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arts health symposium


first kiss: the arts and health sciences

michael balfour: arts health symposium #1, newcastle

Michael Balfour is Chair, Applied and Social Theatre, School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University, Brisbane


Leah Heiss, Diabetes Applicator Neck Piece Leah Heiss, Diabetes Applicator Neck Piece
THE ARTS HEALTH SYMPOSIUM BROUGHT TOGETHER ARTISTS, RESEARCHERS, MEDICAL PRACTITIONERS AND ALLIED HEALTH PROFESSIONALS FOR A TWO DAY EVENT. THE PRESENTERS ARTICULATED DIFFERENT VIEWS ON HOW THEIR SPECIALISM INTERSECTED WITH THE ARTS HEALTH PARADIGM. PATRICK FUERY, DIRECTOR OF THE ARTS HEALTH CENTRE, UNIVERSITY OF NEWCASTLE, CHEEKILY ASSESSED THE UNION BETWEEN THE TWO DISCIPLINES AS BEING LIKE TWO POTENTIAL LOVERS DESPERATE FOR A FIRST KISS, BUT NOT SURE HOW TO INITIATE IT.

The four keynotes provided some broad architecture to the debate. The first speaker was Jane Davison, University of Western Australia, who wove together a useful overview of the history and evidence of music in a range of social contexts with examples from her practice involving the development of choirs with isolated older people. She argued for the concept of ‘musicking’, or the need to emphasise music in everyday life. Her research was based on the way music generates social capital: the pragmatic benefits of bringing potentially isolated people together, with the qualitative and indefinable qualities that music-making offers participants.

The need for evidence-based practice was a strong feature in a number of papers. Clearly this was a response to the dominance of scientific paradigms. If the arts are to prove themselves in a health context, they need to define themselves in terms that are acceptable to the orthodoxies of the field. Clive Parkinson, from the so-called ‘ministry for the bleeding obvious’, otherwise known as Arts for Health, Manchester Metropolitan University, argued that for most health professionals the link between the two disciplines is self-evident. However there is a strong political argument to be made particularly in a sensitive environment where a dollar spent on an arts health project is a dollar not spent on vital resources.

In the second keynote Graeme Sullivan, Columbia University, offered an alternative insight by critiquing how conventional systems of research are being challenged by post-disciplinary perspectives. Sullivan argued that the ‘empirical traditions’ of research are limited in solving problems in all contexts, and that increasingly a network approach is developing that seeks to ‘braid’ cross-disciplinary understanding. Sullivan’s theme was also reflected in a paper given by Christine Putland, Flinders University, who identified significant shortcomings in the present definition of what constitutes ‘evidence.’ She argued for new approaches to capturing the meaning of art in a health context, involving concepts such as pleasure, happiness and engagement in living.

The third keynote was a double act: Lizbeth Goodman, Director of SMARTlab Digital Media Institute (University of East London), and her colleague Mick Donegan. Goodman’s contribution provided an impressive overview of the work of SMARTlab, whose ethos is to invent technological tools that address specific social needs. This is high-tech community cultural development, which attempts to work from the needs of individuals and groups. Goodman’s achievements have won her and the team considerable global attention, and the presentation outlined an extensive range of innovative projects from an online support service for women and children experiencing domestic abuse (SafetyNet) to an international multi-media, multi-lingual disability performance piece (A Street Called Home).

Leah Heiss, Arsenic Water Purifier Leah Heiss, Arsenic Water Purifier
Her co-presenter, Mick Donegan, beautifully underplaying his supporting role, develops interfaces for assistive technology, specifically with clients suffering from cerebral palsy or severe head injuries. Donegan’s personal motivation in the research is to lessen the shortfall between the potential and the ability of individuals with degenerative diseases and paralysis. The Mytobii eyegaze system allows users to access computer software through recognising and following the movement of the eyes. Adapted from a marketing tool, the technology has been used to help people with a variety of disabilities to compose music, write emails, play games and listen to CDs. The presentation was a powerful reinforcement of SMARTlab’s commitment to humanising the possibilities of technology.

