Late reflections on Exeter’s one day conference ‘From the Cradle to the Grave: Reciprocity and Exchange in the making of Medicine and the Modern Arts’

With a week’s reflection under my belt I think the time has come for sharing perspectives. Sarah Atkinson has given a useful overview of the event and some of her highlights, and I’d like to lay out six of the ideas that caught my imagination. The points are chronologically rather than thematically presented.

During her keynote, Dr Deborah Kirklin offered a challenge to the concept of a ‘centre’ for medical humanities, which I thought I could share: she was clear that interdisciplinarity is in theory a strong and beneficial approach to exploring the field, but warned of the danger of a merging of perspectives, if a research ‘centre’ is the chosen device. I think we’re safely behind this line at the moment, the issue for us perhaps being about how to find the access to each others’ lenses, rather than all sharing the one pair…  The litmus test is whether we continue to prize diversity of perspective over homogeneity, and whether we’re able to keep our discussions ‘hot’!  The value of our interdisciplinarity, Deborah suggested, would lie in our mutual ability to root out each others’ blind spots in discussion. So let’s keep it lively!

Dr Ian Williams, during his inspiring presentation of graphic approaches to medical narratives (through graphic novels or online comics), placed his own practice in this field in the context of the wider artistic field of ‘comics’ (the study of graphic narrative forms). We all seemed similarly amazed at how wide the field is, with an exploding international scene of graphic illustrators exploring health issues in this way. The characters may be doctors, patients, both or neither; the tone serious (documentary), philosophical, comic, surreal, irrational, analytical or any other; the authors range from highly medically informed or even medical practitioners (e.g. Ian) to health service users or survivors.  One interesting point (amongst many) was that this form, emerging as it does from a radical sub-cultural background, opens up the perfect arena for dialogue, to discuss and explore controversial medical issues and areas, especially since the authors often work using pen names, remaining anonymous. Ian himself had spent time exploring doctors’ fear of failure, and the cost on their own health.  I recommend looking at his website.

Helen Mason’s portrayal of her innovative work using (stop frame) animation as a therapeutic method showed some very powerful work in film form, and explained her findings on the particular benefits of the approach – which I feel can also be applied to a less formalised therapeutic use of animation techniques:

  • Anybody can make an animation, it is both accessible and attractive as an activity.
  • It holds an intrinsic motivation – people seem always to become completely involved in the story they are making visible through the process.
  • The stop-start process offers time to unpack issues and have conversations, building up a relationship between practitioner and participant.
  • The medium itself is ideal for exploring and portraying – using the animated characters – difficult feelings, experiences or fears, enabling disclosure which may otherwise be too painful or risky.
  • The form gives participants a clear, direct voice in expressing their situation.
  • Bringing in professional animators, to help bring a participants’ story a higher profile, was both empowering for the participant, and rewarding in the quality of the product.

Find out more on their web site.

Dr Langley Brown from MMU and architect Peter Sher presented a warm chronology of arts and health development, pointing to its roots in 1940s art in hospitals, or the much earlier visionary work of Florence Nightingale. In her 1859 ‘Notes on Nursing’ she was already expounding the healing potential of colour, shapes, lighting, flowers. Highlighting some key movements such as ‘Head for the Hills’ in the 1980s, Langley explained their attempt at MMU to build a family tree of Arts and Health, through a historical archive. Apparently this is at an early stage, but it can be visited by appointment.

Keneth Bamuturaki gave an inspiring description of traditional cultural practices in rural Uganda linking performative ritual and healing, including powerful bereavement rituals, and ceremonies for transforming and surviving painful life events as a community. He made the case for using creative and performing arts based approaches to healthcare in contemporary Uganda, with young and old, in groups and individually. Although such methods are used in health promotion, disease prevention and community sensitisation to health issues, the link is currently not being made to the value these approaches offer in health care itself.

Finally, I attended a courageous presentation by artist and scholar Martin O’Brien, exploring the work of three artists, all sufferers (including O’Brien) of cystic fibrosis, who had chosen to use painful endurance and extreme body performance art to express and take some control over their particular, painful human condition. The other two artists have both died, making art until their last weeks of life. This ‘medical masochism’ was a challenging concept when confronted with some of the work, but O’Brian’s particular impulse was playful and original. I was inspired particularly because his work was so controversial, and yet he was undaunted by the risk of audience revulsion, and seems to have found personal empowerment – celebrating the health he has with bright optimism, and a touching gentleness through his artistic expression. His research was conceptually fascinating – look out for him as an artist, and in publication of his research.

This diverse one day conference was rich and well worth the time it took to get there!

About anniRaw

Anni is a post-doctoral research associate with the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University. Her doctoral thesis (http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/7774/ ) characterises and theorises a core practice amongst artists working in community and participatory arts. The study incorporates an exploration of artists’ current practice in the UK and in Mexico, and suggests that a transnational core practice - conceptualised as an 'assemblage' of six consistent, multidisciplinary elements which together achieve a creative 'workshop ecology' - can be identified in this work. With a background in community music and the voice, and participatory evaluation of community-based arts interventions. An ethnographic anthropologist by approach, her current research interests include the nature and function of creativity, creativity and the arts in participation and activism, and international perspectives on participatory arts practices.
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