South London Gallery and The Wellcome Collection
Correspondence O explores the history of the radical Pioneer Health Centre in Peckham and its subsequent conversion into a gated community. The two-channel moving image installation presents the complex, changing landscape of public health and the social shift towards a more egocentric, user-focused and technology-infused understanding of wellness.
The Pioneer Health Centre in south London was founded in 1926 in response to rising public concern over the health of working-class people and an increasing interest in preventative social medicine and experimentation. It culminated in the ‘Peckham Experiment’, a twenty-four-year study founded on principles of self-organisation, local empowerment and social connection as fundamental to health. The Experiment took place in a new, purpose-built space designed by Sir Owen Williams, comprising large, airy rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, which enabled biologists to observe members of the local community as they took part in physical exercise, games and clubs. The Centre closed in 1950 when its innovative approach conflicted with the ideals of the new National Health Service, though its influence continues to resonate.
Correspondence O follows a group of young boys and a female protagonist whose position fluctuates across the course of the film between one of authority and vulnerability. The relationship between the woman and boys is left unclear as fragmented, non-linear narrative collapses past into present, melding architectural and human physicality with historical and experimental medical research and archival material.
Embodying the original collaborative nature of the Experiment, Sagar has worked closely with present-day residents of the building on the production and development of the work. Chance encounters with a Building Surveyor and a Personal Trainer led to their appearance in the film and their professions becoming emblematic material components. A LiDAR scanner, instrument of the building surveyor; an MRI scanner, instrument of medical researchers; and a medical grip test, instrument of the scientific researcher, become interchangeable tools exploring the internal and external narrative of the body in relation to contemporary attitudes towards health and past ideas of public wellbeing.
Correspondence O is informed by extensive research into the archives of the Pioneer Health Centre held by the Wellcome Collection and Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and contemporary medical research conducted by the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge. The rear First Floor Gallery features rarely seen material from the Peckham Experiment archives, including interview transcripts, publications, photographs, letters and other ephemera assembled by the artist. A key component of the archive room is footage shot by Centre researchers. Its amateur quality and method of transposition to archive resulted in films which are a disjointed mesh of body parts, glass, water, rope, architecture, brief moments of interactions and activities. Consequently it is akin to structuralist film, a technique which resonated with Ilona Sagar and is evident in this new work.
Correspondence O is co-commissioned and produced in partnership with The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Supported by a Wellcome Arts Award. Sound Partner: Bowers & Wilkins. Special thanks to residents Tom Bell of Mowma Projects and James Hardy of Live Fit for their contributions to the project.