Talking Heads

Talking Heads reporter Louise Farquhar reviews Emily Furneaux's performance of She Stepped Backwards in Front of the Words Behind Her, a participatory artwork which had been running throughout SMHAF as an audio tour of Glasogw.

Emily Furneaux’s participatory artwork, She Stepped Backwards in Front of the Words Behind Her, which has been running throughout the festival in the form of an audio walking tour, took an unexpected and intriguing turn on its final day. The planned live performance, scheduled to accompany the end of the production, was driven inside by the inclement Glasgow weather. The story, normally heard through headphones as the listener follows a map through the city’s east end, was instead played out inside the bare white walls of Many Studios. In place of a cold and rainy walk, the event transformed to become a vibrant kaleidoscope of energy and insight, stimulating the senses and charging the mind well beyond all expectation.

The project centres on the artist’s personal experience of psychosis, returning to the day of her 30th birthday when she slipped into a psychotic state and embarked on a journey of altered reality. Although there is a growing awareness in society of mental health issues, where discussions are evolving and stigma is breaking down, the nature of psychosis is still sadly misunderstood - and even feared. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, one in every hundred people will have psychosis at some point in their life, with 80% of these occurring to people before the age of 25. Despite such staggering statistics, showing the commonality of the condition and the direct link to young people, there is very little education or information on the subject. Psychosis is notoriously difficult to articulate, with many who have a psychotic episode turning to artistic processes to communicate their experience. Emily Furneaux sees She Stepped Backwards in Front of the Words Behind Her as, “the most genuine method of sharing my experiences. The work is a true, honest, extremely heartfelt account - I wanted to contain it in a format to enable others to really feel what I was feeling - in all its intensity, complexity and emotions.”

The live indoor performance channelled this intention to great effect, thrusting the audience within the artwork itself, seating us on black and white metal chairs amidst large paper drawings stuck to the floor depicting locations including a bath and a bar. The room had a playful quality, like a nursery with activity stations to move through. We tracked the artist as she wove from scene to scene, speaking aloud the powerful narrative, poetically bringing to life the disturbance and confusion of her mental turmoil. Starting in “Glasgow, somewhere in the United States of America”, her psychosis ebbed and flowed, leading up to her party and then onwards to recollect time spent in a medical facility. From this “one shade of cold grey” she longed “to sit with the ones she loves” again.  We travelled with her through a myriad of hallucinations, delusions and thought disorder. Just as she was trapped that day in “undulating trajectories oscillating in front, below, behind and above,” so were we; unable to escape from the relentless blurring between reality and fantasy. What was true? We couldn’t know.

Initially, the third-person narrative placed us in a state of objective detachment, taking the role of quiet bystanders watching another’s story. Quickly however, the unyielding sensory barrage of arousal, pleasure, vivid colours and visceral sensations engaged our “outer atoms”. We were drawn into her psyche. Humour rippled through the tale as magical and fantastic imagery flashed across the narrative. But there was darkness too. Stress built to panic and anger, culminating in vocal violent outbursts, reverberating around the hollow space. Dropping through multiple layers of time, losing all sense of linear existence, we fell alongside her into recovery when she finally “lost her song”.

This artwork stretches the boundaries of how we think about mental health. Grabbing the concept of reality, it shakes our preconceptions of psychosis and demands we think harder about isolation and living a full life. The artist, when given medicine so she “stays on the pavement” questions whether “pacifying her personality” allows her to truly live. “Drab” days on tablets carry their own sense of loss. Emily Furneaux shares her deeply personal experience of mental health in a brave and astounding way. Her openness and artistic expression brings great beauty to an uncomfortable world, without asking for anything in return.

by Louise Farquhar

Louise Farquhar is a writer, covering the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival for the first time. She lives in Glasgow with her family and too many books. 

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

In this Talking Heads piece, reporter Amy Ortiz has used photography to capture Belonging, an exhibition hosted by LGBT Wellbeing Collective as part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. 

