Bringing the inside out: Sensing the Machine-Body Interface

Marie Allitt reviews the workshop ‘Sensing the Machine-Body Interface’, hosted by the Science Museum on 11th July 2019. 

Have you ever listened to the beat of your own heart? How often do you think about your breathing? Or your digestion? Do you wonder what’s going on inside your body? Do you wish you could somehow sense it differently? Do you want to make sense of it at all?

These were just some of questions considered at the Sensing the Machine-Body Interface workshop at the Science Museum on Thursday 11thJuly. This cross-disciplinary workshop on medicine, technology, and embodiment brought together a truly diverse group of approximately 20 researchers and creative practitioners for an illuminating discussion on intersections between bodies and machines (of various kinds), and the ways in which the senses contribute to or inhibit how we encounter our bodies.

This event took the form of an initial scoping session on peoples’ various interests, organised through the Science Museum and Bristol University’s Research Cluster on the Senses, so conversations were vast and broadly encompassing. Organisers Cleo Hanaway-Oakley (Bristol University and Science Museum) and Farrah Lawrence-Mackay (Medicine Galleries Research Fellow Science Museum) successfully organised a workshop that held in perfect balance opportunities to talk extensively and openly, while providing central talking points. It is often the endeavour to bring together a truly inter-/cross-disciplinary group of people, but this is typically hard to achieve: here however, there really was a diverse mix, which did not seem heavily weighted in one discipline above others, and which included researchers from history, literature, art history, curators, creative practitioners, computer scientists, community partnerships coordinators, and events programmers.

The workshop was organised into three distinct sections; short presentations, ‘Show and Tell’, and group breakout sessions, which gave opportunities to talk, discuss, and interact with a number of different delegates. In the first of four short presentations, reportage and documentary artist Julia Midgley introduced examples of her work and explained her interest and approach to documenting bodies in medical settings. In her ‘Drawn from Experience’ project, undertaken while Artist in Residence at Royal Liverpool & Broadgreen Hospital between 1997-1999, Midgley observed surgeries and procedures, and documented through drawing the bodies in the room: the postures and movements of the patients and the practitioners – something she captures in all her work. One of her most recent projects ‘War, Art, and Surgery’, concerned reportage drawing of surgery and war, inspired by the exceptional work of Henry Tonks during and proceeding the First World War, with an important nod to the legacy of art illustration and medical records: ultimate visual documentation and reportage. Midgley observed medical personnel in training and wounded soldiers from Afghanistan during rehabilitation, where, in journalistic style, she captures the details and the whole. One of these examples illustrated how, when the wounded are evacuated by helicopter, their bodies become part of the machine, and the distinction between where the body begins and ends is blurred, as in many medical contexts.

‘War Art & Surgery W.A.S.099, Ink, wash and Acrylic Ink’ ©Julia Midgley

The second presentation came from historian Gemma Almond (Swansea University), who introduced her research into nineteenth-century spectacles and vision aids, demonstrating the stories which can be told by engaging with the objects themselves. In particular, Almond illustrated the battles for customers between ophthalmologists and opticians (an important distinction which continues to be conflated even today). While introducing images of objects of early spectacles and lenses, Almond indicated the contemporary concerns surrounding stigma, restoration, and impairment, critiquing the use and understanding of such aids in line with a disability studies approach, and awareness for the social and cultural details of vision and vision correction.

Art historian and project assistant of the ‘Art of Innovation’ at the Science Museum, Martha Clewlow, introduced her research into disabled German veterans through Dadaist works, with particular focus on Otto Dix. Such work can be considered political acts, and if we consider however briefly the fragmentation and distortion of Dadaist works, we can immediately see signs of how the ‘lack’ of impairment, disability and pain, is so entangled with contemporary politics, and are hard to escape a Marxist critique.

