Category Archives: blog

The Pregnant Archive Symposium

A free event but space is limited. You must have a booked place to attend.

THE PREGNANT ARCHIVE: Materialising Conception to Birth
30 November–1 December 2017
Two-day symposium and collaborative workshop, Birkbeck, University of London
Organised by Dr Emma Cheatle (Newcastle University) and Dr Isabel Davis (Birkbeck, UoL)
Funded by Newcastle University and Wellcome/Birkbeck ISSF.

DAY 1: THURSDAY 30 NOVEMBER 2017

11:00 Coffee
Introduction to exhibition, Conceiving Histories, by the artist Anna Burel
11:30 Introduction to the PREGNANT ARCHIVE by Isabel Davis and Emma Cheatle
11:45 Session 1: QUESTIONS OF CONCEPTION [Chair Isabel Davis]
20 minute papers from Shrikant Botre, Sara Read, Jesse Olszynko-Gryn
12:45 Questions and discussion

13:15 Lunch
14:15 Session 2: ARTIST RESPONSES workshop / collaborative conversation
10 mins/person: Helen Sargeant, Ruchika Wason Singh, Nikki Davidson-Bowman, Sreyashi Tinni
Bhattacharyya

15:15 Tea
16:00 Session 3: BIRTH SPACES [Chair Emma Cheatle]
20 minute papers from Hermione Wiltshire, Sarah Fox, Edwina Attlee, Cathy McClive
17: 20 Questions and discussion
17: 50 Organisers’ Remarks
18:00 Drinks in the Peltz Gallery followed by dinner

DAY 2: FRIDAY 1 DECEMBER 2017

10:00 Coffee
10:15 Session 4: MATERIALS OF PREGNANCY [Chair]
20 minute papers from Rebecca Whiteley, Rosemary Betterton
10:50 Questions and discussion
[short break]
11:15 20 minute papers from Anne Carruthers, Karen Harvey, Magdalena Ohaja,
12.15 Questions and discussion
12:40 Session 5: ARTIST RESPONSES workshop / collaborative conversation
10 mins/person: Lana Locke, Leah Lovett, Jessa Fairbrother

13:30 Lunch and further discussions on future collaborations
14:45 Regathering and closing remarks with artists and speakers. Possible futures.
15:00 End

 

The Fertility Podcast

Recently I spoke to Natalie Silverman for The Fertility Podcast. Natalie has built up a great library of podcasts from all sorts of different contributors talking about fertility and infertility, from clinical practitioners to people with their own personal fertility stories. She is always looking for people to talk to. So, if you have a story to tell, perhaps you should get in touch with her. Why not follow the Fertility Podcast on twitter: @fertilitypoddy to get alerts?

Listen to the dicussion I had with Natalie here:

EP 101: Conceiving Histories

 

 

Catch us at Being Human 2017

The Conceiving Histories project opens its doors to Being Human Festival goers. Our exhibition [8th November-13th December] will be on throughout the week of the festival and we are also hosting a ‘Behind the Exhibition’ talk at which you can hear about some curious cases of un-pregnancy from the past.

22nd November 6-8pm. Keynes Library. 43 Gordon Square, London. WC1H 0PD. See on a map.

Free. Booking required.


Exhibition

Peltz Gallery. Birkbeck School of Arts. 8th November – 13th December 2017.

Gallery opening times: Monday-Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 10am-5pm. Closed on Sundays. Free entry. See gallery location on a map.

How can something that doesn’t happen have a history? How can there be a material trace of un-pregnancy in the archive? This exhibition explores this paradox, finding and reimagining a material history of pregnancy feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose. Whilst reproductive medicine is at the front of scientific modernity, biomedical technology has no jurisdiction over the experiences of waiting, unknowing and disappointment.

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary historian, Isabel Davis, and visual artist, Anna Burel, producing creative and fictional reworkings of the archival materials of un-pregnancy. This exhibition re-materialises the past, giving structure and shape to things that have been left to us in text. The artworks explore the search for knowledge about a reproductive body which is as opaque as history: resistant, mediated and contested. They reflect on the signs of pregnancy in, from and on the body, and on messages and messengers, divine or earthly. Empty uterine spaces are imagined here displaced from the corporeal frame, labelled and dated, filled with strange visions. Swollen and flat structures, pads and envelopes, hollow and filled, contrast the fantasies of or desire for pregnancy with the reality of the un-pregnant body.