Talking Heads reporter Emily Walker writes about the artwork at All, Entire, Whole, an exhibition at the New Glasgow Society curated by See Me Community Champion Sean McGugan. 

Presenting work from a range of artists, All, Entire, Whole hosted a number of pieces created around the broad and pliable theme of mental health. The exhibition was free and open to all. From soft sculptures to photography, the exhibition has a wide scope and offers unique and individual perspectives around mental health. There were some specific pieces that really struck me on my visit. It’s clear even from this one small room that our experiences of mental health are varied, and the exhibition offers an opportunity to reconsider many misconceptions around mental health.

Lesley Antrobus’s photography series grabbed my attention as soon as I walked in. The piece seems to be reflecting upon the loss of a loved one after they had taken their life. Questioning how we should remember this person in her caption beside the series, Antrobus really dives in to grief and shows how isolating it can become after such a death. In the photographs, we are shown a young woman sitting on the bathroom floor in distress, a death certificate, a welder working, a bench with a beautiful inscription and then boots in the mud. The series shows part of the grief process she had been through, followed by the process of deciding how to remember someone. 

In her bio, Lesley questions why we remember the last few moments or days of tragedy; why not focus on the whole life of a person? This was an observation she made after she found that people treated her differently after the passing of this loved one. These memorial benches become part of a landscape for many who walk past them daily, however to a family or loved one they are a physical representation of a life no longer lived. The series really touched me as it is clear that this discussion is one that we are fearful to broach in society. The physical bench and its representation of reflection captures the essence of remembering a loved one. The series shows the importance of remembering someone fully instead of focusing on their last moments and appreciating these memories for the joy they can hold.

Sekai Machache uses photography to express a Zimbabwean understanding of mental health and how this differs from discussions and understandings in Scotland. Machache discusses Shona Culture in her captions, explaining that, in this culture, mental health is a medium for people to communicate messages to and from the spirit realm. This is a stark contrast to how we discuss mental health in our own culture, but it really makes you think about how we perceive mental health and what this can mean for the stigma and discrimination around such illnesses. 

However, it’s clear that the conceptual discussions around mental health are something to be interpreted uniquely in each country and culture, and by each individual person. Although the concepts are completely different to how we might perceive mental health, it allows us to access discussions around the subject with a new view. 

Machache’s photographs are simple but beautiful. They show a young woman standing in the middle of the frame with a black background naked using her hair to cover her body. The photos are striking and are unique within the exhibition. Her hair and stance are the only thing that changes in the two images. Her face covered and identity shrouded by the anonymity of the images, it seemed to be a comment on how mental health can impact our understanding of self and what it can take away and add to our experience of life.

Exhibited in the back section of the room was artwork from Artspace, an arts programme held in Stirling working with adult participants who have been diagnosed with mental health problems. The programme is described as a safe environment for participants to engage and develop their artistic expression and each individual works with a professional artist to learn new skills. The participants describe the group as a place to relieve stress, join in discussions with others, build connections and their confidence. This project is giving the participants a different medium for expressing their struggles with mental health as well as not discussing it at all and enjoying learning new skills without being defined by their diagnosis.

The exhibition explores many of the touch points and discourses surrounding mental health, from the perspective of those currently experiencing problems to those with second hand experience. Using art, the general and broad themes of mental health offer people with little understanding a first step into this big and daunting discussion. It’s easy to see from this exhibition why art and mental health fit so seamlessly together. An expression of emotional, physical and mental experiences within a life, art works perfectly to allow us to view another's reality. 

