Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Meeting Curious - thinking about failure and vulnerability in the light of success

Last week, at Wellcome Collection, I met with Helen Paris,who together with Leslie Hill form Curious. Curious have already created two artworks with the support of Wellcome Trust. One about ‘gut-feelings’ (The Moment I Saw You I Knew I Could Love You) was a collaboration with gastroenterologists at Barts, London. The other, about smell and memory (On The Scent), involved collaboration with a biologist at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India.

Helen and I had a wide ranging conversation, but one element stuck in my mind – the possibility of failure and the opportunity to fail. Helen teaches performance at Stanford, USA. In one class she asks students to experience failure by creating ‘bad’ artworks. In order to succeed in the class they have to fail in their art, which Helen says the students find very confusing. What is the role of failure in success?

For artists, learning to take risks is necessary for success. Yet taking risks results in the possibility of failure. Drawing on Nietzsche', the early contemporary choreographer Doris Humphrey described how the modern dancers should always inhabit the ‘arc between two deaths’ - the moment of falling, between standing still and lying down. For Humphrey, lack of risk was the death of the artwork. If you were safely standing, or safely lying down, nothing interesting was happening. To dance, to create 'good' art, you must take the risk - and accept the possibility of failure.

But in healthcare, risk is unacceptable.

In a Lottery-funded project about interpersonal perspectives of suicidality, I was interested to hear service-user and family members discuss how while risk, and risk-assessment was very much part of many suicidal people’s lives, care and humanity was less evident. It seemed to many of our participants, that our risk-averse healthcare culture had reduced care to box-ticking, and that the humanity had all but disappeared. I am reminded of being told about an experience of being an inpatient (partly described in an article by Amy Woods & Neil Springham), when the service-user reported that hearing kind words from the ward cleaner was a standout moment of her mental health inpatient stay.

What is the relationship between risk and care? Trust seems important here, and was lacking for those participants who had been suicidal. I’m very interested in how trust manifests between people, rather than inhabiting any one person. It is neither a cognition, a behaviour nor a feeling, but perhaps a mixture of all these, happening across persons, not inside them - in a distributed way.

Helen Paris told me she thinks of trust in terms of an invitation – the invitation is given to the audience and she awaits the response. For example, in their recent piece Out of Water, Helen holds out her hand to an audience member, who is then led down to the edge of the sea. In making the invitation there is risk and vulnerability. How will the audience member respond? Helen says creating an atmosphere of trust and safety in the artwork is important.

There is risk and vulnerability in mental health care too. For service-users, who have perhaps been let down or hurt many times before, there is huge risk in approaching services for help, and allowing themselves to become vulnerable in the moment of trust. But for the staff too there is risk and vulnerability. (And I am thinking of my own experience here, as a trainee psychotherapist). If we make ourselves vulnerable by showing care for a service-user/client, what will happen? There is risk in creating attachments with the people we ‘care’ for (and this also goes for informal carers and wider friends and family of those with mental health problems). There is risk in acknowledging that as healthcare providers we often do not have adequate methods to ease suffering, and that we, sadly, sometimes fail to keep people safe or help them become well.

In thinking about success, failure, vulnerability and risk are all implicated. This seems to be the case in both artist endeavours and in healthcare.

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