17 June 2011

Kathryn Dempsey and Angharad Williams on how art can help to keep people calm during long waits from this month's Arts Professional magazine

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How much time do you spend waiting in the doctor’s waiting room or a health centre? What are your memories of that environment – tedious and full of sick people, or worse? Liverpool City Council launched the Waiting Project in 2007 with media arts organisation FACT, with the aim of using art to inject a greater sense of well-being into waiting rooms. We wanted to create an artwork that could engage service users in something out of the ordinary, thought-provoking and even playful, right there in the waiting area.

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  A young patient plays with Scott Snibb’s interactive artwork ‘Three Drops’ in Picton Neighbourhood Health and Children's Centre, Liverpool

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Our very first project was for Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, one of Europe’s biggest and busiest children’s hospitals, providing care for more than 200,000 children and young people each year.

Award-winning sound recordist Chris Watson was commissioned to create an artwork for the hospital corridors. Working with hospital staff, patients and the FACT team, Chris produced the audio-visual installation Wildsong at Dawn, which brought the therapeutic sounds of the dawn chorus from nearby Springfield Park inside the hospital.

In the first year alone, 50,558 people experienced the artwork – that’s around double the average audience figures for an exhibition in our galleries. But the real value comes in the artwork’s power to transport people to a different place.

As one mum who had brought her six-year old daughter in for a dermatology consultation explained: “For us, walking up this long corridor is a long and painful journey. When we come in it is stressful and we don’t really notice anything, but the pictures and sounds takes our minds off the pain, enabling us to walk the distance.” Another family with a young son said that it brought, “the freedom of outside in here. It’s a sound that you don’t hear often because it’s about tranquillity and there is not enough of that anywhere.”

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Seeing the impact of Wildsong at Dawn, we began having conversations with local Primary CareTrusts and health providers, and found an appetite for these kind of artistic interventions. The project has morphed into the Healthy Spaces programme, a series of commissions, projects and events produced by FACT in partnership with artists, health organisations, the private sector and Liverpool City Council. We now have digital and interactive new media artwork in six health centres (including one intensive psychiatric unit) with a further six in production. It’s a large and complex programme, which means balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders with different expectations and different ways of measuring success.

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A partnership between FACT and Mersey Care NHS Trust (which provides specialist mental health, learning disability and substance misuse services for the people of Liverpool, Sefton and Kirkby), Head Sound was designed specifically for some of the Trust’s most hard to reach people, who are between the ages of 14 and 34 and use the Early Intervention service and Mental Health Support Services at Liverpool John Moores University. Head Sound involved a series of workshops in which participants explored audio-visual technologies and worked on creative projects. Age-appropriate and outside NHS premises, the workshops really captured the interest of these young people. Many of these young people were agoraphobic and didn’t feel comfortable in the company of strangers, but the project gave them a reason to go out, socialise and learn new skills. One young man said: “It has given me a lot of confidence. Before I would not open my mouth. It has helped me deal with my illness. I didn’t like being around more than two or three people, but now I can go places and not get paranoid.”

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Many of the digital artworks installed in the waiting areas of health centres may provide a much more fleeting distraction for the casual health centre user. In many ways this is their value; bringing international artists to neighbourhoods that would never usually experience digital art, such as award-winning US artist Scott Snibbe’s Three Drops (picture above), an interactive projected artwork installed in Picton Health Centre in south Liverpool. As people walk in front of the projection their shadows trigger animations on screen which play with the idea of water; a shower of water pours down over a user, a single drop of water (hugely magnified) can be played with like a soft beach ball. For many of the health centre’s younger visitors, it’s become a regular feature in their visit and the centre staff describe them running over to play with it when they enter the building.

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Beyond the swathes of positive anecdotal evidence, analysis of the impact of arts and health projects can be difficult. It’s not easy to work out the cost savings to the NHS, for example. However the results and feedback so far have been overwhelming positive. Wildsong at Dawn has been so successful in reducing stress among young patients going into surgery that Alder Hey is now planning a piece of research into its effect on those receiving injections. Evidence suggests the artworks in new health centres and hospitals across Liverpool have made a real difference to the experience of both staff and patients, and we are currently looking at possible research partnerships to further understand the impact of this work.

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What we’ve learned so far is that interdisciplinary collaboration is central to the future of arts and health. Our ambition is to continue to inspire a shared language for all partners, to explore where art, physical space, and health and well-being agendas meet, and respond positively and creatively. ?? 

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Kathryn Dempsey and Angharad Williams are part-time Healthy Spaces Co-ordinators at FACT and freelance arts project managers.

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Read more Arts and Health articles in Arts Professional 
here

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