Project Reflections

Co/Labber's reflections on all five Co/Lab projects.

Insulin at Teatime

John Kefala-Kerr
When composing Insulin at Teatime it wasn’t unusual for fragments of the music to play constantly in my head. These ‘earworms’ can be mixed blessing, especially when they’re of your own making.

While acts of aural imagination are an essential part of the composing process, the mental intrusion of words and melodies isn’t always welcome. For young people receiving a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, it's likely that the words of consultants and nutritionists, along with nightmarish thoughts of medical complications and fears about how to cope with the condition, will also loop over and over in the mind, like a ‘sticky song’.

Having now heard Insulin at Teatime performed by musicians in a rehearsal setting, my own earworms (both musical and diabetic) have intensified, but now they possess a slightly different character because the music has left the ideal realm of the imagination and gained an irreversible specificity in Ashleigh Charlton’s singing and David Murray’s piano playing.

Whether the act of dramatising the experience of living with a chronic medical condition renders the shadow of disease less ominous is debatable, but speaking as someone who has gained some Brechtian ‘distance’ in creating such dramatisations, it may well be that there is some benefit to be had in encountering these modest, stylised utterances.

The opportunity to work with Ashleigh and David arose directly out of Co/Lab’s carefully judged formula of balancing financial support and creative licence on the one hand, and agreed milestones and a sense of collective purpose on the other. The Co/Lab micro-commission provided a framework for me to contribute to cross-faculty collaboration, and without this opportunity it is unlikely that Insulin at Teatime would have seen the light of day.

I was greatly encouraged to find my collaborator, Dr Kathryn King, receptive, supportive and willing to engage with the Insulin at Teatime ‘experiment’. Thanks to Kathryn’s research, young people have had their opinions and feelings about living with type 1 diabetes documented in a form that sends an unequivocal message to the medical profession about the shortcomings of care for these patients. My hope is that, in translating aspects of Kathryn’s research into song, some of the pathos, humour and stoicism expressed by the adolescent respondents might be conveyed in novel and unforeseen ways. Music research is also furthered in addressing questions about how composition might participate in everyday life: how it might contribute to the qualitative experience of people living in ordinary situations and circumstances. Such questions are easily overlooked in the absence of ‘framed provocations’ like Co/Lab.

Digital Nourishment: Building Health Communities

Jenny Wotherspoon
This project has been a great opportunity to spend some time thinking in more depth about online communities, within a sector I may not have considered if not for the collaborative nature of Co/Lab.

Along the way, I’ve come across new research, discovered communities I’d never heard of, and ultimately been able to reflect on my own teaching and ideas around online communities. The project began with the compilation of a directory of online health communities in order to find out more about the categories individuals are gathering around. It’s not a comprehensive directory, which would not have been achievable within the realms of this project, but it’s a starting point from which this can be developed. The directory called on input from the Faculty of Health Sciences and Wellbeing, online research and contributions from the public. Through this process, I came across an overwhelming number of online spaces in which people are gathering around specific illnesses, conditions and health topics. Adding them to the directory and spending time in these spaces helped re-affirm and further explore ideas I already had around the definition of an online community

There are discussions about community management and community engagement in the social media sector, but not all of these discussions relate to my evolving definition of an online community. I believe a community is not a forum, is not a social media following, and is not an audience. Through this project I have now developed a list of characteristics that I feel begin to distinguish btween health forums and groups, and fully-functioning health communities, and these definitions will help me further define my ideas around the definition of online communities in general. Putting together the directory also alerted me to a growing number of networks being built to unite online health communities under a single umbrella platform, some of which the NHS are signposting. A question remains whether this is an attempt by ‘experts’ to regain control of those conversations and decentralised spaces.

Though there may be benefits of reliable and trustworthy spaces for health communities to sit, I remain uncertain about whether this a positive move. Regarding the initial purpose of the directory to help explore the categories around which groups are forming, it is currently suggesting a trend for spaces to be created around long-term conditions, or conditions and situations that have a long-term impact on lifestyle. The time I have spent in these spaces would also lead me to suggest that identity plays a role in this. This makes me wonder if online communities can be used to effectively to engage people around short term problems or public health issues which don’t already impact on identity, for example, the current need for engagement with cervical screening. This is a subject which only seems to appear in communities once cell irregularities are found or a cancer has developed. I wonder if communities can be used for prevention rather than solutions, which isn’t something I’ve seen much of so far. Questions also arise about how you engage an individual in a community whose lifestyle isn’t already affected by a condition or specific situation. Ultimately this project aimed to find a space to set up a new online community to explore further questions around their potential impact in the health sector. I will now continue to work with members of the Health Sciences and Wellbeing Faculty to develop this based on what I’ve discovered so far, and hope to use this project as a springboard to examine further research opportunities.

