I want to use my beady little eyes of a laboratory mouse to stare back at my fellow mammals… what kind of livable world are we trying to build?
Last weekend I went to a Northern Arts and Science Network conference in Leeds. The theme was “Dialogues” and the conference aimed to “provide an insight into the varied types and modes of discourse and conversations that are currently emerging from combinatory areas of arts/science research and collaboration… How do collaborations of arts and science manifest themselves?” Given that I am going to be collaborating with a scientist come September, I thought it would be useful to attend.
Following the keynote lectures, the afternoon was devoted to breakout sessions with a wide variety of themes. I attended “Visualising the Invisible” in which Karen Heald (visual artist), Susan Liggett (fine art lecturer) and Rob Poole (psychiatrist) came together to discuss a recently funded project which will seek to present new perspectives into the effects of anti-depressant medications. The aim of the project is to explore the way that patients perceive surrounding stimuli and how this changes once medication has begun. In collaboration with Karen, each patient will make short videos before, during and possibly also after the medication process.
Interestingly, this group was adamant that this project would not constitute a form of art therapy. Karen stated several times that she saw her work with patients as a collaboration of equals, not as a health intervention. I asked her how she felt issues of trust in this collaboration would be handled – especially since the people she intends to work with are a vulnerable group (patients presenting at GP surgeries with depression and about to go onto anti-depressant medication). I worried that it is hard enough setting up a sense of equality in an “ordinary” collaboration – how would two people in such different positions trust each other on an equal basis, regardless of whether the artist is determined to be on an equal footing with the patient? Given that the project will be taking place institutionally, it might be hard for the patient not to feel a sense of passivity (not ideal conditions for collaboration). However to be fair, Karen has had a great deal of experience in working with patient groups, and I agree with her that art is something that comes from the outside to within – which means that art can be made by anybody, given the opportunity. Although I was a bit unsure about the project as a whole (I found it hard not to see it in terms of therapy), I have to applaud the de-mystification of the art process upon which it is built. In the great nature/culture debate, I am always on the side of culture – believing that artists are not born, we are made and so, with a bit of guidance, art can come to anyone who lets it in. I will be watching the project with interest (www.karenheald.co.uk/ablett-residency).
It was a shame that it was only possible to attend one of the many afternoon sessions, but that was more than made up for by the opportunity to mingle with a fantastic mix of practitioners. The best outcome from an artist’s point of view was the palpable sense from the scientists that they were interested in collaborating with artists not for the sake of ticking the “public engagement” box, nor as a trendy route to funding, but because they were genuinely interested in art as a discipline, rather than as a provider of pre-determined end product.