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Zoe Catherine Kendall talks anxiety in the wake of Anxiety Arts Festival London 2014


Interview with Errol Francis, Festival Director and Bárbara Rodríquez Muñoz, Visual Arts Curator.  

Anxiety is a big word for me, as is art, and they're interconnected. Anxiety is a problem in my life. It stops me making art, even stops me writing. I avoid facing myself and avoid the two things I love to do the most because of fear. The anxiety grows stronger and I begin to believe I am losing myself, growing ever more afraid of my reflection. This cycle has the power to perpetuate itself and become a self full-filling prophecy. On stepping back and seeing it I gasp. The best thing I can do to stand up to my fears is to own them, analysing and understanding each for what it is. I can talk about anxiety, respond to it with my very own 'boo!' Okay, I'll do just that. I have been avoiding writing this, watching hours of Nurse Jackie and feeling bad about myself but that stops here. My mind goes blank, what comes next? Change my posture, check my body temperature and use some breathing exercises to aid relaxation. Two counts in, three counts out, two counts in, three counts out. It's been a while since I've had the courage to sit down and write but the joint subject of anxiety, arts and mental illness are very close to me and my desire to speak out and advocate the Anxiety Arts Festival happening in London this June is strong. I am pleased such a fuss is being made about anxiety, that there are people, charities, mental health professionals, artists and curators who chose to highlight the subject and bring it to the fore front of social debate. I believe in it and I want to be a part of it and that provides the best reason ever to challenge myself. I realise I don't have to talk about my own experience of anxiety and I wonder whether it will be appreciated, but I want to make this as real as I can. There are millions of people like me in the UK, suffering with the disruptive effects of generalised anxiety and I'm happy to talk about it if it helps to tackle stigma and raise awareness.

Enough about me, it's time to introduce the festival properly. Anxiety 2014 is a London-wide arts festival taking place at prestigious galleries, universities and within hospital and community spaces throughout June. The Mental Health Foundation who have a history of bringing together mental health and the arts are behind it. The aim of the festival is to explore the causes and effects of a mood state that impacts all of lives, drawing links to it's potential as a creative force and calling attention to its prevalence. The dynamic programme brings together contemporary and historical perspectives alongside medicinal, social, individual and collective viewpoints. Festival goers should look out for dance, performance, music and theatre on top of the extensive visual arts and film roster. To gain more insight in to the event, I asked Festival Director Errol Francis a few questions.

Zoe Catherine Kendall: How did Anxiety Arts Festival London 2014 come to be, and why here and now?
Errol Francis: The festival emerged from the work of the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland where we have been delivering the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival since 2007, which is now one of the largest social justice events of its kind in the world. The main aim of Anxiety 2014 is to explore mental health issues through the arts in order to challenge stigma and promote greater openness and psychological well-being. As the Mental Health Foundation is a national charity we decided to launch a festival in London around a single theme that connects with a prevalent mental health condition and a mood of our times. We are also aiming to increase the status of mental health issues within mainstream cultural programming therefore we felt that the high profile of the arts organisations in London made them ideal partners

Zoe: How did you come to be involved in the festival, and do you have a background in mental health or the arts?
Errol: I have worked in NHS and community mental health services for a number of years. More recently I have been involved in teaching at the University of the Arts London, curatorial project management at Arts Council England and fine art research at the Slade School of Fine Art, and The Anxiety 2014 Festival brings all of these experiences naturally together.

Zoe: In what ways do you hope that this festival will demystify mental health and tackle stigma?
Errol: At the Mental Health Foundation we believe that the arts are ideal for personal disclosure and expression – they are a great way to tell the individual story in a way that medical disciplines find difficult. By profiling a condition as prevalent as anxiety, with such a wide range of events and partners, we hope that mental health issues can be demystified and we can tackle stigma by exploring them at the centre of our cultural life rather than at its margins.

