The Girl with X-ray Eyes

2008, 35mm, 23mins
35mm screening print, two screen version or 4k digital file

The Girl with X-ray Eyes was recently in exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, London from  October 20th 2022 until Feb 2023 
In Plain Sight

Natasha Demkina is the girl with x-ray eyes: her claim, to be able to see directly inside of bodies using a supplementary, penetrative form of vision. As a medical doctor and faith-driven practitioner, she employs this vision diagnostically to see medical conditions and even the dynamic effects of medicine in action. In 2007 Phillip Warnell went to Moscow to meet Natasha, himself becoming the subject of her gaze. Staged in a gymnasium, his becoming subject of Natasha’s scrutiny is followed by a detailed, technical report on the health status of the patient and hints of Natasha’s domestic abode. The film culminates in Natasha’s attempt to make contact at distance with future audiences, in a mediated eye-to-eye message.

An exchange takes place during the performative circumstance of the film’s making, the questioning of roles and negotiation of status, conditions and directorship. The film also develops ideas on contact at distance, whereby the glance is already a blow, an act that permeates and makes present the body. It also brings into question how the veritable remains unverifiable, shamanic practices founded on ambiguity, faith traditions and discreet agendas.

The film also features a specially commissioned soundtrack by avant-garde composer Vladimir Nikolaev. A two-screen version of the film incorporates the image of its soundtrack in the form of the Theremin, played by virtuoso Lydia Kavina. There are two 35mm film print versions of the film, one that permits a live-theremin accompaniment by Kavina. This version of the film was presented initially at the BFI and Warwick Arts Centre.

The Girl with X-ray Eyes, film stills.© Big Other Films

In Plain Sight exhibition, Wellcome Collection, 2022 © Big Other Films

Phillip Warnell’s text on the project in full:
Published for the 2nd Ural Industrial Biennial of Contemporary Art, Russia, 2012

The Glance as a Blow, Phillip Warnell, 2012 

Published on the occasion of the Ural biennial, Yekaterinburg, Russia, 2012

My cinematic work often draws on encounters with subjects that have a special disposition or attributes, which is how I first came across Natasha Demkina, a medical student already known internationally as The Girl with X-ray Eyes. The ensuing film developed documentary material, but was primarily based on a performative encounter between us during which Natasha scanned me with her purported second-vision, following which she provided a complex report on my health. Her claim, however, has never been that she has x-ray vision. She describes a quasi-mechanical, visual supplement, and an instrumental, inner apparatus, seemingly controlled at will. Interestingly, she cannot see inside herself due to short-circuiting caused by the introspection of self-examination. She alludes to the flow and direction of her vision as resembling a force, perhaps something akin to an electrical current?

Second sight, third eye, x-ray eyes - naming terms declaring forms of vision enhancement, long held in popular fantasy, of those able to see through, within or beyond - the super hero; the oracle; the seer; mutants. Even Leonardo believed that certain spiders killed their prey just with a stare. At a certain point, orthodoxy considered the eye an organ that not only received light, but one that emitted a kind of ray. Some suggest these are eidetic hallucinations with a film-like or photographic clarity. They might be termed prophetic vision, a faith driven sensitivity to bodies, processes or perhaps even a reflex, an intuition for futurity? Whichever term we consider and whatever status you may wish to confer onto Natasha: she firmly and unquestionably resides within the histories and traditions of perceptual vision.

What did the film’s direction and subject-object interchange convey? Performing documentary and documenting performance, it focused on negotiation and role swapping around a pivotal axis of seeing and looking, as much as any narrative structure. Natasha’s and my own role were mutable, introducing ideas concerned with the negotiated use of cinematic space, questioning the status and agenda of the artist. Our dialogue (and the camera) also revolved, an ellipse around the meaning and inscription of film itself.

Both subject and consultant, Natasha controlled the methods of scrutiny during our consultation, directing the working situation: its duration, proximity and intensity. My own role, as both director and patient, was equally ambivalent. Here, direction produced unpredictable circumstances, motioning towards a precarious coupling. Just prior to our shoot, our engagement was in tense negotiations, Natasha’s pre-commitment to participate and establish agreed, contractual terms. Crucially, the circumstances of a film’s making are embedded in its subsequent material, resonating the discreet politics of its engagement.

