We are so glad to have hosted two more workshops on The IVF Experience with such kind and active participants! Natalie Silverman, from The Fertility Podcast, enthusiastically commented on the research findings we were introducing in dialogue with many others in our virtual room. We reflected upon how control can be difficult in the IVF journey, and about the benefits or challenges of sharing one’s experience with other patients during treatment. Some of our participants exchanged ideas about the resources available to fertility patients or donors when it comes to hormonal stimulation and egg pick-up, and they proposed some ways to make these experiences more bearable.
We had an interesting exchange about videos and images of embryos and how these may be received in very different ways according to when, where and how these were shared as well as personal preferences. We especially appreciated how people acknowledged each others’ points of view and how eager everyone was to hear about how research findings can contribute to improving care for patients.
These two workshops were the last of our 2021 public event series. We would like to sincerely thank everyone who has joined us for our events this year. Keep checking back on our Events page for information about our plans for 2022!
At the beginning of May we were delighted to spend an afternoon on Zoom with visual artist Sally Butcher, who is currently working on her Arts Council England funded project re.conceive. Sally approached us a while back to explore some of the synergies between our projects, which in different ways explore how reproduction, fertility and (non-)reproductive bodies are visualised or, sometimes, become invisible. Sally very generously shared some of her work-in-progress with us and we shared details about our research process and findings.
Each member of the research team was able to spend some time with Sally individually, and I include our reflections in our own words below.
Giulia: Sally’s work has inspired our conversation around reproduction in its different forms. We have especially discussed the relationship between medical knowledge, technologies and tools to visualise reproductive body parts or phenomena, and embodied experiences of them. We talked about the role of visual experiences in the construction of dominant narratives of gendered reproductive lives, and about the visibility and invisibility of specific reproductive experiences (for example infertility, miscarriages, abortion). We explored the notions of common and uncommon, known and unknown, expected and unexpected, we discussed how individual experiences relate to standardised measures and protocols and how people adjust and react to these, especially when these intersect with other medical, legal and geographical infrastructures (for example in the context of transnational reproductive travels).
Manuela: Among the many things we talked about, Sally and I had an interesting conversation regarding some of her work-in-progress – in my interpretation, an inspiring visualisation of the current developments in the field of embryology. Sally’s representation of sets of data embedded within an image of an embryo captured the current turn in embryology, by highlighting visually the novel and increasing use of data-driven algorithms in this field. In our research, analysing the case of Time-lapse incubators and their incorporated algorithms, we have investigated how new knowledge about embryos is generated in the complex interactions between professionals and machines. Although the use of algorithms has the potential to release unknown biological information on embryos (and therefore reveal their hidden secrets), algorithms do not simply add medical and reproductive knowledge as they require human input and therefore still rely on professional expertise.
Josie: During our conversation, Sally and I found many shared interests: for instance in how themes of absence and presence, and proximity and distance, shape ideas about reproduction as well as experiences of infertility. Being a geographer (academically and at heart!), I was drawn to how the body exterior and interior are ‘mapped’ in some of Sally’s work. We talked about the role of measurements, ordering, boundaries and boundary-making in relation to how reproductive processes are visualised and described. We also talked about the intrigue and mystery of magnifying or looking inside things.
Sally’s work also drew my attention to all the other kinds of imagery that fertility patients encounter before or during their IVF treatment. The focus of our research is on images and videos of embryos, which are exterior to the body or in vitro. But fertility patients often encounter a whole range of other visualising techniques that allow them to see inside their bodies. Ultrasound scans and dye tests, for instance, are routinely used to medically investigate female reproductive organs and check that these appear to be functioning ‘normally’. Ways of visualising bodies and embryos have (personal and political) implications for how infertility is seen and known, and therefore very real consequences for patients’ treatment experiences and trajectories.
Sally: My conversations with the Remaking the Human Body team have been invaluable in my research project. As a visual artist, Re.conceive was driven by the invisibility of Infertility within the new wave of maternal visual arts, where, as in society at large, infertility still remains mostly hidden and shrouded in silence. My project aims to explore and visually theorise the transformational process of ‘becoming’ a (M)Other, challenging traditional reproduction to reconceive a form of sub-maternal.
My meetings with Giulia, Josie and Manuela helped thoroughly contextualise my thinking, aiding my understanding of how infertility connects with the broader narrative of reproduction, as well as giving me greater insight into the scientific procedures within embryology and new practices with AI, and drew my focus onto patient interpretation of these new technologies. It especially moved my thinking toward the visual and verbal languages used within infertility. As a cultural researcher, I am drawn to the rhetoric of medical terminology, weighted in ‘success’ and ‘failure’, aimed at potential ‘geriatric mothers’ with ‘inhospitable uteruses’, and how this may sit alongside hidden personal testimonies, confessional spaces of the coded #TTC online community, or conversations with family and friends where it so often generates a real sense of unease. As an artist, I try to use a feminist gaze to challenge institutionalised power within visual tropes of medical and commercial imagery of infertility. These meetings enlightened me as to how much power we place in these visuals and how these become naturalised into our knowledges of reproduction, with narratives of the embryo constructed from the encounters we have with these visuals. The immediate resonances I felt between my own practice and the fantastic work being done by this team, has encouraged me to continue using this imagery, exploring its symbolism alongside the power of the maternal imagination.
Three months after our event on Visions of Reproduction at the Being Human Festival, we are glad to offer a new way to engage with our research project. If you are more comfortable with hearing than reading about vision (no jokes!), connect and listen to the wonderful podcast that Natalie Silverman has produced for The Fertility Podcast (also embedded below).
