Reflections on Silvia Casini’s ‘Giving Bodies Back to Data: Image Makers, Bricolage, and Reinvention in Magnetic Resonance Technology’

by: , December 13, 2021

© Book Cover

Written in the style of a first-person essay, Silvia Casini’s book Giving Bodies Back to Data exposes various human and non-human bodies and intimate processes by performing an anamorphic dissection, which explores material, instrumental, experimental, and bodily dimensions of scientific knowledge production and data-visualisation processes in the context of magnetic resonance imaging technology. After the Second World War, a shift that took place in data-visualisation techniques and computer-assisted technology marked a new era of continued investigation of the interiors of the body and brain, moving from the observations of an anatomical body to a molecular one. (Casini 2021: xxi) It opened new ways of seeing facilitated by the operational images that are generated through data collection, interpretation, and visualisation. By approaching data as assembled, relational, and not just given, Casini opens new avenues for considering the affective dimension of the data-visualisation process in the context of biomedical imaging. While attempting to open a black box of scientific practice, the author encourages the reader to reflect on how data is contextualised, formed, and transferred to the wider cultural arena, and provides a set of methods and tools to achieve it within the art-science context.

Our contemporary reality, populated by algorithms, machine-learning techniques as well as data-visualisation across different industries, is based on the grid structure—Cartesian coordinates that allow us to organise data and present it as a visual output, which is shared by both epistemic cultures of art and science. The structure of the book itself is situated around the middle section, entitled ‘Intermezzo. Lives in the Grid,’ which acts as connective tissue bringing the two main parts of the book together: a more historical and technical exploration of magnetic resonance technology, and an artistic and critical response to data visualisation in the context of art-science collaborative projects. In this connecting part, Casini applies Louise Amoore’s work on the politics of possibility to the analysis of the grid’s role in data visualisation, and discusses how the grid transforms the way bodies are perceived, and what decisions are made in relation to them. (2021: xxvi) The grid structure, which functions as a certain foundation of the contemporary visual, scientific, and socio-technical fields, allows us to creatively connect affective, scientific, and artistic dimensions concerning biomedical imaging technology, and to extend the argument beyond its scientific discourse.  To do so, Casini takes Bruno Latour’s metaphor of the black box, which describes how scientific practice constructs and seals ‘phenomena, objects, and concepts into black boxes’ (2021: 5), and applies it to the data-visualisation pipeline, which is opened up layer by layer throughout the book, from the first experiments of visualisation protocol of MRI to the contemporary socio-technical landscapes. 

The introduction starts with three different scenes guided by the visual material, which summarise the main points of departure. The first scene indicates the beginning of modern neuroscience with Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of neurons. It introduces the role of aesthetics ‘as an instrument of both perception and knowledge production’. (Casini 2021: xv) A second scene is set almost a century later in a biomedical physics laboratory at the University of Aberdeen, which reveals that aesthetic choices play an important role alongside mathematics and physics in the development of a visualisation protocol of MRI scanner. The third scene is set at the gallery, in which Casini observes Marc Didou’s Skull I (2007), a sculptural artwork which literally ‘rematerializes the MRI data-visualization process, giving a body back to data’. (2021: xviii) These scenes share affective, aesthetic, and experimental elements that open up questions about their role in visualising data. 

In the first part of the book, the author attempts to open the black box by tracing how a visualisation protocol was developed at the University of Aberdeen for now widely used MRI technology. Casini dives into the historical period between the late 1960s and early 1980s, during which, under the leadership of James Hutchison, the first whole-body MRI scanner for clinical use, Mark I, was constructed. In addition, a nuclear magnetic image-resolution technique that has become the global standard for data-image conversion has been developed at the same laboratory. Casini turns to the first experiments in visualisation, from the hand-coloured image map of a dead mouse, to an application of the protocol, to the full human body scan, all of which help to acknowledge the role of visualisation in transforming MRI into a diagnostic tool, as well as the Scottish scientific contribution in developing it. In addition to the historical context, new and ongoing research taking place at the same laboratory from 2014, with a focus on the fast-field cycling MRI, reveals a lesser-known side of the present research in magnetic resonance imaging. FFC-MRI shows a potential for predictive medicine, is low-cost, and visualises biochemical information at a molecular level not detectable by MRI; however, it is considered less-applicable because of the lack of sharpness, detail, and so-called ‘beauty’ effect which allows the claim that the MRI image is truthful. The FFC-MRI technology, which displays a collection of data in graphs—unlike the widely-used MRI—shows how water behaves in tissues on a molecular level. Instead of establishing the observer and the observed relationship through a representation of a scanned body, FFC-MRI indicates the process of ‘becoming’ solidified in the framework of the graph, which opens alternatives for consideration in biomedical imaging discourse. (Casini 2021: xvii) While focusing on the Scottish side of the history of MRI innovation, which in the official narrative is considered peripheral, the author moves craftsmanship and affectivity to the centre of science practice, following a multisensorial turn in laboratory studies. Therefore, Casini elegantly develops cartography that indicates the role of the scientists’ bodies and a wider network of instruments, buildings, and habits in the production of knowledge, since affectivity refers to the material world where ‘affective exchange between human and non-human agents (including machines and their components)’ takes place. (2021: 14)