If forces and rays are marked by their unseen presence, or their effects, contaminating, radiating or permeating bodies, what does the filmmaker do when the ‘thing’ itself is not present, or at least not visibly so? What do you film when material signs and the visual field are unavailable? The gymnasium as context for the film is significant here - a guiding place of sight lines - where colored lines, trajectories, targets and zones of intensity map training and optimizing the body. Code, espionage and geometry meet in anatomical, muscular and optical form for the development of collective corporeality, limbering exercises and programs of inter-bodily encounter.

In an essay written to accompany the film, Gerard Wacjman describes Natasha’s as a world of the shadowless person. In this realm, her purported vision switched on, bodies become transparent and invisible forces abound. Their dynamic effects are revealed and the body presents itself - according to Natasha, but in a manner that Artaud might enjoy - as a sack of organs, a concentrated mass prone to blockage or illness. Natasha mentions her increasing views of unrecognizable, unnamed diseases with mutations and modified forms. She witnesses dis-ease according to claims extending well beyond the limitations of x-ray, the body disclosed right down to the molecular, cellular level in all its truly glorious minutiae; details unwatched and uncaptured by passive televisual methods. For all our medical imaging knowhow, Natasha’s capabilities supersede them.

Wacjman, Psychoanalyst and Curator, suggests how subjects behave in the face of science. Paraphrasing, when faced with the algorithms of science, subjects fight back. They resist comprehensive calculation, assimilating science into another, and supra-organic form. Perhaps this still needs to be termed science-fiction, or science as fiction; usurping practices, deontology and physics, biology and medicine, rattling the bars of disciplinary specialization with an otherness emanating from beyond physics’ terms of reference.

Natasha holds another, delicious irony in her uncanny doubling, with a cinematic source and Hollywood reference point, Ray Milland her prequel and avatar. A determined medic himself, he self-experiments with eyes drops: concocting a formula for a cure all x-ray vision. A heroic quest, ultimately reduced to gambling addictions, doomed to the madness of seeing the entire universe, he perishes through his over-ambition and uncontrollable ability, in The Man with the X-ray Eyes of 1963.

An extraordinary institutional misuse of x-ray and radio-active substances occurred in the early twentieth century following its discovery in 1895 and that of radiation shortly after. This was concentrated in the context of public health and cosmetic products. Quickly seen as a panacea, the true effects of repeated exposure to the rays’ efficacy didn’t become apparent (or wasn’t acknowledged) for a considerable period. A peculiar nuclear age emerged, an era characterized by irresponsible commodification, fetishizing the potential curative effects of the rays and other such unworldly materials.

Current bio-medical imaging propagates a further popular fantasy, of transparent bodies, the power of illimitation. Here, the fantasy is an all seeing institutional, medical eye, the eye as evidence, through which science somehow solves the mysteries, fragility and uncertainty of the body. Seeing is believing, the eyewitness a measureable auditor. How has medicine achieved this impression? Through screening the body, a technological supposition that in the virtual act of looking into subjects, the body reveals itself, giving up at least the presentation of its secrets.

Natasha’s vision and methodology link diagnostic approaches directly to the terminology of the medical image. By prognosis and verbal report she offers techniques on the body, seemingly enabling her to see well beyond the scope of the here and now, witnessing the dynamic effects of both medicine and disease. Wacjman alludes to this claim, describing her vision as a dynamic form of clairvoyance. In her report on the state of my own health, she comments on potential and problem, the likelihood that one thing causes another, projecting a partly prophetic, imagined scenario, the progression of prospective dysfunction. However, she is clear that she does not cure or attempt to heal, her vision-machine envisaged mechanically, switched on and off and intensified. Ultimately, Natasha is a combination and contradiction of worlds, mixing Russian faith traditions and science-fiction techniques alongside her cinematic companion, a doctor's tools converging with self-experimentation to exercise an inexplicable, visual charge.

Links between film and mediumship emerge and intertwine, forming a spirit of prescience: looking forward in time with intuition and foreknowledge. Trails and traces encompass the psychic world and development of medicine and philosophy, especially in the abundant use of alchemy, belief systems and bodies of knowledge. In 1617, mystic and philosopher Robert Fludd depicted Plato’s theoretical phenomenon of extramission. An inner eye, it reverses the direction of vision, radiating rather than receiving images using an eyebeam, the process making use of a screen located just beyond the back of the head, providing a trajectory and falling surface for the flow of images and depictions emanating from within.

