We Can All Learn From Each Other: How opening the doors for exchange can benefit us working in Arts

We Can All Learn From Each Other: How opening the doors for exchange can benefit us working in Arts and Health

A few weeks ago, I attended the Arts & Health collaborative workshop at the Southbank Centre in London. As an academic health researcher in the field of community arts intervention and mental health, I was hoping to make new connections and learn from fellow health researchers in the field. Oh boy, I was wrong — I was a fish out of water in a room full of artists; but it was so much more interesting this way!

The Arts & Health Hub is an artist-led not-for-profit organisation that works with artists, health and care professionals working in the field of arts and health. They offer much-needed peer support, commissioning, offer events and continuously support an online community.

Shortly before the start time of the workshop, dozens of artists started flooding the room — yes, you could tell they were artists by their joyfulness and un-awkwardness that tells them apart from us scientists. Enough with the stereotypes Carolina!

The workshop was led by two artists and members of The Hub, Daniel Regan and Eve Loren and started with a group agreement co-created with us participants ahead of any sharing activities. The audience suggestions included: “be mindful”, “respect”, “ask questions,” written out on a flipchart.

Eve Loren facilitating the workshop. All photos by Daniel Regan

Professor Carmine Pariante and Dr Lynn Lu then showcased their collaborative work, where research, health and art merged into two projects. The first project, “The hand that rocks the cradle”, was a participatory performance touching on postnatal depression and “love-bombing”. Participants wrote thoughts and feelings never voiced before and sealed them in envelopes, that were then burnt. Participants were then “cradled” on a hammock — as if in their mothers’ wombs whilst listening to a binaural soundscape created from a conversation between Dr Lynn and Prof Pariante.

If you want to know more, you can read the blog on “Seven Things Lynn Did Not Know About Pregnancy, the Postpartum, and Why She Became Depressed” that resulted from the conversations that Lynn and Carmine had about her lived experience of postnatal depression. Remarkable stuff, right?

The hand that rocks the cradle, photo by Annie Jael Kwan and David Sentosa

The second, “BLOOD: Life Uncut,” is an award-winning installation and participatory performance, focusing on depression, blood inflammation and “regret”.

Participants’ blood (only a drop or so!) was donated to the project in exchange for a sip of anti-inflammatory beetroot juice; their regrets were transcribed into paper, using red ink and pinned to the wall, where a sound installation was playing recordings of “regrets”. The installation was inspired by Carmine’s research on blood inflammation in depressed patients and two other fascinating pieces of research: how transfusions of blood from young mice to older mice reversed ageing and how a protein in beetroot could be used as a substitute in human blood transfusions.

Blood: Life Uncut, copyright of Dan Weill

We were then asked to reflect on challenges in working in the intersection of arts and health and discuss how to overcome these.

The overarching, shared issue appeared to be funding for the arts, especially when the projects are not directly linked to medical research. Another issue that was brought up was the dismissal of scalability and continuity of projects, as most are limited to small pilots. When it comes to research, the focus is on rigid quantitative data (a research strategy that focuses on quantifying the data using scales and scores); another artist on my table commented, when the arts lend themselves to a wealth of qualitative data (data collected using questionnaires, interviews, or observations and is very descriptive) and personal accounts of the experience of being an artist or a participant.

One point that was made by an artist and researcher was that this field is not ready for hybrid people like her, not affiliated with a higher education institution, but producing valuable bodies of research. Funnily, as I heard people share, I was reminded how the incredible programme that I work in, SHAPER, the world’s largest programme on arts and health, that addresses scalability, artist co-creation and provides a stable source of funding for over 36 months for three arts organisations.

Carmine Pariante and Lynn Lu presenting their collaborations and reflections. All photos by Daniel Regan

The final activity was prompted by the quote “We are only as needy as our unmet needs” by John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory. Here we reflected on which needs need to be met for our collaborations to flourish. This was an activity to be done solo and as I enquired about my own needs, I immediately thought that I needed a mentor in the arts with experience working within the academia-arts interface. Luckily for me, I can think of two extraordinary people I work with in SHAPER that could be my mentors if I were to ask them, Dr Tony Woods and Nikki Crane.

Activity: Challenges. All photos by Daniel Regan

The workshop ended with an insightful talk and tour around the Art by Post exhibition, a creative community art project involving thousands of participants in the UK, facilitated by the Southbank Centre.

I’ll leave you, reader, with the words of Daniel Regan, Director of Arts & Health Hub:

“It was an absolute pleasure to bring together so many people from across the arts and health sectors to think together about the challenges and solutions of collaboratively working. It was great to see so many familiar and new faces, those that are already working in the field and those just starting out, offering support and advice to one another. A huge thank you to our fantastic facilitator Eve Loren and to artist Lynn Lu and psychiatrist Carmine Pariante for their motivating discussion of how powerful collaborations can be. We’re looking forward to working with the Southbank Centre in future for our artist peer groups — facilitating spaces to highlight the important and valuable work that artists bring to arts and health”.

Find out more about how you can get involved with the Arts & Health Hub here.