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Panacea: Neil Bromwich, Zoë Walker, Michael Pinsky

26 July 2005 - 10 September 2005

Panacea: (n) A solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases. – origin Greek panakeia.

Can artists provoke change in society? Can art objects become tools to improve our lives? Panacea: the art of wellbeing is an evolving, expandable and travelling artwork, designed to function as a universal formula to cure social, economic and political problems.

At the core of this experiment is the Panacea Model, a maquette of an idealised health paradise, constructed by all three artists and made from medical packaging and refuse. Representing a ‘global panacea’, the Panacea Model offers both generic and specific solutions to health and lifestyle problems.

Numerous other artworks, evolved from this maquette, populate the gallery, extending the curing powers of the Panacea. These include Friendly Frontier, by Zoë Walker and Neil Bromwich, an 11-metre long, hand-sewn, inflatable mountain range, with emergency slides to bridge international borderlines. The work acts as a buoyancy aid for countries in conflict, an open border for all peoples of the world to slide with ease between nation states.

Life Pulse, by Michael Pinsky, is a pole-like sculpture that registers and illuminates visitors’ heartbeats, creating ever-changing rhythms and patterns of light. The work mimics the relationship between patient and institution, allowing visitors to compare their health and wellbeing on arrival and departure, before and after experiencing Panacea.

Striking a fine balance between naive optimism and irony, the artists have created a thought-provoking, yet humorous, comment on society’s increasing demands upon the artist as ‘social reformer, economic revitaliser and catalyst for all things good’.

The artwork has been trialled at the Centre de Création Contemporain, Tours, France, and will travel to Le Parvis, Ibos, France at the beginning of 2006, before pausing at Cornerhouse, Manchester.

More information about the artists can be found on their websites:

Artist interview

ZW: Zoe Walker
NB: Neil Bromwich
MP: Michael Pinsky
BB: Dr Bernadette Buckley, John Hansard Gallery

BB Hello and I would like to welcome our three exhibiting artists to the John Hansard Gallery today - Michael Pinsky, Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich. Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview for the John Hansard Gallery, for which we will share copyright.

I’d like to start by just asking you three to tell me something about how this project came to be. How did it start?

NB Panacea came to be through the fact that the three of us met while working on an urban regeneration project in Bristol – at a Health Park there called Knowle West. We were coming up, individually, with ideas for improving environment through our own art practice I suppose. We kind of felt that this in many ways, is a politically-led initiative – through funding and the way that funding threads are being led through the arts council and one thing and another. But genuinely, we set out as artists, to do things which do make a difference to society. I think we were kind of – ironically in some ways, but naively optimistic in other ways – wanting to improve what we were delivering as artists, what we were doing as artists and to improve a situation. So we kind of tried to create this idea of ‘panacea’, this sort of cure-all for society’s ills, through the artist. This I suppose is a very old idea – the idea of an artist/shaman which links into say, the ideas of an artist like Joseph Beuys. We wanted to see whether or not artists can make a different through their practices, to society. So the three of us got together and decided to link a number of our projects together in one piece of work which was a model of an idealised Health Park – a place where health and well-being would be…well ‘king’ I suppose…would reign…and art would be the channel for this regeneration, growth and well-being. So we brought together a number of our projects onto this model, this maquette of a Panacea Health Park. Some of the project had been realised, but the majority of it hadn’t and we set out to raise funds to actually realise all of these projects and develop new projects through a series of exhibitions. So it’s kind of an on-going developing strategy for constructing a critical platform for making new work – for feeding back and constructing work as artists.

BB Would you like to perhaps tell me something about the individual elements in this exhibition as it currently is in the John Hansard Gallery? Perhaps we could just go through them one by one first. Zoe, would you like to start?

ZW Yes. I suppose I should start with the Panacea model – which is a crated model that the three of us worked on together. It’s made out of medical waste or product, refuse. So there are for example these pipettes (it’s actually here behind us as I speak) – pipettes cut up into trees, test-tube tops etc. It’s a Health Park because as Neil said, we were working in this Health Park, but on the park are the actual artworks that we were either making there or on other locations. So there are miniature versions of the artworks in the exhibition, on the model here. So that’s a kind of anchor-point in a way, for the rest of the exhibition. The idea of the crate is that it could land in any location and act as a sort of blueprint in a way, for how to solve your social problems – to kind of think about changing situations through these solutions. So beyond this are the larger artworks – that again are like prototypes in a way – a lot of these larger artworks can operate either within the gallery or outside. And one of them is a piece of work that Neil and I made collaboratively, which is called Friendly Frontier. It’s an idea for a friendly border crossing. It’s a symbolic border-crossing solution in a way. It’s a playful way of travelling from one country into another. So it’s a mountain range with slides that run down both sides, so you could slide with ease into another country…([laughs]

BB An emergency chute?

