“When experience becomes unrepresentable and conventional language insufficient, voice beyond words needs a new language.”

John Paul Lederach & Angela Jill Lederach; When Blood and Bones Cry Out: Journeys through the Soundscape of Healing & Reconciliation

Illness Revelations: The Bodies of History/Medicine/Us is an interdisciplinary socially engaged artistic project to develop a radical pedagogy for health education through socially engaged puppetry practice. Over the course of two years, it will bring together three historically fragmented communities impacted by healthcare’s structural violence. Phase one will center on engaging those impacted by the legacy of North Carolinas eugenics policies (1924-1974) and people living with chronic illnesses/disabilities. Through an iterative process of workshops and performance-dialogues, these populations will gather to bear witness to each other’s suffering and beauty. Together we will co-create a series of puppets to serve as vessels for seeing the past and imagining a new way forward. In phase 1 of Illness Revelations we will connect two communities wounded by American medicine and create a conversation between them around:

1)How personal, social, and historical influences and experiences of illness/disability are embodied

2)Healing and care of self, others, and community

3)Making visible the injury of erasure inflicted on both populations, stemming from how medicine constructs its view of the body.

This engagement will include students in Duke University’s Reimagine Medicine program who plan to pursue careers in medicine and healthcare.

In contemporary healthcare, illness is often approached through the metaphor of war: we fight, contain, control, and seek to eradicate disease. When the war (and “the cure”) is no longer possible, we offer the metaphor of a garden: tending to the body. Yet neither metaphor is complete. In partnership with diverse chronic and dis/ability communities (the “chronic commons”), pre-health undergraduate students, the artistic community, and the medical school, Illness Revelations is a ground for collective imagining to open a new landscape of possibility. It grapples with the reality of living with and caring for illness in order to reveal the stories that our bodies are speaking, opening space to both feel and give voice to the unspeakable. This landscape will provide the foundation for composing a series of performance scenes while growing a puppet/object-theater language on embodiment, imagination & illness in an act of social healing.

The ancient-meets-contemporary art of puppetry serves as a unique medium for this investigation: a puppet is a material site of imagination and invocation, straddling the line between “it” and “you”. Physical materiality meets poetic materiality in expressions of the stories of entangled embodiments. Puppetry can carry testimony without taking the narrative of another hostage, which is critical when working with illness narratives.

Art is a research practice into the human condition and is now being called upon by medicine. Yet if Art is going to be engaged in healthcare, it must assert its sequence of practice and its fundamental offer, its intrinsic cultivation of imagination, presence, attention that is under threat in medicine, and its ability to testify to the irreducible paradox of the terror and beauty of life, death, and the in-between.  

Marina Tsaplina is an interdisciplinary performing artist working in the field of the Medical/Health Humanities and socially engaged art. She is an Associate of the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine at Duke University where she serves as Lead Artist of Reimagine Medicine. As founder of THE BETES® Organization, she developed theatrical shows and workshops that engaged patient communities and medical education on the lived experience of chronic illness. She was a Kienle Scholar in Medical Humanities at Penn State College of Medicine (2016-2018). Her artistic and scholarly research focuses on how chronic illness creates fractured embodiment, the creation of the medical object of disease, and how the art form of puppetry is uniquely positioned to investigate the literal and poetic body in illness and healthcare. She has lived with type 1 diabetes since she was two years old.