the vacuum cleaner

James Leadbitter, aka the vacuum cleaner, is a UK-based artist and activist who makes work drawing on his own experience of mental health disability, and inspired by Mad Pride, grassroots organising, direct action, deep ecology and disability justice. 

Over the last ten years he has focused on working with large groups including young people, health professionals and vulnerable adults to challenge and change how mental health is understood, treated and experienced. 

We interviewed James in November 2023 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource. James also wrote a specially commissioned provocation, We Are Not The Problem, as part of the resource.

In recent years there’s been a noticeable increase in the number of creative projects that explicitly address mental health. What do you make of this shift, as someone who has been working in this field for a long time now?

I mean, yes, that is true. I think that it’s great. Because, as I’m always saying to people in the art world, the human mind is really complex. So the many different narratives around that is great. I think there are downsides to that. I think, as you are intending to try to address, there are massive questions around how the work is supported and produced. I think if I look at some of my earlier work, it’s been problematic in places. And that’s a journey we’re all on. 

How would you describe how your work has evolved over the years?

I guess, initially, it was about my own survival. So the work was a means of survival, a means of making sense, of making meaning, and a way of becoming public, or overcoming my own internalised ableism or my own internalised shame. And I think it then perhaps evolved into myself in relation to systems, whether that is talking about experiences of mental health ‘care’. And I guess it then evolved into thinking about well, if there is a very, very long history of failure of care and support, let’s think about that. And let’s, you know, try and turn it on its head and flip it. And I think more recently, this has been a question of… I want to say leadership, but it is about… I guess there’s two things, with the growth of the sector or whatever, I think there’s a question about who’s leading that work. And also I think there’s ‘what about all the messy stuff?’ Because there’s the narrative of, like, ‘I’ve experienced depression and this is how I’ve overcome it.’ And then there are other narratives that are much more messy and complicated and also need space and shouldn’t be altered as well, like the ‘mad sad’ versus ‘mad bad’ narrative, you know. And then, I guess also, you know, a massive focus on young people, partly linked to a public health prevention type thing, but also that CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) is really f***ed. So I think there’s also something about working with young people that artistically is really exciting. There’s an imaginative possibility there that hasn’t been totally dampened down by, you know… things. Young people can be highly creative and just a f***ing joy to be around.

You described some of your early work as ‘problematic’. Without pushing you to give specific examples, what did you mean by that?

Well, in one of my most recent projects, Balmy Army, we were looking with young people at how mental health is individualised. A lot of my early work was very much about me. Now, I think that was right at that point in time, because I think it was hard in my life to think about anybody’s struggles other than my own, because they were, you know, very challenging. But what was really fascinating in that Balmy Army project was landing on a slogan, which was ‘we are not the problem’. There’s been a big shift thinking about usour struggles, our needs, our care, rather than my care, because the model of care that we have sees individuals as having a problem, you know, you have a mental health issue, you have a mental health problem, you get a mental health diagnosis. And when it’s happening to so many people, that’s something systemic. And I think, obviously linking it to, you know, learning and doing deeper reading around disability movements and disability culture and disability politics, and having to step up around questions of my understanding of race and racism. There are systemic questions to be addressed.

That sort of leads into my next question, which is that, having done this for a long time, are there systemic issues or obstacles that keep coming up, within your artistic practice or within mental health practice?

I personally am comfortable aligning myself with the politics of mad pride, the politics of disability justice, with mental health sitting within an anti-oppressive framework, so I’m comfortable aligning myself with the question that madness is distressing, painful, challenging, but also not unnatural, not something to be got rid of. Not something like the recovery model. Recovery to what? Back into capitalism? The complex thing about mad pride politics is that it’s not like, ‘I am proud to suffer, I’m proud to be in pain’, but that there is pride in survival, there is pride in being together, there is pride in helping each other, there is pride in defining the systemic questions that contribute towards psychological pain and mental suffering. So I think one only needs to look at what happened during the COVID pandemic to go, well, if we look at what young people went through during COVID, and we look at the massive increase in people experiencing mental distress, yeah, I don’t need a randomised control test.

I’ve been wondering how to describe the work you make now. I suppose it’s a sort of participatory arts activism working with people with lived experience to advocate for change. Is that a fair description?

Yeah, I mean, technically it sits within social practice, but it does have an overt political framework and process to it. Increasingly it’s working with large groups of people, it’s about supporting people to talk about their experiences. But through talking about their experiences, using that as a means to call out or effect change. But not in a theory of change, like ‘do x and y’, but a more messy approach. There’s something I’m learning, about what activism means for people who are struggling with their mental health, that’s really fascinating, particularly for a lot of the young people I’m working with, and that is that mutual care, togetherness, being safe being seen, is in and of itself a form of activism, and quite a radical form of activism. And that is also an aesthetic relationship, that is also an artistic practice. And it’s also a springboard for actual models of care as well. But it’s very difficult, as NHS partners that I’m working with are like, ‘but what is the model?’ And I’m like, it ain’t a model, It’s a process, it’s a way of being together, it’s not tangible like that. It’s about human relationships and togetherness. So yeah, we’re super niche.

