The Art of Identification

Welcome to The Art of Identification

Illustration of the finger print and binary code
Illustration of the finger print and binary code

This network, funded by a networking grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) intends to bring together a range of academics and practitioners in order to explore the interconnections between practical techniques of human identification and the artistic representation of personal identity. The methods by which people have proved, or been assigned, their identities have varied over time – from Early Modern insignia to the contemporary strobe light of a retinal scanner – and the term ‘identification’ can also be taken to mean a number of things, including the determination of individual personhood via paperwork, bodily examination, verbal testimony, and digital recording. This subject has been of recent interest in historical and social scientific scholarship. However, the unique perspective offered by juxtaposing these forms of representing identity with those more traditional forms of representation (literature, art, screen media) has been somewhat overlooked. Put simply, the question of who we are, in the practical sense of identifying individuals via their documents and bodies, has remained curiously absent from the question of who we are in terms of our intimate portrayals of subjectivity. Given that our contemporary era is in many ways defined by the speed with which techniques of identification are changing – much of it driven by technological advancement and as a response to the perceived threat of terrorism – it is all the more pressing that this gap is filled. It is only by advancing the Art of Identificication network’s combination of archival retrieval, historical scholarship, creative practice and literary and artistic analysis that we can properly address the question of how such change alters not just the experience of being identified as someone but the experience of being someone itself.

The network will address the above concerns via a series of 4 themed workshops which will bring together 4 key groups of participants:
1. Academics from a variety of disciplines (literary studies, art history, history, sociology, media studies, cultural studies, bio-archaeology, forensic science)
2. Practitioners of identificatory practices (forensic scientists and psychologists).
3. Creative writers and artists.
4. Archivists and Museum curators.

The interaction between these groups will produce reciprocal benefit in terms of knowledge transfer: the research agenda of the arts and humanities supplementing and questioning practices in other disciplines and areas/practices in the identification of individuals informing scholarly and creative responses to the issue of ‘identity’. The workshops will culminate in the development of a conceptual framework which will accommodate the various interdisciplinary and professional approaches to identification and identity developed by the network. This will allow for a reciprocal sharing and questioning of disciplines and practices and for a renewed sense with which both academics and practitioners (creative, archival) can approach their material.

The historical and social scientific study of identification has been a significant area of recent research activity, developed via work by, amongst others, Caplan & Torpey (2001), Cole (2002), Groebner (2007), Higgs (2011), Breckenridge and Szreter (2012), About, Brown and Lonergan (2013) and Gowland and Thompson (2013). At the same time an emerging field of interdisciplinary study in the cultural implications of various forms of information gathering and forensic sciences has arisen. Particular examples of this can be found in the work of Chu (2006), Littlefield (2011) and Burney and Pemberton (2013). The Art of Identification network asserts that both these areas of research (history of identification and cultures of forensics/information) can most fruitfully be developed through the interdisciplinary sharing of their methodologies – particularly their contrasting approaches to the significance of ‘representation’ (artistic or otherwise) in the generation of knowledge. The focus on human identification potentially opens new ways of considering the representation of personal identity that move beyond the identity politics model which foregrounds class, gender, ethnicity and sexuality towards a more individuated, ‘forensic’, form. Some limited work has been done in this area already (Finn, 2009; Elliott, 2012;) but its full implications are yet to be realized. The AI network will foster the interconnections that are required to promote this research by including many of the above named scholars in its role of key participants and supplementing this with participants involved in the practice of both identifying individuals (forensic psychologists) and depicting or recording identities (writers, artists, archivists).

Featured post

Workshop 4 Programme

The programme for workshop 4 is now available below or as a pdf. Travel information can be found on the tab above.

