It has long been believed that art is merely to be admired, out of reach in the cloistered walls of art galleries, or to luxuriate in the lavish homes of the rich and famous – a pursuit that is no more than a romantic folly next to steadfast disciplines such as science and engineering where there is a real prospect for change and an improvement in standards of living.
And yet, in the artistic playground of FACT Liverpool, Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age – curated by Vanessa Bartlett and Mike Stubbs and exposed from the last 5th March until the next 17th May 2015 – is a perfect example of art allowing you to look deep inside yourself and make positive changes. Throughout the multimedia exhibition, the mental wellbeing of the FACT inmates is to be examined through the vast array of installations and short film screenings that occupy the space. During Group Therapy, a sequence of digital diagnostics and a dose therapeutic cinematography puts even the most seasoned art aficionado through their paces.
Firstly, you are invited to analyse your own mental stability during life in the information age, through the film Consumed (2011) where today’s first world citizens are condemned as “ardent narcissists” with a “psychotic illness” provoked by contemporary advertisers. The sound track from The Financial Crisis (2009) overpowers the space, a hypnotic voice gently urging you to plant yourself into the situation of those who suffer personal and material repercussions post the 2008 financial recession. This allows you to internally mirror the sensation of inevitable loss as a symptom of our Icarian society – loss of both the tangible and the intangible, such as friendships, relationships and careers.
Now you are suitably demoralised and depressed, Group Therapy compounds this sense of anxiety still further with projects that put this digitally connected/physically disconnected world into sharp contrast. Multisensory installations transport you away from your material surroundings just as digital media is capable of consuming you, absenting you friends and loved ones while you are mentally engaged by a screen. The ironically-named White Matter (2015) juxtaposes ancient physical escapism with modern day digital escapism.
The black circular space presents you with a group of obsidian stones: part of an ancient custom of early civilisations who believed they could reach other physical realms. The ceiling plays host to a montage of digital images reminiscent of 90s video games. This encourages us to reflect on how we can be spirited away when devoured by digital media and how our sense of self can be optimised when entering this alternative portal.
You lose yourself entirely in the Labyrinth Psychotica (2013), a fully immersive installation where, following the maze of fabric, you become completely disorientated in the process. Unable to find your way out, you are forced to confront the edges of your sanity while LED displays flash before you, provoking migraine-like visual disturbance and leaving you temporarily blind. You doubt the evidence of your eyes on seeing another light display momentarily accuse you of being a “bitch”, causing wry amusement combined with paranoia at this sensory assault.
Fortunately, after such an arduous mental trip, the exhibition culminates in a showcase of collaborative community projects which shine a light on technology being used to impact positively on our mental wellbeing. These projects include the malign “Avatar” (Avatar Therapy for Distressing Voices, 2014) which can be programmed to replicate demonically your darkest inner voices that destroy your self-esteem. By standing up to this virtual nemesis, patients can start to rebuild their confidence.
In Hand (2014) is a mobile application which extends the developmental process to local young people tasked with researching, branding and marketing the product: an aid young people can take advantage of in managing their feelings and black moods.
Emotions take on visual form in The Heart Library Project (2007), which generates an image of your heartbeat in vibrant colour thanks to a sensor worn on your earlobe, and States of Mind (2015) enables you to digitally recreate your current mood as kaleidoscopic shapes that can be seen in the FACT foyer.
After so much time in the exhibition spent getting to know yourself better, you may be in danger of taking yourself a little too seriously. If this is the case, it is advisable to check in with the tongue-in-cheek Psychosis Sensation (2014) software, which subjects you to a series of uncomfortable questions via iPad while you are sitting cosily in leather armchairs native to a traditional psychiatrist’s office.
This ultra-stimulating and thought-provoking exhibition may give rise to a need for quiet contemplation following a theme park of thrilling installations. Luckily, the curators thought of this with Madlove: A Designer Asylum dreamt up by the vacuum cleaner in collaboration with Hannah Hull (2015). You can relax in this cosy sanatorium, perch on the salmon stairwell, let loose in the padded room, or simply muse upon the umbrella ceiling.
Group Therapy is not merely a digital art exhibition: it is a relevant rollercoaster of experiences bringing home the role of art and design in promoting self-examination and directing social change. It invites you to take time out of your day to consider the complexities of modern day living in the information age, how the digital world can impact on our relationships positively and negatively and ways we can improve mental distress through a combination of collaboration and technological endeavour.