Interview: Aimee Mullins

by Lara Johnson-Wheeler .

Depending on what the needs were of the person on the day that they were in there, they could channel the nebulous feeling in that room, of something misty that goes off into the distance and blurs the lines.

Lara Johnson-Wheeler: Tell me about your first impressions of Eileen Skellern 1.

Aimee Mullins: Sterile is the word. Everything there was very white - the overhead fluorescent lighting is really harsh on the senses. It was sterile in the sense that even the meeting room we were sitting in was just devoid of any personality, any sense of warmth, any sense of humanness. I know how depressed I felt being there for a few hours - it was kind of an assault. Between the smells of the cleaning supplies and the overhead direct lighting, it didn’t matter how late you were there, there is no sense of the time of the day or about unwinding and relaxing and reflecting. I found that very disorienting and upsetting. It wasn’t like I was shocked. I wasn’t shocked by any of it, but if you are in a very vulnerable state you are already at your most raw. To feel further assaulted by your environment is horrible, and what [Niamh White and Tim A Shaw] are doing, is an amazing public service to remedy.

LJW: It's interesting that you mentioned this feeling of sterility, as part of what you created as your piece for the Hospital Rooms project is a scent.

AM: Yes. I wanted to do more, but due to parameters with regard to safety, the big taptile I wanted to do wasn’t really possible. I chose a space that I felt I could make very womb-like and feel like a safe little nook. The chairs are bolted down, the table is bolted down, so there are things you can’t affect other than to try and free the environment around that. Changing the light was important. The staff were so interested in this project, not just the service users:  also the people who work there, who work in extraordinarily intense circumstances. The influx is changing all the time. You might have someone who is coming to the end of their stay and is in a much better emotional place, and you might get someone who is arriving who is super vulnerable, maybe explosive, maybe violent. The environment affects everyone in that space.

LJW: Did you have a chance to speak to the service users and the staff?

AM: To the service users no, but to the staff yes of course. When I was there it was a very tense day because they had a new service user in, who was incredibly agitated and had been violent. Just being in that space - that raw, vulnerable space where service users are - being in that space alone, was enough to make you feel like we can do something about this and we must do something about this. We know the potency of art in any context, but one can't deny its transportive quality, possibly palliative quality. Art is often meant to agitate, but in this context it was palliative. The staff were great. Very amenable. What Niamh and Tim have managed to do is quite extraordinary. It really is - to get government grants and to collaborate with the people they have, and to keep the staff in an open frame of mind. I remember trying to say to the staff as kindly as possible 'do the lights have to be like this, really?' You know the cold bluish light was so… no one feels good in that lighting, no one. So I think they understood me when I talked about this feeling of wanting something that felt safe and also possibly transformative. I spent a lot of times in hospitals as a child, I know the places I would seek out. You know, little spaces, nooks and crannies that someone had helped make more personal. 

LJW: It sounds like you were able to have both a sense of being an observer and the ability to see the space from your own perspective. Did you draw on personal experience?

AM: I did in a sense. The space I chose wasn’t a hallway, it wasn’t one of the big rooms; it was a small room, because I wanted something safe feeling. I wanted a feeling of invitation by extending the tree branches designs outside of the little room following into the corridor. It was this idea that you can go and sit there if you have to have a talk with your counselor or if you had a family member visit, you could be in that space and feel like you could breathe out. Somehow metaphorically the oxygen from the trees and the greenery could be something that helped you let your shoulders come down for whatever time you were going to be in there. 

LJW: It sounds very much like what you were trying to create was an environment for escape. Do you think that’s something important for people in these areas and in these spaces?

AM: It was twofold - it was escape, if that’s what was desired and also contemplation, maybe the escape within, it could be something meditative. I wanted this feeling of mist, the feeling of when a fog comes in and everything becomes a little bit dreamlike, that’s what I wanted. Depending on what the needs were of the person on the day that they were in there, they could channel the nebulous feeling in that room, of something misty that goes off into the distance and blurs the lines. You know it’s not contained in the lines of this box. To feel like you could be in this magical den that at once transports you into the landscape if you wanted, you could feel safe to look inwards and maybe have some healing.

LJW: Is there anything more you’d like to tell me about working on this space, Aimee? 

AM: Just that I am very excited! I hope that this project goes throughout and even outside  the United Kingdom, so we can start to see it happening in other places. Certainly the United States is a place that does not invest in its most vulnerable people, unfortunately. I just think in a time when the arts are under assault by our government, it’s so important for people to understand that art doesn’t need to be practical. That although that’s not its role, there are absolutely applications where that should happen. It is therapeutic and it matter, it really does.

LJW: I couldn’t agree more. It would be a wonderful thing to see Hospital Rooms grow in the way you describe.

AM: You know, I heard a statistic yesterday at the TED conference that one in six Americans will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. We need to remember that we have exploding rates of depression everywhere, suicidal thoughts everywhere, that bullying and cyber-bullying is very real and incredibly damaging and this attention to one’s environment, especially to our most vulnerable is vital. It’s very powerful and we should celebrate that. I am so proud that I got asked to work with this project because no one is doing this kind of stuff in the US.

LJW: Aimee, thank you so much for talking to me tonight! It’s been such a privilege talking to people who have worked on this project because everyone has had such different perspectives.

AM: It will be fascinating to read about that. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to talk to the other artists who were working at the unit, so I will be very interested to hear about their experience.