James Leadbitter aka the vacuum cleaner, received an Unlimited research and development award for Madlove – a project which asks those with and without mental illness to collaborate in designing a ‘safe place to go mad’. John O’Donoghue talks to the artist about his idea to get people to participate in redesigning the asylum.
Asylums don’t have a very good reputation. They’re seen as a legacy of our Victorian forefathers, great Gothic places where people were left to fester, scary, frightening institutions full of unfortunate wretches, to rank alongside the workhouse and the gaol.
James Leadbitter wants to change all of this. On a very hot day in late July I go up to meet him at Tonynbee Hall in the East End of London. I’d previously seen his show Mental down in Brighton as part of the first Sick! Festival last year. Mental is the story of his trawl through the lower depths of Community Care, and his activities as a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel of the Occupy Generation.
He got into a lot of trouble, as anyone who’s been through Community Care will understand, the bleak round of wards, hostels, and B&B’s contrasted with his other troubles, his run-ins with the Forward Intelligence Team, the cops who go to demos and actions to take photos of activists.
For Leadbitter is also ‘the vacuum cleaner’, a one-time member of The Clown Army, disrupters of the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005.
Mental climaxes with Leadbitter writing his own Mental Health Act, sectioning himself under it, and devising his own treatment programme. In the show Leadbitter contrasts the passivity of being a patient with the exhilaration of taking direct action. If you like, he contrasts activism with inactivism, ultimately fusing the two in his brilliant coup of sectioning himself under his own Mental Health Act. And now he wants to take things further.
As I walk into the café at Toynbee Hall there he is, coming up the stairs from the rehearsal studios. We say hello and over coffee at one of the tables in the shady courtyard he fills me in.
“The project I’m working on asks a simple question,” he says: “If you designed your own asylum, what would it look like?” It’s an intriguing question. He’s seeking answers from a wide a variety of people: those like himself who’ve been through the system, their relatives and carers, and the professionals who usually have the greatest say in mental health services.
“At the moment the madlove website is live and people can email us with their ideas. Then in September we’ll be at the Southbank in London, running workshops, and then going on tour to art centres and hospitals, meeting with community groups and concerned citizens to workshop ideas and build a prototype of their ideal asylum. We’ll have a test version by March next year, and it’ll open for six weeks as a Day Hospital.”
Some of the ideas that have already come his way include a paint room, where the space would be entirely washable, from floor tiles to the ceiling, complete with a drain to let it all the colours drain away after use. Leadbitter himself says he’d like to see more greenery, an idea also echoed by others, with their suggestions of a quiet, soft room to lie down in, with wi-fi and telephone signal blackout. Another idea is an update on the padded cell, where “everything is unbreakable”, like a child’s soft playroom, a kind of indoor Bouncy Castle.
Leadbitter wants to replace the recovery model with the ‘discovery model’, to enable people to go on a journey through their madness instead of being made to pull out of it. He wants people who come to his asylum to see and experience madness in less negative terms than it’s usually portrayed. As Leadbitter writes on his website, “The problem is that a lot of psychiatric hospitals are more punishment than love. Is it possible to go mad in a positive way?”
Leadbitter is quick to distance himself from becoming some kind of mental health guru. “As great as RD Laing was, he was a bit too top-down, I think. We want to build this project from the bottom up, so that people get to design their own spaces.”
As the traffic crawls down Commercial Road I wonder where Leadbitter’s question will take him. I talk to him about my own experience of the old asylums, the ones that are now virtually all closed down, or turned into gated communities, or prisons. I was in Claybury, Friern, and Banstead, Victorian institutions that housed thousands of patients in their heyday. I saw the good and the bad, from open-ended treatment that went at my pace, well-structured Occupational Therapy programmes, and large beautifully-kept grounds to getting ECT aged sixteen, being held down and forcibly injected in my bare buttock, ending up on the Locked Ward. And I talk about the long stay-patients on wards where their beds were all crammed together because there was so many of them, talk of the rumours of them being abused, and I remember Richard, seeing him on the Holloway Road after Friern had shut, still wearing the clothes he’d been given by WRVS, looking totally lost.
I tell Leadbitter that personally I think that a lot was lost when the old asylums closed. That the terrible state of mental health services in this country, where patients are sent hundreds of miles across the land because of a shortage of beds, is a scandal. And that The Designer Asylum is the most radical project in the field of mental health I’ve heard of in years. I wish him luck and make my way back to the madness of Commercial Road and the world beyond.
John O’Donoghue is the author of Sectioned: A Life Interrupted (John Murray, 2009), awarded Mind Book of the Year 2010.