Phase Anatomy

By: Peggy Nelson
April 4, 2011

[Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott, 12:31, 2011]

In the early days of spirit photography (i.e., in the the early days of photography), ectoplasm was not really ready for its close-up. Believed to be some kind of proto-sentient cosmic goo, more than a feeling but less than a ghost, ectoplasm came out on film looking like wet, twisted rags. Which of course it often was. (Sometimes it was wet, twisted cotton that hadn’t made it to the rag stage.) As in so many cases of the techno-paranormal, manifestation fell far short of imagination. The occult facsimile was not reasonable by its nature, but neither was it reasonably convincing.


But in a recent update the manifestation meets and exceeds. Taking significant steps toward embodiment, the spectral traces evoked and captured by Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott in their 12:31 project remain ambiguous, but suggestively so. It is light-writing, but the marks are much more varied and blotchy than the usual graffiti and linework, not unlike inked flourishes from an awkwardly-trimmed quill pen. Are they tadpoles? People? Done with special flashlights? Or LEDs on bodysuits? But look more closely, are those — bones? Or even internal organs?

(As compared to:)

[Light-writing by energie in motion, 2007]

Using the body-slices of the male cadaver from The Visible Human Project, Gagnon and Schott played the video on a laptop while moving the computer slowly through darkened spaces, capturing its trail in long-exposure photographs.

This animation represents the entire data set (1,871 slices) of the male cadaver from the Visible Human Project. The animation was played fullscreen on a computer, which was moved around by an assistant while being photographed in a dark environment. The resulting images are long-exposure “light paintings” of the entire cadaver. Variations in the movement of the computer during each exposure created differences in the shape of the body throughout the series.

— Gagnon and Schott, 12:31 project website

[Male Cadaver, The Visible Human Project, video of all slices]

You may be familiar with the lift-and-reveal approach to human anatomy, in either its paper or more recent acetate-overlay forms. “Flap-books,” so-called because of the flaps to be lifted, revealing the bones, muscles, organs, and unborn children beneath, have been a regular stop on the scientific-salacious continuum, and have been alternately widely distributed, or kept under lock and key, aligning with the mores of the times. When unattached to the main binding, these flaps were known as fugitive sheets, and would often steal or be stolen away.

[Obstetric tables (pregnant woman with bonnet) by G. Spratt, 1847, from Animated Anatomies, Duke University Libraries, 2011]

Recently attempted by Google Labs (which is currently and somewhat unaccountably featuring a cow), the lift-and-reveal (or click-and-reveal) is still an active, evolving technology.

[Cow, from Google Cow, 2011]

But despite the best efforts of anatomists and philosophers — and engineers, paper and otherwise — what is still missing is the exact location and contours of consciousness, the Self, the ego, the soul (realizing that those do not all intend to refer to the same thing). Despite our diagrammatic and atomizing fervor, down to the level of the genome and beyond, this centrally-important entity, or feature, or epiphenomenon, or (fill in Mad Libs noun/verb/adjective/imaginary creature here) still eludes our instruments.

[detail of What is Consciousness by David McCandless, Information is Beautiful, 2011]

And while 12:31 is not spirit photography, it receives some of its visual charge from gesturing in that direction. Nothing has of yet been captured; our own cage at the cryptozoological zoo remains empty. And yet. These fugitive sheets of light do create a reasonable facsimile — of our inchoate yet persistent compulsion to seek.


Thanks to @wynkenhimself and @whitneytrettien for the link to Duke University Libraries’ Animated Anatomies, and Emilio Gomariz for the link to 12:31.