The variety of the exhibition is representative of the variety of mental health experiences humans face. Whether it be losing someone to their battle with mental health, to understanding what cultural concepts and stigmas around mental health discussion can offer us, or the therapeutic expression art can provide those with a mental health diagnosis, this variety allows viewers to question their own mental health journey and how we speak about it with others as well as within ourselves.

by Emily Walker

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

I walked into the exhibition not knowing what to expect.  I got a little lost in the building and because I had drank too much coffee whilst in a state of exhaustion, my anxiety was through the roof and asking someone for directions would mean having to sift through the layers of paranoia and fragility to find my voice to ask the simplest of questions: “Where is gallery 2?”

I was struggling to hold on to the present and my mind was in several dimensions at once, the past and the future.  I was thinking of my upcoming birthday and the weight that it carries.  Will this be the year that my Dad sends me a birthday card?  It’s my 30th after all and the prime opportunity for him to reach out.  I was asked “What do I do?” at the weekend by someone that doesn’t know me that well, and it had triggered my anxiety. Luckily I had managed to navigate my answer fairly well so as not to give too much away about the flux of my mind, but it had left me questioning where I was at in my life and brought up feelings of inadequacy for not being in paid employment, despite the many other things I do that keep me alive.  I think it’s safe to say that I was containing an abundance of mixed emotions and feelings while standing in a corner of the stairwell googling the exact details of the exhibition.

I made it to the right place and was greeted by a volunteer for the exhibition.  My mouth produced words that I wasn’t completely aware were pouring out.  Something along the lines of, “I’m here – what do I do with the balloons?”, whilst pointing to balloons that visitors were asked to take off the blu tack the ribbon was stuck to and release it to symbolise letting go of any emotions we were feeling and to be present with the art, the artist, and our feelings about the pieces. There was a little scroll attached to the balloon and I awkwardly looked at the volunteer and he assured me that it was okay for me to take and read. My head was still zooming about like a cat trying to catch a red dot. I quickly read the message and scurried to the first piece to avoid having to make any more conversation.

I quickly felt at ease as I read the blurb about the piece.  The artist had described openly and honestly their experience of the loss of love. I felt connected to what they were saying and could somehow understand the piece more. As I made my way round the small exhibition, reading about people’s inner lives and seeing the diversity of their creativity (mixed media, illustration, photography, music, animation, intricate embroidery, poetry and more), I became more and more relaxed and the barrage of voices in my head had eased off.  I felt comfortable being in this space.  The honesty and true feelings brought me back to earth and I felt human again.  I could relate to all these pieces in some way or another, or knew someone who had experienced something similar.  The four walls that these pieces were contained in suddenly felt alive.  The heartbeat of humanity was resonating through each piece into the air and the people that entered the space.  I had gained insight and felt like I was being held as I made my way round the room.  I wasn’t alone.  Very rarely did any diagnosis get mentioned; it was raw descriptions of how people felt. 

One piece in particular had reached out and touched my heart.  The illustrative piece was entitled ‘From the Seeds of Sadness’ by artist Monika Stachowiak.  The piece depicted a woman crying while watering plants that were blooming in all shapes, colours and textures around her.  The story behind the artwork read:

I believe that every one of us has the inner superpower to overcome bad moments in our lives.  Sometimes depends on the people around us or surrounding.  Everyone is different and beautiful in their own way.  There are moments in life when we must allow ourselves to be sad to become stronger later.

It resonated so deeply with me as it took me back to when I was beginning my journey of healing my deep inner wounds.  I had met my inner child and cried like I had never cried before.  It was pure and it was beautiful.  My little Nic had endured so much hurt and pain that she had gone into hiding.  When I met her in my adult form, she was terrified.  She was the most beautiful little light I had ever seen that it physically pained me to see her afraid and so alone.  The hot tears streamed down my face and I held her in my arms and vowed to protect her.  It was the first time I had cried healing tears.  It was a sadness that was real and wasn’t tainted by The Grey.  A weight had been lifted from me and I felt like I had found something within me that had been missing for decades.  My tears were relieving and I found strength through them.  The moment I met little Nic was the moment I experienced unconditional love for the first time and anyone who has felt love knows the power and beauty it holds.

