Marie Allitt, Agnes Arnold-Forster, Harriet Barratt, Victoria Bates, Rebecka Fleetwood-Smith, and Clare Hickman reflect on the recent ‘Senses and Health/Care Environments’ conference, which took place in Bristol earlier this spring.
In April 2022, the authors of this blog post hosted a hybrid conference in Bristol (UK) on the theme of ‘senses and health/care environments’. This event was held as part of an interdisciplinary and international network, also titled Senses and Health/Care Environments, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and ran across two rooms: one room hosted presentations, while the second hosted a range of roundtables and artist-led workshops. The first room was professionally live streamed to delegates, and in the second room we brought online delegates ‘in’ where we could use more informal methods such as an iPad. In this blog, we reflect on what this dual format (papers/workshops) added to the event and how we benefited from engaging the senses through the combination of the two. Through the workshops, we engaged in forms of embodied knowledge production, which complemented and supported lessons from more traditional papers.
Woven throughout the conference were creative, interactive elements which involved using different forms of creative practice to develop understandings through our bodies. Liz Hingley’s photography workshop found us kneeling on grass looking at gnarled roots, lichen and snakes-head fritillaries where we directed our gaze through the lens of a camera, looking closely, and discovering details often overlooked, unseen, or ignored. This practice was contextualised and framed by discussions of the body and its movement, whether outside on the heath or from a hospital bed.
The exploration of unnamed scents in Clara Weale’s ‘Smells Medicinal’ workshop led to evocative, rich descriptions in which we shared memories and imagined the scents’ origins and use. We explored the connections between sound, material, and movement in a marbling workshop run by Chloe Cooper, Ruth Herbert and Jackie Walduck, in which we created sounds and mimicked these sounds through the ‘trance’ created by marbling techniques (dripping, spreading, swirling, disintegrating). These creative practices allowed us to examine the ways in which we engage with health/care environments and explore the opportunities that creative approaches afford in facilitating new forms of understanding provoking imaginative engagement with different themes, concepts, and ideas.
To listen to the piece created during the workshop, follow this QR code and scroll down to the red section titled ‘Music Created at Senses in Health/Care Environments Conference’ (with thanks to Jackie Walduck for sharing):
The embodied and sensory ways in which we participated in the conference permeated disciplinary boundaries and permitted a sense of creative freedom. ‘Let your arms move like wings, with feathers on the end of your fingers’. With that instruction from Filipa Periera-Stubbs in her session with Natalie Ellis, we were invited to release ourselves from the traditional formality of notetaking seated on conference chairs and encouraged to trust and find knowledge through our own physicality and movement. Rather than inhabiting our academic, practitioner and artist personas we engaged on perhaps a more democratic and human level where we connected with the senses in a more embodied and practical way. After all, what does it mean to trust your own senses, or your own body, or even someone else’s?
Similarly, the artist collective, Threads, who invited participants to touch one of their artworks to reveal what was hidden underneath, not just intellectually stimulated us, but also provoked their audience by encouraging us to physically move towards and around the subject matter, to pick it up and to press on it. We explored an open studio which involved unfacilitated interactions with a series of artworks – we held, manipulated, photographed, listened, touched, and watched the various artworks.
The physicality of the sessions sparked creative and imaginative responses as our bodies interacted with other people, things and places, as well as ideas and concepts. These ideas and concepts linked with, spoke to, and enhanced our understanding of key themes raised in the papers. Thinking ‘by doing’ came up as a key theme throughout the papers as well as the workshops. This ‘thinking by doing’ was also a practice in which we participated ourselves and in which we encouraged the delegates – not only those there in person – to engage. We provided a conference kit that allowed not just for note-taking but for active listening and thinking through our hands: the kit encouraged creative doodling, decorating and mapping.
Across the papers and workshops we recognised shared emerging themes of learning and unlearning; adaption and adaptation; and noticing and revealing. We provide a few examples below, but the full programme can be found on our webpage alongside a comprehensive conference write up by Olivia Turner.
An emphasis on learning and unlearning came through when considering the connection between recording and observing: how does the body take part in the world while recording it? Discussing ‘learning at every touch’, for example, Christine Slobogin’s work on the Second World War artist Dickie Orpen explored the relationship between the gaze and the hand. In our workshops we had similarly examined – through movement and making – questions about the limits of language, sensory ways of knowing, and sensory attunement. Leading on from this, a common focus throughout many of the presentations was the importance on borders and boundaries, and the responsibility for the ‘policing’ of such borders – whether between physical, neurological and emotional states, as in Ben Lee’s work on sensory ‘gating’ in schizophrenia treatment, or the blurred public/private ownership of healthcare spaces such as the ward bed (as explored by Diana Novaceanu).
There was also a recurring emphasis on adaption and adaptation, including the improvisation of home and the return of agency. The papers and workshops together encouraged us to ask if the body must always bend to work with the space, or might a space move to work with the body? For example, Camille Bellet brought a valuable veterinary perspective by looking towards the farm as a healthcare space, with its distinct sensory conditions and demands for the veterinarian, revealing further ways in which bodies bend and senses adapt for different purposes. This aligned with themes we explored in workshops, for example adapting movement practices to different bodies and spaces.
Several papers brought attention to the importance of noticing and revealing unseen (or unsensed) aspects of healthcare and care environments. Claire Jeantils showed how the sensory makeup of such spaces might be a trigger for epileptic symptoms: it can create an environment of hostility, discomfort, and even danger if the sensory environment is not carefully considered. Other papers allowed us to explore the unseen, unheard, or unacknowledged aspects of health/care environments in which people, things and atmospheres were revealed. For example, in their joint panel ‘Materialities of Breathlessness’, Havi Carel, Kate Binnie and Coreen McGuire discussed the vital link between breathlessness and sensory experience, and detailed the intense emotional attachments patients may develop towards their oxygen tanks or inhalers. These papers echoed many of the discussions and experiences we had in workshop sessions. Together, workshops, performances, and papers supported us in thinking through the value and methods of paying close sensory attention. They were intertwined as ways of thinking creatively and critically about healthcare senses.
Interactive, multi-sensory and creative activities in conferences do not constitute a ‘break’ from the academic, nor are they in opposition to it. As Helen Jury put it in her talk, there is an inherent mess or ‘stickiness’ to psychical and artistic work – an experimentation which brings with it the huge potential for shared meaning. By the same measure, workshops such as those we put together for ‘Senses in Modern Health/Care Environments’ are a fundamental part of exploring critical and complex questions. In our example, they offered us routes through the limits of language, and ways to think about embodied forms of knowledge. They also offered us spaces and opportunities for active reflection on the themes raised in academic papers, and the two rooms were in dialogue throughout the conference. Our theme, of the senses, lent itself particularly to exploring these forms of embodied knowledge and practices. We believe that the same applies to most people working in the medical humanities, though, and here make a case that more diverse ways of knowing, exploring, and thinking should be a core part of all such events.
 Threads are three artists for whom health and conversations about it are central to their practice. Riko Yasumiya, Rose Mengmei Zhou, Lois Bentley here collaborating with Richard Colchester, Researcher, UCL.
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