Working in Derriford hospital today, and I felt really humbled by the patients and what they are having to face. I have checked with others in the hospital, and it seems quite common to imagine yourself at the age of the patient you are treating at that moment. At one point I was imagining myself at the age of 88. I hope I will be as lively and thankful as he was!
Watching as a radiology consultant reports his findings from CT scans of patients’ heads, scrolling through the cross sectional images of the brain at such speed that for me it was like a flip book: I could see nothing but the motion. For him, the motion was irrelevant, just a means of getting to the detail within, reconstructing the 3D brain in his mind from the 2D cross sections displayed on the screen. Suddenly he stops, flicks back and forward between just two images, focussing in on the abnormality that is revealed. We had been talking about meditation earlier, and there seemed a link between this and his reporting technique: the meditative practice of letting the chatter of the mind run on, aware of its constant flow, but not allowing yourself become entangled in it. To me these medical images are so detailed, so in your face, that it is hard to contest them; but it is these images that I want to reimagine out in the environment. What would a CT scan look like on Dartmoor?
“I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” John Muir. Sometimes I marvel how the things you need appear at the right time. I was really interested in Ansel Adams (image above), John Muir and other American environmental artists and writers when I was studying zoology. I visited Yosemite too. Now Muir’s words can guide me whilst researching for a film using material from Derriford. The out is Dartmoor, the in Derriford.
Last week I was at the Neuro-Art conference hosted by Plymouth University. A fascinating crossover of science, biology, art and technology: using live brain cells to make music, control a robotic drawing machine, and many other incarnations. I was surprised to find just how strong the wish to reduce everything to machinery is in us still, in this case to pull the brain apart in order to reveal the mechanics of the mind. It was a fascinating two days. I am still trying to work out where I stand on all this but one fact I found comforting: the machinery responsible for passing messages from one brain neurone to another, the synapse, is surprisingly unreliable, failing to work half the time (yes, half the time). In amongst all the hard science, predictions that we will become a fusing of biology and technology, that when we have understood how the mind works we will know ourselves, in amongst all this heady stuff this simple fact seemed like a breathing space: a place where something else can come in…which led me to a new word, for me at least, syncretic. The picture is from 1899 and is by Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
This morning I spent observing in the x-ray department, looking at intestines after the patients has swallow barium to highlight the lining of the gut. That barium tastes disgusting, like milk of magnesia, I tried it. Filming is quite a physical process, as the radiographer needs to follow the barium after it is swallowed, negotiating the ins and outs of the gut by moving the machine around but also getting the patient to move around too, their movements pushing the barium into different areas. I think everyone in the room – radiographer, patient, student, artist – saw something different in the images produced. Someone saw the face of a veiled women in this one.
A quote from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous and a picture of birdsong from my project Birds of the Antarctic: “Caught in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves… Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds and shapes of an animate earth…our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices…is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence.”