Empowering bold discussions on anxiety

We preview 'On Edge: Living in an Age of Anxiety' at Science Gallery London, a new exhibition advised by psychologist Thalia Eley and others; now with update, a review from Alina Ivan.

A new exhibition and events season at Science Gallery London combines art, design, psychology and neuroscience to highlight positive and creative responses when dealing with anxiety. ON EDGE: Living in an Age of Anxiety reflects on individual experiences, the environmental and societal factors that can cause worry or stress and explores our evolutionary impulse to be on alert.

Drawing on research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, the season reflects the perspectives of a range of artists, scientists, young people and those with lived experience of anxiety. New commissions are included, developed by artists working in collaboration with researchers from King’s.

‘King’s College London is home to outstanding mental health research, including on the causes and effects of anxiety,’ said Professor Thalia Eley, Professor of Developmental Behavioural Genetics at King’s, and ON EDGE Season Advisor. ‘This season brings new perspectives to a phenomenon that affects so many of us. ON EDGE invites visitors to reflect on their own wellbeing in a wider context.’

‘The exhibition takes as its starting point that we all experience anxiety at some point in our lives,’ said curator-producer Mette Kjærgaard Præst. ‘We aim to open up a critical conversation about the causes of and responses to anxiety in contemporary society. ON EDGE makes visible the possible connections between individual experiences and the wider societal conditions that frame them.’

Many of the featured artists – Leah Clements, Benedict Drew, Sarah Howe, Ann Lislegaard, Cian McConn, Harold Offeh, Resolve Collective, Suzanne Treister, Alice May Williams – draw on their own experiences to consider how individuals experience anxiety and develop creative coping mechanisms. Some of the artistic/academic collaborations will explore the relationship between sleep and anxiety; how we can destigmatise sensitive conversations around mental health; and what the emotional state of anxiety might look like if portrayed using sound and light.

In 'Consider Falling' by Sarah Howe (pictured), disjointed compositions, mirrors, fragments of interviews, gifs, and repeating gestures of anxiety observed by the artist create an immersive installation, rooted in research into depersonalisation and derealisation disorders (DPD) and conversations with service users from The Maudsley Hospital.

The season also considers how our noisy, interconnected and uncertain world affects our wellbeing on a collective level. ON EDGE features work that explores broader social questions around experiencing and addressing anxiety. Examples include collaborations considering the complex ways that our urban environment affects our individual psychological state; the emotional role of anxiety in society; and how we study, measure and support mental health conditions. 

Deborah Bull, Vice President & Vice-Principal (London) and Senior Advisory Fellow for Culture at King’s College London, said: ‘At Science Gallery London, we bring scientists together with artists to provoke new perspectives on some of the world’s greatest challenges and connect in innovative ways between the university and communities across London and beyond.’

Throughout the season, Science Gallery London will host a discursive space for visitors to think about the ways we react to and experience anxiety. This will be designed by Resolve Collective and the Gallery’s Young Leaders, a group of 15-25-year olds who live, work or study at King’s or in the neighbouring boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth. 

A programme of free events, including talks, workshops and Friday Lates will continue the conversation around anxiety in contemporary society. Another psychologist, Dr Colette Hirsch, Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, King’s College London, was involved as an advisor (alongside Eley and Dr Errol Francis, Chief Executive, Culture&). Dr Elaine Hunter, consultant clinical psychologist and clinical lead of the Depersonalization Disorder Service (DDS) at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, was one of a number of other academics involved.  

John O’Shea, Head of Programming at Science Gallery London, said: ‘We hope that visitors to the exhibition will be engaged by the questions posed, and, through the creative strategies of the artists, feel empowered to have bold discussions about the experience of anxiety within contemporary society.’

The exhibition runs from 19 September 2019 – 19 January 2020 at Science Gallery London (King’s College London) and entry is free. 

Update: Alina Ivan, a Research Assistant in the Department of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King's College London, visited the exhibition for us:

On Edge is an exhibition that everyone should see this season. Balancing subjective narratives with systemic causes and current research avenues with existent remedies, it provides a space to understand and empathise with sufferers of anxiety. The exhibition offers a degree of reassurance, providing relief from anxiety in and of itself. 

In one of the cinema rooms, artist Benedict Drew has dissolved gentle whispers into restless sounds and blended them with a burst of bright abstract digital imagery. Charged with a sense of unease, the baffling synergetic audio-visuals of The Bad Feel Loops vividly capture the intense yet disorientating experience of anxiety. The material seems to invite visitors to surrender their senses and stay with the sensations evoked, revealing a poetic – perhaps even transcendental – dimension to feeling ‘on edge’. The artwork is effective in communicating the experience of anxiety in a visceral way, which nicely complements other exhibits which tackle anxiety from a scientific perspective.    

Several works on display incorporate patient perspectives to convey the experience of living with anxiety disorders. Harrold Offeh has collaborated with patients from the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit, who used their immediate surroundings to create the piece Mindfully Dizzy. This multimedia expression combines scratches gouged in the rubbing of the Bethlem Royal Hospital with an audio mixing talking therapies and pioneer Dizzy Gillespie’s jazz music. Drawing upon the subjective experience of depersonalisation, To Not Follow Under by Leah Clements depicts muted colours coupled with disjointed narratives, which translate into gripping life stories. Sarah Howe’s Consider Falling complement Clements’ work: The scattered crop-out video installations capture soothing movements that we’re all familiar with – the repetitive pinching of one’s lip, the crossing of one’s arms. 

However, there is a way out: the brain can adapt and change. Common Thread tells an upbeat story, vivifying the concept of neuroplasticity through a colourful, uplifting tapestry. This is the work of the Resolve Collective in collaboration with young people from the Young Leaders Programme and researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. Visitors can shape and reshape the layout of this calm refuge and move strips of material, much as the brain reshapes itself via neuroplasticity. Through this interactivity, the exhibit encourages visitors to tie up loose ends, literally and metaphorically. Ongoing research is now showing that crafts can help to treat mental health conditions – a finding reflected by contemporary social prescribing initiatives. 

On Edge is mesmerising – a holistic and deeply revealing portrayal of sensations and patterns of thought associated with anxiety, accompanied by systemic causes, remedies and mechanistic approaches. 

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