Jac_Saorsa-TRACEY-Jo.. - Loughborough University

Published in TRACEY | journal
Drawing Knowledge
August 2013
Drawing and Visualisation Research
Special Edition developed from
selected papers at the
2012 DRN conference
at Loughborough University
Jac Saorsa a
Independent Artist/Researcher
This paper discusses a research trajectory driven by contemporary
drawing practice as a creative and exploratory approach to the
interpretation of the relation between ethnobotany and biomedical
science, in specific relation to the treatment of gynaecological cancer.
Within an account of the development of the Drawing Women’s Cancer
project, the paper addresses the hermeneutic ‘circularity’ between how
knowledge authenticates drawing acts and how drawing can be
constructive of knowledge.
Since Hippocrates, medicine has been considered as both art and
science, and the project in question embodies an intensive
engagement, through drawing, with both sides of the dichotomy in order
to address fundamental issues concerned with the pathology and
treatment of disease. Contextualised in Deleuzean philosophy, the
project adheres to the fundamental connective principles of the
‘rhizome’, itself a botanical referent, and the aim is not to provide
definitive answers but rather to establish and engage with a reciprocal
relation between science and drawing practice in an innovative and
experimental way.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
A friend was recently diagnosed with cancer. A good friend. An old friend. But even if he
were no friend at all, even if he were a stranger to me, it is yet a tragedy, a private
individual tragedy that becomes a part of a wider human tragedy that is cancer.
As an artist with a background in philosophy, and a passion for exploring what Heidegger
would call ‘Dasein’, our ‘being-in-the-world’, my involvement with cancer has deepened in
recent months owing to a research project that has taken me to a particular part of the
world that Susan Sontag describes as the ‘kingdom of the sick’. Women suffering
gynaecological cancer, citizens of this kingdom, have welcomed me as a kindred soul, even
though I live, without pain, in the ‘kingdom of the well’. They understand, as does Sontag,
that in fact we all hold ‘dual citizenship’ and I, having listened to and immersed myself in
their stories, understand that we all have a stake in both kingdoms, and only time, fortune
and biomedical intervention allows us to mediate between the one and the other.
The project that I am referring to here is entitled Drawing Women’s Cancer and it is an
‘offshoot’ of a far wider project entitled Osmosis; we are a long way from Eden. The latter is
profoundly rooted in an interrelation between philosophy and drawing practice and it has,
to date, developed two offshoots, Drawing TB followed by Drawing Women’s Cancer. This
paper will provide an insight into both of these projects; however, before I go on I feel I
should introduce myself and tell you a bit about where I am coming from as this may help
to clarify where I am going!
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
I am an artist, by nature and by design. The scratch of graphite and the brush of charcoal
on paper are my perpetual soundtrack, but it runs in time with the tap of keys as I am also
a writer and the whole of my practice, indeed the whole of me has a decidedly
philosophical personality. I work in a research capacity that I think of as ‘interdisciplinary
enquiry through drawing’ and I understand my visual work as a constant search and ‘research’ for something that must nevertheless always be unattainable, for to achieve it
would be to negate the very manner in which it was achieved. In art practice at least then it
is in the nature of process that any progress is made, and moreover, although it is in the
nature of an artist to strive for perfection, he or she must do so in the full knowledge that
perfection itself destroys its own creator. The masterpiece is only ever created at the
expense of the master, but where practice is both supported and challenged by theory the
goal of perfection can be transfigured by the passion needed to engage with our world and
explore lived experience. Creative passion here meets a passion for survival.
As an artist, drawing is my primary focus and for me, the physical act itself is equally as
important as the emotional context within which it is carried out. Moreover, the relation
between practice and philosophical conceptualisation has for so long been such an
important relation in terms of my process that it is always implicit and very often explicit in
my work. The conceptual edifice constructed in the work of Gilles Deleuze provides the
framework that both supports and challenges my creative ability and integrity, and, in being
supported and challenged, I have developed the capacity to challenge in turn. I hold
conversations with Deleuze through my work. Continuing conversations wherein syntax and
meaning ‘de’ and ‘reterritorialise’ as we address the relation between talk and action,
between thought and practice, the symbiotic and continuing relation between the two and
Through verbalising and reflecting on process I have learned to ‘stammer’ in the Deleuzean
‘vital’ sense of being a foreigner in my own language, and within the perpetuity of process
that is characterised in the stammering, the and…and…and… I embrace a creative
multilingualism, the interpenetrative relation between visual and conventional language
that both derives from and creates in turn the fundamental narrative by which we exist
both as individuals in our own world and in relation to the ‘other’. Full of hope I eagerly
travel the diverging and bifurcating rhizome, Deleuze’s elegantly conceived idea of
connectivity that in its own botanical splendour belies his denial of the metaphor, only
because the continuance must always be more dynamic, more creative, than the stasis.
