Colin Hambrook responds to Ship of Fools, the Vacuum Cleaner’s self-initiated anti-Section action, residency and mental creative space documented as a video diary on show in Art of the Lived Experiment at the core of DaDaFest 2014
The Vacuum Cleaner carved the words ‘barking mad’ into a tree in Boardway Market, London, summer 2011.
There are many elements of Art of the Lived Experiment that merit writing about. It’s an eclectic exhibition gathering diverse strands, historically, aesthetically, artistically, and pulling each of those threads together under a cohesive whole themed through the idea of how impairment and the impact of a disabling society cause us to change and adapt to the world.
Aaron Williamson has done an immense curatorial job thinking through ideas of alchemy and acts of transformation as the ground principle for choosing and presenting artworks. Art of the Lived Experiment holds something of fascination for lovers of a plethora of cultural experiences: for example, pop trivia, intriguing scientific documentation, ancient magical lore all play a part, condensing a vast range of visual art genre and tradition.
From all the exhibits the piece that drew me personally was the film installation and accompanying artworks created by the Vacuum Cleaner. Made in 2011 The Ship of Fools is a creative, thoughtful and thought-provoking filmic meditation on suicidal states of mind. An intensely moving piece of work, it is at turns darkly humorous and shocking; made with an authenticity and a desire to think about how more effective society could be in supporting individuals in the throes of extreme states of mental distress.
Recognising his own severe state of mental decline the Vacuum Cleaner decided to institute his own flat as a mental hospital. He wrote his own mental health act and gave himself a 28 day section, calling on friends, artists and others interested in the ideas he was generating for getting through his intense emotional state by forging a series of creative statements. The accompanying video diary of The Ship of Fools takes you through the 28 days in a candid and honest portrayal of the lengths the artist went to in taking responsibility for his mental well-being, inviting others to join him through the process in making a series of creative interventions.
So within a framework of rules and agreements to ensure his own and others’ safety he set about literally exploring death: the vacuum cleaner talks about one friend who tells him how he would fashion nooses out of shoe laces when he was a child at school. So they set about making a series of shoelace nooses to hang on a set of railings near his building. On another day the vacuum cleaner’s mental health team fail to deliver his medication. So he makes his way to the local psychiatric unit on bicycle. On the way he starts to hallucinate. Passing a local police station, he makes an intervention, laying black tape across the ‘p’ and ‘o’ in the ‘police’ sign to express what he is seeing and feeling.
Ultimately the film references tragedy: The Ship of Fools is not easy viewing. However, on that stage where the personal and the political meet face to face, the Vacuum Cleaner is offering a powerful radical alternative for consideration in the strategies we employ to support people in extreme mental states.
There is something endearing and disquieting in equal measure about the depth of candor the vacuum cleaner is prepared to share through this piece of socially engaged artwork. As a young disabled artist the Vacuum Cleaner’s ideas hold something that have a potential to transform society for the better, in my humble opinion. The simplicity and directness of his interventions hold powerful reflection and considerations finding a creative alternative to incarceration on a ward in a psychiatric unit.
With all due respect to those who work in these spaces, there is nothing ‘healthy’ about the condensed mental and emotional oblivion that you will find on any average psychiatric unit. From personal experience I would say that most people get out of mental hospital because anything is better than being confined there.
The environment of the average psychiatric ward serves to make peoples’ mental health deteriorate: crammed spaces, high fences, lack of opportunity for physical exercise, bad food, lack of self-determination in all manner of ways… if you weren’t ill in the first place, I would assert that the most stable, robust personalities would waiver after any amount of time confined to mental hospital.
It comes down to all the small acts of humiliation that are part and parcel of ‘health and safety’ requirements of psychiatric care: for example not being allowed shoelaces! The institutionalisation that follows any amount of time in a unit, serves to crush and induce dependence in a way that makes the will to take responsibility for one’s own well-being much harder to surmount.
I haven’t even begun to describe the impact of brain cell destroying medication; the most disabling aspect of all when it comes to psychiatric intervention. As a short-term measure it can help, but in the long term the chemical cosh is a form of crucifixion. Not only because of the drooling, blood cell destroying, heart and liver damaging, Parkinsons-inducing side effects. But because while you are having to deal with the crippling medical consequences of drugs, you are also having to deal with the fact that the people around you – even family and friends – discriminate with the assumption that what they are looking at is ‘mental illness’, and not the debilitiating effects of the medication you are being forced to take to treat ‘mental illness’.