VR: mapping out the future

This year I received a prestigious DYCP Arts Council grant to explore the possibilities of Holding Time in VR. Ever since I showed the immersive four screen installation of the Holding Time animations made in Brighton at Fabrica Gallery, I have been aware that this work is at its best when it is encountered in an intimate and immersive setting. Elderly men standing crying, teenagers standing and staring in wonderment, feeding mothers spontaneously producing milk were all outcomes I hadn’t planned for.

The Holding Time, Fabrica Gallery, 2018
Emma feeds alongside the original 2D timepiece. Music by Helen Anahita Wilson.

How to replicate this experience across the country was a problem I have been struggling with ever since. The lack of venues, the temporary nature of art exhibitions and the limitations of other venues such as healthcare settings has been a constant headache for immersive art experiences.

VR offers the tantalising possibility of a platform where the work can be seen and felt limitless numbers of people with only the headset as a barrier. And like many others, I am encouraged by the falling price of headsets.

Another question I have been pondering, is the effectiveness of a piece of art like this on those most in need of it: could the immersive experience of sitting in a circle of animated breastfeeding mothers offer a virtual stand in for the real thing in those difficult early days when breastfeeding feels strange, painful and at times just too difficult to continue?

Could a work of art have the power to intervene and influence the staggeringly low breastfeeding retention rates we see across much of the country – could it help mothers who have never seen breastfeeding acclimatize quicker to a novel situation? Might the work actually raise the hormone oxytocin that is so important for milk production or lower stress levels?

Mapping Steve’s 3D model onto the timepiece designs

I discussed these possibilities maternal researcher and psychologist, Dr Vicky Fallon at Liverpool University’s School of Psychology. Together we delved into the implications of a VR intervention in Perinatal Mental Health – her area of specialty. There were two directions to map out: firstly, how to make Holding Time into a VR artwork. Secondly, how to design a clinical trial to see if it works. Each of these then produced new areas of exploration and research: what clinical trials have there been, worldwide for using VR as an intervention in perinatal mental health and who would fund a clinical trial if I could design and build the VR piece.

Dr Fallon brought in Dr Sian Davies, another maternal researcher and together they drew up a a Scoping Review Outline. This defines the question and outlines how the question will be answered, by reviewing all the published papers on the subject. Unsurprisingly there are only a few dozen attempts to use VR for any application involving birth or post-birth. I say unsurprisingly because this is a common theme in perinatal mental health: a lack of enquiry, innovation and interest. This despite the shocking statistic that suicide is “still the leading cause of direct deaths occurring within a year after the end of pregnancy”. A devastating statistic.

One of Dr Fallon’s main areas of research has been the connecting links between breastfeeding issues and Post Natal Depression (PND). her video for the launch of Holding Time and subsequent BLOG post both outline in certain terms the scale of the problem, along with some suggestions for solutions.

Artists have many different rationale’s behind their work, just as varied and interesting as the motivations of writers or musicians. My rationale for his work has always been to create better social concern for mothers by increasing knowledge, overturning stereotypes and challenging assumptions. But at the centre of the work is the desire to free the mothers themselves from these three problems: removing the internalised negativity and self doubt that hampers not only the journey of breastfeeding specifically but motherhood generally.

Together with researchers Dr Wendy Nicholls and Dr Lisa O’Connor I have been working on a methodology for measuring the effectiveness of the Holding Time Project when it finishes in Cheshire and Merseyside. How, for example, do we know if the project has had any measurable effect on perceptions of breastfeeding in the community where it is placed? This evaluation will use a Qualtrics online survey. But online surveys have their limits and VR

Mapping out the Timepiece, October 2021

To understand better the process of bringing a new idea into the NHS for adoption by the many Trusts, I attended a seminar by Mindtech. This is an agency, set up by NIHR to support the development, clinical trialing and adoption of tech-based solutions to mental health issues in the NHS. I learnt that the average time it takes to bring an ‘innovation’ into the NHS is 15 years – by which time it can hardly still be described as ‘new’. I heard about success stories and learnt about the framework for innovation is Design Council’s design methodology, the Double Diamond – a clear, comprehensive and visual description of the design process. I realised that the five years of research I had undertaken through talking to mothers was the Discover and Define phase and that I was now moving into Develop.

