Irrational Fears (and Aversions)

Last week’s #CuriousConversations was one of our most responded to yet. Rob Bidder had already drawn the first batch of your irrational fears but so many of you got in touch that we carried the conversation on for another week. Richard Firth-Godbehere was particularly interested in some of your submissions and discusses the sometimes abstract causes of aversion.

Wellcome Collection recently kicked off one of its #CuriousConversations with a simple question: “what are your irrational fears?” The answers ranged from one of the most common phobias of all (spiders) to the more unusual (balloons or, in my case, wooden objects in my mouth). Throughout all of these responses, a few predominant aversive emotions shone through that are often found tied to irrational fears: anxiety, hatred, horror and disgust.

This observation is nothing new. In the thirteenth century, St Thomas Aquinas said that the passion of aversive feelings in opposition to desiring “has no name”. The best description he could think of was “aversion or abomination”. Here are a few examples of the #CuriousConversations responses:

In the 1970s, philosopher Aurel Kolnai noticed that these aversive emotions have an asymmetry with desiring emotions in that the causes of aversions are more abstract than the causes of desires. Whereas the cause of a love of balloons is usually clear and rational (such as a happy memory or aesthetic pleasure), the reason to fear them is irrational and harder to grasp. What’s more, these irrational aversions are not focused only on their central object; they also affect related behaviour.

By way of an example, one of the tweets particularly caught my attention. @charlottelb tweeted:

This phobia is the reason I became interested in aversive emotions in the first place. My wife has lived with Emetophobia for some time (now controlled through CBT) and her phobia was not fear alone: it was a mixture of aversive emotions. The most powerful was the combination of two whose links to phobias are becoming increasingly well documented: anxiety and disgust. Vomiting is an abomination to almost everybody as it combines many causes of disgust, such as the ejection of what is supposed to be contained within the body the wrong way through a bodily orifice of a substance that is putrefied; foul tasting; and able to remind us of our animal existence and mortality.

Rob Bidder's #CuriousConversations illustration, Irrationals Fears: First Batch.

Rob Bidder’s #CuriousConversations illustration, Irrationals Fears: First Batch.

The phobia stems, as do many phobias, from contamination anxiety. Horrifying and disgusting is the idea that another’s vomit may contaminate the self through either contact or sympathetic magic by hearing or seeing them vomit. The idea that the self has become contaminated, and might contaminate others, is terrifying and disgusting. Many Emetaphobes have such strong feelings of aversion that they obsessively clean, check and recheck food to make sure it is cooked, avoid eating out, and so on.

These mixed aversive emotions can trigger the avoidance of anything related to the phobia, real or imagined. As a result, phobias can rule your life, as might my dislike for wood on the roof of my mouth. Thankfully, my love of Magnum ice-creams is more powerful.

There’s still time to submit your own irrational fears. Send us a tweet or comment below.

Richard is a Wellcome Trust supported Doctoral Candidate in the Medical Humanities at the Centre for the History of Emotions, Queen Mary, University of London. He is researching how the passions of aversion were related to medicine in the 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries. Find out more on his blog.

Object(s) of the month: Origin and Fossil Necklace

Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Aside from sounding like the ramblings of a philosophy student at three in the morning these are the ever pertinent questions addressed by two artworks currently on display at Wellcome Collection. This month Charlie Morgan takes a look at how these objects may offer answers to those questions.

Regular visitors to Medicine Now will be familiar with Origin by Daniel Lee. The looped video shows an animated Coelacanth-type fish evolve through reptiles and primates into a modern human: the scales disappear, the tails get shorter and, eventually, the body stands upright. By using smooth linking manipulated photos as opposed to clunky still images we are able to experience evolution as a fluid process and not just as a series of isolated points throughout history. Four floors up and in our Foreign Bodies: Common Ground exhibition, another piece does something very similar.

Origin by Daniel Lee

Origin by Daniel Lee

Katie Paterson is an award-winning Scottish artist who for six months was in residence at the Sanger Institute in Cambridgeshire. Here she became interested in genomic archaeology and after sourcing 170 different fossils (the oldest of which is a mere 3.5 billion years old) she had them carved into identically shaped beads and strung up on a necklace. The result is the first fashion accessory to document the history of life on earth and the first to ask the question “does my dinosaur stomach stone match my shoes?”

