Saturday, 15 March 2014


OK...if you came here looking for OWN NOW or INFO-GRAPHICS from Arts Council England, or Data on European Cultural Engagement, scroll down the page to HAPPINESS by Goldfrapp. You'll find all this information way down there. This little video has been on this blog before - but it's here to cheer you up! 

I chaired at debate as part of the superb SICK festival in Brighton this week. It was called Confronting Mortality and with the help of artists, free thinkers and clinicians, the panel illuminated all sorts of new thinking for me on just how the arts might be useful in relation to conversations about how we live and die. Chairing a debate is a funny old thing, as I tend to be much more comfortable being a contributor, rather than a mediator and I’m not sure that I’m the best at this job. I’d spent a good deal of time ruminating on issues around assisted dying and suicide and had come prepared for an exploration of the tensions between religion and humanism and some kind of exploration of the artists role in all of this. Whilst we skated around the edges of the bigger questions, the contributor (and not the chair) in me, wanted to input a little more vociferously! 

The artist Eva Maria-Keller shared her performance of Death is Certain, which I’d seen on youtube, but which needs to be experienced to be believed. The 40 minute immersive experience sees her dispatching cherries in the most subtle and barbaric manners. Sensate and gently provocative, I was left squirming at my my own recent reading of the account of condemned prisoners in the US, where a shortage of the commonly used Lethal Injection chemicals, has seen medieval barbarism reach new highs in ‘civilised’ society, as the authorities experiment with a new cocktail of midazolam and hydromorphone and resulting in one particular prisoner, Dennis McGuire taking over 15 minutes minutes to die. Federal public defender Allen Bohnert called McGuire’s death “a failed, agonising experiment by the state of Ohio,” as he gulped, moved around and coughed. 

Eva’s numerous acts of cherry slaughter, linked well to Steven Eastwood’s observation that, we are divorced from images of death, which is so often disguised euphemistically or through metaphor. Only last week, BBC Middle East Correspondent Jeremy Bowen was lambasting his employer for editing out images of dead bodies from his reports from Syria. I am acutely aware that the game Call of Duty is routinely played in my household and statistics from CoD, show that up to August 2013 it had been played by over 100 million people, firing over 32 quadrillion bullets (1 quadrillion = one thousand million). So on one hand, gratuitous violence is freely available (just think of the horrors that are available on youtube and liveleak) yet we are so divorced from an intimacy with dying and death. The performance of Death is Certain was at moments blackly and breathtakingly funny - at others - bleak and loaded with restrained horror.

So, if I’d have been a speaker and not a chair, what would I have shared? Well, I’ll leave some of these thoughts in the ether for you to ignore, or respond to as you see fit. I would have certainly started with a Philip Larkin poem - Days

What are days for?
Days are where we live.   
They come, they wake us   
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:   
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor   
In their long coats
                Running over the fields.                

I’d have used this to introduce an artists perspectives of course, but also inject something of the control of dying that’s given over to religion and science. I’d have suggested that imagination enables us to construct scenarios in which we might die, but our logical selves cannot process our eternal non-existence and we fall into the default position of myth and superstition - or the empirical evidence of science - throw every thing you've got at me -  both, arguably controlled by wider political interests. Christopher Hitchens described religion as being designed to make us ‘fearful and afraid and servile’, yet ultra-Darwinism potentially tempers human imagination in the face of our mortality. The wonderfully eloquent and insightful Prof. Ray Tallis dealt with some of this in his plea for a change in the law in assisted dying, but beyond a wider philosophical debate that embraces imagination, this didn’t give us the real opportunity to get to grips with the artists voice in all this.

Dr. Sam Guglani talked lucidly about the reality of medicine in the face of disease, and spoke of the human imagination, illustrating through his own example, how clinicians informed by the arts and humanities, offer something more nuanced and empathic in their care, that is way beyond the functional need of the ‘patient’. If ever there was a case for medical humanities, Sam painted it.

Wanting to share individual voices at this event, I read the words of Val, a patient of St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham. Val is someone who has taken part in a project that offers the opportunity for people affected by death, dying and bereavement to explore self-portraiture. Working in partnership with the Royal Academy of the Arts and the recent Manet exhibition, Portraying Life provided her with a context to explore her own self-portraits. Her words are enlightening in many ways.

"This was an inspirational project for me, and I have achieved something that I had never felt I could do. It’s been good for my sense of wellbeing and boosted my confidence and self- respect, and makes me feel worthwhile. I didn’t realise that art galleries were so accessible and had always assumed that they were for clever arty people, and not for the everyday working class person. The discussion helped other people to have an understanding of our situations and of what can be achieved even in your last days, weeks or years of life."

