Babak Afrassiabi & Nasrin Tabatabai
"Breath Sounds"

Afrassiabi Babak

From the 19th century colonial maritime trades to the cybernetic economies of the 21st century, the human bodily organ remains the principal object of capitalist assimilation. With this research we take the organ to be the historical site of negotiating (if not resisting) the extend of this assimilation. The aim of this project is to research the possibilities of envisioning a digital organ that simulates this tension between organic function and its cybernetic assimilation. The question that is central to this research precisely concerns the technical and the operational agencies of such an organ.

The project will begin by researching the technical possibilities of one of the fast advancing employments of cybernetics in the medical field, namely ‘computational pathology’. Computational pathology is a technology in medicine that uses data engineering, algorithms, machine learning and biomedical informatics to generate diagnostic conclusions and predictions. One of the more radical uses of computational pathology is to simulate the exact condition of a patient in order to predict its future.

In this research we read this technology through a historical link with one of the central substances in colonial trade, namely opium. During the 19th century opium trade smoking replaced almost all previous methods of opium use. Smoking became the most efficient administration of opium, leading to a stronger level of opiate release, a more rapid impact on the nervous system, and a higher rate of dependency. This shift to smoke not only eased opium’s commodification but also facilitated the assimilation of the respiratory organ – i.e. the lung becoming the extension of the colonial trade network and ‘inhalation’ as part of its machinery.

On the practical level, we aim to research the technical possibilities of adopting computational pathology in order to simulate the inhalation of opium smoke through the human respiratory system. What this simulation should entail is the realtime pathological process starting from the intensification of opium smoke disposition in the lungs to the gradual deformation of the airways and finally the abnormal breath sound emanating from them.

As the outcome of the conjunction of computation and drug, we see these sounds to be the kernel of this research project. In pathology, breath sounds are seen as symptoms of a pathological condition, or signs leading to diagnoses. In our research this logic is reversed. The pathological condition is instead simulated to produce the symptom. Thus the sounds have no diagnostic value (they are not signs leading to meaning), but rather are an endpoint in themselves. We take the evolving sounds as opening the possibility of thinking an organology beyond the binary of machine and human, but also one resisting total assimilation.