Decomposing Bodies

Late in the nineteenth century, Alphonse Bertillon, the French policeman, anthropologist and inventor, developed a system of criminal identification that sought to classify human beings on individual standardized cards, each containing a consistent set of biometric measurements and observations. He called this method “anthropometry,” and he conceived of this work as a key weapon in the fight against recidivism—an increasingly central criminological issue of the day. This process, now known more familiarly as “Bertillonage,” was essentially a system that dissasembled the visual forms of the human body into small pieces so that the police could individuate, and thus identify, a single human body out of thousands, even millions. Each Bertillon card—one per human being—contained information about a series of eleven physical measurements taken from the body, along with photographs and a coded description of the visible attributes of the human form to create a summary, a hash, a digest, a decomposition of the human body into numbers, letters, codes and sparse images.

Before the age of digital machines, before the rampant quantization and normalization of the physical world were taken in stride, this practice of dissolving the body into numbers, still images and letters was novel, unknown. Decomposing Bodies seeks to defamiliarize this process of breaking down and defining what we see into quantized digests, by collecting, analyzing, digitizing and re-presenting the data created by the process of Bertillonage, specifically as practiced in the United States. Consequently, the project also represents a thorough examination of the historical information management principles that lay behind Bertillon’s innovative approach to decomposing bodies into a series of numerical and visual components.Ultimately, this project seeks to create new means of understanding the implications and possibilities inherent in this nineteenth-century process of treating human beings as numbers and letters, and how this approach to the visible world might relate to the dawn of computing.

Decomposing Bodies

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    Building Decomposing Bodies: Thinking about interactions with Bertillon Furniture

    In thinking about a possible exhibition on Decomising Bodies, I hope to create an interactive exhibit that recreates the Bertillion furniture.  Visitors could meausure themselves and fill out Berthillon cards for themsevles and their companions, thus transcribing their own bodies into the system of measurement and identification.  This concept has important implications for concepts of the agency. Signalment assumes the "absolute immutablity" of the skekeltal structure of an adult body, the uniquenes of each human subject, and the ability of precise comparative measurement that can transform each subject into a set of data measurements.   As agents, participants would take an active role the creation of this unique trace of their own perons.  However, the trace becomes part of a human archive that effectively transcribes unique beings into data and code.  Furthermore, the dynamic developped between measurer and measured, both following a prescribed set of bodily motions, becomes one of controller and conrolled.   The measured subject become an object of knowledge, while the measurer is placed in a position of authority,  thus physically revealing the power sturcture embedded in concept of measurment for the the participants.

    As discussed in the agency meeting, this piece could potentially accompany other interactive systems of measurement, such as a physiongnomtrace or an exhibit on nineteenth-century photography, and thus contribute to a wider exbibtion on the body made legbile thorugh a set of systematic tools, reproductions, and material objects.

    Logistically, the furniture is simple and could be recreated by a contractor using a basic set of construction drawings.  This is where my architectural background becomes very useful.  The following components are listed in Signalic Instructions.  The provided dimensions are limted, but using these controlling dimensions and the images provided I could create working drawings for a set of furniture.  Some dimensions will have to be estimated using the infomration given, but I should be able to make an informed decision about the construction of the furniture.  Further research could provide more detailed dimensions.  A times the instructions specify a certain type of wood, and this wood may be hard to come by or expensive today.  For cost and ease of a temporary exhibition, I do not think we need to follow these wood specifications.

    1. Stool for measuring the foot

    2. Stool for measuring the trunk

    3. Trestle for measuring the forearm

    4. Square with double projection and handle

    6. Backboards for the support of the sheet and the rulers.

    There are a series of tools needed, some which could be collected, others constructed:

    1. A large sheet, ruled in squares

    2. A rigid wooden meter, 1 cm thick and 3 cm wide, graduated in millimeters

    3. A rigid wooden half meter, graduated from 0 m 70 to 1 m 20 for seated measurent

    5. A grauated double decimetre with a handle

    Four metal instruments would be needed to complete the measurement: 

    1.A calipher compass (or head calipher) with an arch of a circle graduated from the 12th to the 22nd centimeter.

    2. A small calipher rule calibrated from 0 to 10 centimeters,

    3. A large calipher rule calibrated from 0 to 60 centimeters.  

    4. Scissors

    Contemporary versions of these are available, but some product reasearch will need to be done to verify the measuring systems will be compatible.  Scissors are also listed for the cutting of longer nails to acheive a correct measurement, but we may prefer to omit that part!

    Categories: 
    • Agency
    • Current Projects
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
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    Jen's Thought's on Decomposing Bodies:

    Thinking about Decomposing Bodies, I came across many Bertillion Card Forms that were missing their left corner.  The loss of these corners meant that the card type could not be properly determined.  Thus the card type was catalogued by making my best guess between "1900s Card with 'Stoop'" and "1900s Card with 'Eng Ht.'" The frequency of cards with missing left corners means that a substantial number of cards are potentially being catalogued incorrectly due to insufficient information.  Therefore, I suggest the addtion of a fifth Bertillion Card Form type of "unknown 1900s" that catalogues accurately the fact that the card is damaged and the type of card unreadable.  I believe this would lead to a more accurate cataloguing process.

