‘Found Performance’: Reflections on an undisciplinary symposium exploring aesthetic methodologies in health care and medicine

‘Found Performance’: An undisciplinary symposium exploring aesthetic methodologies in health care and medicine. Studio Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, June 15th 2018. Report by co-chairs Alex Mermikides and Stuart Wood

‘Otherwise normal ECG’ (2018), score detail (work in progress), reproduced by permission

What happens if we approach sites of medicine or health care as if they are already in performance?

Asking this question extends a strategy employed by an earlier generation of medical sociologists for whom theatre was a metaphor for how doctors, patients and indeed the hospital perform (Sinclair, Parsons and Goffman respectively). It also picks up Roger Kneebone’s more recent invitation to look at surgery as though it were performance, his suggestion that “a shift of emphasis – from ‘performing surgery’ to ‘performing surgery’ – can radically change what we see” (in Mermikides & Bourchard 2016 p68). The ‘Found Performance’ symposium, however, goes beyond these models. For us, theatre (and performance) is not just a metaphor: it offers methodologies for investigating the world of medicine and healthcare.

So, how might aesthetic methodologies from the performing arts, identify, process and respect the performances we find in sites of medicine or health care?

One approach exemplified by speakers at the Found Performance symposium was to turn these sites and those who inhabit them into scores for musical or embodied performance: investigating events in the medical world and reframing them into an artistic modality. Stuart Wood shared the verbatim musical transcriptions he has been making of interactions between people living with the advance stages of Dementia and their carers – the result of a project supported by the Wellcome Trust. This exposed an ‘aesthetics of care’ (Thompson 2013) underlying seemingly mundane interactions over mashed potato and Brussels sprouts. Luís Bittencourt, a percussionist who plays on found objects, gave a live performance based on an ECG chart. And Kathryn Lawson Hughes, whose research investigates embodiment in relation to biotracking technologies, improvised a dance in response to our biorhythms. For Daria Hartmann, experience of ‘watchful waiting’ (the period when doctors hold off treating a diagnosed condition in order to track its development) was investigated through Samuel Beckett’s Rockaby. Storm Greenwood gave a concurrent performance of stitching as a medical contemplation and devotional practice.

A second approach was represented by speakers showcasing aesthetic practices that support health and wellbeing for people with specific conditions: Yoon Irons sings with people living with Parkinson’s syndrome, Julian West & Hannah Zeilig lead participatory music workshop with people living with Dementia and Tim Shaw curates specially commissioned murals and artworks by leading artists (including Richard Wentworth, among the audience) in medical spaces. In projects such as these, the aesthetic can be viewed as aligning with medicine in delivering tangible improvements in health and wellbeing – although the lively discussions that followed this panel countered and refined instrumental concepts of the arts.

Offering a yet another platform, the symposium culminated in papers by P.A. Skantze and Ashon Crawley, who brought a poetics of care as methodology. In these papers, scholarly worlds blended. We were led into a mode of listening that was its most undisciplinary, observing a poetic mode of care towards self and other that referenced theology, physics, radical black studies, feminism, vocality, soul and jazz.

The symposium was documented and accompanied by Storm Greenwood, an artist who works with the slow careful method of embroidery. Delegates too were given the opportunity to embroider, mark and then gift a handkerchief.  And embroidery, threading, interweaving and gifting became pertinent metaphors for a symposium that brought together those whose research and practice straddles and blurs the arts and medicine, healthcare and humanities. This was a timely gathering, prefigured by the recent issue of the BMJ Medical Humanities journal March 2018, 44(1) which points to the disciplinary entanglements of the emerging wave of critical medical humanities. In both the journal and our symposium, discussions recognised the presence and problematics of disciplinary categories and boundaries related to the biomedical concept of health, which can leave the arts and humanities with what manifests as a repair job of fixing the biomedical enterprise. We had glimpses of radical dialogic encounter, surprising research assemblages, and ‘messy entanglements’ beyond our areas of speciality. Attendees noted how existing frameworks create, classify and enforce boundaries such as medicine, humanity/ies, culture, ethnicity, gender and class. Situated practitioners questioned the validity and role of the ‘art-based intervention’: can what is delivered be separated from the act of delivering? Who is helping whom?

Handkerchief embroidered and gifted by Storm Greenwood during the symposium

Performance invites undisciplinarity because it is distinctly hybrid and promiscuous. We recognise that performance in both found and original manifestations is a frontier for medical humanities research. ‘Care of the Flesh’, as Ashon put it, is a natural topic and method for arts and performance practitioners, yet the formats associated with performance are under-explored in medical humanities. These are formats not only of specific disciplinary research but also of undisciplinary, category-defying entanglement. In that entanglement we discover a community of practitioners who recognise that performance holds valuable wisdom on why we gather as scholars, and on what kind of scholarly community we wish to convene and nurture.



Goffman, E. (1991). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other inmates. London: Penguin Publishers.

Kneebone, R. (2016). ‘Performing Surgery’ in A. Mermikides & G. Bouchard (eds.) Performance and the Medical Body. London: Bloomsbury Publishers.

Parsons, T. (1963). Social Structure and Personality. Toronto: Collier-Macmillan Publishers.

Sinclair, S. (1997). Making Doctors: An institutional apprenticeship. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

2 thoughts on “‘Found Performance’: Reflections on an undisciplinary symposium exploring aesthetic methodologies in health care and medicine

  1. Love this report, thanks it is liberating and the ideas are great!
    Wish I could have been there….

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