(In)Visibility and Art [& suffering]

Today, after 9-10 days of a horrific infection, I found myself feeling human enough to do some actual work. We’re organizing a conference about art and visibility, my PhD friends and I. More info coming soon! So I started writing the stuff we need to move forward today.

But what it made me think about was visibility within healthcare, and illness, and art.

I started thinking about Greenberg ( visibility of the aesthetics of experience), – and then about  the Cubists and other Post-Impressionists perspectives being  particularly poignant for illness and suffering.

But contemporarily, how  are we and can we understand someone else’s pain or convey our own to others? How do we make sense of the nonsensical, whether the chaos of life-as-lived or the inscrutability of dying? How do we answer the questions “Why me?” and “Why now?” when we are diagnosed with disease? How do we paint what we know is there but cannot see?  These are heavy questions which lie sullen at the bottom of every action within my PhD enquiry. Modern medicine, like much pre-Impressionistic art, tried to square this circle by instituting a technical and professional gaze that filters out the ephemera of the individual in order to identify and name what is hidden by opaque bodies (see, of course, Foucault 1994).

But this is not arts aim; it’s not a reductive attempt to discover the building blocks common to all landscapes or buildings or humans or musical instruments. It’s to uncover the essence of a thing, that particular thing, in order to reveal more.

Our representations of disease may actually conceal even as they seek to reveal. We know that socioeconomics and other social determinants (e.g., discrimination, exposure to violence, lack of education and social support, etc.) are tied to health and risk of illness and disease. We also know that socioeconomics and other social determinants affect prognosis and recovery. (Read Michael M’s The Health Gap for more of this)

Although the media love to highlight the enemy on our borders threatening to disrupt our safe worlds insulated from many of the realities of danger and suffering, it is actually our capacity for self-destruction that constitutes our greatest foe: poverty, poor nutrition, lack of access to care, neglect of mental illness, climate change, and war, both declared and undeclared. But far easier to wind up a distant epidemic and see a remote danger to ourselves (while thousands die in a distant place) than address our real threats. Despite many genuine humanitarian responses from wealthier “first-world” countries, it is still clear that we have primitive protective responses (at home and abroad) that largely ignore the real wolves at the door.

As the NHS looms on a crisis that was caused my a greedy, beaurocratic , irresponsible government, and Brexit heightens tensions, and Donald Trump’s inauguration starts to truly loom ahead, I got thinking.

Thinking about  all of this, I wonder if art is our tool to help both recognize suffering but also help build bridges with communities we have trouble connecting with due to these issues.  If the digital world fosters isolation, what evokes empathy? Which of our personas do we believe in—our social media portraits or our reflections in the mirror? What are the consequences of a digitally-created society in the psyche of the global community? Art *can* cross boundaries, social class, geolocked nations. It exists in between physical, real and the social-digital world.  It links us through history, makes the other seem friendly, it can hold up a mirror when everything else seems shattered and untrue. Art explores the complicated yet timeless questions of influence, superficiality, and powerlessness.

When I was first an art-student, I remember finding and learning all about this activist art history. From Ad Reinhardt creating “communist” comics under a false name and being investigated by the FBI, to more direct examples such as the Gorilla Girls, and PAD-D groups. They made work with a political edge.  It was so exciting! I wondered about how awesome it would have been, to be growing up in such a polarized and politically difficult time and then being involved in such grassroots political activity and art being the tool, or the process.  Almost a license to get it out there and be archived for the future. But that same political drive, was also given to the artworld too – Gregory Scholette of PAD-D continues writing about art and political activism with his artwork representing his ideals and holding the artworld accountable for its Dark Matter, Reinhardt wrote lots of essays – as published in “Art as Art” with his disgust of the commercialization of art.

Of course, now I found myself, in a much different world than 8 years ago where hope resided, and people were less obvious and less aggressive with their hate. Where politically, things all felt relatively stable and fine. I have since lost my political art naivety that I had then, and I don’t feel the same excitement as I did when I first found it —- but what does remain is my gut feeling that art CAN make a difference, and my passion in the use of criticality esp within a political art canon. Art can be urgent and important and poignant.

I wonder about all of these experiences, and lessons. And I think – yeah, it’s our turn to make the invisible – visible. We are traumatized witnesses, some of us accomplices, groping about in the gap between passive outrage and mobilized action. We are both: perpetrators and victims, objects and subjects endlessly exchanging roles.