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • VMW
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    Anomalies

    As my colleague, Aisling, describes in detail here, we in the Visual Media Workshop have been transcribing Bertillon cards for the Decomposing Bodies project.  The cards have measurements for limbs and digits on the left side of the body (left arm, left middle finger, left little finger), but today I found one which randomly included a few measurements for the right side.  I initially thought this may have been due to circumstances that prevented measuring the left side the second time (some cards include a second set of measurements taken at a later time) such as loss of an extremity -- except there appears to be an original measurement for the right middle finger.  Several hundred transcriptions have been done at this point, yet this is the first instance of right side measurements we've come across.  It's always possible that Hastings (the principle officer recording the measurements) just decided to try something different that day, but it seems unlikely.  Given the systematic and detailed classification of the human body being undertaken here, I doubt Hastings was ever acting on a whim.  It will be interesting to see if we discover more anomalous measurements in the cards and what patterns, if any, we can find.     

    Categories: 
    • Current Projects
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
    • VMW
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    Team Bertillon Transcription

    Doctoral, masters, and undergraduate students are collaborating in the Visual Media Workshop, transcribing the ever-inconsistent Bertillon Cards as a key component of the Decomposing Bodies project.  We are utilizing the Agile Project Management model to coordinate our work on the project and track our progress through a "sprint," or a focused, highly-structured project period. Our team is utilizing Omeka as our platform for uploading and transcribing images, as this particular tool accommodates image collections, robust metadata, tagging, and data exportation. 

    Although we are in the early stages of the transcription process, interesting (and baffling) trends are already emerging. Through the transcription of the first 250 cards, alone, I encountered three distinct types of cards bearing the Bertillon stamp and containing Bertillon measurements (with slight alterations evident in each card type). For example, the card pictured here (with the prisoner's face and ID number blurred for the sake of privacy) is a Type 3 card; it is formatted for dates beginning with "190_" and features the "English Height" measurement rather than the "Stoop" measurement evident in Type 2 cards. For more information about the Bertillon measurements, please refer to R.W. McClaughry's 1896 translation of Alphonse Bertillon's system: Signaletic Instructions.

    We will, no doubt, encounter other types of cards as we continue this process, and there will most likely be complete anomalies that carry no apparent explanation. All of these observations inform our impression of the Bertillon system as it was employed at the Ohio State Reformatory and Ohio Penitentiary, and how the cards were used subsequent to their initial creation. 

    Categories: 
    • Current Projects
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
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    Columbus Research Trip: Part II

    On Monday, June 9th, Alison Langmead, Alexandra Oliver, Isabelle Chartier, and I embarked on a roadtrip to Columbus, Ohio. Towing various digital cameras, tripods, copy stands, laptops, and coffee mugs, we headed for the Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society), the home to approximately 40,000 Bertllion cards and 100 Bertillon examination books. These photographs and books originated at the Ohio Penitentiary (1884-1984) and the Ohio State Reformatory (1896-1990), and span decades.

    The purpose of our two-day trip was to photograph as many Bertillon identification cards and corresponding ledger recordings as possible, while retaining a sufficiently sharp image to permit human readability (for transcription purposes). We spent the first portion of our visit arranging the furniture and table lamps in the archive's reading room to provide sufficient light for our camera stations (two of us at each station, working in tandem). We focused on records created betweeen 1887-1919, carefully removing folders from boxes and photographing the contents of each folder (see image). Approximately sixteen working hours, a few coffees, and a night in Columbus later, we had collectively photographed more than 2,700 cards and countless book pages. 

    What's next? Our digital images will be used to conduct further research on the anthropometric system espoused by the Ohio Penitentiary and the Ohio State Reformatory (and numerous other correctional facilities in the United States at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.) To learn more about the premise of our research project please refer to the DHRX website's project directory

    More updates will undoubtedly follow, but for now we are processing the bounty of information gleaned over the past two days, and attempting to fulfill our current data storage needs...

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
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    Warhol, mug shots, censorship

    Criminal identification is kind of like Hegel: once you start studying it, you see it everywhere. Most recently at the Queens Museum, where 13 Most Wanted tells the sad story of Warhol's "mug shot mural." Review.

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
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    Computational Identity

    The fantastic scholar David Berry recently drew attention to a number of issues surrounding facial recognition and the impact of remote sensing in public. While working on Decomposing Bodies, and thinking about article's such as this, I have begun to start addressing a concept forming in my head called, "computational identity." The art project of ANTI-SURVEILLANCE FEMINIST POET HAIR & MAKEUP PARTY is particularly important in this vein. Please do check out both Prescott's post and the work of the group.

    Categories: 
    • Identity
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Decomposing Bodies
    • Faculty Work
    • VMW
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    LAPD Crime Photographs

    Fascinating article: LAPD Crime photographs on exhibition at Paris Photo in LA. Crime + photography - a long, weird marriage.

    Categories: 
    • Decomposing Bodies
  • American Correctional Association, Proceedings of the Annual Congress of the National Prison Association of the United States (Shaw Brothers: Pittsburgh, 1900).

     

    Debriefing and Looking Forward!

    The Decomposing Bodies research team reconvened in the VMW yesterday, reinvigorated by their February 5th colloquium, and excited to discuss next steps for the project. Upon concluding their colloquium, "Producing Collaborative Work in the Humanities: The Case of Decomposing Bodies," various faculty members in attendance proposed interesting linkages to other areas of research. For example, to the fields of forensic medicine and forensic anthropology.

    R.W. McClaughry, pictured above, is credited with introducing the Bertillon system to the United States in 1887. At the time, he was the Warden of the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet. He later became the Warden of the United States Penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. For more information about the Bertillon system, visit the National Law Enforcement Museum's webpage: Bertillon System of Criminal Idenitifcation.

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