Letting in the Light, a light-box exhibition organised by Bobby Baker’s charity Daily Life Ltd, lit up the streets of Stratford during the dark winter months of this year and showcased the work of artists who have experienced mental distress. Elinor Rowlands spoke to her about the impact of the exhibition and the charity’s new project, Roving Diagnostic Unit.
Although not the first light-box exhibition for Bobby Baker, Letting in the Light was the first collaboration for her arts and mental health charity, Daily Life Ltd, between the Bethlem Gallery and Outside In. It is remarkable that an outdoor art exhibition about people’s experience of mental distress has brought the community together and she believes it was because it was so bold.
She recalls a day when she stood in the middle of the exhibition and watched a Polish designer take a photograph of one of the images. He explained it was for inspiration for a tattoo he would like on his back. He told her, “This is my way to work and I can’t believe this, I’ve been struggling and there’s an image here, the tree of life.” The image, Baker explains, is a beautiful piece by an artist called Susan and it was the very first art piece Susan had made after the death of her son in a hit-and-run accident.
The exhibition was never about what artists felt about mental distress but “instead, how their work lit up their lives and would interest the people in Stratford.” Interestingly, quite a few of the artists said that they had always wanted the art shown as a stain glass window and so the potential for their created work to be lit up was exciting.
They also showed the work blown up, mirroring Baker’s own series, Diary Drawings, which was enlarged on big banners at the Wellcome Trust in 2009. This was an astonishing experience for Baker, but it was only when she was given a commission by the Basement to feature ten of her drawings in their exhibition, All Very Well in Brighton that she was given the opportunity to see her work illuminated in light boxes
She says, “Letting in the Light feels like a development because this was not a workshop where we had selected some pieces to be shown alongside mine, instead this was people who had chosen their work to send in and we were exhibiting them.”
This sense of ownership and making the private public reflects how the community of Stratford received Letting in the Light. People have reacted to particular images because they are about people’s stories. The huge variety in the work is very accessible physically in the street, and because the captions are so beautifully written, it has made people of all backgrounds and cultures feel included, especially the locals who hang out on the street daily. They appreciate the exhibition on their street. They have either rung up Daily Life Ltd or wandered into their premises directly.
Initially, the police warned Baker and her team that the outdoor street market where their light boxes would be on display is a bleak street where lots of trouble takes place. “The police were worried,” Baker admits, “but people like it because it’s a beautiful show and I know people who work there and say that they and the public look at it quite a lot.” People have even been contacting the studio especially during the first week of the exhibition. An arcade of charities has also shown an interest after seeing it on the way to work.
The response to the show has encouraged Baker’s team to apply for more funding to show in other cities around the country, focusing on the same time of year. The range of art they selected for the show is vast: the artists are different ages, from different backgrounds; some recently started making work, others have been making work all their lives, while some describe themselves as professional artists.
The experience of exhibiting her own work has given her more confidence to enable people to reflect on these complex issues but she realises that it is now important to pull back and show other people’s work. Daily Life Ltd’s current project, The Roving Diagnostic Unit will have expert artists lead groups of people to diagnose public institutions “so we would want to diagnose museums and galleries and health centres. Great, isn’t it?” She beams.
They tried it out at a festival where the group had a diagnostic sheet and would go around diagnosing a park bench, a bin and a tree. The artists all wore white coats to look like professionals and people followed. The group encircled a bench, while two French women sat on it and they decided to stay while the group diagnosed it.
A member of the group piped up that they felt really uncomfortable talking about this bench so publicly and Baker remarked that this is what it is like on a ward round. The group were upset and shocked. In the end they had fifteen people trailing through to have a look at the tree all engaging in a bizarre interesting discussion about it. Baker cannot manage to finish her sentences for laughing.
Ultimately, the genesis of the Daily Life Ltd Project is to change the way people think about mental health. Her arts and mental health charity, Daily Life Ltd has become a force for socially-engaged arts practice.
“Difference has to be our future,” acknowledges Baker. “If only one set of people say this is the rules and this is the way it is and we exclude people there is a definite dangerous desire for certainty and order.” When Baker entered the mental health system there were people who had had the worst lives possible but they had so much to offer in terms of humour, wit, intelligence and depth. It is these people and their experiences that the rest of humankind can learn from.
The Roving Diagnostic Unit will make an appearance on 17 July as part of the Waltham Forest Garden Party, programmed by William Morris Gallery and the Barbican.
Daily Life Ltd will also feature in a William Morris Gallery Late Event on 13 October.