Interview with Alec Finlay on Navigations

We talked to Alec Finlay in January 2013, when he was part way through his Navigations 'residency' at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre, Glasgow.

Navigations is supported by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award and is a collaboration between Animate Projects, Paintings in Hospitals, and Professor Anthony Chalmers and his teams at Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre and Beatson Institute for Cancer Research.


Your practice takes different forms, different media, some of it is even ephemeral. How do you talk about it? How do you describe it?

I don’t. But the area I work in is shared consciousness. So that can exist in a poetic form – a formal quality that we might be able to recognise together.

In a circle poem, for instance, a space that we could both occupy, in looking at. We would have a relationship to it, and that might be a bit more confidently shared than a solipsistic, confessional poem, say.

Or I might make a building and that might be about sharing the quality of light. Or an investigation into the characteristics of a woodland. So it does not matter to me what the object is, or whether it is poetry or art.

I approve of what Ad Reinhardt says: “There is only one art.” He is speaking as a painter, and I am sure he means it in a very different way to me, but I still think that is true. There is only one art.

And is that shared consciousness between you and another individual?

Yes. And it depends on the context: a public square… or in a hospital. It will differ according to the social situation, but I try and make it appropriate to that.

A lot of the formal resolution comes from thinking about how people will physically be when they experience it. Will they be walking through a wood? Or sitting on a bench? Or reading a book? Or looking at a blog? Again, what is appropriate?

That sharing happens when you have made a work - and you are removed from where the work is - so it is an engagement with the work itself. But in this project, and I’m sure in others, there is that process that leads to the creation of an object. Do think of that process as being part of the work?

Yes, and again that differs. I did another hospital project in Aberdeen that defined itself immediately as ‘there are walls – what will be on the walls?’. And that puts you into a certain mindset. If there is a weakness in that situation, it is that you solve that problem very quickly, because that is your job as an artist, to solve problems.

Whereas what we began with in Glasgow was a social situation, and one in which I felt we were all consciously trying to be open in our response to that situation.

We set down some parameters!

But the parameters were subtly aware of the human dynamic of, for instance, the inherent qualities in staff, patient, artist as roles. The staff have been figured here as really part of the project. Whereas at Aberdeen, the staff were gatekeepers to the patient experience, and not particularly strongly engaged in that process.

This process, by having a subtle brief, asking the right people, creating the right moment to begin - we sat round a table, we had tea – allows a space such that the work is made a bit more slowly. That is always helpful.

I was meaning to praise the brief as not over-anticipating. We did all know there would be something on a wall, and there would be an animation. But we did not all start talking about that.

Well, thank you. But having said that, nevertheless, there are times when you simply make work, and then there are times, as in this project, where there is a commission, there are parameters, there are obligations, even. I wondered what made you interested in responding to the invitation in the first place?

Most of my work is made, to be honest, through commission. But I quite often extend those commissions beyond the immediate boundaries they set. I will bring something previously part of my interest to it. More and more, I find I am overlapping projects. I will often do more than I am asked, but that will be to further my own work. It will be, if you like, because that work has taken on a dynamic, or an interest for me.

But with this project, and essentially a context of illness, I knew I needed to start writing about my illness, about illness, about that experience. I had a body of work secretly - even to me - sitting there ready to be manifested. So that was one of the excitements (and terrors).

Also, coincidentally I had met Anthony socially, and liked him a lot. Also the challenge of working in a hospital - I have had very bad experiences of healthcare myself, and I did not want to bring that, but I wanted to go into that context, and I felt I might have something to give.

You are at a stage now where you have done a lot of preparatory work, and now going to do some work with patients...

I would not put it quite that way. I do not think it is helpful, particularly in this project, for me to try and think of it, or set it out in a linear narrative. A lot of artists talk about, “I am doing research. Here is my formal proposal. Now I make the work. Now we show the work.” Pretty well everything in this project has been upside down, back to front. It is easier to think of it as some kind of circulatory mechanism.

So things have intervened. I got ill again. I could not go to the hospital. I ended up finding these poems that I had had about illness, and then re-writing them, and greatly extending them. I wrote a lot of the poems when I was very ill in bed. So they were a really deep reflection on the experience, the consciousness, of illness.

Some are just from things friends have said, or about people I know who have died, people I know who have been ill, people who talk about illness, lovers, comrades, if you like. I have deliberately let all the poems hang in a quite unidentified space, where they are not just about me.

But I do not say who they are about. They are just about the experience of time and illness.

