Author: Silvia Casini
Questioning Identity through MRI Brain Scans
The video 265 Looping Snapshots engages with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), a scientific technique that generates images of the body (and particularly, the brain) for scientific and medical purposes. In academic and popular journals MRI images are often accompanied by written texts which describe them as visual evidence of a condition of health or illness, normality or deviation from a pre-defined norm. Face-to-face with MRI images, however, untrained observers cannot perceive them as evidence. Rather, we (the non-experts) often take MRI images as beautiful artefacts composed of harmonious traits and colour nuances, and, simultaneously, as uncanny windows to the inside of our bodies. MRI compels us to confront a paradox: the human urge to view images of the body (its interior and its workings) and the failure of MRI to holistically satisfy that urge. The body of MRI images does not seem to represent our personal bodies.
265 Looping Snapshots explores questions of identity by engaging with MRI brain scans as post-modern portraits and self-portraits. How is personal identity created and challenged through MRI images? How are these images read in the laboratory and by patients/experimental subjects? It is through images that evidence and identity are created in the laboratory and in the media. MRI scans, in fact, are becoming the markers of personal identity as fingerprints used to be and contribute to create a neuro-cultural environment with the underlying assumption that the brain is the only part of the body we actually need to be ourselves (Vidal, 2002).
My video work intervenes in this debate by challenging this presupposition. It intertwines the problematic of identity to that of seeing and reading an image. I have attempted to question the way images are seen and read by the radiologists working at the MRI console and by the subject (myself) inside the scanner, that is, from a first-person phenomenological perspective. The video seeks to open up the debate on whether the reading of a brain scan is able to resolve the ambiguity connect to seeing it. The difficulty of a univocal interpretation of MRI images, is similar to that of other pictorial representations in general. Pictorial representations of an object, in fact, appear less ambiguous than a written or spoken account of the same object only because we do not consider how seeing is puzzling per se (Elkins, 1999).
Context and Quality of the Work
265 Looping Snapshots is part of my recently awarded Ph.D. in Film and Visual Studies entitled ‘The Aesthetics of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Setting MRI in Motion from the Scientific Laboratory to an Art Exhibition’. The dissertation comprised this video and the curatorship of an exhibition on the Breton artist Marc Didou’s MRI-based sculptures. By using a variety of approaches (philosophy, visual studies, curatorial practice) and materials (artworks, exhibitions, scientific experiments, interviews with artists) the thesis has developed new methods and contexts relevant to the processes by which MRI is resituated in gallery spaces and cinematic environments. Rather than being a work of art on its own, the video was part of my attempt to ‘move’ MRI outside the laboratory.
265 Looping Snapshots is self-produced and conceived as a research piece that should be kept open and constantly reworked through. It functions as a platform for exploring issues of identity and access to images, without necessarily thinking about any distribution in the Festivals circuit. A former version of it has been screened at a number of conferences in UK as part of a work-in-progress project. To name just a couple of them, the conference Estranged Realities (University of Wales, Newport, 2006) where the artist Helen Sear was my respondent and the symposium Consolidations: Teaching and Researching Media Practice (Queen’s University, Belfast, 2006).
Methods and Aesthetics of the Project
The video calls for a direct engagement with medical imaging techniques on the side of the researcher willing to understand MRI, its working procedure and its images within the laboratory space. An MRI or functional MRI image (fMRI) is the result of statistical elaborations and translations of numbers into images. In addition to the images produced, the embodied situation of both patient and scientist is also important for making sense of brain scans. The statement of the radiologist is tautological: pathology can be shown only if it can be seen (Prasad, 2005: 296). The absence of visual traces of a pathological condition does not necessarily imply the absence of the pathology. This is why in the clinical procedure the first step toward a diagnosis has often been the verbal description of the symptoms given by the patient to the doctor. This is still the case in neuropsychiatric research where MRI is combined with various sets of IQ and psychological question-and-answer tests, that is, with narratives. 265 Looping Snapshots presents one of these possible narratives.
