Market? What Market? In discussion with Laurence Aëgerter

by Unseen2 September 16 2018

Market? What Market? is a discussion between Unseen Amsterdam Book Market and Photobook Week Aarhus which explores the role of the photobook market today. Now In its second year, the focus is turned to finding solutions for the photobook field's challenges.

Joining the discussion for this year's edition is Laurence Aëgerter, an Amsterdam-based artist who created Photographic Treatment ©, a publication which aims to serve as a therapeutic tool for people suffering from dementia. We had a chat with Laurence about the project.   

How did you decide to address specifically elderly people with dementia through your project?
In 2015 Hans Looijen, the director of the Museum of the Mind, Haarlem proposed to create a new work and he named dementia as one of the themes he wanted to address in the museum in the coming years. I was so deeply touched by the frightening destiny of a person with dementia and the people around them when I started researching the disease, that I decided that I wanted to develop an instrument based on photography useful to their physical and mental condition.

What was exactly the role of the scientists you collaborated with?
I consulted neurologists, psycho-geriatricians and dementia care experts mostly in the early stages of my research and kept in touch with some along the way, asking for their critical feedback. Prof Dr. Rose-Marie Droës helped me design a scientific pilot research project which I worked on together with a student in clinical psychology. Together we visited 40 people in an advanced stage of Alzheimer's; I showed them a set of 20 images while the psychology student observed the reactions. Dr. Rose-Marie Droës supervised the overall research.

Photographic Treatment is available in multiple formats: as downloadable photo packages, photo’s silkscreened with fragrances, a series of five books and 100 photo blocks, with photos printed on a lightweight plastic. How did you decide on these formats?
The project became a bit tentacular. The basic principle is that associating images proves to be a strong medium to stimulate the brain. I started with photographic diptychs as photographic prints which I silkscreened with soothing or stimulating fragrances such as eucalyptus, soap, caraway or garden rose. This experiment is based upon the principle of synaesthesia, a multi-sensory experience that triggered by stimulating cognitive pathways. The brain is activated by the simultaneous use of sight, touch and smell. This part of the experiment is only effective for people in the earlier stages of dementia, as the association of images and verbalisation becomes too difficult for persons with advanced dementia.

Later on, I was looking for a way to develop a group activity for people in a day or residential care environments based on the image pairing principle. After much trial and error, I discovered that it works well to enable individuals to create their own diptychs and share their creations with the group. Thus, I developed a multiple: a box which includes 100 loose photo blocks together with the five books which serve as inspiration for combining images. The first implementation took place in 2017 when 37 group and individual photo-interventions took place for a total of 388 elderly people with dementia in 13 care institutions in the Netherlands. It’s currently in use by 12 Dutch care institutions.

To make the effect of photographs on a person in a late stage of dementia visible, I created the video work The Living Image. In this piece, a lady comments on a dozen photographs. It is very touching to hear her wander through the landscapes, talk to children, and in between address the frustration of her state.

On the website I developed people can easily get acquainted with the method and its tools. They can download about 1300 images for free from the database I created specifically for people with a visual impairment due to senile dementia. It is of course far from being exhaustive or ‘finished’, the image stock could grow but it is a good base.

For how long do you plan to implement and monitor the project?
It officially stopped last December, but the project was supported by a number of generous grants from art and care institutions. I have spent a lot of time in the last six months addressing the responses of individuals and the press. My aim is to start a broader national implementation plan for which I am currently looking for a team that would work autonomously on it. It is challenging as I am working on new art projects and monitoring such a phase takes up a lot of time. I hope that art institutions caring for the inclusion of vulnerable members of the public could play a role in the development of the project.

You worked on the project with Art in Societies Foundation, and Photographic Treatment © became an example of a photobook which broke through the photographic bubble. What do you think of capacity of a form of a photobook to reach out to new audiences and address society at large?

When I started this project I clearly had in my mind that it would only be a success when its functional relevance would be as valid as its artistic autonomous quality. I kept both goals equal in my mind throughout the two-year process of developing the Photographic Treatment © project. When it got to the final of the National Care Innovation Prize a year ago and when CNN Health devoted a long article to it, I thought this is really special.

Art has transversal powers as it is free of discipline rules, by which I mean it can address any condition from an outsider perspective.  When ‘l’Art pours Art’ absolutely has its right of existence and a profound meaning for the human condition it is certainly important to practice Art with a multi-disciplinary approach. Images can play a serious role in the support of wellbeing of persons. It is my belief that in some situation they could replace chemical medicine, for instance in fighting anxiety or depression.

Thank you, Laurence! Want to learn more about Market? What Market? Find out more here

Image: © Laurence Aëgerter / Photographic Treatment ©