Behind the Exhibition

Come and hear about the making of the work and some of the research behind it. This event will be exploring the curious material history of un-pregnancy, that is of pregnancies feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose, and how this history can be re-imagined and materialised to think about conception and fertility today.

In particular, we will be further exploring the case of Mary Tudor and her two false pregnancies and twentieth-century frog pregnancy testing.

There will be a wine reception and a chance to visit the exhibition.

 

Yerma: a review

Last year Anna and I queued along The Cut at the Young Vic Theatre for returns to see Yerma, an adaptation of the Federico García Lorca play by Simon Stone. There weren’t any. But this week I had the chance to see it at a nearly empty cinema in a soulless shopping centre off the M25 as part of the National Theatre Live programme. Weird, not quite the same, but we take what we can get sometimes.

The play, people may know, tells the story of an unnamed woman (played by Billie Piper) unable to have a child with her husband John (Brendan Cowell). The action takes place in a glass box which mostly represents the couple’s new and big empty house, although also sometimes other places. Watching the action as if in an aquarium, the audience comes to represent the social expectation that couples become parents and the pitying social response when they don’t. The central character writes a blog about her ‘journey’ full of confessional information: about her resentment for her pregnant sister, for example, and her partner’s lack of co-operation with ‘baby-making’. Similarly, in the play’s action, then, the world looks in through see-through walls.

One wordless scene is played out to soaring baroque music – Pergolesi perhaps. The box is suddenly furnished with sofa, a kitchen island, a child’s cup on the floor. John and his partner are bouncing a baby boy in a sleep suit. Later, it turns out, the child is not theirs. When they return him to his mother the box is empty once again. I was as drawn to this play as others have been. The energy and commitment in the performances moved me, of course.

I wanted to see Yerma because the Conceiving Histories project is so embroiled with the questions it raises: about waiting and disappointment, about not being pregnant and not having a child. As I look through different historical literature for accounts of these experiences I am continually struck by the same story of the mad woman, made mad by her childlessness. This woman stands in the centre of our understandings of childlessness.  Similar characters, albeit a great deal less convincing, turned up in the recent series of Top of the Lake, for example. Here, women who are unable to have children resort to exploitative surrogacy arrangements using immigrant sex workers. One particular woman is driven mad enough to dance in and out of the traffic wearing her nightgown. She’s the Gothic version, embroiled in the dark secrets in which Gothic fiction revels. Yerma, in contrast, is more statuesque and, because the whole play is given over to this figure, more like a Greek tragedy. In whichever version, this woman steps out from the past to confront our own modernity; Yerma’s heroine has twelve unsuccessful rounds of IVF.

Part of the need for this mad woman is to do with how stories work. The narrative about wanting to have children either finishes with the person having a child or it doesn’t. But how can the latter story really work dramatically? If they don’t have a child then something else has to happen: so, they go mad. Can’t we think up some other endings, I wonder as I leave the cinema. When I voice this to my partner who watched Yerma with me, he replies: ‘Well, what do you want?  A play where at the end the main character says, “I am a bit disappointed, but I’m soldiering on”?’.

I’m working on the answer to that question and it involves thinking about this mad, childless female figure and our cultural investment in her, but it also involves finding out other endings for this story by looking at documents from the archives, imagining the powerful, dramatic ways in which we might tell the potentially boring story about ‘soldiering on’, of nothing happening, of stories that don’t end happily or don’t end at all.

Conceiving Histories Exhibition

Peltz Gallery. Birkbeck School of Arts. 8th November – 13th December 2017.

Gallery opening times: Monday-Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 10am-5pm. Closed on Sundays. Free entry. See gallery location on a map.

How can something that doesn’t happen have a history? How can there be a material trace of un-pregnancy in the archive? This exhibition explores this paradox, finding and reimagining a material history of pregnancy feigned, imagined, hidden and difficult to diagnose. Whilst reproductive medicine is at the front of scientific modernity, biomedical technology has no jurisdiction over the experiences of waiting, unknowing and disappointment.

Conceiving Histories is a collaboration between literary historian, Isabel Davis, and visual artist, Anna Burel, producing creative and fictional reworkings of the archival materials of un-pregnancy. This exhibition re-materialises the past, giving structure and shape to things that have been left to us in text. The artworks explore the search for knowledge about a reproductive body which is as opaque as history: resistant, mediated and contested. They reflect on the signs of pregnancy in, from and on the body, and on messages and messengers, divine or earthly. Empty uterine spaces are imagined here displaced from the corporeal frame, labelled and dated, filled with strange visions. Swollen and flat structures, pads and envelopes, hollow and filled, contrast the fantasies of or desire for pregnancy with the reality of the un-pregnant body.

