- MOMENTS OF EXCHANGE – HANDS TOUCHING HEARTS by CLAIRE BARCLAY for RIO
TITLE IMAGE: Gary making sculpture at The Royal Edinburgh Hospital, August 2013. Photo: Claire Barclay ( note this is the close-up image of hands)
Place: Instituto Nise da Silveira, Engenho de Dentro
We are lying, eyes closed, on the floor in a circle, holding hands and with feet touching. We feel the weight of objects on our chests, and as we individually start to make sense of this experience we wonder if these objects are sacks filled with grains or powder as they slump and settle into the contours of our bodies. We hear a rustling sound before we feel the cool smoothness of perhaps polythene bags filled with liquid. A taut jiggling sensation is perceived by our skin as the bags are pushed and pulled over our limbs, torsos, hands and feet. These ‘relational objects’1 are moved around our bodies by the will of another person who decides how and when to leave them resting on our bare arm or clothed leg. Our acute awareness of the cool pressure very slowly diminishes as our senses become used to the oddness and our conscious selves begin to stop making sense of this experience. Objects are touching bodies, bodies are touching bodies, objects are touching objects. We are letting go and allowing our vulnerability to be replaced by trust. Feeling our physical connection with the material objects and the people we are touching. Not only on the surface but deeper within us.
This therapeutic experience, inspired by the work of Brazilian artist and art therapist Lygia Clark, continues to be used within this hospital in Rio to help people with schizophrenia.2 We are privileged to be able to experience it first hand, and we wonder how work of this nature might inform our thinking around touch and material agency as a form of exchange and vehicle for care?
Within care institutions, we often see ‘touch’ being systemically compartmentalised to serve medical purposes. Bodily contact with objects and people can be intimidating or even disturbing, depending on methods of introduction. The sensitive touch of emotional care has to emerge organically, where it finds opportunities. Often the most powerful instances of care that we experience within these contexts are not clinical but motivated by moments of friendship and empathy between individuals, whether patients, service users, staff, ex-patients, artists or visiting family members. These usually involve touch, the comfort of a held hand or an arm around a shoulder.
Artists can introduce other forms of therapeutic touch through creative engagement in hands-on making and sensory experiences. We see curiosity and personal expression emerge through the joy of forming malleable soft clay, the surprise of transferring a drawing into a printed fabric pattern, the embroidery session that relaxes the body and enables calm and focus. Through physically transforming materials we are exploring their potential to trigger sensory and emotional responses and relationships between forms of making and methods of care.
Place: Cherry Road Day Care Centre, Edinburgh
Donna is drawing with fluorescent pens on a medical worker’s white coat that she is wearing. I am asked to wear the coat so that she can draw on the back. The drawing is expressive and immediate and Donna is passionate about the activity. She holds my arm at the wrist while she draws colourful spirals along my arm. The feeling of her drawing on my back and arm is therapeutic, like a kind of massage, and I realise that there is a form of exchange happening. I tell Donna how nice it feels and she smiles a big smile and makes a thumbs-up gesture, as she does frequently. The resulting design on the coat looks impressive under the UV light, but it is the process of exploring and making together that is the most important thing.
Artlink artist Laura, is projecting coloured light and moving patterns onto fabrics suspended above Carol’s body. Carol is following the images by moving her head and eyes. Due to Carol’s profound physical and mental challenges she has much less ability to communicate her thoughts and feelings and Laura has to trust her instinct when working in such uncertain circumstances. Carol’s disabilities mask her intelligence and she seems very aware of her vulnerability and lack of control over many aspects of her everyday care. Laura is respectful of this and introduces experiences to Carol carefully. Today she explores singing to Carol while massaging her hands and feet. Physical touch seems to help make creative ideas accessible and the two are intertwined within the experience. Laura sees the importance of developing a sincere connection with Carol over time through observing her responses to different sensory stimulus.
During each session Carol’s responses are very subtle and only those responsible for her care are able to acknowledge these small but sometimes momentous reactions: a hint of a smile; the movement of eyes attempting to follow an object or someone’s smile within her line of vision; an abrupt shifting of a hand or a gasp or squeal uttered.
This work would have no benefit or meaning if not carried out long-term and in such a personalised and sensitive way. Laura has worked with individuals at Cherry Road over many years, slowly and incrementally developing relationships with the service users and discovering their unique personalities through one-to-one interactions.
