More Workshops – February 2015

josmcropMonday 2nd February, Centre 1 January has already gone. Today Pete was in the day room with several other people. Although none of them wanted to come to the Art Project the atmosphere was nice, and friendly and I feel that people are getting used to seeing me around. Then Marvin said he would come along. He sits a bit apart from the group and if I ask him what his collages are about he doesn’t answer.  I uploaded Pete’s photos to my laptop and we looked through them. He had taken around fifty pictures, including some views out of the window from his flat at different times of day. He said that sometimes he just sits there all day looking out and the photos represent mood changes. He had also taken pictures of the corner of the room when he woke up one night, and an imprint left on the carpet. We talked about moving on and I suggested that this week he could focus on imprints and impressions that last or fade and on moves that change things when taking photos. Ten minutes or so into the session a member of staff knocked on the door and delivered three new people.  I gave the three new people my A View From Inside photos to look through. When I explained that the images represent people’s experiences of altered reality,  one person, Jake said he would need to find a picture of a lion because he sees lions everywhere. I put some National Geographics in front of him and after a while he found a small picture of a lion and some photos of landscapes with ferns and icicles in them, which he called “jagged leaves”. Having seen my digital photos he said that the lions needed inserting digitally and I said I would take the photos home and overlay them. When I asked him if he was convinced by the lions he answered: “My body says one thing and my head says another”, and “its my body that is convinced by them”.

Another new member of the group, Richard, told me that he used to hear voices, but now they are gone. He said he didn’t want to go too much into the past, but then he told me that the voices told him to kick the family dog, which he did. The third new person, William looked as though he was holding in a lot of emotion.  When I asked him to make a collage about his experience, he didn’t want to remember what had happened. So I asked him to make something about how he feels now, but that was also difficult for him. He said, “then I was alone, now I’m with people”. I didn’t ask him any more, but he cut out a black and white image of a barren landscape and various short bits of text, which he stuck onto the landscape. At the end of the session he said he didn’t think he would come back next week.

Collage is such a powerful way for all sorts of people to talk about what is going on for them. I’m excited by this process. I keep having the sense that something interesting is happening, but I can’t articulate it or connect to it fully. And there are lots of questions like, for example, what does ‘recovery’ mean?

Thursday 5th February, Centre 2 Today is already workshop number five here. I emailed the manager in the week to check that she was in agreement with me meeting patients one to one as I had a gut feeling that this was not OK, and it wasn’t. She didn’t reply to my email, but when I arrived she was in the office waiting to see me. We spoke for about 20 minutes and I tried to convince her, but there was no agreement. Five people came to the group this week. Andrea had an appointment so she couldn’t stay. She hadn’t slept and was looking anxious. She said she hadn’t taken any photos but had been thinking about what she wanted to do and I promised to get the computer/printer set up for the following week so that she could download and print things from the Internet. Last week Ronnie took the pieces of his collage home to work on further, and this week he almost finished it.

Today Jane finished a collage. She seems to be enjoying the group. She said it was the fastest hour ever today! She was keen to take a camera home, so I gave her the last one I had. She too is leaving soon. I understand why I can’t, but its frustrating not to be able to have ongoing contact with people. When I asked Neil about his collage he said it was about “the city rushing by”. I didn’t have enough cameras to give him one to take home but he said he will take some pictures on his Dad’s camera. A new guy, Kevin stayed for a while and I showed him some pictures. He looked through the magazines, but said he couldn’t find any pictures that were relevant to him. He then said that what happened to him was a one off and not long term. I had a sense from this that he wasn’t ready to face whatever it was, or to try to represent anything about it yet. Paul finished his first collage today. He had also taken a camera home last week and we looked through the photos he had taken, discussing which were most interesting. He said: ‘People get a lot of grief for mental health – we might not be “normal”, but we are normal.’

I couldn’t sleep after this workshop – I was thinking about all the different people that attend the centres, and how they represent a complete cross section of London society – all sorts of different ages, genders and social and cultural backgrounds. Such interesting things come out of working visually. I was thinking about people who cut themselves and wondering if that is a kind of self-reinforcement of abuse they have suffered in earlier life. I would like to have the opportunity to work with Jane on this, but I don’t think I will be allowed to. There is something interesting here about corporeal inscription of trauma, and of repetition.

