Organ transplantation and art: The ethics and politics of representation
Location SOAS Senate House - S110
Date and Start Time 03 Jun, 2018 at 13:30
Sessions 2


  • John Wynne (University of the Arts London) email
  • Abin Thomas (King's College London) email

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Short abstract

Transplants "blur the easy distinctions between life and death…." (Darwent) This panel takes a global perspective on transplantation, probing its social and political foundations and its subjective, human consequences via sounds and images from the creative research project Transplant and Life. The presentations will be in the first session and the second session will be discussion based.

Long abstract

This panel seeks a global and transdisciplinary perspective on transplantation and asks how - or if - art, in its broadest sense, can contribute to the understanding of this life-changing process from personal, social, and/or medical perspectives. It will explore relationships between biopolitics and emotion, and between the social and personal in the sphere of organ transplantation. Amidst the tangle of emotional and political complications surrounding transplantation, what of the patient voice, the subjective experience of those whose bodies have been subjected to invasive, sometimes traumatic interventions and whose lives have been extended and sometimes transformed? Can socially engaged cultural practices help to reconcile critical analysis of the paradoxical set of ideological or moral premises on which transplantation arguably rests (Lesley Sharp) with the compassion and trust on which the process relies? How are biomedical technology and the medicalised body represented in publically available imagery associated with organ transplantation?

The panel invites contributions from practitioners and theorists from across and between the disciplines of anthropology, ethnography, art and medicine and from both developed and developing societies.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The Medicalised Subject: Voice, language and emotion in organ transplant patients

Author: John Wynne (University of the Arts London) email

Short abstract

Illustrated by sounds and images from two artist research projects based in major transplant centres in the UK, this talk will look at how patients medicalise themselves and how/when emotions surface in their personal narratives.

Long abstract

I have been artist-in-residence at two world-leading centres for organ transplantation and have worked with heart, lung, kidney, liver and pancreas transplant recipients. These projects have focused primarily on the patient experience; my audio recordings are intimate and revealing and sometimes make uncomfortable listening, but are not, I hope, intrusive, sensationalist or voyeuristic. This presentation will look at how patients medicalise themselves and how and when emotions emerge. I have recently begun to collaborate with a linguist, Professor Elena Semino, and a researcher in emotional psychology, Dr Hedwig Eisenbarth, to carry out detailed analyses of the transcripts and recording of transplant recipients, made either at their hospital bedside or in their homes. We are looking at the moments in many of the recordings when emotions surface, exploring the sonic and linguistic cues that accompany and, in some cases, precede such emotional breaks. Using diagnostic tools based on machine learning techniques, we will explore the crossover between information we can get from vocal sounds and the information we get from the words themselves. We will use computational methods to analyse the extensive data set I have recorded, looking for metaphors, pronoun use (how you and I are used), and networks of words, as well as making comparisons with broader, more general data sets to learn more about the expression of emotions and identity when dealing with traumatic, life-and-death medical circumstances. This talk will be illustrated with photographs by my collaborative partner on these projects, Tim Wainwright, as well as by my own high-quality audio recordings.

Matter and Reciprocity; material transplants and art pedagogy

Author: Kimberley Foster (Goldsmiths. University of London) email

Short abstract

A profound example of change, and exchange, organ transplants question matter, function and reciprocity. Can this direct embodied encounter defined by the corporeal body be reconfigured from the medical towards the intermingling subjectivities of object exchanges and transformative art pedagogy?

Long abstract

The kidney, once my father’s still lives in the same house as him, has the same function, but is now a few meters away, located within another body. Neither recipient or donor have ever seen the uprooted organ, but it is fundamentally present, tucked on the underside of my mother’s abdomen.

The physical cut that took place to enable the object to be perceived with more worth and status was accompanied with an emotional and conceptual rupture – rupture is described by Alain Badiou as ‘a radical disruption that leads to a subsequent truth procedure which reconfigures the existing knowledge frameworks’ (Badiou, 2005, p. 33). This radical disruption is the relocation and new perception of the organ. It’s altered perception is both for donor and recipient as the objects reordering re contextualises its position, its image, its idea. It is greater than the sum of its parts, more than its matter. It is imagined, removed, held, plumbed in, felt and remembered.

