Group Therapy

This post will look at three projects that form part of the ‘Group Therapy’ exhibition, on show at FACT Liverpool until May 17. These include the design for the exhibition, the new commission ‘Madlove: A Designer Asylum’ for the vacuum cleaner, and a collaborative project under the umbrella of The Creative Exchange, called ‘States of Mind’.

‘Group Therapy’ deals with mental distress in a digital age and looks at the relationship between mental well-being and technology. The strong links this exhibition has to my doctoral research have enabled me to use it as the site for a range of projects that test some of the thinking emerging in the context of my PhD, including ideas around privacy and publicity, actor and audience, and the relationship between the digital and the physical. My research interrogates psychological notions of comfort in a digital age, with a particular focus on privacy in digital public space, and uses architectural representation as the tool of investigation.

The design for the ‘Group Therapy’ exhibition aims to actively encourage the visitor to reflect on their own mental health: the spatial framing, both of content and of people, and the blurring of the distinction between the two, are intended to encourage each visitor to think about their personal relationship to the subject matter explored in the exhibition. The gallery space is imagined as a kind-of-stage for the playing-out of this process of self-reflection: the walls disappear into the background, and a series of frame structures are used to hold the curated content, which ranges from photographic works to objects, film projections and immersive installations. The use of prop-like frames actively seeks to make the visitor to the exhibition an integral part of the whole setting. At the same time they delineate spaces within the gallery that give a sense of enclosure while maintaining an awareness of the overall environment, creating a range of thresholds within the space and shifting visual relationships across it.

The design of the exhibition is rooted in a research project with the Mental Health Unit at the Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, Scotland (http://www.rca.ac.uk/research-innovation/helen-hamlyn-centre/research-pr...). This project, carried out by a research team from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design in London and led by me, identified key issues of space use and offered an art and design strategy to address these. The tensions identified in the Mental Health Unit all deal with thresholds between individual needs and the requirements of care: a need for privacy in patients contrasts with that for observation by staff, the welcoming or homely feel of a space is at odds with the institutional context of a hospital, and there are tensions inherent in a lack of individual control over the physical environment. The exhibition design for ‘Group Therapy’ builds on some of these tensions and aims to highlight the thresholds between the private, individual experience of the exhibition and the societal dynamics behind issues around mental health raised by the exhibition.

The new commission ‘Madlove: A Designer Asylum’, supported by the Wellcome Trust, has been developed with and for the vacuum cleaner - artist James Leadbitter - who, together with his producer Hannah Hull, has been re-imagining mental healthcare through a participatory process with workshops across the UK.

Working together with James Christian of Projects Office, the design is based on these workshops, in which participants were encouraged to reconsider what good mental healthcare looks like, feels like, and ultimately should be like. A series of playful structures present deliberately abstracted embodiments of spatial and sensorial qualities discussed in the workshops, while the teal-coloured walls and floor of the space again recede into the background, dissolving the boundaries of the gallery space. The individual structures have been designed to offer shifting levels of privacy and intimacy ranging from a space for one person to let off some steam to complete togetherness in the social space at the heart of the installation. The installation is a beta-version of the Designer Asylum; it is designed as a platform to continue the conversation that has evolved through the vacuum cleaner’s public engagement to-date, and to allow people to programme the space, to share insights, knowledge and skills in a programme of activities that will run throughout the duration of the exhibition. The ‘Madlove’ installation, which has been featured on the BBC news website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-32035911) and in Slate magazine http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2015/03/19/madlove_a_designer_asylum_..., is only a small glimpse of a project that has the potential to influence the way we think about the design of mental healthcare environments.

The final component of the ‘Group Therapy’ exhibition that forms a part of my research is the ‘States of Mind’ project. A console in the gallery space asks individual visitors the question “What does your mental health look like right now?” and invites each visitor to manipulate a virtual three-dimensional object on the screen, changing its shape, size and colour. These variables become a sort-of abstract ‘language’ that allows visitors to respond to the question asked, and to externalise and communicate something that is inherently private. At the same time, through their abstract language, the objects remain somewhat codified, and depend on individual readings. Contributions are shared and publicly displayed on screens within the open areas of the building outside the gallery space. This allows them to be understood not just as individual states-of-mind, and instead begins to establish a dialogue between the personal artworks. As a new commission for FACT Liverpool, the project provides a creative framework to elicit audience feedback, allowing individual visitors to reflect on their personal experience of the exhibition, which tackles broad societal issues, and externalising this process through an abstract visual ‘language’. The project has been developed as a key component of my doctoral research into privacy online, to test audience feedback in physical and digital contexts. ‘States of Mind’ here explores ways of representing intangible or abstract notions - such as well-being - and is a step in rethinking ways in which the similarly abstract notion of privacy might be re-thought for the digital age. The creation and collection of state-of-mind objects and the gathering of narrative experiences will further the conversation about individual well-being and broaden the thinking to consider the emotional landscape of the city. The project has been developed under the umbrella of the Creative Exchange, working together with Brendan Dawes and Claire Cook of Nexus Productions, a London-based company exploring storytelling and design to create engaging interactive experiences, in collaboration with Roberto Bottazzi, Research Coordinator and Tutor in the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, and Karen Ingham, an artist and creative academic at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

The ‘States of Mind’ project offers a structure for future collaborations and research projects that creatively engage with public audiences. Overall, the ‘Group Therapy’ exhibition and its interweaving projects provide a useful model for research, involving the architectural design of experiences as a prototype testing notions of psychological comfort in a digital age. These spatial experiences simultaneously offer a platform for the development of strategies to engage with audiences of cultural production in new ways, enabling the sharing and making-public of private responses and internalised notions of comfort.