Mon 9th February, Centre 1 There have been quite a few changes. Marvin has been discharged, and also Robert, who was, however, there in the morning meeting. I managed to catch him quickly as he came out to say goodbye and asked him to sign a consent form so that I can show his collage. He returned his camera, but hadn’t taken any photos. As last week, it seemed as though no one would be there for the group, but again there were four people, all men. Ian arrived just as we were starting, he had come in specially for the group. I felt I needed to be giving everyone attention all at once, but as each had different needs that was quite difficult. Jake was at the hospital having tests again this week so he wasn’t there. Pete didn’t stay long as he had arranged to meet his mother and was in a hurry so he was agitating for attention. We had a quick look through the photos he had taken this week. He had taken one of his bedroom door a crack open so that just a thin sliver of orange light was showing which I really liked. He will be discharged soon, so I asked him to sign a consent form, and arranged to meet tomorrow to have a more careful look through his photos. I realised it may be better to allow him to find his own way of working rather than suggest things as when he is working more intuitively the most interesting things happen. Maybe my input is more in the edit?

Richard was there today and seemed quite bright to start with, but when I started trying to get him to think about what he was doing he became tense and silent. He couldn’t remember what he had been doing the previous week, or why. About half way through the session he left to go for a smoke, but said he would come back the following week. There was a new guy, Alex in the group. I gave him a very quick introduction to the ideas and he got on with looking through magazines for images. When I had a chance to talk to him again he had cut out quite a few bits and pieces. Then he said that he had done an Art Foundation course, but had got into drugs, which had led to him being hospitalized. He is an in-patient at a hospital somewhere and coming to the centre during the day. Ian returned this week and seemed in good spirits – more confident than previously and a bit more trusting. He said: ‘I feel like the room I’m in is vast and I’m a small thing; I get physically hot; I feel like I’m going through a tunnel, diving somewhere, I hear voices like a crowd around me saying not very pleasant things. I used to paint. Now I feel like getting angry, but I know I mustn’t’. After we had talked he decided to cut up his collage and rearrange it, using some words as well. He hadn’t been able to take any photos in the week as the camera I had given him wouldn’t work. I was a bit annoyed with myself for not checking it properly, but anyway I gave him a different one this week.

Thursday 12th February, Centre 2 The new manager was in the office when I arrived and told me who was around and not and who is leaving soon, which is most of the people I have been working with. She told me that a member of staff was going to sit in on the session today. I asked why and she said that it was just to see what we do so they can tell other patients, but it felt I was being subject to surveillance. I brought up the subject of 1-1s again and she said that she is meeting with a senior manager tomorrow and would discuss it then. In the lunch room Ronnie and Jane both came over to sit with me. Jane told a long story about her history as a part time alcoholic. She was wearing short sleeves today, showing cuts up both arms. I felt quite flattered that they had both chosen to sit with me.

I had bought new inks for the printer in the art room and fitted them, but the printer still wouldn’t work. Paul was in the art room working on a pastel drawing when I got there. He said that he had taken some more photos in the week. Its hard to remember why he is here as he seems so much like any other young guy. Today was funny, when I opened the drawer to get people’s work out there was an envelope in there addressed to Paul. It turned out to be a Valentine’s card – there was much noisy speculation about who could be from. This set a rather chaotic tone to the afternoon. No one got much done today. Because another member of staff was in the room I was able to leave and I set Andrea up in the computer room looking for images she needed for her collage on the Internet. She had tried to take one or two pictures on the camera I gave her this week, but they were very out of focus and we couldn’t print them, so I took them home and printed them there for her for next week. I asked her how she could make photos that speak about her experience directly. At first she was unsure about how she could do that, and then she came up with the idea of trying to represent feeling shaky and unstable, which I really liked. Today was Ronnie’s last day. I had little chance to discuss his ideas with him. He just stuck a line of text across the top of his collage today, but he stayed and seemed to be enjoying the chat and being in the group. At one point he went off for an assessment with the doctors prior to leaving tomorrow. He seemed quite shaken when he got back and said it was like an interview with a panel of people, but then he relaxed back into the group again.

