Art of good health and wellbeing

Explore how the arts are transforming health and education to improve care and wellbeing with acclaimed playwright Wesley Enoch, poet Selina Tusitala Marsh, nursing professor Brendan McCormack and host Claire Hooker (CREATE Centre).

By better integrating the arts into the health system, we can radically enhance living and complement traditional medical interventions, building a community that is both resilient and caring.

Hear insights and provocations from acdemic and industry leaders including: 

As demand on our healthcare sector increases, there is a growing need for innovative approaches to support wellbeing amongst individuals, communities and the most vulnerable.

There's rising interest among clinicians, researchers, healthcare professionals, and policymakers in exploring the intersection of arts and health, and how innovations in arts-health can improve our healthcare outcomes. 

With its potential benefits in self-expression, creativity, and social connection, engagement in the arts, whether as a creator or an observer, can have profound impacts on individuals' emotional, psychological, and even physical states.

Since the release of a 2019 WHO report which identified the contribution that the arts may have in promoting good health and health equity, preventing illness, and treating acute and chronic, non-communicable conditions across the life-course, an evidence-based and scientific approach is being undertaken to establish the case for embedding the arts into healthcare.  

This event was held on Thursday 21 March 2024 at the University of Sydney and was presented with CREATE Centre

On demand

Podcast transcript

[00:00:00] Alex Siegers (Podcast host): Welcome. This is the Sydney Ideas podcast, bringing you public talks and conversations featuring the best and brightest minds at the University of Sydney and beyond.

This podcast is recorded at the University of Sydney's Camperdown campus on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. They've been discovering and sharing knowledge here for tens of thousands of years.

We pay our respects to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

[00:00:32] Claire Hooker: My name is Associate Professor Claire Hooker. We're going to be exploring how innovations in arts and health are improving our healthcare outcomes and how can we better integrate the arts, not just into our health systems, but at community level and in all of our lives to better support each other in that pursuit of health and wellbeing.

I would like to welcome Wesley Enoch, Brendan McCormack and Selina Tusitala Marsh. And I'd like to begin by inviting to the stage internationally renowned, acclaimed playwright and artistic director, Wesley Enoch, who is Professor and Indigenous Chair in the Creative Industries at QUT, Queensland University of Technology.

[00:01:20] Claire Hooker: I'm sure that after all those years at the helm of the Sydney Festival, Sydney claims you as our own anyway. Wesley, welcome and over to you.

[00:01:29] Wesley Enoch: I'm Wesley Enoch.

I'm a theatre director and writer by trade, and I'm a Quandamooka man. My Aboriginal side of my family come from Minjerribah, Stradbroke Island, just off the coast of Brisbane, of which, when I left Sydney Festival, I went and moved back there.

And I've got this wonderful story of connection to place. This house that I'm living in, a group, a family of curlews have actually made their home, and they keep coming back to my house to breed, and the family gets bigger and bigger, and louder and louder. And this sense too of, it's where my grandfather, who I never met, is buried, and never had a tombstone, but we always knew that's where he was buried, because this huge gum tree grew at the head of his grave, and we would always call that tree our grandfather tree.

Cause, that tree was literally the DNA of my grandfather, manifesting as this incredible gum tree that then would be, would host numerous animals and birds that would feed off it or bring things to it or take it away. And there's this literal and figurative DNA of my grandfather in that tree.

And if you think about every time you bury a loved one and their DNA goes into the country that they're buried in and if you multiply that by thousands of generations, you get a sense of this connection. Why are the Curlews coming and living in my house and not in my neighbour’s? Because there's a DNA sense of connection to place that maybe I'm experiencing, they're experiencing.

And this sense of connection to place and storytelling that creates a; on a cellular level, a sense of calmness and serenity. Now, not many people can have that sense of connection and calmness, or a sense of storytelling that goes beyond just the two or three hundred generations. This sense of calmness of being in place and the stories that come from it.

That's what drives me, is to make sure those stories can be told. And what I'm seeing over and over again is the shrinking of the imagination of our nation. Not so much because we think it's good for us, but because we think it's easier to control. A society that is not imaginative, that is not creative, that is held together in one way.

For me, when we were all, you would all have experienced this. Oh no, in New South Wales you didn't do much locking down. But that whole, and I was in Queensland for a bit of that, so you didn't get locked down so much. If you came from Melbourne, you were miserable anyway, you got more miserable later. Joke, joke, joke for those online.