The final keynote was from Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA, University of Western Australia, and was scheduled, unapologetically, as a provocation. SymbioticA is an ‘artistic laboratory’ focused on the research, learning and critique of life sciences. The centre is pioneering and exploring the relationship between the arts and a range of bio-medical research areas. The research is grounded in artistic experimentations under laboratory conditions; this is not artist as outsider, but artist as scientist. One of the examples was Victimless Leather, a Tissue Culture and Art Project which developed a “semi-living” leather jacket grown in the laboratory. Another example was Disembodied Cuisine (2003) in which the team attempted to grow frog skeletal muscle over biopolymer for potential food consumption. A biopsy was taken from an animal which continued to live and was displayed in the gallery alongside the growing “steak.” The installation culminated in a “feast” where the performers/scientists eat the steak.

If there is something of the freak-show mentality present in the work, it is a conscious one. Catts describes the practice as “philosophy in the wild”, of artists having an informed knowledge of scientific methods. He argues that artists should not just present or render scientific protocols, but should be conceptual artists manipulating working prototypes that simultaneously resist and explore scientific ways of seeing.

The keynotes were striking in their presentation of convergent and discordant issues that established some of the parameters of the debate within the field. The paper sessions were equally diverse with 26 papers organised into five thematic sessions, explored arts and health from a range of perspectives. There were presentations about Occupational Therapy and the use of photography, analysis of hospitals as cultural sites, the role of theatre in the wellbeing of refugees, a fascinating case study reflecting on the healing capacity of a Childers Backpacker Memorial, the socio-historical relationship between spirituality and medicine, and an analysis of how artist engagement with the AIDS campaign shaped and influenced changes in attitudes and behaviours.

Birgitta Nordström, Memory, a funeral textile, 2008 Birgitta Nordström, Memory, a funeral textile, 2008
The way artists interact with scientific paradigms was broadly interpreted. Birgitta Nordstrom’s delicate work with funeral textiles (Funeral Pall: Textile as Comforter; Sweden) explored the ways artists engage with death and the rituals surrounding it. The process of mourners taking ownership within the ceremony, of unfolding and draping the pall over the coffin, was described by Nordstrom as “the last opportunity to make a cosy and secure bed in which a loved one can rest.” Leah Heiss (School of Archiotecture and Design RMIT University) described her residency with Nanotechnology, Victoria. Rather than simply representing the technologies she found, Heiss developed “therapeutic jewellery” with the scientific team in which the design of the applicators (in this case for the treatment of diabetes) was considered in both aesthetic and practical terms.

Taken as a litmus test of where the arts health field is, the symposium made clear that definitions were elusive, and that the developing field struggles with borrowed terminologies that impact on its abilities to define its own discourse. There is still broad suspicion within the medical scientific field that the arts have a limited contribution to make, at best as an educational tool, at worst an indulgence. However, based on the quality of the contributions during the symposium, it was equally clear that the interactions and intersections between practitioners from both disciplines were filled with curiosity, appreciation and considerable respect for each other. There was a determination that medicine, science and art can have a potentially efficacious relationship, and a growing trust and interest in articulating how aesthetic-scientific networks might evolve.

The debate will continue with the launch of two new journals in 2009, Arts & Health (Routledge) and the online Australasian Journal of Arts Health, plus the promise of a follow-up symposium in Newcastle next year.


ArtsHealth Centre for Research and Practice, University of Newcastle, Arts Health Symposium #1, Newcastle Oct 8-9, http://www.newcastle.edu.au/research-centre/artshealth/

Michael Balfour is Chair, Applied and Social Theatre, School of Education and Professional Studies, Griffith University, Brisbane

RealTime issue #88 Dec-Jan 2008 pg. 16

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