Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a digital age @ FACT, Liverpool

Those of you who have known me for a few years, will remember when I started a blog on the wonderful AN Artists Talking website, documenting my research into the relationship between art, technology and mental health. Occasionally in my posts I would coyly conjecture that I might one day approach a gallery such as FACT with a proposal for an exhibition on a similar theme.

Almost five years later Group Therapy: Mental distress in a digital age is about to open at FACT. My ideas have moved on so much from those initial kernels of inspiration and the whole process has been a huge learning curve. But maybe the biggest victory is the fact that my own mental health has been radically changed by this long, exploratory process.

As we prepare to go public (I am currently writing interpretation material and a talk for the press preview) here is a summary of some of the key thoughts and motivations behind the curatorial choices that have informed the Group Therapy exhibition and also a word or two on what I have learned since the very early days of my thinking in this field.

Mental health is a political issue.

The visitor’s first encounter in the Group Therapy exhibition is a video work by Superflex called The Financial Crisis. A headshot of a hypnotist takes the viewer through a set of scenarios relating to job loss, crisis and the breakdown of the economic system, underlining how anxiety and insecurity is an inevitable part of late capitalist society. My choice to position this as the first interaction in the show, is part of a larger attempt to frame mental distress as an issue that impacts on all of us who participate in the modern word and not just a small cohort of people who are ‘ill’.

As my reading has spanned out to important include people like Ronnie Laing, Richard Bentall, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Oliver James, and Mark Fisher I have only become more convinced that a fairer society will be more mentally healthy. Could art be a catalyst for inspiring change and calling for better treatment of individuals who do not fit easily into the narrow window of normality and productivity that is part of the digital/late capitalist era?

We have always used technology to help us support mental health.

It is very easy to get caught up in the veneer of newness that surrounds mental health apps and neuroscience technologies. But in fact we have been innovating in the area of brain health using machines for a very long time. The 1950s electroshock therapy machine that I have curated into the exhibition intends to highlight our ongoing love of harnessing technology to build better, healthier humans. The first use of electricity to treat brain disorder is on record as early as 1785! Of course these innovations always have mixed results and treatments like electroshock therapy are well known to harmed as much as helped. Are we getting better at employing technology in health in more benevolent ways, or is there anything about our contemporary uses of technology to cause alarm?

In answer to this question, many might point to the recently withdrawn Samaritans Radar app, documentation of which also features in the Group Therapy exhibition. This application was designed to monitor twitter users activity and alert their friends and followers when they used word patterns that indicated they might be suicidal. For many this was a worrying infringement of privacy and a clear sign that digital tech is taking us in dystopian directions.

Often the most exciting and radical approaches to mental health happen when artists and scientists collaborate, or when we observe how different disciplines approach the same fundamental questions. By positioning an artwork about the burgeoning phenomena of internet addiction (and amazing new commission by Katriona Beales which I will no doubt write more about later) next to a mobile app designed to combat isolation in young people, the exhibition will try to illustrate just how complex our emotional relationship with digital technologies has become.

Art that is useful can also be beautiful.

For many people the ‘usefulness’ of art should perhaps be limited to aesthetic contemplation or philosophical inquiry. In the past I have often resisted the notion that art should be perform a civic or social duty (I’ve written so on this blog), yet in the Group Therapy exhibition there are several pieces of work that have very obvious pedagogical or therapeutic aims.

George Khut’s The Heart Library uses interactive heart rate controlled audio-visuals to help users reflect on their embodied experience. The colours of this piece respond directly to your heart rate and users are invited to voluntarily imagine or remember  certain experiences – exciting or stressful, peaceful or quiet – and then observe the physiological impact of these thoughts.  The technology that George uses has been directly employed in a health context to help provide pain relief for children who are about to undergo stressful procedures. Jennifer Kanary Nikolov(a)’s Labyrinth Psychotica is an environment that simulates the experience of psychosis and is often used to help train psychiatrists in better understanding the experience of their patients.

Although both of these pieces have health functions, they also intend to take the user on a journey into themselves, shedding light on the users psychological condition. They therefore offer something beyond an educational encounter; an experience that takes the user to the core of their selfhood, a journey that is useful, aesthetic and philosophical. But to understand what I mean by this… you might need to experience these works for yourself!

The exhibition opens on 5th March… please do come and tell me your thoughts on all of the above!

Featured image: Superflex still from The Financial Crisis

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