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Healing Hands: From Vitruvian Man to Machine Man

An Exhibition of the Art from the Implantable Smart Technologies Project

Artist: Astrid Jaekel
Researchers: Shawn Harmon, Gill Haddow, Leah Gilman

Vitruvian man

About the Exhibition

This exhibition was a co-production of an artist, a lawyer and sociologists working collaboratively for 24 months in the area of implantable smart technologies (ISTs). ISTs are devices that are inserted into the body for therapy (or otherwise), and might be considered ‘smart’. Workshops, literature reviews, and interviews were conducted to discover what people might think of ISTs and automated medicine. All of the findings of the research were discussed with the artist, inspiring her to depict the often ambivalent and contradictory views.

The primary pieces of the exhibition are a triad of paired images which depict the representational shift in perception about what constitutes the standard or normative human body and identity. The first couplet (Figures 1 and 2) represents the scientific understanding of implanted devices, a seamless and benign helping medical hand that assists the patient from the inside. The second couplet (Figures 3 and 4) represents the more diverse and contested social understandings of implanted devices, depicting a collage of the technically possible and the desired/feared future. The third couplet (Figures 5 and 6) represents the context of patients, who are compressed by disease and worry, conscious of the devices inside them, assisting them to maintain some semblance of ‘normality’, and who feel both supported and repressed by the helping hands of the medical machinery.

All of the figures are set against a circular backdrop, a play on the iconic drawing of the ‘Vitruvian Man’, which is based on the correlations of ideal human proportions with geometry as described by the ancient Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (b. 80/70 BCE, d. 15 BCE), and a nod towards the modern idea of transmitting information to or from the body via a wireless network – the wave of data flowing outward from, and inward to, the body. The figures themselves are based on the work of Andreas Vesalius (b. 1514, d. 1564). Often referred to as the founder of modern human anatomy, Vesalius created during the Renaissance, a time when both art and medicine were concerned with a direct and faithful representation of natural phenomena; we have sought to provide artistic representations of social views around the ‘Machine Man’ or cyborg (whom we have rendered as male to reflect the gendered past of anatomy, and the common gendering of organic-mechanical bodies.)

The original purpose of Vesalius’ work was to explain the body to future physicians. Our work is mean to represent what our research tells us about current ideologies and potential future trajectories.

View photos from the exhibition on Flickr


First Couplet: The Medico-Scientific Understanding of ISTs

Both of these figures are grounded on the medical model of the person as an ever changing environment of physiological function, deviance and break-down, and asa site demanding the beneficent intervention of the healthcare establishment to define, diagnose, treat, cure, and monitor. They are characterised by caring physician and nurse treating and monitoring the individual in a seamless fashion even when you are physically removed from them and the treatment facility, leaving the patient intact and empowered and able to get on with the mundane activities of life. The implants are inscribed with the physician’s benevolent intentions and with restorative functions, and so the interventions are seen as aids that are positive, even giving the traditionally passive patient the capability to self-monitor. The hands are a positive representation of intervention and manipulation, representing the ‘smartness’ of the devices as they do their work. They also represent the human agency behind the devices, working diligently within the closed healthcare loop to make you a better (read more healthy and productive) person.

Couplet 1

Second Couplet: Social Understandings of ISTs

Both of these figures draw on the many depictions and caricatures of the present (Figure 3) and future (Figure 4) of implanted devices. Heavily influenced by mass media portayals and science fiction imaginaries (many of them dystopian), by promises of the fantastic and our fascination with the uncanny, these images reflect both hopes and fears, popular perceptions and marginal/minority ambitions. The cables penetrating the person in Figure 3 represent existing capacities to transmit internal/personal information, and the hands on those cables signify the interest of some in stealing and abusing that information. The prosthetics (with which implanted devices have a shared aetiology and close relationship) are more advanced, more powerful, and are available for a wider range of functions. Both this and Figure 4 show a transition from the internal to the external, or rather to technologies that work (and sometimes exist) both internally and externally (invisibly and visibly), and Figure 4 reflects the increasing convergence between ISTs and cellular and regenerative technologies. These figures also demonstrate the blurred boundaries between treatment and enhancement, and the increasingly troubled concept of ‘normality’, and indeed humanity.

Couplet 2

Third Couplet: The Patient Context and ISTs

Both of these figures are about the patient experience, which, though complex and highly individuated, is nonetheless dominated, we suggest, by two contrary states, one positive, supportive and characterised by feelings of affirmation and gratefulness, and the other fearful, dissatisfied and characterised by feelings of invasion and loss of control. Figure 5 therefore shows the patient, upright and restored, supported by the helping hands of his carers. He has been returned to normality despite his consciousness of the devices within him. He is ‘healthy’ and ‘standard’, reminiscent of the Vitruvian Man. He has, with help, gained control of his potentially chaotic (and always deteriorating) physiology, and is a figure of hope. Figure 6 is the patient, who whether ailing or healing, suffers from a loss of control, and a less positive interaction with the implanted technology and automated medicine (often described as ‘ehealth’). The ‘treating hands’ in Figure 6 are larger, more powerful, more directive, and the patient is dangling from a piece of string, dependent and vulnerable, possibly spinning with confusion and emotional turmoil, not only over his situation, but over his feelings about the IST within him.

Couplet 3