Talking heads and the somatic self
Two exhibitions are underway at the Attenborough Arts Centre in Leicester this spring, featuring newly commissioned artworks which invite us to explore different experiences of being human, including the relationship between our bodies and mental wellbeing.
Mel Brimfield’s exhibition Talking Heads, which runs until 17 April, is a multi-media exploration – sound installations, sculpture, multiple films and large scale comic-like drawings– of the complex and often fragile nature of the human mind. The artist examines the powerful role mental health plays in our daily lives, an approach rooted in a long period of research undertaken by Brimfield at the Department of Psychosis Studies at Kings College Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, and the National Psychosis Unit at Bethlem Hospital, London. She ‘explores the experiences of a national community of people living with and recovering from psychosis, and of the carers, nurses, neuroscientists, psychologists, occupational therapists, social workers and academics who work to understand and provide support’.
Talking Heads takes seriously the idea that we are all on the mental health spectrum, questioning society’s tendency to over-diagnose and under-treat, challenging the perceived stigma around prolonged mental ill health. One piece of work, ‘Xenobath’, explores accounts of the altered states of perception often associated with psychosis, such as voice hearing and visual hallucinations. This stems from Brimfield’s residency at Kings College Department of Psychosis Studies, where she had conversations with dozens of voice hearers and perceivers of phenomena unseen by the general population, to gather their ‘remembrances’ of unusual experiences. Another, Talking Heads Comics, is a series of prints including NUTS, which Brimfield describes as ‘a kind of self-portrait’, of her in therapy with Lucy of the Peanuts comic. A partner piece to NUTS, The Lost Marbles also recasts a much-loved comic book hero, Tintin, to perform a new narrative.
‘Talking Heads’ will tour to the Tetley (Leeds) and Chapter Arts (Cardiff).
Somatic Self, which runs until 10 March, is an ongoing series of paintings by Leicester-based artist Stefania Laccu. Her practice is concerned with exploring ways to paint emotions and their effects on the human body, conceiving human beings holistically and attempting to counter the body-mind dichotomy. She comments: ‘Feelings are intrinsically intangible and abstract; they cannot be physically seen or held. Yet, in contrast to this invisibility, they profoundly influence our day to day lives, often affecting our physical and mental health. Somatic Self imagines these physical effects, visualising the impact emotions could have on the inner body. What does anxiety look like in the stomach; or depression in tissue and bone; or depression over the lungs?’
The works are created through a process of layering multiple oil-painted acetate sheets, fusing them to aluminium sheets, with gold and silver leaf; the process reflective of what we call our ‘self’ being a multiple entity, formed by the union of body and mind. Laccu advocates viewing human beings comprehensively, of avoiding the body-mind distinction, and is in search of a new terms which breach this divergence.
Meet the artists
Interviews by / transcribed by Zoe Bromberg-McCarthy
Is there an overarching narrative to Talking Heads? What are some central recurring themes?
There are some central recurring narrative themes. They come mainly from the embedded research that I’ve done with Kings College Cultural Institute. I’ve been working with the department of psychosis studies, with Professor Suki Shergill and his team, and also the National Psychosis Unit at Bethlam Hospital. So there’s a strong link, research wise, between the department and the hospital. I’ve been attending ward rounds regularly for a good six to eight months with Professor Shergill. Not only does he run most of the activity in the Department of Psychosis Studies, he is also one of two clinicians that see about 22 patients at Bethlam Hospital in the National Psychosis Unit. Once a week they meet to discuss their progress and I’ve been part of the group that speaks to the patients every week and have been observing from that point of view.
I’ve also been observing the research activity, which is pretty extraordinary. Quite often there’s a sense that at the National Psychosis unit, a lot of people have drug resistant psychosis, comorbid psychosis, so perhaps have been repeatedly sectioned; perhaps have had multiple courses of treatment that haven’t work. So it’s a place where some of the most severe symptoms are represented amongst the patient body. The idea is that by aligning it [the hospital] with a research institute that the experimental research gets quickly to the people that need it most. So it’s been a real eye opener, it’s been extraordinary. The provision of occupational therapy on sight has been the biggest eye opener. It seems to be people that most participate in those programmes are the ones that stand the best chance of recovery. And long term recovery, putting the incident behind them and moving on.
