Arts and minds

18th April 1997 at 01:00
If, as William Congreve said, "music has charms to soothe a savage breast",can art act as an antidote to the stresses of modern life? On Tuesday this week, at the House of Lords, Lord Campbell of Croy launched an exhibition entitled IT, Art and Mental Health. It consists of two dozen panels, a video and an Internet site on the World Wide Web.

The exhibition represents a coalition between a National Council for Educational Technology project that has been running for the past 12 months and a commercial company, Inclusive Technology, which was willing to put its money where my mouth was.

The exhibition looks glossy and professional, and the Web site works beautifully. But most staggering was the quality and quantity of the artwork generated by what must be some of the most poorly resourced students in the UK.

When the project started in April 1996, no one envisaged quite how many problems the organisers would face, let alone how it would culminate with such a prestigious launch and the prospect of a worldwide audience for the artwork.

The project started with Kaleidoscope in Nuneaton, Warwickshi re, and the ACCESS Centre in Swindon. Charities such as MIND, Sane and the National Schizophrenia Fellowship were consulted, along with further education staff who had expertise in mental health (found on the database at the NCET).

Centres that wished to take part had to have access to computers because there was no money to provide hardware. In the event, facilities varied widely, from a couple of borrowed machines to an extensive suite of Apple Macs.

The graphics training went well - smiling faces, bags of enthusiasm, then a resounding silence. This is not uncommon with such projects, so project workers made visits. This bland description belies the reality, which was more like a visit from a member of a protection racket. The mission might have been fact-finding and exploratory but the end result was the same - a catalogue of problems followed by panic and a promise to produce loads by the end of the month week day.

Not that there was bullying - although I did sit in a day centre in Bromsgrove waiting for one artist to finish her composition, a mixture of computer print-out and paint. I seized it from her and promised to lay it flat on the back seat of my car until it dried. Are all patrons of the arts like this? Insensitiv e? Grasping? Giving out tiny sums of money and then demanding the earth?

Over the months, extra facilities were provided - printers, scanners and Casio digital cameras - but there was no accounting for technical problems.The Brandon Mental Health Unit in Leicester was delighted with the printer but brought us back to earth by asking for a ream of paper as the stationery budget was fully committed. North Birmingham College never got its scanner working properly and to this day no-one knows why. It worked at the NCET, at the suppliers and everywhere else it was tried.

The Casio camera, too, looked promising. It worked well at Dunchurch Management College, producing lovely pictures of buildings, flowers, the fishpond and the textures of bark, cork, stone and grass. But on loan to centres, it turned into a battery-eating monster that never recharged properly.

Gradually the work came together, and each centre developed its own characteristics. There were more than 150 pieces of artwork to whittle down to a final collection of 23. Having sorted the physical show, it was time to turn attention to the Internet exhibition. This is being sponsored by Inclusive Technology, which is featuring it at its newly launched Web site.

The team at Inclusive has worked hard, and there were some difficult decisions to make. Should the site contain every piece of work? Should it have just the pieces that were part of the travelling exhibition? Should it be organised by themes or by centres? Practical considerations forced our hands. The pictures had to be small but easy to see and eye-catching, and there had to be a way to look at lots of thumbnail sketches to choose which pictures to enlarge for viewing.

In other words, visitors to the site had to have lots of information as well as the pictures to make decisions about which images to view and to encourage browsing. This meant text would play a large role. In effect, this shaped the choices. Yes, we would include some of the pictures shortlisted for the exhibition but, as the exhibition was showing in several cybercafs (telephone for details), there would have to be more than the original selection, otherwise there was no point having the Web site.

The focus had to be on images with interesting features that could be written about or which marked a particular style or development for an artist or a centre. They also had to be representative of the whole collection - photos, poetry, abstracts, nature images, people, cartoons, landscapes.

On March 20 the Web site was up - a temporary version - and, although a confirmed Webaphobe, I was surprised when the images loaded and opened at the first attempt. I also noticed that the photo of fireworks from Birmingham was upside down.

There will probably be many more surprises in store as the exhibition tours the UK and the site is picked up by art enthusiasts around the world.

Ironically, some of the artists will never see their work on the Internet as their centres - which produced the work - cannot afford the subscriptions. Some things never change.

Inclusive Technology Web site is at

Sally MacKeown is a senior programme manager with the National Council for Educational Technology. For more information, tel: 0800 387560.

NOTE Microsoft has dropped the #163;10 handling charge for its free Internet Tools offer. Tel: 0345 002000; Web site: http:microsoft.comuk education

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