What happens to the brains of an audience while they are experiencing a performance on stage? What if the actors could delicately weave new patterns in the brains of their audience to make them feel and remember the emotions that the characters in a play wish to convey? In fact, this is very likely what happens during a theater performance; and if the play is about a brain, then the effect is even more dramatic. ‘2,401 Objects’ is not a play about a brain; it tells the story of a very special brain.
When I dissected the brain of patient H.M. I had my own audience; through the glittering lenses of two video cameras a flow of passers-by viewed the procedure on their computer screens. It was a very heterogeneous crowd: scientists, artists, teachers, students, parents, and children, from many different countries, each one going about their work, their life, and in some cases waking up and going to bed at the sound of the microtome’s powerful lead screw. Among this curious, intelligent, and benevolent group , were the directors of a UK theater company called Analogue, Hannah Barker and Liam Jarvis. I received a call from Liam only a few days after all the slices of brain had been archived in one of our freezers; the idea: a play about the brain of H.M.. The rest, thanks to their creativity and determination, is art history. What intrigued me about their proposal was the fact that they were not only interested in the story of Henry G. Molaison as an amnesic, but they were eager to narrate his story from the perspective of his brain. Indeed, they had captured the message I was hoping to relay with my procedure and by displaying my work on his brain publicly: that is: the brain had a face and that there was not going to be a story without the brain.
A funny story: as many of you know, the brain was embedded in gelatin and subsequently frozen. At the very beginning and at the very end of the procedure the tips of the hemispheres looked like pale structures below the ice slate of a frozen pond. Nevertheless, I knew the blade was slithering the first and last actual tissue section. At the end, I had collected 2,400 slices and I wasn’t sure there was anything left to remove from the block. However, the number 2,400 was too even, too approximate. I figured that if asked how many slices were created out of the brain of patient H.M., anyone would have answered ‘twenty-four-hundred’, potentially giving the impression that the actual number could have very well been a little lower or higher. Instead, I felt it was necessary to make a stronger statement, not just for dramatization, but to make sure that the message was not diluted. The message being: what are we? Can the life experience of a human being be reduced to exactly two thousand four hundred and one slices? This is a philosophical question that I ask myself each time I perform a brain autopsy on one of my donors. Has this person now become an object?
Maybe if I had stopped at 2,400 slices I would not have captured the imagination of Liam and Hannah; or maybe it would not have made a difference in their goals. I am sure of one thing; 2,401 is a number that now has an ‘iconic’ status, also thanks to Hannah and Liam.
Analogue’s show won a Fringe First award at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The complete transcript of 2,041 objects is published by Oberon Modern Plays. You can read the Preface to the play by peeking inside the book at: Plays/dp/1849431957/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1348688930&sr=8-1&keywords=2401+objects. You can buy the book there too; if you do let us know; I might ask Liam and Hannah to donate a portion of the revenue to the lab!
Here are some production pictures exclusively from Analogue:
Copyright Analogue, UK / Photographs by Andreas J. Etter