Mental health can be challenging to discuss. It is a well-known fact. These challenges only grow when the conversation is about a personal experience of an illness rarely discussed in the media, within support groups or among friends and families. Psychosis is one such illness. Trying to explain what psychosis can feel like could be seen as a nigh on impossible task, but, through the use of art and narrative, Emily Furneaux has managed to do just that. By immersing us into her story, and carefully controlling the narrative we are exposed to, she opens up a dialogue that even those clued up on mental health often haven’t been attuned to. Furneaux’s walking tour She Stepped Backwards in Front of the Words Behind Her, gives the audience access to a truthful and deeply personal account of a period of psychosis, while allowing for audience interpretation.
Speaking with the artist after the tour, she explained to me that in much of her work she finds herself weaving and layering stories through one another. This results in the production of a collaborative narrative that has the capacity to discuss personal experiences. Her exhibition ile de Sable for example, used the analogy of an island that after previously being discovered was described as “undiscovered” in 2014 to discuss the break up she was going through at that time. In She Stepped Backwards… Furneaux uses her own experiences as the central plot, employing poetic language to describe her lived experience with psychosis, creating an alternative world for the listener to inhabit.
We experience this as we walk around Glasgow, with Furneaux’s audio recordings weaving stories and imagery through each other. This creates artistic expressions of alternative realities, which can at first be disorientating and make us feel quite separate from them. However, after further exploration, the stories begin to make sense in a nonsensical way.
One example of this is when Furneaux discusses being in Glasgow, but it feeling like America. Glasgow had taken on the atmosphere, style and smell of Kansas City. The uniqueness of one place was being transplanted to another, causing the two to amalgamate in her mind. This layering of stories isn’t just a metaphor: it becomes Furneaux’s reality during her experiences with psychosis.
Listening to the piece gives a deeper understanding of how our mental state can affect our lived reality in more ways than just our mood or outward displays of emotion. This was really eye-opening, as it goes a long way towards explaining the power of mental health. The ‘feel of a city’ is something many of us discuss however no experience is ever exactly the same. Common understandings of places run through our experiences but their personal interpretation can live within our memory. Frequently expressed in art and film, here Furneaux begins to project these memories onto the reality around her, raising the question of what reality really is, if we all experience different versions.
Listening to the audio through personal headphones is isolating and creates a world inside the mind of the listener that we have no control over. Her voice and poetic descriptions can completely separate us from the world around us, mimicking the feelings of loneliness and isolation that can come from mental illness. But it goes further, creating a new reality for the listener, one that recognises the disconnect between ourselves and the world around us, something that is especially poignant with the theme of the festival being Connected.
The story is told in the third person, giving the listener an opportunity to view it from an objective bird’s eye view. Making sure that we never think of ourselves as the subject of the narrative, this also allows Furneaux to keep a level of distance, reiterating that the narrative belongs to someone else who is inviting us to listen. This is disconcerting, but effective in allowing us to understand what a period of psychosis can feel and sound like.
The intricate map is not simple to follow like a Google map. Studying the monochrome illustration shows a clear route but combined with having an audio story to focus on and cars to dodge, it can be mystifying to follow. This places emphasis on the journey that our minds can take us on if we experience psychosis. Furneaux encourages us to explore, explaining that you shouldn’t be concerned if you come away from the path. Therefore, no two experiences of the tour are the same. Pausing at points, stopping for breaks, or meeting someone on the street are all part of the journey, bringing you back to reality with a bump when it happens. Your perspective of her work will be truly unique.
Creating a whole new view of the streets through the audio while you walk them really gives the illusion of walking in someone else’s shoes. It’s a completely immersive experience, bringing you into a different world, at times mimicking a different mental state. Furneaux gives a clear and personal account of a period of psychosis, creating a unique and intense experience. She Stepped Backwards… educates us on what it can feel like to be so isolated by our own mind that it affects our realities.
Psychosis doesn’t get a lot of airtime when it comes to discussions around mental health, partly due to the fact that there is too much stigma and not enough empathy surrounding it. This tour invites participants into an experience of the illness, in a bid to begin a societal shift towards holding discussions around it. The technique of constructing an experience in this way can give us the tools to build an empathetic understanding of an illness that is greatly stigmatised and discriminated against.
by Emily Walker
She Stepped Backwards in Front of the Words Behind Her is open until Sat 25 May. Collect a map and audio from 12pm-4pm Thu-Sun from Many Studios and take the tour in your own time. Emily Furneaux will also be giving live performative tours on Sun 26 May. Tickets are FREE and can be booked here.
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.