But the sense of saying, we know that we turned to our storytelling, we turned to our art making, we turned to forms of expression to find our own self in the world, we found ways of connecting with each other to make sure that we found our way through it all. We found ways of sitting and taking in other people's stories to put ourselves into perspective to make sure that we were not isolated.

There was a moment when money was not the measure of health or success. That the measure became about protection and love of each other and our own sense of belonging started to play out. We use storytelling and feeding each other. A group of friends and I we would Zoom all around the country. We would Zoom in and we would send a recipe and we would zoom in and make that together and sit and eat that meal in different places all around the country and we got competitive after a while, you know, who plated up the best and all that stuff.

So our own little kind of MasterChef, in a kind of way, because that's the way we could stay connected. What I'm seeing more and more, and I think the national curriculum is part of the issue here too, is that we're trying to make the subjective nature of storytelling and connection objectively measurable.

And I'm worried that we're putting square pegs into round holes. We're saying, the things that we should value around storytelling, the things that we should value around the action of being creative, being expressive, we now can measure. And that participation is no longer the measure.

It's now, what can we prove? I was joking before about at QUT, the language has shifted. We're no longer training actors. These people are studying acting. We're no longer going through a, roughly 30 contact hours a week to train an actor to do voice and movement and writing and things. They're now doing about eight hours a week of contact because it's actually more affordable.

We're creating economic rationalist models from which we can then measure success. And I worry about that for the health and wellbeing of our nation and the collective creative imagination of our nation. When we talk about boards, boards of management; it's without a doubt, everyone now talks about diversity of board membership.

If you are the whole kind of pale male stale kind of gathering of middle aged, middle class, privately educated men, you realise that you create a very thin base for every idea. Ideas don't get interrogated in the way, because if you are culturally diverse, if there are more than, one type of person on a board, the type of interrogation of the idea is more robust, is greater.

And I'm going to add to this conversation, the idea of we need creative thinkers in that world, not just the bean counters. Our country needs a diverse way of thinking about everything. Where I'm coming from too, I believe that there is, there are foundation disciplines. I think medicine is a foundation discipline.

Science is a foundation discipline, and that creativity is also a foundation discipline from which we can build a diverse society and that what we need to do is not use one form of measurement to judge another. We need to bring more concepts of what is the right measure for success in a creative world so that people can grow and be the best they can to make a very imaginative society.

And I think that what we're seeing more and more is to say, actually, creativity has to be instrumental. Rather than intrinsic in terms of its value structures, it actually have to be provable through some form of objective measurement. Like where you can tick, you got 85% of something right as opposed to actually, your expression and where you're going in your journey and how you engage in the world is just as popular, but just as important in the world.

So these things about, education in particular, I worry that is creating a internal dialogue, internal argument with lots of creative people and saying, actually, you are wrong unless you can prove your worth to us. As opposed to, if you express yourself, if you find a way of being in the world where you can tell the story of who you are and where you come from and how that story interacts with someone else, that that's actually got value in a society.

And that we know a billion dollars, a hundred billion dollars can be spent in the wink of an eye if a government says they can do it. If they say it's a mass issue that needs to be dealt with, but when it comes to the arts and creativity, we constantly want to control it. And I think where is that sense of free ranging sense of belief in the place that you're living in to tell your story.

So for me, health and wellbeing is really about being as creative as you can be. Imaginative as you can be, and to make sure that you are using what's right for you to connect with the world around you and others. That's my provocation.

[00:09:33] Claire Hooker: I think it's really fitting that we should then turn to a pale male who is situated in the eye of this very storm between the highly scientised, quantified area of work of the practice of nursing, not to mention head of school management, Professor Brendan McCormack, and who is dedicated also to the role of the arts in healthcare. What's your provocation, or how do you respond?

[00:10:04] Brendan McCormack: Well, I thought I knew how to respond, but now I'm going, I really don't want to.

So and I will pick up some of those points, I think, as we go. So firstly, it's fantastic to have this opportunity. I feel a total fraud in the middle of this creative community and thinking, "God, how did I actually get here?"

And that was the question I posed when I was asked by Claire to do this, was, okay, I can give that a shot, but why, in some ways, why? I've been involved in the arts and health movement for a long time since the early 90s back – if you haven't picked up yet, I'm Irish –  and in the UK. I've been in this role for about two years here in Sydney, but I was an Irish champion dancer and always had appreciation of what we express through our bodies and that, that is knowledge and experience in itself.

