PASSING ENCOUNTERS: The dead body and the public realm Open Seminar – Saturday 6 February 2016

Posted 6 February 2016 in Afterlife Conferences

10_Afterlife_BrusselsPASSING ENCOUNTERS explores manifestations of the post-death body in the public realm, by bringing together artists, historians, sociologists and forensic anthropologists to discuss their work on the science, philosophy and representations of the human corpse and decay. 

Saturday 6 February 2016, 12.30pm – 5.30pm
UCL Institute of Archaeology, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY

Tickets £8 (early bird £5). Places limited.
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How is the dead body controlled, perceived and discussed in public? Are we able to confront and emotionally engage with the dead body as a society? What does decay look, smell or feel like, and how is it represented in the arts and media? How does science and art appropriate the dead body as a means to tell a story?

Dr. John Troyer discusses ‘corpse time’, the control of time and space for the public display of the dead body, and how shifts in travel and timekeeping running into the post-mortem biological clock led to its creation.  Prof. Chris Townsend addresses the public representation of, and encounter with, the decaying corpse in western culture: from Transi tombs of the 14th Century to the spectacular exhibition of the urban dead in 19th Century Paris and its artistic reflection in early French photography.  Dr. Anna Williams presents The Scent of Death, a unique olfactory encounter with the cutting-edge forensic research that has led to the identification of some of the volatile organic compounds given off by decomposing cadavers, and their potential for locating and investigating dead bodies.  Dr. Carolyn Rando talks on the ethics surrounding media portrayal of dead bodies, our morbid curiosity with viewing the dead, and the retention of human remains, for research and public use.  PhD candidate Sherry Nakhaeizadeh offers insight into her recent research encounters with dead bodies in varying spatial environments, and how the processing of dead bodies is perceived and dealt with within public and legal contexts. French & Mottershead talk about their Art-Science collaboration with Dr. Rando and present extracts from Afterlife, a new series of immersive audio works that describe to the listener, in visceral yet poetic detail, the course of a human body’s decay in various public environments. Chaired by Dr Ian McCormick.

PASSING ENCOUNTERS has been curated by French & Mottershead with
Elea Himmelsbach, as part of the artists’ Afterlife project, which is supported by
The Wellcome Trust and UCL.


Dr. John Troyer is Director of the Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath. His interdisciplinary research focuses on contemporary memorialization practices, concepts of spatial historiography, and the dead body’s relationship with technology. Dr. Troyer is also a theatre director and installation artist with extensive experience in site-specific performance across the United States and Europe. He is a co-founder of the Death Reference Desk website, the Future Cemetery Project and a frequent commentator for the BBC. His book, Technologies of the Human Corpse (published by the University of North Carolina Press), will appear in 2016.

Prof. Chris Townsend is professor in the Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Vile Bodies: Photography and the Crisis of Looking, and Art and Death. His essay ‘Modernism’s Re-Imagining of “the Good Death”: a case study of Bretonnes by Félix Delmarle’ will appear in Ricerche di Storia dell’Arte in 2016. He is currently working on Modernism and Death: The Mirror of History for Leuven University Press.

Dr. Anna Williams is an experienced forensic anthropologist. She is currently Principle Enterprise Fellow in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Huddersfield. Her main area of research interest is human decomposition and taphonomy, with a particular emphasis on analysis of the chemicals released by cadavers throughout decomposition, and their detection by ‘cadaver dogs’. She is Director of the HuddersFIELD outdoor decomposition laboratory, which uses animal corpses to research different aspects of decomposition. She is one of the chief champions of the initiative to establish a Human Taphonomy Facility in the UK, along with some of her colleagues in the Burial Research Consortium. She writes an award-winning blog called Forensic Anna:thropology.

Dr. Carolyn Rando is a Forensic Archaeologist and Anthropologist, and a current Teaching Fellow at the UCL Institute of Archaeology and, for the past two years, she has been working with French&Mottershead as science advisor. Dr Rando’s research encompasses a broad range of topics, including:  examining how different factors influence decomposition; disease and trauma in the past; the interaction between human behaviour and human biology; and, more recently, on the subject of children’s remains in archaeology.

Sherry Nakhaeizadeh is a PhD researcher at the UCL Centre for Forensic Sciences. Her research focuses upon cognitive forensics, with a specific focus on the interpretations of skeletal remains in forensic anthropology. She is particularly interested in judgment and decision-making in forensic anthropology, and the approaches of evidence analysis in forensic science, as well as methodological development within the field. Sherry also has experience working within the medical legal domain, and has published and presented her scholarship internationally.

French & Mottershead are the UK artist duo Rebecca French and Andrew Mottershead. Creating multi-artform experiences that are as playful and poetic as they are subversive, French & Mottershead invite participants to think again about who they are, and their ties to place and one another.  Over the past 15 years French & Mottershead have developed a substantial body of socially-engaged, visual and participatory projects in site-specific contexts and locations, as well as showing work in galleries across the UK and internationally, including Tate Modern, The Photographers’ Gallery, Salt, Istanbul, Centro Cultural São Paulo, and Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (PiCA).


Dr Ian McCormick served as a Professor at the University of Northampton. He holds degrees from the University of St Andrews (M.A.) and the University of Leeds (PhD). Ian specialized in the field of the grotesque in English literature and cultural history in the eighteenth century. He has also published and edited books on Gothic literature and romanticism; sexuality and gender studies; modern literature; teaching and learning strategies; drama education; literary/critical/cultural theory. At present Ian works as an academic tutor and writer, with a specialism in educational creativity and participatory methodology. See Academia page.

Image: French & Mottershead, Afterlife Woodland work in progress.
Photo: Milena Vergara Santiago