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All humans ‘are books of blood — wherever you open us, we’re red’ (Clive Barker)

By Dr Sam George, senior lecturer in English Literature

In this post Dr Sam George discusses the ‘Books of Blood’ project which aims to change our perceptions, and fear, of blood. By exploring its representation in the past, this Being Human event questions how we think about blood in the present.  

‘Books of Blood’ will be launched at the Being Human Festival via a gruesome ‘Show and Tell’ workshop at the Old Operating Theatre on 23rd November 2017. ‘Books of Blood’ is a Gothic-inspired project and touring exhibition curated by Dr John Rimmer (Bishop Grossteste University), Dr Sam George (University of Hertfordshire), and Dr Tracy Fahey (Limerick Institute of Technology). It invites audiences to consider the body as a ‘book of blood’ that can be ‘re(a)d’, following the horror writer Clive Barker.

We are interested in the representation of the presence of blood in our culture, in the importance of the material substance of life itself. A number of themes are addressed such as circulation, transfusion, donation, vampirism, blood as gift, blood ritual, blood and the body politic, blood as ink, blue blood, bad blood and blood disease (especially diabetes and haemophilia). We seek to introduce audiences (and medics) to the unsettled and uncanny nature of blood disease and to encourage them to think about the Gothic as a valid way of figuring issues of disease and infection.

We are using unique objects and images on loan from the Science Museum and Wellcome's archives to illustrate our themes: narrative, lore and instrumentation.  These include the Palmer Injector (designed for diabetics to self inject), thirteenth-century blood-measuring figurines, described in the Book of Knowledge, an amputation set, the model head of an executed Chinese pirate (used for phrenology and physiognomy to investigate so called ‘criminal’ types), a set of haemophilia dolls, a blood letting wallet from 1800 (used on board ship), a coconut goblet engraved with blood-letting scenes in the life of a barber-surgeon. It is hoped that these remarkable artefacts will unleash creative responses from writers or artists in residence at our venues (and in public workshops).

The project will also feature original artwork, sculpture, video and text installations on the theme of the body as a book of blood. As it develops a programme of interpretative and participative activities will expand on this initial dialogue with the public (e.g. a Blood Café, writing workshops, a book-making workshop, patient narratives and public talks). Now is undoubtedly the right time to develop this project because of the increased need for blood donation; the media’s obsession with, and misconception of, diabetes; and the need for talking spaces for those with invisible illnesses and/or blood disorders.

The project developed from gothic research into bloodlust as vampirism in literature and film. We wanted to promote an alternative, yet related image of blood as life, as gift. We hope to see a number of changes as a result of this project. A departure from unsettled images of bad blood, and a celebration of blood as life, and as gift; increased blood donations, through cultivating a shift in perception, encouraged by the facility to give blood at the final event. The alleviation of haemophobia, which impacts on self-managed illness and blood donation, through positive images of blood.

An increased awareness of the role of creative arts in bringing about changes and shifts in medical practices, together with an increased awareness of the successful self-management of blood disease. We are aiming to change the public perception of blood disorders (primarily diabetes) and develop talking spaces, such as the Blood Café.