside of someone else? .

Blow up:  Visitors can pick one area of their cell sample for detailed examination.  Movements and gestures in the space can bring access to increasing levels of magnification.  More details are seen but is any more known?

Process: IntroSpection asks viewers to take a cell sample from their own mouth and then transfer it to a microscope slide.  The sllide is then submitted to Nikon's automated Coolscope which allows telemicrscopy control for the computer orchestrating the media event. They are also asked to record a short voice sample reflecting on the insides of things.  Video portraits are captured.

Viewers interact via motion detection which tracks their motion in the play area.  A game controller indicates choices made.

The database of cell samples, voices, and portraits becomes the basis of various animated displays.

Concept Maps:  How to think about these organisms inside?  Are they part of us, invaders, or helpers?  One animated event poses these concept maps as a provocation:

friend, visitor, self, homie, helper, child, brother, sister, cousin, innards, gut, partner, ally,  playmate,  teammate, companion,  sidekick, worker, crony, interior, pith, nitty-gritty, comrade, attendant, slave, guts, symbiant

invader, leech, alien, tresspasser, adversary, hanger-on, intruder, outsider, squatter, germ,  infiltrator, cootie, crud, parasite,  pathogen, free-loader, leech, enemy, the other

Additional Theoretical Perspectives on IntroSpection

Resistant Cultural Practices:

Some believe that artists can serve an important function by exposing research tools and processes to the public.  When research processes are locked behind laboratory doors and manipulated only by specialists, there are too many opportunities for mystification and exploitation.  A knowledgeable, familiarized  'amateur' community can be empowered to be more willing and more effective in discourse on public policy as it relates to issues in science and technology.  In "Body Invasion and Resistant Cultural Practice",  the Critical Art Ensemble describes the problem and the opportunity for artists to intervene. 

The greatest colonial initiative, perhaps ever, is underway--full-scale body invasion at the molecular level, making both immediate and cross-generational control possible....the biotech revolution is a secret revolution, slowly infiltrating and subverting the structure of everyday life. Biotech's interventions into ordinary life occur stealthily with as little representation as possible.

Resistant image makers have to begin at the fundamental level in order to represent the unseen elements of biotechnical developments in ways that axe accessible and meaningful to nonspecialists. CAE believes that the best way to do this is through participatory projects in which information and actual scientific projects are brought to nonspecialists outside a context overwhelmed by the signs of scientific authority.

The utopian rhetoric of the creators, manufacturers, and promoters of scientific invention is relatively hard to argue with, because of a popular perception that the public (nonspecialists in biology) cannot comprehend scientific knowledge at an advanced enough level to be able to validly comment on scientific claims and initiatives. The expertise needed to understand science to allow a person to make an informed decision about courses of biotechnological deployment is modest! Amateurs should be a key part in this discussion (as in any with revolutionary social potential)  Art Journal,  Fall, 2000

By introducing research microscopy with live samples into a public media context, IntroSpection aims to move audiences toward this familiarization.  For many participants, it is the first time they have ever seen or participated in the taking of a biological sample, preparing it for a microscope, adjusting a microscope, or attempting to interpret the images produced.  The fact that the sample is from their own body increases the salience.  It is hoped that the audience's level of familiarity and comfort with these processes increases their interest and ability to enter into related public policy discourse.

Ironically the historical development of microscopy and microbiology was spurred on by the contributions of amateurs who were interested in the micro world and microscopy from the position of curiosity rather than professional practice.  In 18th century Europe showings of new discoveries were more public media events than anything else. (   IntroSpection tries to reconnect with this history by increasing the public's interest in what is usually seen as esoteric research topics.

Questioning Paradigms of Distance and Objectivity in Biological Research:

The common view of biological research posits a clear distance between the researcher and the specimens.  Contemporary critiques of scientific research, however, question the conceptual basis of this division.  For example, in Laboratory Science, Bruno Latour and Michel Callon propose a different model in which the experimenters, apparatus, and organisms are all intertwined in an interlocked network.  Donna Haraway similarly emphasizes the cultural narratives that permeate experimental procedures.  In "The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others" she notes that the science of Biology and its research processes do not offer an unmediated access to the living world.  The classic model of objective researcher and specimen does not recognize that the specimen is a cultural construction rather than just the entity itself:

We must find another relationship to nature  besides reification and possession....Nature is not hidden and so does not need to be unveiled.... Organisms are biological embodiments; as natural-technical entities, they are not pre-existing plants, animals, protistes, etc., with boundaries already established and awaiting the right kind of instrument to note them correctly. Organisms emerge from a discursive process. Biology is a discourse, not the living world itself .

IntroSpection aims to give the public a direct experience with these discursive processes of research.  It asks them to reflect on the chain that links the phenomenological experience of their own body, the extracted sample they take from their mouth, the transfer of their sample to a slide,  the microscope device which embodies centuries of refinements in the way it optically and electronically processes the sample to give views of it impossible to see with the unaided eye, the adjustments they can make to change that view, and its ultimate projection in the media space.  Since it is their own sample, the event disrupts the sanitized view of objectified scientific samples.

