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By: Vanessa Bartlett
This blog documents my research into the relationship between psychology, the arts and technology.
It is also an archival record of one girl with depressive tendencies writing, art making and boozing her way out of a black hole.
Current activity includes starting an Mres at the London Consortium with a thesis titled: The dissolution of the linear mind? Archiving mental health symptoms using new technology.
# 60 [24 April 2012]
A brief rude awakening for my Group Therapy blog, on what is (I had not realised), its two year anniversary. I've not been positing here because I'm writing reams in other places. But the subject matter that Group Therapy is concerned with has certainly reached maturity, given that I'm speaking in public about it at The Science Museum tomorrow night. Here is a synopsis of my talk:
Archiving mental health symptoms using new technology
In February 2012 comedian Ruby Wax launched Black Dog Tribe, an online social space for people affected by mental illness. In an archival society where individuals are constantly recording their daily experiences online, using interactive social media and digital technologies, the site exemplifies a trend for use of the internet as a platform for recording and performing symptoms of mental ill health and staging cathartic therapy through online testimony and confession.
According to Michel Foucault, experiences of psychological disturbance from the eighteenth century onwards have been articulated through archival systems such as doctor’s notes and asylum statistics that construct mental illness from the hierarchical perspective of diagnosis and jurisdiction. Occasionally first person testimonies have offered subjective accounts authored from a single patient's point of view. Yet these works commonly depended upon the existing social or economic status enjoyed by the author for their public legitimacy, as in the case of the 1884 memoir of psychosis written by distinguished Judge, Daniel Paul Schreber.
This presentation will question the extent to which websites and social networking sites such a Black Dog Tribe might offer a useful resource for the mental health historian of the future, who seeks to access first person accounts of symptoms authored without jurisdiction. It will touch upon ideas of the Internet as an archive and the psychology of Internet use.
# 59 [18 October 2011]
I've been engaging in some intensive debate with the irreverent Sid Volter on Lars Von Trier's latest cinematic offering: Melancholia. Sid is of the opinion that the film offers up one of the best portraits of a character with chronic clinical depression that he has seen at the cinema. While I am not inclined to disagree entirely with this sentiment, I remain hacked off with the fact that again and again, the mainstream media insists on portraying the depressed woman against a backdrop of glamour and affluence.
For those of you who have not seen the movie, check the trailer that I have posted here. Kirsten Dunst plays a passive aggressive depressive who manages to destroy her marriage on her wedding night and later comes to live with her affluent sister, where she plays out her illness against a backdrop of idle indifference and crystal chandeliers. The imagery constantly links women and nature as seen 1min into the trailer where Dunst is depicted naked, gazing skyward as a architypal reclining nude. There's also a hefty stench of the Freudian hysteria stereotype attached to Dunst's role as the promiscuous disobedient wife who fails to satisfy her husband's need for sex on their wedding night. Yes the depression is quite convincing, but what a shame that is comes wrapped in gender stereotype and archaic cliche.
I've blogged here before about women like Sally Brampton and Emma Forrest who seem to embody the popular perception of the depressed female. I don't at all discount their symptoms as genuine, but at the same time I'm not surprised when journalists such as Janet Street Porter (a generally ridiculous individual for all other intents and purposes) question links between gender, depression and affluence.
There must be some well crafted female depressive characters out there in film. Would anyone like to suggest one to cheer me up a bit?
# 58 [12 October 2011]
I rocked up to the private view of the ICA's Freeze offering last night to check out what I would call a 'mixed' bag of work. Both the painterly and sculptural pieces on offer (by Jacob Kassay and Franz West) carried the dull whiff of the commercial art world, perhaps not surprising given that Gregor Muir former director of Hauser and Wirth is now at the helm.
Thankfully the work of a third artist Frances Stark, tucked away in what used to be the ICA's theatre space turned out to be a compelling and thought provoking film installation about the intricacies of intimacy in online dating. My Best Thing (named after a slang term one character uses for his genitals) is a single channel animated video that tracks the online relationship between the artist and two men. It veers entertainingly between masturbation and sometimes self conscious intellectual debate. Both the artist and her lovers are represented on screen by avatars that have computerised voices. The male characters also have subtitled speech. While the avatars remain motionless during masturbation (thank goodness) the subtitles and robotic vocals offer staccato representations of relationships that feel intimate despite their remoteness. As the characters interact more frequently over time, the couplings begin to involve many complications, with each partner obviously revealing heavily edited versions of their offline existence. As the ICA's free sheet points out
"Through the medium of animation, Stark raises questions about the difference between therapeutic confession and performance"
Obviously this duality between cathartic online confessional and partial self revelation reflects the kind of concerns that are central to my research. I've talked frequently both on here and in my MRes pitch about the increasing practice of online psychotherapy and the general insinuation made in a recent addition of Journal for Clinical Psychology that sometimes patients reveal more in depth personal information when talking to a therapist via a computer. How much of the identities revealed in My Best Thing are based on truth to life is impossible to tell, but as a viewer attempting to join the dots is fascinating.
