[ISEA2011] Paper: Roberta Buiani – Microscopic transformations: scientific visualization, biopower, and the arts


Of the variety of microorganisms immortalized by countless techniques and technologies (electron microscopy, 3D modeling etc..), viruses are among the most fantasized about. Their size and nature makes finding appropriate visualization models and methods of analysis rather challenging. As a result, visualization becomes highly diversified, as attempts to portray these submicroscopic substances abound and compete with each other.

I argue that the above visual diversification reveals dynamics and approaches that define the scientific visualization of viruses as a very peculiar expression of today’s biopolitical life regime. In fact, the aesthetics and location of scientific visualization in popular science magazines and science journals reveals the urge to constrain, regulate and control these visual expressions to serve a number of agendas and recommendations. Thus, these images seem to support and tiredly repeat old ideas of viruses as spectacles, or as vicious invaders, an attitude that reminds us of the way foreign politics would treat the “immigrant alien” or the “imminent pandemic.” This inclination, however, is constantly ousted by a drive towards new ways of seeing, representing, and challenging older ideas of contagion and infectious diseases that incorporate more holistic and innovative concepts into the images.

This double tendency equally emerges from the work of the scientist and the creative intervention of artists who have engaged with the practice of visualization and have witnessed first-hand the processes and negotiations involved in the production of scientific visualization. By comparing the work of artists like Luke Jerram, Susanna Edwards and Caitlin Birrigam with examples of scientific visualization to be found in magazines and journals such as Nature and Science, I plan to illustrate 1) how the variety that characterizes the scientific visualization and representation of viruses and other submicroscopic entities constitutes a productive force reflecting but resisting conceptual and visual control over visualization and 2) how the intervention of the artist and the myriads of companies dedicated to the improvement of visualization trigger molecular, though gradual changes that in the long un will transform the way in which we see the object of visualization, the concepts and notions that frame it, as well as the object itself. microexplorations.wordpress.com

  • Roberta Buiani is a media activist, educator and  cultural theorist based in Canada, interested in  scientific practices and lab technologies, (bio)politics and the arts, as well as in questioning their traditional functions and rituals and looking for threds that facilitate their cross-communication. She has a Master in Art History and a PhD in Communication and Culture both form York University (Toronto, Canada). As a fellow at CoDE at Anglia Ruskin University, granted by the  British Academy fellowship program, she conducted a project on microscopy and the biopolitics of visualization. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Lakehead University (Canada) working on scopophilia, feminism and the historical fascination for the microscopic. Her work on viral tactics and new forms of creative activism has been published on Public (31, 2005, special issue Digital Poetics and Politics), Fibreculture (2.2005), the Spam Book (eds. Jussi Parikka and Tony Sampson, Hampton Press, 2009), and the Semiotics Review of Books (19.1 and 2 2010).  

Full text (PDF) p. 276-281