Art and Waiting

I have done a lot of waiting at train stations, airports, and hospital waiting rooms. While waiting, nothing changes. It is horrible; time seems to slow down as you wait. That is the difference between the liner astronomical time and the perceived experience of durations. So if you think that time is dragging through the lockdown, the answer is yes; it is due to a lack of sensory stimulation. But what if art installations could alter perceived time?

(image courtesy Swiss National Research Foundation)

“Public art and public space – Waiting stress and waiting pleasure” by Harald Klingemann et al. (Time & Society, July 2015) is a study of changing time perception in waiting rooms through the use of art. Two different types of waiting rooms, a clinical and an administrative, were assessed with a control sample and two artistic interventions.

The experiment went beyond the standard waiting room decoration of hanging pictures on the wall and playing music. They produced “two different, but comparable artistic interventions”, one action-oriented and the other observation-oriented, for two waiting areas. The observation-oriented installation included olfactory and tactile design elements along with screens of natural scenes and textile hangings. The action-oriented had interactive digital art on iPads and a bubble column. (See the page of photos of the two waiting rooms.) “Michel Winterberg as media artist providing essential technical support with his interactive installation ‘waiting shadows’”. One interesting aspect of the experiment was that “the installations do not have any labels that would suggest an obligation to use them.”

The results were measured with hundreds of interviews and observers counting almost two thousand people’s waiting room activity: interactions with the art and stress indicators. The results are not that impressive, a few minutes difference between the actual and the perceived along with less observable indications of stress. Not surprisingly playing with interactive art proved the best at reducing perceived waiting time and stress.

In some respects this research is obvious, that the results did not surprise the authors. Still, given the millions of people in waiting rooms worldwide whose stress and perceived waiting time could be reduced I’m glad that it was funded by the Swiss National Research Foundation. At least now there is some more data and assuming that the art was average, making me wonder how better art could improve the results. There are wide-reaching implications to this research, which could be applied to many public places where people wait. Public art is often thought of as placemaking but not so often as abating the impacts of places on people.

Unlike Klingemann et al., my own research on waiting room art is not systemic but, unfortunately, accidental and unplanned. Random research has its own value as it can establish connections and communicate ideas in ways that are impossible for the systematic. It is only by chance that I even saw this article.

For more on art and clinical environments see my post about art at the Monash Medical Centre.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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