Confabulations: Art Practice, Art History, Critical Medical Humanities

Convenors Fiona Johnstone, Allison Morehead and Imogen Wiltshire reflect on the Confabulations programme so far.

Launched in October 2021, Confabulations: Art Practice, Art History, Critical Medical Humanities aims to make explicit the contributions that artists and art historians can make to debates and developments in critical medical humanities and, in turn, offer ways of expanding the possibilities of art practice and art history. With a title inspired by the work of John Berger, Saidiya Hartman, as well as psychological processes of imagination, Confabulations calls on artists and art historians who are ‘medical humanities curious’ as well as those who already identify with the field.[1] Through this initiative, we – the convenors – aim to make and hold space for experimentation, risk, and dialogue in order to foster a community of practitioners and scholars hoping to shape future relations and interdependencies among art practice, art history, and critical medical humanities.

Confabulations in 2021

For our inaugural event the art historian Gemma Blackshaw and art writer Alice Butler delivered a performed dialogue of work in progress. Their presentation took the form of an epistolary exchange between two historical ‘sick women correspondents’: the nineteenth-century dancer, singer, and TB tourist Bessie Bruce; and the dancer, actress, and writer Cookie Mueller, who died from causes related to AIDS in 1989. Foregrounding letter writing as creative research method, Blackshaw and Butler reflected on embodied and auto-theoretical practices of feminist art history as praxis and care.

In November 2021 Confabulations hosted the participatory workshop ‘Feelings, Objects, Altars’, curated by Julie Hollenbach and Robin Alex McDonald, and guided by artist Justice Walz. The workshop built on Ann Cvetkovich’s concept of the bibliographic altar as an affective research tool to explore depression, expanding the concept to apply to artworks such as Tracy Emin’s My Bed and Justice Walz’s Anxiety Escape Kit. Following a theoretical and art historical framing, participants were invited to assemble their own bibliographic altars and reflect on the process in small groups.

Justice Walz, Anxiety Escape Kit, 2017. As displayed in The Sustenance Rite. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

The final event of 2021 explored medical imaging practices in relation to the contemporary clinical encounter. Presentations from Silvia Casini (author of Giving Bodies Back to Data, MIT 2021) and artists Beverley Hood (Immobile Choreography) and Liz Orton (Digital Insides / Every Body is an Archive) were followed by a roundtable conversation that explored operational images and machine vision; the phenomenological experience of being imaged; arts-science collaborations; and the value of artists’ contributions to knowledge generation in the medical humanities.

Bringing the distinct worlds of art and academia together

At the start of 2022, we thought it fitting to take a moment to collectively confabulate(!) on the series so far.

Fiona: Many of the artists participating in Confabulations have worked on topics relating to health and illness for quite significant period of time, yet until now have typically addressed their work to an artworld audience rather than a medical humanities audience. It has been really exciting to make those two quite distinct worlds come together.

Allison: Exactly! Many contemporary artists work on issues related to health and medicalised bodies, without explicitly engaging the medical or health humanities; similarly, many art historians draw on and participate in conversations in the history of medicine, but don’t see themselves as contributing to or benefiting from the exciting work emerging, in particular, from the critical medical humanities. We want to see what happens when we deliberately open the door for transhistorical and transdisciplinary, art-led conversations on health- and medical-related experience, knowledge, care, research, and education.

Imogen: Yes, absolutely, and from this perspective it has been fantastic that the series has had multiple audiences so far; the three events were attended by artists, art historians and medical humanities researchers, as well as clinicians, with no one single discipline or profession dominating, which has meant that a range of insights have been brought to the Q&As. I’m also really pleased that the events have drawn audiences, as well as speakers, at all career stages; I think this is particularly important in view of our aim of shaping future relations across art practice, art history and critical medical humanities.

Fiona: For me, one of the most fascinating things to emerge from our programme has been the range of methodological approaches. I don’t mean this in a disciplinary sense particularly, but in the sense of material methods that could potentially be useful for researchers in a variety of fields. For example, Blackshaw and Butler’s presentation, ‘Correspondence as Care’, drew my attention to the possibilities of physical letter writing as a collaborative research technique. During the first Covid-19 lockdown, when making the time for formal research felt almost impossible, Blackshaw and Butler began to write to each other about their overlapping research interests. The embodied physicality of the correspondence and the release from the immediacy of digital communication offered Blackshaw and Butler a slow and sensuous way of inhabiting their research material. I’m attracted to this kind of unhurried scholarship, which feels like a much-needed antidote to the pace of academic life!

Emily Dickinson, Long Years apart, Amherst Manuscript 277, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Allison: The series definitely emerges from these pandemic times, including directly from our collaboration with the Early Career Researcher network Thinking Through Things: Object Encounters in the Medical Humanities, which had to move to online delivery in late 2020. It also emerges from the urgent need to do things differently in academia, to resist the capitalist drive towards “productivity” and “outputs” as a means to question and counter academia’s racism, sexism, and ableism. I see enormous value in assuming nothing about what new methods of being and doing might come about when we allow ourselves to function otherwise. This was really brought home to me with the ‘Feelings, Objects, Altars’ workshop, in which participants grouped objects from their homes to create bibliographic altars and then shared their altars with each other. This workshop also struck me as important in the way it allowed for intergenerational confabulations, bringing together the work of established scholar Ann Cvetkovich – who attended the workshop and cheered everyone on – and emerging scholars, artists, and curators who are making an urgent case for new methods.