I've become super interested in the evolution of the ICA as a public space since I wrote this article for the Guardian. I'm hoping that I will be well positioned to track their future progress, given that they are part of the consortia that runs the MRes I'm currently sitting. I really hope that their new director continues to show this kind of compelling video work and goes for a little less of the whiffy commercial painting!
# 57 [15 September 2011]
I was mooching about on the Guardian website a few days ago and I came across this announcement that Bobby Baker's diaries Mental Illness and Me have just won the Mind Book of the Year award. I saw the contents of this diary in an exhibition at at The Welcome Collection in 2009 and the experience was deeply formative for my early thinking about links between art and mental health.
The shortlist for this year's prize is quite formidable, but I was particularly pleased to see Candia McWilliam's book What to Look for in Winter featured. I hauled a huge dog eared copy of this book around with me for several months earlier this year and often sat with tears in my eyes on trains and buses while I read the author's account of her struggles with alcoholism and blindness. I'd have awarded this book the prize in a flash, but I can see why the brutal and immediate visual style of Bobby Baker's drawings came out on top. As former Mind Book of the Year prizewinner John O'Donoghue points out, this book is deeply powerful as a meeting point between thinking, writing and making visual art about mental health issues.
# 56 [14 September 2011]
I've had a few people ask me why the videos that I posted on the 20th June are currently offline. They were films about imaginary suicide jumps and were the product of my stay at The Vacuum Cleaner's residency Ship of Fools; a project about art and mental health. We filmed them by throwing camera phones out of the windows of his tower block in Hackney and slowing down the footage that this generated.
On the 16th July somebody committed suicide by jumping from the 11th floor of the same tower block. It was a total shock to both of us and especially upsetting for James as he had to witness the aftermath. Out of respect for the deceased and his family and to help ease the trauma that we both felt, we have taken the videos offline for the time being. They currently remain private.
I went round to James's flat on Saturday, for the first time since it happened. We had a really long conversation about what this series of events means ethically for us as artists making work about suicide and whether we can still take forward our plans to develop the videos. For me it was important to go through a process of defining our motives and clarifying what we would want our work to say to audiences.
James spoke to me about what happened in the immediate aftermath of the jump. He talked about being on the market just outside of his block and hearing people repeatedly asking the question 'why would you do that?' Yet we both agreed that the question for us would be 'why wouldn't you do that?' I feel that until we overcome the taboo of suicide to understand that it can be a psychologically hardwired impulse that makes perfect sense to some individuals, we can never have a frank discussion about how to help.
For this reason James and I will keep working together on our jump videos, although we will expand to explore other sites. We probably won't save any lives by making art (although you never know) but we might just slightly shift somebody's understanding of the issues. Of course we will also be taking advantage of the morbid curiosity that makes suicide such a compelling subject for viewers and speculators, but nobody's moral compass is ever perfectly tuned.
# 55 [2 September 2011]
I'm pretty sure that if doctors started prescribing New York based radio show This American Life to depressed patients, they'd see some good results. I've become an avid listener since I rocked up in the big smoke, mainly because the shows are so good at making you feel like part of a conversation. Its great for alleviating loneliness, putting things into perspective and offering up some fascinating chat on a load of random topics.
Not that I am lonely as such, but of course big cities can be alienating and I am still finding my feet. Yesterday was my one month anniversary in my new city and I'm pretty amused that the babbling of a US radio show feels like my soundtrack to life here so far. I listened to a show about relationship break ups yesterday and it really got me thinking about people I've left behind in other cites I've lived in so far in my life.
But the jewel in the crown of my listening so far has to be The Psychopath Test, part narrated by the awesome Jon Ronson. The show essentially begs the question; how do you tell if someone is a psychopath? And points out the massive ambiguities that can arise when you attempt to give psychological disorders a fixed definition. One of points made to this effect is that often CEOs of big corporate organisations have all of the traits of full on psychopathy..... and based on my time spent working in large arts organisations I have to say I can totally believe it! Character traits included lack of empathy, manipulation, intelligence and grandiosity. Isn't it interesting to think that the measure by which you possess these qualities could push you either to be highly successful or totally and utterly bonkers?
# 54 [11 August 2011]
I've finally arrived in London after about three years of trying to move here! Isn't that wonderful? I'm starting my MRes at The London Consortium in October, which means that I have about seven weeks to find my feet in my new city. This feels like an excellent time to reflect, regroup and..... eh..... explore the boozers of Central London!
At intervals between pub visits I've had my eyes down and my laptop out. I've scored a freelance contract working for the AND Festival on a project with New York based artist Brody Condon, which relates fantastically well to my Mres research topic.
Level Five is a participatory performance focused on critically exploring group therapy seminars from the 1970′s, using live role playing techniques. We are inviting artists, performers and members of the public to participate in a physically and psychologically intense day-long event that will loosely follow the structure of early Large Group Awareness Trainings, using long form improv techniques influenced by progressive Nordic live role-playing and performative group therapy. The performance will be recorded and broadcast live to a public audience outside of the performance space and will also be edited into a film to be exhibited at FACT later in the year.
Brody's main motivation for exploring these historical gatherings is to examine their ideological legacy and its influence on contemporary culture. Much of their rhetoric is still evident in the pop-psychology and self help culture of today. Speaking as somebody who has done a lot of one-on-one psychotherapy, its fascinating to see how these seminars simplified and commercialized therapeutic thinking.