15th November 2017- Private viewing and reception 6-8:30pm. Reserve your free place. All Welcome!

Free event: Behind the Exhibition public talk. 22nd November 2017. 6-8pm. Part of the Being Human Festival Programme. Book your free place here.

Academic and Artist symposium. 30th November-1st December 2017. Book a place here.

This exhibition has been generously supported by the Peltz Gallery, the Centre for Medical Humanities at Birkbeck and, through a kickstarter campaign, the following generous individual donors: Neelesh Prabhu; Matthias Schiller; Henry Singer; Jutta Rolf; Familie Rolf; Rémy Burel; Isolde Hahn-Pfaff; David Burel.

The research behind the exhibition was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Birkbeck, University of London.

 

Calling all artists!

Call for artists

How do we materialise the history of a subject which leaves few material traces? In the past, conception, pregnancy and birth were largely private experiences, perhaps further obscured by their ephemerality, as well as the secrecy and partial medical knowledge surrounding them. Recovering their histories means considering their material traces, no matter how absent.

We invite artists to join and collaborate with a network of academics from history, architecture, literature, art and art history, to examine and elaborate the meaning of the objects, spaces, descriptions and other archival materials left behind by maternity. The academic contributors have suggested a range of objects that they would like to share – from eighteenth-century letters, to a caul, to uterine membranes, to an original pregnancy testing kit – and we are hoping you would like to respond with discussions and new artworks. The aim would be to contribute ‘work in progress’ and processes of thinking at a two-day symposium/workshop. The selected artists will be asked to participate in the 2-day event by presenting early research/work they have produced as a result of their engagement with one or more of the proposed objects. Completed artworks will be displayed alongside the historical objects and materials to which they respond in a later event, in June 2018.

Unfortunately we cannot pay fees and expenses at this stage, but may be able to pay artists’ expenses for the 2nd event in 2018. There will be no fees charged of collaborating artists.

For full information about this call for collaboration and how to apply please email Dr Isabel Davis (drbeldavis@gmail.com).

Deadline: 8th September 2017.

Featured image: A Cesarean patient prior to dressing the wound. From Edward Siebold, Abbildungen aus dem gesammtgebiete der theoretisch-praktischen geburtshülfe, 1829.

[This image was reproduced from the U.S. National Library of Medicine]

Work in progress for our exhibition

We will be holding an exhibition in November. Put the date in your diaries: 8th Nov-13th December 2017. Anna has been busily making the work that will be displayed there.

Anna:

Creating work in collaboration with Dr Isabel Davis for Conceiving Histories has proven an exciting journey. The works result from an on-going conversation with Isabel on selected case studies. Over the last year and a half we have focused our attention on four case studies: Mary I’s hysterical pregnancies (1555-7); a 1793 fashion for a pad to simulate pregnancy; an 1826 idea for an Experimental Conception Hospital and mid-20th-century frog pregnancy tests.

Photo 16-06-2017, 17 27 57The starting point is most often one or a series of archival documents written at the time of the case study. The original words, the type or handwriting, stamps that appear on these documents have become an essential source of inspiration. The material aspect, the look and feel of paper or vellum, and the idea of history are key components in my creative process. The intention is to put an emphasis on the source materials, the importance of the archive and the journey the documents have made to reach us. Then, there are other inspirational elements that have had a constant presence in my practice like anatomical illustration and costumes.Photo 16-06-2017, 14 56 08

At the beginning of the collaboration I worked on these case studiesPhoto 16-06-2017, 17 50 19 individually. Lately the process has also been about creating bridges between the case studies and the stories they tell, considering ‘unpregnancy’ as a journey from the past to the present and inscribing women today into that history.

The result is a variety of different pieces, some sculptures made of paper, textiles pieces, photographs and drawings. Echoes of shape, words, object or colors work across these different media.

The selection of images featured in this post show the work in progress in my studio during Bow Arts annual open studios in June.

Photo 16-06-2017, 18 16 34

Contribute to our crowdfunding campaign

I have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise £900 towards our exhibition in November. Which will be held in the Peltz gallery and be free to all.

UPDATE: Our campaign has made the kickstarter editors’ pick; they’ve badged it as a ‘project they love’.

UPDATE 2: Our campaign has met its target. But it’s not too late to contribute. All further proceeds go to keeping Anna in food as the project goes on, so that she can work on further examples.