We intentionally make ourselves vulnerable as artists when working intuitively with unpredictable situations like these. We do this in order to better understand an individual’s needs and specific contexts, and to develop trust. We are able to create non-hierarchical relationships, often experimenting and participating rather than directing. By making ourselves vulnerable and working around existing institutional structures, artists can create moments of empathy and anarchy that allow personal creative expression to flourish and provide alternative modes of communication and exchange.
How might we find ways to value and talk about these kinds of exchange that are experiential and leave little visible trace for others, despite profoundly affecting those involved in a lasting way?
Place: Royal Edinburgh Psychiatric Hospital
Figure 1 Gary and Claire, Royal Edinburgh Hospital, August 2013. Photo: Trevor Cromie
Gary and I are sifting through an array of materials that I have brought to the ward, including wood, plastic and metal fragments, and remnants of cloth, hessian and leather. Gary selects a piece of blue foam as the ideal addition to his current sculptural form. He carefully cuts and combines this with the other elements by binding together using wool and thread that constrict the foam and give it a body-like appearance. Gary is a young man with a serious brain injury who struggles with continuity of speech and thought. We communicate in our own way using an alternative sculptural language of sorts that we have developed over a number of sessions working together. We have become able to understand each other’s thinking in terms of the task of making these artworks. As the object transforms, new references are continually triggered in Gary’s mind. The sculpture is like a physical manifestation of his disrupted or random thought process, but within our creative process this is a positive. Gary and I both enjoy the surprising paths this process enables. There is creative freedom here that allows Gary’s unique sculptural ability to thrive and produce these compelling forms, simultaneously figurative and abstract. I feel an affinity with Gary’s objects and my own approach to making sculpture, and we are both learning from each other through the collaboration.
If these kinds of sharing experiences help create genuine moments of connection that are valuable in the care of vulnerable people, how can these approaches inform institutional structures? Is it important to foster unique alternative forms of communication in order to evolve better individual care? If we understand sanity as self-recognition, might moments like these help people involved with giving and receiving care to know themselves better and celebrate their individuality?
Place: Colônia Juliano Moreira, Jacarepaguá
Figure 2 Pedro showing his sketchbook, Atelier Gaia, October 2017. Photo: Claire Barclay (there are two images to choose from)
Pedro is standing in the gallery in front of a substantial series of abstract paintings that he has produced at Atelier Gaia art studio within the Psychiatric Hospital. These related works explore radiating lines and stripes and strong colour combinations. He talks about them formally, describing the experience of colours transforming when placed next to other colours. He is curious about this and likes experimenting with these colour interactions in order to better understand their dynamics. He points out elements that he would like to change and we get an idea of what motivates Pedro to keep producing new versions to add to his painting series. His works are energetic and alive and he is excited to share his work with us.
The next time we see Pedro he is being thrown into a cell within a derelict asylum by a fellow patient, Arlindo. Arlindo’s performance draws on the traumatic experiences he had as a teenage patient within the asylum decades ago, before reforms led to its closure. This performance is raw, brutal, uneasy, humorous in moments and revealing. Arlindo moves between us from room to room, slamming heavy cell doors and fumbling with keys in locks. Some audience members avoid possible interaction and edge away as he approaches. We each respond to his work depending on our own reference points and reactions to the performance and the stimulus of the space with its barred windows, cold steel and damp concrete surfaces. The ambient sounds and smells merge with echoes of Arlindo’s aggressive shouts and hopeless mumbles of this vivid interpretation of his own memories.
Figure 3 Arlindo’s performance, October 2017. Photo: Claire Barclay
(or could use the great photo that was sent on what’s ap of the performance )
We are affected in different ways by the works of these patients and the degree of meaning that the work has for them. We are moved by the care they extend to us within a unique situation, and their keenness to communicate despite our naivety regarding their particular experience. Their work communicates to us in an immediate and human way, and in that moment transcends our cultural differences. We can’t fully understand, but we appreciate the invitation from these individuals to make a meaningful connection, a connection that has relied mainly on sensory communication and forms of translation rather than conversation. During our short time in Rio we have begun to develop alternative forms of creative communication based on exchange and shared learning rather than conventional hierarchical structures. Despite visiting people and places with real challenges, this experience has been inspiring and life affirming and helped inform our own thinking around methods of care.
1 ‘relational objects’ is the term used by artist and art therapist Lygia Clark for the objects used within the therapy she developed in the 1970’s to help people with schizophrenia.
2 ‘Rosácea’ is the title for the Clark inspired experience interpreted by Gina Ferreira and presented as part of the project Art, body and sensibility hosted by the Museum of Images of the Unconscious.