After all, as Goethe himself pointed out in his Metamorphosis of Plants
If we observe all forms, especially the organic forms, we find that nothing is
permanent, nothing is at rest, nothing concluded, but, on the contrary, that all is in
continuous fluctuating movement. (Goethe, 2009)
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
The rhizome: be it metaphor or not, is in both the concept and in the subterranean lateral
plant stem indeed a structure that supports the visible development of content and
expression ‘above the surface’. It embodies potential, and its infinitely self-generating
nature ensures that experimentation never provides definitive answers but rather, at least
in my case, establishes and engages with a reciprocal relation between diverse disciplines
and contemporary drawing practice. The rhizome reaches far beyond the binary,
systematised character of the root, and the ‘tree’ of knowledge is therefore at best stunted,
but more often overrun by creeping couch grass as the rhizome extends beyond the
cognitive parameters within which ambitious creativity is often constrained. It is the self
perpetuating relation between philosophy and drawing practice that defines my approach
in general and works toward defining a reciprocal relation between how knowledge and
understanding authenticates drawing acts, and how drawing can itself be constructive of
understanding and knowledge.
As philosopher and artist, Deleuze and I dally then with the cognitive and the emotive, and
the marks I make on a surface as I draw only iterate and reiterate spatial and emotional
depths through differing levels of perspective and differing concepts of form. Deleuze
concerns himself with the elusiveness, the frailness of identity. As do I. Because identity is
frail, is divergent, is decentred and in practice, my identity as an artist engages with
Deleuze’s identity as a philosopher while my thoughts engage with his. We encounter each
other within the parameters of our differences, but our relationship is and must be born of
the multiplicity, which, just as experimentation is the master of interpretation, must exist in
a common space beyond, external to its own terms. Relations of any kind are always drawn
from the middle and so I begin from the middle, where identity itself is fluid.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
Interdisciplinarity is, for me, an ever-changing and ever-beautiful landscape that I traverse
in nomadic transgression of boundaries and where art and science maintain an ambivalent
relation. It is here that I have come to understand art practice as itself research and indeed
as a kind of philosophy – one that goes beyond reflection (in both senses of the word) to its
true 'being' which, in accordance with Deleuze and Guattari, is in the generation of
concepts. Concepts are slippery things however and in art-science topography there is a lot
of open ground between what is objectively known and what is subjectively ‘felt’ in a
profound and meaningful way.
Every concept according to Deleuze is a multiple, a double, triple, quadruple or more. Every
concept is a unique yet fragmentary whole maintained in its separateness by philosophy.
Components within concepts however are rendered inseparable and often overlap
generating ‘zones’ of mutual belonging. These are zones of the indiscernible, the
undecidable, and they create theatres for amorphous becomings where man becomes
animal, pathogen becomes palliative, disease becomes illness, and science becomes art.
Here, drawing practice, knowledge and intuition in symbiotic relation because where
knowledge and intuition are components belonging to objectivity and subjectivity
respectively they belong equally to each other as, mutually embedded in the drawing
activity, they begin to articulate between concepts and actions. Moreover, where my
drawings are by and large what we might call figurative, despite immediate appearances,
they are actually representative at a far deeper level than is assumed in the way that the
term figurative is typically understood. Where drawings make intuition tangible, both as an
inevitable factor in their production, and as a demand, even a requirement, in their
interpretation, they embody, elicit and precipitate a form of ‘knowledge’ that consists of
both cognition and sensation. This is knowledge born of experimentation over
interpretation, and it is as profound as the emotion and experience the drawings represent.
