This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Stephanie Weber
‘Before you go storming out of here like you usually do, I suggest you check your Tattoo’:
Interactive Tattoos, Biomedical Body Modification and Questions of Autonomy in the Science Fiction Series The Invisible Man
content warnings: interactive tattoos, body modification, experimental medicine, loss of agency, illness
While tattoos allow to "write oneself" and "be read by others" (DeMello 2000, 1), their narrative quality also makes them suitable as story elements in fiction, where tattoos magically come to life. Interactive, living tattoos are however not only a creation of Science Fiction. Researchers from Switzerland, as well as MIT and Harvard Medical School have experimented with tattooing a special biosensitive ink that reacts with colour changes to biomarker variations in the interstitial fluid in order to monitor metabolism or to detect early stages of cancer. The body is not only used as a canvas for identity formation and individual expressions, but the aesthetics, permanence and communicative nature of tattoos encode information about bodily functions. The boundaries of art and disease, of controlling internal processes and of being controlled by an external force, is blurred. In the Science Fictions series The Invisible Man, tattoos are used to monitor internal processes and to exercise control over the protagonist Darien Fawkes. After an experimental surgery, he is able to become invisible by using a Quicksilver gland implant in his head, yet he cannot control the amount of Quicksilver he secretes and the side effects caused. He works for a secret agency, which constantly monitors his Quicksilver level with a colour changing snake tattoo on his arm. They use this knowledge to manipulate him and to force him to stay with them as their best asset, instead of using his superpowers for his own goals. I want to look at the history of the socio-cultural practice of tattooing and compare tattoo narratives and tattoo aesthetics with advances in experimental medicine and their use in The Invisible Man to show how interactive tattoos enhance and transgress corporeal boundaries and how they can be used to enhance or limit their wearers’ autonomy and agency.
About the Author: Stephanie Weber obtained her doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at University of Vienna, Austria in 2019. Her dissertation deals with the uncanny quality of Freak-characters and uncanny narrative strategies in postmodern literature. She is currently an independent scholar with a main research interest in tattoos, body studies, narratology.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 6: Digital Identities, which will take place at 5:40 PM GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Stephanie Weber. Stephanie obtained her doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at University of Vienna, Austria in 2019. Her dissertation deals with the uncanny quality of Freak-characters and uncanny narrative strategies in postmodern literature. She is currently an independent scholar with a main research interest in tattoos, body studies, narratology.
Hello, my name is Stephanie Weber. Today, I‘m pleased to talk about biomedical and interactive tattoos, and how they are used as a narrative tool in the Science Fiction series The Invisible Man which aired in the US on Sci-Fi Channel from 2000-2002.
In the first episode, the thief Darien Fawkes is sentenced to life in prison. His brother Kevin, a scientist working for a secret agency, gets him out under one condition: Darien has to let him perform an experimental surgery. A synthetic gland is implanted in his brain, which secrets a fluid called Quicksilver. If triggered, Quicksilver coats his skin, causing light to bend and Darien becomes invisible. He learns to control the triggering of the gland, however he cannot control the amount of Quicksilver it produces and the side effects caused: Quicksilver madness. His Quicksilver level therefore has to be monitored with a colour-changing snake tattoo, so that Darien can receive a counteragent in time to prevent Quicksilver madness. The tattoo and the dependency on the counteragent don’t only serve the purpose of assuring Darien’s safety, they are also a method of the Agency to keep him under control and to make sure he stays with them as their best asset in the fight against criminals, instead of using his superpowers to go back to his former career as a thief.
Magical tattoos that come to life and seem to act on their own, are a somewhat popular motif. Think for example of Ray Bradbury's novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, or his short story collection The Illustrated Man. However, even though they sound like something purely out of Science Fiction, interactive tattoos are actually experimented with in biomedical research, as well as advances in Human-Computer-Interaction. There has to be a reason for this wide interest and usage of tattoos across so many different areas. So what I want to do before diving deeper into an analysis of The Invisible Man, is look at the socio-cultural meaning of tattoos and the practice of tattooing, to understand why the aesthetics and the deeper meaning of bodily markings lend themselves so well for personal narratives, story elements, enhancements, or even tools for medical surveillance.
The history of tattooing in the Western world is very complex and often misunderstood. Tattoos were not brought to Europe through voyages of discoveries or colonial activities, but have been a common practice across various cultures, societies, and times. They have been however used as a means of othering people, to create narratives about exotic, uncivilized bodies, or as punitive measure. Later, they became first and foremost associated with marginalized social groups like sailors, prisoners, prostitutes, or freak show performers. Nowadays, modern-day tattooing has entered popular culture and fashion, and is often considered a cool accessory or a way for personal expression. It can be a sign of resistance or affiliation, be dedicated to a beloved person, be understood as a way to celebrate a new chapter in someone's life or as something that marks a transitional time. It is no wonder that tattoos are often compared to diary entries on their wearers’ skin. To sum up, tattoos have never been a simple mark, but always carry a more or less specific, more or less personal meaning.
