Another Ghost In The Machine

Mike White writes: When I was arts officer for Gateshead Council in the 1990s I had the privilege of helping Antony Gormley realise his landmark sculpture commission The Angel of the North. My interest in managing public art coincided with my growing enthusiasm for arts development in community health, leading me to think about the function of art in the pathology of the environment and in narratives of healthcare.  I recall that shortly before I came to join the Centre for Medical Humanities, Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth hospital, which had a good track record of commissioning artworks, readily agreed to the Council’s offer of a set of photos of The Angel of the North depicting its construction in a Hartlepool steelyard, along with a set of promotional posters of the sculpture that once adorned Metro station hoardings.

I never actually saw these images in situ at the hospital until recently when I attended the radiology department for a CT scan.  The NHS’s own ‘angelic messenger’ had summoned me for the appointment days earlier in an automated reminder phone call in which a digitised voice affecting a thick Irish brogue asked me “Are you Moikel Joeziv Woit?”. Actually no, no-one calls me that, but I complied and pressed the star button to confirm I would attend.
On arrival at the hospital, the near impossibility of finding a parking space meant that I trekked from the far reaches of a sprawling site following my signage destiny along interminable corridors until, rounding a corner, I found the uniformity of the echoing walls broken by a set of nicely mounted photos that would make the curious viewer slow their steps and breathe easy. With my own thoughts absorbed by the imminent scan, I found the unexpected encounter with images of angel-making relieved my anxiety. Angel Picture1The sight of the wingless angel’s body on an 18-wheeler truck, like in Eliot’s words ‘a patient etherised upon a table’, and around it other images of men crawling over and through this gargantuan figure, grinding steel in a pandemonium of sparks, suggested an industrious creativity strangely akin to a medical intervention, but realised in hallucinatory proportions. A framed Metro poster showing a detail of the angel’s ribs and wing bore the cinematic strapline ‘Coming to Tyneside’.  The angel and the hospital literally welded in my mind to affirm me in a place where bodies are fixed.

angel construction 2I took that image on with me into radiology and the awaiting CT scan.  I was there, I realised, to surrender myself to all that medical technology could throw at me as I slid into the claustrophobic space beneath the scanner’s metal ribcage.  I was mildly shocked to discover, however, the machine had an in-built voice of God commanding me in a transatlantic drawl to “Breathe in – hold that breath – breath out”. Why, I wondered, could this instruction not be done reassuringly by a radiology nurse?  Although there was no hurt or insult in the procedure it felt, in a profound sense, isolating and a bit de-humanising – so at odds with the photos in the corridor that had suggested an elevation of the human and the ‘collective body’ that Gormley frequently invokes through his work.

For once, but I suspect it will not be for the last time, during that hospital visit I experienced arts in health not through my professional eyes but in an unfamiliar internalised space of dislocation. The incurable romantic in me had wanted to hold the angel as a patient-centred talisman, but medical technology speaks to me in a voice that is neither quite human nor divine. “Are you Moikel Joeziv Woit?”  Well, I’m holding my breath.

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8 Responses to Another Ghost In The Machine

  1. Yes – how alienating – the phenomenology of entering a hospital, still, 50years on from Goffman.

  2. Yet another nail in the coffin of humanised medicine – the disembodied voice of the machine. Great post Mike.

  3. Pingback: Angels | Regular Marvels

  4. It’s a challenge to move from a professional relationship with health services to being a recipient of those services. There are so many insights in this moving story, Mike: thanks so much for writing it. It is also a reminder, we needed it, that these ideas about people’s experience of art connect with everything that makes our lives matter. Behind the blether of policy, ideology and opinion there is life and death, love and pain and courage, the everyday lives people lead in the hope of making a difference.

  5. Annette Poulson says:

    When I went for a CT scan recently at the RV I found that I couldn’t remove my ear ring. It was comforting to be helped by the nurse her reassuring touch was welcome even if the process was a little infantillising! She then asked, had I brought a CD of music that I’d like them to play while I was in the chamber. I hadn’t, couldn’t make a selection from their collection, so suggested that she surprise me. The first number, ‘Don’t fence me in,’ produced a slightly hysterical but usefully distracting giggle.
    Being recognised as a fellow human, rather than a ‘patient’ goes a long way to allay the fears that are inevitable when faced by technology and the unknown.
    The walls and ceilings should display images that strengthen and support us by reflecting reflect our spirit & joint humanity.
    Thanks Mike.

  6. …and you know I will just have to shout out Moikel Joeziv Woit in my best Brooklyn accent next time we meet – so apologies in advance! A personal and deeply engaging reflection Mike – thank you.

  7. …I may be wrong but I understand that the architect / designer is “on the staff” of the Cathedrals in the UK . This is to make sure that new structures, images and voices do not interfere with the intended effect of the art be it sculpture,furniture, mosaic ,stained glass or other art work. You make a great case here Mike for the same approach to be taken by the Hospital Boards across the UK . All the art projects I have known do not happen by chance .Time , imagination, energy and money are devoted to each art work and installation yet we allow unintended interventions to occur like alien voices in the scanner ! I hope that every CEO in every hospital with a scanner gets to read your remarks and then puts the issue of “preserving the impact of hospital art” on the agenda for the Board everytime they meet together. Great entry Mike ….. keep peddling.

  8. Pingback: Art Among The Pigeons | Centre for Medical Humanities Blog

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