Art imitating near death – a learning experience
What is like to suffer a serious brain injury? Something that significantly impairs your cognitive function, shaking up your sensory experience, your links to the world around you, and maybe even jumbles your own inner conversations with yourself?
It must be very hard to explain. For those of us who have never experienced anything like it – and that is most of us – it is certainly very difficult to imagine.
However, over the past week one show at the MAC in Belfast has been trying to give audiences an insight that gets close to the bone.
Shannon Yee’s Reassembled, Slightly Askew has returned to the venue from 16 to 26 February as part of the NI Science Festival. The show’s title stems from Ms Yee’s realisation about the permanent effects of a near-death experience
A subdural empyema saw her admitted to the RVH for emergency neurosurgery. The symptoms were horrible: a sinus infection preceded muscular spasms, headaches and vomiting. The diagnosis was a rare brain infection that was detected just in time to relieve near-fatal pressure.
That was nearly ten years ago. Since then, Ms Yee has made a very good recovery (reassembled) albeit not without a lasting residue of what she went through (slightly askew).
Reassembled is definitely theatre, but it is far from a traditional play. It’s not something you watch, or listen to, it’s something that happens to you.
The experience begins waiting in a corridor. The MAC, with its austere white walls, is a great setting. Simple chairs line one wall and all attendees – eight, in total, when Scope attended - sit there.
After a short wait, two men in clinicians’ tunics come into the corridor, hand out consent forms and explain the process for the next hour or so. The audience is led into a room with eight field-hospital-style beds, coloured by low blue lights.
Take off your coat, take off your shoes, lie down. The nurses first put on your eyemask, then your headphones. Your ears fill with sounds.
What follows is a version of Ms Yee’s experience boiled down into a multi-layered sonic trip. The 3D sound provided by the headphones is amazing on a purely technical basis and allows the world around you, as constructed, to come alive.
One layer is the environmental sounds – ambient traffic, footsteps, surgical drilling. Another is comprised of conversations that are sometimes confusing and sometimes clear and sharply intimate, with voices that move around you to create a vivid and physical reality.
It is all tied together by Shannon’s own voice, her internal monologue, which the headphones place firmly and consistently within your own throat – as if it is you saying the words or thinking the thoughts, as described.
Your own sensory and temporal grounding is removed and you are taken on a carefully crafted voyage that is designed to be affecting.
Starting with the mundanities of normal life, pre-diagnosis - and planning a shopping trip to Forestside – and move through symptoms, diagnosis, surgery, the peril of near death, and the long and difficult recovery – struggling to move, counting off the staples in your skull, unable to keep simple thoughts in order.
It is an emotional story – with short snippets of dialogue or thoughts highlighting significant barriers, or sensory confusion, while longer conversations outline the cold reality of diagnosis, or the effects on personal relationships (including paranoia) – and is chilling, uplifting and several times even very funny.
And even though the headphones are on for less than an hour, it is also exhausting.
Ultimately, this all feels necessary for the experience to be an honest one.
Power of art
Reassembled is, by definition, avant garde – but its methods are designed with literalism and immersion in mind.
Lying on your bed under sensory deprivation and listening to the 48-minute soundscape is probably as close as anyone can get to a sliver of the experiences under examination.
The link between your environment and your brain, via your senses, is weakened. Your sense of time, how one moment follows another, is also compromised. It also gives a hint, via Shannon’s monologues, of what it might be like when your internal relationship with yourself is also rattled. This is the most fundamental infirmity, a source of fear, and Reassembled puts you as close to that as is likely possible in the circumstances.
Of course, it is still far removed from how confusing and upsetting and maddening health problems like this must be, but that is an inherent and insoluble problem and overall the show – for lack of a better word – fulfils that part of its mission.
But surely that is only part of why Ms Yee put this together. Something so personal must therefore be personal in and of itself. This show cannot have been a purely academic exercise, to provide some understanding for the medical world and the general public; it must also have been an examination of self.
Next week Scope will speak with Ms Yee about what she went through, how she made Reassembled, as well as discussing the potential for art to be both a method of communicating experience with other people, as well as analysing yourself.
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