The theme of the festival this year is Connected.  I believe that this exhibition embodies this theme completely.  I entered the space consumed with anxiety and self-consciousness and left feeling inspired, comforted and connected.  I had felt like I had come home and didn’t want to leave.

As I write this, the scroll that was attached to the balloon is laid on the table next to my tip-tapping fingers.  It reads:

“You are allowed to be both a masterpiece and a work in progress simultaneously.”

- Sophia Bush

I agree, Sophia.  I agree.

by Nic Saunders

Nic is a creative and curious human who shares her life in Edinburgh with her cat, Kaya. She is passionate about sharing her realities of living with complex trauma, be it through writing, storytelling, and art or through peer support. Follow her on Twitter @UnavoidHuman and visit her website at unavoidablyhuman.com.

FEELS is on at Edinburgh Palette at St Margaret's House until Thursday 30 May, culminating in a Closing Ceremony which starts at 4pm. 

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.

Talking Heads reporter Lisa Rashleigh reflects on Day of Failure, developed and curated by SMHAF Associate Artist Emma Jayne Park. 

Day of Failure is the brainchild of Artist Emma Jayne Park, who started working on the project as a means of considering, questioning and reflecting upon failure, both personally and on a societal level.

Held in The Work Room at Tramway on a beautiful sunny day, the doors were letting in a soft breeze which complimented the relaxed atmosphere Emma had created for Day of Failure. The morning started gently with an informal but insightful conversation surrounding the scale in which we measure both individual and societal failures. This was followed by conversations about what had brought us to the workshop, how we perceive success and failure, what failure feels like, and what we view to be the opposite of failure. The supportive and respectful environment within the room allowed many group members to feel quite comfortable with sharing their personal feelings and experiences of failure. These conversations allowed for valuable insight and reflection into how the concept of failure affects us all individually, and methods in which we may be able to learn to sit comfortably with our perceived failures. 

During the second half of the day, the group was introduced to Jo Clifford, Adam Kashmiry and Jenna Watt. As explained by Emma, these individuals were people who she viewed as being hugely successful within their personal and professional lives. They had been invited along to the workshop to speak with the group about their personal experiences of failure. Jo, Adam and Jenna shared their stories openly and thoughtfully, and offered their insight and wisdom when group members were invited to comment and ask questions.

To close the day, members of the workshop and extended guests were given a viewing of Epic Fail, a work-in-progress dance theatre exploration of failure. Throughout the five-part performance, failure is explored as a concept that changes over time and as something that has many definitions. The dancers, through their use of movement and ping pong balls, portray the power that the feeling of failure has to weigh us down and hinder our progress. The performance also utilised humor to touch on the phenomenon of the ‘positive affirmation generation’, which often diminishes the valid feelings and actions that are often associated with failure. 

Speaking briefly with Emma at the end of the day, she explained: ‘I want people to leave today with the generosity to let themselves fail’. Emma explained she also hoped that people would leave the workshop with a deeper understanding of how their words and actions have an effect on people’s perception of success and failure: ‘I also want people to be in a place where they question their actions, be less clumsy’.

Day of Failure and Epic Fail both resulted in a truly enjoyable and thought-provoking day. It offered insight into the deeply ingrained view of failure that we hold personally and collectively as a society and challenged us to think on the concept in a new a light. Failure is an inevitable part of life, but how we choose to view it and use our experience to move on is where the benefits may be hidden.

by Lisa Rashleigh

Lisa is a 25-year-old Australian living in Glasgow. She has a background in youth work and homelessness, and is currently working as an independent advocate. Lisa is passionate about both mental health and the Glaswegian music and art scene. Follow her on Instagram @bin_leisel or on twitter @LisaRashleigh.

The Talking Heads project, in partnership with See Me, brings together a team of volunteer journalists to produce written articles and other creative responses to festival events. Click here to find out more.