The complexity of our bodies made accessible by the microscope also  highlights the need for a more sophisticated notion of what is the relationship among the sample, the instrument, the research processes, and our internal experience of being a body.  The samples show cells from our bodies, other microorganisms, inorganic matter, etc.  How should one think about these things? Are they self or non-self?  The media event invites reflection by infusing the animated visuals with contrasting vocabularies of invader/intruder vs friend/relative/helper.  Research makes these views available but confronts the viewer with the fact that there is no "natural", unmediated way to think about them.

Exposure and Vulnerability:

Some analysts note that access to images such as the microscopic expose the body in unprecedented ways.  Aspects of the body that used to be private are made public and available to strangers, authorities, and institutions.  X-rays, endoscopy, MRI's, etc become part of our record. We encounter new kinds of vulnerabilities.  In her book Body Criticism, Barbara Stafford describes this exposure but also notes that the increased contact with these images can help to stimulate the public to be sensitive to the possibly invasive nature of medical and biological imaging technologies.

The computer-mediated milieu renders the body nakedly public ... Similarly, one result of the new non-invasive imaging technologies in the area of medicine is the capability of turning a person inside out....The increased exposure of new medical technologies resulted in an intensified focus on the philosophical, ethical and aesthetic considerations involved in various medical procedures. New venues of communication technologies have contributed to the re-examination of invasive and non-invasive methods and the "objective" depersonalized attitude of the medical establishment.

IntroSpection asks people to take a biological sample from their mouth and then submit it to the microscope.  Their sample and those of previous viewers become the heart of the visual animations of the event.  The 'Wanted Poster' subevent focuses on guessing the links of samples with more conventional digital portraits of previous viewers.  The game ambience makes the exposure of samples seem benign but the subtext encourages participants to carefully reflect on the act of making these views of one self public.  Some participants refused to participate because of this exposure.

Bivalent Views - Dangers and Celebration:

The Nikon automated 'Coolscope' microscope at the heart of IntroSpection is quite an extraordinary device.  In some ways it democratizes what has been historically an esoteric process.  Preparing samples and working with research microscopes has previously required advanced technical skills.  Microbiology was restricted to a small closed club.  The automated, digital, networkable microscope changes that.  Some believe that its access will open up microbiology research in the same way that microcomputers opened up Information Technology research.

Others are not so optimistic.  In addition to opening up public access, it also makes bioidentification more available to authorities to use for purposes of surveillance, control and exploitation.  In addition to artists being able to work with microscopes so will police and marketing technicians.  Similarly, as described in previous section the mere access to this technology does not necessarily educate those working with it to understand the cultural narratives that have shaped the technology and the images it produces.  It does not alert those newly entering the field to view interpretations of the images produced with skepticism and awareness of alternative paradigms.

My book Information Arts: Intersections of Art, Science, and Technology ( warns that contemporary technological artists and theorists often seem predisposed to position themselves only at the skeptical end of the continuum.  I argue that artists can benefit from maintaining a bivalent view on these kinds of new technologies and the research worlds associated with them.  Certainly one should be wary of the narratives of progress and the unexamined truth claims of the researchers. But also one should appreciate the human accomplishment  - microbiology's urge to understand the world, the desire to see beyond what the eye can see, and the intelligence and persistance to  develop and improve tools like the microscope.  IntroSpection tries to provide an environment in which viewers can entertain both these perspectives on new developments in microbiology and microscopy.

Possible Future Extensions to IntroSpection:   New research will explore ways to build on the access to  personal microbiological data.  Possiblities include:  prototype home computer games,  2 person games,  newtworked games,  linking images to a person's proximity (by use of RFID chips,  and conceptual mock-ups of consumer products.

Acknowledgments:  Several persons and organizations have helped to make the 'Introspection' installation possible.  Thanks to them all:  The Media Arts Fellowship competition sponsored by the Program for Media Artists  for providing a fellowship; Ron Zibilich of Nikon Microscopes and Frank Lundy of Technical Instruments for arranging for a loan of the Coolscope® automated microscope and to the engineers and inventors at Nikon for developing this remarkable  device which may well open up public access to microbiology;  SFSU Biology professor and microscope guru Gregory Antipa for educating me in the mysteries of microscopy; SFSU Professor Britta Swanson for exploring the microrgainisms of the mouth with me; Professor Danny Rozin of NYU for developing the TTC xtra that allows easy motion tracking and professor Michael Roedemer for developing ezio interface board; Catherine Witzling for editing assistance; to the curators and staff of the Miller Gallery (Jenny Strayer, Cara Erskine, Joshua Atlas)  at Carnegie Mellon University for mouting the Animal Nature show and to Lane Hall and Lisa Moline for curating the show.
Nikon Coolscope

Contact:  Professor Stephen Wilson, Art Dept, SFSU   415 338-2291