Sensitive Subjects Pt. 2: Creative Practice and Ethics in Times of Loss

In part two of a series, Olivia Turner reflects on the Sensitive Subjects: Creative Practice and Ethics workshop she organised at Newcastle University, turning this week to issues around bereavement and grief.

The second panel of speakers at Sensitive Subjects was shaped around the topic of loss and included Ruth Raynor, Lecturer in Urban Planning; and Anne Whitehead, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature. Raynor’s talk Beyond the waves: Geographies of grief during Covid-19 described an ongoing project about loss and grief during Covid-19. She is collaborating with Karen Underhill, whose personal bereavement as a result of Covid-19 is the centre point for the work, bringing together a community of people who share this lived experience. Raynor noted how their project is working with the ‘converse’ of what Alex Pheby proposed in his talk How to write about things you can’t think about (see part one), she asks: ‘What happens when all of the usual rituals and spaces and connections that we have developed in order to mark the loss of somebody we love are stripped away? Who gets to consent to that type of inaction?’ The collaboration between Raynor and Underhill was born out of a wish to help people understand their experiences of bereavement during Covid-19 and how that community in particular felt their grief had not been seen or acknowledged. The purpose of this project is to tell these stories and contribute to research that will help change the experiences for those in the future. 

Beyond the waves manifests as a series of workshops, run along with psychologist Jessica Komes, bringing together individuals who shared this lived experience of grief during Covid-19. The workshops explored the emotional and physiological impact of grief on the body and the significance of embodied relationships with place. As Raynor asked: ‘How might the places hold memories of a person?’ and how was this impacted by the pandemic? The project has culminated in a performance, which Raynor has written the script for, communicating these experiences and the research. Raynor also highlighted the ethical implications of collaborations more broadly and the necessity of having clear boundaries and structures of support in place. This was particularly important for the researchers who were responsible for holding the emotional and physical spaces for the participants and work.

Two photographic images of a hand in a grassy space
Film still, Where We Will Go (2023) by Kate Sweeney.

Perinatal loss and representing lived experience

Whitehead detailed a recently completed collaborative project, Working with Lived Experience of Losing a Baby From a Multiple Pregnancy, working alongside Judith Rankin, Professor of Maternal and Child Health at Newcastle University, and artist-researcher Kate Sweeney. Whitehead in this talk discussed the practice of representing a subject that is ‘profoundly sensitive’ to the parents involved in the project. The central output was the creation of a film, Where We Will Go by Kate Sweeney (Figure 1), which was screened as part of the Sensitive Subjects workshop. The parents saw the film as having two purposes: to function as a resource for other parents and as an archive for the participating families to facilitate future personal conversations around the loss of a sibling and child. Fundamentally, the parents had a clear sense from the beginning of what they wanted from the project, which was for the film to represent their experiences.

Whitehead explained how they worked individually with the parents and, similarly to Raynor’s project Beyond the waves, signalled the importance of place. As part of this, Sweeney invited the parents to go on a ‘memory walk’ in a place that was meaningful to them and to gather materials. She then made the inks from the collected materials (Figure 2), which were used as part of the filmmaking and animation process (Figure 3). For the second stage of the project, the parents were brought together. The text and voiceover of the film were conversations captured during the workshops. Whitehead noted how the participants, researchers, and artist were all given agency in the production of the film and feedback sessions were incorporated to ensure everyone had a voice. 

A photographic image of a glass bottle containing a reddish ink with a funnel in it with a straining cloth in the top
Film still, Where We Will Go (2023) by Kate Sweeney.

Whitehead spoke on two themes from the project that resonated with the topic of sensitive subjects. Firstly, drawing on Alex Pheby’s talk and ‘how to work on topics we can’t think about’, Whitehead explained how the parents struggled to think about their lived experience of loss and how the team worked on this with them. The film became an important message of hope for how topics we cannot think about at that moment in time, might then come to feel in a few years. Furthermore, Whitehead described how the conversations captured during the workshops were based around the inks and their making. The inks became a medium through which the parents could talk about their loss indirectly and through a ‘poetic vocabulary of grief’ (Figure 4). As Whitehead noted, this process worked ‘perhaps more powerfully so than if we were addressing this head on.’ By giving the parents a different type of language, one that is formed through making and creative practice, they were given another type of expression to articulate their feelings. Whitehead highlighted the value of ‘indirection’ when approaching sensitive subjects and how creative practice enables ‘coming at things at a slant’.

Secondly, Whitehead spoke of the importance to the film of ‘a structure of triangulation’ and its relationship specifically to sensitive subjects. Whitehead and Sweeney facilitated the workshops for the parents and this triad disrupted the clinical connotations of the one-to-one, and for a grief that is felt to be unheard, the ‘witness function’ of the third person became important for the parents’ experience. As much as the project and film were about telling these stories, it was also about ‘enacting and reinforcing’ the practice of listening to ensure the stories were heard.

Two photographic images, the first of a series of glass bottles containing brownish-pinkish inks and the second of ink marks on paper
Film still, Where We Will Go (2023) by Kate Sweeney.

Reflections on structural boundaries and sensitive subjects

The second panel was followed by a discussion between Raynor and Whitehead that was chaired by Alison Atkinson-Phillips, Lecturer in Public History. As Atkinson-Phillips noted, there are many synergies between the two projects, such as the power of witnessing grief, the strong metaphors of water and the sea, what happens when you ‘untap grief’ and how it flows around a place or space, and how all of these aspects impact the researchers as well as the participants. Due to the nature of sensitive subjects, they can affect a person in unexpected and unforeseen ways, which can be difficult to navigate as researchers. Raynor explained the importance of structure and boundaries to help with the complexity of this, as well as building in space for debriefing. Furthermore, she added the need for external guidance and psychological support for the research team, as often it is only the participants who are considered. Whitehead too acknowledged the importance of this, and the years’ worth of prior experience Judith Rankin brought to the team in working with the sensitive subject of loss, which was very important to help navigate the uncertain or unexpected. They worked with the charity Tiny Lives to embed specialist support for the participants, but she also emphasised the importance of ethically accounting for the needs of the research team.

Part three of this series will be published on 10 October 2023. See full series here.

A dreamy image in blue inks that seems to represent a seascape with a cetacean flipping its tail in the water
Film still, Where We Will Go (2023) by Kate Sweeney.

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, www.oliviaturner.co.uk.

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

You can watch the film ‘Where We Will Go’ by Kate Sweeney here: https://research.ncl.ac.uk/nclmedhums/our-projects/

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