Darien's tattoo however does not stand for personal representation, but on the contrary, represents his lack of control. During an attack by a terrorist organization on the facility where Darien’s surgery was performed, his brother Kevin is killed. Darien is forced to join the Agency as a secret agent, since they are the only ones who can provide the necessary medical care. They furthermore promise to look into possibilities to reverse the surgery. Yet, the way Darien is treated throughout the series suggests that he is at constant risk to lose what makes him an autonomous subject, and that the counteragent does not only serve the purpose of keeping him safe, but as a means of blackmailing him. Dr. Claire Keeply who is in charge of providing medical care is, especially in the beginning before they become friends, only referred to as his “Keeper”. Darien is treated like an animal in the zoo. She tattoos his wrist with a snake tattoo. The motive is divided into single segments, that change colour from green to read the more his Quicksilver level rises. It is important to point out that Darien neither chose to get tattooed, nor was the process of tattooing discussed or even explicitly shown as a full scene. The tattoo is introduced after Claire has finished it and it is shown how it is activated – the design is completely red, blinks, and then goes green. Not even the snake motive was chosen by Darien himself, but Claire tattooed it simply because, as she claims, it seemed somehow fitting and it looks like an ordinary tattoo at first glance.
The idea of using tattoos and classic tattoo designs for medical purposes is something bio-medical research has been experimenting with, and the basic ideas are fairly similar to what we see in The Invisible Man. The team of scientist behind the project The Dermal Abyss, or d-abyss, cites cyborgs, transhumanism and the idea of living tattoos in Science Fiction as inspiration. It turns the body into an interface for data transmission by tattooing colour changing biosensors under the skin instead of traditional tattoo ink. In 2018, the project won the Scifi No Longer Award “[h]onoring the coolest scientific achievement or discovery that before 2017 was only possible in science fiction.” The goal is to reveal changes inside the body on the skin. The tattooed biosensors react to changes of the concentration of sodium, glucose, and pH levels in the interstitial fluid by changing colour. The benefits of using tattoos for these purposes are obvious: diseases like diabetes would no longer have to be monitored with external medical equipment, but a continuous and quick monitoring would be possible. The allure of the tattoo culture, especially the aesthetics of tattoos and their role as a fashionable medium of self-expression, further reduce the feeling of medical supervision of a “diseased body”, but, as the creators of d-abyss state as a goal, users would be enabled to experience these interactive tattoos as a way of selfcare and healthfullness.
Darien's body modification, and by that I do not only mean the tattoo, but also the first modification where the gland is implanted in his brain, is problematic from the beginning. He knows that he is ascribed the role of a test subject for Kevin's experimentations, yet he does not know any details. The first encounter with invisibility happens involuntarily, as the gland is triggered by an episode of arachnophobia. Kevin admits that he deliberately kept him in the dark about the gland and what it does. His reasoning is that Darien would not have agreed to participate, and Kevin would not have been able to get him out of jail. Furthermore, even though Darien is a criminal, he is the only person he trusted to test the gland. Darien is all of a sudden responsible for safekeeping Kevin's secret project, yet he is simultaneously deprived of any self-determination. This feeling is intensified when he begins to experience Qicksilver madness for the first time. Right after he seem to have mastered the command of the gland, the feeling of security is turned around again: he wakes up one night with a sudden headache, and the look in the mirror scares him, as he has the 'sudden horrible feeling that another person was looking back. A stranger who'd stolen my face.' (The Invisible Man 2000: 24:54) His eyes are red but quickly go back to normal, yet this is only temporary and the next time the pain sets on, it is very intense and is accompanied by sudden, violent behaviour. Not only these sideeffects have been unforseen, Kevin also did not expect Darien to develop dependency to Quicksilver. Removing the gland could have even more consequences and could, ultimately, kill Darien. The Invisible Man thus also plays with the trope of the mad scientist and shows how body modification and ruthless experiments on a human test subject release an uninhibited, sometimes even monstrous other side of a person, whose behaviour becomes sociopathic and dangerous for others. The change Darien undergoes at the onset of Quicksilver madness is not accompanied by a physical transformation on the level of Jekyll/Hyde, Bruce Banner/Hulk, or, more generally, werewolf or vampire transformations, but there are visual cues that announce it: his eyes turn red and then black, and the intense pain he feels as the Quicksilver level increases is replaced by a euphoric state and superhuman strength. Often, the scenes in which Darien is taken over by Quicksilver madness are shown from his POV, and are filmed in black and white. This black and white aesthetic conveys the light-bending quality of the Quicksilver coating. During Darien's first Quicksilver madness, these visual elements are accompanied by aural cues, and as the audience sees his flight through corridors through his black and white, quicksilvered eyes, his heavy breathing in the background highlights the animalistic state he is in. After the third episode, in which Darien receives the colour changing tattoo, the series' narrative primarily relies on it to announce Quicksilver madness. The camera repeatedly zooms in on Darien's tattoo. Narrative redundancy is avoided, as the viewer knows immediately if Darien is on the onset of Quicksilver madness, and if the mission is about to become even more dangerous since he cannot safely go invisible. This does not only give visual cues without breaking the flow of the narration, but also heightens the suspense. The science behind the interactive, biomedical tattoo engages the viewer, and they almost become scientists themselves. They don't have to take Claire's, or any other character's word that Darien needs a shot of the counteragent, they can verify it with their own eyes.
