Bodily Matters: An interdisciplinary conference in collaboration with the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) – 7-8/7/2016


Bodily Matters publicity image

The Bodily Matters conference took place over two days, organised by Dr. Gemma Angel on behalf of the Institute of Advanced Studies and the CSCA it was packed full of life, ethics and as the title suggested, bodily matter.

The first day was split into three sections collectively grouped under themes of bodily remains; fluids, the post-mortem body, and skin and limbs created or fashioned from other materials.

It was a very bloody first section, in which Dr. Elinor Cleghorn introduced the work of artist Angela Strassheim which feature the ‘spectre of the violent event’ revealed through blue star solution, a lumina-based blood visualising agent that creates an phantasmal glowing presence on the site of historic bloodshed. Dr. Jeanette Kohl showed the ever surprisingly lifelike Self (1991-present) head of Mark Quinn, formed of his own frozen blood, alongside medieval body part and substance reliquaries demonstrating the power of bodily matter as remainders of a self. Dr. Maria Hynes discussed Project 1231, which examines the ethics and usage of the body ‘post-life’. This project focuses on the corpse of murderer Joseph Paul Jernigan whose cadaver was spliced into 1,871 one-millimetre slices and photographed for science. Reanimated by the artists Croix Gagnon and Frank Schott using long-exposure photography, the project engages the intersection of the visual in data analysis and forensic investigation. Finally Zane Cerpina showed a video recording of her performance art project. Bodily Fluids is a jewellery collection made from frozen body matter, be it semen, breast milk, or most visually arresting, menstrual blood. The latter taking the form of earrings that melted as they returned to room temperature – the purpose of which to allow both the performer and the audience to experience the effects created by a detached material outside the human body and to question why the body’s liquid parts are often causes of embarrassment or allude to ideas of the unclean. It is possible to organise, through the artist, a ‘make your own bodily fluid jewellery kit’.

The second section took the form of a discussion following on from the individual presentations of Edward Bacal, Dr Gemma Angel and Linda Miller which veered from its titled topic of blood and bone to cover many issues and ethical considerations when dealing with the human body after its life from Teresa Margoles’ anonymous corpses to Damien Hirst’s With Dead Head (1981) and, finally the process of turning cremation ash into glass works as both memento mori and a way of cleansing the dead.

The third section dealt ostensibly with the idea of ‘Second Skin,’ with three very varied contributions. Dr. Laini Burton examined the use of 3D printing as part of medical innovations and demonstrates the developments in this field have made us ‘better than well,’ looking also at the fetishisation of this progress. Dr. Tarryn Handcock, examined ethics through the example of exfoliated skin still officially ‘belonging’ to the human body it has been separated from with the examples of historical costumes. There is even an archive of dust. Finally the artist WhiteFeather Hunter, via Skype, showed the ‘polysemic nature of human ‘culture’ and cell ‘culture’,’ in her artwork using tissue culture.

Day two was also split into sections, with a slightly different layout, as after the afternoon break the keynote speaker Dr Oron Catts offered an exhaustive trip through his work and field. This covered mice with ears, a history of the incubator in America, cybernetics and the ideas of ‘Neolifism’ and the ‘post-human’.

The first section was taken up with so-called ‘liminal matters’; tattooing and its use within ‘Zombie Formalism’ from Karly Etz; uses of hair in art and craft, and its metaphors and synonyms, through the work of Dr. Bharti Parmar; and in the case of Ana Dosen, an investigation into Hananuma Masakichi’s life size self portrait made of wood and his own hair and nail clippings.

Session five, entitled ‘The Extended Body’, examined artists use of the skeleton, in the work of Christine Borland, as seen by Dr. Diego Mantoan, and the intriguing case of Henrietta Lacks or HeLa by Maria Tittel. Katy Connor demonstrated a wonderful landscape created with her own blood microscopically rendered to explore a relationship between her material body and machines, in what she calls ‘becoming nylon’. Finally Dr. Simon F. Park took us on a journey through the human microbiome – our bacterial makeup – which contains 100 trillion cells and 2 million microbial genes. He showed how this often under-explored biological cosmos affects not only our health but our moods and behaviour too.

To carry on from Park, a focus of this conference was how the quotidian often maligned aspects of the body, its function and remains, are far more important than generally acknowledged. A thread throughout asked whether bodies can be reduced to their ‘brute matter’ and who has the right to use these remains. Another question concerned whether the body should only be used for scientific purposes or if art is also a valid use. The question of consent after life is an important problem. Each speaker in their own way focused on whether what we do with our bodies is our business or whether each part of that body has a meaning beyond our life. The important overriding questions was that of where the overlap between science and art lies, looking at the direction in which our pursuit of technology is taking the body and its possibilities for better or worse.

Beatrice Fettes-Leagas


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