Head Counts

Townley and Bradby, Artist, Not-artist, Artist (pen on paper), 2013 Townley and Bradby, Artist, Not-artist, Artist (pen on paper), 2013

Writer and curator Frances Williams reflects on a participatory project with socially engaged artist Lawrence Bradby that straddled participation and mental health practice. This reflection follows a Friday Salon discussion at the ICA, Gallery As Community, which took place on Friday 27 June 2014, as part of Koki Tanaka’s Precarious Tasks #9.   

Who do you think you are? 

What happens when participatory art practice meets mental health professional practice? Last year I invited Lawrence Bradby to become one of a series of artists involved in a project that sat across both art and (mental) health sectors. At the outset, I was upfront in speculating about the potential risks; what could an artist bring to a mental health project? What sort of artist would they have to be? At the end of the project would they still be as much of an artist as they had been at the start? I am not sure how common these thoughts are for others working within this field but I do know that it isn’t always an inviting pitch for a curator to throw at an artist. I was asking Lawrence to put in question his professional expertise as a means of proving and demonstrating it.  

The project was conceived, in all its problematic entirety, through a developing partnership between the South London Gallery (where I was then Head of Education) and a local Southwark health service called Parental Mental Health (PMH). They had already brought groups to the gallery and found it a useful social space which, unlike other healthcare settings, was ‘free of stigma’. Exhibitions were one thing: working with artists quite another, something which would require face-to-face sensibilities, sensitivities and reckonings. Furthermore, the funder, Guys and St Thomas Charity, was interested in artists as ‘catalysts’ in healthcare practice. Both organisations were aware of the impetus to explore potentials and challenges of partnership in the larger context of cuts across health and arts sectors alike.  

Participants in this new project were parents who had been identified by a community nurse as experiencing depression or anxiety. They would be invited to take part in ten weekly workshops run by artists as a means to address their social isolation, raise their mood and introduce them to the supporting family services to be found at the local Children’s Centre and the gallery (across whose spaces, each five week run of workshops would be based). Being creative was something they could do along the way. Other health and art professionals (the PMH community nurse and SLG facilitator) along with evaluators, would help run the sessions too, as a small group.  

Lawrence agreed to take on the task of working within the confines of these tightly drawn pre-set structures. He came to the ‘artist-shaped hole’ in the project armed only with a question: “What allows someone to live alongside their life circumstances rather than within them? Is this something artists bring?” It felt like an appropriate question for an artist engaged in reflective art practice to ask of himself. 

For my own part, I felt it was important to foreground the differences the project was liable to highlight between professional practices through making them an integral part of the project. PMH (health) and SLG (arts) agreed to differ on evaluation through the engagement of two contrasting sets of evaluators by which to assess the project. One from Institute of Psychiatry would assess it on the basis of health outcomes. The other, from Goldsmiths University’s Centre for Urban and Community research, would contextualise frames of art practice through sociological perspectives. Rather than avoid or diminish them, this was a deliberate attempt to bring into ‘creative collision’ the interdisciplinary frames and languages within which we both operated. 

Lawrence embarked on a series of weekly meetings with the group of mums, informed by the playful inventiveness and self-conscious reflexivity common to his practice. This is not the place perhaps to fully explore what he did and how but, needless to say, the project did not fail to deliver a host of problematics. His commitment to co-production was put in question through an emphasis on drawing firm boundaries between the professional team running the project and the vulnerable participants who took part in it. Many participants desired structured project delivery rather than an open, adaptive, evolving way of working. Expectation around what ‘art’ would emerge through the process were wildly varied, often mis-understood or sometimes camouflaged. The sharing of final artworks in a wider public forum clashed with ethical concerns around the need to maintain the confidentiality and anonymity of the participants.  

All in all, we were constantly managing the ebb and flow of conflicts of interest between the group and individuals, and between one set of professional practices and another. The experience raised wider questions in my mind of what, as artists and curators, we have the right to subject others to and what, as subjects, artists enable. Many people now agree that artists working by means of affective encounters with publics, in mutually responsive ways, are best placed to articulate insights that can be shared and communicated. This is one of the professional challenges and excitements artists face when thinking about their own mental states and the mental states of others through the medium of their own work. Sally Tallant, talking about the Serpentine’s Hearing Voice Seeing Things project (2006), argues that it is on this territory, one of communicative exchange, that artists play their “crucial role”:  

Not as therapists, but as artists equipped with a vocabulary and language that can help articulate the most challenging of realities … Language underpins communication, so finding something to say is perhaps key to liberating subjectivity, especially for those who have difficulties with language. Through making, writing, looking, laughing and performing, each artist explored strategies for communication and producing work. 

Yet the contexts in which such projects between artists and mental health service users are made possible has changed through time and across institutions in the ten years or so I have been working in the field. Following on from influential projects such as Hearing Voices Seeing Things, a plethora of arts and mental health participatory projects have blossomed. Most recently, we have witnessed a switch in models of partnership away from service-user-led initiatives to working more with those in positions of institutional authority, for example commissioners who work in the public health sector.  

It appears that there is a fresh drive for co-delivery of health services analogous to the co-production of work assumed by socially engaged artists. In practice however, the tensions between artist-led initiatives and more collective models of working remain as strong in this area as any other. This necessitates many layers of negotiation and presents artists and people with mental health needs alike with a degree of wariness and distrust to overcome between each other. If artists become, or are perceived to have become, the agents of the authorities, there are dangers of them being regarded as ‘soft cops’.  

Such ambivalences would seem timely to examine when taking a stock of current projects where top-down initiatives from the public health sector look to artists to become ‘catalysts’ for new sets of partnerships between health and arts institutions.  

So, in the end, was this one project or two? Lawrence makes the point that the project – and its participants – can be seen in two ways simultaneously. When speaking about his relationship to the participants, he was at pains to point out to the evaluator that ‘to me they are a person not a diagnosis’:  

We know that people are not defined by their medical conditions, that human character is rich and changeable. When I met the parents face-to-face, they were, of course, much more than those initial descriptions of their life circumstances. Most noticeably, they were keen to talk, both in a sociable way to allow the group identity to form, and in a personal way, describing their particular difficulties. None of this invalidated what we had been told by the PMH team at the start. But as the sessions continued, the difference between the parents we knew and those that the PMH team knew persisted. 

He claims that this impression – the artists and mental health professionals meeting totally different people – is a significant element in how the Creative Families sessions could successfully operate. He claims that “for the duration of the session the parents were different people”.  

The sociologist Erving Goffman supports this view. Goffman was among the first psychologists to examine the role of drama in everyday life, and coined the phrase ‘the presentation of the self’. Likewise, contemporary commentator Richard Sennett, in his book Together, also cites the roles people play in social contexts as being analogous to playing parts in a play: “understandable and credible to others as the sort of person a mental patient, his or her doctor, a prisoner, his or her guard, is supposed to be.” Sennett points out that:  

In a ceremony, people are relieved of portraying the kind of person they are, of speaking on behalf of themselves; the participants enter a larger, shared, expressive domain. 

This is precisely the uncertain ground on which Lawrence made play of himself when working with the scripts set by funders, curators and participants alike. The larger expressive domain can be accessed by this route when the frames that define practices and spaces are most exactingly drawn and most openly acknowledged. 

Frances Williams  
July 2014

In partnership with ArtWorks: Developing Practice in Participatory Settings, a Paul Hamlyn Special Initiative.