Examining the pressing issues of contemporary art and society from a regional perspective, Artlands 2016 placed emphasis on the importance of art work and practice throughout all areas of Australia. The theme of Regeneration considered the role of art as integral in facilitating relationships, productive learning and engaged interaction within and across communities. The combination of lectures, informal discussions, installations, performances and workshops placed a critical engagement to the arts community within Australia and beyond.

Efterpi Soropos, Human Rooms, 2017, installation at Albany Community Hospice, Albany WA. Courtesy of the artist.

By presenting a conversation beyond the binary, Artlands engaged regional arts practice as integral to wider society. Of great fascination was the consideration of situations within the microcosm of the smaller community – with presentation of tasks and projects such as arts for therapy, arts for health and arts as a tool that is inherently socially binding – with particular workshops looking at disaster management and towards a more comprehensive relationship with the caring industries. Engaging with the community in a state of flux for facilitation and progression, the therapeutic need and use of the arts in both urban and rural society stood out with a fundamental need for funding, attention and further discussion.

The power of art often lies in the fact that engagements are not always verbal, engaging metaphor, bearing links to dreaming and imagination, and towards the position of the idea that another world is possible. Within and around the healthcare system and caring industries there is an emerging sentiment of the importance of the role of art and artists as an essential contributor towards rehabilitation, healing, and of immense psychological benefit. As stressed by Margaret Meagher of the Australian Centre for Arts and Health, art does more than lend a hand, but actually provides a pivotal role in therapeutic systems outside of that offered by contemporary medical practice.

Clive Parkinson, researcher with Manchester School of Art, critiqued the use of governments in using artists to promote an ideological cause, with the example of Louis Armstrong’s military tour of the Congo in his keynote lecture, titled Weapons of Mass Happiness. In times of low morale national administration would utilise the talents of African American artists to promote their cause whilst not acknowledging their basic civil rights back home.(1) Amongst a landscape of moral errors throughout history there has been a prevalence of the arts being used to promote ideological issues and to bridge healing but without the proper acknowledgement of the actual work that artists do. With unmeasurable and unconceivable therapeutic dimensions, artists work towards presenting a world outside what is possible. The Armstrong example was an exemplary testament to the power of art as an integral factor in promoting the morale and camaraderie of troops.

Parkinson further suggested that governments utilise oblique strategies to promote concepts of “happiness” via an artistic agenda with an ideological perfection insinuated in such examples as the wartime slogans of “Keep Calm and Carry On”.(2) The sentiment of sanity and perfect health as a societal symbol to strive for was initiated through the government administration. Citizens were encouraged to be happy at all costs, with the oblique role of the arts often painted as a sideline to ‘progress’, which can be seen echoing through to the cutting of arts 100 million dollars in arts funding in Australia by George Brandis’s administration in 2015 whilst simultaneously upping its military spending to $31.8 billion dollars.(3) The fact remains throughout all of this is that there is no definite way to measure the therapeutic benefits of the arts. Integral to the health of society in the realms of both the sick and the healthy, music, theatre, dance, poetry and visual arts in all its forms, are immense and exemplified many but in this instance by the findings of researchers like Parkinson and his team.

Arts As A Transformative Tool for People’s Health

Arts As A Transformative Tool for People’s Health engaged a lively discussion concerning the work of Australian artists and researchers in this field of arts health. Through these discussions, arts health practitioners and theorists shared immense knowledge in their respective areas, making apparent that more information, education and awareness on these topics are needed. Dr Kym McRae expressed the benefits of doll-making workshops taking place in Newcastle, New South Wales with Indigenous women experiencing symptoms of PTSD. She emphasised that the symptoms of hyper-vigilance created by the illness were greatly abated by creative workshop initiating abilities to connect with their children and the community, helping to engaging in conversations and eventual healing. The South-African based team of Dr Ricardo Peach and David Doyle expressed the silence around aspects of public health in Free State, South Africa, and the use of art as integral to the education of such issues such as safe sex, illness prevention, and sanitation.