On the section of your website where artists would usually put endorsements from organisations, you’ve instead put quite antagonistic quotes – the police describing you as ‘dangerous’ and so on. Do you think of yourself as being constantly in conflict with the system?

I’m gonna quote Farzana Khan, who is one of the key people within Healing Justice London. She came to speak to some young people I was working with and said something like ‘Who’s okay right now? If you’re okay, right now, what does that say about you? Read the room guys. Think about what’s going on in the world what we’re all going through. It’s impossible to be okay right now.’ And so, yes, I definitely think some of the people I work with think I’m being difficult, but actually I am not going to say to a black person, you’re being difficult for saying don’t be f***ing racist to me. So, I think there are some complex things at play here, because I think it is true that I am pushing against something, and that there is a form of antagonism there. But the foundation of all drama is conflict, right? So that is true. But also if you look at the history, over the last 1000 years of mental health care from the foundations of Bethlem Hospital in central London to right where we are now, there is a long history of quite violent practice towards mad people. So if I am pushing back against that, if I am hearing what young people say to me about their experiences of in patient care that is extremely violent, if we think about the Mental Health Act, then we think about the use of some psychiatric medications, we think about the involvement of police in mental health care, we think about how structural ableism works, and when we view all of that, when we experience that in our bodies and minds, I don’t really think I’m being antagonistic. I think, all things considered, I’m actually being quite nice.

Indeed, and you do work with established mental health institutions.

Yeah, I mean, I’ve worked with the NHS. I’ve worked at Broadmoor, I’ve worked in CAMHS, you know. I’ve been doing a big project with the Mayor of London’s office. I don’t buy this idea that you’re on the inside or the outside. We’re all on the inside, but what I think is really important is that we’re not having to censor ourselves or bite our tongues in these conversations. Like I hope you know, part of the reason why those things on my website are there –  you know, “Dangerous” – Metropolitan Police “It’s not entertaining.” – The Scotsman – is to give people a really f***ing clear opinion about what this work is like. I ain’t here to be nice to you. I’m here to go, stop f***ing abusing children, motherf***ers. Yeah. Like we don’t section people on the Mental Health Act for smoking. Smoking kills f***ing thousands of people, and we don’t detain people for doing that. But why do we detain crazy people? 

It’s also more fun, come on! It’s fun poking a bear. I think there’s something that’s really important about the joy of resistance. There’s something about the project we’ve just done for Manchester International Festival, Balmy Army, where we worked with 80 young people. When we met these young people, it was hard to get them in the room. They were not confident young people. They were shy, they were very unsure about their own relationship with their mental health. And on the last day of the festival, 200 of them are marching through central Manchester, singing songs with banners with very problematic slogans on them, but they’re taking space. And disabled young people should be taking spaces, public spaces, and should be seen and should be heard. And they should be able to say we’re bored of waiting lists, we’re bored of politicians. We were doing one chant which was ‘if you’re crazy and you know it, clap your hands’. And it’s kind of beautiful, right? So why not?

What are the things you need to consider when working with young people with mental health issues? 

I mean, there’s kind of top level things. And this might sound really crass, but nobody’s allowed to die. It’s really important that we’re not causing harm in this process, we have to reduce harm in our processes. So harm reduction as a strategy also means that sometimes you have to take a young person and put them in a mental health hospital, because in that immediate moment it’s the only way you can keep them safe. I would do everything I can not to call the police on a young person. But it has happened once, we just didn’t have a f***ing choice, right? So you have to reduce harm. And those are kind of extreme examples of that. 

But that also means setting up some really clear boundaries at the beginning of a process. So number one, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You can walk at any point, you can pull your material at any point, often in performances, or shows. On the day of the sharing, on the day of exhibition, once the exhibition is open, you can pull your work. And we’ll back you on that. I will always want to have a conversation with you about that – what’s going on, why that’s happening – but ultimately if you’re going to open up about an experience that’s hard, you’re in control, you have the agent. It doesn’t matter whether you signed a contract or not, you’re in control. And that can be really empowering, I think.

