People like me and the meaning of art

May 2014.  This is a blog written by Mark Ware and published by the Stroke Association for Action on Stroke Month 2014:

still-from-dog-barked-like-bird

Still from video composition entitled, The Dog That Barked like A Bird

‘I was standing on a bus travelling into Brighton from Hove, four years after having a severe stroke. The bus stopped to let people off. A woman frantically tried to get past me by thrusting a pushchair into my legs, causing immense stroke-related pain. I told the woman I was ‘disabled’, to which she replied angrily, ‘People like you shouldn’t be on buses!’

People like me?  What did she mean by that?  She knew nothing about me or my past.  After hearing her words, all I knew was that in my post-stroke world I appeared to be part of a new group, a group that was not familiar to me.

I had a stroke at 10.35 am on 28th April 1996.  I was 39 years old.

It was a dramatic event that irreversibly altered the way I navigated and negotiated the world around me.  I was forced to reconsider who I was and the various roles I played in my life, including being father of three children. Prior to my stroke I produced professional film and videos and offered marketing & promotion services for Government agencies and multi-national corporations.  Before that I studied Fine Art at Northumbria University and The School of the Art institute of Chicago.

Until 1996 I had been in hospital only once, for a nosebleed.

Drawing the shapes of words from memory. An extract from my diary.

The stroke brought an abrupt end to my commercial work.  Initially I was in very poor health and couldn’t even see clearly enough to write.  And so I began keeping a diary by drawing the shapes of words from memory. This was the beginning of my return to Fine Art, and a few years later Arts Council England funded the creation of a video composition based on this diary entitled, The Dog that Barked Like a Bird, described by Alan Bennett as, ‘an extraordinary piece of work’.

Eighteen years on, I’m now a full-time practising multimedia artist. Although I don’t welcome the ill-health the stroke stills delivers each and every day, as an artist I value immensely the insights it has given me into art and, more importantly, what it is to be human.

Throughout centuries, artists have played a major part in helping us to understand how we perceive the world around us.  Art, after all, is primarily driven by perceptual exploration. In my case, stroke damaged all of my senses and continues to do so today.  But its impact upon my artwork and the way I think about art has been wonderful.  When things break down, it is often then easier to understand how they function when they’re working properly.  And so it was with my stroke.

I’m now visually impaired, but I better understand how we see. My sense of taste and sense of pain have been damaged, but I now better understand and value the roles these senses play, and how they might differ from person to person. Similarly, my audio processing has been damaged.  This gives me altered insights into the complex nature of sound.  For me, stroke is a multimedia disability:  I have a little bit of most disabilities. Therefore I’m able to have some sort of empathy with a wide variety of conditions. Although I’ve never set out to explore my stroke through my art, that is what has happened.  All of my art is touched by stroke in some way,  which is an inevitable outcome because this is who I am now, and the person I was before my stroke no longer exists.

Throughout the years since my stroke, I’ve been increasingly interested in my altered subjective experiences caused by my condition, something that’s been reflected in all of my art since The Dog that Barked like a Bird. Arts Council England has been wonderfully supportive since 2004, by enabling me to present my post-stroke art to a wide and diverse audience. This work has included the performance of one of my plays, interactive sound sculptures, creative workshops, sound installations, and my recent two-year project entitled, Cathedra 900.

Cathedra 900 at Exeter Cathedral: (left) 3D banner exhibition, (right) ‘900 Years Of Light’ mulitmedia performance

Cathedra 900 took place during 2012 and 2013 and was a multimedia, multi-event interpretation of Exeter Cathedral’s remarkable 900 year timeline. The first part of Cathedra 900 was an exhibition of anaglyph 3D artwork banners that were displayed in Exeter Cathedral’s nave throughout August and September 2012.  Visitors wore red/blue specs to view the images in 3D.  A virtual reality tour created by Peter Stephens of this exhibition can be found at http://cathedra900.com/virtual-tour/virtualtour.html Cathedra 900 concluded during October 2013 with my multimedia performance entitled, ’900 Years of Light’, that featured video projections, spoken narrative and live classical music.

I am currently developing an ambitious art/science collaboration with Professor Hugo D Critchley at Brighton and Sussex Medical School that will investigate how natural vs artificial light and sound affect the brain. I’m particularly interested in the role that memory plays in the perception of sound and light. The research side of this activity will build on a significant amount of existing research that has concluded that exposure to natural environments has a positive impact on wellbeing and health.

My hope is that the artistic outcomes from this collaboration will include another multimedia performance, and two soundscape and light installations, one of which will be adapted for the benefit of people with neurological conditions such as stroke, autism and cerebral palsy.

In recognition of these developments with Professor Hugo Critchley, I’m proud to have recently been awarded the title of Honorary Research Fellow at Brighton and Sussex Medical School.

Through all these words I don’t want to say that ‘stroke is good for you!’ But I hope they show that people who survive stroke can continue on to enjoy an exciting and rewarding life and that art can play an important role in recovery.’ – Mark Ware 2014