In Origin, the Coelacanth that starts the video emerged about 350-400 million years ago; in Fossil Necklace it would probably only appear about halfway down the right hand side. Fossil Necklace instead begins with the first single celled bacterial organisms to populate earth around 3.6 billion years ago. Since then, the earth and the living creatures that reside on it have developed, changed and evolved. As Katie Paterson notes, the only real links we have between them all is the DNA that the Sanger Institute studies and the fossils that she has collected.

Fossil Necklace by Katie Paterson

Fossil Necklace by Katie Paterson

While Fossil Necklace ends with the occurrence of written records approximately five thousand years ago, it also gives us a basis to pose questions about the future. Through Fossil Necklace we encounter five mass extinction events. These include the Late Devonian extinction which wiped out 75% of life on earth, but which was then topped by the aptly named ‘Great Dying’ and a whopping 95%. The most recent mass extinction was the most famous, the K/T extinction, which resulted in the death of the dinosaurs and a subsequent abundance of competing “whodunnit?” theories. 65 million years later and in an age of uncontested human dominance, a number of scientists are speculating a future – or, more accurately, an already underway – sixth extinction event: the Holocene extinction. We’ve already seen the death of the Dodo, the Auroch and the Mammoth to name but three amongst many, many others but it’s now estimated that “nearly 20,000 species of animals and plants around the globe are considered high risks for extinction in the wild”. How many of our present day creatures will soon just be fossils on a necklace?

Likewise Origin, by emphasising the various stages of human evolution (and as a result emphasising the ways in which those stages have adapted in order to survive), allows us to ask questions about what the future might hold for humanity. There is no shortage of theories; transhumanism anticipates a future merging of humanity with technology; a scientist has predicted we’ll soon be growing beaks; and one visitor to Foreign Bodies has suggested that the X-Men might be the most realistic prediction of future evolution. There is not much evidence to suggest humans are currently moving towards a new anatomical form or that we’ll soon be self-healing or shape shifting. Still, faced with constant fluctuations in the environment, climate and inhabitants of earth, both Fossil Necklace and Origin suggest we can be sure of one thing: something’s going to change.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and Foreign Bodies: Common Ground is on until 16th March.

To posit the posset

February has rolled in and with it the proliferation of sniffing, sneezing and hacking coughs ubiquitous in your local environment. If you are unlucky enough to have befallen this dreadful predicament, Rob Bidder offers an archaic remedy: the medieval posset.

Although you can’t visit our Medicine Man gallery at the moment (due to the development project currently underway) you can still enjoy some of its objects. Normally, among the erstwhile chamber pots and bleeding bowls, you’d see a very unassuming piece of crockery resembling a cross between a teapot and a biscuit jar. This is our Posset Pot. Henry Wellcome collected many such objects that were at one time a common household item. But what exactly is a posset?

Posset pot with lid, England, 1701-1800. Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Posset pot with lid, England, 1701-1800.
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

These days, the word has come to describe a lemony, blancmange style desert, but the posset of antiquity was a hot, milky, medicinal drink used to treat maladies as varied as malarial fevers, smallpox, the common cold and sleeping problems. The drink contains eggs, a sweetener such as syrup and usually some kind of ale or wine to separate and curdle the mixture. After the curdling, the liquid part can be poured out of the pot’s spout, leaving the sweet omelette solid (or “spoonmeat”) to be eaten separately.

You may be familiar with this elixir from various cultural sources. They are mentioned in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth drugs the bedtime drinks of Duncan’s guards. In John Masefield’s mystical children’s book Box of Delights, Kay Harker drinks a posset to clear his head before bed. It remained a popular choice of beverage from the 14th to 18th century, often being a staple at celebrations such as weddings.

Elaborate posset pot, tin glazed earthenware, English. Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

Elaborate posset pot, tin glazed earthenware, English.
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images

One of the most famous posset recipes available is that of Sir Kenelm Digby from his posthumously published 17th century recipe book The Cabinet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened. Digby himself is an interesting character: he was the son of an executed gunpowder plotter but still managed to find respect and renown as a courtier to King Charles I and II. He was a privateer of note, a patron of the arts (notably to Van Dyke), a devout catholic (when it was controversial, even dangerous, to be one), a natural philosopher and considered to be one of the deepest thinkers and brightest scientific minds of his time, despite his penchant for scrapping.

Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

The whole of Sir Digby’s recipe book is on Project Gutenberg and provides an intriguing insight into 17th century eating habits among the wealthy, providing evidence of recipe swapping and variations on many edibles, drinkables and esoteric potions such as the Powder of Sympathy, a magic-alchemical mixture that was used to heal wounds by applying it to the weapon used to cause the injury.

Frontispiece illustration of 'Sympathia' (Powder of Sympathy) Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Frontispiece illustration of ‘Sympathia’ (Powder of Sympathy).
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

There are many posset recipes in the book but here is one I tried personally:


Boil two wine-quarts of Sweet-cream in a Possnet; when it hath boiled a little, take it from the fire, and beat the yolks of nine or ten fresh Eggs, and the whites of four with it, beginning with two or three spoonfuls, and adding more till all be incorporated; then set it over the fire, to recover a good degree of heat, but not so much as to boil; and always stir it one way, least you break the consistence. In the mean time, let half a pint of Sack or White muscadin boil a very little in a bason, upon a Chafing-dish of Coals, with three quarters of a pound of Sugar, and three or four quartered Nutmegs, and as many pretty big pieces of sticks of Cinnamon. When this is well scummed, and still very hot, take it from the fire, and immediately pour into it the cream, beginning to pour neer it, but raising by degrees your hand so that it may fall down from a good height; and without anymore to be done, it will then be fit to eat. It is very good kept cold as well as eaten hot. It doth very well with it, to put into the Sack (immediately before you put in the cream) some Ambergreece, or Ambered-sugar, or Pastils. When it is made, you may put powder of Cinnamon and Sugar upon it, if you like it.

A few terms used in the above recipe may need explaining.

  • Sack is a fortified wine; you can use Sherry or Madeira as a substitute.
  • A possnet is a type of metal boiling pot with feet; I used a normal saucepan.
  • Ambergreece (or ambergris) will be very difficult to find, so just forget about that. For those not in the know, ambergris is a waxy grey excretion from the digestive system of a sperm whale. Speculation is that it is made up of all the hard matter that a whale can’t digest (such as the beaks of squid) and is thus extremely rare. I can’t think of anything that could be used as a substitute for this strange material.

I found the drink a bit too rich and sweet for my taste so I used full-fat milk instead of cream and reduced the amounts used to half volumes, but after drinking I felt both energised and satisfied. I’d highly recommend making yourself a posset on a cold and grotty day.

I also paid heed to the uni-directional stirring technique though and opted for clockwise; it’s up to you if you go anti-clockwise, but I can’t be responsible for any foul consequences that result from that decision.

Rob Bidder is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection and the illustrator of our #CuriousConversations.

Get the picture

While visiting a museum or gallery, have you ever wished to get closer to the artworks; maybe even touch them? Muriel Bailly looks at some of our current or upcoming exhibitions which get you that bit closer.

The distance between an audience and art, although usually necessary, can be frustrating. It may be what inspired a new generation of artists in the 1990s to include the public in their productions; a movement called relational art. In the past few decades, artists have tried to bring down the boundaries between art, museums and visitors. The controversial artist Michael Landy, whose work is exhibited in our Medicine Now gallery, succeeded in that attempt in his latest exhibition Saints Alive at the National Gallery. Inspired by the museum’s collection, Landy created gigantic sculptures between 10 and 12 feet tall, which were put into motion by visitor participation. The exhibition only really happens thanks to the public animating the figures.

Another artist actively encouraging the audience to take part in her work is Alice Anderson. Anderson is mainly known for her action of “mummifying” objects and monuments in copper wire and red fibre as a reflection on memory. In September 2012 she started Alice Anderson’s Travelling Factory at the Whitechapel Gallery. With this project, Anderson invites the audience to interact with objects and spaces using copper wire. The Travelling Factory will stop at Wellcome Collection for our summer exhibition called Memory Object, Memory Movement.

But if you are a museum enthusiast who relishes the opportunity to get hands on with art you don’t have to wait until this summer. Wellcome Collection’s current exhibition, Foreign Bodies, Common Ground (running until the March 16), offers a unique opportunity: not only can you touch the artworks, but you can step into them too.