And we don't need to do anything more with it than see it expressed through our bodies and that we know through our bodies first before we process it cognitively. When I was appointed to be a professor at the University of Ulster in 2000, I'm still on their record as the first new professor in that university to dance their inaugural professorial lecture, which, if it wasn't the biggest diarrhea provoking moment ever, then that was about to be it.

And I remember I joined up with – who was then one of my PhD students, who was the director of Arts Care, a huge arts and health charity in Northern Ireland; phenomenal, phenomenal people. And she had started to do her PhD with me where we danced her supervision all the time. And she was my partner in crime for my inaugural professorial.

And we were just about to go out and I went, "Jesus, please, can we stop? Can I just go back and do the talk bit?" “No, no, no, we're doing it.” Anyway, and the Vice Chancellor was there and it got a standing ovation; the first standing ovation for an inaugural professorial lecture ever, because usually people are asleep by the end of them.

And I thought, okay, so this is largely acceptable. And the point of telling that story is that all of my career as an academic has been in science faculties and I've supervised 38 PhD students to completion, and about 32 of them have integrated arts with their studies. So for the whole way through, I've actually been about trying to provoke the thinking that these very sterile, stale science faculties often have.

But what we also need to remember is that really these science faculties are full of incredibly creative people who have locked it away in another box that only comes out when they're not in their job. So there's amazing artists, amazing musicians, amazing people who, if you look at the humanities and health movement, there's incredible artistry going on from these stale white males, often, and yet it's not brought out.

So I made it my mission that what I wanted to do is to use arts as a way of being a social disruption within science. That it actually starts to create a disruptive narrative in the way that we view what science is, in the way that we view what research is, in the way that we view what rigour is within that space.

And that was, not least because all of my practice is working with people with dementia. So I've been a nurse consultant for 20 odd years working with people living with dementia. And what really struck me about that whole movement and the way people with dementia are, I'm saying deliberately allowed to live their lives, is that they are controlled by other people.

They are lesser of a person by all of us in this room. We largely treat people with dementia as lesser of a person. And so my whole thing as a nurse has been about elevating their personhood, about actually giving voice to voiceless people who aren't able to express it. And they can only express it through anger, through lashing out, through various physical manifestations that people blame them for, through various ways.

But yet they are expressing their voice on a continuous basis and it's failed to be captured. And so that came together for me in terms of that whole embodiment of how we actually treat people as persons through a program I've been leading in Scotland for the last five years, which is just finished called BOLD, which is called 'Bringing Out Leaders in Dementia'.

And essentially it's a program of leadership development, so it's a leadership school for people living with dementia, so that they can become leaders in their own communities, of their own lives, of the people who are around them to actually take back some control of their own destiny. Because actually, as nurses, we fail them terribly.

We, I am embarrassed often by my own profession in relation to the things that we do and what it is that we think is care, when it's as far from care as we could ever possibly imagine. So that whole, idea of actually saying we need to develop processes that will give voice back is something that I think we all need to really take a hard look at ourselves in relation to how we do that and what we do to do it.

And so the BOLD program is essentially run through the arts. We very quickly recognise that if we're going to talk about democratic processes here, about citizenship, about people having control, then if we just rely on cognitive processes of voice, then we're just being totally contradictory to what we are actually saying this thing is about.

And so the arts became our main tools, really, for connecting with people. And I could, talk for another five hours about the things that have come from that in relation to the way people have become empowered. I never say we empowered anyone, we have no right to but people became empowered to actually take tiny bits of control back over their lives that have made a huge difference to family members; made a huge difference to communities, have given voice to things that were just ignored in communities or were actually downright abuse in relation to how people actually work.

What I would say, and what I wanted to focus on probably is the main provocation in all of that experience, because I'm now bringing that here is about some of the challenges that we experienced in trying to do that in a way that isn't the usual sterile research development process.

Firstly, what the challenge from the art community actually, around right and wrong art – does this really count as art, what these people were doing? Because I'm not, I don't label myself as an artist, did I have any right, in a sense, to be leading something that was like this? And it picks up your point about the way we box it off, and the way we position people. We've got a real thing to really think carefully about the way we talk about artistic expression, creativity, and what that really means as a common language rather than one that is, is right or wrong.

Our real process was not about artists product, although we produce some amazing stuff, but it was really about artists' engagement and how do we really elevate that as a normalised part of the practice, but also as a normalise part of how we do research and how we work with people in an authentic, engaged way.

