First Workshops – January 2015

Mxsmcrop Monday 5th January 2015: Centre 1 I made a schedule for 4-week cycles of workshops which I presented to the centre manager today. We discussed some of the practicalities of “handover”, which means that staff tell me anything I need to know about likely workshop participants before I work with them, and I also feed back to them anything I have observed afterwards. We agreed that I will now start the first workshop cycle at this Centre on 19th January as their schedule needs to be reorganised. This is a bit disappointing, but after emailing Centre 2 it looks as though I will be able to start my first workshop there this Thursday.

Wednesday 7th January: Centre 2 I attended a community meeting today so I could reintroduce myself before tomorrow’s workshop. The meeting was relatively short, but had a very nice feeling, with one patient taking the minutes and another chairing. Several people seemed interested in participating in the art workshop the following day.

I’m feeling slightly nervous about how to introduce my ideas and explain what I want to do. At the moment I’m not sure how to talk to people and what I can ask of them.

Thursday 8th January: Centre 2 Today was the first workshop. One of the staff gave me some background info on all patients and their risk factors. Initially eight people came to the workshop, but two men and a woman left after a short while. One man didn’t understand what was going on at all, one decided it was not for him, and the woman said she was shortly to be discharged so she didn’t see the point in getting involved. Of the other five the two men were quite silent. Two of the women talked a lot! Firstly I showed the photographs from my previous project  and asked people to pick one and “decode” it – a couple of people did a good job of that. I moved things on quite quickly because I was worried about boring people, but should maybe have spent longer on this? There was some interesting conversation whilst people were cutting pictures from magazines, but it was difficult to tell what they were thinking. The workshop lasted about 1.25 hours. There was an awkward moment when someone asked for the lights to be turned on (they only work with an obscure key that is kept on another floor – obviously people do not turn lights off!), and I suddenly remembered that I wasn’t allowed to leave the room whilst people had scissors in their hands. Luckily one of the women in the group came to the rescue and went to get a member of staff for me. I won’t turn off the lights again! One woman asked me a lot of questions and she and another woman were making nice but rather intrusive personal comments.

Usually the art activity at the centre is purely for therapeutic reasons, so there is not a lot of direction to the work. How do I find a way to get people to think of the activity a bit differently? It’s difficult to know how to situate myself with people – I want to relate to them differently than the regular staff do, but I’m not sure where to set the boundaries. The Art Therapist has a policy of not revealing anything about herself, but that wouldn’t feel quite right to me. Today was just a start, but I think I’m going to need to work one to one with people. People hint at some interesting things in the group, but I don’t feel I can ask anything very personal in front of the others. Working in such a structured environment brings quite a few new challenges!

Tuesday 13th Jan I spent a lot of the day reading Louis Sass’ ‘Paradoxes of Delusion’ – a great book, and thinking about what I really want from the project and what I want the final work to do – questions that are not easily answered at this stage. I am aware that I need to think carefully about the relationship between the form and the content of the work – how do I avoid being too rational and literal and at the same time avoid making something that is just meaningless chaos!?

Thursday 15th January : Centre 2 Arrived around 1pm for the 1.30pm workshop and spent some time chatting to Paul. Only three people came this week, but the session felt better – calmer and more focused than the previous week, although there no one made much progress with their collage.

This week I think people got more out of the workshop, but I am not at all sure how it will feed into any ideas for my work. It’s difficult to do stuff and be reflexive at the same time. Some of the participants’ attention span and tolerance is pretty short, so I feel I need to speed up the process somehow. And I still feel that I need to meet with people one to one. I thought maybe I should take note of very small things that people say and do, then I realised that’s an anthropological approach – to be avoided!

Monday 19th January: Centre 1 My first workshop here. Many of the people I had met before Christmas had already been discharged. A couple of new people who said they were coming along didn’t turn up. I guess I need to get used to inconsistency. In the end there were three in the group – Marvin and Robert who I had met previously, and Vicky, a girl who had just started at the centre. Overall the workshop went well –  everyone looked quite carefully at my previous work and the examples of artists’ collage that I brought along. I gave out notebooks and saw Robert writing in his after the end of the session. He is young and very articulate, but he made it clear that he didn’t want to reveal much about himself, and he even hid the pieces he was cutting out. But I have a feeling something will happen with him if he comes back. Marvin talked about having visited the Turner exhibition at Tate Britain the previous week.

Today I was pleased with the way things went, although I feel unsure about what will happen. It really is a new process, and I am learning as I go. I think its better when there are only a few people. I’m still feeling my way with how to ask people to reflect on what has happened to them without rekindling a lot of distress.

Thursday 22nd January : Centre 2 This morning I finished putting together a powerpoint of works by other artists to show people to inspire their own photos. I put the more abstract, bland ones at the beginning and more challenging towards the end so that I could avoid showing these if anyone seems very sensitive. I re-tested the cameras I had bought on ebay and found that two don’t work. Uh. Today the workshop was good. Each group session seems better than the last. Four people came this week and everyone concentrated and worked well. It’s slow, but I have to get used to that. I was concerned about Paul this week – he seems a bit uncertain about what he’s doing and how to express himself visually, but he took a camera. Rebecca attended for the first time. She has been around at the centre, but hasn’t come to the the project yet. She has some design experience and seems very confident, but I think she feels that making collage is a bit beneath her. Another woman, Andrea has some lovely ideas for translating feelings into images and was very enthusiastic about taking a camera home, but she works slowly and says she is tired after a few minutes.