The exhibition has a number of prongs, I suppose you’d say. There’s a sense that a lot of it is script based and theatrically devised. Actually all the work in the show I think comes from that position. Some works are abstract and metaphorical and are using the idea of cognitive linguistic malfunction as a kind of spur for script writing. Then in other areas there are more direct responses to the conversations I’ve been having with the people involved in the care of psychosis sufferers and the people that are experiencing these phenomena that other people don’t experience. There’s sound works, there’s film works. Tangentially some are more metaphorical than othersperhaps.
Collaboration is really central to the way I work and for this set of work. I have worked with Chloe Lamford, a set designer, she’s an associate at the Royal Court and a fantastic set designer. We co-directed, as a live production, one of the films that appears in the show. It actually opened as a play, presented in a programme about a fictitious TV channel called TBCTV, and we presented that at Somerset House during Frieze Week 2018, so it’s a really recent piece. I’ve reconfigured this live work as a film work for my show at Attenborough Arts Centre so it’s the first time this has been shown.
So by theatrically devised – I’ve arrived with a script, gone into a rehearsal room with actors and then very painfully worked out that some bits don’t work and edit them out and chop them about and the responses to the text have changed the nature of the work. It’s a collaborative effort between the actors, the director, the writer, which is a more theatrical model perhaps in visual art. Normally I’ve worked where I’ll write a script, someone will record it in a day or two days. This is the first time that I’ve interpreted the work through that rehearsal process.
Tell us about your time working with the Kings College Department of Psychosis Studies and how this informed the show.
I’m not an artist that normally works in a participatory or engaged way, but it became clear quite quickly, in my engagement with people and their generosity in telling me about their experiences of unusual phenomena that the rest of the population don’t perceive, it became clear that there would have to be some very direct moment of communication where anyone whose had a conversation with me, contributed to the project in any way, could come in and recognise their voice. I’ve allowed myself to be quite dark and abstract, and comedic and metaphorical on the one side. But on the other hand there’s a section of the work that direct – it’s giving voice to voices that aren’t heard so often perhaps.
So I’ve approached making a series of drawings called Talking Heads Comics where I’ve done about 38-40 interviews with people that I’ve met in and around Kings. So not only the neuroscientists but the pharmacists, occupational therapists, carers, people who themselves are in the middle of having psychotic experiences, people who have recovered and are reflecting in hindsight on those experiences, and people that don’t want to be pathologised in any way at all and live with voices. The Hearing Voices Network – a lot of people associate with that.
For example, people who don’t want to be pathologised in any way at all and are extremely suspicious of the medical profession, people who adopt alternative ways of dealing with the phenomena. Some have Shamanic practices, for example. So I’ve tried to represent as wide a range as possible. So it had this kind of host organisation at the centre of it, which is Kings College, but then beyond this medical, pathological environment, I also wanted to speak to people who are beyond it, and choose to be beyond it for various reasons.
So there’s a whole series of comics. It’s a bit like verbatim theatre, where you have actors speaking the words that are unmediated, in some respects. I’ve done a whole series of drawings where actors are playing the parts of the interviewees. That’s one quite important part of the show because it’s very direct.
Also I’m developing an idea, in partnership with Leicester and the other galleries where the show will tour. It’s based on an encounter with a patient that I’ll call PB. He was one of the first people I met and I found him extremely moving. He would often recite poetry and sing in the ward round and it was incredibly beautiful. He had a very beautiful speaking voice, a very beautiful singing voice, and it’s not a place where you expect to find beauty particularly. The first impression when you walk into the Psychosis Unit is, on a bad day, of chaos, there’s a lot of shouting, screaming. I remember being really intimidated and frightened by that. But once I adjusted myself to it, it’s like anything else – people have bad days, I guess, and then they have good days too. And in the ward round you get to see that really acutely.
PB would always sing, he would always speak, and on the last day he was there – he got transferred to Birmingham – I recorded him speaking because he was too sad to sing that day. But he spoke the middle eight to ‘Are you Lonesome Tonight?’ and it’s really heart breaking. It’s a very beautiful piece.
