Stomach Ache

How do people respond to complex gut issues that are poorly served by clinical medicine? Curator Vanessa Bartlett and artists Kathy High and Lindsay Kelley explore creative collaborations with guts as new ways of understanding human-gut relations across clinical, domestic and artistic spaces. With a response from Claire Hooker and a Q&A moderated by Rachel Marsden.

This online event took place on Tuesday 7 March, 7pm GMT / 2pm EST / and Wednesday 8 March 6am AEST. A video recording is available until 8th April.

Image: Kathy High, Kathy as Bowie (2015). Exchange project with David Bowie. Photo Eleanor Goldsmith.
Amelia Hine. Moving image artwork commissioned for the Stomach Ache website (2022).

The brain-gut-microbiome axis is a pressing topic in emerging science and popular cultural imaginaries. Yet epidemiological research suggests that complex, chronic and imprecisely diagnosed gut issues are rising exponentially. As medicine grapples with this widespread digestive dysregulation, ‘wellness industry’ products like probiotics, which promise to adapt the microbial lining of the gut, have become increasingly profitable. 

Stomach Ache is a research-driven curatorial project that explores what people do with their gut when clinical medicine is unable to support linear pathways toward diagnosis and symptom alleviation. It has developed through conversations with people with complex, chronic gut issues about their ways of self-managing their condition, and artists who work with their gut in their practice. These conversations illuminate creative agency and self-experimentation as adaptive responses to complex gut issues that are poorly served by clinical medicine, and as an affordance of cultural imaginaries that implicate the microbiome as an adaptable or hackable space. Beginning with the microbiome as an ecosystem shaped by food, consumer culture and anthropocenic conditions, how might rethinking lived experiences of gut issues as creative collaborations with guts, afford new ways of understanding human-gut relations across clinical, domestic and artistic spaces? How might such a formulation collapse conventional definitions of patient agency, medical legitimacy and artistic expertise that circulate in the medical humanities?

This panel is formed around a key case study from the project, the artwork of Kathy High. High’s lived experience of Crohn’s disease—a condition that causes chronic inflammation of the bowel—shapes several of her artworks, which imagine methods for remaking her microbiome via emerging technologies like faecal transplantation. 

Speakers Vanessa Bartlett (Stomach Ache lead researcher), Kathy High and Lindsay Kelley will take High’s practice as a starting point for exploring wider themes of the Stomach Ache project. High will introduce her expansive body of work You Are My Future, which begins with the provocation: is our gut a ‘hackable space?’ Kelley will share material from her forthcoming book After Eating: Metabolising the Arts (MIT Press 2023),which contextualises High’s work within the wider field of the metabolic arts. The panel will include a response from Claire Hooker, Associate Professor in Health and Medical Humanities at University of Sydney. 

About the speakers: 

Vanessa Bartlett is a curator and researcher who explores how technologies shape wellbeing. She is currently McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, where she leads the Stomach Ache project and the Arts, AI and Digital Ethics research group.

Kathy High is an interdisciplinary artist and educator working with time-based arts and biology. Her expansive body of work You Are My Future is an investigation into the human condition through the lens of the gut microbiome. High is Professor and Department Head in the Department of Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Lindsay Kelley’s art practice and scholarship explore how the experience of eating changes when technologies are being eaten. She is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Art & Design, College of the Arts & Social Sciences, Australian National University. Her second book After Eating: Metabolizing the Arts, is forthcoming from MIT Press in 2023

Respondent and Chair

Claire Hooker is Associate Professor in Health Humanities and Arts and Health at University of Sydney. She is president of the Arts and Health Network of New South Wales and convenor of Sydney Health Ethics.  

Rachel Marsden is a curator, consultant and researcher exploring practice-based research, inclusive pedagogies and ethics of care. This work is informed by her practice in creative health, specifically social prescribing, disability justice and trauma-informed practice. Marsden is currently Senior Lecturer in Academic Practice, and Research Training Manager for the Doctoral Research Network (RNUAL), at University of the Arts London (UAL).

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