Verena joined us today. For a while I wasn’t sure that she would do anything as she seemed very wary, but then she started cutting out pictures of birds and animals, and stayed after the end of the group to finish her collage which, she said, expressed things that she didn’t usually talk about. She then agreed to ‘decode’ it for me. I was really excited to see how working with collage like this could enable someone to tell their story so quickly. But then I wondered if this is the kind of thing that usually happens in standard art therapy, or if it really is particular to my way of working. Lots of other people also said interesting things today – Rebecca talked about soft focus as a metaphor for isolation, drifting, and lack of direction, fog. Paul was interested in the image of a strong beam of light, and light falling on things. Andrea also liked lack of focus – and how it alters the presence of the person – playing with how much the person is present in the image – she said she is interested in visibility and presence in general.

This was a surprising day. Meeting Verena really brought home to me the need to keep an open mind on first meeting someone. First impressions were of someone childlike and withdrawn, but on interacting with her I soon realized that she is fiercely intelligent and is, in fact, studying towards a PhD. And this week I learned that Paul is at the centre because of a suicide attempt. I wonder if that knowledge influenced the way I read his uncertainty today? In many different circumstances ordinary (or not so ordinary) behaviours take on a different meaning when you know something about the person. One thing I am beginning to learn is to expect the unexpected each week. 

Monday 26 January: Centre 1 I couldn’t see Robert or Marvin at lunchtime and was worried no one would come to the group, but in the end there were four men. Pete, a new man who had recently arrived at the centre, was very positive and started working quickly on a narrative collage. Robert said: “the image needs an element of abstraction because you are representing an internal, subjective world that is not always going to seem as though it has an order for others”. Ian talked about complexity, confusion and chaos. He said that when the world becomes twisted and confusing, therapy brings order, and cut out an image of tangled neurons from an article about Schizophrenia. Another woman came briefly, but she didn’t really understand what was going on and she left. Pete, Ian and Robert all started to talk about their collages. Marvin has made several collages, but didn’t want to say anything about them.

Someone told me that for a lot of people being at the Recovery Centres is a process of learning to access “stuff” that is buried. Sometimes people seem fine on the surface – their pain is well concealed. I’m not allowed to look at anyone’s case notes, not even people who are long gone, but I’m interested in the language used there, for example: euthymic – in a balanced state, neither hyper nor depressed; slept through the night; agitated; settled in mental state; agitated when needs not met immediately… This makes me feel uncomfortable – how is this reconciled with how people actually feel?

Thursday 29th January, Centre 2 The group was very mixed this week – Paul and Andrea are on their third session and had taken a couple of photos each on the cameras they took home. Andrea was enthusiastic about the group in the lunch room before we started, but she kept saying it made her tired. Verena worked out that the PC keyboard from the computer room would work with the Mac in the Art Room, and set it up, but then we couldn’t get the printer to work. Today Jane said she would never be happy, and then the whole group had a rather philosophical conversation about the nature of happiness. Rich turned up unexpectedly – I think he came especially for the group. I suggested he cut the pieces of his collage out more so that they are not all square, so he took his folder home to do more cutting. A new young man joined today. He said he had feelings of paranoia and thoughts that the police were going to break through the walls of his house. He was looking for photos of police in the magazines I had brought in, but he couldn’t find any. Verena was upset because another member of the group was repeatedly making offensive comments about her nationality. It took me a minute to realize, but by then she had walked out saying she needed to “get some air”. I felt a bit helpless because I couldn’t leave the room as everyone had scissors. Later I was happy to see that Verena came back. After the group we spent some time talking and things felt OK again.

Today I was again reminded that its easy to get carried away with the therapeutic aspect of what we are doing and forget to be reflexive. What I do notice though is that in some way I recognise a lot of the problems people are reporting. This is good in many ways, I think it helps me to understand a bit what they are going through. But there never seems to be enough time to process what I’m observing in the group or analyse what happens. And people stay for only a short time –  as soon as I start getting to know someone they’re gone.

In the middle of the night I started thinking about dance steps and slowing down or dissecting the dance into a series of stills, like a stop frame animation. I didn’t know why, but it could be interesting to dissect moving images of people so that every tiny everyday movement becomes very significant. 

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Alexa Wright

Alexa Wright works with photography, video, sound and interactive digital media. Her practice often exists at the intersection of art and medical science. Alexa’s work has been shown widely, both nationally and internationally. Recent exhibitions include: 'Slippage, The Unstable Nature of Difference', Chester University Gallery (2015); 'Crafting Anatomies', Bonington Gallery, Nottingham (2015); 'Hybrid Bodies', PHI Centre, Montreal (2014); 'Archisle Photography Open', Jersey Arts Centre, St Helier, Jersey (2013); (honorable mention); 'Portas Abertas', Fórum Eugénio de Almeida, Évora, Portugal (2013); 'Digital Aesthetic 3', Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston (2012); 'Born in 1987: the Animated Gif', Photographer’s Gallery, London (2012). Alexa is Reader in Photography and Visual Culture at the University of Westminster in London, UK. Her single-authored book, ‘Monstrosity the human monster in visual culture’ was published by IB Tauris in June 2013. Funded by the Arts Council, Alexa is currently artist in residence at two Mental Health Recovery Centres in North London, UK.