Business, science, capital… Art?

I attended the 6th Annual Global Health Research Conference on June 2-3, put on by the U of T’s Centre for International Health. The conference explored the intersections between art and public health, posing such questions as “Why does art matter to health?”, “How do we challenge global inequity through innovative community engagement?” and simply, “How does art heal?”

From the speaker list, it’s clear that these are no longer considered frivolous questions; an impressive array of presenters from a variety of sectors and locales were featured, most notably Nobel laureate Dr. James Orbinski, who delivered the keynote address.

Surprisingly, the conference placed equal (if not more) emphasis on the links between art and innovation in public health as between art and well-being. As one might expect, no one proposed a hard-and-fast or generic relationship between art and science. The conference’s eclecticism rather suggested ways of thinking about these areas, and why there is no good reason to see them as mutually exclusive.

My interpretation is that both art and science—and the challenges of global health—are essentially creative enterprises. Though it is a crass generalization to dichotomize science as rational and art as intuitive, each has its advantages and limitations as a descriptive language. Art can be an effective way of apprehending scientific issues and is often a more effective means of gaining, articulating and communicating creative insights. The conference presented many examples of how art has informed science (and vice versa) not only in the process of discovery, but in finding more effective ways of tackling public health issues.

My favourite example came from Dr. Bruce Ballon, a psychiatrist at CAMH and the U of T’s Faculty of Medicine. Dr. Ballon described an interactive online game he is developing. One player is a space explorer that crash landed on Mars (not MaRS, though some might find this story familiar), and has to fight for her life to escape hordes of hostile Martians. The other players are emergency room doctors who must deal with player one, whom they find to be high on crystal meth and suffering from paranoid delusions. Afterwards, the players share their perspectives on the situation. One can see the relevance for such professions as medicine or law enforcement.

The conference added another layer to my understanding of the term “convergence innovation,” and resonated strongly with many of the same themes with which MaRS grapples. In fact, I would say that it broke the term open completely; one could argue that sports, bad T.V. or the most random of experiences could be just the source of unexpected inspiration that one needs. That said, art is probably one of the more focused and productive applications of one’s creative energies. But at least for the time being, business, science and capital are a good start.