Zoe: In your opinion, is the ubiquitous form of anxiety that can lead to a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder a contemporary phenomenon related to modern living, or could it be a sign that modern society is greater informed and more at ease talking about mental health?
Errol: The very idea of anxiety is modern because the word as we know it acquires its current meaning and definition after the development of psychoanalysis at the beginning of the twentieth century. Previously, some the experiences that we would now call ‘anxiety’ might have been termed ‘neurasthenia’ – basically a nervous disorder. According to some accounts the social, spatial and existential peculiarities of modernity demanded a new way of looking at the individual psyche and anxiety is one response. The film maker Adam Curtis has called the twentieth century the Century of the Self which he blames on psychoanalysis and I think his argument supports the idea that modern society is not only more at ease but somewhat impelled to focus on questions about individual experience of which anxiety is an extremely prevalent example. Also, rapid changes in technology and traumatic social events seem to trigger spikes in the discussion and reporting of anxiety and we do seem to be in such a period because of the global economic downturn and associated uncertainties about the future.

Zoe: Perhaps it sounds like an odd question but is anxiety contagious? Emotions can pass from person to person, so could anxiety disorder manifest in this way too?
Errol: There have been studies of ‘emotional contagion’ in psychology that look at how people affect one another and automatically mimic and synchronize both positive and negative expressions. The idea has also been used to study how emotions can develop in collective social situations and in crowds. So yes, anxiety could also be considered as ‘infectious’ or ‘contagious’ in certain circumstances.

Zoe: Public discussions about increased levels of anxiety have occurred since the recession hit. Do you think we are experiencing an anxiety epidemic in the UK?
Errol: It does appear that levels of anxiety have increased since the credit crunch. In 2012 there was intense media discussion about statistics from the NHS Information Centre indicating that the number of outpatient appointments for persons diagnosed with anxiety disorders and panic attacks rose from 3,754 to 17,470 between 2006-2007 and 2010-11, and that this could be linked to the economic downturn. There certainly appears to have been increased public discussion especially here and in the US where there has been a huge amount of media discussion about anxiety in recent years and even references to a ‘new age of anxiety’, for example in Scott Stossel’s book called My Age of Anxiety. The historian Elaine Showalter, writing about Our Age of Anxiety in America says it ‘seems like a cultural chimera created by, yes, social and economic problems, and by personal crises, but also by media attention’.

Zoe: Can you tell us more about the substantive link that appears between creativity and mental health?
Errol: The way that an apparent link between creativity and mental health has been substantiated also involves linking creativity with mental illness and madness. Ever since Aristotle people have been writing about links between madness, genius and creativity and this has been expressed in various ways in different historical periods. There is also a persistent romantic notion that links genius, creativity and madness. In the nineteenth century hospital practices developed that were based around the idea that creativity could actually alleviate some mental health problems and the discipline of art therapy emerged out of this conviction. In the twentieth century mental illness became part of the material that revolutionised artistic practices, moving them away from representation to the expression of individual perception and emotion. Some of the most recent research around the link between creativity and mental illness concerns how so called ‘schizotypal’ traits’ such as unusual perceptual experiences and magical beliefs tend to be elevated in artists and might be genetically determined. In the contemporary arts and health field in which our work on the festival is located, the link between creativity and mental health that is most commonly made is around how it can promote well-being.

Zoe: Could you share with us any tips on keeping anxiety under control, something from your daily routine perhaps?
Errol: Face your fears by talking them through; open up to others; get to know yourself; learn how to relax and take regular exercise.

Zoe: What's next for you Errol?
Errol: I am taking a nice long, lazy holiday after the festival before completing my Ph.D. thesis. Then we are looking to tour our festival projects to other English cities and internationally.

I also spoke to Visual Arts Curator Bárbara Rodríquez Muñoz.

Zoe: How did you first become interested in the interplay between visual art and anxiety?
Bárbara: During the last few years my work has been concerned with how artistic processes can respond to social and political contexts, as well as examining subjective responses to our environments. Anxiety as a mood and as a disorder, exists in this realm between the individual and the social. Psychoanalysts saw anxiety as an essential human condition through which we relate to the world, while the apparent proliferation of anxiety today seems to respond to global issues related to capitalism, terrorism, environmental matters and an overall expanding sense of precarity. I’m interested in this interplay and how art addresses these social concerns while enacting subjective experiences – a tension between collectivity and autonomy.

