BODY STATES: THE PILOT PROJECT? was an all-day live art event held on Saturday 11 June 2005 and organised by the Centre for the History of Medicine and the School of Theatre, Performance, and Cultural Policy Studies at the University of Warwick. Taking place in the Ellen Terry Building in Jordan Well, Coventry city centre, its purpose was to explore the common concerns of the disciplines of performance and medical history.
This event was made possible by HEROBAC (Higher Education Reach Out into Business and the Community) funding though the University’s Humanities Research Centre, and the Wellcome Trust through the Centre’s ‘Cultures and Practices of Health’ Strategic Award.
BODY STATES: THE PILOT PROJECT fearured the work of five live artists, Ansuman Biswas, Anna Dumitriu, Ju Gosling aka ju90, Philip Warnell, and Louise K. Wilson. Each is an accomplished artist with a broad range of experience. Ansuman Biswas, for example, has worked as an actor, musician, installation artist, composer, filmmaker and writer. He has also presented his work in a number of different contexts, ranging from the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Royal Ballet, to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and MTV. (Click here for short biographies on the artists.)
The artists employ vastly different methods in their work, but they all share an interest in exploring medical themes, specifically with reference to the body. “As an interdisciplinary field,” notes Dr Nicolas Whybrow, Director of Practice at the School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies, “performance studies recognises the body as the locus of socio-cultural, political and historical codings, as well as physiological and metabolic processes, if not ‘biological events’, to invoke Foucault. In recent years the medical(ised) body or body-in-medicine has captured the interest of a range of renowned performance and live artists.”
According to Dr Hilary Marland, Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, “The history of the body, embodiment, and lived bodily experience are areas of great interest to historians of medicine. By exploring the intersection between performance and medical history, this project provides vast opportunities for the mutual enrichment of the two disciplines.”
BODY STATES brought these perspectives together in presentations and performances that took a critical approach to the notion of the medicalised body. Ansuman Biswas' piece for Body States, called ‘Theatre’, was a simple yet evocative performance in which he lay, naked and with eyes closed, on a spotlit table in a darkened space. The audience were invited to move around the space and ‘examine’ the ‘subject’, raising questions about how the body is conceived both as object and as lived experience. Ju Gosling aka ju90 performed “Wheels on Fire”, a monologue that examined the prejudices faced by wheelchair-users. In this work she considered how the subtle association of wheelchairs with bondage and punishment is evident in the language employed to describe their use – being confined to a wheelchair, or being wheelchair-bound. She describes post-Second World War chairs as “ugly, medicalised and designed to make the user almost completely dependent on someone else”, yet she also celebrates the wheelchair as one form of technology among the many that has improved the way people live their lives.
Other work presented includes “Host”, by Phillip Warnell, an installation incorporating video and film recordings, performance, and laser and sound. “Host” makes use of video material recorded whilst the artist ingested a miniature camera, recording photographic images during its voyage through his gastro-intestinal tract. Warnell then “stitched” the images into sequences which he finally composed into a four-screen video projection, creating a fascinating public environment from internal landscapes.
At the end of the event, after all five artists had presented their work, a panel discussion was held to consider how the two disciplines of performance and medical history had come together in the works displayed.