ZW An emergency chute, exactly. So at the moment, it’s in the gallery space. You can’t actually slide over it, but it’s a kind of symbol for thinking about open borders. It’s just opening up questions really – thinking about political situations in quite a naïve way. So I guess, in the way you might tell a joke or something, it opens up possibilities – or allows people to relax and think about a situation, in a way. Moving on here…

BB Can I just ask you a question about that before you move on? It is literally lightweight isn’t it? It’s a lightweight solution. It can be deflated, packed up and, as you say, flown into any crisis situation. Now there’s a lot of humour in this, but its transformative potential is still signalled. So can you say something about this interaction that you manage to hit on – between a very gentle irony and a sort of idealism at the same time.

ZW Well you’re right – that’s implicit in the work, in the aesthetic of the work. It has a sort of optimism…it’s childlike. And I think, for me, this is what enables people to engage with the work on quite an emotional level perhaps – and then beyond that, to start to think about what those ideas mean in a larger scale – for example, how they have a political impact. So they are kind of disarmed by the playfulness of the object and then beyond that, they can start to think about what the ideas actually mean. I don’t know if that answers the question!

BB Absolutely it does. What’s interesting is that it has this ethical – it’s a very light ethical – drive. But at the same time, it is done in what seems to me, to be a very delicate, light-handed way. So these two play off against each other all the time. It’s not fatuousness. For me, it’s a very interesting balance or tension that you’ve between these two different tones. And this is something that is carried through into Life Pulse also I would say Michael.

MP Yes, I think humour is a really dominant strategy in this work. Because actually it’s quite a kind of serious body of work, in terms of our ideas. But we attract people into this show through humour. And in a sense, these are all kind of games – games as well as artworks, as well as tools. So they’re working on a number of different levels simultaneously. I think we all share the idea that this is what makes a successful piece of work: that is, you can come in and enjoy it at quite a superficial level, but then it has some resonances that go really quite deep into the fabric of different ways of thinking about changing society. And in a way, the physical make-up of the show is similar to that – in the way that the maquette is a microcosm which allows us to play with ideas. Especially since we all work on quite major projects that can be quite cumbersome to realise and so this allows us to work together and discuss ideas and push ideas very fluidly and turn ideas down. Things can not work out and certainly when we were building this model, there were a few buildings which appeared, which then got shouted out of this model. But that’s great, because that failure was contained within the model and that became part of our dialogue. And then likewise, the idea of the gallery being less of a gallery and more of a showroom – it’s a showroom for these prototypes. People come in and they look at them and they say ‘Yeah we’ll have one Friendly Frontier, one Life Pulse and we’ll install them permanently somewhere else. That’s the kind of second layer of the overall project. And then the third layer is the realised pieces in the public realm. There are certain pieces – Celestial Radio for example – that have materialised in the real world. And Life Pulse will materialise in the real world.

So there’s a kind of expansiveness about the project that’s not limited to the gallery walls. It’s really a nomadic set of ideas that move around attracting attention – and with the potential of leaving these seeds that then grow everywhere where we’ve left a project. I suppose with Life Pulse, and in this particular case, it is actually outside the gallery - I think it’s quite amusing that it was too big to get into the gallery. And also Friendly Frontier – the big version – can’t get into the gallery either. And it’s almost like this show is so expansive that it’s really struggling to fit into a building. It’s just pressing at the walls and desperate to get out there. It’s desperate to get out there and talk to people. Even if we’re trying to keep it in a gallery, we just can’t actually physically manage it.

But in terms of Life Pulse - and in this particular show, the fact that it is actually placed as you come in is particularly pertinent – because the idea of the work is that, as you’re coming into the show, you measure your pulse rate. And this is very similar to the moment that you see a doctor and you offer up your arm to their authority and they read your pulse and often don’t tell you what the pulse is. They often just go “Mmm aha” and from then on, you just sit around like a lump of flesh, waiting for them to tell you what’s wrong with you. And you move from a very active state (where you’re walking along the street) to a very passive state (where I’m just going to lie here; I’m no longer a human being; I’m just a body that’s getting looked at.

