Arts for All: Virtual Connections – a new digital arts programme

In March 2020, with the Coronavirus pandemic unfolding in the UK, the decision was made with a heavy heart to temporarily suspend the CW+ Arts for All programme. This extensive programme of performances and participatory workshops is at the heart of the ‘arts in health’ offer for patients of Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust: in the period from September 2019 to January 2020, across both Chelsea and Westminster and West Middlesex University hospitals, the programme had reached over 6,500 patients, staff and visitors, with 20 artists delivering over 200 sessions. 

The CW+ arts team immediately set to work coordinating a new programme that could be delivered remotely, and within just a few weeks the CW+ Arts for All: Virtual Connections initiative began to take shape. The new programme, which officially launched on Wednesday 20th May, is an on-demand video service comprising a diverse range of arts and mindfulness activities and performances, delivered to patients for free via bedside Hospedia TV units, and also accessible online for those in the local community. With current circumstances continuing to prohibit ward visits by our resident artists, Virtual Connections aims to digitally reconnect these same artists with patients, and thus continue to provide some of the benefits that arts participation can bring to this setting (for more information on the many benefits to health and wellbeing that come with engaging with the arts, see the Creative Health report).

The new programme is entirely web-based, allowing new content from artists to be uploaded on a weekly basis, and also enabling them to react to questions or requests that are made by viewers through established feedback channels. Embedded feedback surveys also enable CW+ to capture evaluation data on how patients and other viewers are using the content, and the impact it might be having on their wellbeing, allowing for the continuous evolution of the programme’s delivery and content.

Stills from Arts For All Virtual Connections videos

This new approach to arts engagement within an acute healthcare setting comes at a time when many arts practitioners are exploring alternative online ways of working. Against a background of severe economic hardship, artists continue to find ways of creating and performing, as well as sustaining existing communities across the arts. Many artists have turned to online performance and collaboration, made possible by increasing access to video and sound editing technology in recent years: perhaps the most obvious example of this is the proliferation of ‘lockdown’ bands, orchestras and choirs, ranging from self-isolating amateur groups such as Gareth Malone’s Great British Home Chorus, to ‘at home’ performances by professional ensembles such as the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

As artists have adapted their practice to the limitations and opportunities of remote working, effective strategies for audience engagement have quickly begun to emerge. To find out more about these, I spoke to three artists who have created content for the new Arts for All: Virtual Connections programme: Jessica and Emily Evans of the vintage dance and music acts Twin Swing and Satin Dollz, and prolific hospital harpist Mark Levin. All three have become adept at working online in recent weeks, creating and publishing regular video-based content for large online audiences.

Emily Evans explained that their approach to performances on video was to ‘try to keep them as similar to a gig as possible’. But her sister and fellow performer Jessica said that video-based dance classes are much more complicated: ‘That’s trickier, because you really do rely on seeing how people are getting it or picking it up before you move onto the next step… but you’ve got no idea if anyone is following along at home, you’re just going “hope that everyone’s getting that!” – there’s no way of knowing at all’. They suggested that maintaining a sense of energy is essential: ‘You have to keep the energy going, because you’re trying to drag people off their sofas’.

Satin Dollz performing at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital

Mark Levin suggests that the loss of face-to-face interaction with a patient can perhaps be made up for by a focus on visual interest, and has experimented with adding in landscapes and other imagery into his video performances: ‘Live, you’ve got the interaction, you talk to people, they might request something or you might just see where it goes. But on a video they’re just sat watching, so the visual element hopefully replaces some of the interactivity’. He also adds that this level of video editing means ‘learning a new skill, trying things out… learning along the way, which is not a bad thing’. 

All three artists mentioned the use of themes as a useful way of structuring content in pre-recorded videos. Levin explained that by choosing a clear theme, potential viewers know what to expect from a video performance: ‘What I’ve tried to do with any video stuff is to theme it a lot more. I’ve done a couple of social media things where I’ve done a Disney set, and people are coming to watch a Disney set and they know exactly what it’s going to be’. Also discussing a Disney-themed performance, Emily Evans highlighted that theming of content might be easier when recording at home: ‘I think tailoring the theme can be a lot easier when doing these online videos, because you can just rummage around what you’ve got at home – it doesn’t necessarily have to look professional but you can theme it really well’.

The artists also reflected on the key differences between live ‘in-person’ performances and non-live pre-recorded videos. A common theme was the loss of direct interaction in recorded performances: ‘On the wards it’s really patient-led’, explained Mark Levin. ‘As much as having a repertoire there, you just go in and see what happens, and you let the patients and audience drive it. Whereas on a video, that doesn’t really happen’. Jessica Evans emphasised the personal and conversational value of live performance: ‘So much of it, when I think of the best moments of when we were going into the wards, was when we were able to go straight up to someone personally and have a conversation after we’d danced – about that routine, about that song’. Unpredictability and improvisation are also key aspects of live performance, in which, as Emily Evans said, ‘Anything could happen, we’re challenging ourselves and our confidence is growing as we’re doing it’. For Levin, a performance on a ward ‘can turn into anything… It’s fun, it’s all very improvised’.  

Mark Levin taking his harp sessions onto the hospital wards

By contrast, recorded performances that are uploaded online are fixed and, to an extent, permanent, which presents new practical considerations for artists. Levin reflected on this: ‘Although a live performance happens once, a video just exists and exists. You can create something and people can come back to it time after time… It means I’ll have to learn a lot more songs! That’s maybe not a bad thing either’. This is perhaps balanced out by the opportunity for increased scope and variety that recorded work might bring, including collaborations and special guests: ‘We did a [virtual] concert on the weekend with a Fred Astaire tribute act and a Marilyn Monroe impersonator from LA’, explained Jessica Evans, ‘That’s the kind of thing that we just wouldn’t be able to provide in London hospitals’.

What is clear from these comments is that digital recorded performances are no substitute for the personal interaction of performing in person, a sentiment most artists and audiences would probably agree with. However, in terms of broadening accessibility to the arts, particularly at a time of restricted access to clinical spaces, digital media clearly have an important role to play. As time goes on, such technology may form a central part of how arts in health organisations such as CW+ can effectively reach vulnerable and isolated communities, and programmes such as Arts for All: Virtual Connections may yet prove to be a model for the effective implementation of this in acute healthcare settings. Furthermore, continued technological progression may yet allow for the wider implementation of ‘live’ video solutions, potentially returning some of the artist-audience interaction that pre-recorded videos lack.

Debates around the validity of recorded art versus the ‘real thing’ will no doubt continue, as they have done since the dawn of recorded media. One of the earliest notable examples of this was Walter Benjamin’s 1935 article The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In this he reflected on the transformational potential of film – still one of the newest artforms at the time – and perhaps his thoughts on this might give us optimism as we consider the future relationship between technology and the arts:

“[Film] manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling.”

Andrew Hall is a musician, composer, arranger, improviser and researcher. He is currently Music and Sound Research Consultant at CW+.

Twitter @andrewhallmusic
Instagram @doctorandy33