Workshop 4: ‘Displaying Identity’

28 June 2016, Liberty Room, Winterbourne House, University of Birmingham


10.00 – 10.30am                        Registration/Coffee


10.30 – 10.45am                        Welcome and Introduction

                                    Rex Ferguson (University of Birmingham)


10.45am – 12.30pm      Panel One

Malthe Boye Bjerregard (Medical Museion Denmark) – Bodily Identity: From Bottled Babies to Living Cell Portraits –

June Jones (University of Birmingham) – Identifying Ancient Human Remains –

Eric Fong (Independent Artist) – Evidence: Art Inspired By Forensics –


12.30 – 1.30pm             Lunch


1.30 – 2.45pm               Panel Two

Matt Houlbrook (University of Birmingham) – The problem of identity in a plausible world –

James Purdon (University of St Andrews) – Identity, Media, Time: No Way Out of The Big Clock


2.45 – 3.15pm               Coffee


3.15 – 4.30pm               Panel Three

Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen (University College London) – “It could have been me – it is me”: Scandinavian Crime Fiction and the Art of Identification –

Rex Ferguson (University of Birmingham) – J. G. Ballard’s DNA –


4.30 – 4.45pm              Short Break


4.45 – 5.30pm              What next for The Art of Identification?

Rex Ferguson (University of Birmingham)

Melissa Littlefield (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

James Purdon (University of St Andrews)

Programme – Workshop 3, ‘Bodies of Evidence’ University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Tuesday March 29 2016

The programme for our third workshop is now available below or as a PDF. A flyer for the workshop and travel information are also available.

9:30 BREAKFAST—juice, coffee, fruit, bakery items

10:00: Introductions
Melissa Littlefield (UIUC: Depts. of English and Kinesiology and Community Health)

10:30-12:00: Panel # 1
Tim Thompson (Teesside University: Biological and Forensic Anthropology) “Entangled: Methods for Differentiating Bodies and Physical Identities” –
Rebecca Gowland (Durham University: Dept. of Archaeology) “Embodied: The Social Life of Skeletons” –
Simon Cole (University of California, Irvine: Dept. Criminology, Law and Society) “Identity, Evidence, or “Mere Identification”? Fingerprinting, DNA Profiling, and Arrestee Databases” –

12:00 Break

12:20-1:30: Panel # 2
Stephen Cartwright (UIUC: School of Art + Design)
“150,000 Hours” –
Liv Hausken (University of Oslo: Dept. of Media and Communication) “The Face in the Biometric Passport” –

1:30-2:30 LUNCH—provided by Strawberry Fields (for meat-eaters and vegans alike!)

2:30-4:00: Panel # 3
Kenworthey Bilz (UIUC: Law) “Scientific Evidence and the Anxieties of the Liberal State”
Cris Hughes (UIUC: Dept. of Anthropology) –
“Temporal Patterns of Mexican Migrant Genetic Ancestry: Implications for Identification”
Fabienne Collignon (University of Sheffield: Dept. English)
“Jack Torrance and the Programmable Subject” –

4:00 Break

4:20-5:30: Panel # 4
Ian Burney (University of Manchester: Faculty of Life Sciences)
“Framing Facts: Hans Gross, the ‘Human Factor’ and the Making of CSI –
Kamilla Elliott (Lancaster University: Dept. of English)
“Facial Inscription in the Works of Charles Dickens” –

5:30 Wrap-Up Discussion

Workshop 2 Audio — “Image & Information”


Audio recordings from Workshop 2 are now available. Listen inline here, or click through to open in a new tab.

Panel 1


00:00:00 • Spencer Schaffner (Illinois) — “Forced Facial Tattooing and Diminished Self-Fashioning”

00:15:55 • Jonathan Finn (Wilfrid Laurier) — “Visualizing Criminality: Ubiquitous Photography and the Identification of Russell Williams.”