Jane was going to work on her collage and add an image that represented her darker side next to the girl in the garden, but I suggested that she did this in a new collage, which she agreed to, but then didn’t. She had brought in some family photos. I saw a picture of her as a boy with her grandmother that she said she liked a lot, and some pics of her as a teenage boy with her aunt. She said she hadn’t taken any photos the past week because she had had a bad week and had been very low. She said she’d been shouting in the middle of the road because she’d been lost. Today she was cutting out glamorous women, saying that some of her friends were very glamorous and that when she went out she looked exactly like the woman in one of the photos and got chatted up by men a lot. Her original persona as a boy was very shy and timid, Jane is in between, and a third, female, persona is the outgoing one. Then she said she was diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. She signed a consent form and made a point of writing on it that she didn’t mind being identified in any work I made. She will be around for one or two more weeks – I asked her to take the camera again this week and she said she would take photos. I gave Andrea a better camera as she was having trouble focusing with the one she had. Neil wasn’t sure what to do this week, he just kept talking about things rushing past him, and then settled on looking for a man standing whilst things were in motion around him.

There was a fun atmosphere in the room and quite a bit of laughter, but in terms of the project today felt quite hard work and not very productive. I’m so unsure about what I am aiming for – at one moment I think this is a good thing because it will lead to something new and unexpected, but then at others I lose faith and wonder what I am doing all this for. 

Monday 16th February, Centre 1 I arrived a bit early and was chatting with the centre manager, who was interested in what we had been doing. I showed her the collages, which she really liked. I felt quite reassured by this. Marvin was still around today, Pete was there for the last time; Alex was there and Jake was back from a week in hospital. Ian wasn’t there, he was on a training course. Two new people also joined the group. Marvin came in to the art room whilst I was showing the manager the collages. I got his out for him and he started work. He is on the third one now – they are very beautiful – the pages packed with images– but he still refuses to talk about them, saying they’re just random, but I am not so sure. I also asked him if he wanted to talk to me 1-1 and he said no, but he did sign a consent form. He said I could keep the collages, and seemed pleased when I said I thought they were beautiful.

Jake arrived late because he had to see the doctor. He still sees lions everywhere. I showed him the little composite picture I had made of the bits he had cut out of magazines and he freaked out slightly – he took one very quick glance and then didn’t want to look any more as it is exactly what he sees. The lions, which are like ghosts, come when he is stressed. They are distressing. He had an epileptic fit the other day and saw a lot of lions just before that. He also reads things into the bare branches of trees, which to him look spiky and evil. He took the composite image away to show his family. He doesn’t know why he sees lions – he said maybe because they are a symbol of strength…?

Alex had trouble remembering what he was doing and asked me what I had asked him to do the previous week. When I reminded him he started to stick down some images on paper. They looked a bit chaotic. A glamorous young black woman was there for the first time today. She said she was a dancer. I explained what I wanted people to do, and then she worked vert fast, but without a lot of attention to what she was doing. She didn’t want to listen to any suggestions about how to assemble her collage and seemed generally quite angry. I didn’t push her as its her first week. The other new person, Michele, looked at my previous work, then said that she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to go. She didn’t want to take her coat off. She actually stayed until the end, but didn’t do anything apart from browse through magazines.  Everyone seemed a bit low energy this week, and the group ended a couple of minutes early. Jake and Alex both said they would take photos on their phones. I wonder if they will remember?

When I got home there was an email from the new head at Centre 2 asking me to call her. She said that she had spoken to the senior manager and that they had decided that I could not meet with patients 1-1.  I asked if I could do it with a member of staff in the room and she seemed to agree to that. Every project has its uphill struggles. 

Thursday 19th February, Centre 2 – Quite a lot happened today. When I first arrived there were no staff around, and only one patient I recognized in the day room. I went to see if the printer in the art room was working (it wasn’t) and then Paul came in. As I went into the office a woman who had been lecturing everyone in the day room started shouting and a member of staff calmed everything down by moving all the other people to the Art Room. So when I returned to the Art Room there were lots of people in there, several of whom were new. It was a bit early, but I thought I would talk about the project in case anyone was interested. In the end nearly everyone stayed: Paul, Neil, and Kevin and four new people. Kevin said something about going round in circles – I thought he meant with looking for images, but he meant that was his experience – that everything was going round in circles, and then there was a big explosion. With help from another participant he managed to find two pictures of explosions and I encouraged him to create a circle. I asked if there were any people involved, and he said no, no people. A lot of people seem to be reporting problems because of isolation.