Pata Picha Studio Photograph, 2012. One of a series of portraits taken in Kilifi, Kenya. By Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki.

Pata Picha Studio Photograph, 2012. One of a series of portraits taken in Kilifi, Kenya. By Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki.

The idea for the exhibition was borne out of Wellcome Collection’s desire to engage and inform the public about the medical research that the Wellcome Trust funds. This is how the Art in Global Health project came about. Six artist residencies were set up in Wellcome Trust funded research centres around the globe: Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and the UK. The artists spent six months in their residencies exploring the medical research carried out, from the points of view of both the scientists and the local community. They produced works of art to illustrate their findings and experience.

Among the various works you will find Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki’s Pata Picha studio. Pata Picha means ‘get the picture’ in Swahili. James and Miriam spent their residency in Kenya exploring the dynamic between the researchers and the “researched on”; investigating how each community perceives and works with the other. They met with scientists from the KEMRI (Kenya Medical Research Institute) as well as members of the local community. Through these conversations they identified education, belief, context, exploration and money & power to be important elements of the health research and aspects that influence the relationship between the two groups. The Pata Picha studio is a visual representation of these findings. Members of the community were invited to come into the studio to have their picture taken with items that represent all five areas identified by Miriam’s and James’ research, including altered lab coats. The aim was for the local community to explore the scientists’ world and for each to step out of their routine to create a better understanding of each other’s communities.

Until March 16, the Pata Picha studio is at Wellcome Collection offering visitors the opportunity to step into an art installation, explore another side of medical research and have their picture taken and printed on the spot (free of charge) to take away as a souvenir. If you make it along, be sure to share your photo on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #PataPicha and (as if any more inspiration were needed) have a look at our Pata Picha gallery bellow.

@jennifer ball: "Playing mad doctors with @NiamhCoghlan at the #patapicha exhibit @wellcometrust today! Loved the customised labcoats!"

@jennifer ball: “Playing mad doctors with @NiamhCoghlan at the #patapicha exhibit @wellcometrust today! Loved the customised labcoats!”

@martinmckee: "Great exhibition by resident artists at #Wellcome Trust med centres - @Dorothymckee pauses in #patapicha exhibit."

@martinmckee: “Great exhibition by resident artists at #Wellcome Trust med centres – @Dorothymckee pauses in #patapicha exhibit.”

@ramblinreynolds: "Our own take on the Foreign Bodies exhibition @wellcometrust. It's a bit different to the other #patapicha pictures."

@ramblinreynolds: “Our own take on the Foreign Bodies exhibition @wellcometrust. It’s a bit different to the other #patapicha pictures.”

Wellcome Collection staff members couldn't resist having their photo taken too.

Even Wellcome Collection staff members couldn’t resist having their photo taken.

Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Foreign Bodies, Common Ground runs until the 16th of March 2014.

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

It isn’t often on a Sunday morning that you see twelve people, old and young, roll across the floor and find new expressions within their own bodies. It is this kind of event that makes Wellcome Collection so unique, fusing ideas of science and art with the body. Kate Gosling was one of those people and discusses what was involved.

The workshop (part of a series of events accompanying Foreign Bodies, Common Ground), led by Nana Dakin and Kage, evolved from the residency of B-Floor Theatre at the Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University-Tropical Medicine Research Programme in Bangkok, Thailand. The residency explored research into malaria and other tropical diseases, and the parasites and other illness-giving agents that can take over our body and cause it to react and change in a way that might be completely new to us. The ideas of these bodily possibilities, which originate when we are well and when we are ill, used ideas of movement to bring these ideas to life.

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

Kage showed the group how to move their stomachs around like there was ‘a worm’ or a disease in them. He talked them through this new sensation, making it seem real to them through the dialogue and story he presented. It was new to them, this disease, they had never felt it before, and then it started moving all around their body and making different parts of them twitch in different ways. Eventually it hit their brains and their face. The ideas of cerebral malaria came to mind in what went from a gentle mime to one that gave terrifying fit-like movements. Eventually, although it was not explicit, Kage asked that everyone imagine they held it in their cheeks, thousands of these ‘worms’, and then spat them out. And he said, “Well done, you are all healthy again”. They had been through an illness without being ill. Could they connect with some of this feeling of being well again on a cellular level?

