Daily Life Ltd. Takeover William Morris Gallery

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Does the wallpaper have disordered thinking? Does the staircase have delusions of grandeur? Kate Lovell visited Daily Life Ltd’s takeover of the William Morris Gallery, featuring the Roving Diagnostic Unit, which took place on 13 October 2016.

A photograph of a group of people involved in Daily Life Ltd's 'Roving Diagnostic Unit'. The group are walking through a wooded area, lead by artist Bobby Baker.

Roving Diagnostic Unit in action.

A museum dedicated to a designer and craftsman William Morris mostly displays wallpaper patterning, print techniques and furniture. At first glance, this seems an unlikely and unusual choice of venue for an evening exploring mental health and the arts. But let’s not forget that William Morris was also a socialist. It doesn’t take long to realise the cleverness of the decision to do a Daily Life Ltd takeover here.

The displays of patterned wallpaper, furniture, cloths and silks, are bound up in the ordinariness of our day-to-day lives, and this link between the extraordinary and the mundane is at the heart of Bobby Baker and Daily Life Ltd’s work. Throughout the evening, we are invited to look closer and re-examine that which we think we know; to question the usual to find the unusual.

This kind of care and attention feels exactly akin to how we must attend to those around us who are going about their normal routines, but internally grapple with mental distress. The Roving Diagnostic Unit tour itself is a highlight.

Our tour hosts are dressed with a cheery madness: the luminous yellow hats offset the slightly more sinister white coats beneath. We are invited, clipboard in hand, to assess the mental state of a glass-encased set of silk spools. We are expected to consider how useful we think they are feeling, whether they feel optimistic about the future, scoring them on each statement listed. The wording is all too familiar to anyone who has ever visited a psychiatrist or been an inpatient on a psychiatric ward.

It’s a devilishly ingenious device which allows us to question the current role of psychiatry. We stand, about twenty of us in a circle with clipboards and biros, and arbitrarily assess the silk spools according to appearance. They are dishevelled and unravelling: is this self-harm or rebellion? They are no longer whizzing around, their usual lives of spinning at speed disrupted, they are completely still; are they depressed, do they feel useless? The absurdity of the exercise is absolutely appropriate to the often ridiculous speed at which people are assessed or diagnosed on hurried ward rounds.

The evening is about reclaiming psychiatry and its associated language. It is about questioning the usefulness of its detached and over-medicalised language. This was playfully explored during sean burn’s words workshop, where he invited us to tear apart the language of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. He reminds us that it controversially still includes being transgender as a disorder, and gently ribs the suspiciously named ‘oppositional defiance disorder’ with the sub-title “(used to be called asking questions)”.

No evening is complete without creating your own ‘power pants’: a creative workshop run by whatsthebigmistry invited us to decorate pants using feathers, diamantes and glitter galore. She encourages us to feel empowered beneath our clothes, to use the power pants to face tough days. This echoed beautifully the running theme of hidden strength and the extraordinariness that can be found within those who manage mental distress. This fight is not always visible to the passer-by, but Daily Life Ltd’s Roving Diagnostic Unit takeover invites us to scratch the surface of the seemingly ordinary, to question everything, and to discover the wild, curious and tricky wonder that lies beneath.