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An Artistic Slant On Health Care At The Spencer

The state of health care in the U.S. was at the top of the list of concerns many Americans took to the voting booths this week.

Though the country is divided about how to fix it, there are a multitude of shared experiences being addressed by a new exhibit at the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence called The Drop-In/Pop-Up Waiting Room Project.

In the lobby of the Spencer Museum of Art on the KU campus in Lawrence are two kiosk-like pieces of a new installation by Marguerite Perret, Bruce Scherting, Robin Lasser and James Stone. Both stations solicit visitors' thoughts and opinions on health care.

At one, guests vote for their favorite superhuman health agent -- fictitious, mythologically-based characters imbued with healing powers -- by dropping a blue cotton ball in a glass cylinder. At the other is a computer where Scherting and Perret are asking for visitors' responses to what the artists call the Super Health Care Questionnaire.

"This is an online questionnaire anyone can access from anywhere," Scherting says. "We extracted parts of the data,  mainly the short answers people filled in. And then through collaboration with James Stone, a partner of ours, we worked up a data visualization that is actually being projected upstairs.  So you can actually see phrases and comments people have put into the questionnaire."

Perret adds, "This is a way for people to become part of the conversation in a very real way. We feel there’s a lot of discussion at people about health care, but people aren’t being asked what they really want out of health care. And so this questionnaire is designed to do that."

Health and Human Services

The exhibit is part of a larger series of installations the artists have been working on and adding to for several years. The piece commissioned by the Spencer tackles health care for veterans, while past subjects have included eating disorders, breast cancer and dementia, among others. Perret is asked if there's any singular reason for their intense focus on health care.
"Just being human," she says.  "We all have a relationship with this topic. We all are patients, we all have family who have health crises, we all have health crises at some point. So I think that’s what drew us to this. All of the artists participating in the project all have personal or close relationships with people who had primary experiences with these issues. That is why we started it. And we continue it because we realize how important it is."

Veterans' Affairs

The installation continues on the fourth floor with a tableau featuring a range of media, from video to sculpture to sound. Two chairs are slip-covered in a pattern animated with parachutes that the artists call "social skins."  One chair is tilted and aloft, suspended from a large umbrella, as if it's about to touch down, explains Marguerite Perret.

"This is another example of the social skins – the rescue worker coming in for health care, basically rescuing health care. And when this goes out into the community, people will be able to sit in this chair while they are providing their personal narratives."

There are headphones where visitors can hear previously recorded narratives about health care from three different veterans, including a young female soldier.

"The military's chosen way of addressing any type of muscular or skeletal issue, such as back pain or neck pain, is just to prescribe pain medication, which never addresses the root issue," she says, "especially when considering the fact that the bulk of the job is manual labor and carrying a good deal of weight. And as a smaller female, I'm very physically fit but carrying half of my body weight."

The installation will eventually travel to different locations and interact with people in a variety of ways. Perret maintains that it's the personal dialogue with current and future audiences that drives the project.

"Every single tableaux has an interactive element, or more than one," she says.  "People are able to find expression and share their own experiences and get support for those experiences. That’s very uplifting."
While artists Robin Lasser and Stephanie Lantern also assisted with the installation, other contributions were made by medical researchers at KU and KU Medical Center, collaborators who Perret and Scherting say were more than enthusiastic.

The Drop In/Pop Up Waiting Room Project, September 22, 2012-January 27, 2013,  The Spencer Museum of Art, 1301 Mississippi St., Lawrence, Kansas, 785-864-4710.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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