What was understood never returns to its earlier state of being and dislocations become ‘fundamental encounters’ (Deleuze, 1968) of the physical and the thoughtful body. Can the transplant be reinterpreted as a way of making new meaning - a metaphor of inter –subjective transformation? Whilst not inflicted on the flesh of the body, a transformative learning encounter calls for a new state of understanding and can re-root and re-order the individual. Can objects be re-positioned, shared and held in the context of art pedagogy to question perceptions and epistemologies?


Authors: Michel Gölz (University of Applied Arts Vienna) email
Thi Que Chi Trinh (University of Applied Arts Vienna) email

Short abstract

Ex-life is a European-Vietnamese social design project encouraging Vietnamese youth to exchange views on organ transplantation.

Long abstract

The interdisciplinary project aims to increase young people's capacity to make confident decisions about whether to join the organ donation register, as well as to create a familiarity with the practice of transplantation.

Conversations with university students in Ho Chi Minh City were facilitated by touching of organ shaped objects in an artistic research, asking how they can imagine to share an organ with another. The recurring theme of the relationship between donor and recipient relates to ideas of solidarity and community of the young educated generation. Many students thematised the difficulty of communicating a decision to join the register to their parents because they do not have the permission before. In Vietnamese culture, a younger's decision has to be accepted by the older domestic generations of a family. The designs, drafted to be distributed on campuses in HCM, are in style of travel tickets, referencing the contemporary trend of backpacking. Unknown to the older generation is many young people's desire and opportunity to travel without their families. The tickets titling 'a different journey of life' invite sharing thoughts about organ donation with someone. Comments and questions can also be posed online, where medical professionals comment and provide reliable information in Vietnamese language using the hashtag #tiepnoihanhtrinh. The tickets can be kept as reminder or to get in contact with the cooperating hospital's transplantation unit.

When words fail - an interdisciplinary investigation into the phenomenological effects of heart transplantation

Authors: Alexa Wright (University of Westminster) email
Heather Ross (University Health Network) email
Margrit Shildrick (Linkoping University) email

Short abstract

Exploring themes of self & other, connectivity & assemblage, The Heart Project uses visual and media arts to realize and disseminate the findings of a long-term interdisciplinary research collaboration looking at the phenomenological effects of heart transplant for recipients and donor families.

Long abstract

For more than ten years an international, interdisciplinary team of medical practitioners, social scientists, artists and a philosopher have worked together to investigate the phenomenological effects of heart transplant on recipients and donor families in Canada. Based in the cardiac unit at Toronto General Hospital, this unique initiative has increasingly focused on artworks as a fulcrum for interdisciplinary exchange on the subject of heart transplantation and wider issues of intercorporeality and kinship.

Based exclusively on interviews with heart recipients and donor families, our research has shown that as well as blurring the boundaries between self and other, organ transplantation has deep implications for our understanding of the relation between death and 'staying alive'. We discovered that recipients of donor organs often find the experience of surviving an otherwise certain death is fraught with complex emotions about the relationship between the self and the now dead other, whilst donor families understandably wish to see the donor living on in another. Working closely with the rest of the team, artists Ingrid Bachmann (CA), Andrew Carnie (GB) and Alexa Wright (GB) have created works in a variety of media to explore the personal experiences of both heart recipients and donor families. In this presentation we will introduce our unique working processes and show some the artworks which, using a range of media including video, sound, interactive installation, drawing and photography, tackle emotive aspects of transplantation that resist verbal or textual communication.

Controversy, Censorship, and Subversion in American Organ Donor Memorials Projects

Author: Lesley Sharp (Barnard College-Columbia University) email

Short abstract

This paper—based on two decades of anthropological field research in the realm of human organ transfer in the U.S.—examines the material culture of professional versus personal donor memorials through the themes of controversy, censorship, and subversion.

