Installation view, SFMOMA: New Work: Kerry Tribe (2017) (all installation photos by Katherine Du Tiel, and courtesy of SFMOMA)

SAN FRANCISCO — Kerry Tribe is interested in memory, language and awkward connections. These come together in her latest project, Standardized Patient. These SPs (as Tribe calls them) are professional actors used to train future doctors how to listen, be empathetic, and establish a rapport with patients. After observing classes at Stanford University and the University of Southern California, Tribe came up with four case scenarios, and she’s made a two-channel video installation, on display in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s New Work series through February 25 — her first solo exhibition at a major U.S. museum.

Tribe first heard about standardized patients ten years ago through a cousin who had worked as an opera singer and an actor.  At a dinner party, Tribe asked her what she was doing and her cousin said she was running the standardized patient program at Stanford and explained what it was. Immediately this caught Tribe’s interest since she felt it was related to a lot of things she thinks about, such as science, cinema, empathy and performance.

“Those are sort of my greatest hits,” Tribe said during a phone interview with me. “I’ve worked with actors for a long time. One of my first projects was casting actors to play members of my family. I like movies, and I find suspension of disbelief pleasurable. This is using acting as a tool to help people going out to do important things in the world. I have doctors in my family, and to me, doctors are these great authorities.”

Installation view, SFMOMA: New Work: Kerry Tribe (2017)

In “Standardized Patient,” (2017) the video cuts back and forth between med students recording medical histories, telling patients what they think is going on and recommending next steps to actors in four different roles — an older man who’s dying, a young woman who comes in for birth control pills and finds out she has herpes, a busy woman with chest pains, and a woman whose daughter wants her to see a doctor about memory lapses. Affixed to the back of the screen is a montage of notes for the scene playing on the other side: scripts, diagnostic flow charts and illustrations from textbooks.

In the video we see that both parties — the actors playing patients and the medical students acting as though they were doctors ­— are performing. But the aim is for something real: empathy, which Tribe firmly believes can be taught. In acting out these scenes, future doctors can learn to show they care, she says.

Installation view, SFMOMA: New Work: Kerry Tribe (2017)

“Kerry chose to have this piece be not just two-channels but on a double-sided screen,” curator Tanya Zimbardo said. “So you have the affective emotional back side with scripts and notes that underlie the action on the other side. Then there’s another layer – you realize as you’re watching the piece that there are visitors on the other side of the screen- you can see their feet.

The 18-minute video zooms in closely on the medical students and the SPs, as well as on objects in the rooms — a gurney, a clock, a door handle. The piece captures the atmosphere of a hospital: that draggy kind of feeling, as though everything is tired and washed out, as if you are waiting for something. The plain background of the examining rooms makes it easy to focus on the faces of the medical students and the people portraying patients. We can see the tentativeness of the prospective doctor, as they question one SP about how her boyfriend has treated her and see how the doctor tries to comfort her. We watch how the woman whose daughter has asked her to come in about her memory lapses reacts when she hears the word, “Alzheimer’s,” and how startled and worried the med student is at having upset her, and then tries to reassure her nothing is certain yet. Sometimes the head doctor will stop the exercise to make a comment — much like a director coaching actors on their performance.  For example, she tells one med student, who is telling the actor portraying a terminally ill patient about his own spiritual beliefs, that he is sharing too much about himself and his faith and needs to just let the patient talk. It seems as though we can see the thought processes going on as they recalibrate, trying hard to do the right thing.

Kerry Tribe, “Standardized Patient” (2017) (production still); commissioned by SFMOMA, (© Kerry Tribe; photo courtesy the artist and 1301 PE, Los Angeles)

Watching this display of effort creates empathy for the doctors as well as the actors. Seeing the feelings of both — impatience, kindness, concern — flash across their faces, you almost forget they’re acting, and it’s a little bit of a surprise when the “patients” hop off the gurney and go off to make notes on a laptop in the corner of the room.

New Work: Kerry Tribe continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street, San Francisco) through February 25.

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...