The doctor’s office is a perennial site of anxiety – a blandly impersonal environment that would seem designed to maximise the feeling of one’s own bodily vulnerability. In the video installation Standardized Patient (2017), Kerry Tribe offers a handful of seemingly privacy-violating glimpses into the discomforts of a doctor’s visit – until we sense that something isn’t quite right. A young woman’s ‘test results’ come back to her after a brief pause in the conversation; elsewhere, a young maybe-doctor is gently interrupted, and corrected, by an older woman for talking at too great a length of his own religious faith to a patient. The viewer slowly realises that she is watching actors.
Well, half of them are actors; the other half are students at Stanford Medical School and the University of Southern California. This being California, a place seldom shy about crashing headfirst into its own stereotypes, actors pretend to be patients to help ease these students into their profession. Each actor plays a type: say, a woman in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, or a professional in too much of a hurry to absorb the significance of her angina diagnosis. One encounter regarding the sexual health and history of a woman in her early twenties, examined by a man not much older, has the air of particularly unvarnished educational television. The students, aware that they are ‘treating’ actors, engage in a stilted fashion either because of this knowledge or due to the unnatural condition of being filmed (the actors of course are used to this).
Standardized Patient is dutifully, perhaps suitably, antiseptic and clinical; the tacit threat of death, disease and disorientation looms throughout, giving the falsehood of the whole scenario the aftereffect of an unfunny joke. Tribe’s piece is dual-screened: one side shows the encounters between students and ‘patients’, while the reverse displays a series of closeup, cropped images of medical documents and photographs loosely related to the spoken dialogue. Aluminium stools on casters pepper the room around the screen, further recalling the milieu of a doctor’s office while lightly underscoring the comparative comfort and cool remove of a gallery from the anxiety of a clinic visit.
Standardized Patient’s feigned reality – the documentary trope of a casual, even detached, observation – hinges on the illusion of information withheld, never quite squaring with Tribe’s axiomatic rendering of this curious aspect of medical training. As both mystery and demystification are forced in equal measure, the latter has the perhaps unintended consequence of making full empathetic identification impossible, leaving the viewer with a certain anecdotal randomness – the patient’s turmoil or confusion, no matter how well acted, is always put on. Given neither the veil of fiction nor the promise of reality by which to mitigate the experience, we instead watch the students practising hushed, serious, comforting tones until the clock runs out. Some appear to get lost within this action, suspending their knowing unbelief and straining for empathy while delivering hard truths – or rather, falsehoods.
Kerry Tribe: Standardized Patient at 1301PE, Los Angeles, 24 March – 5 May 2018
From the May 2018 issue of ArtReview