Interview: Tim A Shaw and Niamh White on Hospital Rooms

published on 25 April 2018

Georgina Evans continues SHOWstudio's coverage of the Hospital Rooms project, talking to Tim A Shaw and Niamh White about their recent work.

Georgina Evans continues SHOWstudio's coverage of the Hospital Rooms project, talking to Tim A Shaw and Niamh White about their recent work.

An Interview Room at Eileen Skellern 1 by Paresha Amin

Georgina Evans: Tell me about the three spaces you’ve been working on since we last spoke.

Tim A Shaw: We’re near the end of three different projects now, and the first we started with was Snowfields Adolescent Mental Health Unit at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. We’ve got eight artists working on that project. We’ve also been working on Garnet Ward for people with dementia and other mental health difficulties at Camden and Islington. Now we are working on the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit for Women and we’ve got seven artists working on that project.

Niamh White: It’s quite nice because we’ve covered the ages now, we’ve got adolescents, adults and older adults. 

GE: What’s your approach to finding these spots?

NW: We generally get approached by units. One thing that we found is that there is quite a large need we’ve established. Lots of units have seen the work we’ve done already and are inviting us to the unit they’re working on to do projects with them. We are based in London but we do have projects planned for this year that venture out into the UK which is really exciting. We wanted to start expanding the work and scaling up a bit.

GE: How do you choose the artists to be involved?

NW: We think carefully about the artists we invite because the brief that we give them is so challenging. We ask them to collaborate with the community their artwork is for, and listen to their views, their thoughts and experiences of those spaces. We ask them to create work that is quite complex in fabrication because of the restrictions on hygiene, security, safety, ligature and all those things. Installation and being on site can be challenging, particularly in the setting of psychiatric intensive care and everything around it. We think very carefully about who can respond to that brief in the most imaginative and practical way. We also do think carefully about people who have experience using services or have family members or friends who are particularly engaged with the issues surrounding mental health. That always produces very interesting responses and proposals. 

TAS: There are also a lot of different artists that we’d love to do a Hospital Rooms project and we’re always keeping an eye out for people we think would be right for the project. If it’s a psychiatric intensive care for women it makes sense having an artist who is able to respond to that. Not everyone has to, it’s always going to be a diverse range of artists, but it’s important to have people who are going to make work for the people there as well.

GE: I’m interested to pick your brains on the process. Every artist I’ve spoken to so far has mentioned the amazing one on one experience they get with the space and everyone involved.

TAS: We call it co-production. We generally try and get all the artists to come and meet everyone involved. We have honed that whole process and made better as we’ve progressed. For this last project, we’ve actually had gatherings in the evening at our studio where staff and artists can come and discuss the project while it is getting off the ground, to give more of an understanding of the actual unit and the people being cared for. We want the artists to meet the patients and get to know what it’s like and what the experience of being in a unit is like, and what needs art can fulfil in its own way. It’s up to the artists how involved they want to get, on whether they’re going to spend two or three weeks or whether they are going to make work off-site. Some artists, like Harold Offeh, did make the work with the patients, whereas other artists have just responded to the visits and meetings. It’s important to have that big range because no artwork is for everyone. I don’t think there’s any research that says one specific image is going to have a beneficial effect on everyone so it’s important to us that we have a wide range.

NW: There are also some quite interesting studies around an idea about authenticity and prestige. There’s difficulty in arts and health if an artist who is high profile or very established comes in and bestows an artwork on a community and people don’t have a relationship to it, compared to patients making artwork, who maybe don’t have the skills for fabrication, for longevity or durability. We’re trying to tread that fine line between the two where patients are informing work, and staff are having a real voice in their environments but also capitalizing on an artist’s vision, ability, skills and training.

GE: Have you noticed a different mood from each of these spaces?

TAS: Yeah, all the different spaces feel generally quite clinical when you enter but they all have their own different personalities. It’s fair to say a dementia unit might feel a bit homely, or somewhere short stay feels less of a home than where some people might be in acute care for several years. That’s quite an interesting question as well, of how homely you should make a space and how the artists should treat these spaces within that bigger space. When the artworks are made they quickly transforms the way the unit works but also the way the people move or interact within that space. When Tamsin Relly’s wall painting and print were installed, the wall painting took a few days and you could slowly see this atmosphere changing. There was a magical moment when we installed this print, we stepped back and there was a big round of applause from the patients. It was one of those unusual moments when the space completely changed and the atmosphere was different, even if it was at that moment. It was a bit like a catalyst, it was made bigger, that whole feeling. But now, every time you walk in, it does completely change that atmosphere, change that space and give it a completely different identity.

NW: I think it’s also interesting the way artists pick up on certain elements whether it’s the way care is provided or a particular symptom as part of the diagnoses. Michael O’Reilly was learning about dementia, he was in the Garnet Ward. Often with dementia, your vision becomes impaired and you can only really see glowing colours or bold outlines. He surmised a stained-glass window would be a perfect solution for that space. His mural has all these qualities of glowing colour and each element is surrounded by bolder lines in order to accommodate for some of the difficulties that people face which I think is so lovely. It’s one of the most magical parts of the project. All these ideas that come out of the artist after they have done their own research and met people, spoken to patients, spoken to staff, the way they come back with these lovely, thoughtful responses.

There are a lot of practical restrictions that the artists have to take into consideration. There are many things they can’t do that in a way makes them more creative because they have to think about those problems.

GE: Do you ever get feedback from the staff?