So with this, you illuminate the area with your pulse. So in fact it’s has a very ‘monumental’ effect on the area – something that’s very very subtle in terms of people’s perception. And then you go around the show and then you can measure it when you leave because it memorises your pulse – you can check it against another column. And if your pulse is lowered, then possibly this panacea’s been effective.

So it’s a way of checking you in and out of the show. And this is something we want to push later on. We’re involving doctors with the show and they’re going to be making tests as you come in and go out and we’re going to be evaluating those tests – so we’re going to have a very empirical, rational way of assessing the quality of the work. And this also goes back to this New Labour, new Arts Council idea of ‘yes, we can make art change the world, and yes we can evaluate how successful that’s going to be’. Well possibly that’s true, and we’ve taken a not black and white position about this, that as Neil says, is slightly ironic, but also a slightly naively optimistic position – that yes it’d be nice but we don’t necessarily believe it. And I think that this is really quite a ‘postmodernist’ way of thinking. That is we’re taking certain ideas of Modernism, certain ideas of social thought – like Joseph Beuys’ ‘capital equals kunst’ idea that art really can change the world – but we’re also aware enough to know that it’s doomed to failure to a large extent and that our work can only do so much without everything else to support it.

BB One gets the impression here, in hearing you speak, that what is under surveillance here, is not just society, but also the way in which we measure society, the way in which we measure art (and by measure I mean evaluate ), these ways are built into social, cultural political systems, and ensure that the effect of any project will always be immanent – you know that there will always be an outcome and that that outcome will be measurable and that it will quantifiable. And in the way that you’re working with scientists and in the way that you’re reflecting also on how art works within society, it seems to me that you’re also interrogating these systems of empirical assessment, if empirical they are. Is that fair to say?

NB Yes. That’s the aim on a very real level. By involving the kind of rigour of something like medical drugs testing (which we’re actually wanting to involve in the assessment of these artworks) and the feedback that we get from that, we are hoping to get some kind of real results as to what effect this has had on the viewers, the audience within the context of seeing the work and within the time that people are within the gallery space. And that should feed back into the way that we develop our own work.

BB So it’s a very kind of self-reflexive process, this whole thing. You’re measuring systems of measurement and you’re also doing this through an artwork, which you say can’t be contained, which is bursting to get out of its containers, which is evolving and can’t be held in a single position. You’re attempting to do the undoable really aren’t you?

NB Well yeah absolutely, and hopefully everything will come undone at the same time. [All laugh.] Once you start applying a medical rigour to an artwork, you realise that perhaps it is immeasurable but also it then opens up and questions the act of medical rigour: how much of a performance that is within itself; how much of an artwork it is to be a doctor doing a medical test and how much that effects the actual audience / patient who’s sitting there having their pulse rate tested and trying to find some measure of well-being. And how that in itself is a subjective thing rather than an objective thing. So hopefully we’re going to create some chaos along the way.

BB I think what’s very interesting also here, is the use of the home-made. We use this term derogatively, most of the time – for example, ‘homespun philosophy’, ‘homemade blah’ whatever. You’re employing the homemade almost directly as a strategy with which to interrogate these great, very powerful systems of science and of sponsorship. Can you tell me how that works?

ZW I think the thing about the homemade has always been important particularly in our work [signals to Neil] and obviously in yours too [to Michael]. But there’s a sense of empowerment – you know, that you can do something yourself – and particularly with Friendly Frontier. For example we have these patterns, and so people can actually make their own frontier and so it’s a kind of dissolving power or handing over power and saying ‘you can do this yourself – you can have an effect’. So I guess that’s how that works within the show and within the project on a larger scale. And working with scientists and feeding the information back into the project in a way will have the same effect.

BB Just tell me a little bit about how you view, this terrible phrase ‘the public realm’, the public sphere. You’re all employed in some respects to carry out commissions in specific places for specific projects – sometimes sponsored by Arts Council, sometimes with NHS money. You’re working in a ‘postmodern’ public sphere – one that we no longer idealise. Tell me something about this relationship that you have to the space in which you work – both intellectually and physically.

MP Well it’s interesting that we all met together on a project in Bristol where we were all producing work in the public realm. In fact this whole project came out of the dissatisfaction with our relationship between our work and the public realm. There’s a set of aspirations around making work and around our previous work. In terms of the commissioners – they like the work that we’ve done and then they say, ‘well let’s bring it to this new context’ and obviously we do respond to the contexts we working in but at the same time, these are often very hostile environments, extremely antagonistic towards any form of art or any form of improvement to the area.