The true nature of knowledge is therefore complex but, in my effort to clarify and while
hoping that Deleuze would forgive me as I push the simplification of his ideas to the limit,
suffice to say that in defining the creative act, where it appeals to cognition it moves
figuration towards representation, but where it appeals to sensation, towards feeling, it
moves figuration through representation and towards the essence of the subject. This
reveals, in the end, the true Figure, the true ‘resemblance’, an understanding of which is a
fluid and self-generating measure of knowledge derived from a profound confluence of
separate streams of thought that flows through the flat planes of the interdisciplinary
landscape. Its distributaries are many and they extend far beyond mere re-presentation as
it is generally understood and for me, Deleuzean theory here demonstrates a deep
understanding of the artist’s innate trust in passion over cognition and ultimately offers a
daunting challenge to the idea of artist as simply a reproducer of appearances, as well as
to what can be considered as ‘knowledge’ at all.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
I must now leave the theoretical discussion in the subterranean habitat of the rhizome and
return to Osmosis and its progeny above ground.
Goethe implored us to,
Trusteth the delicate leaves, feebly beginning to shoot.
Simply slumber'd the force in the seed; a germ of the future
(Goethe, 2009)
and, as an independent and overarching research trajectory, Osmosis is itself seeded from
a perpetually evolving generative project that is Dis/Figuration. Driven by drawing practice,
Dis/Figuration constitutes a profound philosophical and emotional exploration that focuses
on diverse aspects of our existential being, and it has been an ongoing concern since my
PhD in Drawing Practice, completed at Loughborough University in 2004. My preoccupation
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
with disease and suffering has developed from Osmosis, and the project as a whole is a
good example of my overall practice both in the way that it assimilates the separate
disciplines of drawing, ethnobotany (the study of the relation between people and plants)
and bio-medical science, and in the manner in which it has become the progenitor and the
continuing major influence for the two more specifically oriented projects mentioned above.
Both of these focus on drawing practice as a method of enquiry and each centres on a
particular disease.
Derived from a conjunction of two seemingly disparate disciplines, art and science, as a
generative project Osmosis embodies the relation between two profound passions, maybe
obsessions of mine that have become irrevocably intertwined, each with the other in a
Deleuzean zone of indiscernability. The first of these passions is realised in my interest,
from both a philosophical and creative perspective, in the human organism as a whole, in
its anatomy, physiology, morphology, and most importantly perhaps, in the psyche, which
provides all the other aspects of what makes us human with that illusive quality that we
call individuality. Through an ongoing creative, scientific and philosophical study of our
human physicality and characteristic traits I have become especially interested in how the
human organism as a whole is affected by both physical and emotional damage, and by
disease. Moreover, my interest in disease is not confined to an objective approach to
anatomical or physiological abnormality and/or biomedical intervention, but extends to the
wider, more subjective parameters that are generally defined in our understanding the
overall impact of disease on the life of both the sufferer and those who are involved in the
act of care, in short, the existential experience of illness. The second passion is for all
forms of plant life, and here I am very much in accord with Wilkins’ view that ‘plants are the
most important, least understood, and most taken-for-granted of all living things’ (Wilkins,
1988) Indeed, ‘plant blindness’, understood itself as a disease, is particularly relevant here
as sadly, in an analogous paradigm of cancer, it seems yet to be endemic in our society.
