What Is “Lived Experience”? (January 2022)

THIS EVENT TOOK PLACE ON Wednesday 12th January 2022, 4pm to 5.30pm GMT / 11am to 12.30pm EST. A RECORDING WAS AVAILABLE ONLINE UNTIL THE END OF JANUARY 2022.

This event brings together Daniel Regan and Chris Millard in a conversation on the use of the term ‘lived experience’ in the arts, health, and academic sectors.

Daniel Regan is a photographic artist exploring complex emotional experiences, focusing on the transformational impact of arts on mental health, building on his own lived experience. He shoots commissions and personal works, delivers socially engaged projects and provides consultancy in arts & health. Daniel is Founder and Executive Director of the Arts & Health Hub, a non-profit organisation supporting artists that work in the arts and health sector. His particular interest and focus is on practitioner support for artists with lived experience of mental health difficulties. Previously Daniel worked as the Director of an arts and health charity in the NHS.

Chris Millard is Lecturer in the History of Medicine and Medical Humanities at the University of Sheffield. He is interested in the history of mental health and illness, especially self-harm, child abuse, and suicide, and more broadly in ideas of ‘the social setting’ in medicine. He is also interested in the role of ‘personal experience’ in academic work, and history’s links with anthropology.

Millard’s 2020 article “A Genealogy of Lived Experience” traces the complex history of the recent turn towards ‘lived experience’ in academic writing. Quoting Joan Scott, who claims that experience “serves as a way … of claiming knowledge that is unassailable”, Millard points out that scholars working in critical studies of autobiography sometimes treat experience in a puzzlingly uncritical manner. “Experience” is a rhetoric: it always involves a choice about what is authentic and central to that experience and what is ancillary to it. When we say that we want to listen to and recoup marginalised voices, what do we mean by this? Are we implicitly assuming that these voices might be heard without the filter of power? Do we need to be wary of taking ‘experience’ as ‘evidence’?

Applied to a contemporary art context, Millard’s article raises questions about the ways in which ‘experience’ is mobilised in artistic practice or in the curation of artworks that speak to personal health experiences. To what extent are artworks – particularly those commissioned for medical museums or similar settings – expected to act as proxies for lived experience?  Does the way in which ‘lived experience’ is used in one discipline or sphere of professional practice easily translate to another setting? Perhaps ‘experience’ might have different meanings and resonances for different areas of practice?

Daniel Regan and Chris Millard will each consider what ‘lived experience’ means to them and their practice, with the aim of opening up the term, and facilitating a conversation about how lived experience might mean different things in different contexts. Each will talk for 15-20 minutes, followed by an open discussion and audience questions, facilitated by Fiona Johnstone.

Daniel Regan: There have been times when I have found it difficult to visualise how my long-term mental health difficulties could possibly bring value to my future. However, my process-driven photographic practice has provided the opportunity to often make sense of the incomprehensible, both to my own benefit and others. Altering my relationship to my lived experience — from something to be ashamed and stigmatised by, to experiences which show great capacity for learning and insight — has enabled me to reframe my perspective on trauma.Throughout this talk I will share particular personal projects that explore my mental health own experiences, alongside exploring the value and challenges that lived experience can bring to working across the arts & health sector, including in participatory arts projects and within medical humanities.

Chris Millard: There is a flourishing and diverse literature that uses ‘lived experience’ in a wide range of professional and academic contexts. In this talk I will be focusing on the inclusion of ‘personal experience’ or ‘lived experience’ in academic history – my home discipline. Whilst it is common, and indeed conventional to see personal aspects in forewords, prefaces or epilogues, it is rather less common to see historians use personal experience entangled with their academic work. However, these experiments with personal experience are increasing, and go beyond the traditional practice of historians writing their autobiographies, with scholars reflecting on personal experiences, and their consequences, whilst also doing academic history. From the 1980s experiments by Luisa Passerini, Carolyn Steedman and Ronald Fraser, to the more recent efforts of Ann Cvetkovich, Sarah Knott, Barbara Taylor, Sarah Chaney and Saidya Hartman, these experiments themselves can be put into historical context. I will be putting forward three factors (broad intellectual traditions) that promote and provoke this inclusion of personal experience: anthropology, psychoanalysis, literary criticism. All of these have influenced academic history in myriad ways, and one of the effects of this is to make personal experiences more relevant and pertinent to the history being written.

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