Confabulate (verb):

From the Latin con (with, together) and fabulari (to talk, chat), from fabula (a tale)

1.(formal) To engage in conversation; talk
2.(psychiatry) To fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory

Confabulations: Art Practice, Art History, Critical Medical Humanities is a new series of urgent conversations on health, medicine, and medicalized bodies triangulating three areas of practice and scholarship, each with their own lineages, disciplinary ambits, and trajectories of remembering and forgetting. Consisting of talks, workshops, readings, performances, and works-in-progress presentations, the series intends to make explicit the contributions that artists and art historians can make to debates and developments in critical medical humanities and, in turn, to offer ways of expanding the possibilities of art practice and art history. Calling on artists and art historians who are ‘medical humanities curious’ as well as those who already identify with medical humanities, Confabulations aims to make and hold space for experimentation, risk, and dialogue in the hopes of fostering a community of practitioners and scholars interested in shaping future relations and interdependencies among art practice, art history, and critical medical humanities.

First-wave medical humanities frequently assumed a primarily instrumental attitude towards art and art making. But recent calls for criticality and postcritique are shaping a different epistemological space that emphasizes entanglement, materiality, and affect to imagine inter- and transdisciplinarity otherwise (e.g. Viney, Callard & Woods, 2015; Fitzgerald & Callard, 2016). Confabulations explores how art practice and art history can creatively and perhaps awkwardly operate in this space. How might artists and art historians, with urgent attention paid to constructions of gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability, help to ask and address pressing questions about contemporary and historical structures of health- and medical-related experience, knowledge, care, research, and education as these are complexly and unevenly distributed across different histories, geographies, communities, and corporealities? In the belief that these difficult questions demand new ways of thinking and doing, ‘a creative boundary-crossing in and through which new possibilities can emerge’ (Whitehead & Woods, 2016), Confabulations aims to explore the affordances of art’s practices and art’s histories for critical medical humanities.

For John Berger (2016), ‘confabulation’ described the activity of writing as ‘true’ translation, not just between two different languages but also in a triangular relation with the ‘pre-verbal’, implying subtle shifts among ‘voices’ to convey the complexities of human bodily experience. In psychiatry, confabulation denotes the process by which the imagination fills in memory gaps with fabrications that are experienced as if they were real. The series title thus explicitly draws attention to the problems of translating bodily experience into language and, at the same time, to breaches, fissures, and omissions not only in individual memory, but also in collective memory as constructed in and through an archive, a discipline, or a field of practice. And it aims to think about how these might be occupied imaginatively across time and space. In this sense, Confabulations intentionally echoes Saidiya Hartman’s process of ‘critical fabulation’ (2008), a method of research and writing that plays with the basic elements of a historical narrative in order to displace the dominant or authorised point of view. As deeply colonialist in conception and structure, art institutions including art history have long been dominated by period- and geography-specific approaches that constructed and reinforced hierarchical binaries and evolutionary narratives. Confabulations therefore insists on the urgency of decolonial, intersectional, transhistorical, transnational, transgeographical, as well as radically local thinking about health, medicine, and medicalized bodies.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of Durham University, Institute for Medical Humanities, UK, the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research, UK, Queen’s University, Katarokwi (Kingston), Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and Leicester Wellcome Trust ISSF.

Sources cited:

Berger, John. Confabulations (Penguin, 2016)
Fitzgerald, Des and Felicity Callard, “Entangling the Medical Humanities,” in The Edinburgh 
Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, Angela Whitehead and Angela Woods, eds (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 35–49.
Hartman, Saidiya, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (2008): 1-14.
Viney, William, Felicity Callard, and Angela Woods. “Critical Medical Humanities: Embracing 
Entanglement, Taking Risks,” BMJ Medical Humanities 4 (2015): 2–7.
Whitehead, Anne and Angela Woods, Introduction to The Edinburgh Companion to the 
Critical Medical Humanities (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 1–31.