It is not often that on entering a venue to see a performance one is met with an atmosphere of trepidation. On the announcement that ‘The Assessment’ was ready for it’s audience there was a strange delay before one member finally went forward with his ticket. We then weaved our way through the Arches underground corridors until reaching the entrance proper, where another usher told us to wait in line. As we stood waiting, the silence was occasionally broken by whisperings of previous Vacuum Cleaner performances, and the unique audience interactions that had been experienced at them. In fact the whole thing reminded me of something I had not experienced since school, it felt like we were entering an exam.

On admission to the archway the Artist and rows of single desks with individual chairs greeted us. Each desk had a folder on it and we were told to take a seat but not to open the folder until instructed. The desks all faced the front of the hall where there was a large desk that the Vacuum Cleaner sat at and explained what was going to happen. His exact words were; “This is not a performance but a social experiment.” Of which, it is fair to say, we were the subjects.

Inside the folder was, in effect, a mental health assessment form with over two hundred questions that covered a range of subjects including mood, anxiety, psychotic symptoms, and personality disorders. This form was similar to ones that the artist himself had filled in throughout his life when his own mental health was being assessed. For the experiment he asked that we took the time to answer the questions honestly and on completion approach the desk to receive our diagnosis. So we began.

What struck me very quickly into the process was the frustrating nature of both, how the questions were worded, and how limited the options were for the multiple-choice answers. For example one question read; “I have felt ok about myself feeling tired or having little energy.” Which sounded more like one question wrapped up in another. And the options for the answers – which were specifically to do with experiences over the last two weeks – were; not at all, several days, more than half the days, nearly every day. Perhaps I’m being pedantic, but the leap from not at all to several days seemed a bit far. As I continued through the questionnaire my frustration grew as my ability to answer the questions became more constricted.

It was during this stage that I considered the purpose of the experiment – and possibly rather cynically – I saw it as way to highlight the flaws in trying to assess such a complex subject. The manner of the questions almost felt predetermined to find fault, and the limited responses available guaranteed not to be able to read between any lines. There seemed a lack of flexibility that may be required when dealing with such a personal issue. Was this what the Vacuum Cleaner was attempting to reveal? Possibly, but then that was just my reaction to a simulated event, how would I feel if I was filling this in for real?

Reflecting on the event, I’ve realised that I have no right to assume to know the objective of the artist. Equally, I have no right to criticise one aspect that the mental health board use to assist addressing the varying experiences of mental health issues. In fact I believe the artist himself may even consider certain aspects of this “structure” to breaking down such topics a useful coping mechanism.

This was the second “performance” that I have seen by the Vacuum Cleaner- the first being the excellent Mental shown at last years festival – and what has been consistent with both pieces is his dedication to bridging the gap between storytelling and experience. It is obvious in his work that he wants to connect with his audience on a visceral level so that they can fully engage with what he is trying to express. ‘The Assessment’ achieves this by placing the audience in a unique position whereby they are forced to question their own egos, in a gentle but relevant way. My only criticism is that this novel idea feels like the start of something bigger which justifies further exploration, what if this was just the first act? Perhaps after the participants had completed the assessment a panel of relevant people from the entire mental health spectrum could have an open forum debate on the subject, including feedback from those who had just been assessed? Either way I know that whatever the Vacuum Cleaner’s next piece of work is, I shall approach it with anticipation not apprehension. 

Written by Colin McDougall