THE VISIBLE HUMAN PROJECT
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THE VISIBLE HUMAN PROJECT book
In a fin-de-millennium culture well accustomed to spectacle and dramatic biotechnical innovation, the public launch of the Visible Human Project created an extraordinary global frisson. When the National Library of Medicine, the authors of the project, made the first images available on their website in November 1994 they immediately caught the attention of the popular media as well as the scientific community.1 Throughout the world a fever of TV documentaries, press articles and radio programmes ensued. The project’s iconography has since featured in every mass circulation magazine from Time to Wired, as well as the more soberly scientific publications. In general the articles and programmes I remember or have since read or watched were quite straightforward. They described the process of the VHP figures’ production (a gruesome tale in itself and one which I will soon retell here), provided a selection of images and viewpoints of the virtual body, and quoted an assortment of scientists speaking on the possible uses for the project. Most media coverage gave extensive attention to the first human to become a Visible Human, one Joseph Paul Jernigan, of Waco, Texas. Jernigan had been on death row in a Texas prison for twelve years, convicted in 1981 for burglary and murder. In August 1993 Jernigan was executed by injection with a lethal dose of potassium chloride. The choice of Jernigans body by the project team provided media coverage with a set of stock narratives and an appealing moral economy of criminal transgression, punishment, sacrifice and redemption which produced headlines like ‘Executed man helps science as internet cadaver’, ‘Executed killer reborn as visible man on internet’ and ‘A convict’s contribution’.2 (See Figure 1.1.)
Late in 1995 a second body was launched for the project, a Visible Woman, based on the body of an unnamed 59-year-old woman, described in the press as a ‘Maryland Housewife’ who died of a heart attack, and whose body is said to have been donated to the project at the explicit request of her husband. Predictably enough this development was immediately interpreted by the media as the creation of a kind of virtual couple, and perhaps the beginnings of a virtual family in cyberspace. (See Figure 1.2.)
The relative banality of these media stories seems incommensurate with the sheer volume of attention the project received and still receives in popular and public culture, an attention primarily addressed to the project’s dramatic visuality. A cursory browse of the World Wide Web will produce literally thousands of sites dedicated to or linked to the project, where samples of the cross-sections, reformulations and animations can be viewed. The VHP figures have been the centrepieces for several major gallery or museum exhibitions. In 1995-6 a gallery exhibition in Japan juxtaposed images from the project with Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. The Smithsonian Institute has dedicated a station to the project. The project formed the subject of a major exhibition which was first at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore in 1998 and then travelled throughout the USA. A French film, The Fifth Element, released in 1997, used the data as the basis for a special-effect sequence. The scene, itself an homage to Metropolis, uses a sequence of the VHP tissue cross-sections to depict the creation of an improbably seductive female humanoid in a laboratory. In 1997 it was the subject of an extensive visual spread in a dedicated issue of Life magazine, ‘A fantastic voyage through the human body’, featuring the highly aestheticised
work of medical photographer Alexander Tsiaras, which also compared the Project images to Da Vinci’s anatomies, and to Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’.3 Intel Computers used the data for an advertising campaign during 1997 that compared the inside of the computer ‘brain’ with the interior of a human brain. The licensees include Hollywood production companies, and Michael Ackerman, the project’s CEO, predicts that it is only a matter of time before the data are reworked as special effects for mainstream US cinema. The virtual corpses figured in the VHP have become objects of medical and popular globalisation, circulating through the net, the cinema, and other visual mass media, an index of the interpenetration of popular culture with science.