A conversation with Glasgow School of Art placement student Chiara van den Hoven
Continuing our collaboration with Glasgow School of Art, final year Sculpture & Environmental Art student Chiara van den Hoven was selected for Art in Hospital’s 2022 student placement.
Chiara delivered both an in person project and distributed a postal one. Her relaxed and studied use of the technology she was presenting to participants allowed them to freely create numerous digital artworks and play around with different methods of creating images. Chiara brought patients and residents a wide range of tactile objects to work with, adding to the freshness and excitement of the sessions that she led. Her knowledge of her materials and equipment combined with sensitivity towards the people she worked with allowed them to take control and to direct the artworks in their own way.
Janette Murphy with Chiara during scanography workshop, Greenfield Park Care Home (GPCH), 2022
What are the main interests and motivations that drive your studio practice?
At the moment, I’m really interested in technical images and the apparatus that we use to see and make them. I like working with technological materials and processes, but try to focus more on their poetic, abstract and mysterious qualities. Recently, I have been trying to move images from their technical contexts and re-frame them elsewhere, normally in the hopes of drawing out another story or set of alternative relations. I’m curious about what that journey ‘elsewhere’ does to the image, and how it changes the way we read them.
Chiara van den Hoven, Sections, digital scans of ferrofluid and spruce wood, 2022.
Chiara van den Hoven, Ferrofluid Prints, ferrofluid on paper, sunlight exposure prints, 2022
Which media do you work with primarily and how do you feel they relate specifically to the subjects you’re looking at in your work?
I normally work somewhere between digital code, photographic prints and bits and pieces of physical sculpture. I love the idea of being able to make a kind of material mystery, so I’m quite interested in objects that don’t give much away about how they were fabricated. For a while I’ve been using synthetic organza fabric, and I’m particularly interested in the way it makes strange optical distortions when it’s layered. It’s almost like the material is interfering with itself, like a digital glitch but happening with a physical textile. It’s so mysterious, and I think that the difficulty of looking at it for long periods of time suddenly alerts you to the really physical way in which you’re using your eyes to see.
Chiara van den Hoven, Studies for a Fall, printed synthetic organza, 2022
Your work seems to sit happily within digital formats but also has a strong historical sense; are there any figures from the history of art, philosophy or science that have influenced the development of your art practice?
With regards to the scanography project, I was very influenced by Sonia Landy Sheridan and her work at the Generative Systems Lab in Chicago throughout the 1970s. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she set up a department which attempted to address the impact of new technologies on the state and speed of artistic production. She was really intent on exploring our relationship to industrial and administrative technologies, and often appropriated office-based devices like scanners, copiers and fax machines. Although her department was shut down in the early eighties, she seems to have laid some really vital groundwork for how artists approach the internet and more complex technologies now.
Her syllabus also emphasised the productive potential of making mistakes and she embraced the presence of glitches and other kinds of technological accidents in her work. Reading about that aspect of her work allowed me to develop the idea of the scanography workshops as an experimental process, rather than a prescriptive one.
Chiara van den Hoven, Amnesiacs, hand-drawn illustrations of computer memory cores on felt sheets, 2021
Can you describe your piece Studies for a Fall (2022) and talk about how it pulls together ideas of magnetism and the history of levitation?
Studies for a Fall is a set of two images, split across various semi-sheer sheets of organza. One is of a pair of feet, the other is a scan of a hazelnut. It was hung from the ceiling at Govan Project Space in Glasgow (January 2022), as part of a GSA group exhibition.
The work came out of doing some reading about magnetism, specifically the levitation of objects using magnetic coils. I found some images of experiments conducted in the late 1990s which included the magnetic levitation of frogs, drops of water, crickets and hazelnuts. The images of these tests were taken inside the magnetic coil, and they’re both very strange and very beautiful. I was particularly drawn to the image of a floating hazelnut, and I wanted to move it out of its academic context and re-frame it as a visual event as much as a scientific one. The hazelnut is shown next to a pair of feet on tip-toes, as if they’re trying to leave the ground. I included them in order to contextualise the hazelnut, and to also nod towards the cultural history of levitation being a magic act or physical performance. I was really keen to chop these images up and then mix them together in a way that conveyed their interrelation.