Yet again I was reminded of the playwright Denis Potter in interview with Melvyn Bragg. Terminally ill, in pain, smoking and drinking champagne and morphine, yet infused by his own drive to create, and living in the present tense, he displayed a wealth of emotional intelligence, and considering his proximity to his own death - rich mental wellbeing.

Much of what Murray Ballard so beautifully illustrated in his work on cryonics, highlighted the common fear of death and ultimately, through cryonics, the ultimate in selfish individualism. With the ‘lifestyle’ and ‘self-help’ shelves of high-street bookshops, groaning under the weight of positive psychology classics in which every conceivable problem can be solved: perfect health, incredible relationships, a career you love, a life filled with happiness...arguably cryogenics is the ultimate consumer dream. General practitioner and former president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Iona Heath highlights the rise of preventative health technologies, in which we are witnessing what she describes as ‘...a new arena of human greed, which responds to an enduring fear.’ This fear of our own mortality and commodification of wellbeing is reflected in the way that, ‘more and more of life’s inevitable processes and difficulties—birth, sexuality, ageing, unhappiness, tiredness, and loneliness —are being medicalised’, Dr Richard Smith, one-time editor of the British Medical Journal argues that ‘...medicine alone cannot address these problems and that common values and attitudes towards the management of death, whilst well known about in scientific circles, have yet to be acted upon because of lack of imagination’.

This in turn reminded me that, whilst the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath urges clinicians to avoid the ‘twin traps of over treatment and therapeutic nihilism’, it also stresses that ‘there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon's knife or the chemist's drug,’

If I’d have had the opportunity to expand on assisted dying and suicide, I would have most certainly argued that these agendas are both largely controlled by the articulate voices of polarised campaign groups, but somehow divorced from wider public discourse. 

With state sanctioned murder still in mind, it’s useful to remind ourselves too, of the positive provocation that artists offer. Lithuanian artist, Julijonas Urbonas has investigated highly clinical approaches to GP assisted suicide in countries where it is, or has been legal.  For Urbonas, the well-intentioned interventions of clinicians seem devoid of ritual or meaning. Where Australian physician Dr Philip Nitschke developed the sterile, but effective  Deliverance Machine to help individuals take their own lives, Urbonas has explored Gravitational and Fatal Aesthetics, arguing that churches and shrines are being replaced by theme parks. Describing his design for a Euthanasia Coaster as ‘...a hypothetic euthanasia machine in the form of a roller coaster, engineered to humanely – with elegance and euphoria – take the life of a human being,’ 33 Urbonas has created a 1:500 scale model of what would be a 510 meter high, 7,544 meter long roller-coaster that through a maximum speed of 100 meters per second and a g-force of 10g, would ‘induce various unique experiences: from euphoria to thrill, and from tunnel vision to loss of consciousness, and, eventually, death,’ 34 through cerebral hypoxia: the lack of oxygen supply to the brain.

As a designer and artist, Urbonas provokes us into questioning what we are seeing: is this real? His research is multidisciplinary and through robust collaboration with engineers, scientists and clinicians, the impact of his design would no doubt, be effective, but for now can safely be ‘interpreted as a social design fiction.’  Urbonas suggests, the blackest of humour ‘...might be desirable, because, first of all, humour is a powerful tool to talk about painful topics, to challenge preconceptions, but also to make the contact with the public more intimate, design becomes less didactic and less elitist yet open to more serious contemplation to those who are willing to do so.’

Even bleaker than Urbonas’s dystopian thempark perhaps, is the very true story of a teacher in France, who in 2012 was suspended from teaching following his perhaps misguided attempts, to facilitate conversation about suicide. In an exercise designed for 13 - 14 year olds, the following prompt was given.

‘You’ve just turned 18. You’ve decided to end your life. Your decision is definitive. In a final surge you decide to put in words the reason behind your decision. In the style of a self-portrait, you describe the disgust you have for yourself. Your text will retrace certain events in your life at the origin of these feelings.’

OK...I can hear the anger brewing. Discussing suicide with 13 - 14 year olds? Well in a world where those same 13 - 14 year olds have unparallelled access to the murky offerings of a very-uncensored Internet, a mediated conversation with young people would seem critical. Perhaps this age group might be a little young to work with the stimulus provided, and it may be more appropriate with an older group, but that’s not to say younger children aren’t aware of and confused by issues like suicide that just never get aired, until of course, it’s too late. I assert this with very personal and well-informed experience.

Any serious conversation about mortality could be explored as part of personal, social and health education within the school curriculum, but critically as a dialogue with young people. Perhaps an early journey into ethics and a contextualising of killing by the state; through war and through suicide might help, but whilst rates in children's and young people’s suicide are rising, any attempt to meaningfully discuss suicide, can cause outrage, not least histrionics in the tabloid press.

