- Performance and the Medical Body by Alex Mermikides and Gianna Bouchard
In their introduction to Performance and the Medical Body, Alex Mermikides and Gianna Bouchard invite readers to think of the volume's assortment of essays as "the sort of dialogue that occurs at a party—among friends old and new, friends of friends and strangers—rather than in a formal interview. Some conversations build on shared history and knowledge, revealing new points of conflict and commonality; others are the start of a longer discussion" (20). Their framing strategy is a smart one, as it encourages a way of reading that complements the [End Page 248] collection's heterogeneous mix of methodologies, topics, and voices. The essays, loosely organized into three parts and penned by artists, scholars, patients, and physicians, do indeed behave like guests at a dinner party. In some instances, authors seem to huddle together to discuss the same performance piece or company from different vantage points, as Bouchard and Suzy Willson do in their respective chapters on London's Clod Ensemble. Other chapters stand alone, unique and complete; Petra Kuppers's autoethnographic essay, for example, feels both deeply engaged with the overarching project of the book and yet distinctive among the volume's other offerings. While the editors highlight such differences through the book's organization, they leave unspoken the case studies' general focus on Great Britain. Given the long shadow historically cast by British medical science on the arts and humanities, the orientation is not unwarranted; indeed, it shapes the collection's exploration of the biomedical human body in significant ways.
The four essays of Part One, "Performing the Medical," establish the book's wide thematic and tonal range. Leading the section is Jennifer Parker-Starbuck's "A Cabinet of (Medical) Performance Curiosities," which employs the cabinet of curiosity as its narrative model, bringing together a curated collection of medical performances. Throughout the essay, Parker-Starbuck figuratively pulls open the cabinet's drawers, revealing bodies and performance artifacts recalled from her memories as a theatregoer and scholar, including a medical shower chair used by the Wooster Group and the live, doctor-assisted endoscopic procedure conceived and undergone by Australian performance artist Stelarc. Such medical bodies and the "prostheses, props, fragments, objects, tools, instruments and machines that augment the bodies" are liminal objects suspended between the domains of public and private, medicine and performance (26); in containing them together, Parker-Starbuck contemplates how they might open up new understandings of "the physical challenges and emotional complexities around medical experiences" (32). Compelling chapters by Kirsten Shepherd-Barr and Kuppers follow, with Shepherd-Barr offering the productive term "diagnostic gaze" to characterize the ways that audiences perceived, and attempted to evaluate, medical bodies in the biocentric age of the late 1800s and early 1900s (38). Kuppers assumes the role of Walter Benjamin's flâneur in her "travelogue of healing sites," employing his arcade aesthetic as she visits a spa and an urban "eco-art" project in New Zealand and California's Integratron, a vortex-centered "energy machine" (13). In his essay "Performing Surgery," professor of surgical education Roger Kneebone highlights the need for surgeons to recognize and harness the theatricality of live operations, both to improve patient outcomes and to acquire new contexts through which to assess surgery's "rituals and procedures" (71).
Part Two presents four chapters that chronicle and/or analyze "embodied pathographies," or autobiographical performances of illness and the ill body. Emma Brodzinski's essay considers pathographical works by Brian Lobel, Bob Flanagan, and Peggy Shaw, arguing that such pieces "re-frame cultural narratives [of medicine and illness] and issue a call to the audience to engage in an exploration of suffering and a shared sense of vulnerability" (97). Lobel himself authors the next chapter, detailing an ongoing, patient-driven exhibition project called "Fun with Cancer Patients," which is devoted to illuminating the "embodied reality of cancer" without imposing the post-cancer positivity narratives typically promoted by support groups (101). The online performances of people with...