00:42:00 • Kate West (Oxford) — “Cesare Lombroso: prison portraiture and art history”

01:01:25 • Questions & Discussion


Panel 2


00:00:00 • Charlotte Bilby (Northumbria) — “Patches of everyday life: the making and meaning of prisoner art”

00:27:50 • Annie Ring (UCL) — “Identity documents in the post-Stasi writing of Wolfgang Hilbig”

00:56:30 • Questions & Discussion


Panel 3


00:00:00 • Dawn Stobbart (Lancaster) — “Identity and Identification in Videogame Narrative”

00:20:40 • Melissa Littlefield (Illinois) — “Which Came First, the Criminal Scientist or Scientific Criminal?: Inventing Adversaries for Emergent Criminalists in Amazing Detective Tales, 1930”

00:39:05 • Kamilla Elliott (Lancaster) — “Image and Identification in First-Wave British Gothic Fiction” [read on the author’s behalf by James Purdon (St Andrews)]

01:00:20 • Questions & Discussion


Panel 4


00:00:00 • Rex Ferguson (Birmingham) — “Don DeLillo and the Imaging of Information”

00:29:10 • Patricia Chu (Amherst) — “Identity Matters: Novel, Genome, Body, Culture”

01:09:00 • Questions & Discussion

Call for Papers – Workshop 3, ‘Bodies of Evidence’, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 29 March 2016

We have had an amazing two days so far with workshops 1 and 2 of the network. The programme for workshop 3 is now nearing completion and we have confirmed speakers in Simon Cole (University of California at Irvne), Ian Burney (University of Manchester), Liv Hausken (University of Oslo), Fabienne Collignon (University of Sheffield), Rebecca Gowland (Durham University) and Tim Thompson (Teeside University). However, there are still opportunities to present at this workshop and the network is in the position to fund the travel and accommodation of relevant participants.

The day is focussed around the body, specifically on the way in which the process of identification has, historically, involved methods by which the human body has been marked and made to give up signs of its inherent identity (branding, tattooing, fingerprinting etc.). The workshop will explore the precise ways in which the identifiable human body (as it is represented via techniques such as DNA profiling and facial recognition technology but also by the forensic examination of human remains and prominent technologies such as the polygraph machine) is related to the embodied experience represented by art, literature and screen media. Rather than focusing on questions of identity politics, where the formation of identity is predominantly read through instantiations of class, gender and ethnicity, the aim here is to explore the relationship between the way in which specific knowledge of the individual human body is asserted and the individual experience that is conditioned by embodiment.

The intention is that the workshop will be interdisciplinary in nature (and our list of confirmed speakers attests to this) and will allow for a variety of scholars interested in embodiment to think about their work in an original context. We would therefore be interested in hearing from those working in a variety of disciplines, including Literary Studies, Art History, History, Sociology, Anthropology, Forensic Science etc.

The adopted format is 20-25minute papers designed to appeal to academics and practitioners from a range of disciplines. 300 word abstracts and a recent CV should be sent to by 14 Feburary 2016. Informal requests for more information can be sent to the sames address.

A Write-up of Workshop 1

Dorothy Butchard and Rex Ferguson report on the first Art of Identification workshop:

The first Art of Identification workshop introduced the aims of the network with a truly interdisciplinary event, drawing together researchers, writers, theorists and practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds. The range of interests among participants prompted new conversations and unexpected connections throughout the day, as speakers and attendees compared approaches and insights. This write-up can’t capture everything discussed, but aims to give a flavour of the presentations and debates taking place.

The workshop began with a welcome from organiser Rex Ferguson, who took the opportunity to say a few words about the network’s origins and ethos. Noting the influence of “tremendous work on identificatory practices” carried out by scholars, researchers and practitioners over the past fifteen years, he picked out a number of key texts whose concerns were particularly important in the network’s formation; these included Kamilla Elliott’s Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction (2012) and Jonathan Finn’s Capturing the Criminal Image (2009). “Human identity and identification” emerged as a fascinating subject for literature and the visual realm, as well as a motivation for the network itself.

