‘The no-space, the no-time, the un-now, of waiting to die, is hauntingly sketched’: Robert Reid on Triage Live Art Collective’s The Infirmary
In the last few months, I have had cause to consider death from close up, watching its knife and sitting beside its bed, waiting. Hospital décor and procedure is still fore front in my memory. Everything in the world slips into the background of this moment, this task, this faith. The waiting. Trauma is an un-place. So is recovery. They share territory but are different experiences.
The Infirmary recreates the clinical space in which these two take place. It’s a sketch of the procedures of care with none of the invasion and trauma.
Presented by Triage Live Art Collective as part of the Mere Mortals season at Arts House, a series of works exploring death and dying, The Infirmary is immersive in the same way as a roller coaster. You are strapped into an experience and have no option but to hold on until the end. In this case the experience being simulated is one in which you are radically deprived of agency and so the “on rails” nature of The Infirmary resonates strongly with its content. It offers a simulation of the experiential world of planned clinical procedure as a contemplation of mortality.
Although we are the centre of our own individual experiences, it’s conducted alongside nine or so other people. We have no interaction with them, but catch glimpses of them at the edges of our own experience, through the breaks in the curtains and over the edges of the beds. We are guided through the experience by one performer. My…I keep wanting to say doctor…is Claire Korobacz. No one ever claims to be a doctor or nurse and they shift through several roles as they usher us through. Hair pulled back, wearing scrubs and gown, there are four or five of them.
To begin with, in a waiting room, we fill out a form together of mostly standard questions. What is our name? What month were we born? Do we have allergies? I briefly forget I have a lactose allergy. Am I unconsciously playing a person healthier than I am? She asks, what ails thee? The modern world. Too clever to be properly funny, really, but that makes it no less true an answer. I think I hear that in her voice when she laughs quietly, but that might just as easily be the studied compassion on display.
We all go along with the game to an extent, of course, because no one wants to disrupt the show; but is there also an aspect of going along with the social invitation implied by the manner of the performers in the same way we would with the medical professionals themselves? If they’re displayed convincingly, do we respond to the social and situational cues, no matter who is giving them? That’s perhaps overstating it. There’s a suspicious and critical part of me that is ever watchful for when the simulation doesn’t ring true and inadvertently reveals the faker behind the curtain. To their credit, I never once feel like I catch Triage faking it.
We are led downstairs to a series of clinical rooms, each curtained off in sections around a mechanical hospital bed. As a simulation it’s missing a lot of the stuff you might expect in such a space. Tubes don’t tumble out of the wall. There isn’t the incessant pinging and beeping of a hundred machines designed to keep you alive (or at least, it’s only as part of the soundscape later on). But the sense of the space is very present. The tense, hushed waiting space. The preparatory space.
Triage evoke the body being prepared for death. The Infirmary simulates in a blurry way – blurry in the way that real death and real hospitals bring everything into very, very fine focus – the performance of care in a clinical environment. It’s not so much the experience of being in a hospital nor the experience of dying. Illness, or the need for an operation, are not present, and of course the transition to whatever comes next is unrealisable. However, the no-space, the no-time, the un-now of waiting to die, is hauntingly sketched, if not captured. And who would wish to capture it? That’s dangerous lightning to bottle.
Once in our own curtained room, the doctor (it’s just easier) offers us a hospital gown and asks us to get into the bed. This is a place that, for various reasons, I feel like I know pretty well. Once in the bed, under the tight, rough weave white cotton, there is more waiting. We are visited by the doctor occasionally. She gives us a stethoscope and asks us to find and listen to our own heartbeat. Mine is quieter than I anticipated, and slower too. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. She asks us how it sounds. I say “distant”. We are blindfolded, our eyes and head bound in gauze and bandages, so that all we can see movement of light and shadow. We wait in the light and dark, a dim, regular flashing keeping a rhythm to the waiting, a pulse of its own.
Waiting, our attention drifts. The sound of footfalls, distant foot falls, closer ones. People moving with purpose, with a job to do. The sound shakes loose memories of the hospital stay. The rattling of the bed when the locks are taken off does the same. It’s pretty specific, I suppose. The movement of the body on the bed and the flash of light and dark as we’re wheeled through corridors. My experience of it has always come with elevators, and so for me it’s the only thing really missing from this hospital sim. Well, that and all the anxiety and pain. Instead, in between the moments of movement, the action and attention, there is time for contemplation and a set of headphones playing a soundscape (artist not listed) and the thoughts of the cast and some children (artists also not listed) on death.
The voices reflect on the realisation that one day we will die, the waiting, the wondering. We hear children’s voices, their attempts to understand mortality, their own and others. Some of the cast discuss their experiences too, I think; I’m sure I hear Julian Rickert’s voice in the mix. It gives context to the experience and directs us to consider death, but I wonder if there isn’t a slight dissonance between the text and the experience itself. I don’t feel like I’m dying. I don’t feel death here.
We lie in the dark as others are ministered to and cared for. It occurs to me as I wait that I am already some way into the procedure without knowing what it actually is. I drift to thoughts of the Carrousel ritual in Logan’s Run. Willingly acceding to the demands of the flashing red jewel in my hand. Waiting for the Suicide Booth to do its thing.
In the dark, we feel our hands being washed with warm water. Ancient rituals of purifying the body for its journey into the underworld flicker through my attention. The lengths to which humans will go to prepare the body for and after death. The ritual washings and obeisances. The hushed tone of care. The not-too-distant whispers of asked and answered questions. A hot, heavy weight is placed on our middle, a hot water bottle, I’ll realise later. The mechanical hospital bed, mechanically rises up and down, like a bier.