I thought a lot about how to use this material, if at all, and the ethics of including that voice directly in an art work. But, being an academic myself, in discussion with the ethics committee at the Royal College of Art, where I work, and with Suki and his team, it was judged to be okay to use it. PB has given me permission for it. And so what we’ve done is made an arrangement around the voice and we’ve worked with some groups at Attenborough Arts Centre, to record other voices that augment PB’s original ‘Are you Lonesome Tonight?’ recitation. It’s a sound work that I’m making with the composer Gwyneth Herbert, around that voice.
Mental health is becoming increasingly accepted as a topic for open discussion; self-care and wellness are increasingly seen as something to share, especially over social media. Is there anything in particular that you want visitors to take away from the experience with regard to mental health?
It’s interesting because as well as taking very seriously that fact that we’re all on a mental health spectrum, and not wanting to create divisions between extreme situations and our day to day delusions, paranoias, whatever, there’s also a sense I think that wellness has been commodified and has become an excuse for being extremely selfish quite often. That’s defiantly a voice that’s in the show – a really slimy guru character comes up a lot performing in various ways, doing guided visualisations that are really about making more money and being more successful and having more stuff. So the distinction between that and actually openly discussing mental health in a useful way that benefits us all, so that we all understand that we’re on a continuum and at points in our life we move around on that continuum and no one is fixed on one pole or the other – just because you have a very extreme, negative experience, it doesn’t mean you won’t not be having that and be very happy at another time. I suppose that would be one of the messages, of some of it, of the more direct stuff. I suppose, the way that it has been appropriated by capitalism to be yet another thing that you can sell is defiantly part of the theme of the show. And the paranoias and that dreams that don’t come true, with this ideas that if you believe you can achieve – not necessarily, you might be completely talentless and useless! So there’s that, this kind of rampant individualism and thinking about what that might mean.
But also thinking about what it means to create a society and a culture where neurodiversity is completely not seen to be a thing that’s possible or allowed or what are the constructs where we can care for people in the community in a meaningful way rather than some sort of policy that a politician says ‘this is what we’re going to do to cut money’. One of the points is that occupational therapy has been withdrawn. People are leaving the sort of facility that I’ve been at, Bethlam, and because of a lack of facilities in their local area, they very quickly maybe stop taking their medication, they’re not supported and they’re back to being sectioned and having another episode where nothing’s right. So one of the things I want to say is that occupational therapy is hugely important. With the developing work around PB with Gwyn Herbert, this idea of actually directly giving agency to voices, including them in a show, it seems really important.
What can visitors expect to see, hear, and experience when they visit your exhibition at Attenborough?
The exhibition is a combination of theatrical sets with films embedded in them. There’s some sound pieces. There’s a piece based on Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis – the story of it is there’s an actor trying to record an abridged version of Metamorphosis but he keeps being interrupted, first by the producer, and then the tape runs back and forth, and then other voices begin to intercede. The viewer takes the position of the actor in a vocal isolation booth, and they’re sat with headphones, and they take the role of the actor, and the actor begins to take the role of Gregor Samson in Metamorphosis – it’s a sort of telescoping idea. There’s that. I’m working with Milo Creese, who’s an artist who make CGI and collage-type works. We have created a piece called Xenobath together, which is based on the collective testament of many people who have experienced all sorts of unusual phenomena, collected together and spoken as a chorus. So ‘we’ are experiencing these things. It’s a kind of collective testament. There’s comic work, comic book works, which are kind of like verbatim drawings which describe literally people’s experiences and the text is taken from interviews I’ve conducted with all sorts of people in and around psychosis studies and treatment. And that’s probably it I think.
Kafka’s Metamorphosis has been linked to mental health in many ways. Are there any these in particular that particularly resonate with you/your conception of psychosis?
With the Kafka piece there’s a sense that obviously that story has been taken as a metaphor for mental illness in many ways. I was struck, reading it again, into thinking that something of the narrative trajectory of his family’s response to his unfortunate condition obviously has a lot of resonance with, I have to say, a lot of experience of psychosis that I found. Not just amongst the people who are experiencing it but also their families, it can be, and I know this from personal experience, that I can be an incredibly draining and difficult thing to encompass in your family and how you deal with it collectively, individually, is very difficult. In Metamorphosis the family are really horrible. But there is an initial moment of shock, surprise, horror and empathy – the sister particularly has a lot of empathy to begin with. But as it drags on and he doesn’t seem to be making any improvement and he isn’t earning any money, they all start to become a lot less sympathetic and he’s tucked away into a side room as a kind of dirty secret and they don’t want anyone to know about him. And then eventually through to horror, neglect and unfortunately Gregor dies, neglected by him family, in the end.