And I think for me, that is the biggest lesson and the thing that I think is our biggest challenge, which picks up the whole measurement, positivistic view of the world, is, we are devoid of really strong, authentic methodologies in the science space. So I was thinking about this. Yesterday I was on a funding panel reviewing grants for -I won't say where or how but and I was sitting there almost with my head in my hands thinking, "God, I just wish this would just stop." It's like, these are getting a lot of dollars to do a lot of big health research and missing the point as far as I'm concerned.

Missing the point around engagement, missing the point around wellness, missing the point around bigger picture than we have just discovered that tiny little piece and really missing the point about how this transfers into meaningful working community. But yet we are pumping millions and millions of dollars into that kind of research that keeps on telling us the same thing.

And when you try to do something that's more authentic, it really doesn't get funding from those mainstream streams, mainstream panels. But in part, I think we have a problem with the methodologies and how we evaluate this work in a way that is authentic and that is part of the whole process itself.

What I really want to challenge us all about is the way we engage in a very linear thinking model when we think about engagement, when we think about participation, when we think about methodologies for change, when we think about methodologies for things like social prescribing, input /output models that just don't work. But we need to really actively as a community work to create methodologies that are far more authentic and embedded.

[00:18:33] Claire Hooker: And actually perhaps we should acknowledge that outside a kind of managerialist intervention oriented space, science is deeply creative, too, and wonderful and exciting in all those same ways, and potentially disruptive, though perhaps not as kickboxing either in words or deeds as New Zealand's Aotearoa's former Poet Laureate, Selina Tusitala Marsh, who's also a professor at the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland, carrying our hopes and dreams for that transformation to come.

What's your provocation for us, Selina?

[00:19:13] Selina Tusitala Marsh: I'm just sitting here realising that I am the provocation.

Oh, first of all, Talofa lava, Bula vinaka, Malo e leilei, Kia orana, Fakaalofa lahi atu, Namaste. My respects pay to the people of this land, the bloodlines running deep into the landlines that connect to our spoken lines, our written lines, and our drawn lines.

Those lines are found in our body lines. in our play lines, in our laughter lines. That's part of an idea that I came up with at my inaugural professorial lecture where I think, I don't actually know if any of my colleagues came to that. I was 19 years at the English department at the University of Auckland. So it took me 19 years to become a full professor. The co-director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation, the amazing Professor Peter O'Connor, took about five years to get full professorhood, so I've become his co-director, co-pilot, and I often introduce myself as the brown girl woke version of Professor O'Connor whenever I talk about the amazing magical stuff at CAST.

But actually, as young, as female, as brown, I have been the provocation in the English department. And it was a place where I fell in love with story and storytelling. It was a place where I stumbled upon my own legacy as a Tusitala or storyteller. That's my grandfather's name. My grandfather came from Tuvalu.

And around the time that Robert Louis Stevenson, the great Scottish canonical author, was voyaging in the then Gilbert and Ellis Islands, the people there, as people with the spoken line, I want to do, captured history in the naming of people, places, and spaces. And so there's a whole generation of Tusitala my grandfather's age.

And they called Robert Louis Stevenson, Tusitala, gave him that title to honour his renowned works, but also to honour his support for Samoan independence from a New Zealand colonial administration, such that Stevenson was almost placed under house arrest and deported. Stevenson's support for Samoans ran deep in his bloodlines.

Because he spoke Samoan, and he wrote in Samoan, and that gave him access to us, our people. So here I am in the English department. My professor was Maua Laivau Albert Wendt, often hailed as the forefather of Pacific literature, and he said, you need to pick up your mantle, because I'm leaving. And he'd held a space in that English department for about 25 years.

So I followed in his footsteps and I teach Pacific literature, post colonial literature, and now creative writing. But I'd always felt so alone and disillusioned because I thought I was at the heart of storytelling. But realized over the years it was this kind of story and this kind of telling and these kind of Eurocentric critical frameworks and this kind of reward for this kind of work.

So poetry saved my life and I know many poets from around the world have often said this. And I only realised this in 1996, I'm in a plane. to Honolulu at the first Pacific Literature Conference run by predominantly Pacific academics and writers and artists. And it was called Inside Out. And I'm feeling fraudulent.

I'm on that plane. First time I'd ever presented research. I was only a year into my PhD and I was going, "Who the hell do I think I am? Going to share my research in front of these first wave Pacific writers and thinkers. And Grandad came to me. I'm Tusitala. Teller of tales that I never heard till yesterday.