Exploring Experience in the Edgelands

Mike Collier
We were extraordinary lucky with the weather for our dawn chorus River Wear walk. It was cold, but sunny … and the day warmed as we walked. We began by standing still outside the National Glass Centre and slowly (very slowly) turning 360 degrees, LISTENING to the world as it began to wake up. This helped to make us more aware of senses other than sight, especially our sense of hearing.

Walk leader Keith Bowey, pointed out a number of different bird songs. Along the walk, we encountered a wide variety of flora and fauna as well as some upsetting signs of poverty and the careless deposition of litter. We made four stops at key points to doodle, think, photograph and be silent – no talking.

The walk followed the path along the north side of the river, across the Alexander bridge, then back along the south side of the Wear, over the Wearmouth Bridge before finishing for a welcome breakfast at the National Glass Centre. For me, one of the most interesting dialogues to arise out of the project has been whether a ‘knowledge-rich’ experience (in our case being ‘led’ by local lad and natural historian Keith Bowey who shared his knowledge of local flora encountered as we walked) enhances mindfulness especially in relation to place … or if it gets in the way of it. This was discussed with the staff and students (a group of what we have called co-researchers) in our evaluative session a week after the walk.

Diane Westwood
Although my background is in psychological science, I’ve become interested in questions that don’t respect subject boundaries and that lend themselves to more pragmatic approaches and playful arts-based methods. I’ve used the Co/Lab project to try out some of the issues that I’ve been wrestling with, for example, how to identify, capture and measure experience in place.

In Psychology this often leads to self-report questionnaires and I’ve used this pilot project to critique that approach. I am more interested in exploring the potential of narrative methods to capture experience and to enhance well-being through meaning-making. The development of an individual story to connect nature and self was designed as an intervention in the project.

I learned, however, that whilst participants recognised the value of developing the story, they needed more time and support. This is an aspect of the project that I would like to develop in the future as I think it may help short term, situation-specific effects to become more enduring. I have been keen in this project to maintain a participatory approach and participants have engaged as co-researchers. The co-researchers have brought and shared the perspectives of their respective disciplines – some of which highlight differences, some of which reveal similarities. Our reflective discussion has brought much value to the evaluation of the different aspects of the project: in particular its interventions and measures. This has helped shape my ideas for the larger project and how it might be developed for a future funding bid.

A Cook Book - The Journey Beyond Bariatric Surgery

Professor Arabella Plouviez
The CoLab commission has enabled me to develop the start of a project with Dr Yitka Graham, and her research and on-going work with a patient group who have undergone bariatric surgery. Being let into this world was a real privilege, and I met with the patient group who were very generous both in their time and in sharing their experiences. Bariatric surgery is a life-changing procedure which affects not only physical changes, but also their social worlds. Many people who have undergone bariatric surgery are judged for their method of weight-loss, leading to high rates of disclosure to others, which can impact support they receive from others.

We developed the idea of creating a cook book that could bring together different voices to share recipes and stories of their on-going journeys beyond the surgery itself, using photographs to support, enhance and explore some of the themes and experiences shared. Cooking and food are so central to so many social events, but can also be challenging and emotional especially when one is feeling vulnerable and judged. As a starting point, I wanted to use photography to give voice to some of the challenges this group raised. Photography can be a difficult medium, as it can be over literal – showing the surface and sometimes struggling with complexity. This work is all about people and their shared experiences, but it is not about photographing the people themselves, they are the voices speaking through the works.

Rather, the images are studio constructions that draw on the traditions of still-life which symbolize the complexities of the social aspects of the post-bariatric surgical journey. Playing with the apparent timelessness of still life, the works also incorporate very contemporary references, and by embedding the quotes from individual’s experiences of self-doubt this allows for alternative interpretations to the elements within the photographs.

Pod-Co-Lab: Podcasting Across Disciplines

Richard Berry
This has been an interesting opportunity to reflect on how the podcast format can be used as a tool to explore themes in public health. We have been examining ways in which we can use participatory methods to produce podcasts that utilise the experiences of young people with alcohol to produce comedy content in a podcast. We have held focus group sessions and are conducting interviews to build a framework on which a pilot piece of content van be created.

Our aim is to identify processes of best practice that can be adopted more widely by researchers in sciences to create their own podcasts as a form of open-access content as a form to add value to publications or as non-traditional outputs.

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