In Haunt

By Emily Oldfield

SICK! Festival stands out – as not only provides a platform for the discussion of challenging subjects, but shapes new conversations and avenues of exploration around the themes of death, dying, health and treatment – in Greater Manchester and far beyond. Think that festivals are just for music and predictable entertainment? Think again.

The importance and crucial relevance of SICK! was emphasized by the Death and Performance Symposium in Salford on the 24 April which was created by SICK! Festival with The University of Salford and presented at the New Adelphi Theatre. Topics that many people struggle to talk about – including dying, illness, suicide and grief – were brought to the fore, with artistic and academic input throughout.

Death and Performance

This merging together of artistic resonance with scientific research has continued to be a stand-out  feature of SICK! Festival, which has taken place previously in Manchester in 2015 and 2017, also returning for 2019. The Symposium therefore served as a precursor to this year’s festival, which takes place on the 18 September – 5 October with a range of events across Manchester and the boroughs.

Attendees from far and wide had arrived to attend the day-long symposium, which involved a number of panel discussions, as well as the unique opportunity to participate in Dr Sheila McCormick's ‘Death, Dinner and Performance’ project– all exploring artistic practice and its relation to death, dying and grief. It raised crucial questions including the likes of: what are the ethical considerations when presenting death in art forms? Why is the moment of death seen as such a private event? And how can art meaningfully facilitate further conversations about dying, grief and health in contemporary society?

The symposium began at 10am with a 90-minute panel discussion on the subject of ‘Death & Birth In Our Lives’. Within this time, the panel explored the subjects openly and with an engaged attitude – not only underlining the inevitability of the death and birth processes, but how artistry can facilitate conversations and change. In the Chairing role was SICK! Festival’s own Creative Director Tim Harrison, who welcomed the audience and discussed some of the ideas behind the symposium:

“After talking to a number of artists, many of whom were involved in previous SICK! Festival events, the realisation I was having is that people are increasingly shifting between art forms when representing difficult subjects. I wanted the symposium to explore more how we manage this– and how such subjects influence aesthetic processes, as well as the ethics and practices that go along with that. How do we make presenting death both a positive and challenging experience?”

Tim also revealed some of the content of the wider 2019 festival:

“We wanted to invite conversation around ‘what is the value of a life?’ The festival will be looking at this through three key themes: disability, end of life, and young people’s experiences of mental health.’’

Also part of the panel was Mats Staub, an interdisciplinary digital artist from Switzerland who has been working on an artistic installation called 'Death and Birth in My Life' . Mats talked further about this piece, which will be presented at The Whitworth in Manchester as part of SICK! Festival 2019:

“A crucial thing about my artistic practice is that I want to create opportunities for having good conversations – so that involves not just talking, but the importance of listening too. I am also very interested in so-called ‘normal life’… it is not prominent people, but actual everyday life which interests me.

“This project itself was influenced in that my brother died four and a half years ago, and I found that there were not many options to talk about it. Hence, I wanted to go on in my art to create opportunities for people to speak together, to share experiences about death and birth: the two biggest things we will all undergo, ultimately. As part of the project, two people in-conversation on these themes are filmed in a simple setting. One of these conversations involved two nurses from the Manchester Royal Infirmary’s Critical Care Unit, and this went onto become the series of videos which I developed.”

A fellow panel member was Professor Mahesh Nirmalan, who not only holds extensive experience of working in hospitals such as Manchester Royal Infirmary, but also is Vice Dean for Social Responsibility and Public Engagement of The Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health at The University of Manchester.

“This is a new experience for me – being part of a panel discussion,” he expressed. “I am often accustomed to giving information in a medical setting… but I think opening up conversation around these themes is welcome. It is so important to consider things like ‘what is the value of a life?’.

“Death after all is inevitable and we need to talk about its reality. Let us consider a medical setting in the modern Western World. In Intensive Care in the hospital, for example, 40% of the patients who go through there will die, and a further 10% will die in the wards afterwards.”

Some examples of thought-provoking topics raised by Professor Mahesh Nirmalan included the importance of recognising the environments many people will die in – hospitals – and how openness about death can help how it is processed. Artistry is one of the key ways of facilitating such openness.