£900 doesn’t sound like much but it will make a real difference to the quality of the work and the exhibition. Any contribution, even as small as £5 will help to make it closer to the goal. There are a number of rewards attributed with each pledge, including original signed A5 prints. Or, if you’re feeling really generous you could get your name included in the artwork for the exhibition.

If you aren’t feeling rich enough to contribute financially, perhaps you could help by tweeting about our campaign or by sharing this news on facebook.
With your help I can make this exhibition look its best!
Follow this link to get more information and to help out.
Thank you in advance for your valuable support!
Anna.

Conceiving Histories at Birkbeck Arts Week

Come and see our work in progress on the Conceiving Histories project, which looks at the history of un-pregnancy (trying to conceive, the difficulty of diagnosing early pregnancy and reproductive disappointment).

WEDNESDAY 17th MAY 2017, 6-7.30pm. Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square. FREE. ALL WELCOME. Book a place here.

We will be talking about pregnancy diagnosis today and in the past. How did people in the past imagine and anticipate the future of pregnancy diagnosis? For all our technological advancement, in what ways does our experience of trying to diagnose early pregnancy resemble that of people in the past?

Here is one assessment from Giralamo Mercurio in the fifteenth century, which didn’t quite predict the future:

As to the signs that some people think they see in the urine, this is such a false lie that it belongs more to charlatans than to physicians because the moon has more to do with shrimp than with urine in showing whether or not a woman is pregnant.[1]

How reasonable he sounds but, it turns out, how wrong. Of course Mercurio was arguing against those who thought that urine was key to pregnancy diagnosis, who imagined the future that we now inhabit. Come and hear more about a curious history which is strangely more connected with our world today than is always thought.

We’ll be looking at some new art work from Anna Burel which focuses on the bizarre Xenopus frog pregnancy test, used in the twentieth century. Here is an example:

Frog Work, © 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017

There are also lots of other interesting events at Birkbeck Arts Week. They are all free and everyone is welcome. Find out more and book your place here.


Featured image at the top of this page: monkey doctor and a stork, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum MS 298, folio 81r

[1] Girolamo Mercurio, cited in Rudolf Bell, How to do it: Guides to Good Living for Renaissance Italians (pp. 71-72).

 

Frogs and annunciations

As soon as the doctor told her she was pregnant, she felt frail and nauseous, although she had not done so before.

‘But are you sure?’ she asked, foolishly, she felt, picking up her skirt and stockings. The doctor was washing his hands.

‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘No doubt. Better book you into a maternity hospital.’

She laid a hand wonderingly on her stomach.[1]

This is how the writer Angela Carter imagined a pregnancy diagnosis at eight weeks in her unpublished short story ‘The Baby’ from about 1961. The skirt and stockings on the floor, the doctor washing his hands: Carter imagines an internal examination. ‘The Baby’ is intended to be naturalistic – a woman discovers she is pregnant and worries, particularly about her relationship with her partner. The story is mostly not magical realism of the kind that made Carter famous. However, an eight week pregnancy couldn’t, indeed still can’t be, determined by internal examination and so the story in this excerpt is inadvertently magical, more like a fairytale than anything true to life. Carter imagines the doctor here as all-knowing, even as having special powers.

One of the things that the conceiving Histories project is trying to do is to look at the history of not-knowing, a history of the time when people are wondering ‘am I? aren’t I?’. Part of what we want to look at is the search for a diagnosis in that in-between time and the desires and fantasies generated in ignorance. In ‘The Baby’ the protagonist feels foolish because she doesn’t know and the doctor does. But there is an even more profound unknowing which may be the source of the sense of foolishness described here.

Before it was possible to piss on a stick to determine pregnancy, urine was injected sub-dermally into animals. For much of the twentieth century it was frogs, mostly South African clawed xenopus laevis toads – aquatic, carnivorous and tropical. Frogs because they emitted eggs externally and did so in reaction to the injection of pregnant urine, and so didn’t have to be dissected to get the result. As Edward Elkan, a doctor  who kept a hundred frogs in a tank on the balcony of his flat overlooking Regents Park for testing his private patients in the 1930s, wrote: the xenopus test has the advantage over other tests which require ‘hecatombs of young mice’.[2] The test was as accurate as our pregnancy tests are today.

