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Palliative Art

Palliative Art: Mortality in Moving Image Media and Photography

Apprehension of mortality is a condition of our consciousness and selfhood, and has long preoccupied poets and artists. In the modern and contemporary period, visual technology offers new opportunities for testimony to mortality, in intimate and in public contexts, as witnessed in controversial works by practitioners such as Sophie Calle and Bill Viola. The role of moving image media and photography in addressing fears that we may cease to be, and in testing the relation of the dead to the living, has not yet been systematically analyzed, however.

This project examines the role of moving image media and photography in representing mortality in the modern and contemporary period (1920 to the present) from French Impressionist cinema to digital video and gallery installations. Exploring the interface between experiences of death, mourning, and commemoration, and the creation and reception of works of cinematic, digital, video, and photographic art, this project sheds new light on the specificity and expressivity of moving image media and photography in relation to mortality. Our research responds to changes in moving image media and photography in the digital turn, examining how transforming media confront mortality and the afterlife in new ways. Equally it responds to on-going changes in the philosophy of palliative care, and considers how these changes intersect with thinking about moving image media, photography, and mortality. The project is conceived at a moment when ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorism make mortality and grieving urgent public concerns. The central hypothesis of Palliative Art is that moving image media and photography offer specific resources for accessing and responding to the human experiences of death and grief.

We contend that these resources include the photographic nature of the media, the bodily appeal of the visual to the senses and emotions, intimations of the immaterial, innovative uses of time and space, formal interventions through editing, and montage of found footage. The project is guided by two broad objectives with relation to mortality: firstly to understand how moving image media and photography offer resources for pain management and emotional well-being in intimate contexts; secondly to understand the ways in which moving image media and photography offer testimony and visual evidence in political and public contexts. Ethical questions about viewing, about the representation of suffering, and about responsibility to others, will be brought into focus through the project. Practitioners identified address mortality in a range of medical, familial, intimate and political contexts including the Holocaust, genocide in Armenia and in Rwanda, Hurricane Katrina, war in Iraq, terrorism, migration in Europe, AIDS, suicide, murder, abortion, heart failure, cancer, ageing, and accidental death.

The specificities of these cultural and geographic contexts will be considered, in addition to the time and place of creation and reception of the artworks. This intercultural dimension of the project is made possible through the close collaboration of a team of specialists. Dialogue between researchers, moving image media practitioners, photographers, and viewers/users, a special feature of the project, will be key to our understanding of the impact of the works studied for discourses about mortality. Public screenings with our Project Partner, the Cambridge Film Trust, will promote this dialogue. Interviews with practitioners will be made available by podcast on the project website. A book of text and images will be produced, in addition to a range of academic outputs, to extend the methods of responding to our research questions. Mortality is infinitely enmeshed in our lives, yet its representation in moving image media and photography has remained taboo. This project challenges this taboo through sensitive analysis of a wide range of artworks and insight into the ethics of their production and reception. 


For general enquiries, please contact Emma Wilson, on or The French Department

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