Born away for another life. Today, the tale I tell is theirs. And yours, a way of seeking some more of Samoa, of my sacred centre. Today the tale I tell will book its way through tongued histories, sanctioned mysteries, spaces of silence, timeless lives. Talatusi, tell the book, word the spirit of Brown, in theory, in creativity, we make our sound renowned.

And that poem pulled me through the years of research and writing and the PhD and then getting employment at the English department. And it pulled me through my own sense of belonging. It planted my roots deep and my provocation is simply that one by one, one by one we can make a change, but how do we grant ourselves permission to have that change begin with us, me, not the system, not the organisations, not the crowds of activists causes. All important, but it all has to start here and it wasn't until I gave myself permission to be my holistic, creative, critical, Pasifika, poet, scholar self that I finally found home.

So this thing I've called led by line 'praxis', it's specifically Pacific in its epistemology. It's specifically Indigenous in our way of knowing, doing, and being. And guess what? It's accessible for everyone. So it argues that when you bring your bloodline and you connect it with the landline, through the spoken line, the written line, the drawn line, and the body line.

You get this thing called joy. You get this thing called making, and creativity, and art. And you get this thing called well being. And it's something that I'm continuing to explore, and I'll evangelically share with students and anyone who cares to listen. Give yourself permission. Seek the opportunities to create and make everywhere you go.

So Claire, while you were introducing us, I made a poem out of your words and the found language in this room that I'd like to finish off with.

Art and well being.


a clearing.


a change.


an art.

You, a well of being.

Well. Well. Well.


[00:27:12] Claire Hooker: Thank you Selena for bringing us a little enchantment and the joy right into this room. We can now open this up for discussion to continue exploring how the arts are transforming health and education.

And I'm going to ask two questions. The first one is, how can individuals improve the health and wellbeing of themselves and those around them with the arts? And the second person said how do you overcome the fear of the arts that people have in Western society? Because you can't get past that, I'm not a good singer or dancer, I can't paint kind of moment. Wesley, would you like to take that on?

[00:27:54] Wesley Enoch: I mean, I think it goes back to, I think, Brendan's point as well, where we've all made it in different ways, that we separate arts and cultural expression from lived experience, from our lives, and we think that it's a specialist experience that someone else does.

But don't get me wrong, we could all run, but we love watching someone run fast. We may not run that fast, we may not have that training, but we do have the experience, we can do it. And how a lot of western societies train you out of, your arts and cultural expression and creates, I think, a form of illness in a society that there are people that you are outsourcing your expression to.

They are the people who are expressing the cultural values the things on your behalf, as opposed to you owning them. So for me, I think it's the advice really is saying, actually Um, we always love people who are experts in a field. We always love people who can run fast. But the idea that you are doing things yourself, that you are expressing yourself, gives you a deeper understanding of how you fit into the world as well.

For me, I think it's that experience that when a child paints a picture and you put it on the wall for maybe not that long, but you put it on the wall for a second or the fridge. And there's a sense of saying, we value that, we value your expression. And then we get trained out of it because somehow you actually have to start to find economic returns for it.

It has to be worth your time. It has to be something that other people will value as opposed to what you value. And so for the provocation is really to say, actually, how do you continue to be bad at something? But still enjoy it. I love pub choirs, the whole pub choir movement where no one's singing in tune really, but you get enough people and you get that kind of community tuning that occurs when everyone's singing.

That's something where you feel that you are part of something bigger than yourself. And so that's my advice.

[00:29:54] Claire Hooker: I really love that notion that it is a kind of illness to externalise expression to other actors in society. I'll use that word in a couple of senses. And I think actually that is partly the work of the CREATE Centre in trying to argue that we need to find ways in education to not have that process happen. Selina, I have a feeling like you would rephrase this.

[00:30:21] Selina Tusitala Marsh: It makes me think of Charlie Mackesy's incredible graphic story, 'The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse'. And there's a page that just says, I just wept when the boy asked the mole, is there a school of unlearning? Exactly. Mm-Hmm. Is there a school of unlearning? It's beautiful. And because I'm always practice driven, knowing that creativity is a muscle and what do we do to build muscle? We exercise that muscle. So I'm a big fan of doing daily exercises, but before in 2008, I came across, before I'd published anything.

Like, all my poems were in the bottom drawer. I came across Julia Cameron's ‘The Artist's Way’. Twelve week creative recovery process. And really, if you're serious about wanting more creativity in your life, we've got to unlearn so much. And I thrived with her structure. And one week would take me three months to get through.