In January 2006 I underwent an MRI in Belfast, in November of that same year I volunteered for one in San Diego, CA, USA where I spent three months as visiting scholar at UCSD, Communication Department. Each examination was part of a larger research project within the centres, but both were composed of scanning and psychological/IQ tests. These tests entail a series of questions posited before or after the examination that form the basis of the script for the first part of the video.
The two examinations in which I took part exhibited certain key differences, notably the accessibility of the scans to volunteers. In the United States, when a person undergoes a brain scan for research rather than diagnostic purposes, she is not allowed to watch the brain images after the examination. The reasoning given is that the images might provoke anxiety; a patient might project this onto the scans and see something “wrong” that is not actually there. The presupposition is that a non-expert subject is not able to read the images correctly. Therefore, the experimental subject is not permitted to see them. In addition to this, there is a strong impact when seeing the interior of one’s own body. Seeing my own images provoked a ‘shock of recognition’ (Dumit, 2004: 131) in recognising my familiar features as if I were in front of a mirror.
265 Looping Snapshots does not document the two examinations as they actually happened in two different places and times, but rather it creates a common ‘possible world’ for them. The Leibnizian notion of ‘possible worlds’ has replaced the dichotomy between truth and reality in the debate around the documentary form (Plantinga, 1997). Instead of cross-cutting between the images obtained from the first examination and the images recorded in the lab during the second examination, I edited the images recorded in the laboratory in San Diego after the ones obtained in Belfast. However, the second examination is anticipated by the soundtrack which introduces the voices of the two researchers from the beginning, although audible only as background.
To introduce a camera in a laboratory requires the permission of several professionals who must be aware of the research goals. In Belfast I was not allowed to do any filming but I was given the CD with the MRI images acquired during the examination after I told them I wanted to use the images for a video on MRI, that is for artistic rather than research purposes. The physician who gave me images of the Belfast MRI examination, firstly showed me high resolution images of MRI scans of other people, saying that ‘it would make no difference to receive the images of someone else’, a statement which further reinforces the presumption of a patient’s inability to read the image. Could the ‘shock of recognition’ happen with the images of another person?
The leader of the research project I volunteered in at UCSD agreed to record the images as they came up on the computer screen during my examination, which he followed with a senior radiologist in the console room. After he was told by the senior radiologist that he could not film the laboratory for security reasons, he pulled the camera down without realising that the sound was still switched on for the whole length of the examination (forty five minutes). Therefore, in the second-half of the video I make use of these illicit recordings.
The body in the video is geometrised, projected in a slide-show format, and even cut-up through framing. The eyes, the hand, the fingers, all parts that the MRI scan did not image, appear in the video. These organs are frozen in gestures by framing and filmed in close-up, so that each of these gestures (the blink of the eye, the raising of a finger, the movement of a wrist) becomes visible. Framed as if they were not belonging to a body, turned into close-ups like faces, these gestures (like MRI images) recall the poses of Muybridge’s photographic sequences, where the duration of an action is arrested into discrete instants and, thus, rendered measurable. But what do these poses express? To what identity do they give access? The poses are haunted, again, by what has been left-out of the laboratory, that is, the body of the experimental subject which remains to be photographed, resisting and insisting on the margins of the MRI image.
Dumit, Joe. 2004. Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Elkins, James. 1999. Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?. London: Routledge.
Plantinga, 1997. Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Prasad, Amid. 2005. ‘Making Images/Making Bodies: Visibilizing and Disciplining through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)’. Science, Technology, & Human Values. 30.2. 291-316.
Vidal, Fernando. 2002. ‘Brains, Bodies, Selves, and Science: Anthropologies of Identity and the Resurrection of the Body’. Critical Inquiry. 28. 930-974.
 The exhibition took place at The Naughton Gallery at Queen’s (19 October – 1 December 2007) within the Belfast Festival at Queen’s. The exhibition was greeted by The Irish Times as one of the best five memories of the Festival. To see the video of the exhibition go on You Tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2P7M7jiz74.
Unfortunately, the Peer Reviews are missing for this work.