In this podcast, Natalie accompanies the audience through the topic of visualising reproduction in historical, sociological and aesthetic terms, introducing and interrogating expert scholars and artists whose work dives into visual representations of conception, pregnancy, and miscarriage. The listening experience is a gripping one, where vision becomes imagination, shaped by the words of people who describe the making and meaning of imagery in ancient books, biology labs, contemporary fertility clinics, and in personal artistic creations and performance. We hope you enjoy!
Natalie Silverman, founder and voice of the Fertility Podcast, led the audience through our first event ‘Visions of Reproduction’ where speakers shared and discussed a wide range of videos, pictures, drawings, prints and embroideries of embryos, foetuses, pregnancy tests, pregnant and not pregnant bodies.
As part of this event, we ran a poll among the audience asking them (anonymously) to enter three images about reproduction that they had come across in their life. We received so many fascinating responses! Pregnancy tests, ultrasound and embryo were definitely the most chosen words, but people had also come across paintings, celebrity pregnancy photos, a real-life foetus-museum, 3D scans and many more. People are confronted with reproductive images multiple times in their lives and in very different situations.
Josie Hamper, from our research team, opened the event by presenting some unpublished results from the study. She launched a poll where the audience was invited to select the correct description for an image shown on-screen. People selected almost all available answers, including: A human embryo; An IVF embryo; Eight cell embryo; Grade one embryo; A potential baby; and baby’s first picture. It was revealed that all answers did in fact describe the image and that the diverse responses reflect different perspectives according to people’s expertise, experience or agendas. Josie accompanied the audience through the data of her own research on IVF patient’s experiences of receiving time-lapse videos of embryo development. She illustrated how videos may be welcome by some who receive them, while creating more uncertainties for others, especially if they feel unequipped to interpret what they are seeing. She ended by inviting a more nuanced public discussion around time-lapse embryo imaging technology, and the use of the videos and images that derive from this technology, beyond the clinic.
This question was taken up by Tabitha Moses who talked about her artwork around IVF experiences, involving photography and intricately embroidered hospital gowns. She accompanied the audience through the experience of various visualising technologies throughout infertility journeys, IVF treatments and pregnancy loss, and she discussed the possibility of trusting or privileging the feeling of a pregnancy through quickening or other embodied sensations, including those of pregnancy loss, over the images produced through medical technologies.
Isabel Davis developed the theme of vision versus feeling in her talk on the history of potential pregnancy. She dealt with the experience of un-pregnancy, meaning the condition of not really being pregnant yet but possibly being, through the work of natural scientist William Harvey on non-generation. Isabel’s talk prompted us to reflect upon ambiguous moments after a non-protected heterosexual intercourse takes place or after an embryo transfer where someone may wonder whether or not a pregnancy has started. These are all important dimensions of reproductive imagination and experience.
The topic of the uncertain time where pregnancy is not (yet) but could be is something Liv Pennington also reflected on when she talked about her artwork on pregnancy tests and the challenges of photographing them on different occasions. Liv’s talk accompanied the audience through her performative artwork Private View, which took place in 2002 and in 2019, and how the performance differed in so many ways between these dates as people’s relationships to pregnancy tests, images and sharing have changed, for instance through the increased familiarity with sharing and commenting on images via social media. Liv reflected on how visualising a pregnancy test result opens up possibilities that may change over time and how this makes her work controversial because of the vulnerability involved in exposing someone’s private reproductive moment while acknowledging the dynamic and uncertain process of pregnancy.
Funnily enough, technical issues prevented Liv from sharing her slides with the audience, which meant that we relied on Liv’s descriptions of her images, her facial expressions and ability to represent pictures through words. An experience that turned out to be powerful for an event on visualisation!
Nick Hopwood was the last speaker on the panel. His contribution proposed a long-term historical perspective on images of embryos and foetuses to unpack how the ordering of these along a narrative of development has, since the late eighteen century, come to stand for the course of a pregnancy. Nick underlined how images of reproduction produced over the last centuries have overwhelmingly represented a linear process, leaving out experiences of miscarriage or unsuccessful stories of fertility treatment, both of which are frequent ‘events’ in people’s reproductive lives, but underrepresented and thus erroneously considered the exception.
A conversation among all the speakers, with questions asked by the audience, allowed everyone to engage with the common threads or connections among such different approaches to common and less common reproductive images. The conversations highlighted how these images evoke questions of temporality in reproductive processes; how selection and standardisation have been embedded in the use and fruition of images concerning reproduction in the last centuries; and how images have been used for defining normality, normal variations and abnormality. The talks and discussion especially emphasised how a certain production and use of images facilitates the diffusion of dominant narratives of reproduction, leaving out meaningful and relevant experiences, which do not find space in the public representation.
We are exceptionally grateful to all the speakers and the audience who made this panel so engaging and rich in content. We also want to extend our thanks to the Centre for Public Engagement at Queen Mary and the Being Human Festival for making this event possible.
Keep an eye out for further details about our next events!
We are very excited to introduce our first public engagement event after a series of cancellations earlier this year. This online event is entitled Visions of Reproduction: The Making and Meaning of Reproductive Imaging and it brings together sociologists, historians and artists who will speak about their work on this theme. We are also delighted to have partnered with the Fertility Podcast founder Natalie Silverman, who will moderate the event and take questions from the audience.
Join us on 12 November 2020 at 6pm.
For more information and a link to the booking site, please visit the Being Human Festival event page.