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

Creation ideas and ideas linked with evolution followed. Kage had a powerful way of presenting movement through the idea of becoming other animals. Everyone was crawling on the floor like an amoeba, a one-cell creation. Nana and Kage started everyone playing rock, paper, and scissors. When you won you evolved into multi-cellular animals, and everyone went from amoeba to worm, frog, monkey and human in a game that playfully followed in Charles Darwin’s footsteps! I thought it was funny that people seemed to have a sense of pride in becoming human and staying human. Although one woman said that the workshop had helped her feel closer to all living species.

The second part of the workshop used objects: tools as an extension of our bodies and us. The participants were given objects and Kage asked them: if you were a cellular body other than a human, how would you interact with this object? Some had colourful hula hoop pipes that could spiral into a DNA-style helix; others had balloons, scarves, jumpers and plastic bags. One of the bags is featured in a video currently showing in our Foreign Bodies, Common Ground exhibition.

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

In sets of between two and four, participants who had only known each other a few hours performed together for the others, showcasing their new movements and the new bodily possibilities that they had created and found within themselves. There was lots of humour as well as serious elements and everyone seemed to work well together without self-consciousness.

I asked Nana what B-Floor might be doing next. She said that they hoped to continue this kind of workshops because the time they had on the residency had been a real journey. The success of their workshop was evident and many of the participants asked if we were repeating this type of event.

Bodily Possibilities Workshop

In terms of the bigger picture revealed within Foreign Bodies, Nana expresses the idea of research and the implications within the community as “zooming in and zooming out”. That phrase really appeals to me. She says a big theme in B-Floor is the sense of examining tiny things under a microscope and also looking at the larger social and political impact.

Nana says: “we want to know how it works. Why is it that way? How does it connect to these circumstances, these structures, these environments, these people? And how can I explain this to someone else? How can I convince them that it is valid? We gather information, we make conclusions, we make hypotheses and we ask more questions. We wonder if our work will have an impact; will it change the lives of people around us? Will it alter the lives of those who come after us? We zoom in and we zoom out.”

Foreign Bodies, Common Ground has been extended to 16th March 2014.

Kate Gosling is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Object of the month: Eat 22 (An interview with Ellie Harrison)

For one year and one day, commencing on her 22nd birthday on 11 March 2001 and ending on her 23rd, Ellie Harrison photographed everything that she ate. The resulting film and book entitled Eat 22 can currently be seen in Medicine Now. Nearly 12 years after the project was completed, Charlie Morgan spoke to her for Object of the Month.

Ellie Harrison, Eat 22

Ellie Harrison, Eat 22

Ellie Harrison has always been interested in food. When she created Eat 22 it was the first of a wider series of ‘data collecting’ projects in which she painstakingly recorded details of her own life. In 2006 Ellie officially quit data collecting and instead of looking inwards at herself began to use art to look out at “what was going on in wider political and social systems”. Yet despite this she is still drawn back to food as a subject matter. In 2009 she produced Vending Machine, a normal machine reprogrammed to only release crisps when news of the recession came up on the BBC News RSS feed. Through projects like this she is attempting to create a “direct link between wider economic and political events and our food supply” and to examine “the absurd consequences of the capitalist system” of which “the obesity epidemic is one and climate change is another”. It was in the context of this change in approach that I spoke to Ellie about her enduring interest in food.

Charlie Morgan: In Medicine Now, Eat 22 is in a section about obesity, and I know obesity and our relationship to food is something you are interested in now. At the time did you actually think about it in those terms?

Ellie Harrison: No I wasn’t really; it’s funny actually because when I came to the launch at the Wellcome Collection in 2007 I just found it hilarious that my piece of work was right behind the John Isaacs thing. I had never really thought about that piece in relation to obesity, I don’t know whether I took offence at the fact that it had been bunged in the obesity section, I might have done actually at the time! But now I think it makes perfect sense, and actually I’ve just made a film for a project I did called The Other Forecast in which I’m wearing a fat suit because I’m talking about increased rates of obesity.

CM: One thing that I always find interesting is that when people read through the book of Eat 22 they are in a sense just looking at pictures of you eating food, but they also quickly learn quite a lot about where you’re studying, where your family live, where you work and so forth. You produced the book in a sort of diary format but what were your thoughts behind providing that additional information, did you ever think that someone could look through it and piece together bits of your life?