I talked the new people through my previous photos. As before, when I mention that some of the subjects are voice hearers that acts as a catalyst for people to start talking. One new man said that he has Bi-Polar and that when he is manic he buys too many things, and not the right things – he needs bread or eggs and buys tins of tomatoes for example.  A young woman called Anya said she hears the voice of an older man just beside her head. He’s not nice and tells her to commit acts of violence towards other people. She said she often can’t be amongst people because of what he is telling her to do. And Cathy, who suffered from depression, and was put on medication that made her ill, and she gained several stone in weight. She had previously had anorexia, so this was difficult for her. She cut out an image of a scarecrow, saying that is her self-image. Neil had a look online for some images of police raids and violence to represent the jumble of thoughts he has. I had printed out a selection of Paul’s photos for him and asked him to make a selection from these, and put them into a series to tell his story. He was a bit hesitant at first but then he got into it and came up with a workable selection. He also wrote a clear account of the progress of events that led to him being in recovery to go with the photos.

How do I process all of this?

Monday 23rd February:  Centre 1:  Its Monday again and time for another workshop. I never have time to think in between. When I arrived there were no patients around at all. I spoke at length to the two male nurses, who were very friendly and happy to give me background info on some of the patients. Jake’s keyworker said that he was keen to go back to work, but the lions were preventing him. He talked quite a lot about Jake’s situation, and said that he was a very unusual case as most people who use the service do not have visual hallucinations. He said that mostly he uses techniques to distract Jake from the lions. I felt quite pleased that I had been able to get him to start visualizing them, and hoped that it might help. When I told the manager about this she agreed that it might help him to confront them

Then I saw Alex, he was in a rush as he was moving from one sheltered accommodation to another. Ian was not around – he is being discharged this week and he has a camera, so I asked his keyworker to ask him for it back. This high turnaround and people’s external commitments mean I don’t see them very much. Michele was also just going home – apparently she has been avoiding participating in any of the other activities. There were only two people today: Marvin, whose last week it was, and Jake. We talked mainly about the lions. He hadn’t taken the composite image I had made for him the previous week out of his pocket. But today he decided he could look at it. He said that he is more able to control the lions now. “Sometimes when I am in that frame of mind I freeze, but this week I have pushed myself past the boundaries. Before the lions appear I start to feel awkward, things start to change, and I have to be quick to stop it progressing. My vision changes, my perception becomes evil. Its been going on for about 3 months now.” I thought Marvin wasn’t listening, but then he suddenly said: “The Lion’s Den”, which made me smile. We looked at the composite image I’d made: Jake said he liked it because the lions are subtle, that works because only he sees them – he sees several different ones at once. His body reacts even if his mind rationalizes that they are not real.

Thursday 26th February: Centre 2 Every week something unexpected happens! Paul was still there – his last week, and Andrea was back. Jane is about to be discharged and was not there as apparently she is not very happy. She still has my camera (!) When I got to the Art Room there were two women there – a young black woman and older white one. I wasn’t sure who they were – on first appearances the older woman looked like a therapist and as though they were having some kind of meeting – the table was covered with their things. We started to talk and it turned out that both were patients. The older woman said that she is a “professional artist” and had reservations about doing art therapy. I reassured her that what I do is not art therapy, and showed them both my book, which they liked. Then the group started to arrive and the older woman looked a bit phased and said she wasn’t ready for that and left. She came back in once or twice, but not to join us. Neil spent almost the whole session cutting out an image of armed police that I had printed for him the previous week. He said: “If only I could psychologically cut the police out when I’m getting those thoughts in real life”. This week he came closer to planning his collage, and seemed to be beginning to focus on being selective about which images he wanted to use and which not. Cathy didn’t come to the group at first, but when I went to get her from the day room she seemed glad to be joining us. She has a lot of physical health problems, but I think the art-making could be helpful for her. She took a notebook (one of the only people to!) and started writing a list of the feelings that she wanted to represent. She is working slowly, just collecting images at the moment. Andrea was in a very upbeat mood today, and I noted how much better her energy was than a few weeks ago, when she was exhausted before the hour was up. Today she was very talkative and positive. I complemented her on a bracelet she was wearing, and she said that she had bought it for herself a couple of days ago in response to directives from the psychologists that she should be good to herself, something, she said, was not easy for her. This week she had done “the most homework ever” as she put it. She had cut out a lot of pictures of mattresses from an Ikea catalogue, and had taken some photographs, which I was excited to look at. I uploaded them to the computer – most of them were very over exposed and out of focus photographs of individual frozen peas! I felt slightly disappointed, but also quite amused. Then Trisha explained why she had taken them –to go under the mattresses in her collage to represent her sensitivity.

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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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