Making Dis-Ease Matter

Stephen Barrass and Maja Kuzmanović

Transforming the pain and discomfort of chemotherapy into a 3D printed Tibetan singing bowl.

Excerpts from articles by Stephen Barrass, including Chemo Singing Bowl and Research Through Design into Acoustic Sonification, and In the Shadow of a Yew Tree, a memoir-in-progress by Maja Kuzmanović.

The human organism has the most wonderful powers of adaptation to both physical and psychological pain. But these can only come into full play when the pain is not being constantly restimulated by the inner effort to get away from it, to separate the “I” from the feeling. The effort creates a state of tension in which the pain thrives. But when the tension ceases, mind and body begin to absorb the pain as water reacts to a blow or cut.

Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity

This singing bowl is a physical manifestation of blood pressure fluctuations recorded during a year of chemotherapy treatment. The daily measurements are mapped onto the splines of the singing bowl and 3D printed in metal. Instead of the resonant frequencies that singing bowls tend to produce, the irregularity of this dataset produces inharmonic and dissonant acoustic effects. A dis-ease transformed into matter, and from matter into sound. 

It sounds as sick as I felt

Like sound, pain is rarely continuous. There are comfortable silences between the waves of pain. Each wave is different. Some are sharp and intense, others dull and pulsing. By paying attention to the pain rather than resisting, I became intimately aware of the specific sources of discomfort. I could explore the qualities and dynamics of pain. Is it burning, stabbing, radiating? How does its intensity change, how long does it last? What does it feel like when the pain subsides?

Over time, I began to notice the parts of my body that were not in pain at all. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “the awareness of it all is not in pain”. Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn Below the unpleasant sensations, I could find a sense of calm. A sense of space extending beyond skin’s physical membrane – to the larger space of the hospital room, the building, the city, and beyond. A space in which I coexist with other people, other beings, the whole universe. Even while lying in bed, immobile and hurting, I was a small part of something much larger. From this perspective, my pain became so small I almost felt pity for it.

Rituales para mi corazón


Further reading & references