The second two impressions from Beyond the Toolkit I want to pair are joined by a medical theme. The two presenters were Monika Auch and Betsan Corkhill and they both had backgrounds in medical care.
Monika Auch studied medicine and practised as an M.D. before studying textile design and silkscreen printing at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, and has worked since 2001 as a visual artist. Her fibre sculptures, books and wall hangings visualize the tension between visual and tactile experience, i.e. look and touch. Her weavings surprised Auch by looking like embryologic growth processes which was very Freudian! Drawing on her medical experience and her current work as a visual artist, Auch explores the importance of tactility, dexterity and material based making in our contemporary culture that is influenced by digital tools. She became interested in the brain and in process based participatory work. Her current artistic project ‘Stitch_Your_Brain’ focuses on the intelligent power of the hand and is an exploration and reflection on the themes of hand-brain cooperation and creativity. Developed in collaboration with the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience in Amsterdam, it invites us to think outside the box by connecting cross-disciplinary exchanges between art and science. She developed needlework kits based around a printed basic brain shape, asking people to fill it in with their own yarns, beads, colours etc. and send a photograph or scan back to her, where it is analysed and published on the STITCH_YOUR_BRAIN website. You can find out more by following the link.
A few days before the seminar event I’d read an article about neuron mapping in brains, and Auch’s weaving works struck me as looking not so much like embryology as like neural imagery of brains. Which is perhaps Freudian again.
The counterpoint to this presentation for me was Betsan Corkhill’s. She was a senior physical therapist who became frustrated at the system in which she worked which didn’t allow her to give her patients, especially those with long term medical conditions, the time and treatment they needed. While working as an editor on craft magazines and managing the letters sections, she noticed that about 98% of these talked about the therapeutic benefits of craft but in particular knitting. She wondered whether knitting could be used as an activity which could act as a springboard to other activities – to motivate those people she saw on her community rounds, out of their armchairs at home and to bring them back into the world. She has been looking at the therapeutic value of craft, and of knitting in particular, for people with long term conditions – ranging from people who were agoraphobic being able to enjoy the company of others again, the curing of anxiety and panic attacks, and people who now live with a considerably better quality of life despite long-term pain or mental health issues. In some cases they have used knitting to come off or reduce medication. You can read more about Therapeutic Knitting groups here. Fascinatingly, Corkhill’s research (and meta-research) shows that knitting has specific positive effects on the brain. John Cacioppo posits that loneliness desentitises the nervous system in the same way, and is as destructive as, smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Holmes and Deeprose are doing work on the ability of knitting to counter the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And perhaps most fascinatingly, Ianetti and Moseley are looking at the analgesic benefits of crossing the hands over the midline of the body, activating both sides of the brain (interestingly crochet does not seem to provide the same benefits). I admit to being very wary of brain-based theories since Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender showed that scientists could get active brain readings from a dead trout, despite all the hype in the media about the differences between men’s and women’s brains. While left-brain/right-brain arguments are being used to justify dodgy arguments (usually ones that are used to justify sexism or other forms of inequality), or exist mainly to create buzzfeed quizzes, I reserve judgment. But perhaps we will refine our ideas as the technology is refined (as Fine suggested, in fact). And Corkhill’s research is compelling. She says,
We have been collecting narratives since 2005 and continue to do so from knitters, stitchers and crocheters around the world. The stories we’ve collected so far have been themed and have been invaluable in helping us form a number of theories, which are now ready to be tested in a range of projects. We are continuing to collect these and they are being analysed in detail.
The big question has been how to tease apart – or independently test – the various mechanisms that might be involved. Indeed, they are all so closely intertwined and interactive that perhaps we shouldn’t be attempting to unravel the complexities as this might change the very nature of what is occurring.
It’s clear that what is happening is highly complex resulting from a combination of the effects of the movements and the psychological and social benefits which will vary with each individual’s specific makeup and needs.
Both of these projects for me are joined by the intention to find a link between art (or craft) and science, in order to “prove” the benefits of craft. This is almost the holy grail for the arts – to find data, quantitative evidence, for their positive effects.
There is possibly a double edged sword in this, given that – as Clive Parkinson said in his keynote speech – we all sort-of know craft is good for you, but haven’t been able to “prove” this in ways decision-makers accept. Betsan’s work looks as if it might provide exactly this proof – but it’s both because the research was funded and because the ability to track the findings has improved (like the improvements in brain imaging I wrote of). I feel there is a danger that once again only the data will carry weight, and those things that may well be true but not provable under current levels of knowledge or imaging will be disregarded. I often think of people in Tudor times with their pomanders – they knew that where there was a bad smell there was often the chance of sickness – and though germ theory was not developed for another couple of hundred years, they were right about avoiding bad smells – so the knowledge was in the right area, just not exact. And I also think of the Thames being left to become an open sewer, with those in power knowing full well (having the proof I write of) how dangerous and problematic this was for everyone (but especially the poor) in London – but nothing being done about it till the Big Stink of 1858 shut down Parliament. After that, laws protecting the Thames from effluent seemed to be passed with much more haste, even though the science was still mistaken. In other words, until those in power are directly affected, it seems difficult to get any movement (see previous post on No Needlework In Parliament). Perhaps another symposium will touch on this (and I’m aware that I didn’t attend Sarah Corbett’s session, so if you did and you have something to add, please comment!)
I’ve never mastered knitting but I’m off out for some yarn now. It’s for my own good…