But I found my voice, I found my play I found my soul again. I found my tribe of people who weren't trained. I'd never done a creative writing course, I didn't know there were such things that you could do. I was the literary scholar, not the poet, and so I'd recommend her book for anybody. She's incredible.

So the keynote that I'm giving for the conference that starts tomorrow it's an adult storytelling session. [Laughter] I mean, not that kind of adult storytelling, it's, um, well now you're coming,

Excuse me. But it's story time for adults. And so as soon as you set up that context, everyone's that six-year-old kid again and they do that internal work. I can't get in everyone else's world, but I can take them back to there. So they get to figure out, how do I bring that feeling, that, that insight, that emotion, that artistry back into this context is adult context now?

And it's what Wesley was saying. That's the division we need to –

[00:32:29] Wesley Enoch: – With the idea too that the reason can exist. Not being affected by emotion is actually the cornerstone of a lot of problems. Like suddenly you think your reason is totally objective and that you can put this across, but if you're feeling really sad, it's going to come across as well.

So it's a sleep thing about, for me anyway, trying to own the whole person. So the whole person can treat the whole person, and if you're feeling sad, you're going to pass that on. Melancholy is contagious. if you pull people down, but if, in the same way that smiling is contagious and can lift people up.

And I don't think that there is a truth in this kind of, mind /body split, the whole kind of sense of reason and emotional split. And that comes back to this idea of, well, the illness, the sense that if you keep thinking like that, you I would say, not being in the medical profession, you're actually treating someone with both hands behind, tied behind your back, because you can't hug someone.

[00:33:30] Selina Tusitala Marsh: What happens with the caring profession, Brendan?

[00:33:33] Brendan McCormack: Yes the whole AI thing raises really interesting issues about hugging people and there's some, yeah, some quite bizarre things happening in that space that I think has got profound implications for the way we go forward. But I wanted to make a couple of comments about it, because, and the first one, I'm going to sound like a university bureaucrat now, which is totally unusual.

But one of the things we, we have problems with, and it's a much bigger agenda. Then most of us in this room or people in the role like I have currently, which is around the regulatory bodies, our curricula are stuffed full. of stuff that our regulatory bodies require us. So all of the health professions are the same.

There is no difference among any of us. The actual space for any creative thinking to do something is really small. And we're going through this process at the moment in nursing, and so my colleagues are here. And, the fights – I mean that metaphorically, not actual – but interesting arguments and workshops about, losing a unit of study in a particular technical aspect of care to bring in something that might be a bit more creative and free thinking is enormous because everyone goes, the regulatory will never allow us to do that, that, that, that, that, that, and it's this constant, it's a real, real issue and of course, I play fast and loose with that and that I, I think, oh, well, stuff the regulator, we can do so much, but I see it always as background; whereas for most of my colleagues, the regulatory model is, is foreground a lot of the time. So there is an issue around how that happens, and it needs some big thinking in this country about how that happens.

The second thing I wanted to say is in the early 90s in the UK, I was part of a movement.

We just set ourselves up with a movement and we called ourselves Swallows to Other Continents. And we were groups of academics, clinicians, researchers, from health, social care, research, education. And we just decided we would just form a movement to really disrupt the whole thinking about what was taught in curricula.

And we did it through putting on pieces of art that we didn't know anything about in various places in our classes that just meant nothing, but it actually just created this kind of disruption and, and it had really quite a profound effect to the point that we got funded by the Nuffield Trust as a gathering that we used to have our weekends in the week where we would meet to kind of decide what else can we do in this space.

But it actually had a huge impact and we made this report that was all just basically drawings and stories and all the rest of it, which got huge traction among both health curricula, education curricula and in social care. And it was a real lesson in that we constantly battle this big bureaucracy around curricula and programs, but actually there's a lot of subtlety that needs to be brought to the space around how we weave into those cracks.

It's that, how the light gets in through those cracks. And we're not good at recognising those cracks, those opportunities that exist for us to just do something different. Currently we're having a conversation about it. We're moving to a more person-centered, Indigenous, integrated curriculum.

Why not abandon lectures altogether? At Sydney University, that would be the whole world would fall apart. But because, you know, teaching time is counted as lectures, tutorials, and workshop. That's it. But everyone goes, you can't, you have to have lectures. I go, well we can call them lectures, but they don't have to be lectures, they can be something else completely.