TAS: The staff are generally very positive but they can be less involved than the patients. The patients are the people who live here all the time. The staff in the NHS can often be quite modest and they’ll say ‘don’t worry about us, it’s not important what we think.’ The staff working in these units might be there for years on end so it’s really important to us that the artwork makes it a better place to work. It is also important that it might help facilitate new conversations or new ways of interacting with people. It’s important that the art breaks a hierarchy, we really like the idea that a psychiatrist or psychotherapist might speak to a patient in a different way because they’re talking about an artwork. The staff are generally very positive.

NW: For example, in the psychiatric intensive care unit the staff have been phenomenal. We literally couldn’t have done the project without them and the support they provided us with. They quite enjoy having the artists around, having this different community. It’s a nice alternative energy that comes into the space.

GE: I want to talk about the challenges you’ve had and what can we do to aid that? What’s the difficulty you have putting these together?

NW: The main challenges are around very practical things like making sure the artwork is safe so that it couldn’t become something someone can use to harm themselves or others. We mitigate against those things by using a lot of painting directly to the wall, or we’ve worked with Metro imaging who have helped us to come up with scratch proof, wipe clean printing,  and doesn’t require framing but is equivalent quality to what we would put in a museum or gallery. Colart helps us with the types of paints that we can use, quick drying, wipe clean and various other things. There are a lot of practical restrictions that the artists have to take into consideration. There are many things they can’t do that in a way makes them more creative because they have to think about those problems.

TAS: That’s become easier because you start learning all these things and find a more efficient way of conveying that to the artist. The bigger challenge is working around anything that the service users might find difficult in terms of the content, or the aesthetic, or imagery because that’s much less easy to categorise. There might be a unit where you can’t have anything to do with childbirth or you can’t have lots of eyes, things that might seem quite obvious. For a lot of artists, that’s very important to their work so artists have to work really hard at finding ways of getting around that. Diluting what they want to achieve but still thinking of the mental wellbeing of the patients who will be living with the work every day.

GE: Do you think some artists are surprised by the challenge?

NW: Possibly. These are very invisible spaces, not many of us will go to secure and locked units unless something happens to ourselves or a family member otherwise we have no real reason to go into them, so I think this is a way of making them highly visible. I think it’s difficult to imagine what it will be like before you go to a unit.

TAS: But also, you have to think what it’s like for an artist working on site. The artist must be able to concentrate for several days in a very high-intensity space with lots of noise and alarms going off every few minutes, and still produce the work to the quality they like it to be. That is a real challenge and it could be very difficult for artists, but it is one of our main jobs to make sure they feel they’ve got support.

GE: It’s very important for people to know about Hospital Rooms, it’s about raising awareness for mental health, and the need for improved environments. How do you both look to progress?

NW: We mentioned the need, and the need has been highlighted in several very important reports. The CGC (Care Quality Commission) State of Care report said explicitly that environments are inadequate. The Five Year Forward View from the NHS reports the environment as poor. There is an overwhelming demand for our services, so that shows people are unsatisfied with the environments as they are. I think there is also another aspect: if you are using secure and locked services your ability to access arts and culture is severely diminished. The lack of opportunity to engage with society is profound. This is an effort towards connectedness and social inclusion and interactions. Making people feel as though they are a part of our society and not excluded. That is a big part of the agenda. Even looking back, you notice it’s a simple common sense idea but the transformation is huge. I think we have found a nice solution, now we just need to scale develop the organisation and grow our impact. 

TAS: We just want to get better at what we do, specifically in terms of the challenges we have now. It’s just finding ways we can keep building, improving and getting better. Finding ways of co-producing the work more effectively. That’s the exciting thing: you think, when you’ve done a project, it’s the best one ever. That'll keep happening and we will keep learning better ways of making these projects and keeping them very human, never having a formula that we go through for every unit. Every project should be built around the people, that’s the main thing

GE: What’s next for you both?

NW: We are going to venture out of London, which will require a bit of additional thinking - it probably won’t increase the number of units we do next year but we will expand our geographical reach. There are lots of challenges around that too, including how we run the project and artist selection, we’d like to have artists who are from or live within the proximity of the trust we are working with. We’re exploring our broader partnerships with the trust and not just working with individual units but developing strategic partnerships. Eventually, we’d love to work with trusts in new hospitals so that from the very beginning we have some sway in terms of the ideal environment for artworks, even funny things like the positioning of sockets and lighting that could age the installation. A lot of our installations are totally immersive, if you could be there at the beginning, the potential is huge. So, there are two tandem ways we’d like to go really.

TAS: We also want to help the artist to be even more inventive. We don’t want the new restrictions to feel like restrictions at all, we want them to feel like exciting challenges. As part of Aimee Mullins’ artwork, there is sense attached to it, there is a mix of materials being used and the idea you are being transported from the clinical space. I like the idea that we will be able to work a lot more in video. It could be performance works, smell and sound, all those things that are difficult to do in mental health units, but it’d be nice to find ways we can inventively do that. We are planning to do a project that will be taking place in 136 suites, tribunal rooms and spaces you would never think of having artwork in and how can we work around that.

NW: We’ve developed lovely relationships in the units, and it would be lovely to think we can maintain those and continue the collaborations that are flourishing in different ways. It’s exciting! 

Interview by:



Interview: Niamh White and Tim A Shaw on Hospital Rooms

05 October 2016
Curator Niamh White and artist Tim A Shaw, co-founders of Hospital Rooms, discuss their work in furnishing hospitals with high quality art.

Interview: Aimee Mullins on Hospital Rooms

25 April 2018
Artist Aimee Mullins discusses using her personal experience in hospitals to transform the Eileen Skellern 1 mental health ward.

Interview: Tim A Shaw on Hospital Rooms

25 April 2018
Artist and co-founder of Hospital Rooms Tim A Shaw talks about the influence of the project on his work and collaborative practice.
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