The Beginning – December 2014

lesmcropMon 1 December, 2014 Now that everything is finally agreed so that I can go ahead with the residency (it has taken over a year of negotiation) I am visiting each centre once or twice before Christmas as a way of getting orientated before I start the workshops. By way of introduction I gave an artists talk at one of the centres today. About a dozen people attended, including a doctor and member of staff. I spoke for about 30 minutes about my work –some people seemed quite interested, but I’m not sure that many of them saw the relevance of what I was talking about to them. A couple of people even fell asleep. A young woman arrived at the talk just as I was finishing. She said that she is interested in photography, and also in writing. She stayed behind when others left and we looked through some photos that she had taken. I talked her through some of my photos, and she spoke a bit about herself – she said she feels isolated because she feels that her family and friends want her to be more “normal”.

It’s all a bit unknown as I have no formula for this, but I think giving talks about my work is the wrong way to do things. How do I find a way of working that is both therapeutic for the people involved and will give me some material to make work from? What can and can’t I show people? What can I expect of them?

Thursday 4 December, 2014, Centre 2 I was due to give a talk to a group at the other centre today, but I mixed up the time and arrived after the group had started. Not a good start, but it worked out all right in the end. Two staff and seven or eight clients were sitting around a circular table when I arrived. There was no projector in the room, so everyone huddled onto one side of the table and we passed the computer around. I felt the talk went better this time, at least no one fell asleep. I spoke for around 20min, then people started to ask questions, mostly about confidentiality. One person in the group was looking very skeptical throughout my talk, but then when the group was finished she started to ask questions and said that she wants to participate. Other people expressed some interest, but she was the most keen. Then I left the group to go and sit in the day room so that they could continue discussion without me. One man came and sat with me before the group had finished. I greeted him but remained silent, and he started to talk about how beneficial he found art therapy. Then he told me that he had been a GP. Its interesting how he suddenly seemed to slot into a different box in my mind.

Still not quite sure how to do this, but I need to prepare material to show people and to fix a time in the week for a regular group meeting.  

Tuesday 9th December I had a meeting with the Art Therapist who had helped to finalise the terms of my residency and get it started. We discussed the logistics of the residencies; the need for consent forms and why I have to confine my work with people to the time that they are attending the centre, which is usually only for a few weeks. The staff have decided that the best way for me to work is to run a weekly workshop that will become part of their regular timetable.

I’m beginning to become clearer about how I want to work with people. I think collage might be a good way to go, showing people some of my existing artworks, discussing these and then asking them to make photos or short videos on their phones. Today the art therapist pointed out the need to be vigilant because of the high percentage of people who commit suicide, or attempt to. This is a little daunting. We talked about the need for me to report anything that worries me. On one hand I will feel bound to do this, because it would be terrible if something happened and I had seen the signs but not reported it, but on the other hand I feel that aligns me a little too much with the regular staff.

Thursday 11th December – Centre 2 I arrived at the centre during lunch hour. As usual all staff were busy, but I managed to accompany one of them for a brief walk to discuss the logistics of my being there. She talked about ‘safeguarding’, and whether I would need an alarm, and even suggested I work with the door open. Risk factors like people expressing an intention to harm themselves; mentioning abuse against them; or violent behaviour in the room should all be reported.

I felt a bit uneasy about this, because it will place me in an institutional, or at least unequal, relationship with the people I am working with, and that’s not what I want. But then I am new to all this, so I feel I have to listen to staff and be aware. 

I will start one workshop next week, but then it will be Christmas, so will have to start properly in January. I am worried that many of the people that I am beginning to get to know will be discharged by the time I start again. After the walk, I went to sit in the lunch room and had a long and very nice conversation with Jane, the woman who had been skeptical when I introduced the project. She seems very open and easy to talk to. Another young woman approached me – she was admitted to the Crisis House a week ago. She has some background in theatre and was very enthusiastic about joining the art project. Paul, a young man who was at my talk last week and has just graduated with a degree in Philosophy and Theology also seems interested in joining the project. Another woman who was angry and was shaking when we spoke also said she would like to come along. I talked through some of the images from my previous project with each person and they seemed to understand what I was trying to do. Someone, I think it was Jane, even said she wondered what she would put in the room if she was one of the subjects of that project. I then decided that this may be a good starting point for the first workshop – to discuss my existing images and then ask people to make collages of what would be in their rooms. Gradually people drifted away, either to medical appointments or home, so I left around mid-afternoon.

Friday 12th December – Centre 1 Another “orientation” day where I joined different groups all day just to get a sense of how the program at the centre works. I joined the Film Therapy group this morning. We watched half a rather sentimental 1950s film about nuns saving children in WW2. After that I went on to the Creative Writing group in the art room. A lot of people were there, around 10 patients and 2 staff. Each person was given an A4 sheet of paper with “prompts” on it like “it can feel like a struggle when”… “I have a dream that…” and 15min to write something. This seemed to me very difficult and I would have been inhibited, but everyone wrote non-stop until the time was up. They then read their pieces one by one, some were poetic and creative, others descriptive and straightforward, but in general this seemed to me to be a very beneficial process – everyone wanted to say something and no one seemed to be afraid to write down their thoughts/feelings/experiences. I arranged with the centre manager to do one Art Workshop next week, and then to start properly in January. Everything seemed fine and I felt as though I was beginning to be a little more accepted into the team. In the afternoon I joined the “walking” group. Although it was cold and threatening to rain quite a few people came on the walk. I realized that this was a very important activity when I overheard someone saying that he found it difficult to go out in public alone. After the walk we sat outside a café drinking coffee and the group felt very convivial. There was some nice conversation and a supportive atmosphere, then some people drifted off as we returned to the centre.

Monday 15th December Today I had a message that there was a problem with my contract and so I would not be able to run workshops this week after all. So I spent the day emailing Occupational Health and HR and filling in health forms as those I had completed previously were now over 6 months old and therefore out of date. Sigh.

Thursday 18th December A couple of days and a lot of insistence later new health checks are completed and my contract is finally in place – just in time before the Christmas break. I now have my NHS badge! I have started to buy cameras on ebay, and also stationery, glue and scissors for the workshops. And I’m collecting magazines from everyone I know. So I’m ready to go in January.

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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.

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