Imogen: Connected to this impetus to do things differently, what has indeed struck me on a very broad level about the three sessions are the questions they posed about the what, the how, and the why of research, and the creative and exciting possibilities they proposed. In ‘Feelings, Objects, Altars’ Hollenbach, McDonald and Walz created such an effective space for actively embracing, considering and, importantly, sharing the affective dimensions of research and writing itself, something which academic institutions and formats do not often make room for. On the topic of methodology, like Fiona, I was also inspired by Blackshaw and Butler’s correspondence as a slower, embodied form that in this case achieves an evocative amplification of voices across and through lapses in time. I found their rethinking of letter writing as creative, art historical practice hugely stimulating for the new possibilities it opens up. Meanwhile, the suggestion made by Beverley Hood in ‘Medical Imaging and the Contemporary Clinical Encounter’ of art as ‘an early warning system’ has stayed with me as one way of thinking about how art operates in the entangled space of critical medical humanities.

Image © Beverley Hood, Immobile Choreography, 2019.

Fiona: The sessions engaged – in sometimes surprising ways – with a range of concepts that are central to medical humanities scholarship. Blackshaw and Butler’s presentation explored the challenges of ‘reconstructing’ the lived experience of two historical ‘sick women’. The autobiographical artwork is often presumed to offer unmediated access to lived experience; Blackshaw and Butler showed how lived experience is actively constructed through the art-making process, rather than constituting a pre-existing actuality. This brought to mind Stuart Hall’s assertation that there is no “true” representation of people or events in an art work; for Hall, culture is not a direct transcription of lived experience, but the means through which subjects seek to order and make sense of that lived experience.[2]

Allison: This concept of lived experience is so important right now to medical humanities scholarship and more broadly to social justice movements both within academia and without. It is my hope that through some of the conversations we have scheduled for 2022, we can help ensure that lived experience as a way of thinking deeply and complexly about embodied and connected experience doesn’t get blunted by institutional co-opting, which tends to individualize and commodify lived experience. I’m also really looking forward to ‘Being Horizontal’, which I think will connect up in interesting ways with the bibliographic altar workshop, and of course ‘Patient-Doctor Intimates’, which pairs an artist-filmmaker with an art historian, who bring different methods to bear on the question of healthcare intimacies.

Imogen: I would add, finally, that another subject that was interwoven across the three sessions, and on which there has also been attention recently, is that of the different forms of and approaches to care. Blackshaw and Butler probed correspondence as a form of literary care, and in ‘Feelings, Objects, Altars’ we thought about our own ‘sets of sources that become precious’, as material objects that offer ‘care, refuge, comfort and company.’ For me, a perhaps more unexpected element of ‘Medical Imaging and the Contemporary Clinical Encounter’ was the discussion of care, not only as something given by medical professionals but also, interestingly, as action undertaken prior to the clinical encounter in relation to the medical technologies that anticipate the body. Along with the concept of lived experience, I think that care in its complexities and ambiguities will be an area that future sessions will also explore further.

Events scheduled for early 2022 include:

Daniel Regan, from the series “Insula” © the artist.

‘What is “Lived Experience”?’ (12 January 2022): a conversation between artist, mental health activist, and community organizer Daniel Regan, and the academic historian of contemporary medical psychiatry Chris Millard, on the significance and genealogy of the concept of ‘lived experience’ in art, medical, and academic spaces. NB. This event has now taken place. A recording is available on the Confabulations website until the end of January 2022.

Harold Offeh, still from “Lounging” © the artist.

‘Being Horizontal: Vulnerability, Interdependence and Resistance’ (9 February 2022), is curated by artist Nora Heidorn and comprises films by Nashashibi/Skaer, Teatro da Vertigem and Kinkaleri, a live-to-camera performance by artist Harold Offeh, and a roundtable with Heidorn, Offeh and Felicity Callard.

Vanessa Bell, Portrait of Dr Marie Moralt (first exhibited as Portrait of Mrs M.), 1919. Oil on canvas, 68.2 x 56.8 cm. Photo: © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Artistic copyright: © Estate of Vanessa Bell / SOCAN (2021).

‘Patient-Doctor Intimates’ (9 March 2022) pairs an artist, Olivia Turner, with a historian of modern art, Alison Syme. The session includes a screening of Turner’s short film work, O (Symptom) and a paper by Syme on the relationship and collaborations between Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell and a “lady doctor,” Marie Moralt, opening up a conversation on the entangled relationships among women patients, doctors, care-receivers and care-givers.


Confabulations is co-directed by Dr Fiona Johnstone (Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University); Dr Allison Morehead (Department of Art History, Queen’s University, Katarokwi (Kingston), Canada); and Dr Imogen Wiltshire (Department of History of Art and Film, University of Leicester). It is supported by funding from Durham University’s Institute for Medical Humanities; Queen’s University, Katarokwi (Kingston), Canada; the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada; and the University of Leicester ISSF Wellcome Funding. Event facilitation support is provided by Durham University’s Institute for Medical Humanities.

Further information, including details of our past and future programme, can be found on the Confabulations website.


[1] Berger, John. Confabulations (London: Penguin, 2016); Hartman, Saidiya, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (2008): 1-14.

[2] Stuart Hall, “The Work of Representation” in Stuart Hall (ed.) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE. 1997, pp. 13-74. See also Kobena Mercer, “Stuart Hall and the Visual Arts”, Small Axe, 19.1 (2015): 78-87.

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