The first panel focused on identificatory methods, with two speakers sharing their views on research, practice, and the relations between the two. First up was Jess Woodhams, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Birmingham, who gave us a comprehensive introduction to the benefits and limitations of “crime linkage”, as well as her thoughts on how research intertwines with practical methodologies in this field. She began by explaining how information gathered in databases can be used to collate evidence and identify patterns of behaviour across different crime scenes, in processes of “linkage analysis” now practiced all over the world. In particular, the talk demonstrated the importance of testing key underlying assumptions, such as the expectation that repeat offenders tend to be “consistent, but in a distinctive way”, and showed how these techniques are dependent on maintaining a carefully curated dataset. Woodham’s talk suggested that the relationship between research and practice is both complex and complementary, and offered an intriguing insight into how contemporary uses of networked databases may affect investigative procedures. Picking up on several key points from Woodham’s talk, Lee Rainbow from the National Crime Agency began by joking that rather than the old trope of finding a needle in a haystack, his job is more akin to helping identify the right haystack. Rainbow emphasised that his role as a Behavioural Investigative Advisor involves advising police on how to move forwards, rather than seeking the specific identity of criminals; “everything we do,” he explained, “has the single underlying goal of supporting investigative decision-making”. His account also exploded several popular myths about “profiling” popularised by fictional portrayals, noting that “knowing someone’s personality does not help you catch them”. Rather than trying to define a specific identity, he seeks an approximation of “thematic identity”, based on patterns of behaviour and evidence from the crime scene. The talk concluded with a note on the new challenges posed by online crime, and both speakers’ approaches to identification showed how research and methodologies for “interpreting and reconstructing the crime scene” are part of an ongoing process of development and evaluation. Both talks reminded the audience that the use of databases for identification is not straightforward, while noting how effective these methods can be when used and maintained by dedicated analysts. On a lighter note, the talks prompted a lively discussion about the vast differences between the “fact” of real-world processes and practitioners, and the “fiction” of their portrayals in popular culture.

After the break, Detective Warren Hines started by quizzing the audience about our understanding of motive, asking how many different kinds of motive there might be. Guesses ranged from five to over a hundred, and there were murmurs of surprise when he suggested about twelve distinct categories, including sexual motives and revenge. No two investigations are the same, Hines explained, though there is often “some commonality” in how people respond, and knowledge of behaviour patterns can help to piece together events before and after a crime takes place. Countering the more frantic depictions of detective work in fiction and onscreen, Detective Hines mused that his own job often requires time in a quiet room, “just thinking things through”. He also drew attention to the limitations of technologies such as CCTV, which “doesn’t always help,” suggesting that technologies can’t replace the need to visit the crime scene, put the crime into context, and consider people’s responses. On the subject of responses, it emerged that “what people don’t do” is often as instructive as what they do: for example, it may be suspicious if someone who frequently communicates with others suddenly stops using their phone. Hines observed that representations in popular fiction might well affect criminal behaviour – “everyone knows what we do now” – and suggested that the three technologies which have most changed police work are the Micro CT Scan, DNA identification, and fingerprints. This fascinating and very personal account of detective work gave the impression of a tremendously complex process in which instinct and experience is backed up by science and technologies.

One of the many debates prompted by the morning talks was the question of how contemporary identification practices are changing, particularly in terms of differences from the late 19th Century. The morning panellists concluded that contemporary databases are bigger – data is more informed, more accurate, and collected and organised based on the advice of behavioural psychologists – but that, in fact, the use that data is put to is perhaps not so dissimilar to the firs “consultant detective”, Sherlock Holmes. We returned to this discussion of historical changes and fictional accounts of identification in a panel with two novelists, Dan Vyleta and Richard House (both also Senior Lecturers at the University of Birmingham). Drawing on his previous work as a Cultural historian Dan Vyleta opened with the example of the proliferation of trial reports in early Twentieth century Vienna, such as a 1904 murder trial which dominated 10 pages of a 16-page newspaper. Noting that detective fiction initiates a game between author and reader, Vyleta suggested that trial reports drew their audience into a comparable game, before moving to consider his own novelistic practice. In The Crooked Maid, for example, Vyleta finds “realism pressing upon melodrama”, moving away from the psychological realism of his earlier work to embrace absences, and “things which are not explicable.” The next talk, by Richard House, brought further insights into literary approaches to detection and identification, as he contemplated how his own literary practice – and problems with this practice – relate to a need to challenge conventional expectations. Recalling that his father’s role as a policeman involved taking something that happened and giving it a beginning, a middle, and an end, House explained that his own method tries to “smash up” narrative structure in order to break an established “chain of expectations”. The talks prompted discussion about the role of “Master Narratives”, questioning who, and what, we value, with the tentative conclusion that humans appear to have a “tremendous investment” in a “fantasy of resolution.”

