The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown have propelled most of us to avail of digital and video platforms as never before. Under these stringent circumstances, near universal technologies of connection have helped to reduce social isolation and have provided a means of continuity of care for our clients. In this article, I want to explore some implications in relation to this change and to say something about how I am currently practicing art therapy, in the hope of starting a wider conversation.
Spoiler alert: I have questions and misgivings as I struggle to integrate digital technologies into my practice. As art therapists, our habitual ways of working have been upended. Recourse to online working has been anxiety provoking for those of us less familiar with engaging remotely. But some creative therapists practicing via digital platforms experience a sense of liberation from the habitual intensity of the traditional encounter; finding it easier to be detached and “more efficient”, as reported to me recently. However contingent and useful these platforms may be, and “better than nothing”, I think it would be wrong to underestimate just how radically this change of boundaries and context impacts our work. Judging from my remaining clients under lockdown, the existential nature of this crisis is re-stimulating past traumatic experiences. This level of stimulation, for some, is over and above levels of anxiety formerly presented in the consulting room. Therefore, self-isolation, cocooning, and social distancing exacts a psychological price, effectively reversing the evolutionary advantage of human reliance on proximal co-operation developed over millennia.
Aldridge, J. (2019) Encaustic [Mixed media]. Beara Peninsula, Cork: Private Collection.
Video platforms seem to work very well for some clients, where self-esteem, shame or intimacy issues make face to face encounters more challenging. For digital natives in the younger demographic, video platforms are a natural source of connection and community. By virtue of its immediacy and ease of access, digital communication relieves the client of having to travel to a dedicated location. The benefit to our natural and urban environments is already apparent in reports of clearer skies, awareness of birdsong and a greater sense of relatedness to the natural world.
However, in its function as a space apart, the designated studio or consulting room supported the shift of awareness from outer attention to interior exploration, within a physically embodied, time-boundary.
Additionally, the transitional space of the commute before and after therapy sessions served to reinforce that boundary and facilitated the client's anticipation of interiority and subsequent integration of material explored within the session.
Putting poor connections, drop out issues, and time lags aside, the distanced encounter of video platforms means that the provision of art making materials, space and storage shifts to become the responsibility of the client. From a behavioural point of view, this may be of benefit, in as far as the client must now take responsibility for their own art work and, by inference, their own process. However, in a home context, materials may be limited, space may be inadequate or unsafe, and storage non-existent. This arrangement challenges the focus and intentionality of a designated space or studio designed to facilitate both the client's art making and the therapist’s capacity for containment of the client's inner world. As therapists, we know the importance of “holding” the clients’ psychic material, as symbolised by the literal keeping the art work safe, until such time as the client is able to “carry it” themselves. This is especially relevant where a witnessed, supported regression to an earlier traumatic experience may be the key to recovery. Of course, the current pandemic has complicated the therapeutic encounter by virtue of both client and therapist existing in the collective field of trauma. Under present conditions, it is likely they are both experiencing shared sadness and a more acute sense of the unknown than previously. It may be that projected fantasies (transferred onto the therapist) are more easily expressed by clients at a distance via online platforms.
Video platforms can encourage disinhibition on the part of the client or the therapist if both mistake the medium to be neutral. The exposure of private space is a window on a clients’ personal possessions and choice of décor, which may prove surprising to the therapist, who risks being genuinely flooded with too much seeing. The understandable wish on the part of clients to share their brother’s pet guinea pig, the trophy they won for last week’s online chess tournament, or their lifetime’s collection of album covers, may prove more compelling than the prospect of making art. There can also be visible evidence of unsafe or poor conditions, that would not otherwise come to light in the consulting room setting.
Aldridge, J. (2020) Umbra Mundi [Collage with metal thread and lace]. Beara Peninsula, Cork: Private Collection.
Small screen viewing essentially reduces the therapeutic encounter to heads floating in virtual space. This image is so familiar to everyone from television and other screen viewing, that we no longer register its implicit depersonalisation, incorporeality and tendency towards immobility. By virtue of this common association with “talking heads”, we may unconsciously privilege speech when confronted with a screen.
