In the field of arts health it is often said that defining the relationship between arts and health is something of a ‘chalk and cheese’ affair. The scientific demands of evidence based medicine are seemingly at odds with the imaginative, speculative realms of art-making, and the field is littered with metaphors about square pegs in round holes, binaries of the ‘rational’ sciences vs ‘irrational’ arts, and references to Georges Braques’ famous quip ‘Art is meant to disturb, science reassures’. Despite, or perhaps because of these tensions, arts health is a vibrant field of practice committed to defining its terms and values for both arts and health practitioners, and forging its identity within new frameworks of health and wellbeing and contemporary arts practice.
Sporting a dense history in the occupational and art therapies, psychotherapies and community health, it is a complex mix of practices ranging from clinical and expressive therapies to community development and the contemporary arts. In Australia, recent developments in the field have seen the emergence of representative bodies such as the Institute for Creative Health and The Australian Centre for Arts and Health, and the ‘National Arts and Health Framework’ which fosters practice at national and state levels. Despite pressures on the arts to continually prove their ‘effectiveness’ according to health terms and measures, they are also increasingly recognised as a humanising and enriching force that challenges the health sector to broaden its terminology and define health not only as a biomedical condition, but as a personal, social and cultural value.
Due perhaps to the dominance of health as the institutional regulator of the field, an under-theorised area of practice in this arena is artistic work that intersects with these histories and practices and contributes significantly to its conceptual growth. Not reducible to the direct aims of health, such work manifests across several fields of contemporary practice including community arts and health, biological arts, embodied and interactive arts, and participatory arts, producing new spaces in which concepts of health may be encountered. Less concerned with therapeutic outcomes than with progressing new methods and ideas, this work is supported through artist-in-residence programs at hospitals such as Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, and institutional centres promoting creative innovation within the health and medical sciences such as Griffith University’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation (IHBI) and the University of Western Australia’s pioneering bio-arts laboratory SymbioticA. In many ways, such work is the critical cousin to therapeutic practice as it challenges the terms upon which health has been defined, exploring themes such as the relationships between community and personal health, the ethics of bio-technologies and clinical methods, and our relationship to the natural environment. Despite its interrogative stance, it tends to engage positively with health and wellbeing practices, encouraging its viewers/participants to approach health as philosophically, socially and ethically integral to the modern human condition.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that a significant portion of this work takes the human body as its object. New bio-technologies and processes of data visualisation in the field of health sciences has opened up creative opportunities for artists to explore their impact on concepts of health and healing. For over a decade, Sydney-based artist, George Poonkhin Khut has been creating interactive installations that engage participants with biofeedback technologies in gallery and hospital settings. His collaborative projects ‘Cardiomorphologies’ (2004-5), the Heart Library Project (2009) and more recently AlphaLab (2013-14), invite participants to reflect on the potential of biotechnologies to evoke empathy and emotion through the translation of their own biological data into imagery and sensory experiences. Through the BrightHearts Research project (2011 – ongoing) Khut has also developed an interactive app for children experiencing anxiety during hospital procedures that allows them to monitor their own heart rate through biofeedback technology.
Other artists working in the biological arts explore the impact of medical research on the material body and our perception of life/death boundaries. Some of this work examines medical procedures such as organ transplants, as seen in Helen Pynor and Peta Clancy’s The Body is a Big Place, 2011, or cosmetic surgery in Alicia King’s ‘Slip Me Some Skin’ (2009). While others such as Svenja Kratz’s The Absence of Alice, 2009 – ongoing, explore the dematerialisation of the subject and the manufacturing of biological materials. Other artists explore the cell as a site for revisioning subjective relationships to technologies, and generating new perspectives on such things as immunity in Kathy High’s Blood Wars, 2010 – ongoing, or communication and responsiveness between human and nonhuman entities in Guy Ben Ary’s CellF, 2015 – ongoing.
Beyond these investigations, collaborative arts health projects between artists and communities are also generating new approaches to health as a form of cultural healing and future building. The Western Desert Kidney Health Project is one such project that engages community arts and health strategies towards the aim of reducing the incidence of kidney disease in aboriginal communities of the Western Desert region by 20%. Employing 20 artists and a team of researchers in the Western Desert communities, the project has produced sculptures, animations and musical works as a means of translating health information and cultural values across ten different communities. Rather than focusing only on ‘treating’ kidney disease, (although treatment is facilitated by the project), the long-term investment in artistic engagement recognises its intrinsic value to supporting aboriginal health and culture and enabling individual change.
Whilst the goals of projects like the Western Desert Kidney Health Project focus on specific health outcomes, other community-based projects such as Finnish-Swiss-Haitian artist duo Sasha Huber and Petri Saarikko’s Remedies, approach health as a metaphorical platform for sharing stories about healing within communities. Conducted in seven countries including Australia in 2014 and presently with GASP in Hobart, 2017-18, ‘Remedies’ invites individuals to contribute their personal stories about health and healing, major events in their lives and/or remedies for change to the artist’s interpretive processes. Remedies does not address a specific health concern, but rather takes a remedial approach to culture as a whole, fostering participatory processes that can regenerate communities and provide opportunities for personal agency. In this sense, where the Western Desert Kidney Health Project uses art to translate messages about health, Remedies engages concepts of health and healing to generate new relationships between art, knowledge and community.
Although participatory art is sometimes seen as idealistic with limited potential for effecting social change, it seems that the physical and applied nature of contemporary arts health projects invite our participation in a rather more urgent and personalised way. Not only can they generate immediate affect and empathy between people, but they present us with new challenges for defining health as a medical, cultural and personal value.