Sensitive Subjects Pt. 1: Consent in Creative Practice Research

In the first of three articles for The Polyphony, Olivia Turner reflects on ethics in creative practice research in the critical medical humanities, following a workshop she organised at Newcastle University. She begins with the issue of consent.

In June 2023, as part of Newcastle Medical Humanities Network, I organised the workshop Sensitive Subjects: Creative Practice and Ethics. It welcomed artists, curators, and academics from Newcastle University to consider ethics in creative practice research. This event also aimed to give visibility to the critical mass of academics at Newcastle University working through practice-led research in the field of critical medical humanities. The workshop explored approaches in performance, film, curation, creative writing, and fine art and their nuanced relationships with ethical practices, methods, and subject material. By situating creative practice within the field of medical humanities it opens a critical discourse to help shape and give form to the often complex questions around real, lived and living sensitive subjects.

The question of sensitive subjects has been prompted within my own teaching and research through working with the University’s Dissection Room, body donation and cadavers. This year, I worked with a small group of fine art students from undergraduate and postgraduate level to create a slow ethical introduction for drawing in the dissection room, taking account of the legal regulations, moral responsibilities, and duty of care for the teaching staff, the physical room itself, the specimens, and the students. A complex pedagogical space, which in turn created what my students said were excellent and profound experiences that they will remember for the rest of their lives. But it also brought with it an additional challenge around contextualising sensitive subjects and collections. 

Manon Parry for the Science Museum argues, ‘to propose deeper engagement with these ‘risky’ materials and the histories they represent… limited engagement with these histories in wider society, and with the on-going inequalities they sustain’ shows the pertinence for engaging with ethical research practices around sensitive subjects (Parry 2020). Therefore, using spaces such as the Medical Humanities Network to cultivate critical reflection on the ways this shapes medical research, healthcare, and health will help to address stigma and discrimination in these realms as well as in wider society. This is a contribution that we can take as a Network to not only think about these concerns but to put forward practical changes.

A brightly coloured abstract collage over a list entitled: 'A pleasure and care-centred ethic of embodied and relational sexual Otherness'.
Figure 1: Object detail from Justice Recitations by Dr Tina Sikka and Lady Kitt

Consent as a sensitive subject

The first panel of speakers was formed around the topic of consent as a sensitive subject and included Tina Sikka, Reader in Technoscience and Intersectional Justice in the School of Arts and Culture; Sarah Li, Artist; Lyn Hagan, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Fine Art; and Alex Pheby, Professor of Creative Writing. Sikka and Li in their talk, Sexual Ethics and Lived Experience, detailed a collaborative project, which studied the intersection of sexual ethics, violence and lived experience by critiquing consent. Through an interdisciplinary approach between cultural science and creative practice, they sought to reimagine alternative sexual norms and practices that might be more orientated towards social justice goals. 

As part of the project, they organised workshops for students who had lived experienced of sexual violence. Due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter, Sikka made clear they did not want the individual’s participation in the workshops to ‘retraumatise’, or for participants to have to share their experiences, but instead the focus was on how lived experience can facilitate broader conversations around consent and sexual ethics. Therefore, the workshop drew out conversations around the issues and cultures around consent, such as the disarticulation of theory and practice, lack of an embodied framework, heteronormativity and ethnocentricity, its history of racism and colonialism, and the reinforcement of gender roles. Alternative approaches were considered like affirmative, enthusiastic, and communicative consent, sexual autonomy and integrity, and queer sexuality. 

While the workshop participants reflected on models of consent, Lady Kitt and Sarah Li, who were artists on the project, facilitated thinking-through-making. They used the template ‘consent forms’ as a way of physically and conceptually playing with framing ideas (Figures 1 and 2) and drew on Sarah Corbett’s Craftivist theory to consider art making as a way of making real change in the world (Corbett 2017). The objects created by the participants were shown, alongside artworks by Lady Kitt, as part of an online public exhibition (Figure 3). The workshop conversations and reflections were further explored as part of an artistic response by Sarah Li, who created a film. Through an embodied approach to filmmaking, Li focused on the non-verbal communication and complex physical cues of consent through dance and sound. Sikka asked us to reenvisage consent as ‘a pleasure and care-centred ethic of embodied relational sexual Otherness’, whereby consent is understood within the following framing: sexual acts as assemblages, mutual pleasure and reciprocity, queering boundaries and practices, requiring an ethic of communication, centring an orientation to the Other, reflecting sex as embodied.

