In the Autumn of 2020, artist ‘the vacuum cleaner’ (also known as James) met with 47 health workers, from ward clerks to the medical director, at his studio and asked them all a series of simple questions about their experiences of the first wave of the Covid 19 pandemic.
The resulting filmed interviews will now be shared for the first time, woven into an installation-performance that will also feature design by theatre designer Sascha Gilmour, local choir New YVC and sound design by interdisciplinary artist Rhiannon Armstrong. The experience has been designed to offer a space for reflection and healing.
The films at the heart of the evening reflect the complexity of each health professional’s experiences, touching on the challenges they faced, the compromises forced upon them and yet the beauty in caring for their patients and each other. Audiences will hear how these workers coped (and didn’t) and how this compares to the official narrative of ‘heroes’ we hear so much about. Their stories reveal their moral struggles, resulting in mental health challenges and frustrations, but they also speak of their resilience in teamwork and peer support, and their hopes for the Newham community they serve.
The films form a candid documentation of this extraordinary moment in history, firmly rooted in the London Borough of Newham, one of the most diverse areas of the UK, but centred on stories that will resonate far beyond East London. Exposure offers space to reflect on this challenging period in time while ensuring the stories are not forgotten. In reflection of this, films from the project will be kept in the archives of the Wellcome Collection.
Speaking about Exposure, James Leadbitter said “It’s hard to put into words everything I heard. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it, truly truly humbling. This willingness to give everything, it’s really incredible. I would often finish an interview speechless like I’ve been kicked in the gut, sometimes full of burning rage or even sometimes with a profound sense of sadness… all the feels basically. To be able to spend an hour or two listening to each of their stories, the frustrations around all the barriers Covid made, of so much loss of life and of births in the middle of a pandemic. It gets to the very core of who we are, and what is important in life. To be the artist that got to sit with these health workers is a huge privilege, and I just hope that I can do justice to their stories and experiences in this film and performance.”