Research met faith, soul and body intertwined, phenomena crossed superstition; faith based practices an important part of Russian tradition, where belief, vision, sacred space, customs and healing interact, perhaps best recounted in Herzog’s film account of such manifestations: Bells from the Deep.

The tradition of young women acting as conduits, channels for paranormal or telekinetic experience, without necessarily being of religious or visionary origin, should also be remembered. Susan Hiller’s video installation work PSI Girls visualizes this, appropriating Hollywood’s cinematic images of the phenomena. Hiller and Helene Cixous have commented on ecstatic states or pre-linguistic excess – especially encountered during states of ecstasy - enabling glimpses of a forgotten, uncanny world, an animistic world. This world is not lost to us, but is made strange and repressed. When conventional meaning or circumstances break down, a semblance of the uncanny thus appears, in the pulsating gaps emergent from beneath repression, a state which Cixous links to the feminine, but not necessarily exclusively female.

Georges Didi-Hubermann establishes further, curious links between chemistry, psyche, sight, proximity and the body. His analysis of Charcot’s invention of hysteria at the Salpetriere women’s Hospital, and in particular its associated use of photographic representation – was defined as relative to terms and phases of mental illness. This practice, a formulation around instability, the impressionable, and traumatic insight, recalls Benjamin’s notion of an optical unconscious or Breuer’s formative psychoanalysis.

It also brings me to film direction operating within a chain of events hovering somewhere between perception, event and documentation, intent and the image. A director transmits consciousness in projected form: part alchemical, part light phantasmagoria. Darkened, disembodied space performs and speaks. This is where the screen-body originates, imperative to cinema. The flow and direction of lens vision needs further unpacking, however, as it reveals an essential matrix of looking as action: sight lines as veritable activity. Perhaps the cinema not only gives our point of view consciousness, it possesses our seeing, providing an intruder to our perception in its repeated attempts to achieve that which science hasn’t, inhabiting the consciousness of another.

Cinema and medicine coincide in a shared ability to monitor consciousness. Perhaps they too offer an escape from it, a realm of psychology and perception of the other from within? Here is the zone where bodily or organ transplantation meets the cinema in a character graft: organ matching and screen casting offering strangeness in their equivalence; persona and immunology as technological cousins, reordering bodily assemblage. Such glimpses of the real, in the gaps and slippages between contingencies suggest a proto-science that still retains the unimaginable air of a speculative fantasy space.

Now we can start to consider the notion of contact at a distance, the glance as a blow, diminishing all spatial distance. Seeing as touch, altered proximity and re-orientation of flow and interruption, the exchange between bodies and images. In this sense, seeing, cinematic vision and television all feature and channel quite literally, as per their status of transmission and reception technologies, lamentably pouring out their endless, inevitable programmation.

Didi-Hubermann develops the collapse of separateness. “Contact is precisely the experience of moving towards contact, that is to say, the experience of a distance. The distance is always exorbitant, the contact always imminent”.

He discusses contact at distance relative to the use of photography as a method at the Salpetriere, drawing on an important factor in Natasha’s own field of reference: the aura, the cloak of which leads us further towards an exemplary visual form of contact at distance. Deriving from the Latin for breeze or breath, aura is an invisible emanation, discernable by few. It blows, crosses and envelops: a wind, personal weather, or cellular foam. Medicine utilizes the use of the word differently, as a kind of ocular apparition, a pre-visual signal for an oncoming attack of epilepsy or migraine. Bound to these assemblies of aura and vibration is not just corporeality, but according to Benjamin, the photographic image, employing the term for “something that weaves itself into the image, in a strange weave of time and space: a unique semblance or appearance of distance, however close it maybe”.

The aura’s presence as a living, breathing entity envelops bodies, also a time-burning element dumbfounding the image. This nurtures a sense of visualizing the otherwise immaterial energy cylinder Natasha speaks of, which as Didi-Hubermann puts it, is “how we wait before visible things”. Chiming with ancient values around the constitution of the body as a collection of container, contained and moving elements, it also provides insight into how seeing and looking are ultimately acts…veritable acts

© Phillip Warnell, 2012