Last weekend, a group of mental health professionals took part in a study as part of the art science collaboration Walking Here and There. It’s a joint effort between myself and artist Simon Pope, and like earlier stages of the project, it questions how we use art and science to construct meaning out of memory, location and psychosis.
But the experiment was also designed to give the participants an experience common to psychiatric inpatients: feeling disoriented, having their experience of the hospital affected by their memories of being outside, and being experimented on.
The experiment was designed, reviewed and ethically approved, with the scientific aim of looking at how walking is affected by recall via differences in hemispheric activation.
Participants were asked to walk a route around Ruskin Park, a tranquil green area near to the Maudsley Hospital which inpatients often visit on breaks from the ward. Later, while blindfolded and earplugged, participants were asked to recall aloud their stroll around the park while attempting to keep to a midline in a basement corridor of the hospital.
A similar approach has found that people with higher levels of schizotypy (subclinical psychosis-like experiences) and people given the dopamine boosting drug L-DOPA, are more likely to veer to the left on this task, reflecting increased right hemisphere activation.
Recall is known to preferentially activate the right hemisphere, so we might expect greater left veering during the task.
However, the study was located both to communicate some of the subjective experience of psychiatric inpatients to Maudsley staff, and also as a commentary on mental health care, as patients often find their time in the park more therapeutic than the disorienting environment of the hospital.
By doing this, we’re also attempting to question whether experiments can be meaningful beyond their data.
Occasionally, the sheer existence of a study has profound implications for society. Experiments such as Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment or Milgram’s conformity experiment were landmarks in reforming the ethics of participation owing to the subjective experience of the participants and their attempt to study the extremes of human behaviour.
With the increased ethical scrutiny into research, perhaps experiments are now only valued for their data, and participants only for their behaviour.
An earlier phase of the project, Gallery Space Recall, was a gallery exhibition without any objects. Visitors, largely artists and art curators, were asked to recall, while walking through the gallery, their experience of an earlier exhibition.
And while the walking experiment was designed to comment on mental health care, one of the main themes for Simon was that Gallery Space Recall critiqued the art world and its obsession with saleable objects and the prestige of gallery spaces.
But in terms of the experience, the gallery visitors were asked to value their subjective experience as a key component in the piece, rather than relying on any objective aspects of an artwork.
In the walking experiment, we attempted to do something similar, but rather than attempting to highlight the role of subjective experience in art, we focused on the subjective aspects of science.
We’re debating what to do with the experimental data, and we think we might bury it – to create an exhibition without objects and an experiment without data.
Link to Walking Here and There.