The session started with fear, pain and the sharp edges of an ice-breaking exercise in which we were invited to feel rather than think our way around an array of surgical implements. Most participants found it difficult to translate into words the wincing and shivering felt and the discussion soon shifted to what the objects had brought to mind. The faculty of formal association – of grouping perceived like with like based on similarities in formal characteristics and producing a personal taxonomy and classificatory scheme – proved to be difficult to switch off.
There was a census that the initial unease had been dispelled as the unknown became known and appropriated to our bodies, senses and minds. The exercise was nevertheless a useful reminder of how one feels, and sometimes hears, as much with the eye as one sees with it and that knowledge is manufactured by both spatially and temporally situated bodies. That the practice of research mobilizes the whole physical being, which the mind is just one part of, called into question the perpetuation of the mind/body distinction.
Matt, the sculptor, described the process by which he creates public art. This chimed with the process of research in which we add, take away and transform materials and, it has to be acknowledged, often work to a plan and veer off it into into the unknown, in the creation of knowledge. Just like artists, researchers seek to reconcile the form and content of their work, wrestle with issues of composition and the effects of harmony and dissonance.
The adrenaline-driven addictive appeal of operating for surgeons emerged. That sensual stimulation has been a factor galvanizing the development of science and our desire for understanding of ever smaller and greater spheres of existence warrants further attention.
Diagrammatic maps of the human nervous system used to train students in the theory of surgery revealed that the medical sector has a colour spectrum all of its own. These two-dimensional representations, the surgeon, Roger, told us, proved to be inadequate training for his first practical explorations of the body as the instrument, steered by the hand and the eye, attempted to navigate the un-apprehended three-dimensional contours of flesh and the inner topography of the body.
Surgery, an act of transgression into normally inaccessible spaces of the body, was depicted as a staged performance conducted by the surgeon and a bigger team, working together in military corps fashion. I was reminded of the inter-connectedness of the fields of science and the fact that most research is collaborative.
I related this to both the process, and subject, of my own research into the RGS collections of images associated with late nineteenth-century geographical exploration and science, the adventurous thrill of travel and research, and the penetration of unknown spaces in order to bring back – trophy-like – scraps of knowledge. The production of images of both human and physical geography and my re-telling of this story, are as much acts of illustration as they are of conceptual and material creation. This mapping and recording of hitherto unknown places and peoples was the basis for the sometimes surgical, but more often than not brutal, sculpting of nations, under European colonial rule. Such activities also provided the raw materials for a range of sciences, including the nascent field of geography, in late nineteenth-century Britain.