The logistics of this test, as it developed in the ‘40s and ‘50s are extraordinary. Women’s urine was sent with a fee by post from doctors’ surgeries and pharmacies to diagnostic centres where it was injected into frogs which had been sent by ship from South Africa. The Family Planning Association archive, at the Wellcome Library, is full of documents about the international transport in these frogs.[3] The FPA got their frogs from Peers Snake Farm and Zoo in Cape Town, through an animal transport agent, Thomas Cook and Sons.

London, Wellcome Library, SA/FPA/A3/11/13: Box 23
London, Wellcome Library, SA/FPA/A3/11/13: Box 23

They bought them in batches of 500; mainly these were female frogs but sometimes also male ones. They started getting them in 1949 and stopped in 1963 when immunoassay tests were available. The frog supply was dependent on the weather and the health of the population; sometimes they died in transit. One of the main questions which dogs the archive, to give a sense of the logistical challenge presented by this test, is whether it is cheaper to ship back the containers that the frogs came in or buy new ones each time.

Pregnancy really wasn’t diagnosed through internal examination, then, in the way that Carter imagines in ‘The Baby’. This lack of knowledge isn’t peculiar to Angela Carter. Most people didn’t know how pregnancy was diagnosed at the beginning of the 1960s; lots of medical practitioners themselves had no idea. Lots of people don’t know today that this was the way that pregnancy testing was done for most of the twentieth century.[4] Women got their results from doctors, rather from the test centre itself. Because tests were usually done in extremis, the result was no doubt the important thing, rather than finding out how the trick was done.

The Family Planning Archive is full of all sorts of documents about this test but what isn’t in the archive is much about women themselves, the people being tested. So, on the one hand, we have Angela Carter’s story and a lack of knowledge about how a result was achieved, that is how pregnancy was diagnosed and, on the other hand, the archive articulates an equivalent ignorance or at least a lack of curiosity about the people whose urine was being tested in the frog labs. The labs tested urine, not people.

In response to this, Anna Burel, who is making artwork as part of the Conceiving Histories project, has set about the task of creating a fictional archive which re-introduces the idea of the tested woman missing from the archive.

Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017

She is using the forms of the documents in the Family Planning Archive to do this, picking out the visual elements of telegrams which went backwards and forwards between the Association’s diagnostic centre in Chelsea, Thomas Cook and the snake farm in Cape Town.

Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel 2017

She has also made a number of plaster frogs, each has its own type written label, marked with the name of a fictional person. Each of those tags corresponds to the label on a urine sample bottle.

Frog Work, © 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel, 2017

Making fictitious matches between frog and urine, by inserting names, Anna’s work is trying to close the gap between the diagnostic centre, and what went on there, and the lives of people who sent in their samples and waited for results. She is presenting, through the gesture of her figures, an impression of their responses to their results.

Anna and I have been thinking a lot about the annunciation, in relation to the whole project, as a pregnancy test before such things existed; no doubt there’ll be another blog post about it. What a wish-fulfilment fantasy: someone will come from another world and tell me the answer. We have been thinking about the annunciation, too, in relation to the lack of knowledge of the urine/xenopus test. In the traditional idea of the annunciation – when the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’s going to have a baby in the Gospel – Mary’s pregnancy isn’t just announced it is also brought into being at exactly the same time. Often this is depicted in medieval art by a ray of sunlight, coming through a window, beaming onto or into Mary, sometimes carrying a little image of Christ or the holy spirit in the form of a dove.

Gentile da Fabriano, Annunciazione (1423-5) Pinacoteca Vatican
Gentile da Fabriano, Annunciazione (1423-5) Pinacoteca Vatican

Returning to Angela Carter’s imagined scene, she describes something rather similar. The doctor knows by putting his hands inside her, penetrating her in a mundane version of the divine conception. He magically reports and also symbolically impregnates, putting the foetus into the womb by hand.

Frog Work, © Anna Burel, 2017
Frog Work, © Anna Burel, 2017

Given the lack of knowledge about diagnostic practice, women might as well have been told their results by angels, the diagnostic centre was as remote as the other, spiritual world from which angels are thought to come.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] ‘The Baby’ (c. 1961), London, British Library MS Additional 88899/1/42

[2] Edward Elkan, Sketches from my Life, (1983), p. 56. London, Wellcome Library MS 9151.

[3] London, Wellcome Library, SA/FPA/A3/11/13: Box 23.

[4] One person who does know is Cambridge researcher Jesse Olszynko-Gryn. He is currently preparing a book on the history of pregnancy testing. You can read some of his work and find out more about the xenopus test here.