The healthy will eventually wander into the realm of the sick in time. With 40 million people in the USA over 65 and 10 million in the UK with those figures set to double over the next few decades(4), a societal change towards an elder society is a condition that we are yet to fully interpret. The Australian Bureau of statistics places population projection estimates at 1.9 million people in Australia aged 85 and over by 2064.(5) Australian academic Lynne Segal states that “Aging encompasses so much, and yet most people’s thoughts about it embrace so little,”(6) arguing that an aging population is still a topical one. An advanced society with a large elderly population poses issues that will need to be examined and addressed in the immediate future.

Human life is fluid in the sense of a biological evolution that ebbs and flows. Clive Parkinson’s interest as artist and academic lies within organic interactions and the effort to build the esteem and wellbeing of those in the later stages of life. His path began firstly as an artist and slowly developed into an academic and case-study based researcher examining the intersection of arts and health. His current programme, titled Dementia and Imagination (7), is enacting initiatives placing artists directly into hospitals and care homes and working with patients that are afflicted with Alzheimers in all its forms.(8) Parkinson argues that art and the realm of images and objects can bridge that gap in a way that can provoke imagination and language in patients that struggle with those faculties. Parkinson’s examples include a patient displaying distressing symptoms of a possible psychosis being calmed by the image of a painting. He also detailed the event of a patient with dementia who had maintained a silence for many years – when shown a small sculpture subsequently engaged in a conversation with the artist about their past and personal history.

Parkinson’s “prescription of art” speaks powerfully about the possibilities of such programmes easing complicated life situations and engaging a certain intimacy within medical environments that can often be perceived and experienced as cold, silent and lacking vibrancy and intimacy. The emphasis within these case studies is that the arts offer something that is fundamentally human – something that can bridge areas within our minds that often language and modern medicine cannot. Engaging with art promotes a sense of abstraction, as it presents a complex heterotopic space wherein we make our own meaning and orientate our own sense of place within. Through such uses of metaphor we see triggers emerging for lost memory, speech, and for calmness and eventual healing.

Efterpi Soropos, Human Rooms, 2017, installation at Albany Community Hospice, Albany WA. Courtesy of the artist.

Artist, Patient, Therapist or Citizen?

In the companion workshop Artist, Patient, Therapist or Citizen? we looked to the conception of neuro-diversity and working with and alleviating the symptoms experienced by those with an impaired cognitive map. With a proliferation of phrases emerging for the hopeful societal, academic and linguistic inclusion of these groups, exemplary in terms such as Neurotribes, Neurocosmopolitanism and Neurodiversity. A definition states that “Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species,”(9) thus looking towards the societal inclusion of various cognitive states, the insinuation within the use of these terms is for inclusion and optimism. Akin to those on the Autism spectrum, those affected by cognitive variations could be seen as fundamentally human as the rest of us, just with another system for thinking and way of connecting thoughts.

Professor Jeff Lighton’s laboratory at Harvard University is attempting to map the human brain in MRI scans. So far his research lab has indicated that there are over 100 trillion connections between neurons present in our brains.(10) The complexity of the organ in terms of scope and depth its immense and this facts emerging contribute to the complexity of cognitive capabilities in the later stages of life. With these complex conditions having no cure at this moment, it is a condition that we cannot interpret fully amongst the threat of commercialised healthcare. There is a need or a role for curators, art practitioners and art educators within the healthcare system. With descriptions abounding of hospitals as “aesthetically deprived environments,”(11) it is important to provide a world where all minorities are considered, including the elderly and those who exist within a different cognitive landscape.

With MoMa in New York developing a program for Alzheimer’s patients called Meet Me at MoMa and in turn developing their own guide for curators and galleries around the world to engage themselves with a strategy and consideration of such visitors called The MoMA Alzheimer’s Project: Making Art Accessible to People with Dementia (12), the concept of ‘creative aging’ is one that is emerging into a greater consciousness. Such creative explorations extended out within The Irish Pavilion’s installation ‘Losing Myself’ installed at The Venice Architecture Biennale in 2016, which proposed a city or a world where structures, city design and architecture holds a thought towards those that are neuro-diverse.(13) representing what known spaces could be from the perspective of someone who is experiencing a variant of cognitive decline, their structure, formulated by Architects Niall McLaughlin and Yeoryia Manolopoulou was based on the Alzheimers Respite Centre in Dublin—a building designed for people with Alzheimer’s disease.(14)

