CRIS Blog: Art and Value at Bethlem Gallery: an art-science collaboration with Sarah Carpenter and CRIS

Sarah Carpenter is an artist and designer with a background in dance choreography and theatre directing. She produces mixed media and some of her recent projects include a commission inspired by the British Museum and work exhibited at Saatchi Gallery.

My inspiration comes from my own experience of mental illness, specifically eating disorders, anxiety and depression. My methodology reflects how I process information — reimagining objects, exploring all possibilities and making something new. Breaking things down, seeing them form a different perspective and in different contexts helps me relate to and understand them better. Twisting concepts and challenging how we view the world; I deal with difficult emotions and ugly topics by attempting to unveil beauty. I liken my process to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) — deconstructing, reconstructing and recycling ideas.

Earlier in 2019, I was excited to be invited by Michaela Ross, the curator at Bethlem Gallery, to work on a project focusing on systems of measure, specifically around the questions “What do we measure and why?” and “What does art help us to value?”. I was pointed in the direction of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) and encouraged to look into any areas of interest, which is how I first came across CRIS.

Having resisted taking any medication for years, around the start of this project I began taking SSRIs. Since starting the medication, I started to realise how my diet, eating disorders, depression, IBS, diverticular and endometriosis symptoms all became more manageable. Through my personal research into the effects of medication, I realised that one factor that may have been affected was my serotonin levels. All those times being referred back-and-forth between different professionals and feeling upset and frustrated, I wondered why nobody was seeing these connections when the information was all there. I assumed that a system like CRIS was widespread and would connect all of these dots. I was surprised to find that this was not the case and excited about how things could progress in the future with the expansion of such resources.

The work with CRIS sparked my interest in the interface between physical and mental health symptoms – which comes first and how are they connected? Could CRIS lead to a new connected way of thinking giving mental health as much importance as physical health? I worked with Dr Brendon Stubbs to address some of this questions and was also interested in Dr Anna Kolliakou’s work on mental health-related misinformation and stigma on social media. I thought it would be really interesting to use some kind of algorithm to extract data from CRIS and present it as art – taking something random, making connections with it, and using data to produce imagery in different ways. I’ve had an ongoing fascination with the battle between written language and visual grammar and I wondered: in today’s world of visual stimulation and sensory overload, how do we decipher what information might be of value to us?

There seemed to be a natural crossover as both an artist and designer. Having watched Professor Rob Stewart’s video on the challenges and opportunities in healthcare data, I felt secure and comforted by the ethics of the project from a service user’s perspective and confident that they would be great to work with.

I felt extremely lucky to finally be able to gain answers to questions that I have had as a service user. I was being given a voice and making the invisible, visible. I was determined to use the experience as a learning opportunity, letting the research take priority and not being led by my preconceptions. Instead of looking at existing problems, I chose to focus on what changes could really occur.

The work can be broken down into three sections:

Machine collages – We are machines but we do not have the same approach to self-care as a car, when it comes to fuel maintenance, mileage and servicing.

Wooden pieces – Images vs words in communication and language. How do we use information? When do we make room for different perspectives and interpretations?

Neuroplasticity – Who has the responsibility for educating the wider population in our ability to change our brain pathways?

I hope the work opens up dialogues around digital technology vs analogue; the links between art, design and mathematics; the pros and cons of different typologies and categories in terms of making information easier to digest; the role of perspective; and the need to think about possibilities and solutions, rather than just problems.

The best part of the collaboration was the opportunity to learn through making art and to do specific research in an area that I am passionate about and invested in. The potential to find a new form of outreach for both the work of CRIS and my voice as an artist was really exciting. In fact, the project opened up so much scope and brought up a really wide range of ideas. As always, time was a great challenge and the main constraint we faced. That, and the issue of data protection. I didn’t manage to get clearance to look at any data (including my own!) and never seeing the algorithms made it more difficult to understand. However, I am definitely grateful from a service user perspective that there are all of these checks and security in place when it comes to handling my sensitive data!

Although I had little knowledge of CRIS to begin with, I was surprised to find that this type of resource is not as widespread as I think it should be! I can see its real capacity to link data about the mind and body, breaking down stigma and shining light on how mental healthcare should fall in line with physical healthcare.

In the near future, I would like to document my experience with the help of Michaela Ross and continue my collaboration with Bethlem Gallery. I am hoping to expand the work with Rob, Anna and the CRIS team in the future - we have some ideas in the pipeline for King’s Festival 2020!

Finally, having just started cold-water sea swimming, I hope to start making some work about its benefits and keep the dialogue with Dr Brendon Stubbs open. Overall, I felt this was one of the most important projects for me in my career to date. I was working at the right place with the right people at the right time and I am now eager to do more of this type of work. In the words of Mike Snelle, one half of the contemporary art duo the Connor Brothers, “I try not to think in terms of success or failure, more so, it’s about what’s interesting”.

The 'Art & Value' exhibition at Bethlem Gallery is running until 31 August. The Gallery is open 10am-5pm, Wednesday-Friday, as well as the first and last Saturdays of the month.

You can see Sarah’s work at and can follow her on Twitter and Instagram

Tags: CRIS blog - Public engagement -

By NIHR Maudsley BRC at 11 Jul 2019, 15:00 PM

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