Creative-critical research to explore the non-human

Lyn Hagan, who is currently undertaking an Early Career Leverhulme Fellowship in Fine Art, discussed her creative-critical research into non-human post-nuclear landscapes, First the animals, then us. Hagan asserted the importance of tackling sensitive subjects and how ‘the arts is really well equipped to do [this]’. Reading her creative writing about a post-nuclear landscape, Hagan explored how science and technology invades and subjugates bodies, specifically non-human bodies. Science fiction has enabled us to reimagine ways of living, existing, and dying. The escapist daydreaming of sci-fi, Hagan argues, always ends in rejection, the group of the ‘left behind’ because of their race, class, gender, or species. The narratives of progress and experimentation have an unseen underside, whereby captive and expendable bodies are the subject of testing, typically the non-human body. However, the integration and hybridisation of AI and technology has resulted in the boundary between human and non-human to begin to disappear, which Hagan argued forces us to recognise the other as self. 

A collage image of an old-fashioned set of scales over typed text
Figure 2: Photograph of object created during the Justice Beyond The Binary power object with Lady Kitt. Artwork by Anonymous. Photograph by Sarah Li.

Problematising the ethics of consent and the interrogation of personal trauma

Alex Pheby’s performance-lecture How to write about things you can’t think about was a provocation about how one writes about the sensitive subject of personal trauma when trying to avoid thinking about it, but feels compelled to do so. This played with the tension between objectivity and subjectivity – a self-conscious performance-lecture that offset the assumption of the performer‘s discourse. Pheby stated, ‘see how I’ve gone off topic… and my heart is pounding’ and narrated how the audience saw him objectively, whilst he subjectively perceived himself. It became a physical manifestation of the physiological reactivity the body undergoes in stress when attempting to come near the personal subject of trauma. As Pheby outlined, ‘I’m not convinced that writing or talking about a thing I don’t want to think about will be helpful for me.’ Therefore, as the audience we are forced to ask, what compels us to write about this anyway?

The entangling of the personal and public nature of writing, Pheby questions how this problematises the ethics of consent and the interrogation of trauma. Who accounts for the self in this situation and, as Pheby says, ‘my possible retraumatisation’, questioning who is at the centre of this particular ethical issue. Are there structures in place that will make this OK and ensure that the self will not be harmed? Fundamentally, Pheby argues that consent and ethics may always have inherent structural issues around trauma and the traumatised self.

Flyer for the Justice Recitations exhibition
Figure 3: Online exhibition Justice Recitations by Dr Tina Sikka and Lady Kitt

Reflections on the ethical questions raised in doing and writing research 

Following on from the first panel of talks was a discussion between the speakers chaired by Gethin Rees, Senior Lecturer in Sociology. Rees asked Sikka and Li if, during their project, they explored other scenarios of informed consent or consent to harm within their reimagined model and whether this can be applied further than sexual intimacy. Li explained the importance of this consent model and its impact on subsequent projects by creating ethical methods that stop ‘the perpetuation of violence’ within the research itself. 

Sikka also noted that the issue of embodiment is key, connecting to Hagan’s work on feminist new materialism, and the focus on ‘distributed agency’ – can we have consent when we are problematising the self and want to move beyond the self? Within a posthuman world, who has the right to consent and how can that consent be enacted? Hagan explored the ontological in between and placed their work at the threshold of what is and is not life. This is rooted in making visible the subjugation of nonhuman bodies, whereby the current model of consent is not extended to include them. 

The ethical questions raised in doing and writing research also extends to the readership. What responsibilities do we also have towards the reader within the work and do they have a right to consent? Pheby argued the issue of ‘the subject and the real’ is dominant throughout research, particularly in relation to the subject of ethics. He questioned the extent to which the real is ever really available, how this affects our grasp on the self, and the contingent nature of ethics more broadly.

Part two of this series will be published on 22 September 2023. See full series here.

Olivia Turner is an artist and researcher based in the North-East of England. She is currently working as a Postdoctoral Practice-led Researcher and Associate Lecturer at Newcastle University. Her practice moves between writing, sculpture, performance and moving image to explore themes of illness, wildness, feminism and bodily agency. Her recent works perform interventions in the Shefton Collection of Greek Art and Archaeology and she frequently collaborates with Classical archaeologist Dr Sally Waite. Follow Olivia on Instagram and Twitter.

Sensitive Subjects was kindly supported by Newcastle University’s Institutes for Creative Practice and Humanities.

References

Corbett, Sarah. 2017. How to be a Craftivist: The Art of Gentle Protest. London: Unbound.

Parry, Manon. 2020. ‘The valuable role of risky histories: exhibiting disability, race and reproduction in medical museums’, Science Museum Group Journal. AutumnSpecial Issue: Curating Medicine.

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