Moreover, as a little understood or even considered phenomenon it nevertheless indicates
a disturbing lack in human tolerance or respect for the very things, plants, that we
continuously exploit in the cause of biomedical science. Thus biomedicine; the link
between two seemingly disparate interests and the link that precipitates Osmosis, wherein
the aim is always to explore, provoke and express, through drawing, alternative ways of
thinking about ethnobotanical, or human-plant relations.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
The scientific term ‘osmosis’ defines the physical process in plant organisms wherein
solvent molecules move through a semi-permeable membrane separating two solutions of
differing concentrations, and in biological systems osmosis serves to equalise these solute
concentrations. Drawing practice is here understood then, by analogy, as a fluid process
that flows through the ‘membrane’ that represents conventional understanding of humanplant biomedical relation in terms of medical intervention. Since Hippocrates, medicine has
been considered as both art and science, and the Osmosis project as a whole embodies an
intensive, creative engagement with both sides of this dichotomy. My focus on fundamental
issues concerned with objective understandings of disease pathology in terms of etiology,
pathogenesis, morphologic changes, clinical manifestations and interventions is
inextricably bound up, through practice itself, with a more philosophical and subjective
approach that understands disease in terms of the overall existential experience; that is as
an ‘illness’ which pervades the whole of the subjects being and way of life.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
The scientific and objective concept of disease is considered here in relation to plants
according to the use of plant materials for phytotherapeutic and clinical intervention. The
more holistic and subjective concept of ‘illness’ however more related to our understanding
of plants as both historical and mythological sources of traditional and ‘alternative’
medicine. Drawings generated through the process as a whole therefore embody almost
tangible tensions derived from intense relations between emotionality and physicality,
folklore and scientific intervention, and these tensions exist not only in visual
experimentation across disciplinary diversity but also in the drawing act itself. The drawings
manifest a creative juxtaposition of the corporeal structure of reality and the conceptual
structure of interdependent relationships, and, where ‘osmotic pressure’ is the term used
to indicate the measure of energy necessary to precipitate osmosis, we can extend the
analogy to drawing practice. Where the physical drawing act provides the energy that drives
the research process through visual interpretation, it maximises the dissemination of the
research ‘findings’ through a definition of new ‘equilibriums’, which in turn provoke
alternative understandings.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
The primary shoot of Osmosis has grown vigorously as I have developed the initial concept,
and the ‘offshoots’ that spring from the rhizome sustain the project as a whole whilst
ensuring its continued generation. The first, Drawing TB, centred on Pulmonary
Tuberculosis and became the catalyst for my work in the recent C4RD, Centre for Recent
Drawing, online residency, over April and May 2012.
A contagious bacterial infection that affects the lungs, the suffering engendered by ‘TB’ and
its further effects led Deleuze himself to his fatal ‘defenestration’ in 1995. His muchpublicised conversations with Claire Parnet recorded just a short while before his death,
were aired posthumously, by his own request, as L'Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze, on French
television, and to quote the ‘blurb’ on the MIT published DVD, ‘The awareness of mortality
floats through the dialogues, making them not just intellectually stimulating but also
emotionally engaging’. In TB therefore, I had an especially significant and pertinent
example of both the malformation of healthy anatomy, and a hauntingly documented
existential experience. Within the conceptual framework of Osmosis it seemed that I had
every reason to work with TB and none not to. Deleuze’s voice echoes through Parnett’s
transcripts as he describes an illness without pain. An illness that, ‘at first, seemed hardly
an illness at all’. Later however, he describes a feeling of bodily dissipation, a becoming
transparent in the way that Susan Sontag describes the experience of a ‘body turning to
phlegm and mucus and sputum and finally blood’. And, always, of air, ‘the need for better
air.’(Deleuze, Parnett, 2007)
TB was historically called ‘consumption’; the body is eaten away, consumed. Sontag offers
her reader the concept in the form of self-cannibalism, which ‘refines’ the self, ‘gets down
to the core, the real you’. She points further to how, as a disease, TB is ‘problematically
encumbered by the trappings of metaphor’, and here she refers primarily to 19th century
discourse in which ‘white plague’ became a colloquial term reflecting the physically wasted
appearance and the pale ‘ghost-like’ complexion of the sufferer. The general ‘romanticism’
attached to the idea of the disease during this historical period did no service at all to the
sordid reality of the prevailing symptoms, but it was perpetuated by TB being understood as
an affliction considered especially ‘apt to strike the hypersensitive, the talented and/or the
passionate’. (Sontag, 1991) Even Deleuze himself talks of the artist’s ‘delicacy of health, a
frailness of constitution that often leads to the ‘vital stammering’ that defines his ‘charm’.
(Deleuze, Parnett, 2007) A disease of the lungs was metaphorically, a disease of the soul,
and of time - ‘consumption gallops’ – and most importantly, especially in relation to the way
cancer is understood, TB was understood as personal; a disease of the disease of the ‘sick
self’. (Sontag, 1991)
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
As much as Deleuze may disavow the metaphor he is at pains to describe his view of
illness in general as both an active and reactive force that is not ‘an enemy, not something
that gives the feeling of death, but rather something that gives the feeling of life… illness
sharpens a kind of vision of life’. And moreover, he continues, ‘It is strange how great
thinkers have a fragile personal life, an uncertain health at the same time as they carry life
to the state of absolute power or of ‘great health’. However, and in a deeply personal note
with Parnett that seems somehow to make an intruder of the reader, Deleuze also
acknowledges that ‘considering my actual state, it is a little bit as if I were already gone’.
