Led by Dr. Bobby Baker and the team at Daily Life Ltd, The Expert View Symposium promised to be an entertaining, inspiring and fun day of discussion, debate and performance, relevant to anyone with an interest in understanding the relationship between the Arts and Mental Health. Colin Hambrook was there, amongst other things, for the butterscotch cake.
Tweets that arose during the course of the day were testament to how fortunate we were to be in the Bromley by Bow Centre, beating the election blues on 8 May.
To pick on just one: Selina Thompson wrote “Being at #expertview with @DailyLifeLtd and @BobbytheBaker reminded me of why I LOVE her so much. Daily Life are glorious and make me feel so inspired!”
Indeed the 100 of us, packed into the centre were given a through-line into the approaches of Daily Life Ltd, Outside In and The Bethlem Gallery on practical ways of bringing art and mental health together, debating the notion of expertise, professionalism and value.
Throughout the day Baker emphasised over and again the importance of being ‘expert’ by dint of experience of mental health issues and of the mental health system. All too often we are encouraged to give power away when we are the experts when it comes to knowledge of our own bodies and minds.
She talked from experience. A theme within her Diary Drawings is how as a ‘patient’ you are never told the side-effects of medication. They will foist ridiculous labels on you telling you your personality is ‘disordered’ without any consideration for what that will do to your mental health and your own sense of who you are.
Affirmed over and again, was that old-fashioned and much maligned value of ‘loving kindness’. You can throw as many experts as you like at the task of supporting people through crisis, but unless there is an element of compassion, empathy and respect within the mix, the effectiveness of any ‘treatment’ going to be, at best, limited.
Within the discussion was talk of empathy for the mental health workers who are often on a front line in which their attempts to respond humanely are thwarted by a system insistent on intimidation, punishment and blame.
Following her involvement with the drama department at Queen Mary University, Baker set up Daily Life Ltd for a number of reasons; including to create opportunities for younger artists. The organisation seeks ways to shine a light in the darkness; to measure the value of artistic approaches to raising awareness of Mental Health and to look at how Art can be used to question the values that dominate the world we live in.
There is a danger with the Arts and Health agenda in all-too-easily becoming a tick-box for measuring services by how much money is being saved, rather than affirming the right of Art to be judged on its own terms and the right of Art to fail. Scales like the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-Being Scale can too easily become like placing mice in a box to perform. It all depends on interpretation and context.
For Baker, Art is often about making cake. She began back in 1976 when she created an edible family in a mobile home. Apparently the coconut cake baby was the first to go, leaving an empty cradle. And since then she’s invited many an audience to eat cake with her. Her Art is about giving her audiences food for thought, metaphorically and literally.
The beauty of Daily Life Ltd is it’s intent to carry a serious message using humour. Several pieces parody the middle class do-gooder saving humanity; doing spoof research on mental health diagnostic methodology. More recently Mad Gyms and Kitchens (2011) sought to directly address the stigma, isolation and frustration of people who’ve been through the mental health system, critiquing the pharmacology and therapeutic industries that have flourished in response to it and highlighting individual expertise in ways to feel better.
On a personal note, I’ve recently become interested in Narrative Medicine and the power of the arts to aid healing through self-reflection. But one of the key things I came away with was the danger in Art all too easily being used as a tool to patronise, assert and justify individuals’ powerlessness. The warning behind Expert View was the danger of reducing the artist to a fieldworker whose role becomes like basket-weaving – a way of devaluing and undermining, rather than a tool for empowerment.
It was an inspiring, well thought out day with a powerful message. Art is only useful in relation to mental health when it isn’t reduced to being in service to clinical practice. The power of Art isn’t in making people ‘feel better’. It’s about the level of reflection and knowledge that arises through the process; reliant on the wealth of expertise of those making artwork in the field.
And so Daily Life Ltd have launched Artful Measures a website with an altogether transparent and different take on ‘measurement’. It’s a playful, rigorous and provocative attempt to join things up and to share resources and knowledge. The first case study explores Mad Gyms and Kitchens. Go have a look for yourself and give feedback!