On the Fabric of the Human Body: Creative Action Lab with Centre for Health Humanities

 

It’s strangely mesmerising, cutting and sticking. Particularly the cutting out part. You find yourself drawn into the smallest focus of outline on the paper that you’re cutting, on the way the blades of your scissors can turn into sharp corners. It also induces a cramp in my hand. As I rest and shake it out, I consider how long it’s been since someone has sat me down in front of glue, paper, paint, scissors and drawings and told me to make a collage.

 

The attentiveness of focus is a common thread that has linked the activities during the two-day workshop that I am running in collaboration with Andrew Mangham, co-director of the Centre for Health Humanities here at the University of Reading. We chose two beautiful early modern anatomical textbooks from the Cole Collection as our centre piece – Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica, of 1543, and Govert Bidloo’s Anatomia Humani Corporis, from 1685. These books sit weightily on a central table in the middle of the room, showing off their extraordinarily detailed drawings of semi-dissected human bodies.

Kelley Swain, Fiona Millward and Eleanor Crook inspect the Bidloo text with archivist Fiona Melhuish

We constructed this workshop to invite people to apply their focus to these texts in unusual ways. Our core participants are five artists working in different art forms: Eleanor Crook, a sculptor and anatomical artist; Fiona Millward, choreographer and Rolfer, Kelley Swain, a writer specialising in medical humanities; Simon Hall, artist and doctor (and dentist), and Agi Haines, a designer and artist. Each of these artists was invited to lead an activity in response to the anatomical textbooks, inviting us in from different perspectives, different ways of knowing, seeing, hearing, moving and touching.

 

The collage session is Eleanor’s, the final one of the two days, and there is a satisfying sense of glee as we get to work on photocopies of some of the more gruesome engravings of dead people that were taken from both books. As my focus centres on the intricate details of these artworks, I notice a completely different appreciation for the work than I’d had in previous sessions, whether that was moving my own body and responding to the pictures of the human body’s muscles, spine and organs; or listening to myself and others reading aloud poems that make our tongues writhe around unfamiliar words and startlingly emotive images. Simon previously led a session in which we were invited to play with lumps of modelling wax while he read passages from a memoir about the experience of blindness. Many people closed their eyes and let the sense of touch guide them.

 

During the two days, we welcomed different academics and staff members into the room to join us in discovering these different perspectives on our collection items. We banished the Powerpoint presentation in favour of occupying the room in different ways, talking in small clusters, sitting on the floor, clearing the tables away to move around. We gave time for conversations to meander, and sometimes tail off; for anecdotes to be shared and offside connections to be made. Themes emerged around (multi-)sensory perception; medical narratives; truth, fakery and authority of knowledge; the dark delight of the macabre, and much more.

 

Writer Kelley Swain fed back that ‘This multi-media, multi-genre, and multi-sensory conversation, over two days, allowed me to think about the Vesalius and Bidloo, and their relationships with contemporary Medical Humanities ideas, with much more depth and nuance than I might otherwise have had through a straightforward lecture on the texts.’

Professor Andrew Mangham, co-director of the Centre for Health Humanities, wrote that the workshop ‘encouraged us to develop new and innovative approaches to health research. It is rare for a research event to have such an innovative, multi-sensory approach to its topic.’

The workshop was a pilot ‘Creative Action Lab’, supported by the Heritage and Creativity Institute for Collections, and so we were keen to experiment with a new method of sharing ideas across disciplines. As a Health Humanities event we welcomed colleagues from English, History, Pharmacy, UMASCS (Special Collections), Art, Typography, Psychology. Those who attended welcomed the slowness of this type of discovery, allowing for questions to be asked, contrary to the often more outcomes-focused pacing of such events.

 

PhD student Amie Bolissian McRae said: ‘One of the extremely valuable outcomes from the workshop’s format was that every person attending had an entirely unique experience and journey through the art and source materials. This meant that, when bringing all our thoughts and perceptions together at the end, there was a wealth of related innovative ideas which drew from the knowledge, experience, and research interests of each attendee.’ This was reflected in artist Agi Haines’ experience: ‘Dipping in and out of people’s practices and then reflecting on them to find shared topics and concerns was a really fruitful format. It seemed to shift the lens away from habitual ‘home’ disciplinary ways of working.’

We are now exploring continuations of this approach and some emerging themes. We are thinking of pairing artists with academics in different disciplines to follow up ideas about the relationship between doing (or making) and thinking, taking inspiration from the great early anatomists, and illustrators of anatomy, who paid such close attention to detail in their pursuit of new knowledge to help cure disease.

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