The search for concepts I feel comfortable with to describe arts, culture, health and wellbeing has been a long one. Theories and concepts have been described as a lens to see the world or a framework to scaffold the thesis. For me it has felt more like trying on many coats. It is not just the case of finding one that can help me get the job done, though it is helping me to progress my research. There are projects and services where I know there is a health and wellbeing impact but previously I didn’t have the lens to discern the mechanisms that ‘created’ health and wellbeing. It’s also a process of finding a lens that melds with the values I have and how I see the world; that I can be comfortable in and reflects how I want to encounter the world. The current coat is a quite new, it’s a little stiff, not yet snug. I’m not quite used to it and its possibilities. But, with time and some reflective journeys, I hope I can break it in make it my own.
One form of reflective journey is the navigation through my volunteer experiences. I’m re-reading my submission on what the exhibition I volunteer for means to me as part of our annual review exercise. I’m frustrated as I’ve written so many words, too many, and they don’t get to the heart of what it means to me to be part of the exhibition. Hoping the next sentence, might be the one to get close, I’m using language that turns up in commonly used scales of wellbeing. Feeling useful, interested in other people and so on. The words say something about the wellbeing impact, but the language flattens my experience, lessening the uniqueness, I could say the same for having my dogs in my life or my other volunteering. The language doesn’t convey the texture of the experience, how it shifts in response to my personal context and to describe the shape that the exhibition is currently in.
I realise that I myself am in the territory of the concepts that underpin my PhD, in the affective realm. Affects can be feelings or emotions or even harder to describe – affects can be vague, can precede conscious thought, can be intensities, energies, flashes, sensations (Stewart, 2007, Andrews, Chen and Myers, 2014). These arise through the many encounters with the diversity of relationships that emerge from the exhibition, from the zoom meetings and being in the exhibition space to seeing the posters around the city and the exhibits. The sensations of joy, excitement and emotional warmth that animate these relationships, giving my connection with the exhibition a potency that can be described as affinities (Mason, 2017). All these moments, encounters, affects, affinities, tangle into shifting configurations of feeling and meaning regarding the exhibition. I am in fact giving an account of atmosphere, which by their constant movements are elusive and ephemeral (Sumartojo and Pink, 2018). This explains why I found the annual exercise difficult!
This way of thinking, helps me think through what the exhibition is, and why it is so meaningful to me. It also leads me to think of the exhibition as an assemblage. As it is more than its component parts of people, exhibits, organisations, events, buildings, walls. It is a constellation of the relationships between these components, giving room to the non-human as well as the human. This focus on the relational, highlights one of the key ways the exhibition becomes rich in meaning. From the values that inform our interactions with others and objects, the care that is taken with each exhibitor throughout the year from initial inquiry to pick up of exhibit, to the way decisions are made in planning meetings. This contributes to the emergence of atmospheres, which enable people to enter other worlds (Duff, 2016). Academic research – where health is seen as an assemblage – finds a range of atmospheres that help in the process of becoming well. Some of these resonate with my experience and with the conversations I’ve had with others who have encountered the exhibition. It is a non-physical place that is ‘rich in the atmospherics of sociality…animated by forces of connection, interaction, expression, solicitation and concern in a kind of gathering of social affects’ (Duff, 2016, p.67). It can create atmospheres of safety and belonging. This has been a theme in both the exhibits and in the replies to this exercise. An atmosphere of safety, makes it easier for people to take off the masks they present to the rest of the world and relate to the exhibition in a way that is more themselves, whether it is the exhibits they create or who they are with other people. This sharing of themselves and their experience can create feelings such as mattering, being seen, can then be used to construct atmospheres of belonging, which in turn create wellbeing.
Seeing the exhibition as a constellation rich in relationships provides a way of describing why the accounts of what the exhibition means to people are so diverse and why some are deeply personal. People relate to different parts of the constellation and reassemble the relationships that they connect to into their own constellations of health and wellbeing. Some meanings are fleeting, where it is another exhibition and have a temporary effect on health and wellbeing. Some meanings become part of identities, built up from multiple encounters over time, becoming a steady source of health creation. In this way, how the exhibition becomes a health resource or asset can be seen. History can be accounted for when talking about the process of health and wellbeing. Futures can also be accounted for in this way of thinking. The exhibition is place of potential encounters which could create health and wellbeing and, where people have the potential to become someone or something else. I have become less lonely, less isolated, less of a shadow and a PhD candidate due to the exhibition.
The exhibition is a collective, through community and voice, individuals and exhibits. Using constellation thinking – atmospheres, and affects, which is like putting on my conceptual coat, a fuller account of the collective can be given – its different meanings, how it is formed and what a collective does. This highlights what constellation thinking can do, that it shifts the focus of health and wellbeing from the individual, who is usually seen as being in deficit in terms of health and wellbeing qualities (Atkinson, 2013). This shift provides more space for the encounters and relationship with the social, affective, spatial, material resources and environments that affect health and wellbeing (Atkinson, 2013, Duff, 2014). Viewing things with this conceptual coat conceives of health positively and situates health and wellbeing creation within the experience of everyday life. The need to shift focus to everyday experience, to relational and collective changes, is highlighted in the Arts and Humanities Research Council Cultural Value project report, as being needed when the value of arts and culture to individuals and society is discussed and researched (Crossick and Kaszynska, 2016). Particularly as ‘methodologies for evaluation that are limited to the individual can in many cases, as we have seen, be no more than partial’ (2016, p.153). The report finds that one of the most significant ways in which arts and cultural activity and engagement bring value is through creating the conditions of change. The report identifies a range of spillover effects that my reflections here have also identified. With this conceptual coat, I am starting to find my approach to understanding how these effects occur and, I aim to use these new insights to inform evaluations that focus on the relational and collective as well as the individual. The next few months of fieldwork will be a test of how much I can make this coat my own.
Andrews, G. J., Chen, S. and Myers, S. (2014) The ‘taking place’ of health and wellbeing: Towards non-representational theory. Social Science & Medicine. Vol.108, pp.210–222.
Atkinson, S. (2013) Beyond Components of Wellbeing: The Effects of Relational and Situated Assemblage. Topoi. Vol.32 (2), pp.137–144.
Crossick, G. and Kaszynska, P. (2016) Understanding the value of arts & culture | The AHRC Cultural Value Project. Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Duff, C. (2014) Conclusion: A Line of Becoming Well. In: Duff, C. (ed.). Assemblages of Health: Deleuze’s Empiricism and the Ethology of Life. [Online]. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, pp.185–203. Available: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-8893-9_7 [Accessed 24 Sep 2020].
Duff, C. (2016) Atmospheres of recovery: Assemblages of health. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space. Vol.48 (1), pp.58–74.
Mason, J. (2017) Affinities: Potent Connections in Personal Life. 1st edition. Malden, MA: Polity.
Stewart, K. (2007) Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sumartojo, S. and Pink, S. (2018) Atmospheres and the Experiential World: Theory and Methods. 1st edition. London New York, NY: Routledge.