The final presentation came from Ulrika Maude, of Bristol University, on ‘Prosthetic Modernism’. Maude’s literary focus establishes an important understanding for bodies, prostheses, and technologies within cultural thought in the first half of the twentieth-century. Maude demonstrated how so much of modernism and modernity is tied up with technology, machines, and extension of the body, discussing this in relation to a sense of ‘prosthesis’ – taking as a starting point Freud’s belief that ‘man has…become a kind of prosthetic god’. This sets up some exciting thoughts and routes for enquiry, which Maude briefly introduced through examples of key modernist works, including D.H. Lawrence and Samuel Beckett. She reminded us also to think about machines and technology more broadly: when the body interacts with machines it is not always medical, for example the bicycle or wheels. The machine-body interface is about supplement (both addition and in terms of a Derridean ‘supplement’). This line of enquiry leads onto interesting discussions of posthumanism, a topic that was gestured towards throughout the day, but not fully engaged with: a focus for another time.

The second part of the event brought a welcome informality to the non-presenting delegates, with ‘Show and Tell’ stations to peruse and interact with at your own speed. These were broad topics, which provided short and succinct access to a wider talking point. Kay Nias, for example demonstrated the importance of the objects in understanding more fully the history of physiotherapy – with the massage vibrators indicating the medicalisation of the physiotherapy field. Similarly, Farrah Lawrence-Mackay showed us a fascinating film from the 1950s, of a US reporter getting inside an Iron Lung, and documenting how it felt to be inside the machine. While the machinery of the Iron Lung is itself fascinating, and not widely discussed, this particular film offers unique insights into the lived experience of being inside the machine, and vital access into the sensations of the experience: even as he struggles to breath, the reporter, in true energetic attitude, continues to talk, and keeps up the report, helping the viewer gain some sense of what it must feel like.

After lunch, discussions became more focused, but no less engaging. We split into groups for a breakout session, to mind-map thoughts on this topic, before feeding back to the whole room. Discussions were broad, and yet interesting intersections came out of different groups’ discussions. For example, there was particular emphasis on accessing and sensing the internal body – bringing the inside out. Machines and technologies are really the only ways we can do this; the stethoscope or the x-ray machine. Discussions also considered the idea of ‘enhancement’, a term which requires unpicking and disentangling, but seems to play out on multiple levels: what are opinions of technological enhancement? Is this part of or distinct from sensory enhancement?

Discussion turned to a consideration of the body’s biome, especially in relation to gut health and bacteria. In doing so, we seemed to turn away from a technological or mechanical discussion of the body, towards something more ‘natural’ – biome, ecosystem. We seemed to grasp for “natural” metaphors – but what does this instinct indicate? Language is important, and something we need to think about more, as we begin to delineate what we perceive as ‘machines’, ‘technologies’, and even ‘bodies’.

Much of my discussion, including within my breakout group, concerned a specific focus on ‘the senses’, specifically smell. We don’t often talk about smell, unless it’s particularly pungent or unpleasant, but it is a vital sense, especially in terms of awareness for our own or others’ bodies. The olfactory focus might be on the verge of a renaissance, however, following in the steps of recent popularity to consider vision and haptics. We also discussed the presence of smell in outreach work and museum spaces: smell could provide an added dimension of immersion and simulation to understand an experience, but it is something cautioned against, given its power to trigger memory, and the difficultly of avoiding it. Is there value in bringing smell into the learning experience, and how can this be done, effectively and sensitively?

There were plenty of takeaways from the day’s discussion, and although we did not establish a specific project going-forward, we certainly began the process. We were all in agreement that the most successful and important work to come out of this area (as with others) is to hear all voices: to encourage collaboration and interdisciplinarity, crucially that is not confined to the academy, but engages and connects with the public, with the intention of sharing knowledge and making knowledge accessible.

This workshop was a collaboration between Medicine Galleries Research Fellows at the Science Museum, London, and Bristol Senses Cluster, with support from Wellcome Trust.

Dr Marie Allitt is an Associate Lecturer in English and Related Literature at the University of York, and Postdoctoral Research Assistant for the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research, at University of Leeds. Her research focuses on the lived experience of caregiving, with her PhD exploring First World War memoirs and the representations of senses and spaces.

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