(Deleuze, Parnett 2007) His comments on his chronic condition reflects both an historical
and personal ambivalence towards it, as well as his concept of the body as a perpetually
self-differing, self-creating assemblage of processes affecting and being affected by other
bodies it encounters. For the Osmosis project, given the research trajectory these other
bodies are manifested in plants.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
Follow the plants: you start by delimiting a first line consisting of circles of
convergence around successive singularities; then you see whether inside that line
new circles of convergence establish themselves…(Deleuze and Guattari, 1999:12)
More recently, and developing from Drawing TB, the second offshoot of Osmosis has taken
a significant and quite unexpected tangent along the path defined by my increasing
involvement in collaborative work with medical professionals and patients in the area of
gynaecological cancer. In Drawing Women’s Cancer, botanical reference has become
dormant, at least for a while, as elements of experiential ‘narrative medicine’ have now
taken precedence over theorised ethnobotanic relations, and I have been obliged to make
inroads into a world ‘outside’ of my usual academic habitat.
It has been a challenging, revealing, and in many ways an inspiring experience to find
myself in heartland between academic detachment and total immersion in human
experience and I have discovered new ways of understanding my practice and its import in
areas that extend beyond philosophical theorising in order to address not just the context
but the actual realities of existence. I have for a long time been committed to finding ways
to actually ‘practice’ from the basis of Deleuzean theory, rather than to simply engage with
and respond to it, and in my present work I believe that I am as close as I have ever been
to doing so.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
Cancer waits for no man, or woman (or maybe it waits for us all) but perhaps more
importantly, and as a cancer patient I spoke with recently confirmed very movingly, it never
goes away – ‘that word – cancer’. The Drawing Women’s Cancer project developed from an
overall interest in cancer in general as indeed did its predecessor in that, as significant a
disease as pulmonary tuberculosis is in its own right, historically the two diseases, TB and
cancer, were understood as being closely related. This was a misconception that built upon
itself until it was irrevocably blown apart with the advent of cellular pathology in 1888 and
biomedical science gave us the ‘truth’, but even where the two diseases were considered
as inherently similar the aestheticism I mentioned earlier that preoccupied the idea of TB
has never been visited on cancer. Cancer is a disease of the body. It is body-bound. Cancer
spreads and proliferates; it grows in the body like a ‘demonic pregnancy’, a ‘triumphant
mutation’ (Sontag 1991). Where TB consumes, and makes the body transparent; where it
is a disease of the soul; of time; of the real self, cancer invades, makes the body opaque. It
is a disease of the corpus, of space, slowly and inexorably replacing the self with the ‘nonself’. But, even despite these oppositions, the relatively profound relation between the
disease of the self and the disease of the non-self still haunts the demonstrated
differences, just as the significance of existence itself haunts the relation between life and
death. After all, if we conceive of cancer as a disease of the non-self, of the ‘other’, must
not this belief be set against the idea that we are assured of our own existence only
through our acknowledging the existence of the ‘other’?
While my interest in cancer extends to all its forms, Drawing Women’s Cancer focuses
particularly on those that affect women – the gynaecological and breast cancers. As an
Honorary Research Fellow with the Cardiff and Vale University Health Trust I am working
with medical professionals, and with patients themselves in an exploration of the
existential experience of the impact of cancer, where both the objective understanding of
the disease and the subjective experience of the illness are given equal consideration.
What has become most important for me, as an artist exploring the content of what I see
and hear through experimental drawing, is what is ‘in the middle’ because it is in the
nature of the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity that true experience lies.
‘Personal narratives’ engendered in ongoing and deliberately unstructured ‘conversations’
between myself and clinicians, scientists and patients, provide the content of recorded and
written transcripts that I use as primary ‘data’ for generating drawings. Each conversation
is an ‘encounter’ between myself and the respective individual and these ‘encounters’ are
crucially important in terms of the research. Where for Deleuze an encounter is multiplicity,
it is also a ‘becoming’ and indeed, throughout the research this has been played out time
and time again. Experiences are related to me with levels of trust and openness that
require me not simply to listen and recognise, but to follow, and seek out through listening,
a way through the multiplicities of each individual’s understanding of suffering so that I can
arrive at my own understanding. Recognition is indeed a hindrance to this process; it
becomes the antithesis of encounter as it brings only a false sense security in a search that
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
must otherwise be constantly open-ended in order to share knowledge and experience
freely between one ‘self’ and another. Only within such freedom can a profound
understanding be achieved.
