Liz Orton, Every Body is an Archive

JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2019 (here). Softcover, 166 pages, with 90 black and white and color reproductions. Includes an introductory text in the form of computer code, essays by John Hipwell, Dr. Henrietta Simson, and Professor Steve Halligan, text fragments from interviews with patients, and an index of image captions. In an edition of 300 copies. Design by Valentina Abenavoli. (Cover and spread shots below.)

A project website, called Digital Insides, can be found here.

Comments/Context: When we step back and look at the trajectory of medical care in the 21st century, what we find is that understanding our health is increasingly driven by high tech imaging of different kinds. Being a patient today requires a seemingly never ending set of x-rays, MRIs, CT scans, ultrasounds, mammograms, colonoscopies, and other imaging procedures, in both diagnostic and examination situations, and with each passing decade, revolutions in technology enhance doctors’ ability to use biomedical imaging to know us better.

And while we are comfortable conceptually interrogating the “gaze” of those who stand behind a camera in a fine art context, the clinical or medical gaze has generally gone unstudied. What we do know is that being a patient for these imaging procedures is often uncomfortable and awkward, our bodies roughly arranged to get the best picture regardless of the discomfort (either physical or psychological) felt by the patient. Cameras slice our bodies into planes, cross sections, and interior views in search of disease, objectifying and abstracting us, and turning us into into streams of depersonalized data.

Liz Orton’s incisive self-published photobook Every Body is an Archive is the end product of a multi-year immersion in medical imaging, where she tried to unravel, and in a sense reclaim, the medical gaze. In collaboration with Professor Steve Halligan at the Medical Imaging Centre at the University College London Hospital, she worked with radiologists and radiographers to understand the various imaging procedures and technologies, and talked with patients about their experiences. Her photobook is a combination of multiple strands of artistic thinking, from reenacting the medical picture making process with the patient’s perspective in mind to using the existing radiography software in unexpected visual experiments.

Many of Orton’s photographs document re-staged procedures, where “subjects” lie on examining tables or pose in front of flat screens. The twisting and turning of bodies is forced and uncomfortable, with arms held at strange angles or yanked overhead, torsos pushed and pulled by disembodied hands, and legs bent in particular arrangements. A few images capture the embarrassing dance of putting on a hospital gown with comical flair, and most of the poses feel wooden and clumsy rather than graceful, the uncooperative and vulnerable bodies wrangled into difficult positions that can’t be comfortably held for more than a moment. The series of images is deliberately cumbersome and almost perverse, the everyday people transformed into strained mannequins, Orton’s re-enactments highlighting the dehumanizing structure of these typically private procedures.

These photographs are then interleaved with re-photographed pictures from Clark’s Positioning in Radiography, a late 1930s era manual that shows technicians how to properly positions bodies for the X-ray plate. Like the images Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel gathered for their landmark photobook Evidence, these pictures are consistently perplexing, the bodies contorted, held in place by sandbags, and marked with diagrammatic arrows, circles, angle calculations, and other measuring devices. When appropriated and taken out of their original context, these images become increasingly bizarre, the metal prongs used to hold a woman’s head or the block put in her mouth to align her posture bordering on the surreal and the fetishistic. The drawn arrow piercing the reclining woman’s nose is like a motif straight out of Man Ray’s oeuvre, making us wonder a bit about the definitional edges of scientific objectivity.

Orton has included snippets of text (printed in yellow) throughout the flow of images in Every Body is an Archive. These words and phrases were drawn from the artist’s conversations with patients, and many represent the patients’ attempts to describe what their scans look like. These snatched words are so wonderfully human that it’s hard not to smile at their cleverness: “some groovy kind of disco”, a “Francis Bacon painting”, a “soufflé”, “a carcass (ravaged by animals)”, a “jellyfish”, and even “cheesy puffs”. The most lyrical of these phrases reach for a kind of unlikely descriptive poetry: “a useless army”, “grandma’s house”, “when you make your own garlic butter and put it in cling-film and it wrinkles”, a “haunted house in a full moon”, “fire flies”, “a wandering albatross”, or a “ghost waiting for an embrace”, each a grasping attempt to explain something elusive, for which we don’t usually have words.

In the center of the photobook, Orton has included a series of 3D renderings, printed in silver ink on black paper. These are reconstructions (or data visualizations) made from CT scans, where the original data has been reformatted to show us exterior surface rather than interior space, essentially inverting the whole process of medical imaging. The results are otherworldly, with fragmented bodies floating in blackness, reaching up from underneath the page, hanging down from above in stuttering multiples, or seen from below as though the person was standing on a glass floor. Other images sprinkled through the book interrogate the materials (gadolinium, manganese) used as contrast agents, assemble images from dozens of discrete slices, plot spatial frequencies as dots of light, and reconstruct mundane photographic images using these same medical imaging procedures, attacking the medical gaze from multiple directions.

The design of Every Body is an Archive is thoughtful and innovative. It is a relatively small photobook, but packed with risk taking: multiple paper stocks, typefaces, and colors (black, grey, white), interspersed yellow text and large dots, and images that circulate around the space of white pages and range in size from thumbnail to full bleed. Even with all these design ideas in play, the effect is crisply integrated, the total becoming more than the sum of the many individual parts.

The durably important conclusions that come from Orton’s Every Body is an Archive are that we have largely overlooked the complexities of the medical gaze, and that when we do stop to examine it more closely, we find that it has left out central parts of what make us human. This photobook feels like it single handedly defines its own new category, where there is now plenty of unexplored white space available for ongoing artistic experimentation. The systematic intelligence that Orton applies to redefining the typical aesthetics of medical imaging is impressive, and we come away from Every Body is an Archive more able to see how we are being seen.

Collector’s POV: Liz Orton does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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