The Double Diamond design process

Mindtech are helping to ask the relevant questions about digital technology in health and their set of 10 most important questions for digital technology in mental healthcare is well researched, pertinent and in many places reflects the research I am doing as an artist. A fruitful conversation then began with Dr Michael Craven who shared with us research the group had been undertaking into PND.

While I’m waiting for the finished Scoping Review report, I am arranging meetings with more potential mentors in the field of Digital Interventions in mental health. Most notably Brighton’s own Sarah Ticho of Hatsumi: global thought leaders in VR as a health intervention. I have been reading, listening to and watching everything they have produced.

Meanwhile there is plenty to do with producing the VR piece. For my R&D I worked on a test piece to show to potential funders. This piece is only a few seconds long but presents the most difficult part of the premise: the Timepiece. From the beginning this conceptual element was key to the work generating a visceral response from viewers. Without it, there was no key to understanding the principles of the work: that breastfeeding is an example of one of the many ways Maternal Time sits in opposition to our industrialised, linear ways of thinking about Time as Labour and Time and Being Useful….it moves the piece quietly from the literal to the abstract and allows us space to think about this whole subject with the benefit of distance.

When I showed the Timepeice as part of the four screen installation at Fabrica, it instantly made sense. As the Infant Feeding Lead said to me at the exhibition, “It’s a right brained clock”.

The pressure of motherhood, especially the early weeks, is so intense. There are hormones, birth traumas and relatives to deal with. And for new mothers it can feel as though life has come to an abrupt halt. Or normal time has been disrupted and replaced by a wormhole of nappies, feeds and endless dark nights spent awake. As Alison Bartlett describes in her essay Babydaze, in Time and Society 19(1)

“What we make of time breastfeeding is crucial to our sense of ourselves as subjects, critically connecting embodiment and subjectivity, and our sense of place in the world.”

So how we feel about Time is tied up in maternal agency and how women navigate the transition to a new life where the structures, routines and control have been disrupted by the needs of their child.

At the very early stages of the project, I envisaged the Timepiece as made of glass. I was fortunate to meet Mike Barrett, an exceptionally gifted artist and master of glass pouring who generously created three platonic solids for me. These shapes were loosely based on drawings I had made from the extraordinary Cosmatesque designs on the Sistine Chapel floor.

All summer I met regularly with the talented 3D animator Steve Wilson who has helped me think through the Timepiece and other 3D ideas. Using the beautiful glass solids made by Mike Barratt for the first Holding Time animation, which I had photographed in 2D, Steve made a digital glass rendition. Using the timecode I devised for stage 1, he created and then animated the final timepiece. The final stage will be to sync the timepiece with the timecode so that it does actually keep time.

‘Holding Timepiece’ Lisa Creagh, 2021 3D animation by Steve Wilson, Glass solids Mike Barratt.

With the help of Steve and others I am now calculating the production values and costs of creating a final Holding Time piece in VR. This would allow the user to enter a space where mothers are breastfeeding in animated stills. There would be the possibility of triggering each mothers video interview to access a deeper understanding of their personal journey. The VR could open the project website, where users would find options to contribute their story to the project.

Or they could sit, as women did for millenia, under a starry sky within this circle of animated and contemplate the timepiece slowly growing as time passes…however the final piece turns out, my hope is that it can be a new frontier in artist-created tools for health that bring together thoughtful research, truthful narratives and beautiful imagery.

‘Chloe’, 2021 Animated stills

Thankyou Arts Council England, for helping me through these important discoveries.

Arts Council England logo

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