Silences of engagement and reverie on the part of client and therapist, that serve to deepen the connection with self and other, are easily lost. Spontaneous pauses and silences, so important in art therapy, become unrecognisable online.
As if by compensation, a surreal frontal gaze occurs, which the client may experience as alienating or overly intimate. Gestural cues are now located in facial expressions rather than body language. The therapist must learn to navigate the image in the frame of the camera lens, incorporating the potentially distracting or disconcerting "thumbnail reflection" of oneself "as therapist", that appears at the screen-edge of some video platforms.
The screen, existing as a powerful medium in its own right, can provide a facilitating "fourth presence" in addition to the relationship between therapist, client and artwork. But my sense is that it can easily predominate, relegating the physical image to the background, usurping the crucial third element and diluting the containing function of the made image. The nature of therapeutic engagement can then shift emphatically to the relationship channel. This may go some way to explaining why working virtually demands rather more of therapists’ capacity for attunement, containment and authentic presence. Grounding and centring techniques may prove to be even more relevant than before. Intuitively, I consider that more energy, heightened voice expression and facial gestures are necessary to enhance the art therapist’s sense of being present for the client. These and other considerations may shed light on reports of fatigue on the part of therapists now working remotely. I have noted that some practitioners are reducing the length of sessions, presumably to offset these reactions.
Aldridge, J. (2020) Mercury Rising [Mixed media collage]. Beara Peninsula, Cork: Private Collection.
I am personally more comfortable with face-to-face encounters. I have so far experienced remote viewing, via screens, as a loss of nuanced interpersonal communication. I realise that, in part, this may reflect the lack of an external microphone and the limits of working from a laptop with a poor wi-fi connection. During lockdown, therefore, I have chosen to limit video platform technologies to working with established supervision clients. It has been easier to connect with therapy clients by scheduled phone calls, proceeded by an emailed image. I am confident in my capacity to attend to the client's tone and voice map and feel that in turn my vocal responses are more nuanced. This mutual “loss of face” needs to be named and acknowledged, however, as absence of the therapeutic gaze.
The client agrees to send their art images a day before the scheduled session. Some processing has already begun for both parties. Client and therapist incubate the images overnight, lending the possibility of “dreaming the dream on”.
This approach seems to facilitate a deeper mutual engagement with the image than might normally have been expected.
Aldridge, J. (2020) Corona [Mixed media collage]. Beara Peninsula, Cork: Private Collection.
In summary, I feel that the advantages and disadvantages of remote working technologies need to be weighed up according to the individual circumstances and mutual preferences of therapists and clients. Currently, I am finding that the combination of emailed images and the relative security of landline communication is supporting a deeper sense of "interiority" than the "out there-ness" of screen-based communication.
The challenges of new norms, which are still in process, seem to demand an awareness of online security issues, greater safeguarding, and personal safety issues. In this transition phase, the need for mutual support and ongoing learning is surely underlined. The demanding time of COVID-19 may be the most profound bedrock of social and cultural change in our lifetimes. If that proves to be the case, our ability to discriminate and implement that which chimes with our deepest values as therapists and arts practitioners may be key to our future trajectory as a profession.
Aldridge, J. (2020) Beara. [Photograph]. Beara Peninsula, Cork: Private Collection.
Julie Aldridge was a founding member of the MA Art Therapy training (Crawford College of Art and Design, Crawford Institute of Technology), where she taught for many years. Since leaving her teaching position, she has given experiential workshops, collaborative training, and bespoke professional development events for interested groups and organizations. Julie continues to be engaged in therapeutic practice, largely through remote individual and group supervision, and is currently working to create an online workshop around the theme of fairy tales. Her approach could be described as a synthesis of intuitive and esoteric knowledge, located within the parameters of archetypal psychology. Julie considers that alchemy, in particular, is a little known, underappreciated model of process that is supportive of individual and collective transformation.
Julie is an active member of Hungry Hill Writers group. She continues to paint and write, mostly poetry, in an effort to locate the edges of an unknown Self, unconstrained by four walls. Her work is a response to living remotely on the beautiful Beara peninsula with her life partner, a veteran border collie, and a one-eyed cat with post traumatic stress disorder.