I have ended up doing quite a deep reflection on illness, which actually became the complete work. I have got an idea for the animation, which will be quite easy to achieve, but I like that there will be a blog of poems, a book of poems, an animation, a gift of a little card to the patient, and they are all part of the same thing.

Well what is the plan for the patients?

You could say that in this project, instead of making the physical, sculptural object, or the film the ultimate outcome, I have ended up making the encounter with the patient the ultimate outcome. Again, for two reasons: that it goes against what we might have expected, that I would go and meet patients, and then write.

Also, I was worried very early on that I would not want to be necessarily writing from what they were telling me. I did not want to burden my meeting with them with any expectation of an outcome. Also, my illness delayed me going there. I felt that the most crucial, sensitive part of the process was meeting the patients, and I mean especially meeting the patients in that hospital - it is not like being in a Maggie’s Centre. There is not particularly a space for the meeting.

No, it remains a hospital.

Yes. They have done their best, but we are challenging what they are used to providing, what the state allows them to provide. So I wanted to let the meeting be completely free to be whatever it was. I will offer people a poem if they want one; give them a handkerchief with a poem label on it, if they want one. But I just wanted to know that in that moment, we would just be two people, equal. If we wanted to not say anything, that is fine. That is just my way of trying to bring an awareness to the situation.

So I am very comfortable with how it has evolved. It has been very natural. I think it is a really strong piece, because it is so simple, very appropriate to being ill. I have shown the poems to some people, and they are very touched by them.

But you could say that we have all allowed the fact that outcome is not necessarily the engine driving the train. That is quite an interesting thing, which not many projects allow.

Those less tangible outcomes, which are part of that process, are your interaction, if you like, with the patients. But you’ve also spent time at Beatson with the clinical team. How has that been?

I have met the staff, I think three times, and from the very beginning, I just felt very comfortable in that conversation. I really admired them, and liked them as people. I really like the quality of the dialogue, particularly the level of reflection about words and the social setting, and what they could and could not provide. They are professional people who are trained to work, in terms of biochemistry. But they also have to do a lot of counselling, and that is a harder thing to do. That is where I meet them in terms of the skill set, if you like, although I am very different and I am not professional.

But I felt very moved and touched, and admiring of the way they talked. I enjoyed sharing the poems I have written with them. If you like, that was a test - a sense of a witness to the fact they could have a use. There was a sense on their part of, “Gosh, I wonder how some patients will respond to this?”

The main thing that we had talked about was that I would be giving the poems to people if they wanted them. If I sit on a sofa, have a cup of tea, offer someone a poem, they were playing over how different people would react. They were interested by that. I think they would, in shorthand, see it as a Maggie's Centre type thing, done in their setting, and they embrace that.

A therapeutic thing then?

The Maggie's Centres are so radical, I think, and so political. Because they have created a model of a space that is patient led, and that is reflective, and that is not driven by the delivery of care, per se. You go into a Maggie Centre, into a particular room, you cannot necessarily say that that person’s being treated. It seems to me one of the most radical things in our culture. It solely seems to come out of the power of the cancer community.

I do not know if you agree, but it seems to me we have had two powerful illness lobbies, we have had cancer and AIDS, HIV. They both manage to alter the way that patients are treated. The cancer issue has become, specificallys this architectural, spiritual, very real thing. The people at the Beatson are, I felt, intrigued, open, curious, welcoming, aware of that. And the wee space they have made me, well, it is not a clinical thing, and that is unusual for them. Nor is it a pretty painting on a wall.

I feel there is something quite powerful there. But it is so simple, it is quite challenging to everyone. I think I have left meeting patients till last because it is quite terrifying.

Also, they are dealing with a very particular kind of cancer. Remember at our first meeting, Marie said, “Your brain is who you are?” I wonder, have you reflected on that at all?

No, not directly. My poems are about illness per se. The power in this situation is the radical strangeness that any illness is. Right at the beginning we talked about Tom Lubbock’s account of his cancer, and the idea of investigating that, and the loss of language. But I ended up not pursuing that.

I have approached more this idea of ‘today’; that what all of us share is today. Every word is weighted differently, in terms of the likelihood of death, well, mortality, and that one has a stronger weight than some. So I ended up translating that to its simplest factor, not its outcome.

I have ended up writing a poem that might say, “The size of a plum, peach or apple”, as that is how people describe their tumour. But I have not chosen to show what an artist might make with the shadow of the tumour. I just wanted to say the words, the image. I have used speech a lot in this project. How is it a patient would be told? “So, well look, this is your tumour, and it is the size of a walnut.” So I have chosen those identifiers. Again, like shared consciousness.