The 'fall' in the title refers to the aftermath of levitating - I was wondering about what happened to the hazelnuts after the test ended, and more generally about what happens to subjects off-camera after the image is produced.
Could you also mention the physical glitches within the photographic documentation of these events caused by the magnetic field and how that ties in with your practice?
I was quite interested in how the images of these experiments appear to be a bit damaged and blurred by the conditions of the magnetic field.
Although magnetism is an invisible force, it is made visible to us through its impact on other objects and materials. Its interference with the picture heightens our awareness of its presence, and maybe also emphasises the physical structure of the camera that’s being used to document it. I liked the idea that a subject might interfere with its own documentation - in a way it’s like some sort of ventriloquism, where one force is speaking through another.
Chiara van den Hoven, detail of Studies for a Fall, printed synthetic organza, 2022.
Chiara van den Hoven, Levitations, digitally printed felt and bleach, 2021
What was it that interested you about working with Art in Hospital?
I had never worked in a hospital or care home setting before, so I was really keen to understand a bit more about what that role requires, and how creative arts can fit into those areas. As a fine art student, there’s quite a focus on the formal gallery environment, but I was really curious to see how art making is important in other contexts. Given the current situation with Covid-19, I also wanted to experience how an organisation like Art in Hospital was still managing to facilitate amazing creative opportunities for people in healthcare environments despite the ongoing restrictions.
You developed two projects for Art in Hospital, the first being an in person scanography project and the second a remote/ postal project titled wishes, handkerchiefs, flags. Fortunately, in spite of Covid restrictions, you were able to deliver your scanography project in three healthcare locations and also to distribute your postal project. We’ll discuss wishes, handkerchiefs, flags shortly but could you first talk a little about how you developed your scanography project and the ideas behind it?
To work creatively with patients through the Art in Hospital programme, I proposed to run some workshops on ‘scanography’, a photographic technique that uses a flatbed document scanner to produce images. Scanners are great at capturing intricate detail, colour and surface texture, so I hoped that the workshops would allow participants to explore their surroundings with a new kind of tool. Participants were invited to choose from a selection of small objects or pick things from the room around them to scan, making an indirect portrait of the wards that the workshops were conducted in. It’s quite an experimental way of working: results are often surprising and taking risks is really rewarded. Beautiful scanner compositions often occur by chance, which I hoped might introduce a sense of play and levity to these workshops.
Achilleas Zoto and Chiara during scanography workshop, Neurological Rehabilitation Unit (NRU), Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, 2022
Janette Murphy, Untitled, digital scan, Greenfield Park Care Home (GPCH), 2022
How did you anticipate that the participants would react to the technology that you were presenting them with and how did that play out in reality?
To be honest, I was initially quite apprehensive. I was unsure of whether a digitally-focused project would be appealing to the people attending the sessions, and the scanner is not the most intuitive device - it can be quite hard to get the hang of if you're new to it. I didn’t want people to feel intimidated by it, or that they were doing something wrong.
In reality, although there was always a period of getting to grips with it, most people who participated became really at ease with the amount of technology they were using. Watching somebody’s confidence with the scanner grow as they made work was a great thing to see, and was probably my favourite part of the process!
Was there anything that surprised you or made you reassess the medium of scanography within the participants’ approach to it?
I was always surprised! In one case, a resident at Greenfield Park Care Home used the scanner as a surface to draw on. We covered the glass bed with transparent paper and she drew as the scanner captured images. In the resulting scans, you can see her hands moving across the page behind her drawing in wave-like, glitchy patterns. I had never really considered using the scanner as a way of capturing a drawing process, and I loved the way these images show both the static drawing and her dynamic presence while making it.
Marion McConnell, Untitled, digital scan, 2022 (NRU)
Martha Scott, Untitled, digital scan, 2022 (GPCH)
Receiving and awaiting results from clinical scans can be a traumatic and difficult element of hospital treatment for patients. I feel that your project in a way allowed patients to take control of scanning as a medium, using scans for creativity rather than being directed by them. Was this something that you had considered with the delivery of the project?
