Recently I’ve been celebrating the conclusion of my first year as a PhD candidate (where the hell did that time go?). This first year I have been propelled forwards at a rate of knots by the exhibition at FACT and exciting collaborations with my colleagues on an innovative research method that has just received major funding from the Australian Research Council. I’ve also edited a book and presented the fruits of my labor with FACT at numerous talks and conferences.
This semester, apart from a fairly hefty teaching load and early preparations for Group Therapy Australia, things have become a little less manic and I’ve been able to reflect on my work with more freedom. A crucial question I’ve barely had time to ask until now is about my own deeper motivations for doing this PhD. It’s easy to have a sense of direction when co-curators, book contributors and fellow academics are all blabbing excitedly at you about the great things you are going to do together. But what is my deeper intention in among all of this productivity? How do I make sure that I spend three years working on a project that resonates with my own deeper ethics and motivations? In other words, what will success look like FOR ME?
At the recent postgraduate conference held at UNSW Art & Design I noticed so many of my colleagues are addressing deeply incisive issues like climate change and classroom pedagogy through their creative and artistic practices. There is often a healthy and commendable desire to change the world (or at least make a measurable difference) among artists, curators etc, which in my case manifests in an aspiration to challenge prevailing mindsets about mental health. While some in the arts might commend this project as timely and necessary, many others will find the didactic intent problematic (this really came through in the response to my own presentation at the UNSW conference). As I have frequently expressed in the past, I believe that something of what is unique and powerful about the artistic experience is lost when we imbue it with overly instrumental agendas. Simultaneously, I retain a powerful inclination that artistic experience has enormous capacity to explode conventional thinking about mental health and illness and to produce alternative perspectives on wellbeing that challenge the doctrines of medical science. So how do I harness this power of art as a communicative strategy without compromising its integrity as a complex aesthetic experience? What will success look like FOR ME, both in terms of the aesthetic quality of the experiences I curate and the messages they communicate about mental health?
Featured image: Madlove, the vacuum cleaner in collaboration with Hannah Hull, as part of Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age @ FACT, Liverpool, March- May 2015. Photograph by Stephen King