And this project is, in a way, us trying to manoeuvre things back more on our own terms. We have time and finances to think more speculatively and to make work that has an appeal beyond the specific locale of these ‘urban regeneration’ areas. And so it’s reaching a big audience beyond Britain at quite an international level and that’s important to us. I think the problem that we’ve had before, is that we make pieces of work that go into locations where a lot of the people who are around it don’t want that sort of work. And other people don’t ever see it. So I think they are major, major problems with this sort of commissioning. And it’s not just in terms of our work. It’s actually in terms of lots of things like urban improvements, home zones and streets where people don’t actually want traffic calming and trees put in.

So we don’t know the answers to these things, but we’re certainly raising a lot of questions and still thinking about it ourselves. Certainly when you look internationally, and Neil and Zoe have just done a project in France, the reception of work that is happening in the public realm is much more integrated than it is in Britain. Art is commissioned in areas that are already ‘healthy’. So they add to the health of the area. They can form the health of the area. In Britain often, we’re working in places that are very ill. They’re ill socially, they’re ill in terms of actual physical health and, whether we can turn that situation around with a small artwork is something I think we’re all questioning. We’d like to, but I’m not sure if we can.

BB It’s interesting because in this country, we almost are in the situation of having a separate entity called ‘Public Art’ – which doesn’t really exist in the artworld.

How do you see your work existing in relation to this aberration called ‘public art’?

NB I don’t know actually. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as a public artist. And certainly, the work that I’ve done, and that Zoe and I have done as a collaborative team together, have not had any permanence. But they have gone out into the public realm – this thing that we’re talking about. Celestial Radio, a boat project that we did last year is a case in point. We broadcasted a radio station from a small yacht which was moored off the Essex coast and which was covered in 50,000 mirror tiles. It reflected the sun’s light in a kind of ‘morse code’ way, as well as reflecting voices of scientists and local people being interviewed about the area and all this was mixed in with music. I wouldn’t consider this to be typical of a ‘public art’ project. It was something that was very temporary and ephemeral that happened for 28 days and then disappeared in the same way that it came – back into the sea, kind of thing. So I think they’re something that lives on more as a memory, or an event that happened. I think the traditional idea of ‘public art’ in that sense, doesn’t hold true. My thoughts, when you say ‘public art’ are of these monumental sculptures or shapes, fixed in the middle of roundabouts. They’re there for eternity to celebrate the greatness and the goodness of some ideological thought. That’s not what we’re about at all.

ZW I think it’s just that there’s a different set of challenges – working in the public realm, to working in a white cube gallery space. I think that in the way that the three of us work, we can slip easily between those things and it’s just taking on board what the environment is and making what’s appropriate to that environment. I suppose I think that we’re all quite responsive in a way to the location that we’re in and to the environment that we’re in. And so in some ways, or for me anyway, if that’s a public space or a gallery space, it’s not so different in some ways. It’s just responding to what your audience is going to be and how the work is going to affect them within that location. I think there’s a lot of really interesting work that really is made in the public realm because you’re responding to a very different set of criteria.

BB So you don’t view it as a two-tier system at all?

ZW No, it definitely is a two-tier system. In Britain, the two processes are seen as very different and the two spaces are completely separated within the artworld. There’s not an easy interface between them and I think that in some ways, that’s what we’re doing here. We’re kind of crossing over that space between the two.

BB I was just going to say in closing then – the panacea – have you cracked it?

ZW Have we cracked it?

MP We’ve not even started. It’s a long journey.

ZW Hopefully we will. [Laughs]

BB Thank you very much. Thank you to Michael Pinsky, to Zoe Walker and to Neil Bromwich working in collaboration. Thank you for taking part in the Hansard Interview.

The artists would like to thank the following organisations for their invaluable support in developing Panacea:

Arts Council England, Arts Council England/South West, Arts Council England/South East, Arts Council England/London, Arts Council England/North East, Commissions East, Action Acton, ACAVA, Bristol City Council, The Art of Wellbeing, Bristol South and West Primary Care Trust, National Health Service, Knowle West Media Centre, Watershed Media Centre, Ville d’Orléans, Archilab, FRAC Centre Orléans, University of East London, Edinburgh College of Art, Centre de Création Contemporaine, Brent Measurement Technology Ltd, Queens Hall, Kielder Partnership, Northumbria Water, Forestry Commission, English Heritage, Berwick Gymnasium Residency, Essex County Council, Commissions East, Firstsite, Future Physical and Claude Lefebvre Street Lighting.

Neil Bromwich and Zoë Walker, 'Friendly Frontier', 2005. Image © John Hansard Gallery