The first encounter was the workshop ‘Bringing Awareness of the Sensing Body: Dance for Health at Cambridge University Hospitals’ led by Natalie Ellis and Filipa Pereira-Stubbs. They represented the ‘in-house arts team’ for Cambridge University Hospital, providing crucial space for creativity within a hospital setting. It signified the importance of embedding arts programmes within the wards. Through movement exercises to music, the workshop brought awareness to the body, deepening the breath and ‘checking in’ to create a somatic map of your anatomy. Within a hospital environment, an individual is vulnerable and so acutely aware of their body, while at the same time they can feel disembodied. Therefore, this workshop and wider practice was to facilitate individuals finding a somatic language that suited their experience. Language and articulation are not mutually exclusive, and we can express ourselves in many different ways. Whilst participating remotely in workshops within a hybrid setting can often feel voyeuristic, this was anything but. It felt community-making, as though we were in the room. There was a feeling of togetherness and a shared responsibility for each other. Movement felt like a reparative experience.
Afterwards, Clare Hickman facilitated an informal discussion on Form and Experience, asking us to share with one another our ideal and unideal experiences of hospital spaces. Access to windows and natural light was considered crucial. This also brought up conversations on the simulation of ‘natural’ within hospital environments, for example the use of pre-recorded natural bird sound. Whilst this provides a sensorial contact with the outside world, it was thought to be jarring, reinforcing the superficiality of the space. Visually, the uniformity and lack of colour in these spaces was commented on as unideal, but the group wanted more critical thought to the inclusion of uplifting spaces beyond painting colours on a wall. We questioned why there is such a pronounced distinction between adults and children’s spaces in terms of formal, colourful enjoyment of space, instead of purely functional. However, this was set in tension with infantilisation and older children wanting to be treated as adults. It also posed the provocation of what is required from the hospital space and for who? A complicated landscape was shaped in terms of ideal and unideal hospital spaces.
The Materialities of Care panel explored breathlessness in Havi Carel, Kate Binnie, and Coreen McGuire’s talk ‘Objects of Safety and Imprisonment: Breathless patients’ relationship with health objects’. Again, our attention was brought to the body and its movement of breath. Not being able to breathe properly is an overwhelming but invisible sensation. Carel suggested that because of the close association we make between breath and life, the experience of pathological breathlessness is perceived as a threat to life. When it is entirely subjective, how can we understand breathlessness? Carel asserted that the phenomenological distinction between the objective and lived body are two aspects of one in the same. The physical geography of the world changes in breathlessness. It can shrink and become hostile, whereby people’s restrictions and freedom are impacted by self-limiting actions. This is what Carel described as ‘bodily doubt’, a distrust towards our own bodies. In reference to Sartre, who wrote about the loss of bodily transparency, only when a body becomes an object is it a problem. By existing only as ‘being unable to be’, ‘I can’ turns into ‘I no longer can’. This is a very isolating and pertinent experience, highlighting the importance of this research in the current context.
The objectification of the body, Binnie argued, is reinforced by the clinical gaze. The person becomes a pathological body, looked at as something misfunctioning and needing to be fixed. This ignores the emotional relationship of breathlessness. Binnie, who is a music specialist working within palliative care, explored the bidirectional relationship between emotional and physical experiences of breathlessness. This drew on Donald Winnicott’s being first, doing after as a core ethos to incorporate within clinical practice because it led to the suppression of symptoms. Binnie was also influenced by Cicely Saunders, and the importance of creating feelings of safety for those who are dying. Therefore, by recognising breath as a barometer of our internal experience and its deep connection to our emotional state, how can we create feelings of safety to suppress symptoms and inform care.
Furthermore, McGuire asked, how can objects let us listen differently within the spaces of healthcare? This work was also framed in the context of the current global pandemic, which has seen the rise of ‘happy hypoxia’ without symptomatic presentation. This has placed emphasis on the importance of oximeters. Due to covid there is the chance for, as termed by Carel, ‘an epistemic re-evaluation’ of breathlessness. By reframing individuals as object-users and not passive patients, it broadens the current conversation and embeds subjectivity within medical discourse. This drew on Aimi Hamraie’s Crip Technoscience Manifesto, which argued against the commodification of medical innovation and design to instead call for disabled expertise to revolt against epistemic and hermeneutical injustice.
The Sensing Care panel began with ‘Sensing the atmosphere within dementia care settings. Stories of everyday care told through the bodies of men’, in which Sarah Campbell considered the lived experience of dementia and the role of place and gender in care settings. Campbell posited the question: what does it feel like to live here, being a man and living with dementia, to understand personhood and embodiment. Campbell framed atmosphere as a sensory composition of care environments that is directly impacted by structures and regulations. Campbell separated this into two different atmospheric times – institutional time and in-between time, looking at how this fed into the control and management of bodies. In-between time was regularly considered a restorative atmosphere, often initiated by the men themselves. This atmospheric turn within scholarship, allows insights into how the structural aspects of care impact atmosphere at an everyday level, provide opportunities for restorative atmospheric moments, and recognition that gender permeates relationships in care.
Natalie Richardson, the final speaker of the panel, spoke about ‘Sensory Forms of Care in Hospice Work: Thinking about Silence, Touch and Food Work’, focusing on adult palliative care. Richardson considered how suffering is engaged with, witnessed, and experienced within these spaces, and how it is characterised by a loss of social self, life, roles, and relationships. By using an ethnographic approach, this questioned how can hospice workers alleviate suffering? It examined the hidden work of non-medical staff and their organisation of the hospice as a sensory space. Through this embodied approach to fieldwork, Richardson discovered the importance of non-verbal interactions and gestures of empathy and care in their response to suffering. Richardson argued that suffering is a relational, embodied, and sensory experience, illuminating the hidden forms of marginalised care given by non-clinical workers.
The day ended with two screenings. Firstly, Simon Buck showed a short presentation and pre-recorded musical performance of hospital-themed blues and ballads. Buck appeared on the screen, sitting in front of a bookshelf, a microphone beside him, while playing a banjo from his home. The performance started with the lyrics: ‘I’m feelin’ sick and bad’. An apt expression as he performed this cover while ill from covid. Buck’s next song ‘High fever blues’, necessitated his fingers work ferociously at the banjo in a fast tempo, responding to his current situation of ‘comin’ down with a fever that won’t let me sleep’. It was written and recorded by Bukka White, depicting the sonic landscape of the hospital. Buck stated how the music of blues and ballads became methods of resistance for the black community against the oppressive structures experienced within medical settings. The songs ‘arthritis blues’ and ‘man and machine’, recounted the lived experience of patients’ with arthritis and polio, whose voices were included as part of a radio ballad series. Buck argued these voices were ‘actualities’, which had rarely been heard on air. This gave an authentic voice to the experience of rehabilitation, physical therapy, and the iron lung.
The day ended on my own film ‘O (Symptom)’, which explored the examined body in medicine through imagined, sensorial encounters between doctor, patient, and cadaver, and located within the clinical spaces of the waiting room, examination room, and dissection room. ‘O (Symptom)’ considered the gendered construction of the medicalised body. By positioning knowledge as corporeal, embodied, and subjective, women’s bodies and voices become feminist acts of resistance against patriarchal containment and restrictive standardisation within medicine. The film sought an alternative, sensorial language to reclaim the medicalised body.