It’s the darkest piece in the show I think, but it reflects a sort of trajectory of people who are let down by a system, by a culture, by a society that perhaps could do a lot more to help them when their family can’t always take the brunt. So that was probably the reason I wanted to foreground it. And also it just seemed that, the idea that, I’ve been working a lot with binaural technology which is 3D sound, and it seemed a stage set that you could actually have someone wearing headphones was a good idea and a recording studio seemed to lend itself to that.
Is it that not just the patients themselves suffer, the people surrounding them are affected to?
Yes, defiantly, I think so. I think there’s a sense that it’s a condition, it’s one of the least sympathetic mental illnesses that there are. I think people can, and again it’s so difficult. It’s like snowflakes, every psychosis is completely different from another one. But I think, having spoken to people that are long term carers for people who have been in and out of this situation over and over and over again, it’s exhausting. So it think that is important to reflect as well. And, should the focus of care always have to be on the family? Because we’re not equipped culturally to deal with these extreme mental health problems, and we should be.
What connections do you see between memories and psychosis?
This is going to sound really obtuse, just to warn you! So for me, there’s something about, and I’m really interested in, the performative nature of memory, generally. I’ve been obsessed with Harold Pinter since I was about 16 and that’s something that comes up a lot in his work – the idea that whoever possesses the narrative of the past somehow is in a greater position of power than other people. And I was thinking that, there’s something listening to people recount these extraordinary experiences that have seemed while they were unfurling, these hallucinations, these delusions, they’ve seemed as real as any normal lived experience to the person who is experiencing them. I was curious to think that the difference is between a kind of memory, where it’s completely subjective, alright, it might be based on a lived experience, but it’s completely subjective. And the more you tell a memory, particularly if you think of therapeutic situations, you narritivise portions of your life in particular ways – how accurate are they? The memory only exists in your telling of it.
So I was thinking about hallucinations somehow being in the same bracket – it’s something that you brain has conjured, and that has happened for you in reality, it’s been played out, and it’s a subjective lived experience you could say. Then recounting that memory later on, what’s the status of it? Because it’s a memory of a thing that didn’t happen, but it did happen neurologically in your brain. So there’s something about this idea of memory, hallucination, and everything being quite gaseous really, and it being a valid lived experience maybe as lots of other experiences.
So there’s a kind of spectrum almost of what we deem to be real and certain memories told to us, we would accept them, and others we wouldn’t?
Yes. It’s this idea that a lot of the hallucinations will have some sort of version of a real experience, a lived experience, at the centre of it. So for example, if you spend too much time on your own and you’re over worked and you’re under stress, you might start to think about colleagues, your family or friends, as getting at you, not supporting you enough – you’re under pressure in some way and you start to project things. And this is a supposedly mentally-well person…
I think that a lot of psychosis is based on a real instance. So if you have had multiple periods of being sectioned, if you have tested the loyalty of your family and friends, you may find yourself to be more isolated than a normal member of society. So therefore, you’re spending a lot of time on your own, and any feelings of anxiety, depression, they’re going to become heightened anyway I think. And it just seems to me really logical that over time, and over the course of taking a lot of really strong medications, that these things could quite easily blossom into something which might be deemed to be malfunctioning in some way – a psychotic break. It doesn’t seem that different to what happens when a person who isn’t pathologised in any way has a difficult time and they’re feeling paranoid or anxious or depressed. It just goes a bit further and becomes an external thing to be worked out. It seems like the brain, to me (this is totally subjective), it seems like it needs to almost come out of the brain to have a look at it. So it has a basis in lived experience I guess is what I’m saying, and maybe the nature of your hallucination corresponds to the fears or anxieties you have yourself – that seems to be the experience, in talking to the people that I’ve spoken to.