Long abstract

Memorials to deceased organ donors in the U.S. assume a range of forms, from formal commemorative gardens, sculptures, and murals mounted by professional organizations to altars, quilts, specialized scrapbooks, and memory boxes carefully assembled or pieced together by surviving kin. The public face of organ transfer in the U.S. strikes a delicate balance between the celebratory and respectful, where organ donors are lauded as stars and heroes who, in death, have offered selfless "gifts of life" to others in need. Associated events, public relations materials, and large-scale memorials are marked by undetailed and carefully crafted depictions and descriptions of donors' deaths, accounts that are always overshadowed by the foregrounding of organ recipients' success stories post-transplant. In contrast, donor kin depict and tell very different sorts of stories, unflinchingly offering raw and detailed accounts of death and loss. Such efforts can incite censorship, however, from professionals, who fear that emotional stories, alongside references to violent deaths, could quickly undermine precarious efforts to win public support through increased organ donations. This paper—which draws on data accumulated over the course of two decades of anthropological field research on organ transfer in the U.S.—will examine the material culture of professional and personal donor memorials through the themes of controversy, censorship, and subversion.

The representation of organ transfer and the making of knowledge: A story from Kerala, India

Author: Abin Thomas (King's College London) email

Short abstract

In this paper, I will explore how organ transfer is ‘re-presented’ in the movies and documentaries from Kerala and elicit responses from the public.

Long abstract

Since the beginning of 1990s, several movies and documentaries depicted the process of organ transfer in Kerala from various vantage points. Some of them are the inter-subjectivity of the transplant recipient, the opposition to the commodification of organs, and the extraordinary nature of organ transplantation in a developing country. By examining these perspectives, I want to explore how the knowledge of organ transfer is ‘re-presented’ and how its depiction creates a living relationship with its audience. On the one hand, the characterisation of organ transfer in the films and documentaries is largely shaped by the transcendental notions of ‘good human being’ and ‘good life.’ On the other hand, drawing on my fieldwork for the PhD, I show how my informants raise their concerns about age, health and utility of the body, as well as kinship, the economic status of the future recipient, and the role of the state in organ transfer. I demonstrate how my informants challenge, criticise, and help re-make the knowledge of organ transfer as portrayed in the films and documentaries through their daily lives.

'The Body is a Big Place': Performing Body Parts, Bodies as Metaphor, and Presenting the Un-representable

Author: Helen Pynor email

Short abstract

In artwork 'The Body is a Big Place' a dialogue is staged between 'performing' organs and the performing bodies of members of an organ transplant community. This paper explores material, visceral and metaphoric strategies used in the project to present 'un-representable' aspects of transplantation.

Long abstract

'The Body is a Big Place' is a large-scale, immersive installation developed by artists Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy in collaboration with scientists, clinicians and sound artist Gail Priest. The work explores organ transplantation and the ambiguous thresholds between life and death, revealing death as an extended durational process rather than an event that occurs in a single moment in time. The work comprises a 5-channel video projection, fully functioning bio-sculptural heart perfusion device, soundscape, and single channel video.

'The Body is a Big Place' re-enacted certain defining aspects of the human heart transplant process. During live performances undertaken in the gallery space, the heart perfusion device was used to reanimate to a beating state a pair of fresh pig hearts obtained from an abattoir. Rather than sensationalising these performative events, the artists sought to encourage empathic responses from viewers, activating the bodies of viewers by appealing to their somatic senses and fostering their identification with the hearts they were watching. This opened up the possibility of a deeper awareness and connection with viewers' own interiors.

The work's realisation depended on engagement with an organ transplant community in Melbourne who were performers in the work's underwater video sequences. These were individuals who have received, donated, or stood closely by loved ones as they received or posthumously donated human organs. The bodies and actions of performers within the aqueous performance space generated a series of metaphors that sought to indirectly describe aspects of the transplant experience.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.