The morning session’s debunking of the numerous myths surrounding criminal profiling provided a particularly striking context for the final panel – especially the first paper which was delivered by Deborah Jermyn (Reader in Film & TV at the University of Roehampton). Deborah made a close analysis of the recent BBC Drama The Fall, arguing that the identification which takes place between DI Gibson and the serial killer Paul Spector is weighed with ideology and exists in a culture which “is deeply uneasy with post-feminism”. The paper therefore revolved around an implicit concern of the day overall: namely, the interaction between identification as a practical activity that designates identity to a particular body and the more ambiguous and subjective ideas brought out by a consideration of a Freudian “identification”. Watching a clip of Gibson ruminating/fantasising about her suspect while the action cut to Spector exercising topless it was hard not to reflect upon these concerns at the same time as being painfully aware of how distant this depiction was from the reality spelled out earlier in the day by Jess and Lee. The lines between fact, fiction and fantasy were further complicated by Deborah’s showing that Spector is “looking for perfection” – precisely what Lee had indicated only ever occurs in fantasy and so serves as a useful guide to the veracity of apparent confessions of wrongdoing. The final paper of the day, which came from Dorothy Butchard of the University of Edinburgh, made expert use of the preceding presentations to contextualise an analysis of Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2006 novel House of Leaves. Dorothy showed how Danielewski’s narrative has made detectives of its readers but that this positioning has moved on in vital ways from both classic detective fiction and postmodern playfulness. Rather than existing as a reader/text/author relationship, then, the uncovering of House of Leaves’ “facts” is being done via an online platform in which reader’s share theories and piece together clues. This space, which eerily mirrors the “non-place” of the house in the novel’s title, then generates a type of reader “as obsessive as the narrator”. That these readers are explicitly concerned with establishing the “facts” within a blatant “fiction”, and the way in which a context of forensic investigation lends a certain authority to such an enterprise, made for a fitting final paper and led seamlessly into the concluding discussion.

The combination of speakers prompted vigorous debate throughout the day, raising a number of insights and questions regarding the interplay between fact and fiction in identificatory practices and artistic representations of identity. In the concluding discussion, speakers and participants shared comments, questions and topics for further debate. Should we worry that fact and fiction might merge together? Are we all invested in a longing for resolution, whether knowingly or unwittingly? How important is the search for clues across a multitude of academic disciplines – for example, are historians now more invested in clues than conclusions? Do contemporary representations of identification indulge in a fantasy of safety, where the detective solves the crime and an audience is protected by the safety of fictional distance? And what is the role of emotion when distinguishing between fact and fiction? Such rich responses to the first meeting affirmed the scope and vitality of this network, and we’ll look forward to continuing the conversation at the next workshop.

Programme – Workshop 2: ‘Image & Information’, Tuesday 8 December 2015

The programme for Workshop 2 — ‘Image & Information’ — is now available. This workshop will take place on Tuesday 8 December 2015 at the University of St Andrews. The programme is available as a PDF.