It’s our turn to show that mirror to those who can’t see a reflection. It’s our turn to help people practice empathy, to feel less powerless, to make people accountable, to stand up for what is right – and I think it’s about time the artworld got out of it’s comfort zone.

I’m not sure what that looks like for me.  Some artists are already doing it. But our Art is about changing the world, rather than study how it is. It’s not just about making things, but making things happen. There is much proof out there that our common community has not been relinquished.

Is art sufficient to the task of unpacking these contradictions that lie within our society – or should it complicate matters further? Such questions are unanswerable, but we shall see and we shall do.

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Love Is Love Is Love: Working To Make Things Better

Around 5 years ago, my life changed in a fatal kind of way. When I was in America, I was given a diagnosis that made feel like I was looking down a barrel of a gun and made me question everything in my life. This crazy plot twist, that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Tramedy, set off a bunch of things in my life. The past 4-ish years have been personally-health-awful, but yet through this difficult time this happened:

Last night I picked up my crazy amazing big prestigious award from the Houses of Commons, like some kind of rock-star. It was surreal, and I’ll probably never get another opportunity to experience something like it. But it was such an incredible evening and I met so many amazing, talented, smart, giving and generous people who work within healthcare,  specifically within radiography and oncology care. We should be so proud to have these people – and people not acknowledged working day in and out within the NHS just like them – and in our country.

It’s more than anyone could ask for and it’s an absolute rare privilege; To be recognized for trying your best to help others. I’ve never really been acknowledged before,  but I can’t help but feel heavy with gratitude to everyone who got me here, as thanked previously in many, many blog posts previously. Because this award is just representative of everyone who got me here.  There is no greater gift than being able to be part of something bigger than yourself, trying to make things better for others. And so the honour of being part of narrative alone is incredible.

Then I got home, back to the north, anxious about the U.S.A. Elections, fell asleep and awoke to Trump president-elect.

When I fell sick, I had so much angst because I felt like there was so much left to do and so much more love to give in life. I’d cry because I felt sorry for myself. And I felt ashamed even more for behaving that way, for being weak. But then on reflection I realized that the tears  flowed because they needed to. Because things were building up instead of me like a pressure cooker, and I wanted to keep moving forward.

I was crying because I wanted to live, because I was afraid of not being here.  And I was afraid of being forgotten.

So having gone through that, and 2015 UK General Election and Brexist Ref vote – I figured we need a hope-of sorts – a plan of sorts. Here’s what I’ve learnt from my few years living invisibly and wanting so bad to enjoy life again. And how Brexit, and Trump and a million refugees stuck around the world make you feel powerless and everything is lost. But

Trust me when I say this time is short & this life is both terrible & beautiful.

Resentment & anger are inevitable & sometimes are important, temporarily,  but it’s important to not take up residence in that place. I PROMISE you deserve better. Even if you voted Trump. You do deserve better.

I promise you there are people who will leave you in life, but that others will embrace you unconditionally in your brokenness.

So you go out & run fearlessly in the direction of love. You are never alone. Your tribe is out there. GO GET IT. And please keep laughing. Joy is salvation. In the darkest, lowest moments, being able to find something, anything to laugh about can save you.

We never stop. We never give up. We fight for each other and protect each other.

Living and giving kindness is the best revenge. 

The most creative challenge of our lives is learning how to approach our own inner darkness with curiosity, empathy, and friendliness.

And that’s where it’s all going to come together.

Sometimes in life, if you are very lucky, you find the grace in having it all blow up in your face.

Our jobs for the day (life): Tell the truth; Be kind & curious; Love all people with all your heart; Don’t put up with any bullshit. 

Love Is Love Is Love, we’ve had a bunch of set-back but that just means we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us but lets keep working to make things better – for ourselves and for those who are voiceless, victimised, invisible or who can’t say it for themselves. There is so much more that what unites us than what divides us.

Our work isn’t done, and we need each other and others less fortunate than us, who are REALLY struggling need us. So don’t wait to be called, because you’re already being beckoned.

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Taming the beast in a complex system

Last week I had my first medium-plus allergic reaction to Shellfish (I think). I didn’t even eat it, I just ate rice that had been cooked with it. The kicker is, I don’t even LIKE Shellfish.

Literally within an hour my face swelled up (not like Hitch style but pretty bad never the less) & my throat became ridiculously itchy & sore, and I became wheezy like when you have an asthma attack. Needless to say, i wasn’t best impressed with this new hyper-sensitive immune system of mine. I hadn’t been to see a doctor in literally months, and i was hoping to keep it that way. Damn.