That also means I am not going to allow you to trauma dump. Like, if you’re bringing material into the room that is distressing, then we need to be really f***ing mindful of that material. And that means I might say, ‘I don’t think you should share this,’ not because I’m censoring you, but because we need to do a lot of work to keep you safe because the sharing of that material will be really challenging for you and an audience, so how do we support you to share that story? How do we support you to share whatever you’re doing? Let’s really interrogate that. It means basic things like doing an access check in at the beginning of every session and the end of every session. How are you? How have you been since we last saw you? What’s going on? How are you coming into this space right now? And then how are you leaving? What are you doing for the rest of the day? Do you need us to call you in a few days’ time to just check in on how you’re going? I don’t think you should go home and work on that text this evening. So there’s a lot of creating boundaries together. And often that is about doing that together. Often the beginning of a process is like, what are the boundaries for this space? What are the boundaries around technology and use of phones and all of that?

Often we’re calling it group agreements. I think particularly for young people, it’s really important that they feel a sense of agency in that situation to create the boundaries of it because that’s not what happens in mental health hospitals, all that is taken away. So having phone numbers for people if that person goes AWOL, doing things like if you get upset and you walk out the room, we know what you want when that’s happening. So if you’re walking out the room, we might go, are we gonna see you in 10 minutes, or do we send somebody after you? And that is considered before that happens.

Trigger warnings. I know it’s laborious but getting consent on what we’re watching together. Or in some of the work, it’s about how you structure it. So often with pieces like Mental or For They Let in the Light, or Exposure, you put the most challenging material in the middle. It kind of completely goes counter to how traditional narrative works, normally you put your best material at the end, and the second best material at the beginning, and it doesn’t really matter what you put in the middle; we’re going, let’s put all the best material in the middle so that we can put something at the end to cushion how you’re leaving that space. 

We have mental health professionals in the room. So whether that’s a nurse or a therapist, and they are introducing themselves to the group, and there’s a quiet space for young people or even for audiences – a nurse comes on stage at the beginning and is like ‘I’m here, there’s a room over there. (We have) signposting documents, making sure that we are confident and comfortable about who we are signposting to.

What else are we doing? Paying participants is really important. Feeding them. Particularly with a lot of the young people we’re working with now, some of them are coming because they get fed, it’s that kind of rough. Taxis. All that kind of access stuff that happens in the disability world that actually for a young person, particularly when we’re working with trans young people, young people of colour, moving through big cities can be challenging, particularly when you’re distressed. So let’s get you an Uber home. Which makes work really expensive, but…

These kinds of access needs are being acknowledged much more by funders now, in terms of disability and neurodivergence at least, but the idea of an access rider for mental health is not quite established yet. What would that look like? 

Most of the young people I’m working with now make access riders. It might look like ‘I can be really insecure in my sense of self and I might need validation’. Or it might mean, ‘these particular things are really triggering for me.’ Mine is that travelling at peak times, through busy London train terminals, means I’m going to have a panic attack, and I can’t do that. I need to not get on a train that’s really busy. So I might need to go in the premier bit. I’m not like ‘put me in f***ing first class’, but I might need space and time. I might need rest time. The day after I’ve done something intense, I might need to take the morning to go and walk on the beach and play with my dog or play with my kids or do the washing up or sweep the studio floor, not be going straight into intense meetings. 

It might mean if I have to pull out of a show because of my mental health – but that might only be the day before – I’ve still incurred a lot of f***ing costs for that and you need to pay them. It might mean that I need an access support worker and that might mean – it’s not something that I’ve landed very well, but I know other people have – things like making sure I’m eating, making sure I’m not swamped with information. For me, that might mean I’m not getting long, complicated emails, because when I’m tired I’m just not going to read them. Or what are my preferred modes of communication? How do I want to receive critical feedback? I don’t want that on Zoom, or in an email; call me, do it in person. Or sometimes I might get really stressed out and be a bit of a dick, and you might need to call me out on that, and that’s also good and healthy.

A lot of the work I’ve been doing recently is about buddying people up so that people aren’t put into situations on their own, they’re always with a buddy, that there’s trust there. I think thing like access check ins are important, that we can cancel and work on crip time, that we go, ‘we’re not ready to do this, we need more time’. I think that’s also about creating new aesthetics, not having to work to this kind of like super polished aesthetic, that mental health aesthetics are different. And that doesn’t mean that the work is not considered, it means that the means of production of the work are really different. 

So, like the piece For They Let In The Light, at Chisenhale, which I made with seven young people that I met in psychiatric intensive care, on the evenings that they were sharing they had the right not to be on stage. And we made three versions of every bit of material. So we have a live version, we have an audio version, we have the version where that material wasn’t in the piece at all. And in the moment, a young person might say ‘I don’t want to stand up and read it today’ and I’m like, ‘Cool, can I read it on your behalf? Do you want to hear the audio version?’ Or some days the young person might not be able to turn up, or turns up really late, so we’ve coming up with these adaptive and complex ways to navigate through people who have fluctuating conditions.

What do you think arts organisations or arts funders need to do better in terms of understanding these kinds of needs?

