'Symptoms and Suggestions' at Sense and Diagnosis / by Lenni Sanders

On Thursday 16th July iOrganic (myself and Lenni Sanders) performed Symptoms + Suggestions at the See/Hear/Touch event to mark the opening of the Sense and Diagnosis Exhibition at Chetham’s Library. The performance was devised from research done on the medical collection at Chetham’s Library and beyond — looking at how medical diagnosis has developed through the ages, with a particular emphasis on touch. We began thinking about the sense and medicine, hoping to build on our experience of Sensored Festival, aiming to create something fun, interactive, immersive and absurd. I think we did all of those things.

Our initial plan was to find diseases which plagued particular eras of medicine and try to suggest particular characteristics of these diseases — heat, prickly texture, faintness — through touch, spoken word and other audio. As we developed the performance over the weeks preceding the night we felt that we wanted the performance to be more interactive, offer more control to the audience and that our initial idea was too didactic.

In development we decided that this two performer, one audience member show should take the form of a diagnosis. We would play either two or one doctor(s) from different eras and try to conjure the various attitudes towards diagnosis in those times. We were particularly taken by 1700s as a period of both science and pseudo-science with humours still being addressed whilst doctors became professionals and also the early 1900s as a time when doctors were good and diagnosing but that had no real useful medicines to administer. We also wanted to explore the future, so our other date was 2030, and through that we would look at a privatised health service which had customers, not patients, and an inherent phobia of human interaction in diagnosis.

Armed with these dates — 1745, 1920 and 2030 — we devised three ten-minute performances with soundscape and pre-recorded spoken word to accompany a dialogue between ourselves and the audience. We picked a key theme from each period and tried to heighten that theme. For 1745 we focussed on the emphasis on education and professionalism, which often meant that doctors would part ways with ill patients as death was bad marketing. For 1920 we wanted to highlight the cozy, local atmosphere and a doctor who knew you well, was probably there when you were being born and could possibly write your death certificate, they just can’t really help you if you’re too ill — no matter what bed rest is in order. The future, we were aiming for how impersonal diagnosis could become and a fear of human error driving us towards diagnosis machines and good marketing.

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The performance was also going to be a little absurd. We invited our lone audience member in through a gate, which could be seen through by other visitors to the exhibition adding a layer of voyeurism. We introduced ourselves and the show inviting them to join us in performing. Once they were sat down, in front of them were three blindfolds, each with adate stitched in. Next to the blindfolds were the objects that they would be touched with during the performance (1745 – heat packs and toothbrushes, 1920 – two baggy, wooly jumpers, 2030 – cold spoons) and based on this absurd set-up, they made a decision as to which performance to experience. We then blindfolded them and began the interaction.

Some people engaged as themselves, answering questions as if it was them being diagnoses. Others took on characters and embellished their story, where possible, forcing we performers to improvise or find creative ways to guide the discussion. What was clear is that people engaged to a level that they felt comfortable with and lead the tone of the performance entirely. People who were taking the performance seriously created a sombre tone and those having fun with it allowed us to be more absurd.

The performance was a success and the feedback from the audience, the programmers and Chetham’s library was ubiquitously positive. I feel that with this show, iOrganic has got closer to deciding on our identity. It was multi-media, spoken word and absurd. It was also participatory and audience lead. My criticism is that it wasn’t completely accessible, which I think should be the struggle of all artists. The performance space had no accessible access meaning that anybody unable to use the stairs couldn’t participate. Also, with the blindfolding, anybody with hearing impairment would have got very little from the performance. Moving forward we will address this.