SICK Festival Panel

The final panellist was Steven Eastwood, a Documentary Film Maker who discussed the powerful artistic film Island, which he directed - and filmed at a hospice on the Isle of Wight. He considered:

“I am interested in the ethical encounter between the filmmaker and the subject. During the filming process, concepts such as agency, personhood and how we conduct our identities can be in flux – hence I want to make use of that space to ask difficult questions and test taboos. For example, I was interested in how we hold back on representing death. I wanted to ask - why is death something we shouldn’t see?

“I think the subjects of end of life and death need to go through a cultural revolution in terms of aesthetics...they need the same shift as the birth movement did in the 1960s.”

Island was filmed over 12 months on The Isle of Wight and provides intimate and moving documentary footage of the phenomenon of the death process, people’s attitude to it, the changes the body undergoes and the moment of death itself.

The panel then went onto discuss amongst themselves the importance of but also the potential limitations faced by artists encountering ethics processes and protocol in relation to death: for example the ethics of filming people in a hospice setting. This also raised  the question - to what extent do artists make assumptions on behalf of  participants in death-related art and the reactions of viewers? A number of other artists in the audience responded with their experiences of sometimes being too cautious and pre-empting participant distress at the subject of death – when in reality, people were often open to death being discussed. For example, the artist Debbie Sharp, who HAUNT has previously interviewed in terms of her artistic work responding to death and cemeteries, was in attendance.

Following a short break came a further panel discussion on the theme of ‘Staging Death and Grief’, again chaired by Tim Harrison. This included Lisa Mattocks and Sarah Hunter from Quarantine - Manchester-based creators of theatre, performance and other public events. They discussed a previous quartet of creative work which was titled ‘Summer. Autumn. Winter. Spring.’ which encountered the human life cycle and the subject of time.  Areas discussed in relation to this included the process of representation and further re-iteration of the point raised in the first panel on how presumed participant and audience reactions shape the creative process. Elaborating more on this was Jon from theatre company Ridiculusmus, currently in the process of putting together an intriguing show called Die! Die! Die! Old People Die!. Jon discussed how the title alone has already raised issues, especially in terms of representation – and yet emphasized his determination to carry the play forth as a bold, humorous  approach to the inevitability of aging.

As the conversation on ‘Staging Death and Grief’ developed,  the theme of ‘who has responsibility and who draws the lines of responsibility?’ became increasingly evident – as expressed by Tim. With input from the audience, some of the suggestions in relation to this included the importance of providing a space for the audience to talk about potentially challenging performances after viewing.  A number of people in the audience, for example, spoke of their own experience of being overwhelmed by performances about death when they were given no opportunity to discuss the themes afterwards.

Given the format of the symposium, it is clear that SICK! Festival and its related events celebrate  open conversation, taking time to discuss challenging issues  and crucially continue to ask questions around why ‘death’, an inevitability, is so often treated as a taboo topic. There was a significant uplifting quality in the realisation that people can come together and create positive relationships through discussion and listening on a topic common to us all: our mortality.

After a break for lunch, which featured beautiful food from Tibetan Kitchen, another panel took place, titled ‘Conversations about Death and Grief, the Elephants in the Room’. Chair Richard Talbot, who is Senior Lecturer in Performance and Programme Leader BA (Hons) in Comedy Writing and Performance at The University of Salford, was quick to bring to a surface a growing theme of the day’s discussions: how do artists go about representing death? Providing insight were three artists who have all explored the theme of death, and often involved participants in-conversation as part of it.

Death and Performance

First to give example of this was The University of Salford’s Dr Sheila McCormick, who showed the audience the trailer for her piece ‘Death, Dinner and Performance’ – a creative work that participants actively engage with through a conversation round a dinner table, expanding on questions such as ‘when did we become aware of death?’. Shelia, evidently a tactful and engaging artist, reflected on the importance of the ‘dinner’ element within this – and in turn how the communal sense of eating together, shared ritual  and performance can become a prompt for discussion around fears of death and dying. As part of ‘Death, Dinner and Performance’, Shelia also detailed how there was a pre-and post-performance questionnaire: with a number  people beforehand expressing fears and anxieties around death. However, following the performance participants largely expressed an appreciation for having discussed the issues – as well as exposing the kinds of subjects people find most difficult in terms of death, like the fear dying unfulfilled. The questionnaires allowed Shelia to reflect on the process of the artistry, including using performance as prompt and how difficult issues can be more openly discussed. Even more intriguingly, ‘Death, Dinner and Performance’  would itself become the final feature of the symposium, with Shelia inviting all attendees to participate within it; the largest number of people ever to do so.