Drawings that are generated through my experimentation and exploration of what I see and
hear often ‘become’ in their own right far more than I ever expected as I try to ‘capture’ the
encounter in and in-between lines and tones, layers of colour. Deleuze is insistent as he
tells me that people are made up of very varied lines; indeed there is a whole ‘geography’
in people and so, in their capacity as visual engagements with both Deleuzean
conceptualization and with actual human experience, my drawings depart from
interpretation where interpretation itself ‘presupposes significance’. In working on them I
try to immunize myself against ‘interpretosis’ - itself a disease that traces all becomings
back to an origin. So much so that Deleuze’s maxim ‘We do not interpret language –
language interprets us’ (Deleuze, Parnett, 2007) echoes through the imagery as I
experiment with my own responses. Drawings then, become themselves the primary
research vehicles, simultaneously questioning and responding to the project’s aims and
objectives, which are derived from an interrelation between the clinical, the academic and
the existential foci of the Drawing Women’s Cancer project, where the aesthetic is
considered tacit.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
The clinical aim of the research, which in many ways is inseparable from the existential
content, is to introduce an artist’s perspective into current and potential cancer treatment
in Wales with two direct and interrelated objectives. The first is to help raise general
awareness of the all the four gynaecological cancers which, aside from cervical cancer
(now very much in the public domain since the death of TV reality star Jade Goody) are
relatively unknown, and certainly not talked about publicly. To achieve this drawings
generated from the research will form the basis of public exhibitions (the first was in
November 2012 at the Senedd, Government Assembly building in Cardiff) and there is a
website with an ongoing ‘artist’s blog’. (www.drawingcancer.wordpress.com) The second is
to develop a fully illustrated and patient focused major information resource that clinicians
can use from the initial diagnosis to the culmination and aftermath of treatment with
patients who have any of the women’s cancers.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
In breast cancer it is routine practice for women to be shown ‘before and after’
photographs of reconstruction prior to going ahead with surgery. In gynaecological cancers
however, these photographs are often too powerfully emotive. We have established
through working with patients that drawings, being more subjective albeit no less realistic,
are more acceptable and understandable from their point of view than photographs or
medical diagrams. The imagery in the proposed resource therefore will consist of some
drawings that are overtly ‘realistic’ and intended to inform, and others that are more
intuitive, expressionistic and related more to the larger scale exhibition work. It is intended
that these images and the accompanying patient-centred textual content of the resource
will together offer an innovative and much needed focal point for patients who up to now
have very little information to turn to.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
Gynaecological cancer, particularly vulval cancer is a life sentence. Surgical excision, often
quite mutilating, is the usual treatment and once diagnosed the patient has to be
monitored for the rest of her life. Anywhere between 30 – 50 % have recurrent disease and
need further surgery. For these women, residing in the ‘kingdom of the sick’ and
encountering themselves in such a vulnerable situation where fear and misunderstanding
are very close to the surface, greater public awareness and acceptance brought about by
intersections between art practice and medical science could potentially lessen their
reported feelings of ‘aloneness’ and isolation in a society where their condition is still very
much ‘hidden’ in terms of its being fully understood. The aim here is to offer support
focused on helping and empowering patients, and their carers, by reflecting their individual
experience of cancer and its impact on their lives both in information designed for the
patient’s own knowledge of their condition, and in exhibitions intended to raise a general
consciousness of the disease in the minds of the general public.
I must emphasise here that when I began Osmosis, my expectations and explorations were
perhaps ‘safe’ in the sense that I was very much cocooned in the ethos of academic
research and an approach to my practice that was familiar in its self-perpetuating
character, but the work had no ‘voice’. I discovered through working directly with
gynaecological cancer patients in the Drawing Women’s Cancer project that they too
struggled to have a voice as the disease itself is something that is often difficult to
verbalise, something that is even considered ‘taboo’, given the nature and specific bodily
location. It has become challenge to myself therefore to experiment with my practice in
order to express the lived experience of cancer, not just dispassionately, in terms of the
disease itself, but subjectively, emotively, intuitively, and very passionately by immersing
myself directly in the maelstrom of human experience where the idea of cancer as
understood within the wider parameters of ‘illness’ and the overall impact of on the
sufferer’s way of being, can make itself heard.
