Darian Goldin Stahl, Artist-in-Residence //
The Artist’s Book as Body: Constructing the meaning of medicine through relational bookmaking practices
For my pedagogical research in the health humanities, I am most interested in how bodily proxies can be employed to sensorially materialize a symptom, unease, or medical experience outside of the body so that it may become a shareable and tacit form of communication. To better understand this phenomenon, I recently conducted an introductory artist’s book workshop as a Visiting Researcher at the University of Kent, England. This workshop is meant to understand if or how intercorporeality occurs when we collectively create sensorial books about our symptomatic bodies.
Instead of focusing on a diagnosis or treatment, this project instead focuses on the personal and social impacts of symptoms. In my experience as a health humanities workshop facilitator, it is often easier to speak about a lived experience with medicine when the focus of attention is on an intermediary object than it is to speak directly about yourself. For this reason, sharing and interpreting a secondary book-body that holds the projection of self breaks down the self-conscious barriers of communication and thickens the phenomenological relations between their makers. This article outlines the process of making these bodily books, along with some of my initial conclusions.
Structure of Workshop
The respondents to my call for the “Book as Body” workshop formed a mixed group of medical humanities students, medical professionals, creative writers, film studies scholars, and community members. Taking into account that this is a group had no prior experience in fine art, much less in the medium of artists’ books, I broke down the process of creation into achievable steps that would not stymie or alienate those who lacked what they deemed to be “artistic skills.” As an academic artist, I offer my workshop participants not only the technical and instructional know-how necessary to guide them in the creation of their own successful artists’ books, but also the benefit of a deep knowledge of the history of my craft.
I began the workshop with a lecture on the historical intersections of medicine and bookmaking, followed by examples of contemporary book artists who redress the lack of patients’ voices in the visual culture of medicine. Next, the participants wrote private responses to a series of questions that challenged them to think more metaphorically and sensorially about a chosen symptom felt within their bodies. These were questions like, “What does your symptom look like? What is its color? What texture is your symptom? What does it sound like?” These sensory questions were followed by relational queries such as, “How does this symptom impact your relationship with others? Does it impede your everyday life? Does it stop you from doing things you used to enjoy?” Next, I taught the participants how to fold a large sheet of paper into a book form. Drawing from their list of sensory responses, they were then tasked with transforming these blank books into sculptural objects that wordlessly communicated their symptom and how it impacts their lives.
As an example, I created a sculptural book that communicates my own felt symptom: crunchy knees (See Book 1). Half of the book is folded into a staircase shape, which expresses where I am most acutely aware of the loud crunch of my knees at every step. These steps are colored as a progression from yellow to red to recall the advancement of my symptom and its potentially painful future. The second portion of my book is wrapped in a wrinkled, flesh-like cloth. The pages within this section are constructed with red corrugated board. This rough texture imparts a reverberation into the hands of any haptic investigator that embodies the vibration felt along my legs when my knees crunch. Along the median between these two pages runs a longitudinal, protruding stitch. The scar of this bound skin foreshadows my knee’s potential for surgical intervention. Finally, when others pick up the book by this section, they may be startled to hear its loud crunch. Between the wrapped red pages hides a mass of crinkled plastic, which uncannily crunches when pressed in a likewise resonance with my knees. The elements of this book culminate in a multi-sensory experience of what is like to live with the symptom of crunchy knees.
The other participants in this workshop chose to depict symptoms such as sleeplessness, anxiety, stomach pain, and inflexible hips. One participant chose to depict the pressure he feels to control his neurotic behavior (See Book 2). For this sculptural book, balloons (representing his mind) are being contained and kept in check by paper and thread (his body)—but just barely. Taking inspiration from the harmonious, geometric, and primary colored paintings of Mondrian, this participant turns that order on its head to evoke the chaotic opposition between his mind and body. Although the lopsided pages bend under the pressure of the balloons, there is nevertheless a compositional balance in his book’s tension, because he is “still trying to find some sort of order within that chaos.”
Another participant depicts not only her symptom of joint pain, but also the secondary symptom of anxiety over a future when she will no longer be able to dance (See Book 3). Bent joints of paper crowd a black space in her book to recall how the anxiety over her symptom keeps her awake at night. On the last page, we find a smaller book-within-a-book that contains simplistic drawings of flowing water, mountains, and sun. This participant is taking us through her entire patient experience: being diagnosed, anxiety towards her body’s future, and then continuing to live her life in the present by balancing her desire to dance with the realities of her aching body. She ends the book on this optimistic note because she is determined to “continue to dance in other ways.”
This workshop is meant to build phenomenological relations between its participants. If we consider Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and “the reversibility of the visible and the tangible” (1968 p. 148), then we can understand artists’ books to be a mechanism for intercorporeality through their union of touch and vision. The paper folded into shape becomes an extension of our flesh, and the various textures, colors, and composition of materials sensorially communicate our symptoms to others—culminating in a book that becomes a bodily proxy of our lived experiences. This material extension of consciousness is then taken into the consciousness of others through our collective engagement. Ultimately, the phenomenological flesh between participants thickens with each new layer of meaning, identification, and interpretation of our artists’ books.
Although phenomenology was not explicitly addressed in the workshop, its principles of fostering identifications through sensorial objects were clearly present. Participants remarked how his or her book “is actually my identity,” “represents all my activity and all my creativity,” and “helps to identify the aspects of yourself that’s been affected, which is not just conventional things, but more like exploring taste, smell, sound, the sensory.” Through the intertwining of phenomenological flesh, the participants were able to identify with their own bodies and the bodies of others in a completely new and meaningful way.
Because these books are material bodies, taking care while handling these books becomes an act of caring for others. Phenomenologist and M.D. Drew Leder advocates for materializing healthcare because it gives “greater attention to the embodied experience of the patient, the physical environments in which treatment unfolds, and the material things we use as agents of healing” (2016 p. 74). When care and healing are made tangible, “such objects thus embody not only divine love but that of the community.” (Leder, 2016 p. 76) Therefore, the practice of sharing our books with others is a communal pursuit of constructing open-ended and nuanced expressions of illness and care.
While medicine can diagnose and treat our maladies, it rarely addresses the impact of symptoms on our everyday lives or the anxiety over our unreliable bodies. Providing the opportunity to collectively reflect on the state of our well being through the medium of artists books produces a kind of creative care-taking that is absent from traditional medicine. I hope that others will work with artists in the creation of similar health humanities projects and continue the world-building aspects of collective creation.
Note: This project received ethics clearance from Concordia University, Montreal, and all workshop participants gave informed and written consent to publish their anonymized books and quotes.
Leder, D. (2016). The Distressed Body: Rethinking Illness, Imprisonment, and Healing. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.