Operating Theater began when I came upon two boxes of vintage medical teaching slides in an antique store; they were x-rays that showed how to recognize disorders of the brain and lungs. They were grotesque, but I was instantly intrigued—initially, it felt voyeuristic to look at these intimate pictures of strangers’ bodies, but then I realized that even if you were the stranger whose body was on the slide you wouldn’t recognize that spinal cord, that lung as yourself. In this moment when perhaps you needed to be most identified, to be helped, you were most anonymous. I have always been fascinated by the differences between the outside and the inside of the body. I so often think of inside as a conceptual place—where I store my thoughts, loves, and memories. But it is actually a physical place, and were I to see my chest from this angle, I could not see the feelings that I place there. Out of this very childlike curiosity (but also very essential contradiction) grew a dialogue that became the first act of the Operating Theater. All five acts combine my words with found text from late 18th and early 19th century surgery and anatomical manuals in order to anatomize different ways of dissecting the body, while troubling the very notions of what inside means and what one finds there. Even the idea of theater itself is put to experiment; the original operating rooms were often bedrooms with makeshift lighting and mackintosh coats for surgical linens, which calls attention to both the urgency and the domesticity of the act.
From Operating Theater
III. Under Ether
I wanted to give my life back,
so I decided to cut it into pieces.
For you, a limb. For you, some marrow.
It seemed easier for you to grasp.
: the nave of a church
: the bed or box of a vehicle on or in which the load is placed
: a mass of matter distinct from other masses
: a sensible object in physical space
: the main part of a literary work
: a group of persons or things
: a fullness and richness of flavor
She held her arms tightly against her body.
Remember those bales of hay?
It stuck to the back of our bare legs.
And that sound. That crunch.
I felt like we could never get clean there.
The following instruments are necessary: a large and a small bone forceps, a brain knife, small scissors, scalpel, and a pair of dissecting forceps with sharp points; all of which must be of good quality and in prime condition.
Nothing is more disastrous than poor instruments in poor condition.
If we went back again,
would you bring some scissors this time,
so we could cut our chests open?
You could plant a tree there
or build a house of straw.
When these folia are cut transversely, a very beautiful tree-like arrangement of grey and white matter is seen. The large thick limbs can be seen diverging from the central white substance and from these limbs smaller branches spring like the branching of a tree.
You can cut open my mind
and see its figure traced there,
the patterns of those memories, a forest.
You can cut open my chest
and out of it
into those surgical lights
the seed will grow.
It’s not as random as it might seem—
That a body becomes something to climb upon
That a body becomes something by which to date your life—
Something that you saw off, carve into, hack at
when you need to build a fire,
when you need to write it down,
when you need to remember.
If deprived of all the encephalic centers above the medulla oblongata, pinching of the toes will cause not merely movements of the limbs, but also a cry as of pain.
The cry, as of pain, is, however, no real sign of pain, but only a reflex action of the muscles.
Every pain should be taken to cultivate what may be termed a surgical hand.
Have you come to take it out?
This requires very little skill, and consumes a modicum of time.