Our Future Likes at Bethlem Gallery


Our Future Likes, currently at Bethlem Gallery in London – explores the complexities of the lives we live on and off line and ways it can be damaging to our mental health. Dolly Sen reflects – as DAO’s Guest Editor, and a contributor to the exhibition – on show at Bethlem Gallery from 12th September – 16th November.

Ciara. Image © Alexandra Leigh

I have a complex and conflicted relationship with social media. I get much of my work and opportunities via social media, but I am also aware of the jealousy that arises in me when I see how much more successful other people are in their lives and work.

I see what I am lacking when I look at social media. I am also aware of the echo chamber, that most of my Facebook and Twitter contacts share the same political outlook as me and that it is more than preaching to the converted: images of war deaths and people suffering because of governmental policies actually hurt.

I don’t need to be convinced of the wrong-doing of certain policies to be moved into action. What I am convinced of is the hurt I feel because it is not doing my mental health any good. It feeds paranoia and depression greedily. And I am a middle-aged fogey.

I am old enough to remember a life before social media. Life was pretty tough then before the additional pressures that the internet brought in its wake. I didn’t have to deal with cyber-bullying, assault on identity, body image and the lowering of self-esteem that social media has found to inflict on our teens. As one of the young poets who performed at the private view stated, “Now my smile is as plastic as the iPhone I don’t have.”

Our Future Likes reveals how some artists and young people in our society are taking the lead, creating art that explores how we can make the internet a more positive and contemplative space.

Some young people at the Bethlem Adolescent Unit describe their weekly two-hours of internet time as “time to cry and [socially] die”, where scrolling through curated presentations of other people’s ‘perfect lives’ on Instagram, leaves them feeling low, isolated and excluded.

The exhibition theme has been developed with young people and staff at the Bethlem Adolescent Unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital. I went to their private view on the 7th Sept at the Bethlem Gallery.

I was asked to submit a piece of work as I have explored digital art and mental health before. I decided to create an app called ‘What’s Crap App’. There are a lot of mental health apps around, measuring mood, anxiety, negative thoughts. No matter if your distress is caused by social factors such as poverty, racism, oppression, welfare cuts or disability-as-burden rhetoric. I decided to create a design for an app to measure the unreasonable expectations society places upon people.

What’s Crap banner. Image © Dolly Sen

The other artists of the exhibition had varying takes on and feelings about social media. Alexandra Leigh’s beautiful ethereal photography is reminiscent of haunting, gentle fantasy. The cruel world is nowhere to seen. She talks about creating a fantasy world when things were hard and her photography aims to re-create that world. She has an Instagram account and recruits her models from social media. She said to me at the private view “I find social media helpful. Without it, I wouldn’t create my work. I am quite an anxious person and find it helpful to meet people.”

Gabrielle de la Puente of White Pube, whose approach to art criticism is fresh, honest and irreverent, offers the exhibition anti-anxiety instructions written in their inimitable style. These instructions say of social media. “Twitter is a broken moral compass and Instagram is Not The Whole Story so maybe there should be an age limit on the internet of like, FIFTY YEARS OLD or just whenever we have our shit together.” She also says, “The internet is cruel in how it manages to drag u backwards and forwards at the same time.” The internet is not still waters, there are too many opportunities to drown. This exhibition is looking for land.

What of the young people who came up with the idea of the exhibition and their work in the exhibition? To me, it was the best, most interesting and authentic part of the show. There was a rail of t-shirts with statements such as ‘Mum, I don’t understand your emojis’ and ‘Not IRL’, which came out of workshops where the young people from Bethlem’s Adolescent Unit discussed their lives online and the pressures this brings.

Mum I don’t understand your emojis, t-shirts.

These statements staggered you into the realisation of just how deeply social media affects people, especially the young. My favourite part of the exhibition was the C-type photography prints of the young people and their lives on the adolescent unit, which unfortunately we can’t share online. In a world where people share their mobile phone photography instantly, these photos were taken with a digital camera and not shared instantly.

Instead, Daniel Regan, who ran the workshop leading to this work, used time to slow down and explore the images and their meanings. These photos were powerful and effective, telling much more a story than images shared on social media that becomes a mask on a mask on a mask. These photos show lives without masks, painfully authentic but their honesty made them beautiful. The rawness was staggering but also filled me with hope for these young people.

I had my own mental health problems since the age of 14, so this exhibition was a painful reminder for me, that I have come so far. This showcase is a testament to the strength and vulnerability of these youngsters, but also how social media can stop them short of their wonderful potential, and how deeply it can hurt. The emotions that brings up in you no emoji can touch.

Our Future Likes is on show at Bethlem Gallery until 16th November 2018.

Contributors to the show are: Alexandra Leigh, Art Assassins (South London Gallery’s young people’s group) with Lloyd Corporation, Daniel Regan and young people from Bethlem Adolescent Unit, Dolly Sen, Gabrielle de la Puente (White Pube), Jack Burrus-Coomber, Katherine Melmoth and Charlotte Hooley, Love People Support Bethlem  (a collective of students from Langley Park School for Boys), Lisa Biles, Max Reeves and young people from the Raw Sounds project at Raw Material.