I had to go to the urgent care center, where I was given steroids, more anti-histamines, and a GP appointment. My GP prescribed me my first EpiPen, and a referral to an immunologist.

Today I picked up my EpiPen. I’ve never seen one up close before.

My GP gave me strict instructions about how to use it, & that I can see the practice nurse to show me how, and that I should call an ambulance if i use it & that I’ll always have to carry it and anti-histamines with me for the rest of my life now “just incase”.

But what struck me was the design of it.

It’s really quite big! And I wonder how smaller people (kids etc) carry their EpiPens about if they don’t bring a backpack? Its design is a bit impractical. They’re reliable, sure. They’ll buy a patient who’s in the midst of a severe allergic reaction a few crucial minutes to make their way to the hospital.

But they’re also bulky. Their epinephrine solution isn’t particularly shelf-stable, and will easily degrade in temperatures that are too low or too high (too cold in a bag in the winter? too hot in a jeans pocket perhaps?) and its expiry date on mine is in about a years time. So not very long.

I had a quick google to see if there was other designs available. In America, there was 100s of news articles on the esculating price tag: apparently a pack of two EpiPens now lists for $608 in the USA. (I checked the cost for the NHS & it’s £23.99 for 1 single dose).

This revealed that there’s a design patent on it until 2025. One company owns the monopoly of the EpiPen. & because of this, the design flaws of it for the user, are the profit for company. If it’s too big to carry, you’re more likely to buy more (in the US anyways) to store in other places or for back-ups.

Accidental injections seem pretty common, and instructions are relatively simple, but, adrenaline is invariably used in highly stressful situations, in order to treat a severe allergic reaction. As the auto-injector was originally designed for use in the military, the users were well trained to manage in these circumstances and the user group generally consisted of healthy adult males. Nowadays the devices are given to people of all ages, and with children suffering more from anaphylaxis than any other age group, the device has to be appropriate for a wide range of user groups.

On the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Dr Boyle highlighted how having to respond to a stressful situation can affect the person administering the drug. In his trial, more than half of the intensively trained parents were unable to correctly operate the devices in an emergency.

He cited some of the common errors associated with auto-injectors: holding them the wrong way round, failing to remove the safety cap and not pressing hard enough. They also discussed how little research into the efficacy of the device has been done because studies can cause severe allergic reactions in test subjects, plus real life situations are likely to occur in public and not in clinical settings. All of these issues have resulted in little drive to improve the devices over the last 50 years, leaving key issues unaddressed. (1)

The very fact that the EpiPen has been dominant for so long makes it hard for challengers to come in with a radically different design.

So, what does all of this mean? Well… there’s a HUGE Challenge for someone to make a MASSIVE difference to 1,000’s & 1,000’s of people, but also challenging in being able to design everything that is needed into an EpiPen (engineering, plastics, drugs, function, deisgn, safety etc) that’s life-style-functional & more cost effective long-term (shelf-life etc).

It highlights that instead of trying to carve out a focused segment of healthcare or a specific specialty of design, we should be re-framing these conversations about healthcare improvement around a set of challenges.

No one person or one organization can take on the whole system, but collectively we can make significant, people-centered change happen. I wrote on my blog last night about ‘critical making‘ – If there is one element that is sorely lacking in healthcare, it’s the ability to prototype, to critically make.

It can seem like a beast of a system can healthcare: its big, complex, and delivering on one of the most complex industries. But I’m trying to keep practicing at staying awake and trying to be attentive to what is elusive, fantastic, contingent, different and barely there.

 

Who knew some Shellfish and an EpiPen  experience would be showing me and putting into practice that listening can tell you who you are. That paying attention can give us the change and the meaning that we so badly seek.

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(1) BBC Radio 4, Inside Health, Wed 7 October 2015http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06flmg7

other readings:
Adrenaline auto-injector advice for patients, UK Gov.ukhttps://www.gov.uk/…/adrenaline-auto-injector-advice-for-pa…

Adrenaline auto-injectors, European Medicines Agencyhttp://www.ema.europa.eu/ema/index.jsp…

How Mylan tried to keep Teva from selling a generic EpiPenhttps://www.statnews.com/…/2016/08/31/mylan-teva-generic-e…/

 

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Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, & this in turn, changes us: 3.5 weeks of lessons in PhD-kingdom

It’s only been basically 3.5 weeks of being an enrolled PhD student. And what is it teaching me?

Well, I’m being schooled,  once again.

