Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age at FACT is a fascinating exploration of issues surrounding mental health using a number of mainly interactive forms ranging from films and computer technologies to objects and photography. Far from a linear narrative, it is a journey into a literal and metaphorical maze, in which the exhibits become islands at which we explore our own mental and sensory impulses or engage with representations of how madness is socially produced and treated.
On entering the main exhibition space, Dora García’s documentary The Deviant Majority, provides useful context as an activist recalls the late-1960s reaction against institutional psychiatry and serves as a reminder of the advances in recent decades in challenging the stigmatisation of mental health issues.
The violent methods used to treat mental ‘illness’ in the past are evoked by a 1950s headset and control panel used for administering electric shock therapy. All the more convincing for being one of the few objects in the show, it might seem to be a museum piece but is accompanied by an explanation that such treatment has an eighteenth-century provenance and is still used, albeit to a far lesser extent than in the past. On the other side of the exhibition two red leather armchairs provides an ironically plush space for an app by UBERMORGEN which explores the power of technology as a tool of personal disclosure and self-diagnosis.
The exhibition’s laudable commitment to extending our understanding of the application of mental health issues is evident in the many ways it relates the personal to sociological issues. For example, the film The Financial Crisis by Superflex shows how a hypnotherapist might conduct a session for an individual made homeless in the recent economic downturn. The connection between mental disturbance in the individual and in society as a whole is a recurrent one.
Playing with the title of a Beckett play, the three-dimensional film, Not Eye, by Lauren Moffat asks us to consider whether a woman’s fear of surveillance may, or may not, be paranoia, dovetailing neatly with a separate exhibit in which an internet article reports how the Samaritans have had to stop surveying tweets for signs of depression.
Sensory submersion is brought to the fore in Katriona Beales’ multi-media installation, White Matter, in which we are invited to sit on cushions in an enclosed, curtained space. Flowing colours and images are projected overhead to the accompaniment of pulsating, ambient music. Touch is engaged through reflective black glass objects which provide a physical counterpoint to the swirling mental stimulation.
A popular display at the opening was George Khut’s The Heart Library Project in which the emotional heat produced by a spectator lying on a bed is projected as a coloured image overhead. The exhibit is accompanied by paper, pencils, crayons and pastels in the adjoining room which provide an opportunity to respond in kind, the result then being displayed on the gallery wall. This instant creativity shows the intimate connection between mental processes and the production of art. In an adjacent space, Kate Owens and Neeta Madahar’s animated film of a pet dog which comes to devour its owner provides a memorable image of depression and in its animation of the term ‘black dog’ underscores how we use metaphor to define mental states.
At the centre of the exhibition’s labyrinth is a set of chairs at which the audience sit to take in the audio-visual item, Twelve by Melanie Manchot. This arrangement brings human community into the heart of the event as underlined by a particularly moving monologue by a local Liverpool woman recalling the stress of preparing for her daughter’s communion ceremony while containing her own addictions. A bleached-out view of the city’s famous shoreline from the Mersey ferry provided a suitably liminal accompaniment.
The main exhibition is surrounded by more playful explorations of the theme which ask us to acknowledge our own mental limitations and irrational tendencies. The playwright August Strindberg said that ‘all human beings are mad, except doctors’. Upstairs, you can put on a white coat and enter a literal labyrinth which will surely challenge even the most intrepid.
If you have been unable to reach the centre you can let off steam by screaming in a soundproof box room in the foyer. This is part of the comforting space, Madlove: A Designer Asylum, designed by the vacuum cleaner and Hannah Hull to be a sympathetic environment for the distressed.
Clearly, much thought and energy has gone into the design of this extensive and intensive show, co-curated by Vanessa Bartlett and Mike Stubbs. Contemplative rather than histrionic, it is true to its title premise, a show more about therapy than anger, Lear’s recovery rather than his raging on the heath. Rimbaud came to mind for his formulation of poetry as a ‘systematic derangement of the senses’: I was left wondering whether art is a form of mental disturbance or a solace for it, or both. FACT Director Mike Stubbs stresses that this is an exhibition which explores the connections between the human and technology: it also makes us think again about how the individual and the social are linked by balancing our differing needs to conform and disturb.
Group Therapy is at FACT until 17 May