Decomposing Place: Taphonomic temporalities and material relations in a body farm

Wednesday 13 June 2018, 4.00PM5.00pm

Speaker(s): Dara Ivanova, Erasmus University, Rotterdam

The first taphonomic facility in Europe began operating in the Amsterdam Medical Center (AMC) academic hospital in May 2018. Such places for the study and analysis of human decomposition processes – informally known as body farms – exist in the U.S. and Australia for some time. Yet the one in Amsterdam was deemed necessary, because the soil and climate conditions in the American and Australian body farms are very different from those in the Netherlands and the results of their studies cannot be generalized to Dutch soil (literally). The body farm is located in a plot of land, adjacent to the AMC, in what was previously an unused backyard. The first body, acquired through the well-established donor program at the hospital, was placed in a shallow grave, as measurement and observational objects were placed around it. The researchers must now wait – for decomposition.

I examine this body farm in trying to decompose ‘place’ – both as meaningful space and as a sociological concept. What are places made of? What would we find if we turned them out and opened them up? What ingredients make up a place? In addressing these questions, I engage thinking on place and space, materiality and caring practices. The attempt is to decompose place with care (Puig de la Bellacasa 2011) in a similar way to Strathern’s (1992) decomposition of an event. The concept of “taking apart an image to see/make visible what insides it contains” (p.245) has several advantages. It is deliberate and focuses on understanding the object’s elements in relation. I argue for understanding the place-ness of the body farm as a result of its particular properties (soil type, temperature, chemical composition, plant life, etc.), location and temporality, and think of the caring practices involved in this place’s maintenance in terms of gardening – the carrying out of mundane activities, while waiting (for the dead body to ‘do its thing’). While place and place-making theories have tended to foreground the social, often delegating materiality to ‘space’ instead, the body farm shows that it is time and materiality that makes this plot of land a place.

About me

Dara has a strong interest in theories of place and space, care, migration and the relationship between architecture and health. She is currently working on a PhD project at the Erasmus School of Health Policy and Management, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her thesis explores the relationship between place and care in the governance of healthcare in the Netherlands. The goal is to foreground place as a concept and to understand (the governance of) care practices from a place-perspective. The thesis is focused on unusual, quirky places of care, where ‘place-ness’ can be clearly understood. Examples are a tiny, far-away island's under-performing nursing home, a baby foundling room, a living lab and a human decomposition body farm.

Dara’s research interests include the politics of science, ethnography, cities and urban health. She is a member of the Netherlands Graduate Research School of Science, Technology and Modern Culture (WTMC), and works within STS and anthropology.

Location: Wentworth College, W/222

Admission: FREE/Eventbrite

Email: sarah.shrive-morrison@york.ac.uk

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