Interview with curator Vanessa Bartlett on the opening of her exhibition Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age

This subject – mental health – is usually something that we see explored through outreach and events rather than the core exhibitions programme at contemporary art venues. Could you say a little bit about the significance for you of seeing mental health centre stage in a venue like FACT?

Yes, I think it’s really important. The arts makes a big effort to be inclusive and approach specialist groups, people with disabilities or mental health issues and make the arts relevant to them. But sometimes this can perpetuate the idea that they are an ‘outsider’ group. So it has been really nice for me as a curator to approach this by asking, how does mental health affect everyone? There is that very popular quote you hear often, ‘one in four people will experience a mental health issue’ – actually I think it is everyone.  All of us experience mental health issues at some time in our lives, whether it is ourselves or a family member or a friend. So it is significant that FACT and myself have taken on this subject and presented it as something for everyone and not just for an ‘outreach’ community.

The relationship between mental health, art and technology is your on-going research topic.  Now you see the exhibition open to the public, do you feel that the process of curating it has helped to move your thinking on at all?

Yes, absolutely.  One of the most important things for me is the idea that art can help create empathy, or help you see something from a slightly different perspective.  We were doing an evaluation session this morning with some groups that regularly use FACT, and they were recounting their experiences of the exhibition. There was one individual in particular who was talking about [the piece called] Labyrinth Psychotica, which enables you to see the point of view of someone experiencing psychosis. He said that work helped him to think about what the experience of mental illness might be like for other people. I suspected and hoped that this exhibition would achieve that –and I am starting to gather evidence that that these works can help shift people’s perspectives and change minds.


Is the exhibition going to be used as a springboard or possibly tour?

For my future work I want to think about shared cognition. As technology advances there is this idea that we are all sharing our cognition more and cognitive processes are taking place in groups. I am really interested in what mental health looks like under these conditions.  And also artificial intelligence, I am really interested in the relationship between mental health and artificial brains.

Could you talk a little bit about the decision to present most of the artists together in gallery 1 at FACT?

There are other works in gallery 2 – Jennifer Kanary Nikolov’s Labyrinth Psychotica and an archive of FACT’s previous work in the area of mental health. On a practical level, that work needed space around it and [provision for] recovery time.  But I think when you are talking about mental health and technology you are very often talking about immersion and over-stimulation, being bombarded by lots of different information. It is a complex subject, which isn’t best dealt with by presenting a small number of carefully crafted artistic statements in a large empty space.  Putting a lot of work in one gallery allows people to join the dots, build narrative and experience some of that idea of over-stimulation

Because these are artists investigating the subject, rather than scientists or therapists, did you see the exhibition as an opportunity to touch on ‘fake’ or placebo treatments or therapies? I noticed that you included a historic electric shock machine.

The idea of fake therapy is interesting, because ultimately therapy is whatever works for you; everyone needs something different in terms of supporting their mental health.  The ECT machine I thought was a good inclusion because it demonstrates how we have historically used machines to try and modify our brains.  There is definitely a narrative thread in the exhibition about control and mental health. For example Quintan Ana Wikswo’s photographs of old asylums, a lot of the research that she did alongside them was about how asylums have been used for societal control. They were used for people whose behaviour wasn’t socially acceptable, people who were in a mixed race relationship or young girls that had got pregnant before they were married, etc, [were incarcerated] under the banner of mental illness. The ECT machine speaks to the same idea.  If people demonstrated behaviour that couldn’t be controlled, the machine was used to keep them quiet and knock the life out of them – so to speak.


There is also, in the exhibition, a strong thread about individual voices, alongside mental health as a theme.  Technology has become important in disseminating individual stories.

Yes absolutely, it is important. The title of the show – Group Therapy – came originally from considering the way that the internet has become the new talking therapy.  Blogging about mental health has come incredibly popular.  There is actually a short essay in the catalogue produced by a prominent mental health blogger.  The idea of technology allowing people to reach out to others that share their experience is really important.

I was interested to read on your blog about how you had been producing work exploring suicide in a high rise building and then had to confront your motivations when someone really did take their own life at that location. Mental health is an emotive topic, how have you navigated your way through it?

It is a difficult topic. As I say, I think everyone has some relationship to the subject of mental health. Everyone is their own expert on the issue. The artists who were involved in making exhibition would also probably say they all have some kind of lived experience of mental health issues; it would have been awful if we had curated the exhibition with artists none of whom had those experiences. The ethics of doing the kind of work that we are doing, like putting a psychosis simulator in the gallery, we have to think very carefully about how we manage it. But everyone who has [visited the exhibition so far] has been grateful for the opportunity to talk about mental health, perhaps in a freer way than they have before.

Are there any artists or pieces that you were particularly excited to secure for the exhibition?

There are so many! The kind of work that interests me most, personally, is work that crosses over between art and research practise or something that is employed somehow in a clinical setting. There are two pieces of artists’ work that this particularly applies to: George Khut’s The Heart Library, that is the piece that uses bio feedback to help users monitor their heart rate, he is a researcher and an academic, and the technology behind that piece has also been used in clinical settings – a version of it has been used to help support children about to undergo painful medical procedures, to help moderate their anxiety. The Labyrinth Psychotica by Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a) is another example of an artist research project impacting clinical practice; it is taken around to psychiatry conferences to help psychiatrists who have never experienced psychosis. Those are really exciting to me – those projects informed by research.

There is also a new commission by Katriona Beales on the subject of internet addition. She is an artist who has worked in the past in Liverpool so it was exciting for me to be able to commission her to make a new work.

I think I am right in saying that the majority of artists featured in this exhibition are female. Do you think there is something about the subject matter that attracts female artists; is it your influence as a female curator, or just a coincidence?

Gender is something that is pertinent to the subject of mental health, in more ways than I am able to list right now. Looking at the list of artists there are four male artists and nine female. Issues around the body, self image, technology and mental health are [resonant with] women in particular: the way that women have been subjugated using mental health as a sort of alibi, the archetype of the hysterical women is very familiar to us all. At some stage we decided that we wouldn’t intentionally foreground the theme of gender as there is so much going on in the exhibition already. I didn’t set about deliberately to bring in a lot of female artists but these themes are [interesting and explored by] a lot of women and female artists.


You are now based in Sydney – are you going to be coming and going throughout the exhibition run?

I am going back to Sydney quite soon – next week! There is the possibility of something in this vein happening in Sydney and I will be continuing email conversations with FACT about the legacy for this project. It is important to FACT that this exhibition emphasizes their ongoing work in the area of mental health and their partnerships with people like Mersey Care NHS Trust . There is a genuine desire to continue to do meaningful work  around mental health.

Vanessa’s blog:

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