A luminous, fabric-draped box containing ten audience members clutching ten life-like baby dolls. An accompanying host of doll-figures in various states of sartorial and bodily undress, creepily moving (or moved) around the space. Two performers giddily flying through a fragmented set of scenes that invite the audience to sit with the tensions of being a body-amongst-bodies; represented, seen, and experienced; reflected in the gaze of others and in the depictions of medical science; exquisitely valuable yet ultimately disposed.

‘The Body’ is a participatory theatre piece created by Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari, who work “at the centre of an important movement that dismisses divisions between visual art, live art and theatre” (Tim Crouch). I managed to grab a ticket for the short run at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in January, and was particularly keen to see how Nigel and Louise’s take on the corporeal might inspire or challenge my thinking about communicating medical science.

Perhaps the most striking formal element of the performance was its diversity: some scenes approached individual body parts by showing scientific images, others presented sinister dreams of an automaton childhood in which the actors and their doll confederates robotically spoke of needs and desires, others explored the motions and emotions of the body, drawing the audience into experiencing the rush of endorphins, laughter, or the terror of mortality.

The scenes I found most intriguing were those in which the technological examination of the body was freed from the usual doctor-patient interaction – we passed around a magnifying probe and showed each other the textures of skin and coarse facial hair on a linked-up projector, and the two performers warily played with a monitoring headband linked to a shock device. This didn’t communicate much about the nature of these devices and how they’re typically used, or about the social and ethical consequences of shifts in medical technology – questions one might be interested in exploring as a science communicator or medical sociologist. Yet for me it was an extremely effective form of engagement with some of the deeper issues that underlie these questions: the scenes viscerally and wordlessly evoked the unease of being seen through technology, and the subtle worry that often accompanies assent to apparently mundane medical procedures.

Viewed from a science communication perspective, perhaps the central feature of this kind of event is that the issue or concept at stake is experienced and enacted rather than discussed in theoretical terms. In public consultation or survey research the emphasis is typically on linguistic, rational deliberation, often focusing on risks and benefits, and aiming to explain or even persuade away irrational feelings or sensations. Deliberative consultation clearly has important roles to play when political decision-making calls on public opinion (though a sceptical attitude to the concrete links between opinion and action is always wise; see DEMOS for interesting discussion). But if we take seriously the challenge of engaging science in the social contexts that support and inform its direction, I would argue this is insufficient.

Pragmatically, performance can be used as a different kind of stimulus for debate (as we explored in the Interior Traces project I worked on; The Lion’s Face and Orchids are other examples). Responding to stories, embodied encounters, narratives, and speculative imaginaries can prompt richer, freer debate about how biomedical research might affect us. And of course, audience responses can serve as research material, gathered through interviews or ethnographic observation. But such events can also be seen as part of a canon of activities aiming more subtly to contribute to reflection on medical practices in public spaces, unconcerned about exactly what direction this takes. Of course this is harder to justify to funding bodies, and takes us into interesting territory concerning how ‘outcomes’ can be measured, and indeed whether the ‘goals’ of such activities properly belong to the artist, communicator, sociologist, or medical scientist.

Play in this area is crucial; there is no clearly delineated set of positions on the nature and motivations of what we might reluctantly term art-science. An inspiringly playful element of The Body was that the audience encountered a work in progress – our participation was in the development of the piece not just in what it sought to do that night. Just as we might argue for communicating about the process of scientific research rather than just neatly packaged results, I think we should consider whether artworks that deal with scientific content – at least when a stated goal is to engage people in that content – should more openly engage us in their processes of development.

Indeed, I would have loved for the brief conversation as the audience filed out to have been extended. But I’m also wary of imposing my personal interests on this piece, which was not framed as a science communication activity: I think it’s equally crucial that artworks that pick up medical science on the train of their skirts or passionately grab it as subject and inspiration are not necessarily framed in this way. The Body’s fragmented, deliciously wild romp through embodiment was surprising and challenging, and I’m not convinced it would have leavened this way if driven by the goal of engaging with a particular area of research or medical practice.

I’m still a little haunted by my response to the weight of the baby doll on my chest, my unexpected reluctance to give it back, my holding it tighter when the performance trespassed on mortality. And I think this is a neat symbol of the achievement of The Body; breaking down distinctions between the bodies in the room by unleashing the whimsical yet deeply serious play of the child with doll bodies that mutate between self, other, sick, needy, manipulable, and joyfully present.

Photographs all taken from Nigel and Louise’s website.

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