EH: I just wanted to be as thorough as possible when I was doing it, but I guess I always have a sick fantasy that people might look it and piece together bits of my life! I think everybody has that same sick fantasy now; everybody’s publishing information online, everybody sort of hopes that people will be interested in the minutiae of their everyday lives. But I think I was really unconscious of all of that when I was doing it because I was so young and it’s only in hindsight that I’ve thought more about the process of making this private information public and why you would want to do that. I’ve thought about what it might mean perhaps in terms of an attempt for some sort of immortality through documenting something that will live on longer than you do, I mean that’s probably one of the reasons why a lot of artists make work.

I never knew it was going to end up in the Wellcome Collection and I never knew it was going to make the impact that it did. It just seemed to strike a chord with people all over the world who were able to identify with it and it really sort of snowballed in terms of the press coverage that it got. It’s quite weird thinking back on it now because I was a different person then and when I look back at my life, yeah, you can extract all of that information about what I was like then, but I guess I’m quite different now.

CM: You’ve said now you think of yourself as quite young when you produced Eat 22, do you think it was a product of your age?

EH: It was definitely a product of my age but also of technology. I was at university and I learnt how to do basic web design, and also digital cameras were just being released around then. I got one of the earliest digital cameras which was a 0.8 megapixel camera and it seems really backward now, but if it hadn’t have been for those developments in technology I don’t think it would have been possible.

At the time I was a student learning about the internet and it just seemed such an amazing tool for an artist. It was really liberating to be able to communicate directly with an audience in a way that just wasn’t possible before. As an artist working in a more traditional field your fate is in the hands of exhibition curators, critics and others who choose what to show, and I just saw the internet as an amazing tool to bypass all of that, a really democratic way of getting information out.

I was really inspired by that and had all of those things not come together at the same point in my life then it may not have happened.

CM: Just going back to something that you mentioned before when you spoke about the interest in Eat 22 snowballing, did you ever get replies from people doing the same sort of project?

EH: A little bit, on the website there’s a links page to other projects that were happening around the same time. I became aware of other people who were doing similar things and I remember corresponding with quite a lot of them. We had a sort of shared experience because it does have such an impact on your life. It did dramatically change my eating habits and I felt really restricted all the time because I couldn’t go anywhere without the camera. People ask me if I ever cared about what I would eat because it would look bad and that wasn’t ever a concern. It was more a concern with the amount of work involved in processing all the images: that was the biggest thing that was likely to deter me from eating. Everything I ate was more work!

CM: The concerns you had (or didn’t have) lead on to comments we often hear in Medicine Now. Sometimes when people visit the gallery and read Eat 22 they can be quite judgemental about what you eat: the amount you eat, whether or not they think it’s healthy. At the time did you ever become judgemental about yourself?

EH: I never really thought about that at all. I went into it thinking that I could produce a realistic picture of everything that I’d eaten, but it did end up changing what I ate. I think I did have a worse diet then than I have now: because I was a dirty student for half of it! I was eating Pot Noodles, I was eating ice creams and packets of crisps and I never really eat stuff like that now. I think I had a faster metabolism back then!

CM: With regards to eating habits – and this is probably the question we get asked the most in Medicine Now – to what extent did Eat 22 affect your eating habits after the project had finished?

EH: Afterwards, because it was such a novelty to be free and not to be being watched the whole time, I did eat more than I should have done. I think it probably takes about a year to recover, to just go back to normal and to remember what normal is. I wouldn’t recommend it as a diet!

It is useful for creating awareness of what you’re eating and nutritionists do recommend food diaries. But I was reading a blog post today about fad diets and how you can get really into them and they can really work for a short space of time but then there’s always going to be a backlash when you stop, and I think it would be unsustainable to try to attempt to do something like that for ever. It’s always going to end somewhere and there’s always going to be some sort of backlash.

CM: Finally, how did people around you react? Did you end up damaging any friendships as a result of the project?

EH: Not really because it didn’t really impact on other people’s lives in such a massive way. My friends and family took some of the photos but I developed a way of taking a lot of the photos myself.

CM: The original selfies.