In November 2015 the New South Wales Minister for Health, the Hon. Jillian Skinner MP, announced a Taskforce on Health and The Arts to provide advice on how to both encourage and better integrate The Arts into healthcare services, activities and facilities across the whole of NSW Health.(15)  The Art Gallery of New South Wales has since launched their own program, titled Art and Dementia in 2015 following suit from these examples in celebration of NSW Senior’s Week (14-22 March 2015).(16) For those affected by this complex illness, these programs aim to improve self esteem for all life spans with the sentiment that engagement and participation is key. The November 2016 conference “The Art of Good Health and Wellbeing” presented workshops and lectures at Sydney University, with the concept of ‘creative aging’ of interest to the agenda there.(17)

New media in its ability to transform the nature of space

Vic McEwan, a practising artist and the proponent of the CAD factory with his partner Sarah McEwan located in Narrandera in Southern New South Wales, has taken his work towards assisting the community after flood recovery, and a collaborative set of projects looking at the intersection of arts health and arts healing throughout Australia and the UK. The Harmonic Oscilator Project (18) examined noise levels of Hospitals and the effect the sound in these environments were having on patients. McEwan sought to reconfigure mapping sound within in the wards with aim to create an ambience that alleviates stress, and promotes calmness and relaxation. Other artists working in Australia have embarked on similar projects such as Melbourne based Efterpi Soropos’s intriguing ‘Human Rooms’ installation project, an iteration of which is installed at Albany Community Hospice and at five other locations throughout Australia.(19)  Soropos is interested in the possibilities of installation and new media in its ability to transform the nature of space (20), in aid of creating relaxing and peaceful environments for those residing in palliative care homes. Soropos, a self-described ‘performance designer’ (21), utilises LED colour changing lighting, sound, video, and soft furnishings to create these ambient spaces within healthcare institutions, the inspiration the result of witnessing her mother’s clinical experience in palliative care whilst undergoing cancer treatment.(22)  Controlled by a client or staff member via a central IPad, Human Rooms have been found to reduce the stress, anxiety and fear of patients and provide an alternative and safe space within a hospital environment.(23)

Efterpi Soropos, Human Rooms, 2017, installation at Albany Community Hospice, Albany WA. Courtesy of the artist.

At Artlands, McEwan spoke about his work with the aged and cognitively impaired but also working in rural hospitals throughout New South Wales, and of a young patient he met at Alder Hey Children’s hospital in the UK, who he referred to as “Elisha”. McEwan had taken up the role of working with critically ill patients in the Intensive Care Unit, enacting senses of hope and play with small art projects collaborated and cooperatively worked on together with patients. McEwan stressed the important fact that all people are creatively inclined, and that all patients are more than just patients, and of the notion of a line between art and life and sick and healthy is something that is conceivable to us on a personal level. We all waver between these lines throughout our lives and that those afflicted by illness can and do have emotional and creative capabilities.

With Elisha, McEwan finessed a collaborative interaction detailing her idea of ‘safe spaces’. Despite the fact she was confined to a hospital, she could alleviate her surroundings through the imagination of the textures of the walls of her bedroom in her home and of her school. The artist set up a facility where they could project those textures in her room, giving her a sense of immediate comfort and creative pleasure, despite that fact she could not leave.

Throughout realms of 21st century aged and palliative care the complex situations patients find themselves in are clearly never one and the same, and there exists a proliferation of ways in which healthcare practitioners address the best way to heal and care for such cases. The emergent role of the artist as a caring facilitator of alleviating pain and psychological faculties through art is of interest given our climate of arts funding cuts and questions over the role of art in an advanced technical society. The line emphasised by Parkinson and McEwan is that art offers something that relates directly to what it means to be human, and as a human being and in duress art latches onto that sense of honour through art we can honour the human experience.