The best funder that I have worked with is Paul Hamlyn. Because they, as an organisation, are interested in a relationship with an artist. So we are having to send through budgets but a lot of the evaluation is done through sitting in a room and having lunch and then asking some questions and saying, ‘how did that work? How are you after that?’ I think funders have to understand that the work is really expensive. Like supporting disabled artists, there are extra costs involved and that’s really important. 

I’m gonna say it… f***ing Arts Council, man. What the f*** are they doing? The Arts Council of England, I don’t know what it’s like in Scotland right now, but we’re an NPO now, we’re a National Portfolio Organisation. And I don’t feel like the relationship that we have with them shows one that is of interest in art, because we have ‘investment principles’. And one of them is quality but the way it’s all being measured, and the paperwork that we’re being expected to do, and the reporting and everything, is profoundly ridiculous. And yet none of those relationship officers have actually seen the work. So if mental health work is about human relationships, and you’re meeting that with bureaucracy, then that doesn’t make sense.

How do you measure the value of what you do as an artist, of the work that you make?

I measure it by whether people stick with the process. So, for instance, the project I’ve just been running, which led to a showing at Whitechapel Gallery, I think we began with 35 young people, and I think we ended with 29, over six months, so people stuck with the process. I measure it in terms of the work, like, is the work resonating? Are people connecting with it? Is it considered? Is it compositionally interesting? Is it structurally interesting? Is it challenging? Is it beautiful? Does it make me cry? Does it make me laugh?

And what do the participants and the audience say afterwards? Like, always in a process, before we share something, we’ll always do a ‘What has the process been like? What have you learned in this process?’ So yes, we are evaluating but we’re evaluating through conversation and through listening. After we’ve done a sharing, we might be like, ‘what was that like for you?’ And somebody might say…. what was that amazing thing that a person said? ‘I feel like everything I’ve been through now has some meaning in my life.’ And in the moment, I didn’t really understand the significance of what she was saying. But then later, I was like, ‘Can you unpack that for me?’ and she’s like, ‘I was in hospital for a year and a half. And I’m deeply traumatised, and I’m having therapy for being in hospital and all of that, and I feel like making art has given meaning to all those experiences’. And I’m like, ‘that’s f***ing wild, that’s beautiful, as a gift to give to another person. And then when you put young people in a room and they’re sharing their stories, and other young people see it and they go, ‘I feel seen, I feel heard’, it’s f***ing magic.

What about your own mental health? How do you look after your own mental health while doing this work?

I have supervision. So like a psychologist, or anybody else would, I have proper professional supervision with the same person over a long period of time, and a lot of the work I do with her is prefigurative. So it tries to think about what you do before something becomes difficult, so you’ve got strategies in place in advance. A lot of the work I do with her is to make space for the feelings, allow the feelings, sit with the feelings and then figure out how to get on with the rest of your day, so that I can be present as a parent or switch off and watch Below Deck or whatever shit TV I want to watch. So I think that’s key. I think that should be mandatory, whether that is done as a group or individually or whatever, but it’s something I insist on when working with other people. 

It’s gonna sound really cliched, but all the kind of predictable things like I have to do exercise. It’s the mind body, so I have to be physically fit as much as possible so I now go swimming and running, and I have to eat well, and I have to stop reading my emails at five o’clock. And so really clear work life boundaries are really important.

I think that all of the material conditions around the production of the work are really important. And I’ve learned this the hard way – don’t take a meeting just before you’re about to do a rehearsal, don’t put meetings in afterwards, give things space and time. And the things that I say to the young people, ‘you don’t have to do this, you can stop at any point’, also apply to me. I can be in a space with young people and say, I need to stop, this is triggering for me. Modelling that with them is really important. 

I think there is something inherently therapeutic in helping other people. I think that’s why a lot of people with mental health go on to work in mental health services because it is therapeutic, you make meaning yourself by helping other people. Yeah, of course it’s hard. Of course, at times, it’s really f***ing distressing. But I went through CAMHS and I didn’t have that. And so the gift of trying to do a little bit of something for somebody else is … this is going to sound really crass, but it’s really good for your ego. It makes you feel good, it makes you feel like you have purpose and meaning in the world.

Yes, it’s doing something for other people that other people weren’t able to do for you when you needed it. 

And then if you’re working as a group that… you know, we were having sessions on the Balmy Army project in Manchester, and some of it was really challenging. Sometimes young people were living through some really distressing things. And as a group of facilitators, we’d go, and now we’re gonna go to Five Guys (Manchester takeaway), and we’re all going to have milkshakes and chips, and we’re going to chat shit, and we’re going to be together. And then we’ll be having our milkshakes and one of us will start crying, and we’ll all put our hands on that person. And we’re there for them. And then we change the subject, and we joke, and we’re silly. So togetherness is also really important.