I keep being met with questions of what I’ve done – and I try to justify my lack of products with: “I’ve been doing it for 3 weeks?”… but people want something more concrete, I guess.

At first people  told me I should be reading, and reading lots! Getting together my bibliography. That’s what I should be doing for the first weeks they said. So my first week, I diligently sat in the library and looked up interesting books and downloaded paper after paper from the library gateway on creative methodologies and healthcarec(& spent a hefty time on twitter). Then the second week rolled around,  really quickly I might just add, & other people started saying that I really should focus on the making art bit because, you know, it is a practice led PhD after all and I don’t want to get to christmas and have nothing to show for it. Too right. So I started making some really terrible pieces of parts of work/thinking process (you know, it always starts off that way, so not too worried at this stage). Then week 3 was met with that I *really* should be focusing pretty much on the REF1. which has to be submitted in literally 6 weeks now. Scary AF.

So I’ve sat and stared at my REF1 form on word for about a week now, feeling the pure weight of re-framing, of patching up the holes of my research proposal, maybe even changing it slightly, of finding out an extensive and integral and good literature list.  Of finding artists to reference and draw from, of figuring out where I sit – art? design? healthcare? sociology? anthropology? (it’s obviously all of those things, but hot damn) —  trying to get my head around my potential methodologies and the pitfalls that they entail, and figuring out how long everything *should* take me to create a plan of sorts, and lets not even talk about my issues of ethics – and my potential plans in place whilst I endure a long ethics procedure — all of this needs to fit into 1000 words. No joke. And I have insane imposter syndrome that it’s not even funny.

My head of studies told me I needed to take a few weeks to just play, to knock down these boundaries I’ve learnt/built up during the past few years. To reflect upon all of the things I’ve experienced, and frame them. To see the tensions that lie within the frameworks of healthcare methodologies and artistic/creative methodologies – how these paradigms work. How they oppress and close discussion or the opposite or even offer more opportunity.  I wrote quite a few reflections, maybe I’ll share some on here in due time.

I applied with a proposal for my first symposium talk in London(combining art and healthcare together – more info soon) and got it, showed folks how to use drawing as a research and reflective tool at the IPE conference at SHU, and I’ve got the radiotherapy annual conference in Jan to present my other design research from earlier this year. All of which I’ve started to pull together over the past 3 weeks too.

I’ve drank a lot of tea, I’ve sat and stared at the walls in my studio. I’ve moved into my city center apartment/flat.

But mostly what all of this has taught me is that when the ground shifts, the next chapter begins. Here’s what I’ve been thinking and learning and trying to tell people when they’re super confused about why I’m using artistic practice-led work to create healthcare change.

Making things can expand one’s understanding of what it means to be human. Finding the vehicles for exploring the edges of your experiences can be really, really scary but it’s a great way of transforming thinking into practice. Change is inevitable, adaptation is optional.

Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, and in turn, changes us.

‘Making’ is a process. In comes from ‘doing’. Doing something. ‘Making’ can bring you face to face with your own agency. ‘Making’ has some of the qualities of an echo. It can travel in space and time and come back to you in the form of a feedback loop.   It helps to make something that you don’t necessarily understand. And even if you think you understand what you are making, the act of making it will change your understanding of it and you will feel yourself get bigger.

I have been exploring my own tracings, teachings, drawings, wanderings and wonderings, feelings, thinkings, questionings and assumptions ever since to better see what can happen when something opens and something else falls… out. And like all ‘critical making,’ it attempts to create a context to make tangible some of the possibilities that can drive passion and engage spirit by striving to go beyond the things we know and towards our own reckoning.

‘Critical making’ can remind us that even when we act alone—as an artist, as a designer, as a healthcare professional, or as a hermit—in isolation, we are part of a larger community.

Seeing is a reflexive process, and like an echo it can find its way back to you. Of course, it all depends upon listening. Everything depends on listening. Listening is different from hearing. Hearing can tell you which way to go. Listening can tell you who you are.

I’m having to re-learn to be diligent, and teaching myself to be better with my time, and my work. I’m practicing at staying awake and  trying to be attentive to what is elusive, fantastic, contingent, different and barely there.

I said that i was going to take every single opportunity I get as a PhD student. And I’ve attended nearly 75% of everything open to me, talk wise within my free time.

I plan on paying attention to everything. And remembering what Linda Sikora said when I feel crazily over-whelmed with all of the above.

She says that, “It’s more important to keep paying attention and to follow your attention wherever it goes, than it is to think about meaning and content, because meaning and content come from paying attention to the world.”

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