Could you talk more about “the monologue is a composite in the form of a collective testament”…
So effectively, the text for Xenobath is compilation of phenomena that have been perceived only by one person. So it’s a collection of hallucinations that are strung together to form a narrative, but I’ve given it a collective voice – ‘we are in the field’, ‘we are under the stars’, ‘we are’ – because it’s a way of suggesting that these experience have entered into the world, even though they have only passed through one brain. So it’s kind of like making a choir, if you like. So it’s collective testament of phenomena that other people haven’t perceived, or perhaps only one person has perceived.
Even though the individuals vary so wildly there are a lot of constants – paranoia, feeling that if you don’t carry out a particular set of actions then the world will suffer, you’re puppeteering things, you’re in charge of things, and it’s a great burden of responsibility. So the idea of a collective voice is very important. These are things that happen to lots of people, it’s not just you, if it’s happening to you at the moment, you can join with other people.
What do you think of traditional psychiatric care techniques? Has what you observed at Kings changed your opinion?
Seeing the exchanges that go on in a very acute psychiatric ward has been humbling, it’s been extraordinary. It’s the combination of approaches that works – what works for one person won’t work for another. That’s the thing – the idea of a tailored plan of care is really important.
I’m very interested in the therapy room as a performance space actually, it’s something I’ve been exploring a lot lately. Thinking about, if you’re a therapist at the beginning of the day you have this succession of patients coming in to the same space and performing a version of their experiences at the therapist and at the room somehow, and that they do that sequentially one after another maybe over years. There’s something about this idea of verbal conjuring that comes up a lot – you’re taking out your memories, you’re fitting them into a narrative that maybe relieves them of trauma, that’s maybe more convenient, and putting them into a shape that you can live with. So I think about the therapy space in that way.
I don’t know enough about the history of psychiatry enough to have a comment about what I think of techniques, but the ones that I’ve observed certainly, at the Psychosis Unit, were extraordinarily affective. And when they’re not they do something else. That seems to be the best clinical approach – if something’s not working, do something else. And it’s a combination of drug therapy and talking therapy and occupational therapy – it’s a bit like a mixing desk, what’s appropriate for one may not be appropriate for the other. Some people really like to talk, don’t they, like me.
Describe how you created these works and what they depict.
"Somatic Self" is an ongoing series of paintings based on what I have learned so far from another ongoing project titled "Somatic Identity." In the latter, a group of young women have been interviewed, asking them to share their experiences of stress-related disorders and somatised feelings and visualise them as forms and colours. From each interview, I created a painting as "internal portraits". Somatic Identity will be exhibited in George Davies Medical Centre of Leicester University in concomitance with the exhibition at Attenborough Arts Centre.
In Somatic Self, I imaged how the inner body, (organs, tissues, bones) would physically charges if would existed a technology able to show the effects that embodied emotions and feelings have on our body. For example, I wondered, how does anxiety look like in the stomach?
Do you feel that they making process/the act of painting relates to the subject matter? Why/why not?
The making process is deeply intertwined with the subject matter of my paintings. Each painting is an oil on a stratification of acetates, silver and gold leaf applied on aluminium. The layered surface of my paintings is an expression of the nature of the Self as a multiple entity formed by the complete union body and the mind. As the mind cannot be separated from the body, once a painting is ultimated, the acetates cannot be detached from each other.
How does this series sit within your broader artistic and academic practice?
I am currently undergoing a doctoral study at De Montfort University and Somatic Self is part of my research. As an artist researcher I am committed to work in the arts and mental health.
In your opinion, how are the mind and body connected?
The mind-body connection is the ultimate nature of human beings. I believe we should avoid talking about the body and the mind as a two different entities. I also believe that it would be useful for artists, physicians and psychologists to coin another term which can one for all close the gap.
What do you want audiences to take from the series?
I would like to convey the idea the there is not body-mind connection because what we call the mind and the body are the same thing. We think because we "are" a body which allows us to do so, and we can experience pain because we "are" a mind which can detect emotions and feelings. My paintings are for everyone, for artists who are interested in engaging with mental health and wellbeing and are looking for methodologies to begin this journey; for art therapists who are seeking for alternative approaches for unfolding subjective experiences which may cause distress in individuals; and for any individual who want to begin thinking of human beings according to an holistic perspective rather than a dualistic one.
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