Artists and free thinkers might show us unfamiliar ways in which our ever-evolving technology might be part of this resilience armoury, as opposed to merely being a tool to prolong our protracted deaths. Perhaps our children should not only learn about suicide, but be encouraged to keep a journal to explore their own unfolding autobiographies. Perhaps those same children might design apps and officiate at their own virtual funeral, a Second Life that enables them to hear their obituaries and reflect on their contribution to society and explore grief, the harshest consequence of death. And of course, this would need facilitating in the most sensitive of ways.

Perhaps constructing your own roadside memorial might encourage you to create an advanced directive and like the birth-plans familiar to expectant women, a death-plan might become normal - perhaps ‘boy-racers’ might be encouraged to play consequences with an artist and not the highway - perhaps these young and emerging minds might dare to have conversations we can barely imagine. They may even come to understand grief more deeply and in some small way, be more prepared for it than those of us whose imaginations are repressed by blind faith in science and religion. 

Alrighty...enough already!

(...and a big thanks to Tim Harrison and Helen Medland at SICK Festival for their vision, warmth and brilliant management.) 

Pioneer Projects Own Now Dementia Symposium  

Working Together: Creativity, Communication and DementiaFree event   

Thursday 3rd April, Belle Vue Mills, Skipton, North Yorkshire.

What is it?  Presentations, workshops and exhibitions exploring best national and international practice and  the positive impact that involvement in the arts can have in enhancing the life of someone with dementia.  Speakers will give academic  perspectives for and practical  examples  of the value of the  ‘creative offer’, to illustrate the richness and breadth of arts activities and how this impacts on people with dementia and their families.

Who is it for?  Arts and health practitioners, artists, arts organisations and cultural institutions, universities, health and adult services, health professionals, residential care homes, public health professionals, local and county councils, voluntary  and private sector organisations who work with people living with dementia
Speakers: Clare Craig, Senior Research Fellow, Sheffield Hallam University, Alice Thwaite, Director Equal Arts, Pete Mosley, Own Now Evaluator, Philippa Troutman, Own Now Programme Manager. + Clive P, your very own blogger
Creative engagement in residential care settings   
Movement and music
Developing creative engagement in Cultural venues   
Research and evaluation in arts and health dementia work

Did you know...

The most common form of participation in a cultural activity is watching or listening to a cultural programme on TV or radio: 72% of Europeans have done so at least once in the last twelve months. The next most common activity is reading a book (68%). The least popular activity is going to see a ballet, dance-performance or opera, with just 18% participation.

Respondents in northern European countries are the most engaged in a range of cultural activities; as an example, 90% of respondents in Sweden, 86% in the Netherlands and 82% in Denmark have read at least one book in the last year. By contrast, southern and eastern countries are often the least engaged in cultural activities: only 51% of respondents in Romania and 50% in Greece have read at least one book in the last year (compared with 68% in the EU as a whole).

In terms of socio-demographic factors, age, education, occupation and ability to pay bills are all linked to some degree with participation in cultural activities. For example, “reading a book” is strongly predicated by the level of education of the respondent (managers have the highest book-reading frequency) and watching and listening to cultural programmes on TV or radio is most common among those aged 40 and over.

The two main reasons for not participating or not participating more in cultural activities are “lack of interest” (the first reason given for five out of the nine activities tested) and “lack of time” (the first reason given for the remaining four activities). However, cost, as measured by “too expensive” responses, is an obstacle for many Europeans, particularly in eastern European countries (Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary) and in some of the countries worst affected by the economic crisis (Greece, Portugal and Spain). “Limited choice or poor quality” is less of a problem, except in Romania.

Individual involvement, in terms of performing or producing a cultural or artistic activity, has decreased significantly since 2007: this may perhaps be a side-effect of the financial and economic crisis. The most common activity for Europeans is dancing (13% have danced at least once in the last 12 months), followed by photography or making a film (12%) and singing (11%). Fewer respondents had played an instrument (8%), participated in creative writing (5%) and acting (3%) in the last year. In 2007, 27% of Europeans had made a film or were involved in photography, 19% had danced and 15% had sung.

Want to know more? Of course we do. It’s all in a report by the European Commission on Cultural Access and Participation. Click on the image below to read the report.

STILL...things could be worse! Arts Council England tell us why the arts have value. Click on the Infographic for their take on it all!

Let us banish the strangeness of death: let us practise it, accustom ourselves to it, never having anything so often present in our minds than death: let us always keep the image of death in our minds in our imagination – and in full view.  Montaigne

...and finally, some light relief, courtesy of a 1977 version of David Bowie. Whilst I'd never claim to have the best set of choppers in the land, I'm guessing David has had his 'fixed' since this was filmed. And that lipstick!! Hey Ho...

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