Digital Autopsy – Artist Research


Project in collaboration with Arnau Blanch (Barcelona, 1984 - Photograph)



Digital Autopsy is a project of artistic creation framed in a research process that focuses on the material readability of everyday technological devices. Using photography as a reading tool, this project seeks to investigate the problems that arise from the relationship between visibility, digital capture and technological death. Carrying out a "digital autopsy" will allow us to expose the hidden side of our interaction with digital devices as well as to identify the effects of programmed obsolescence in the ecosystem.




The notion of "autopsy" was born in ancient Greece and used when travelers return to their lands to relate what they had seen. Literally autopsy means "see for yourself". The term was reuse in the eighteenth century to designate the practice of opening a body to establishing the causes of death. In this medical appropriation of the Greek term, the correlation beetwen sight and truth is preserved. The gaze penetrates the body and presents what is seen as scientific truth. A digital autopsy opens the body of the technological device to see - for ourselves - the inside of this complex system and establish a diagnosis about our own subjectivity trapped inside the black box.  Seeing and showing here acquire a social and reflective dimension, in which we want to involve the public.

4 gestures to make up a Digital Autopsy:

COLLECT – 1st gesture. The first gesture of a "digital autopsy" is based on going out on the street, like ragpickers, to pick up technological corpses. This gesture is born of the intuition that in the entrails of the devices, between their welded circuits, inside the microchips, between the grooves of the metallic lace or on the broken surface of a screen, are the indications of a history of technology, based on relationships of domination. But there also reside the stories, stored in binary language, of women and men who consciously and unconsciously located their lives inside these devices. Unconsciously, since much of the information stored by devices we use has been captured without any deliberate action on the part of the user.

SEE – 2nd gesture. Electronic devices are presented to us as "black boxes", impenetrable mechanisms of which we see inputs and outputs, but we do not know which operations are carried out inside. In the style of a media archaeologist or a hacker, the project of conducting a "digital autopsy" is based on breaking the "black box" to see what happens inside. We are not interested in the causes of death of the device, so much as its legibility as an anatomy lesson.

REPRESENT – 3rd gesture. The main characteristic of digital media, and the reason it has replaced analogue media, is the enormous capacity to store and circulate information at high speed. But this capacity has as it’s counterpart an impoverishment of the resolution and the quality of the same. A digital world is one in which reality becomes quantity and not quality. The black and white of the photographs taken during the "autopsy" refers to the impoverishment of the binary language, to the reductionist logic of translating the world into a set of zeros and ones.
Unlike the analogue medium that represents the gradations of the nuances of the real, the numerical medium separates each nuance as an isolated datum and then recomposes it. In that moment of separation the nuances lose their continuity and juxtaposition to establish themselves in a relational structure created by the medium itself. Each photograph of the "digital autopsy" translates this diagrammatic dimension of the functioning of the technological device by looking at the different units of the system: lines, points, crosses, reliefs. As analyzed by Michel Foucault in his study of prison systems, diagrams not only represent the functioning of a system or a reality, but are the direct cause of what is seen and what is not seen, what is said and of what is not said; constantly updating the "distribution of the sensible" (J. Rancière, 2012). That is to say, that the entrails of the device speak to us of the way in which our subjective relationship with the world is mediated by a digital structure. Representing the digital means via analogue photography highlights the fact that our perception is increasingly determined by abstract diagrammatic systems.

EXPOSE – 4th gesture. The fourth gesture of a "digital autopsy" is to expose the photographic result of the autopsy and at the same time expose the material that has been photographed. Expose indicates a public act, a putting outside under the gaze of others. It exposes, then, that which lies hidden from the public eye and beyond the scope of general attention. As already noted above, technological devices are great visibility tools but also producers of opacity, for the simple reason that what they show commands our attention, creating darkness surroundings. This happens because the dark dimension of these tools that we use daily does not only concern their interior, what we have called the "black box", but also the exterior. This project aims to give visibility to this double-dark dimension of our technological objects.
The materiality that sustains our immaterial world of communications, transactions, consumption, entertainment and culture is marked with an intense and brutal history of exploitation, violence, pillage and destruction of the ecosystem. After passing for a short period throught the hands of the user, the devices end up in vast electronic cemeteries (e-waste) of the "global south". It is estimated that electronic waste today could fill a continuous row of more than 20,000 kilometers of 40-ton trucks full of phones, computers, screens and other electronic gadgets. These mountains of technological corpses accumulate at certain points of the planet, such as on the periphery of Accra in Ghana, Guiyu in China or the outskirts of Hong Kong. From these cemeteries a column of smoke containing all this social and personal history constantly rises and poisons the air.
The fourth gesture of the «digital autopsy» seeks to establish an «ecomedial» gaze that makes us aware, every time we face our devices, of the ecological and social implications of their use and  programmed death.

E-Waste in Agbogbloshie (Ghana)

Presented at: 
– La Capella Producció 2019 (Barcelona)
– Espai Rambleta 2019 (Valencia)
Mark