Interview: Jo Coles and Mark Power on Hospital Rooms

published on 3 April 2017

Artist Jo Coles and Photographer Mark Power discuss how they transformed the Resident's space at The Phoenix Unit, Springfield Hospital.

Artist Jo Coles and Photographer Mark Power discuss how they transformed the Resident's space at The Phoenix Unit, Springfield Hospital.

Landscape inspired wallpaper, on display in the Relative’s Room at the Phoenix Unit, by Mark Power and Jo Coles

Georgina Evans: I wanted to ask you both about each of your backgrounds and how you two got involved with the Hospital Rooms.

Jo Coles: I did a degree in Brighton, in 3D design, and although I’ve always made work of my own, I have mainly been a community artist making big outdoor sculptures for outdoor events. I’ve just finished an MA in sequential design where I did a project collecting discarded objects. That project was the link with what we ended up doing for Hospital Rooms.

Mark Power: I’ve been a practising photographer for thirty-two years now. I’m sure Jo wouldn’t mind me saying, but it was me who got approached. Hospital Rooms got in touch with the agency who represent me, Magnum, as they thought I might be the best person to do one of these commissions. I wasn’t certain because I’m always pushed for time, but in the end, I said yes - mainly because I was really interested in what Jo was doing for her MA project - collecting rubbish off the streets. I thought it may be a stimulus for me to do it and so I suggested that perhaps we could do something together. We’ve never actually worked together on anything serious, but when I put it to them that perhaps we work together they seemed interested, so we went up and met Niamh White and Tim A Shaw. Jo had some of her work with her to show them and honestly, from that moment, I might as well have been invisible - they were so taken by Jo’s project!

We suggested that we work within a one-mile radius of the hospital. I wanted to photograph something specific and suggested urban trees because they’re often overlooked and it’s a subject I can get my teeth in, rather than just wandering around looking for anything, and Jo can simultaneously start looking for things that are discarded on the street. Everyone immediately jumped on that idea. It had a good feeling right from the beginning - we came up with the idea right in the middle of the meeting, everyone seemed excited by it and we started a few days later.

JC: Niamh and Tim were just so genuine in their ways. They had a real magic about them that you wanted to reflect. They allowed freedom and they had the belief that this was going to be a strong project - they loved the unit that we would be working in.

MP: They believe so much in what they’re doing that it’s kind of infectious. I think that’s how they convinced a lot of successful names to do it.

GE: How did you come to create your work for the Relative’s Room? Where did the idea of wallpaper come from?  

MP: It was just a matter of collecting things and then thinking about what we were going to do with them. While we were working together, we thought of the idea of making a wallpaper to cover the room in these images to change the environment.

JC: This room was so awkward. It was quite a small room and we didn’t know what we could possibly do to make an impact. That’s when we came up with the idea of wallpaper.

MP: We liked the idea that once wallpapered, all of the signs and the furniture would be pushed back in front of it again, so the imagery would sink into the background but at the same time leap out at you because it was quite loud. It became part of the furniture and we quite liked that it became quite domestic. I suppose we didn’t want to be too precious about it. But also, of course, we were given this brief, and because of the nature of the unit, we couldn’t use anything sharp, screws or hangers of any kind. In a way, I would say the hardest task, the thing we spent the most time on, was making the wallpaper work. We had to get Tim to measure the space for us and I think he had to do it two or three times because we just had to make sure it was absolutely accurate - we wanted the checkerboard to work, so we had to think about the drops of the wallpaper. We didn’t want two of Jo’s images suddenly appearing next to each other by chance, so it’s all been thought through.

JC: We had thirty images each in the whole wallpaper. One of the reasons why we were pleased with the choices we had made was that the residents there were encouraged to spend time outside. It felt that this room was going to link to the outside space because it was where visitors came in. We knew that the meetings in that room were quite challenging, mainly because of the families that came in. The things we were photographing, my objects, Mark’s trees, were everyday but also had connections - the wallpaper could be a little bit of an icebreaker.

In a way, all the egos went out the window because we weren’t making something for public exhibition, to be reviewed by critics.

GE: How did you find working in that environment and tailoring your work for the residents and their visitors?

JC: It was a real honour to be part of that project. It was quite a magical unit as well - we met a few of the residents there. It was interesting because they were a cross-section of society that you could meet at a bus stop in Brighton.

MP: We were worried that it might be too much, visually, in such a delicate environment, as the images on the walls were so loud. When we’ve shown friends and colleagues installation pictures, people have said ‘I can’t believe that you’ve put that into a hospital with schizophrenic patients.’ We were genuinely concerned, but it seems to completely have had the opposite effect. It hasn’t been incendiary at all but, from what we have gathered, quite calming. People seem to love it.

JC: The residents are just very different to each other. Just like any group of people, they had very different moods, they see the world in different ways.

MP: The last thing we wanted to do was bring in something that was particularly exhausting. We just wanted to do something that raised the ordinary into something extraordinary in some way. When I mentioned the idea of photographing urban trees, the staff in the meeting immediately jumped on that - something about the growth of trees is apparently very therapeutic for people with schizophrenia. It’s something that they use and talk about. I think it’s why the whole idea of planting and growing things in nature seems to tap into the right place, it feels like the right thing to do. There was something wonderful about making something for such a very select group of people. In a way, all the egos went out the window because we weren’t making something for public exhibition, to be reviewed by critics. It was something that we felt we were doing for ourselves, but also for a group of people who were very special.

JC: It was almost the opposite to how I’ve worked in the past. It felt like an absolute honour to work on that project.

GE: How do you both feel about putting your name to this cause and the importance of the relationship between art and mental health, what are your opinions?

JC: I feel privileged to put my name to this cause. I’m from an average family, we have a normal amount of mental health in my family– you know, schizophrenia, depression, over grandeur, we’ve got all that in my extended family. I forget my family has its fair share of mental health, so it’s positive to be part of this project.

MP: I’ll second that. It’s been a privilege. I’m so glad that in the end, I connected to it. It felt so good to have given the time to make something as important as this. Even though it wasn’t reaching thousands of people, it felt strangely more important than something that does. Which is odd, but I suppose it’s that sort of semi-permanence. Not many artists are given the opportunity to make anything that is both permanent and quite special.

JC: I would have loved to have been more involved. Even though my time there was so short, I feel a connection there. The impact that it made on me remains.

GE: What’s next for you two?

MP: Jo and I have got an idea for a new project together. Post-Brexit Britain, we’re going to travel to one county at a time. We'll make several trips to different places in each county, then make a modest publication of maybe 250/300 copies and try and sell that through the website - raising enough money to do the next one and so forth. It’ll be a collection of my documents and pictures, as well as Jo’s finds. I think you know, on a personal level, that it’s fantastic that something like this has grown out of the original Hospital Rooms commission - it is very exciting and we’re very pleased to have been part of it.

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