Sure, it was definitely on my mind. When I was planning to write a proposal, I noticed that Glasgow University’s ‘Imaging Centre for Excellence’ was just next door to the Neurological Rehabilitation Unit (NRU), on the Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s Campus. The ICE has become one of the leading institutes in the country for research into medical scanning, and the machines it has are incredibly powerful. The scanners there are so technologically impressive, but I thought that I might be quite intimidated to be scanned by them, and I might not understand the kind of images that it was making of my body. As an outsider to the fields of medicine and healthcare, I was curious to see if that kind of experience could be made a bit less foreign. Making scanning available to patients as a familiar or fun process was an attempt to do that, and I also hoped that it might make medical scans a bit more legible as images, and thus less intimidating to receive.
You have looked at medical scanning devices such as MRI scanners within your own practice - did this research help you to formulate your ideas around an art project to be carried out in a clinical setting?
I think so! I’d been interested in the hospital environment for a while, and that project opened up some more ideas about how to read technical images of the body. I had some questions around bodily autonomy and ownership that I was finding difficult to answer- who does a scan of your body belong to? Is it yours, even if you don’t recognise it, or is it the property of your healthcare provider? If it’s both, then how is it shared? That fed into the scanography proposal quite a bit as I wanted to make scans artistic images, not medical ones, in order to see if those difficulties with ownership would be resolved.
Caroline Sincock, Untitled, digital scan, 2022 (NRU)
Nan Eaglesham, Untitled, digital scan, 2022 (New Victoria Hospital)
It was commented by one of the patients in the NRU (Queen Elizabeth University Hospital) that working with your project, handling the objects that you brought, had a positive result on the dexterity of her hands. Had you anticipated that the physical, tactile aspect of your project could have such a therapeutic medical affect? Did this determine your choices of objects that you offered to participants?
I had hoped that the physical process of arranging the objects might be a calming activity, but I didn’t anticipate that it might also have clinical benefits. It was more of a happy accident, but I’m really pleased that the workshop might have had a secondary effect on the people that took part!
I did a little bit of research into manual therapy for hands, and thought about what might be the most appealing to handle and scan for participants with limited mobility. Flowers, soft fabrics, and small things like beads and shells ended up being very popular. Tiny beads and thin petals require some patience and attention to manipulate, so arranging them on the scanner bed was an absorbing activity for some people. A few patients remarked that this was a calming process, which was great to hear!
Chiara van den Hoven's Scanography book, to view a PDF copy of the book please click on the image above.
You have made physical prints and books of the digital scans created by the people you worked with and given the prints to participants and books to each healthcare location. What do you think of the book as a form for presenting artwork that could otherwise have a completely digital life?
Initially, I was keen to display the scans in a book form because I thought it would be nice to compile the scans from the three locations together. I found that the scans from each location have quite a distinct style, and in a sequential book this hopefully comes across more clearly.
Also, after talking to some of the patients and residents about their varied experiences of making or viewing digital artwork, I thought that it might be a bit more engaging for them to have a physical object. It was actually really satisfying to make the prints and give these scans a physical form! Equally, presenting the images in a physical book reflects the making process a bit more. Scanography requires you to hold lots of objects and make use of your hands, so it feels like a nice bit of closure for the scans to come back to the hands of the people that made them.
Helen McGregor holding a copy of the Scanography book. GPCH, 2022.
Do books form any part of your own practice?
Although I don’t have much experience with traditional bookmaking, I’ve enjoyed making small books to go alongside works, especially if the piece is digital. I sometimes find it hard to organise my work, or put in into a neat order, so working in the constraints of a book format can be a good challenge!
PULP Paper Arts Workshop Studio, Alison Newman papermaking.
During your placement you’ve also worked with Art in Hospital artist Alison Newman at her PULP paper arts workshop. How has the experience of making paper and recycling paper contributed to the development of your projects?
I really enjoyed working with Alison at PULP, and I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to do so! Making paper was completely new to me, so I was learning every day. Alison was leading a project that aimed to re-use Art in Hospital drawings and paintings from the archive that can no longer be kept in storage. We pulped and then re-made new sheets of paper from these archived works, and also made sheets of paper from old hospital bedsheets that were in Art in Hospital’s possession. Alison is so skilled at her practice and it was amazing to see her at work. I got a good impression of the care and expertise that goes into making high-quality paper, and it was a great counterpoint to the digitality of the scanner workshops. I think both the papermaking and the physical books helped me to develop the tangible, tactile aspects of the project, and allowed digital screens to take a backseat for a while.
