Being human: exploring the body and beyond

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What does it mean to see, imagine and reimagine bodies? How does biomedicine and technology shape what we think of as the human body? How might this change in the future? 

These are just a few of the questions Ingrid Young, Chancellor’s Fellow, Stephanie Sinclair, Public Engagement and Knowledge Exchange Coordinator, and their colleagues in the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, will be exploring in their events for the Being Human festival later this November.

As with most events this year, the Being Human festival will be celebrated online, but with around 300 events planned across 80 universities, there are certainly audience advantages to a virtual programme.

Led by the University of London, and supported by both, Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, the festival celebrates and promotes humanities research across the UK.

So how does the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society, based in the School of Medicine, feed into this. Ingrid explains, “Our centre works across the humanities and social sciences in relation to biomedicine, health and society. It’s organised by different themes and everyone involved in the festival is connected in some way to the Beyond Bodies theme. This allows us to work across interests in relation to bodies and health.

It also involves thinking about how the work done by the centre feeds into, and is influenced by, the humanities. Ingrid expands, “that could be ethics, that could be history, but that could also be engaging with arts-based practices and arts-based materials.

“I’m very interested in the role of photography, film and literature in how we understand the world and this fits in with what the centre is doing.”

Ingrid’s research focuses broadly on HIV and how communities are affected by and respond to HIV. Recently, she’s been exploring activism within HIV, “there’s a long history of arts-based practice in HIV activism, using visual materials and especially iconic images. I’ve been exploring their use and the tools activists use to effect change – sometimes people respond to images more than words. As a result, I’ve increasingly begun to explore imagery or arts-based methods in my research.

But she hasn’t always been so focussed on imagery. Ingrid explains how shifting her focus has changed her research, “As a sociologist I interview people and health practitioners around their experiences, so I mainly worked with words. But looking at the visual and how people use that to represent themselves is also really illuminating.

“This means inviting people to bring images that are important to them on a particular topic and getting them to talk about why this image is important; what does it reflect?”

Ingrid is not the only researcher at the centre engaging with more arts-based approaches. Most of the events planned this year by the centre have concentrated around the use of visual arts, “It just emerged organically. The programme is called Visualising Bodies so the events engage with what it means to see, imagine and reimagine bodies? And how does biomedicine and technology shape what we think of as human, as the body itself? What might change in the future and how do health and illness and disability factor into that.”

So what other events are the centre running this year? Sonja Erikainen, Guilia De Tongi, Andrea Ford, all Postdoctoral Research Fellows at the Centre, will be exploring ‘Bodies of the Future’. “They are really interested in how bodies of the future can be imagined but also where does a human overlap with animal or with technology? How does that challenge normative ideas about bodies?” Ingrid explains.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow David Lawrence, is running ‘Costumed Visions’, an event that explores “how bodies and future bodies appear on film, especially in relation to superheroes.”

Beverly Hood, Reader in Technological Embodiment and Creative Practice in Edinburgh College of Art, is working with Design Informatics to run ‘We began as part of the body’. “She is creating a film on the basis of a sound installation influenced by her time as a resident artist at a dermatology laboratory in Dundee,” enthuses Ingrid.

Ingrid’s event also harnesses the power of visual arts. She talks a bit more about it, “I’m running a project called ‘Capturing chronic illness’ with a research partner at the University of Surrey, Donna McCormack, who works on transplants in the arts. We’re looking at how photography can be used to reflect and reimagine bodies living with chronic illness, especially when it might not be apparent. So, what can photography do to help us reimagine or see bodies in different ways?

“We currently have a call out for submissions for photographs to see what are other people doing and exploring. We’ve asked them to tell us what those images mean to them about chronic illness, why photography might express meaning that might not be conveyed in other ways, and how people are using visual materials to reinvent and speak about themselves.”

The events are open to anyone to attend, and after positive feedback at last year’s event, Ingrid is keen to involve her audience in these debates. Engaging with the public last year allowed Ingrid and her colleagues to reflect on their research with new insights.

“I work quite a lot with community and clinical partners which are ongoing relationships I’ve built up over time. So inviting the public and seeing who turns up, what they will ask, what they will share, is opening us up as researchers even more and I think that’s good,” says Ingrid.

“Doing this in a safe environment where people are sharing their own stories, lived experiences and concerns will help shape our research and how we communicate about what we do. I’m hoping it will be an enriching experience and I think it will also convey the diversity of work that we do as researchers,” she adds.

The Being Human festival will run from 12 to 22 November. For more information about the individual events, and the dates they’re running, you can visit the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society website.

The call out for photo submissions for Ingrid’s event, Capturing chronic illness, is still open. You can submit a photo, or find out a bit more about it here.

Photography: Justin J Wee, Donna McCormack