And I really want that to happen, I'm not sure we will, but at least if we can disrupt some of it, that not all the lectures are 25 PowerPoint slides in 10 minutes, then that would be fantastic. So it's that kind of thinking that I really want to see us do a bit more of.

[00:37:04] Claire Hooker: What I'm hearing in this conversation is a lot of being granted permission.

[00:37:09] Brendan McCormack: Yep.

[00:37:10] Claire Hooker: And Selena, I mean I think actually all three of you as panellists have held that theme in one way or another. Wesley, you began it by saying that in a way we have the permission to express ourselves with validity taken away from us. Selena, you offer us, often, I think, you on purpose offered us the permission to be creative line by line, moment by moment, interaction by interaction.

And Brendan, here you are. inviting us to disrupt a little bit, knowing that the world is governed by permissions. And the vulnerability that sits at the heart of that is often actually one of the sites of healing, I think, for many people, either to listen or to tell a story. And I just thought I would like to hear maybe, all three of you respond very briefly to thinking about how that theme, I feel, is the one that's emerged from our little bit of discourse tonight. Wesley?

[00:38:19] Wesley Enoch: To add to that the idea that who is the authority telling you, you can or can't be? You know, that in, in a First Nations experience; literally this last weekend, I've been with a group of mostly Aboriginal dancers in Adelaide. And they kept saying, "Oh, Wesley, can we do this?" And I said, "Why are you casting me as the mission manager? Why are you asking me?"

If we believe in the whole idea of the, your own internal sovereignty and all those kinds of ideas, why is it that you ask permission? And I think that if you socially, if you can, if you take away people's agency, if you take away the right to fail, the right to express yourself, then you constantly are placed in the mendicant position of saying, "Please, can you give me something that gives me meaning?" And this idea of permission is fantastic. And what Brendan said too, about people who are living with dementia, who are often controlled. What is it if you actually go with a member, I've got a friend who's living with the dementia and this notion, I read this article, which said, actually, if they're in a different world, be there with them.

Don't try to correct them. Don't try to, things like this, that it's just, if they're there, ask them about the world. Don't tell them that they are, that they don't have permission to have their experience. And that was a big eye opener for me. This notion of, you can actually give permission, if you like, by actually not judging others along the way.

And I love that idea that, how do you be your own mission manager? That's not the right term, but how do you awaken that sense of permission within yourself? Because often I think, I mean, working in a university. I don't know how anyone does it.

[00:40:02] Claire Hooker: Could you come and make art with us? Yeah. We're suffering here.

[00:40:05] Wesley Enoch: But the idea that there's the kind of gatekeeping out of fear that just in case someone says no. Oh no, we can't do that, just in case. Instead of actually saying, well, do it, and who knows what will come from it. Where is the act of curiosity? And that permission is not just a sense of giving yourself permission, but saying, remain curious about what's on offer and what's possible.

[00:40:29] Claire Hooker: Brendan, briefly because time grows short already. Yes, yes. That being your own mission manager, that only works if you're in a community in a way. Isn't that right?

[00:40:40] Brendan McCormack: It is. And I think, that's probably one of the things I find hardest being here in this role is around trying to make those what became normalized practices for me in my previous roles normal in this kind of institution.

And universities are all different in that way. In my previous role as a Head of School of Nursing and Paramedic Science, which we also had arts and health programs in there. We became known as the Glitter School which was fantastic and I thought, 'Yes, we've done it!' Because, anyone could come to our part of the building and they just found all of these boxes full of creative materials.

And, they would say to the Deans, "what are they?" And I would go, "They are tools for doing our work." And she would go, "But it's like glitter and glue and stuff." I'd go, "Yep, that's what we do, whether with each other. That's what we do when we're students. You just take a box into that room and you just open it."

And that's how we taught. That's how we worked together. That's how we did our meetings. That's how we, it just became a normalised thing. With all the fears and all of the things that everybody else was involved in. And the fact that they, were being quite derogatory about saying, "well, that's the glitter school" was actually fantastic.

Because it meant that it was noticed. It meant that it became normal within that space. And it was no longer having to ask permission to do that. That's how it was. I think that's it a bigger struggle here, but it's not one I've given up on at all. And one that is slowly slowly happening and I think it is about context and how we do it.

[00:42:00] Claire Hooker: I'm only ever coming to your meetings.

A final word, Selina, or a final line of words.

[00:42:09] Selina Tusitala Marsh: Just that I was sitting here thinking, I don't think in like my narrative of struggling in the English department, anyone actually ever physically manifest in front of me and said, "No, you cannot do that."