I am working collaboratively with medical professionals and patients both in theatre, and in
clinics and I believe that this has given the project a greater depth and relevance both in
terms of the relation between practice and research, and also in terms of current social
and political debate. My intervention, through drawing as a vehicle for research becomes
then an interlanguage between experience and experimentation that goes beyond
interpretation in the way that Deleuze himself conceives creative function as,
proceeding by intersections, crossings of lines, points of encounter in the middle:
there is no subject, but instead collective assemblages of enunciation, there are no
specificities but instead populations. (Deleuze, Guattari 1999)
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
To return then to the conference theme of Drawing Knowledge, where meaningful
understanding can itself be considered a form of knowledge, I want to say that drawings
generated through an exploration of another’s unique understanding of suffering can
themselves generate an enhanced public awareness and understanding of the disease in a
more universal sense through eliciting a viewer’s response. And so, where meaningful
understanding can be elicited in this way, visual language – drawing - brings an illness too
often hidden into the light of acceptability; the drawing act becomes the voice that can
‘speak the unspeakable’.
I conclude this paper with a short narrative. It was written at the very beginning of the
Drawing Women’s cancer project, at a time when I was only beginning to find out about the
world I was entering into.
I have never been so unsure of what to expect, so I try to expect nothing. I find my way to
the venue, a very plush hotel where the décor seems to struggle between the personal and
the impersonal, business and pleasure. The event, the first South East Wales
Gynaecological Oncology Centre Survivorship Event, is shrouded in the personal, powerfully
so, and as I enter the room I feel as though I am being drawn into the folds. Nevertheless,
as I look around at the surprisingly large crowd of people I am out of place, I am an
outsider, and it is as if I have gatecrashed the party of a small yet very exclusive club.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
Everybody is friendly towards me, they are very welcoming but they know the rules. ‘You
cannot talk to the ladies today. Only the nurses and the charity people’. The cancer
specialist nurse smiles sympathetically, ‘I’m sorry, but you don’t have the CRB check
The enthusiasm is almost tangible in the handshakes, the smiles, the offers of tea, cakes,
but what am I doing here? How would these ladies who have suffered, and are suffering,
and these people who are caring for the suffering, receive an artist? How will they respond
to what I am trying to do?
The disease and the person. What becomes and/or remains the difference? What do
outsiders, like me, see first? It becomes impossible to control the speed of the questions
that run through my head as my gaze searches the room, trying to decide whether she has
cancer, whether she is a nurse, whether she is a carer and for whom? Who are the
patients, the nurses, the surgeons, the charity workers? They are all people with some
connection to cancer, to gynaecological cancer, and they are all here for one thing, to
celebrate survivorship. They are so many strangers, but they are together, and with
togetherness comes the freedom and security with which they are able to talk about
something that, outside that room, is never so giving. Cancer is no longer the elephant in
the room. I feel I am.
I sit beside an elderly lady. She seems so very kind, so very interested. I know she thinks I
am a fellow sufferer and I do suffer in my sense of guilt at not correcting her. I do not,
cannot say, ‘but I am only an artist!’ not to the elderly lady, so refined, so beautiful. Her
companion; a Zambian cleric. He is in contact, she tells me, with the wife of the Zambian
President. Cancer care in Zambia; ladies with cancer so far away from this room with the
view over the city, but in her eyes, in her heart, they are so very close. Survivorship has the
power to unite and the beautiful lady and her quiet, smiling companion speak so very loudly
in its service. Yet, she seems so very sad behind her eyes, wounded. She has no time for
the earnest complementary therapies speaker. Although it never shows in her expression
of serenity her slight and frail body stiffens. She turns aside and she smiles at me, but she
will not listen.
Rachel, forty-four, recovering from vulval cancer. The beautiful lady is listening now but
almost flinching as the force of Rachel’s passion makes hailstones of her words. Rachel is
very active, a purposeful campaigner, she began fundraising from her hospital bed. She
talks eloquently, ardently, about the ‘speakable’, while she refers more quietly, to the
‘unspeakable’. Everybody hears her though. Everybody understands. The beautiful lady
understands and turns again to smile at me, warmly.
TRACEY | journal: Drawing Knowledge 2013
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