This open communication of the tattoo is however questionable from a moral viewpoint. It not only monitors internal processes and makes them visible for everyone to decipher and read, it harks back to past behaviour and actions. In episode seven Liberty and Larceny, the Agency's headmaster, who is usually referred to as "The Official", confronts Darien about his misconduct with invisibility. He uses up too much counteragent for fun, which costs the Agency too much money. As a rule, Darien will only be allowed one dose of counteragent per completed mission, to ensure he only uses the gland for sanctioned assignments and not for his own pleasure and pastime activities like sneaking into a cinema without paying. The blackmailing with the counteragent culminates in the season finale when Darien steals money from his archenemy's casino and refuses to hand it over to the Agency even though they face financial problems after a budget cut. Feeling his authority undermined, the Official confiscates the counteragent, fully aware that Darien will need a shot soon. During their arguement, and this is where the title of my talk comes from, he tells him mockingly: 'Before you go storming out of here like you usually do, I suggest you check your tattoo.' (25:57)
This coding and decoding of bodies and internal processes is approached in a more careful fashion in biomedical research. The tattoos in d-abyss for example would combine aesthetic designs with a specialized software or decrypting device. If, for example, only parts of the tattoos are inked with biosensors, these parts could only be visible under certain light, or contain QR or bar codes that would only be scanned upon the wearer's consent. The whole narrative these tattoos tell, needs to be put together via a set of individual elements like a jigsaw, giving the wearer more control over these interactions.
A project by researchers from Switzerland is even more defensive when it comes to communicating their medical findings. They developed a synthetic biomedical tattoo with engineering cells that monitor long term blood calcium concentration. At the onset of mild hypercalcaemia, which is typical for specific forms of cancer during early, asymptomatic stages, these cells would cause a subcutaneous accumulation of melanin. Instead of a colour changing tattoo, the tattoo is invisible until malign cells are detected. This project does not exactly play with 'the allure of tattoo culture' , since ideally, no tattoo will be visible. This special form of tattooing would really be a diagnostic, rather than a narrative tool.
If openly visible, interactive tattoos that combine symbols, designs, words, or even scannable codes become available for the masses one day, it will be very important to put a special focus and care on the safety of the way the tattoos communcate on the skin or synch up to external devices. Visible bar and QR codes, which would openly signal an underlying code, would likely attract attention, and almost invite scan and decoding attempts.
Even though the decoding of Darien's tattoo by the Agency does not veer onto the wrong side of the law, it can at least partly be described as immoral, especially if compared to the usage of tattooing for real medical monitoring.
To conclude, interactive, biomedical tattooing blurs the boundary of Science and Fiction, as it reflects not only the narrative capacity of tattoos but also current advances in research. Tattoos are not only physical enhancements, but they add layers to the storytelling and the plot, by giving visual cues which can be read and deciphered by the audience. Disease and disability melt into the aesthetics of the tattoo, yet if they do so openly, they open the way to control others. Darien's tattoo is in many occasions a symbol for the control the Agency holds over him. Even though it is introduced as a monitoring device, it does not solely function as a controlling device for him as the patient, and not only aims at making life with an ailment easier, but also as an additional controlling strategy for the Agency. Yet, even though body modification in Science Fiction is often quite dystopic, the idea of interactive tattoos and bio-medical body modification opens up a multitude of possibilities. While one can argue that their main role in fiction is to function as a narrative tool, they also showcase how science and fiction continue to influence and surpass each other.