The Barometer of My Heart Visual Matrix Research and Evaluation project

Froggett, Lynn orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-8406-6231, Manley, Julian Y orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-2548-8033 and Wainwright, John Peter orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-8190-0144 (2017) The Barometer of My Heart Visual Matrix Research and Evaluation project. Project Report. University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Preston.

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This report is the outcome of an in-depth study of audience reception of an artwork which itself involved years of in-depth inquiry and prolonged collaboration between artist, Mark Storor, and consultant endocrinologist, Dr Leighton Seal. The work was produced by Anna Ledgard in association with Artsadmin and was supported by a Wellcome Trust Large Arts Award and the Arts Council England. The Barometer of My Heart is an exploration through visual art and performance of men’s experiences of erectile dysfunction and impotence. In the popular imagination there is often a simple equation between the two that belies their complexity and diversity. Depending on circumstance and perspective, erectile dysfunction may be perceived as an issue related primarily to health, to intimate sexual relationships to performance in other spheres of life, to male identities or to the condition of masculinity in late modernity.

It follows that although erectile dysfunction and impotence are related, they are not co-extensive. The former can be thought of as a bio-medical condition that afflicts individual men and has a wide range of physical and psychological correlates. It may be a symptom of a serious underlying health condition that demands assessment and interventi on– the title of the work draws attention to erectile dysfunction as an early warning of developing heart disease. However impotence is also existential, psychosocial and societal in its ramifications. In the performative cultures of contemporary western societies it signifies powerlessness, loss of agency and a failure to play one’s part. As such it is a challenge for men and women alike.

The Barometer of my Heart arose in part from the wall of public silence and private despair that surrounds these issues – only too often met with incomprehension and fear. In the absence of public health education, erectile dysfunction attracts negative projections that may or may not be internalised. Men may delay seeking help with potential deadly consequences1. Impotence can be regarded as something to be worked through with professional healthcare and supportive relationships or it may be experienced as a source of shame and a psychosocial catastrophe. What then are the conditions for compassionate understanding and an enlightened public conversation? The Barometer of My Heart uses visual, acoustic and digital media in a performance to communicate matters that all too often have been shrouded in secrecy. It does this through a process of artistic enactment and symbolization rather than representation – in other words it presents its audiences with forms for the inchoate and unspoken feelings that the subject arouses.

The audiences in our study made use of these cultural forms, mingling them with personal life experiences. We expected that their engagement would be accompanied by anxiety, fear, desire and perhaps hope –and that the scenes of the show would create a ‘third space’ where unacknowledged and unrecognized emotions could find expression and emerge into consciousness, perhaps for the first time. We had reason to believe that interviews or focus groups, relying on participants’ verbal accounts of experience, would fail to capture this emergent process. For this reason we used a recently developed group based method – the visual matrix2 – that gives expression through imagery and affect to what is ‘known’ but as yet ‘unthought’.3 When we began this study the method had already been used to assess civic engagement with public art, but not in such an intimate and private area of experience.4 Whereas our primary aim has been to understand and account for audience engagement with The Barometer of My Heart, a secondary aim has been to determine whether the visual matrix is a suitable method to study an artwork that deals with a subject that is hard to think about, hard to speak of and very often hard to bear.

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