Potentially then, in meeting patients, there is a space there for them to say and reflect on what they have been told, and how they have been told to someone who is not a clinician.

How they have told themselves. And how they tell their friends. Because the poems value the non-professional speech; a lot of them come out of speech. They are about the dialogue that we have, not with the doctor. I found that very interesting to write into.

When talking about illness, immediately Susan Sontag pops into your head. It seems to me that what you are doing is as far away from any idea of metaphor as you could get.

I think that is true, or maybe my metaphor was to melt that, or dissolve it into ‘today’. Many of the poems say, “Okay, today, what is today? How do I feel today?” There is one poem that says, “All I can do today is write these few words.” Well, that was real, to me, that was my achievement that day. That was all I had outside of me, and yet, there it was. To say that that is a work of art - I feel that there is a resilience in that, that it is very different to the Sontag model.

And is there a parallel, however loose, with the way that clinicians work, in that their relationship with patients is very in the present, is it?

I think that is true. This is a roundabout point, but I was shocked and struck by the fact that in effect, the patients come to them, have a series of days, months, they are treated, and then that they let go of the patient before he or she dies. That really broke a myth in my mind, that I had imagined you would see someone to their death. I found that fascinating.

Yes, what shocked me in our first meeting was that they do not see people to their death, but they are dealing with people who are going to die. I had assumed that they were making people better.

Yet I found it the most positive language about illness that I had encountered.

I had had such a negative experience before. I talked a moment ago about how certain illnesses seem to me to have been able to fight to empower themselves. I have the kind of illness that is the opposite of that. When you have something like ME, you are in a very contested space. You are in a situation where a doctor will quite frequently seem to actively not be listening to your symptoms, because they have a doubtful picture in their mind.

So when you ask about the ‘today’ thing, what I take from it is, one of the main ways we have always had of administering medicine is a conversation. An expert, speaking to a non-expert. But the non-expert has, is, the body.

Doctors of all kinds have conversations, and a lot depends on the quality of that conversation. Not just in terms of perception, but also actively healing. Certain words might trigger a diagnosis.

The situation of the staff at the Beatson is one where quite frequently, at a certain point, you are beginning to shift someone from treatment to ideas about their own mortality. That is moving into a different language stream. I do not claim the poems would be instructive towards that, but I think that they speak within a similar frame.

I am not going to suggest my poems are a way to tell someone that their life maybe coming to an end. But if the book was lying around in the hospital, and someone could take it away, it reminds them that it is our common human fate.

It is not quite telling them, is it? They already know.

We know, but how do we tell ourselves what we know? I felt that the staff were deeply, humorously, but with a great sincerity, all open to that question.

And the language, just simply language. We did not engage about, ”What is the animation going to be? What are you going to make?” They might not put it exactly this way, but we were talking about language. I respected them on the level of language, and liked everything I heard from all of them.

But their language and your language, how have…

Well I do not know how they speak to their patients.

All I have is the evidence of their interest, curiosity and openness, the fact that they allowed all the poems but one. The one they did not want was simply for a professional concern they had, about the poem that talked about “We lived dying”.

That was all, to me, a level of valuable conversation you do not always get. Certain times in the past, I have had people say, “You cannot say that.” People will be surprised how often that happens.

The staff should have the final authority, because they do know about their patients. But I was very impressed. I think the poems had a use to them, and they saw a use for them with patients. When you asked me in and I was excited, it was because I felt there was a job I could do.

What is that job?

That is it. It is recognition that anyone can look, and go, “I recognise that.” If the patient and a doctor can both do it…

Are you in between or...?

Well, I do not want to use the word ‘advocate’. If I were cleverer, I would think of a better word. But I am an ordinary person who happens to have skill in listening, writing down words. That means I am a professional amateur. I am professional at listening to speech. The doctors are also, but they could not write it down the way I do. But they recognise it, so it is just that really.

It is so complicated, because anything starts to weaken the role of the poem itself. It is the poem that allows shared recognition.

I think understanding is a key word. With Iain as well, working with the lab, it is about different disciplines’ approaches to trying to reach an understanding.

Yes. There is as much skill and discipline in the clinic, but it is more a part of a social discourse, whereas the lab’s is technical. It is creative, but that is the difference, as I see it. I just think there is an interest from me in this very simple level of speech.

Yes, I think that is discipline.

It is, yes.