Justine Cooper: RAPT

by Robyn Donohue

Justine Cooper's MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) video of herself captures the ethereal, the non-tangible and an unkown realm – the unseen interior. MRI manages to capture what Richard Fleischer's film Fantastic Voyage (1966) could have been, in its exploration of the inner body, a theme developed in the subsequent animated series of the same name, but Cooper's work asks and reveals more and goes deeper. It raises questions of life, death and the fantastical vision of being able to move through and beyond physicality.

Try to catch a glimpse of what I am? Try to see myself from the inside. This video, these images take me through myself to reveal a sublime and peculiarly non-visceral landscape that is my own unseen and unknown interior.

I am welcome here. It is strangely comforting, although Cooper herself is coolly analytical in her own description of the piece:

The video therefore starts out inside my body, tracking through the interior of my leg until it breaches the boundary of inside and out when the 'camera' pulls out of the collarbone. At this stage the viewer becomes aware it is a body they are looking at. This body is then choreographed within its own space-time framework...melting, then reconstituting itself...compressing and expanding, decaying and rebuilding.

At first I have no idea where I am – underwater or up in the sky flying through the clouds. It is an odd sense of fluidity. I am floating in the interior. I am constantly in motion. I am kinaesthetic, energy, intensity. These clouds and other forms from nature turn out to the interior of Cooper's body which I am allowed to view without feeling repulsion at the confrontation with the invisible self, or as if I am transgressing into some forbidden realm.

This powerful work of a body's deliquescence: emerging, evolving, and gradually passing away reveals to the viewer, and it is a deeply, ineluctably personal viewing, the interior world of body structures disintegrating and rebuilding every second, the entire hidden drama of the body, exposing the interior in a way which makes the skin become just another wrapper to be removed. '...this visual penetrationof one living person by another had been blocked by the skin. That barrier had dissolved. The X-ray unilaterally altered ages of societal accord by making public what was once private.'1 The ultimate view for a voyeur? or Foucault's 'Medical Gaze' turned in upon itself – internalising not only the gaze but the institutionality of this particular technologically driven vision of the body? Cooper states, 'the work alludes to a conceptual shifting in our experience of both time and space, and how this is mediated by science and technology.'

The first image I see is the interior of the leg where I glide through almost translucent matter coming across the spinal cord, to the sound of splitting/expanding ice. I sweep past the feet – time coalescing – this is another world within a body – decomposing and rebuilding – back to front, upside down spinning. Disorientated, wrapped in images, RAPT wraps around my vision.

This is a fantastic voyage and not just for the eyes – six hours of scanning are edited and then combined with the remembrance of the aural hallucinations she experienced whilst being scanned, which create the sound track that accompanies the video. It seems the longer she was in there the more abstract they became.

I am presented with visual/sound scape where I hear the pulsing of a body, or is it a machine engine – a deep metallic resonance – the pumping of the body's engine. This is both a visual and aural experience; it becomes mesmerising as the 'camera' moves outside the body and sweeps through a void. The visual field constructed is posthuman, 'more human than human'. I see more than I wanted to...my vision is enhanced by MRI.

Turning the gaze inward – MRI makes slices through the body but leaves it intact, mapping it by coordinates that can be converted into images. It is not static – just as each slice is cut and framed and frozen joined together and reanimated it once again comes alive. RAPT does not break up the body; it seamlessly joins it. Water divination of a different kind, MRI can produce an image of organic tissue wherever there is a trace of water...the computer reconsitutes images giving me back to myself. My senses reawaken with the sound of blood pumping. I am visually and aurally able to pass through Cooper's body.

Magnetic Resonance Imaging requires the use of a very strong magnetic field, a process that required the artist to lie still for over six hours in a metal tube, like film in a canister. Unlike other devices used in radiology, MRI imaging uses no radiation. It provides three-dimensional imaging of brain and the body. Bettyann Kevles discusses the distinction between MRI images and that of X-rays 'MRI does to bones what X-Rays do to the skin: in an MRI bones disappear from view. The skeleton, the symbol of X-rays, dissolves completely, without the carapace of bone, soft tissues are visible in all their complexity...The act of visual penenetration no longer carries the association of stark white skeletons, and death.'2

There is the directly personal quality of the images. It is a record of the functioning of the body that celebrates and represents life. Justine Cooper's video deconstructs 'body' – hers, mine, yours – and reconstitutes it on screen over and over again.

Re-presenting the body technologically I find myself rediscovering this old bag of bones. The very idea that I can travel through visceral matter/space is both a welcoming and daunting thought. The unknown is opened up to invite me into places that I can scarcely imagine because they are too close. It is voyeuristic in the sense that it strives to reveal everything and to know all the body's secrets – ultimately producing more questions.

"We stand in the middle of infinity between outer and inner space, and there's no limit to either."3

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