EH: Yeah, the original selfies exactly. I discovered that if I turned a pint glass upside down and then I balanced the camera on top of the pint glass I could take a picture of myself on the timer very easily. I probably did a lot more than half of them that way, so I think for everybody else involved it still remained a relative novelty.

Ellie Harrison is currently running the Bring Back British Rail campaign and working on a number of artistic projects. She can be contacted through her website.

Charlie Morgan is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

What Is A Body?

With ‘Thinking with the Body’ behind us, our ‘Foreign Bodies’ exhibition in full swing and a series of ‘Bodily Possibilities’ movement workshops coming up, Natalie Coe reflects on what a body actually is.

Our bodies are the basis for our existence and it is through them that we experience the world. Their mediating role is reflected in our language – for example, in phrases like ‘the heart of the community’, ‘the head of an organisation’ and ‘the brains of an operation’ or in more physical references such as ‘the foot of a mountain’. We often talk of society and nations as if they were bodies, too. But what about manmade objects? Can they also be bodies?

This was the subject of an event at Wellcome Collection on Thursday 19 September 2013, ‘What is a body?’ with anthropologist James Leach and Scott deLahunta, the Research Director of Wayne McGregor I Random Dance. The event was facilitated by Emma Redding, Head of Dance Science at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. The speakers’ respective projects on Papua New Guinean knowledge production and UK-based contemporary dance may seem a curious combination, but both investigate bodies and objects as social beings in different contexts. Leach’s research is about how people on the Rai Coast of Papau New Guinea understand bodies to be ‘dividual’ (made up of, or ‘grown from’, other people), and deLahunta has been part of a project developing an intelligent software ‘body’ that is used by dancers to generate dance making by provoking new movement creation in the studio. In both examples, bodies are seen as objects that elicit a compelling kinaesthetic response.

Leach began by discussing his commitment to anthropological methods and the importance of taking the ‘life-worlds’ of others seriously – worlds from which we can learn a great deal. In this case, the Papua New Guineans can teach us different ways to conceive of ‘being a person’ and ‘having a body’ in a place where the conceptual and material world are less distinguishable from each other. It was suggested that the audience generally imagine themselves as individuals who have physically grown from internal processes. This is just one way of understanding a person that has emerged from our own history and culture. In the Pacific, Leach argues, people are seen as ‘dividual’ rather than individual, so people are divisible into the different things and people that make them up. This is strongly linked to the ‘reproduction economy’ in the region, which is primarily intended to produce skilled or valuable people rather than things. Valuable skills and knowledge, therefore, reside in bodies or persons.

Accordingly, when a woman marries and moves to her husband’s home, there is an ‘exchange obligation’ to replace the substance and value of that woman in the home she leaves. The people in the husband’s hamlet gather materials to make an effigy of her to give to her former community, and this is explicitly referred to as a body; not a representation of a body, but an actual body. Importantly, the new wife helps to create this substitute body, so this practice should not be seen as buying or exchanging the wife as a commodity. The wife’s body, like all bodies, is understood to have been ‘grown’ from the outcomes of other people’s labour – their farming or hunting for the food that a body needs. People therefore work in a similar way to grow the substitute body, or effigy, by collecting garden foods to make the forehead and face, dog’s teeth and shells for concealed bones, taro for viscera, and so on. As well as being made by other people, bodies and substitute bodies are physical manifestations of social obligations and the relationships between people. Each body, or person, is therefore different because they have different relationships with others.

That a body is constituted by the deliberate and specific work of, and relationships with, others means that persons are always transforming. This is something we might recognise in our own lives. It is less easy to relate to the strong impetus to labour that this conception of a body creates; labour output is very tangible because it results in a body and because it is made clear who laboured to make that body. This is also what makes the substitute body kinaesthetically compelling: it is recognisable as the person it substitutes, it is the sum of many different relationships between people and it fulfils obligations in the same way a human does. People feel compelled to collect for and create the effigy, as well as to transfer it to the wife’s hamlet (where it is accepted as a substitute body).

It is the compelling quality of these substitute bodies that deLahunta explained was lacking in the original version of the choreographic software that they were working on for Wayne McGregor I Random Dance. As McGregor said, the software ‘needed a body’. Leach’s ethnographic detail was therefore a great starting point for thinking about how they could create software, or a choreographic object, that would somehow mimic a body and elicit a creative response from the dancers.

