A-N supports our new Sci/Art collaboration with Dr. Carolyn Rando

Posted 19 May 2014 in News

A-N New Collaborations fund our work with Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Carolyn Rando.

We meet to talk through our ideas for the development of new work Afterlife … a series of audio monologues reflecting on death and human decomposition.

Meeting 1:

There was something on the jawbone that appeared to be soft tissue, though on closer inspection it turned out to be a pulped remnant of the brown paper bag Carolyn uses to store the pig skull. The pig head had been in the ground for a year and was excavated during a recent student field trip to UCL’s (non-human) body farm in Surrey. Faint traces of the stench of butyric fermentation were still there, if you dared sniff close enough. Unworn and still emerging molars indicated this was a juvenile pig, and the fine tree roots growing through the teeth are consistent with the burial site under an oak.

This was the morning of our first work session with Carolyn. Squeezed in amongst the bags and boxes of human and animal skeletons populating her office, it became clear if we were to open any of these bags, the bones would tell a story combining body, place and time. It is the interplay of these three elements and their affect on the decomposition narrative, that we are interested in for our Afterlife works.

The actual process of decomposition of the body can be broken down into 5 steps:

1.Initial decay


3.Black putrefaction

4.Butyric fermentation

5.Dry decay

Accompanied by numerous gory photographs, Carolyn led us through these stages and how we could potentially better engage our ‘listener’ in a visceral experience of their own decomposition. For example, minutes after death our eyes and mouths dehydrate, and every living person knows how this can feel.

Further down the decomposition timeline, we hadn’t previously appreciated the force of the ‘bloat’, where putrifying tissues produce gases, causing the body to inflate. We asked Carolyn what happens to clothing during the bloat, and apparently the force is so strong that buttons pop, seams burst, material is pulled to pieces. Carolyn’s in-depth knowledge brings speed, clarity and detail to our discussion, arrived at within minutes, contrary to painstaking online research, piecing together bits of knowledge from various sources, and second guessing.

Hearing Carolyn talk about the decomposition process made us reflect on how incredibly dynamic the actions of the body and the environment are after death. Fully accustomed to how some people react to this topic, she apologised before showing us the next gruesome image … we’re minded to repeat what Akira Kurosawa once said, ‘The artist is the one who does not look away.

Wondering what Carolyn thought of us, our choice of the different decompositon situations and the draft narrative for UK deciduous woodland we put together – what we have already is way too scientific and we need Carolyn to help us bring it to life. Feedback Fridays … roll on …