As part of the afternoon’s panel, innovative performance-maker Leo Burtin then proceeded to discuss his artistry which often incorporates discussion, food and performance – therefore sharing similar themes with Shelia’s work. Leo also openly discussed the impact that the suicide of his grandmother had upon him, and how he went onto explore her story through a performance piece he developed called ‘The Midnight Soup’. Having extensively researched the often-under-discussed area of suicide amongst the elderly, Leo created a performance piece which involves 16 audience members bringing shared knowledge to a table, also creating a soup together which they share at the end. This has facilitated productive conversations around suicide, the elderly and mortality, Leo emphasizing how artistry can be used  to ask provocative questions, shake limiting preconceptions of what the end of life is – and seeks to raise ‘if we could control our death, what would it look like?’.

Further insight came from panel member and University of Salford alumnus Ali Wilson, a theatre maker who discussed her performance piece ‘Over My Dead Body’. Ali described how subjects of funerals and grief increasingly became the norm in her house when her mother became a celebrant, and in turn she decided to develop a show in the form in a 45-minute conversation with her mother – with her mother teaching her how to deliver a funeral in the process. Ali discussed how each time the show is performed it is different, therefore largely unrehearsed and responding to the changing contexts of the people involved. For example, the show involves new questions each time, presented by Ali to her mother. Ali considered:

“Conversation is key. I see that conversation is such a significant part of the job of a celebrant, plus conversation reflects how the show is made and I want to encourage others to have a chat about what it would mean for them to die. Unlike a monologue, a conversation is fluid and collaborative, it never ends. It is determined to incorporate sharing and listening, and carrying on beyond the moment itself.”

Another feature of the panel was a video contribution from Fevered Sleep, performance makers for adults and children – who recently presented a temporary shop in Manchester’s The Whitworth as part of This Grief Thing, their project which invites people to consider grief.  The video at the panel featured members of Fevered Sleep talking about how people see art in relation to death – actually questioning the use of the term ‘audience’ and instead inviting a consideration of everyone to be involved in the art form; hence This Grief Thing was presented in the form of a shop. This served as a prompt for further panel discussion which covered topics such as appreciating the importance of silence and time in people’s consideration of death and having multiple options for engagement with death and grief as topics. Death ultimately requires space for discussion – a point that increasingly emphasized – as was the importance of providing space itself for talking about the cause of the death.

Roundtable

The final discussion of the afternoon then took the form of a roundtable (pcitured above), chaired by Tim Harrison and open to the floor from the onset. This provided a direct example of responding to previous themes raised during the day: rather than there being a barrier between panel and audience, every member of the room held unique relevance in their insight on death. Ideas and concepts that brought to light during the symposium were revisited, including the role of artists and how creatives can respond sensitively and yet progressively to death. One audience member revisited a point about humour: bringing forth questions such as who gets to joke about death – is it only appropriate for the person who is dying to do so? Is humour still regarded with too much caution in relation to death? Another key theme which re-emerged was that of shame, and the importance of questioning why it exists in relation to certain causes of death such as suicide, as well as tackling it.

Audience members also re-iterated the importance of actively considering the grieving process, with a celebrant suggesting:  “There is basic need for us to talk about mourning and go through with it in a supported way”. This ultimately underlined a key concept at the heart of the Symposium – its provision of a platform for talking on crucial issues in life as well as art and allowing these inspiring conversations around death, grief and carry on long after the event itself.

A poignant piece of reflection came from the artist Mats Staub as the roundtable drew to a close: “Now I feel a bit better, not that alone”, he said, in terms of how discussing artistry in relation to death had shaped his attitude. Participants also had the further opportunity to shape their attitudes and learn from others, as a unique evening feature of the symposium was the chance to take part in  Dr Sheila McCormick’s ‘Death, Dinner and Performance’ (pictured below). As the day’s attendees opened up about their own attitudes to death and experiences, this underlined SICK! Festival’s crucial uplifting ability to bring people together and create a supportive community around topics treated for so long as taboo and isolating. Long may it continue – with 2019’s festival set to impress and inspire.

Death Dinner and Performance

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1 Comments

Comments

  1. Jo Chalkblack
    I travelled up from Bristol for this (supported by Theatre Bristol). I left feeling somehow more human and, as a performance artist; that my interest in death and dying was further legitimised.

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