8 December 2015, Barbara Murray Room, Castle House, University of St Andrews

9:30 – 10:00 Registration / coffee
10:00 – 10:15 Welcome and Introduction

James Purdon (University of St Andrews)

10:15–12:00 Panel One

Spencer Schaffner (Illinois) — ‘Forced Facial Tattooing and Diminished Self Fashioning’

Jonathan Finn (Wilfrid Laurier) — ‘Visualizing Criminality: Ubiquitous Photography and the Identification of Russell Williams’

Kate West (Oxford) — ‘Cesare Lombroso: prison portraiture and art history’

12:00 – 12:15 Short Break
12:15 – 13:25 Panel Two

Charlotte Bilby (Northumbria) — ‘Patches of everyday life: the making and meaning of prisoner art’

Annie Ring (UCL) — ‘Identity documents in the post-Stasi writing of Wolfgang Hilbig’

13:25 – 14:30 Lunch
14:30 – 16:15 Panel Three

Dawn Stobbart (Lancaster) — ‘Identity and Identification in Videogame Narrative’

Melissa Littlefield (Illinois) — ‘Which Came First, the Criminal Scientist or Scientific Criminal?: Inventing Adversaries for Emergent Criminalists in Amazing Detective Tales, 1930’

Kamilla Elliott (Lancaster) — ‘Image and Identification in First-Wave British Gothic Fiction’

16:15 – 16:45 Coffee
16:45 – 18:00 Panel Four

Rex Ferguson (Birmingham) — ‘Don DeLillo and the Imaging of Information’

Patricia Chu (Amherst )— ‘Identity Matters: Novel, Genome, Body, Culture’

18:00 – 19:00 Drinks Reception

Programme – Workshop 1: ‘Facts and Fictions’, Tuesday 13 October 2015

We’re delighted to announce the programme for ‘Facts and Fictions’, the network’s first workshop. The workshop will take place on Tuesday 13 October 2015 at the University of Birmingham. The programme is available as a PDF: Facts & Fictions Programme.

13 October 2015, Jekyll Room, Winterbourne House, University of Birmingham

10:00 – 10:30 Registration / coffee
10:30 – 10:45 Welcome and Introduction

Rex Ferguson (University of Birmingham)

10:45–12:30 Panel One

Jess Woodhams (University of Birmingham) ‘Identifying serial offenders from crime scene behaviour – the state of the research’

Lee Rainbow (National Crime Agency) ‘Criminal Identity: Finding the needle in the haystack’

Warren Hines (West Midlands Police) ‘Identifying the Culprit’

12:30 – 1:30 Lunch
1:30 – 2:45 Panel Two

Dan Vyleta (University of Birmingham) ‘The Trials of Fiction: Narrative strategy and forensic truth’

Richard House (University of Birmingham) ‘Bastard Narratives, Narrative Bastards’

2:45 – 3:15 Coffee
3:15 – 4:30 Panel Three

Deborah Jermyn (University of Roehampton) ‘“He’s a young man… he’s strong… he knows Criminology… and he’s intelligent”: Desire, doubling and the search for the killer in The Fall’’

Dorothy Butchard (University of Edinburgh) ‘Forensic Readers and Surveillant Narrators’

4:30 – 4:45 Short Break
4:45 – 5:30 Roundtable

Jane Caplan (University of Oxford)

Kamilla Elliott (Lancaster University)

Rex Ferguson (University of Birmingham)

Melissa Littlefield (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

James Purdon (University of St Andrews)

5:30 – 7:00 Drinks Reception

Call for Papers – Workshop 2: ‘Image and Information’, Tuesday 8 December 2015, University of St Andrews

warhol passport

Hot on the heels of our first workshop in October comes workshop 2 – ‘Image and Information’ – which will take place on Tuesday 8 December 2015 at the University of St Andrews.

Identification has historically been ratified via the production of paper documents and the presentation of visual images. This workshop will be based upon the premise that the representation of identity formed by such documents and images can be constructively read/viewed alongside the representations offered by literary texts and visual art. The workshop will thus concentrate on the aesthetic dimension of identity documents and the information they contain, and will seek to elucidate the various strategies and theories which, historically, have underwritten the truth-claims made for and by identifying practices. This will facilitate an exploration of how such practices relate to the cultural self-fashioning of citizen-subjects and what happens to those processes of fashioning a self in the age of information technologies and mass culture.

The workshop will be of interest to a range of academics and practitioners and proposals are welcome from all disciplines. If you wish to present a paper please send a 300 word abstract and recent CV to by Friday 9 October 2015.

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