Researcher Spotlight: Alex Julyan
Artist Alex Julyan is one of our Wellcome Trust Public Engagement Fellows. Her work takes her from festivals to hospital waiting rooms, exploring the relationship between the architecture of healthcare buildings and the wellbeing of the people who use them…
What are you working on?
I’m currently in the very early stages of a project to create an experimental building in Brighton. By using a fluid and sustainable design and construction process, I will try to unpick questions about what healthcare architecture is and can be, and what is both possible and desirable. I’ll be working with a number of partners on the design and medical side, but the key collaborators will be local users of healthcare spaces. I’m fascinated to see how their ideas can be represented authentically in design terms.
What does your average day involve?
Apart from a kick-start cup of coffee in the morning each day is a fluid thing. My aim is never to have an average day – perhaps as a result of being in the arts I’m almost pathologically routine averse!
As a hands-on maker, technology is both a liberator and a ball-and-chain – it has certainly shifted my ability to carve out the all-important dreamtime, silence and nothingness – the lifeblood of creativity. This is the most sought after thing that eludes me on many days.
Why is your work relevant to the world of science?
I struggle sometimes to think of my work in terms of science. With regard to my Fellowship projects, I would define myself as being at the social end of science, where – arguably – culture can insert itself more readily in nuanced ways, and the conversation between the disciplines of art and science is less overt.
Collaboration has always been a vital part of my practice and because my projects currently sit under the umbrella of health, I can offer methods and processes of enquiry driven by a creative as well as a social sensibility.
What do you hope the impact of your work will be?
This is something I’m pretty realistic about, perhaps in a lifetime of work I’ll manage to affect individual lives here and there. I hope I occasionally leave people reflecting a little differently on their world through the magical filter of art. Of course it’s a two-way process, I’ve been privileged to exchange ideas with such an incredible range of individuals over the course of my career, this has affected my own perspective and shifted it considerably many times.
How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?
I’ve never been anything but an artist at heart and was hugely encouraged and supported by my parents. Although they had limited means I felt as though I had a constant supply of materials, books, and cultural input, but most of all I was given the freedom to make, experiment and be solitary.
I was also brought up in a strongly socialist household, so the idea of an artist being apart from the rest of society is quite foreign to me. Where better than in healthcare architecture to bring these two driving forces together? As someone who is neither from a medical or architectural background I’m well placed to ask the awkward questions.
How has Wellcome funding helped your career?
I have never been short of ideas, but the biggest challenge in an artist’s life tends to be the filthy lucre, or lack of it. This funding is entirely liberating, giving me the confidence to test my own potential in the field of socially relevant architecture; to try and create something that arguably asks many more questions than it answers.
The Fellowship has come at a time when formalised arts engagement has moved increasingly towards an ‘outcome’ based culture, the up-side of this is that artists are kicking against this with a multitude of creative approaches that re-connect to society. I feel very fortunate to be in that camp, and with Wellcome’s finely crafted buttresses supporting me.
What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?
It used to be something along the lines of: “What about that Damian Hurst / Tracey Emin / Grayson Perry then…?”
I’m disinterested in the cult of the celebrity artist and don’t align myself with that notion of success. There are so many other extraordinarily dynamic, hard working and reflective artists whose work may never be visible, but they are interrogating ideas in interesting, articulate and important ways.
Another question, a very reasonable one is, “what kind of art do you make?” Describing abstract thinking manifested in a visual object is a real challenge. I think it’s really important as an artist to step up to the plate on this one, so if you see me around you can ask me.
Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?
Polarised views of artists are often centred on the idea that we are either: romantic, slightly ethereal, crazed figures who have opted out of society’s norms, or cynical and opaque – setting out to ‘get one over’ on an unsuspecting public.
The value of art to our broader society is very complex, not simply quantifiable in monetary or social terms and it’s a mistake to see culture as an ‘add on’ rather than an essential. So the question I dread is one that reflects a particular value-based approach: “What’s the point of being an artist if you don’t earn any money from it?”
Tell us something about you that might surprise us…
In 1991 I helped to buy an ambulance for a town called Todos Santos. I was traveling in the highlands of Guatemala with a friend who was considering a career in journalism, and to test her burgeoning skills we went to interview a nurse working in a small community clinic.
After the interview, as a parting shot I asked him if we could send any supplies from the UK when we returned and to my amazement his response was: “well, we really need an ambulance”. Within the year the three of us had raised the money and found a second hand vehicle for the town. I still have an amazing photograph of the townspeople surrounding the vehicle that became their first ambulance.
What keeps you awake at night?
I love sleeping, so not much keeps me awake. Keeping a perspective on things is the best kind of sleeping draft. Frustration occasionally rears its head – especially if a lack of support is keeping me from my ideas, so I’m looking forward to an extended period of restorative slumber thanks to Wellcome.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“Start at the top and work your way down”.
It means, when cold-calling (one of the best survival mechanisms for a freelancer), always cut to the chase by starting with the person at the top of the chain. My Dad who was a working class Londoner gave my brother and me this advice, and his mother gave it to him. Generations of Julyans have interpreted it in their own peculiar way. It doesn’t always work, but it always gets me back on my horse.
The chain-reaction question, set by our previous spot-lit researcher, Professor Abdisalan Noor is this: What excites you most about your work?
The endless possibilities that lie ahead in terms of self-generated projects, means that life feels dare-devilish at times. I have serious ideas and direction in my work, how those ideas are manifest however, can change from day to day. I really can’t predict who I will be working with, or what I will be doing a year from now. The most exciting thing about my work is that I have a total belief in art as a means of communication, I love that this is a complex and contradictory discipline. And dare I say it – not an exact science.