Zoe: How did you get involved with Anxiety 2014?
Bárbara: When I applied to the job I didn’t know much about the project, it was ambitious and the title was so intriguing and multifaceted that it felt like an exciting challenge. Just before the interview I spent a weekend in Madrid visiting a compelling exhibition titled Spectres of Artaud at the remarkable Reina Sofia Museum, which looked at the influence of Antonin Artaud on artists exploring questions of language. There were two sections that particularly struck me: the Theatre of Cruelty, a methodology that aimed to allow performers and audiences to feel unexpressed emotions of the subconscious; and his critique of the psychiatric institution, and in that sense any institution that controls our behaviour. These areas inspired my preparation for the interview, and they remain within the visual arts programme, often clearly visible but other times more as a ‘spectre’ around the event.

Zoe: Please tell us about some of the artworks in the festival which stand out for you.
Bárbara: Latifa Laâbissi’s Ecran Somnambule (Sleepwalking screen) at Freud museum is going to be a very special event. Latifa has taken the existing 40 seconds film excerpts of Mary Wigman’s seminal piece Witch Dance (1926) and slowed down her movements to create a 31 minute expression dance. I think that her contorted and ritualistic performance will acquire an uncanny dimension alongside Freud personal objects. The programme of performance acting-out: the institution denied at the Anatomy Theatre, Kings College London presents three new performative commissions by Eva Kotátková, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and the vacuum cleaner. The artists have responded to the history of theatre, where anatomy lessons used to take place, including body dissections, and developed projects that both stage and interrogate the truth of medical and scientific methodologies and how they impact on our psychological states.

Zoe: Could you explain your curatorial methodology for the festival?
Bárbara: We wanted to bring together people from different backgrounds; academics, curators, users of community centres, artists and psychiatrists - it felt the right way to approach such a complex concept; taking in different perspectives and experiences. Sharing reading material, films and images has created bridges across individual projects and identified specific themes within the wider concept of anxiety. On other occasions, it’s been more important to understand the history, context and internal dynamics of partner institutions. The residencies we have developed with Bethlem Gallery and Gasworks are good examples of this approach. I am very proud and moved by this new collaboration and the possibilities it opens in terms of arts practices within psychiatric settings.

Zoe: The word curate comes from the Latin curare meaning to take care of. The care and respect this implies is reminiscent of therapy. What do you think about the therapeutic role of art, for the artist and the audience. And what about the role the curator plays in this?
Bárbara: I don’t think that to take care of something or someone automatically implies to heal and the festival is not offering a therapeutic service. It’s more the intention of caring for the people involved, embracing the ethical and practical considerations of working in certain contexts and hoping that the process will have a positive impact - whether this reflects on the participants involved or tackling stigma and discrimination.

Zoe: In my experience as an artist, art lover and anxiety sufferer, art works which focus on anxiety, insanity, invisibility and the boundaries between states can be unsettling. Do you find this sort of 'unconstrained self-expression' can be challenging for audiences to engage with?
Bárbara: In a metaphorical sense, anxiety can be seen as a riddle that is nervously demanding to be resolved, and once it’s resolved becomes more solid and easier to manage. The intention behind the visual art programme is to reveal what might be triggering our anxieties, and how to create a space for self-expression. Art is often challenging, I don’t think this is a problem, but I hope that beyond the aesthetic experience it will also create a critical distance to understanding this intention, as opposed to being overwhelmed by it.
Zoe: What else is coming up for you Bárbara?
Bárbara: I am curating an exhibition at the Kunsthal Aarhus called Nervous systems: languages of wonder and denial, which puts works by Kathy Acker and Cornelius Cardew alongside contemporary artists. We are also working on touring some of the festival’s projects to other areas of England. So anxiety and nervousness, after which, I might need a break!

What's left for me to say? Errol and Bárbara have described what sounds like a really exciting project with a serious imperative at its core. I am genuinely excited about witnessing the outcome of their hard work at Anxiety 2014 throughout the month of June, and the attempt they are making to unravel the riddle of anxiety in the modern age. It's a subject that touches many of us, through friends and family or personal experience, so to get a better hold on anxiety could reap many benefits for society and for our private lives. As Bárbara so aptly put 'anxiety can be seen as a riddle that is nervously demanding to be resolved, and once it’s resolved becomes more solid and easier to manage.'

Anxiety Arts Festival London 2014
Throughout June at various locations
More info:

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