DeLahunta gave some context to their plan for choreographic software by explaining the choreographic method of ‘tasking’, one of the main ways Wayne McGregor works with his dancers to generate new material. Tasking is giving a dancer a choreographic instruction or problem to solve, often involving mental imagery instructions – for example: ‘Imagine you are carrying a giant heavy bell (image below); now imagine yourself underneath it, describe the shape with your body, convey the shape/feeling/sound it provokes’. This process is not about getting the dancers to act things out; it is a way of providing stimuli and enhancing their imagery skills to generate unique ways of moving. The researchers, therefore, wanted to create a software tool that could augment this work. The first iteration became known as the Choreographic Language Agent (CLA).

What is a body?

CLA took what was happening in the mind and attempted to re-create it on two screens, so instructions were put in and the software generated them on-screen for the dancers to create movement material from. It worked in generating movement and in helping researchers understand choreographic thinking, but the tool itself was found to be missing something. The CLA was on a computer outside of the studio space, so – ironically – it took dancers away from the creative environment and disrupted their choreographic process, rather than working with it. When Leach spoke to McGregor about what a body actually is he explained that you cannot be in a space with another body without feeling a response to it, and that is what they wanted to capture with the choreographic software. This led to the idea of having an ‘11th dancer’, a body that is in the studio with the dancers that follows choreographic instruction, elicits a kinaesthetic response in the dancers and compels them to move.

The latest version of this software is called Becoming. Its 3D, 63”-screen interface was on display in our ‘Thinking with the Body’ exhibition with some 3D glasses that visitors could use to try it out, just like the dancers do in the studio (image below). An image on the screen grows, changes shape and colour, and moves in an organic way. Sometimes, the shape begins to look like limbs or even a human body. The size of the screen has the effect of feeling like a body in the space too. It is also intelligent, in a way; for example, it ‘knows’ where the sides of the screen are, so the shape it produces from inputted instructions can get stuck against the side and be pulled down by gravity.

"Becoming", the 3D, 63”-screen interface which was on display in our ‘Thinking with the Body’ exhibition.

“Becoming”, the 3D, 63”-screen interface which was on display in our ‘Thinking with the Body’ exhibition.

These fascinating and thought-provoking case studies from Leach and deLahunta initiated a lively audience discussion. One audience member questioned whether the substitute body and the Becoming software were actually anything like a body, given that they do not respond to or interact with people. Leach responded by distinguishing between bodies and people; describing something as a body does not mean it is a person. The way the software mimics a body is to make it useful and generative for choreographing. Becoming is also interesting as an ‘object of thought’ because, in addition to provoking sensations, it encourages the dancers to apply an analytical perspective to what they see and the decisions they make. Consequently, it is a good source of research material for scientists thinking about what thinking is.

The facilitator, Emma Redding, raised the issue of who ‘owns’ the movements that emerge from the choreographic process, given that there is extensive creative input from all the dancers. Perhaps the example of the concept of ‘a body’ in Papua New Guinea is relevant here because the effigies produced are explicitly non-traceable once they are given away, and no one claims any part individually; instead, the ownership lies in the relationships between people, so it is distributed between all involved. This is interesting in light of David Kirsh’s research on distributed creativity in the choreographic process. In support of this, none of the speakers has encountered dancers claiming credit for movements within a piece because the process is so collaborative. It would be very difficult to pinpoint who came up with each movement when everyone works in response to each other. This is valuable to remember in a culture in which there is still the notion of a genius choreographer single-handedly creating a masterpiece. The questions also generated discussions about gender, technology, and the absence of statues and representative art in Papua New Guinea.

Although the event did not attempt to definitively answer what a ‘body’ is, the speakers presented the workable and succinct definition of “something that elicits a kinaesthetic response in another body” using two very interesting examples from opposite ends of the globe, which was useful in helping us to think about the broadness and subjectivity of the question. As Leach pointed out, anthropology constantly reminds us of the irreducibility of experience – so, ultimately, it may not be possible to define what a body is after all.

Check out Muriel Bailly’s previous blog post about where science, dance and choreography meet as she looks into the ideas behind the Thinking with the Body exhibition.