By focusing on the Aberdonian case study, Casini ‘brings to the center bricolage, aesthetics, and the affective relationships present in scientific experience’ (2021:14), which tend to be left in the peripheries of science. Here, the term ‘bricolage’ is utilized to focus on ‘the craft labor and affective engagement of scientific work, moving beyond [Claude] Lévi-Strauss’s distinction between the engineer and the bricoleur’. (Casini 2021: 5) Elements such as unpredictability and bricolage cross both art and scientific terrains, and are essential in the production of knowledge through experimentation, which becomes invisible after the product, theory, invention, or the process is black boxed. By approaching scientific practice through experimentation and aesthetics, Casini opens up an avenue to think about art-science collaborations as productive sites for critical intervention and reflection on the processes of black boxing. According to the author, the black box can also enable to create ‘transactions between the worlds of art and science … [t]hrough this endeavour the black box can be passed back and forth between the artist and the scientist and rearranged in such a way that a shared ground is created. One can create and support such transactions by enabling a trading zone between the two epistemic cultures of art and science’. (Casini 2021: 6) A trading zone concept borrowed from physics refers to binding together the disunified traditions of experimenting, theorising, and building instruments that allow interchanges between the fields. Hence, throughout the book, Casini attempts to explore how scientific and artistic communities can maintain a stereoscopic vision when investigating ‘the conundrum of what it is like to be both a biological organism made up of molecules and cells, and an entity equipped with intentionality, desires, thoughts, and values’. (2021: 17) The book itself embodies this stereoscopic vision, which invites the reader to slip under the layers of the data-visualisation pipeline by embracing historical and contemporary contexts of MRI technology development to create a ground for a critical engagement with sealed layers of scientific processes, objects, and tools. This multi-dimensional vision cutting through the past and the present consists of a methodology merging laboratory ethnography, archival research, and collaborative art-science work. Here, attention to the intimate processes, visual material, and objects guides a conversation around the role of affectivity, aesthetics, and craftsmanship in the development of new technology as situated and material conditions of knowledge production. (Casini 2021: xx) In her research, Casini focuses on marginal elements such as sketches, lab notes and photographs that indicate ‘repositories of memory, aesthetic choices, and affective labor’ (2021: 14), which are considered driving forces in the development of technology or scientific theory. Thus, the evocative title of the book, Giving Bodies Back to Data, acts as an invitation to ‘retrieve the multiple presences and agencies of bodies. Bodies of the image and technology makers; human and non-human subjects of experiments (patients, researchers, animals); the artifacts through which both scientists and artists create new body-worlds’. (Casini 2021: xix) In other words, the book attempts to uncover relational aspects of data, and offers to consider tools that encourage a critical approach towards the black-boxing of data-visualisation processes through an art-science collaboration. Here, creative practice is considered as a device for rematerialising the bodies (human and non-human) which were made absent during the data-visualisation processes in the scientific field.

One of the most accessible examples of a closed-circuit of the data-visualisation process is discussed in terms of a brain image which also fulfils a metaphor of a black box: circulating in mass media, presented as a photorealistic visual proof of brain activity, it continues to render the idea of ‘self’ as contained in the brain. To challenge this neurorealism fallacy, which ignores the complexity of image creation and data acquisition to make the brain image possible, Casini turns to the artists who explore data visualisation in MRI, and extends the question of a body-brain system beyond it. Research-based collaborative projects by the artists Liz Orton, Ilona Sagar, and Thomas Feuerstein are explored as creating a space for encounters where new experiential bodies can emerge challenging the data-visualisation paradigm. Through each example, the argument moves beyond the question of data visualisation, and expands the body-brain ensemble to material and immaterial media systems and infrastructures, which also opens a discourse of operational images and neural networks. Close analysis of the art-science projects opens space to acknowledge the responsibility of a human being in analysing, interpreting, and displaying information presented by the growing influence of operational images in the everyday life and scientific discourse. What becomes more and more apparent is the importance of reflecting on the changing dynamics of biopower concerning the governance of molecular bodies that are not perceived as whole, anatomical bodies but instead as an assemble of individual processes which make the patient’s body visible to the machine.


Figure 1: Stills from Ilona Sagar, Correspondence O, 2017, 19 min 40 sec


Figure 2: A Still from Ilona Sagar, Correspondence O, 2017, 19 min 40 sec.


Ilona Sagar’s film Correspondence O (2017), discussed in the second part of the book and dedicated to the art-science collaboration, helps to visually draw a parallel between the public health discourse of the 20th century and MRI technology by creating a poetic dialogue between the contemporary documentary, operational images, and archival material from the Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham (London, UK), in which experiments were run by social biologists working on self-care. The Peckham Experiment was started in the 1930s, and has created a space for observing people without interference, in the glass-based building which allowed visual and social fluidity centred around the swimming pool. Similarly to how MRI creates access to the inner workings of the living system without surgical intervention via magnetic resonance, the film draws a trajectory of dissolving boundaries between public and private spaces which made the body increasingly transparent, turned inside out for a machinic vision, which opened up the possibilities for preventative medicine. Sagar’s approach to editing material into a two-channel film, where archival materials are interspersed with the scans of interiors of bodies and the building’s transparent architecture, allows this fluidity, and summarises well a need for a stereoscopic vision in the contemporary visual and scientific discourse. (See Figures 1 & 2) Sagar’s film, like Casini’s book, creates a space where the past and the present overlap and expose alternative trajectories and a question of potentiality. As Casini has showed, engaging with the gap between the ‘frames’ of official narratives and discourses, the affective, experimental, and bodily dimensions kept in the peripheries of scientific knowledge production can evoke a critical, experiential intervention into the socio-technical processes that keep lives embedded in the grid. 


Casini,  Silvia (2021), Giving Bodies Back to Data: Image Makers, Bricolage, and Reinvention in Magnetic Resonance Technology, Boston: The MIT Press (312 pages).

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