“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 Medicine is an interdisciplinary artistic project to find new metaphors for the experience of living with and caring for illness, and to form a collective space of healing at Duke University around the purpose of medicine: its’ creations, violence, responsibilities, possibilities, limits, myths and power.  

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 pure imagination, 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.  

The investigation that Illness Revelations engages breaks radical new ground in the growing field of the medical humanities and the possibilities of rigorous artistic research, pushing puppetry practice into new territory while advancing the intersections between performance and  disability studies. Performing arts professionals work to bridge siloed patient, student and faculty communities with a culmination at the Reimagining Medicine 2020 conference.

Following the two-year investigation at Duke University, the project will be primed to continue forward to other medical and academic institutions.

A space for stable engagement and diverse funding partners (from medicine, arts and humanities) will foster the foundation for this project to create deep-rooted community engagement, culture change that elevates artistic inquiry and advances the scholarship, practices and pedagogy of the medical humanities, and shapes future and current clinician practice.

Marina Tsaplina is an interdisciplinary performing artist working in the field of the Medical/Health Humanities. She is an Associate of the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine at Duke University where she serves as co-director of Reimagining 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 metaphoric body in illness and healthcare. She has lived with type 1 diabetes since she was two years old.