So the internal sensor, the internal critic loomed way larger in my head than any, than out here. And some years ago I just started just doing what I could. I just wanted to do and taking advantage of these academic silos and we're this little cog in this big machine and it's actually can work to our advantage, you know, changed up my assessment, changed my courses and, just, as we spoke before, Claire, is, you strategically work the system and then do as much subversive stuff as you can. Exactly.

[00:42:59] Claire Hooker: Well, and then, on that note, then, wellbeing and disruption are the things that are going together in this room. It's so great to have your company and so great to hold on to the views of what we want to do collectively around arts and health.

[00:43:17] Alex Siegers (Podcast host): Thanks for listening to the Sydney Ideas podcast. For more links, resources, or the transcript, head to the Sydney Ideas website or subscribe to Sydney Ideas using your favourite podcast app.


Wesley Enoch is an internationally acclaimed playwright and artistic director, and Indigenous Chair in the Creative Industries with QUT. In this role, Wesley will lead the national conversation on the place of Indigenous Australia within the creative industries through his unique First Nations perspective on learning, teaching and research, and in so doing, foster career pathways and opportunities for students and professionals within the wider community.

Wesley returns to Brisbane following five years as Sydney Festival Director and a period as a Director at Sydney Theatre Company for his latest production, Appropriate. His previous positions include five years (2010-2015) as artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company.

Wesley has written and directed iconic Indigenous productions The 7 Stages of GrievingBlack Medea and The Story of The Miracles at Cookie’s Table. He has directed productions of The SapphiresBlack DiggersI am EoraThe Man From MukinupinYibiyungParramatta Girls and Black Cockatoo.

Wesley is the current Deputy Chair of Creative Australia, co-Chair of Annamila First Nations Foundation and board member of the Australia-Japan Foundation.  He was Artistic Director of the Sydney Festival from 2017 to 2021 and Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company from 2010 to 2015. His previous positions include and Artistic Director at Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts and the ILBIJERRI Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-operative.

Professor Selina Tusitala Marsh (ONZM, FRSNZ) – aka MOPHEAD from her critically acclaimed graphic memoir series – is a Pasifika Poet-Scholar and teaches Pacific stories in the English and Drama at the University of Auckland.

She is also the co-Director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation where she works to ensure that arts make a difference to people’s health and wellbeing. Her passion project is to create the world’s first self-illustrated graphic critical poetry anthology on the first 17 Pacific women poets to publish a sole collection of poetry…in verse! 

Website: www.mophead.co.nz

Professor Brendan McCormack's research focuses on person-centredness with a particular focus on the development of person-centred cultures, practices and processes.

He has engaged in this work at all levels from theory development to implementation science and through to instrument design, testing and evaluation. He is methodologically diverse, but is mostly recognised for participatory/action research. Whilst he has a particular expertise in gerontology and dementia practices, his work has spanned all specialities and is multi-professional.

He also has a particular focus on the use of arts and creativity in healthcare research and development. He has more than 600 published outputs, including 240 peer-reviewed publications in international journals and 12 books.

He was the founding editor of “International Journal of Older People Nursing” and is currently ‘Editor Emeritus’ of the journal. Brendan is a Fellow of The European Academy of Nursing Science, Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing, Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing. In 2014 he was awarded the ‘International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame’ by Sigma Theta Tau International and listed in the Thomson Reuters 3000 most influential researchers globally.

In 2015 he was recognized as an ‘Inspirational Nursing Leader’ by Nursing Times (UK nursing magazine) and in 2019 was listed in the New Year ‘Top 100 outstanding nurses’ by the Twitter Group #wenurses. Most recently, Brendan was featured in the Wiley Publishers ‘Inspiring Minds’ short films series.

Claire Hooker is Associate Professor in Health and Medical Humanities at Sydney Health Ethics, Associate Director – Health and Wellbeing at CREATE Centre, and President of the Arts Health Network NSW/ACT.

Claire undertakes research and advocacy in two areas: risk communication, particularly in relation to infectious disease, and the creative arts and health. She combines creative research methods, critical humanities scholarship, cognitive psychology approaches to risk perception and communication, and the history and philosophy of science, to produce new insights into ethical communication in health.

Her approach centres a practice of listening to and honouring the perspectives and expertises of all knowledge holders and knowledge users, in order to create spaces where people from different backgrounds and disciplines can work together to improve health. Most of her work is now available open access, some via the Sydney eScholarship Repository.