Swaddled. Done for. There is surrender here. Surrender to the performance, to the ministrations of the doctors, to the sickness, the healing and recovery process, to death itself, or at least its consideration. The Infirmary requires you to surrender.
The sound of roaring wind over a vasty emptiness in the soundscape becomes my death for me. This aching, hollow noise takes over and becomes everything else in my hearing, fills my head the same way the lights fill my head through the bandage. I’ve always liked that, the way the light fills up the skull through the eyeball. That wind though, that roaring, empty, flaying wind…That sound tells me death. Can say to me I am dead.
It’s followed by running water. A return to the washing of hands. Running water as life, birth. The river runs.
Eventually the bandages are removed from our eyes. Other beds gather, other patients, players, audience. Lying there, I realise I’ve been through my procedure and now I’m in recovery. Did I die in there? Come close? Everywhere in the production, details are smoothed over. We skip through the operation, our death, our return or reincarnation or reward.
The performance of compassion is interesting. In the hospital it feels more real but it must be no less performative (if not performed). The care for the sick and dying must be real, at least in a general and abstracted sense, but can it remain individual too. The weight of it must be too great for any one carer to carry alone for real. Instead, maybe there’s a distance to be found, to protect yourself but not let on to your patients. Your patients need very desperately to feel cared for. Looked after. Protected.
I feel this in the doctor’s hands. She is attentive and gentle, not just to me but to her other patients – there are ten of us on this ward, each of the performers cares for a few of us. She smiles sympathetically and is tolerant. Of what? There’s nothing wrong with me. This care is as simulated as the ward itself. That I know this is a performance somehow highlights the impression of care. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. It sours the experience a little, but only because the sweetness I’m experiencing is vicarious.
It’s curious how immersive works that make a direct connection can provoke feelings that are simulated but functionally indistinguishable from the real. I’m reminded of a moment I shared with Melanie Jame as part of An Appointment with J Dark (also by Triage, back in 2012), lying on a mattress in an empty old building, signing our favourite Magnetic Fields songs to each other in the dark. Even though I’ve known some of these people for close to a decade now, the intimate moments we’re playing here with each other are uncertain territory. Absent some kind of negotiation of boundaries this is play that can momentarily trick us, even if fleetingly, into actually feeling this thing that is only performed. It’s a confusing feeling. Complex.
I wonder if these play spaces are treacherous when the rules aren’t clear, if they require watchful rather than free participation. What are the ethics of how we share this intimate space and at what point did I agree to share it? I have no problem, personally, with playing in this space, but I do think the rules of our interaction and the kinds of things we’re going to be doing together should be clear at the outset.
It occurs to me that The Infirmary covers this with its formal interview at the beginning. It’s interesting that this part of the consent giving process is conducted already within the fictional world of the game. In a way, we give our consent first, only to be informed later. Of course, the real experience of emergency blurs this line too when, unannounced, we are drawn into events that will demand our consent without information.
This is where the moments of faith and surrender are. We give ourselves over to our careers, the doctors and surgeons and nurses whom we trust to make us well, or to make us as comfortable as possible if we’ve already passed the point of no return. We trust the performers too, giving ourselves over to the performance for the sake of the experience, for the art. The assumption is that in return for this trust you will be treated at least with dignity and care. The Infirmary, like the space it emulates, is focused on exactly these things.
Hot water bottles slosh on the bellies of those to either side of us. The body is a sack of mostly water.
The space of the room echoes, naked now after the headphones have been removed. The doctor asks if we know who we are. I recall that, during the admission interview, she asked me if we felt like we were in our body. I offered maybe 80 per cent. Now she wants to know if we know who we are. Most of the time, I say. A mirror appears over our heads, held over us from behind our curtain. I see myself, wrapped, abnegated. Yup, that’s me. She laughs that laugh again. Hospitals are places for humour for only a few.
I look around as I wait, the others who are also wrapped in the same way. Have we all suffered the same injury? Is this a burns ward? The spaces and the waiting beg to be filled with narrative, but like the intimacy of the work, its stories too are fleeting. I look at us all and imagine an army hospital, maybe because so many seem to have the same injury. Who are we ten dead? This is a solitary experience, a duet between you and your doctor, a dance to keep you alive or to usher you into the darkness. But it’s compact.
Like its real world equivalent, the experience of The Infirmary exists in a pocket alongside nine other similarly intimate experiences proceeding in much the same way. Unique and ubiquitous at the same time. Personal and deeply impersonal. The performance of professionalised care. The illusion of intimacy.
Was this about death? Was this about care? Was this about process? It’s a remarkable experience. Like floating in a sensory deprivation tank, it’s not important what it’s about.
A ride is about the ride.
The Infirmary by Triage Live Art Collective. Presented by Arts House. Director/Concept/Lead Artist, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy. Key Collaborator, Clair Korobacz. Clinical Nursing Consultant: Victoria Morgan. Performers: Suzanne Kersten, Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy, Clair Korobacz, Victoria Morgan, and Julian Rickert. Lighting Designer: John Ford. Set Designer: Eloise Kent. Production/Stage Manager: Alice Pollard. At Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall. Until November 18. Bookings
Content on vulnerability, illness and death. Recommended for people aged 16+
Due to the unique nature of The Infirmary this work is not wheelchair accessible.
Audio described – 1pm, 3.30pm & 6pm on Saturday November 17