Wednesday, September 29, 2010

artists in residence

I've often thought it would be great to work with an artist on project about pneumatic tubes in hospitals. A couple of months ago I started talking to my brother-in-law about a sound project here in Melbourne (and would love to continue the conversation Andy!). Sociologists are increasingly working with artists at their fieldsites (see this blog about ethnography-art collaborations) to explore themes about medicine, science and technology amongst others.

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”

Artists are also taking up residencies in genetic research institutes and natural history museums, and their work is being shown in hospitals and other medical sites.

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.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

in translation

Pneumatic tube systems are used around the world in many different contexts. I've been exploring some of these on this blog, focusing on hospitals in particular.

Despite firms claims of standardisation in engineering, many sociologists of science have shown that technology is used differently in local settings of practice. This is something I would like to examine a lot further, and I am interested in how pneumatic tube systems are adapted for different cultural contexts. When considering these questions, it is necessary to think about pneumatic tubes in new ways. Translating the term is a start, and here is a wonderful list on the great website buispost:

Czechish - Potrubní pošta

Dutch - Buispost / buizenpost

English - Pneumatic tube system / pneumatic tube / pneumatic tube air system / pneumatic mail / pneumatic post / pneumatic conveying system / tubemail

Finnish – Putkiposti

French - Transport pneumatique / tube pneumatique

German - Rohrpost / röhrenpost

Italian - Posta pneumatica / trasporto pneumatico / tubi pneumatici

Polish - Poczta pneumatyczna

Russian - Пневматическая почта

Spanish - Transporte neumático

Swedish – Rörpost

Are there any others to add to the list?

Photos very possibly from a love hotel (see previous post) on Flikr.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

wanted! vacuum burglars!

A recent article in The Sun shows that there is no end to the creative use of pneumatic tubes:

"A GANG of thieves armed with a powerful vacuum cleaner that sucks cash from supermarket safes has struck for the FIFTEENTH time in France. The burglars broke into their latest store near Paris and drilled a hole in the "pneumatic tube" that siphons money from the checkout to the strong-room. They then sucked rolls of cash totalling £60,000 from the safe without even having to break its lock. Police said the gang — dubbed the Vacuum Burglars — always raid Monoprix supermarkets and have hit 15 of the stores branches around Paris in the past four years. A spokesman added: "They spotted a weakness in the company's security system and have been exploiting it ever since. Since 2006 they have stolen more than 500,000 euros and caused damage to alarm systems and other property totalling thousands more. It is clearly time Monoprix addressed this loophole and changed the way it guards its money.""

Great use of the word loophole!

Could this spate of robberies spell the end for pneumatic tubes in supermarkets (see this video for a demonstration of how the system works in this setting)? What does it mean for banks, where telescreens and pneumatic tubes are being installed in 'remote teller stations' to increase efficiency and improve safety and security?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

the invisible work of pneumatic tubes

When I was in Japan I read 1984 for the first time. It seemed a pretty timely thing to do straight after a science and technology conference. Of course so much of George Orwell's futuristic vision has played out in real-time (one of the papers I mentioned in the last post, about telemonitoring of patients in their own home, springs to mind immediately), whilst other aspects remain in the realm of fantasy and fiction.

An important part of Orwell's 1984-future, at the organisational level, was communication via pneumatic tube.

"With the deep, unconscious sigh which not even the nearness of the telescreen could prevent him from uttering when his day's work started, Winston pulled the speakwrite towards him, blew the dust from its mouthpiece and put on his spectacles. Then he unrolled and clipped together four small cylinders of paper which had already flopped out of the pneumatic tube on the right-hand side of his desk" (p40).

The pneumatic tube was one of three important 'orifices' in Winston's office space - the other two were for newspapers and the waste-disposal slit, or memory hole. It is from the pneumatic tubes where most of Winston's work arrives; the work of rewriting history. One day there is fragment of paper which blatently documents the lies behind this history work, rolled up with the other papers in the tube.

The pneumatic tube system is part of the invisible workings of the Ministry, part of the invisible work of totalitarian control:

"What happened in the unseen labyrinth to which the pneumatic tubes led, he did not know in detail, but he did know in general terms" (p42).

In many ways, pneumatic tubes are still part of the invisible work of organisations, retaining that historic/futuristic feel that Orwell captures incredibly well in 1984. It is this invisible work, the work that happens backstage, that makes pneumatic tubes such an interesting site of analysis and a technology which captures the imagination of writers and the public.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

love pneumatic tubes

Whilst I haven't posted for a month on pneumaticpost, I have certainly been thinking about pneumatic tubes, reading about them, and posting of a different sort - postcards. From Japan.

Japan. Home of raw fish, tatami mats, pachinko and parasols. Home of love hotels, where rooms are bought at the touch of a button and bills settled via pneumatic tubes (all in the interest of discretion of course)!

I was in Japan for a holiday and to attend the Society for Social Studies of Science's annual meeting. The conference was held at the University of Tokyo, tucked away off tiny streets near Shibuya and the wonderful Japan Folk Crafts Museum. Sessions were held in classrooms with wooden desks and blackboards, whilst crickets chittered in the humid air. I gave a paper about adjustment (here are my slides) and heard some fantastic talks about anatomical museums, biobanks, telemonitoring, online patient feedback systems and genetics. It was a small and friendly conference, and the attendees bonded by hanging out around the pond, guessing noodle dishes or waiting for drinks from the vending machine, paper fans flapping. I hope I'll keep in contact with many of the great people I met there.

On the last night of the conference my husband flew in from Melbourne and we continued to explore Tokyo together. The technology around us was often mesmerising. We watched all our fellow subway passengers silently connect to their mobile phones, passed shops with displays of the latest gadgets, saw an exhibition where our biometric data was recorded and we interacted digitally with our fellow gallery goers. And yet, amidst this new technology, alongside the retinal scanning and artificial intelligence, we saw signs of older technologies too. We hopped on a little tram, from one part of Tokyo to another - the last tram in the city - and caught a train with brass fittings and bankers' lights in the dining cart. One night a vintage car hurtled past, with two young hipsters snug and smug inside. There was a certain nostalgia for the technological past, that nestled within a thirst for the new. It is something I often think about in relation to pneumatic tubes, and the nostalgic associations that many people have with them. Something to further consider, and more posts from my time in Japan to come ...

Photos of nostalgic transportation are my own.