There are arts-based projects in hospital contexts such as Hearing Voices, Seeing Things, the two-year program of residencies with staff and users at North East London Mental Health Trust led by artists Bob and Roberta Smith and Jessica Voorsanger, and Transplant, a collaborative piece of work from Tim Wainwright and John Wynne. Both of these projects explore themes central to many sociological studies of health and illness. Katerina Cizek's filmaker-in-residence project at St Michael's Hospital in Toronto was also incredibly sociological.
Artists such as Barbara Hepworth, Christina Lammers, Bill Viola, Heather Spears and Christine Borland have had residencies in hospitals, akin to hospital ethnographies. Barbara Hepworth produced a wonderful series of fenestration drawings of her time in ENT theatres, whilst Bill Viola's installation Science of the Heart is from his time at Memorial Medical Centre in Long Beach, New York. Heather Spears spends her residencies in neonatal intensive care units whilst Christine Borland spent a week at the University of Alberta Hospital, producing a piece of work presented in the exhibition, Imagining Science, at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Borland worked with two patients having kidney biopsies, taking photographs at the start of the procedure, then accompanied the tissue through its journey through the many processes of the Pathology Laboratory. It is a work which I think has a lot of relevance to the role of pneumatic tube systems in hospitals for the artwork brought the patient into the laboratory and the experience of the laboratory to the patient:
“Throughout the week (of her residency) the artist tread a path between the lab and the wards, building an intense, personal relationship with the patients and staff at each end. For the patients the ‘end product’ was a 10 minute long, self-running PowerPoint presentation of the hundreds of images documenting their journey through the hospital and laboratory system. As the patients watched this for the first time, entirely absorbed while it was presented to them on the artist’s lap-top, they were filmed from a tiny camera embedded in the frame of the laptop screen which captured their reactions and expressions in the most non-mediated way possible”
Artistic representations explore research topics in more ambiguous and incomplete ways than academia often allows, this work evoking different stories on common subjects. There are many parallels between artist-in-residencies and ethnographic fieldwork which are interesting to think about. No doubt ethnographers can learn from artists and vice versa. Collaborative work between sociologists and artists raises a number of theoretical and methodological issues which are challenging and potentially rewarding to investigate. There is a lot of exciting work happening in this area, and pneumatic tubes is only one topic, amongst many, that could be explored.
The photo was taken by Thomas, as part of a photographic study of overseas doctors' practices in Australian hospitals, in collaboration with my ethnographic work at this site.