As stressed by Ian Brennan in the book How Music Lives (or Dies), among a climate of arts funding cuts, must we ask ourselves how can we measure the therapeutic and healing benefits of art? In fact it cannot be measured. Rather, through the work of the artists and arts workers outlined here, it can be further discussed and understood as an integral role of immense psychological benefit in all areas of society.


Angela Garrick, in response to Artlands, Dubbo NSW, 27-30 October 2016

The author would like to express thanks to the traditional owners of the land upon which she lives and writes. 


1  Richard Iton, In Search of the Black Fantastic: Politics and Popular Culture in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 314.

2  Owen Hatherley, “Keep Calm and Carry On – the sinister message behind the slogan that seduced the nation”, accessed 1 December, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/08/keep-calm-and-carry-on-posters-austerity-ubiquity-sinister-implications

3 Alan Evans, “Budget takes $100m from Australia Council to establish arts excellence program”, accessed 1 December 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/may/12/budget-takes-100m-from-australia-council-to-establish-arts-excellence-program

4  Lynne Segal, Out of Time: The pleasures and the perils of aging, London: Verso, 2016, 24.

5 Aging, by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, accessed 3 December 2016, http://www.aihw.gov.au/ageing/

6  Segal, Out of Time, 24.

7   Dementia and Imagination, Research Team, accessed 26 November 2016,   http://dementiaandimagination.org.uk/

8  Clive Parkinson, “Arts for Health”, accessed 27 November 2016.  http://artsforhealthmmu.blogspot.com/

9   Nick Walker, “Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions”, accessed 27 November 2016. http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/neurodiversity-some-basic-terms-definitions/

10   Jeff Lighton, “Lightman Lab at Harvard”, accessed 26 November 2016 http://lichtmanlab.fas.harvard.edu/research

11  Hilary Moss, “The role of the Modern Curator in Hospitals”, accessed 15 November 2016 http://www.instituteforcreativehealth.org.au/sites/default/files/curator_in_hospital_research_report_by_hilary_moss_09_12_15.pdf

12  “The MoMA Alzheimer’s Project: Making Art Accessible to People with Dementia”,  accessed 2 December 2016, https://www.moma.org/momaorg/shared/pdfs/docs/learn/GuideforMuseums.pdf

13  Natasha Kwok, “Irish Pavilion installs drawing machine to highlight dementia at the venice biennale,” accessed 2 December 2016, http://www.designboom.com/architecture/venice-architecture-biennale-irish-pavilion-niall-mclaughlin-yeoryia-manolopoulou-losing-myself-05-30-2016/

14  Margaret Rhodes, “A Puzzling Projection Simulates What It’s Like to Live With Dementia”, accessed 2 December 2016, https://www.wired.com/2016/06/architectural-installation-shows-build-people-dementia/

15 “NSW Health and the Arts Framework”, accessed 4 December 2016,  http://www.instituteforcreativehealth.org.au/sites/default/files/nsw-health-and-the-arts-framework-report.pdf

16  “Art and Dementia Program” accessed 4 December 2016, https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/media-office/art-and-dementia-program/

17  “The Art of Good Health and Wellbeing”,  accessed 4 December  2016, http://www.artsandhealth.org.au/

18 Vic McEwan,  The Harmonic Oscillator – Rehearing our Hostpital Environments, accessed 7 December 2016, https://issuu.com/vicmcewan/docs/the_harmonic_oscillator_draft

19    Efterpi Soropos, HumanRooms, accessed 4 December 2016, http://humanrooms.com/HUMAN_ROOMS_HOME.html

21  “Efterpi Soropos: Artist” accessed 4 December 2016, http://visual.artshub.com.au/news-article/people/visual-arts/media-release/efterpi-soropos-artist-179523

20 ibid.

21  “Efterpi Soropos”, accessed 16 December  2016, http://www.culturaldiversity.com.au/projects-initiatives/91-site/403-efterpi-soropos

22  Efterpi Soropos, “At the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust”, accessed 16 December 2016, https://www.churchilltrust.com.au/fellows/detail/3861/Efterpi+Soropos

23  Efterpi Soropos, “Making Room for Wellbeing”, Australian Journal of Dementia Care, October/November 2015 Vol 4, No 5.

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