Seeing the volume of drawings, paintings, and prints in that Art in Hospital have in their archive was also really impressive and quite moving- it made clear to me the amount of dedication that the organisation puts towards facilitating arts practices in healthcare environments.
The title of your postal project ‘wishes, handkerchiefs, flags’ has a certain romance and poetry to it. Is that a feature of your work and how much do words and text contribute to it?
That’s nice to hear! I found that when working with subject matter from technical or scientific areas, it can be hard to get deeply engaged if there isn’t an emotive or affective side to it. So I sometimes try to emphasise the poetic elements of the titles and subtext in order to make room for something a bit more mysterious or romantic.
Can you briefly describe ‘wishes, handkerchiefs, flags’ and how you came up with the ideas contained within it?
Reflecting on the presence of ‘wishing trees’ and the idea of long-distance signalling, I invited participants to design a small flag which contains a message that they wish to share. The message could be anything: a name, a message to a friend, a reference to a place, a drawing, a line from a song, or a hope for the future. These designs will be printed onto a fabric flag, and returned to the wards to be displayed. In Celtic history, wishing trees, or ‘Clootie Trees’, were part of an ancient practice of tying cloth to trees near holy wells in Scotland, normally associated with making a wish, an offering, or a request for healing.
Chiara van den Hoven, Wishing Flags Remote Project Brief . Click on the image to view full PDF.
How did you find the experience of working in hospitals and a care home, particularly at this time, under the restrictions of a pandemic? Was your own practice affected or influenced by working within the context of health and medicine?
As a student, I initially felt quite inexperienced, and organising around coronavirus complications was a bit of a challenge. I was worried that the distancing and disinfecting procedures might alienate the people taking part. However, after getting used to the rules in place, I found working with the patients and residents to be an amazing experience, and it has given me a better understanding of the needs of specific audiences when approaching art making. In general, I have so much respect for the staff and patients who have been working and living with these restrictions for a long time now. To be able to carry the workshops out in person was a huge benefit, and I’m grateful to the NHS staff who facilitated that opportunity.
What did you think were the benefits to patients and residents of making work with you?
I hope that working with the scanner has enabled them to develop confidence with using new technologies in a creative way, and that they have had the opportunity to learn a new technique that might come in handy when making work in the future. Because scanography is a bit experimental and very different from the traditional mediums of drawing and painting, I think that it allowed some participants to give themselves permission to just ‘have a go’, and take the pressure off the outcome. As placing objects onto the scanner was a task that was possible with limited mobility, it was hopefully a workshop that was welcoming and accessible regardless of artistic or physical abilities.
Achilleas Zoto, Untitled, digital scan, 2022 (NRU)
Betty Wheatley, Untitled, digital scan, 2022 (GPCH)
What do you think is the role that artists have to play in health and medicine?
Having completed this student placement, I can see that the role of an artist in these contexts can be really wide-ranging and diverse. Working at the New Victoria Hospital, the presence of creative arts in the building and grounds is really clear, and you can see how an active arts programme there works to improve the atmosphere of the building while facilitating therapeutic opportunities for patients to make their own artwork. Particularly after the periods of isolation brought about by the pandemic, it seems that the whole environment of the art room fulfils an important social role too, where people can go to relax and remove themselves from an otherwise clinical setting.
The effect of the name itself is an important factor too. To be an artist is a kind of identity, or a persona that is put on and taken off. In some ways, to be a patient is another kind of identity, but is often an unwelcome and distressing one. To be identified as an artist instead of a ‘patient’ or ‘resident’, even for a short while, might be a really significant change for some people, and one that affects their sense of self long after a class or workshop has ended.
To view the PDF copy of the book SCANOGRAPHY by Chiara in collaboration with Art in Hospital
More of Chiara’s work can be seen at www.cvdh.net
To view past GSA Placement Student Aimee Haldane's Interview click HERE.