Malady and Mortality – Conference Review

Fiona Johnstone reports back on Malady and Mortality, Falmouth, 19th to 20th September 2013.

Travelling along the beautiful coastline into the setting sun, the last leg of the five-hour train ride from London to Falmouth felt like a journey to the ends of the earth. Isolated (to this Londoner, at least), green and rain-swept, the Tremough campus seemed an ideal location for two days of meditations on illness and death. Speakers came from a variety of disciplines, predominantly literature, the visual arts, and sociology, and included academics, artists, and healthcare professionals (indeed, many of the delegates could lay claim to fit into all three of those categories). Significantly, many papers were structured around first person narratives, as speakers discussed their own encounters with the medical establishment, or their own experiences of bereavement.

The conference opened with Alan Bleakley’s thought provoking plenary on the relationship between medicine and the arts. Citing the alarming statistic of approximately 40,000 deaths per year in the UK as a result of medical error, Bleakley (Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry) proceeded to diagnose the problem – a patriarchal, hierarchical structure that closes down systems of communication between patients and doctors, and between teams of doctors themselves – and propose the ‘feminization’ of medicine as a cure. (Apparently female medical students now outnumber male ones, although whether increased numbers of women doctors will really lead to the  ‘tender minded’ medicine that Bleakley proposed remains to be seen.) The most fascinating part of the talk was Bleakley’s provocative identification of four literary modes of medical practice: epic (the heroism of individual doctors); tragic (the death of patients); darkly comic (often behind the scenes); and lyric. This latter mode is usually repressed; Bleakley argued that embracing a ‘lyrical’ approach might ultimately contribute to a ‘sensuous’ practice of medicine. He illustrated this point by reference to a number of artists: the performance based works of Marina Abramovich, Orlan and Ron Athey were ultimately labeled ‘too epic, too tragic, too darkly comic’; the work of sculptor Christine Borland was instead proposed as coming closest to communicating a ‘lyrical’ mode of practice.

The next presentation was given by graphic designers Nikki Salkeld and Ashley Rudolph (Falmouth), whose MOTH project constitutes a collaborative attempt to find a visual language with which to articulate death. This was followed by my own paper, an exploration of the self-portraits of the photographer Mark Morrisroe, who died of an AIDS related illness in 1989. Joanne Whalley’s (Falmouth) talk on zombie babies was one of the most perfectly performed papers I have ever experienced, a well-judged mix of the personal and theoretical that used her own experience of carrying a dead fetus as a starting point for a reflection on space, practice, and the limits of the human. Steven Wilson’s (Queens, Belfast) paper on autopathography and syphilis challenged the received wisdom of Virginia Woolf (On Being Ill) and Elaine Scarry (The Body in Pain), suggesting that contrary to the oft-cited assertions of both, life under the shadow of death might indeed be ‘scriptable’. Finally, Sarah Arnold (Falmouth) offered a critique of ‘urban decay’ photography, problematizing the frozen temporality and fetishizing effect of the photographic medium on its subject matter.

At this point the day broke up into parallel sessions. Artist Lucy Willow (Falmouth) spoke about her work with dust and photography, and, most movingly, about her impulse to document the body of her dead son. Feeling that this was ultimately too much of a taboo, even for her own liberal minded family, Willow instead photographed his ashes through a microscope, creating a beautiful anti-portrait. This presentation was oddly matched with two sociology papers: Julie Ellis (Sheffield) described the photography practices of ‘everyday’ people facing death, whilst Mark McDermott and Oona Levasseur (UEL) discussed their research methodologies for measuring mortality awareness.

An unexpected bonus of the day was a mid-afternoon Cornish cream tea, superior fare to the stale biscuits and acrid coffees that I have come to think of as conference staples. Revived, I settled down for two first person narratives of bereavement and illness. Artist and PhD student Davina Kirkpatrick spoke about work made after losing her partner. Her presentation was lyrical and expressive, weaving together visual images, poetry and music. Julia Kennedy (Falmouth), a lecturer in Journalism and also a PhD student, spoke about her doctoral research on narrative flows in online communities for people diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), explaining how her thesis grew out of her own diagnosis, and her consequent search for information. The day was concluded with a plenary given by Tony Walter, director of the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, who offered some thoughts on the contemporary trend for imagining the dead as angels rather than souls or ghosts; it was a memorable paper, opened by a loud Abba soundtrack.

The highlight of the second day was, for me, a fascinating paper from Montse Morcate and Rebeca Pardo  (Barcelona) on illness and death in contemporary photography. They spoke about a dizzying range of photographers, some familiar, many not, including Eugene Richards; Briony Campbell’s Dad Project; Tatsum Orimoto; Ed Kashi; Ana Casas Broda; Nan Goldin; and Ishiuchi Miyako. They made many pertinent observations, identifying the most common health conditions captured by photographers: cancer (predominantly breast cancer), mental health (predominantly Alzheimer’s), and AIDS.

On the same panel, Alex Murdin (Falmouth) spoke about death in environmental art, and Kerry Jones (Exeter) presented her findings on online memorialization of stillbirths and neonatal deaths. Earlier that day Martin Hubbard (Falmouth) had spoken on the mind-body dualism in perceiving pain, and Sue Porter and Ann Rippin (Bristol) had discussed their joint investigations into relics and votive objects as starting points for a consideration of ‘ethical staring’. Sadly, I had to leave to catch the train back to London, so I missed Michele Aaron’s plenary: Watching Others Die: Spectatorship and the (Racialised) Ethics of Being Moved.’ If anyone can supply a commentary on Aaron’s presentation I would love to hear from them! Malady and Mortality: an eclectic mix of delegates with a distinct emphasis on practice-based research and first person experience; high-quality presentations and stimulating discussions; and the best cream tea in Cornwall.

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