I’ve just been to the Tate’s Richard Hamilton monster exhibition. A thought: here’s Hamilton’s 1984 installation Treatment Room.
The Treatment Room has been re-installed at the Tate and you can walk around it, which is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, photos usually centre on the TV with the Thatcher loop, putting the viewer in the position of the unfortunate patient. In the flesh, you can also view it from behind the reinforced glass screen, where the control panel is – the roles of victim, perpetrator, and spectator are equally available.
Second, the physical objects in the Room have changed their significance over time. Again, it’s less obvious in reproduction that the TV is a top-of-the-range Sony Trinitron, at the time a very expensive state of the art product. In reproduction, you can’t see at all that the VCR in the control panel is a similarly lavish Bosch. Hamilton was a massive product-design obsessive and certainly didn’t make these choices by accident.
When the installation was originally assembled, then, it combined a grim institutional aesthetic with the latest of high technology, both a fairly typical setting in hospital and also a version of J.K. Galbraith’s notion of private affluence and public squalor.
Today, though, although the institutional grimness is still what it is, the significance of the kit has reversed. Big CRT televisions are now signifiers of poverty and of neglect, the sort of thing landlords chuck in because they can’t be bothered to remove them.
It is in the nature of technology that this change would have started as soon as Hamilton presented Treatment Room for the first time; obsolescence, a core Hamilton preoccupation that he both celebrated and warred against with the constant reinvention typical of his work, was designed into it from the beginning. And the political punch of Treatment Room fits it well; going from an NHS with shabby buildings and world-leading medicine to one where the equipment was as dated as the architecture is just what it seems to warn against.
That said, Hamilton had other motives in presenting Treatment Room with the latest technology of 1984. In his accompanying essay (he explained his work constantly – it was a cost of the constant innovation) he described the putative patient as a “victim of the health service” being patronised by Thatcher, not a victim of Thatcher.
It was a time when the Left that created the welfare state had fallen out of love with its creation, especially its medical manifestation. It was a bureaucratic behemoth in which high technology largely served the selfish interests of elite technocrats and permitted them to impose judgment and control on the bodies and minds of patients. The treatment in Treatment Room is clearly psychiatric, after all.
This movement had some very important successes – the end of the Victorian asylum, the legitimisation of service-user activism, much greater respect for the needs of stigmatised social groups, the acceptance of palliative care as a full citizen of medicine – but in parallel, the radical turn against the welfare state must also have weakened its defence against Thatcherism.
What would today’s Treatment Room look like? First of all, there are no logos in the Room except for the electronics. It comes from a time when hospitals didn’t have marketing. In fact, beyond the electronics, there is no language in the Room at all – Thatcher’s voice has been dubbed out and there is no writing anywhere. Secondly, it’s clearly embedded in the institutional world. Unionised cleaners call every night. Thirdly, it is as paternalistic as it looks – today, by contrast, participation is demanded. Perhaps we would now have a gaggle of iPads open to the Universal Jobmatch front page, endlessly interrupted by blaring popup ads, the floor littered with looted Nike AF1s.
This would, of course, age and date like the original, and hopefully also show up how dated and irrelevant politicians doing a fake version of Tony Blair’s response to John Major’s effort to follow Thatcher are.