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.