In the documentary Century of the Self Adam Curtis says that:
“The trainings became hugely successful… But in the process, the political idea that had begun the movement for personal transformation began to disappear. The original vision… had been that through discovering the self a new culture would be born, one that would challenge the power of the state. What was now emerging was the idea that people could be happy, simply within themselves. And that changing society was irrelevant.”
I'm the first port of call for anyone who's interested in getting involved, so for more info please drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org Brody is also in the UK next week and will be giving a talk about the project at Forest Gallery Edinburgh and at FACT in Liverpool. Let me know if you would like to come along!
# 53 [25 July 2011]
I'm fascinated and somewhat infuriated by this article in the Guardian. An author who calls himself an 'academic' writing under a pseudonym (irritating in itself) has railed against internet dating, arguing that it is turning falling in love into a process of calculation.
The implication seems to be that technology instrumentalises the process of falling in love. I've actually posted a comment which counters this by suggesting that love and sexuality were instrumentalised by the media well before the invention of the internet. I'm imagining that I will be drowned out by the male academic infighting that seems to be the order of the day. None the less here is what I wrote:
This article is not about internet dating, its about how the media impacts on society and the choices that people make. Global capitalism and the language of advertising do encourage homogenisation and create rigid stereotypes about what individuals should expect to find attractive. But love became a sale-able commodity way before the internet was invented: on TV, in the press and in bars where people go to pick up easy sex. The net is just another tool for making money out of the human desire to be loved.
While McLuhan may have been been on to something when he said that 'the medium is the message,' I don't think he was asking us to consider each medium individually, but to think more holistically about the entire spectrum of communication. To blame the commodification of love on the internet suggests ignorance of the wider society we live in.
# 52 [20 July 2011]
Apparently Google is now 'a replacement for the ancient human faculty of memory,' according to an article I have just spied in the Guardian. I love this kind of speculation that technology changes the shape and connections in the human brain. Although I am not totally sure that I can believe the articles thesis that Google is teaching us to remember information in new ways.
For example; I have kept a huge filing cabinet of info on interesting exhibitions and articles that I have enjoyed for the past five years or so. I take great pleasure in the alphabetical filing system I have created for cataloguing the info, it allows me to indulge my inner secretary! I am not sure why this process is any different to something like online bookmarking or search engines, both things seem like similar approaches to information retrieval. One is an old system and one is new and dependent on a technological engine.
Principal researcher Betsey Sparrow (beautiful name) says that internet has become "an external memory source that we can access at any time." The article says that this makes the internet an "arena where information is stored collectively outside ourselves." It does then move on to say that this is very similar to the "collective memory" that we rely upon among our family, colleagues and friends. So in essence if we are already primed to remember information that is outside of ourselves, why does the technological or mediated extension of this process amount to - so the article seems to suggest- a fundamental change in how our brain works?
# 51 [7 July 2011]
Yesterday I struggled to get any work done as I tuned in to a live stream project called Purge by performance artist Brian Lobel
I've always found artists live stream projects to be particularly compelling, there is something about seeing a real time relay that I find fascinating. Historically I've loved Coco Fusco's early live stream work because rather than just being a live broadcast of a piece of performance art, its also a work about the nature of surveillance, so the form suits the content.
And its the same with Purge, which is a live broadcast of Brian going through all of his 1000+ facebook friends and then asking a panel of judges if he should keep them or delete them. Admittedly quite a banal idea, the process actually becomes totally compelling when you hear the artist tell indiscreet little stories about people from his past, or give his honest, vaguely formed opinions of people that he admittedly doesn't even know so well. Naturally as a viewer and facebook friend of Brian I feel compelled to keep observing and know if the judges will think me worthy enough for Brian to retain my friendship.
And its this narcissism of watching that is the most intelligent aspect of the project. Social networks such as facebook thrive on the users wish to to create a particular public persona or to somehow perform the self.
The project is also a really compelling reply to some of the writing I've done on here about the notion of intimacy in online relationships. Its clear from Brain's process that some of his facebook 'friends' represent deep and intimate connections of which social networks are a valued part. Other so called facebook 'friends' amount to only a vague acquaintance of people to whom he is totally indifferent.
I've met Brian once and added him perhaps out of 'professional curiosity' after he applied to participate in performance platform I was helping to curate with a proposal that would have seen him pretending to masturbate in the gents toilets of the arts venue. We turned the piece down... I wonder if he remembers and will see this as a necessary justification for deletion!
Its online during the day until Sunday 10th July and you can watch the live stream here
Vanessa Bartlett is an artist writer and curator, currently based in Liverpool. She is interested in live performance, video, gender and the relationship between communication technologies and psychologically transgressive behavior.
Vanessa has curated a number of independent exhibitions, including Slowness at Red Wire Gallery, which was highlighted by Times critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston in her top five exhibitions in November 2008. She was also part of the Berlin Biennale Curatorial Development Trip organised in an independent capacity by Clarissa Corfe, Programme Manager at Castlefield Gallery.