I’m writing this a LOT later on than I would have preferred – the second UNION weekend was pretty much a whole month ago now. Saying that, I’m trying to purposefully allow time in between <insert the something here> and writing about it to allow things to percolate and simmer down. In that time, however, I’ve been really tied up with The Critical Fish – editing, proofing, printing, writing, publicising etc – and planning and designing the upcoming Recovery College term’s prospectus, booked a trip to India, got a budgie, I’ve had a birthday, gone to the Lake District for a break… I’ve had a funny old month between now and then.
Most crucially, I had also felt my depression building momentum in the few weeks leading up to the residency weekend. I still feel in this place now, but I feel like I’ve passed the peak of the storm. I think I’m going to be giving quite a lot away about myself in this post somehow!
It’s a bit of a tangent (although relevant) but like many people experiencing mental disabilities, I don’t want sympathy or fuss, I don’t want a ‘u ok hun’ (but still, it’s nice to know you care)… I just ask for a willingness to try and understand something that doesn’t even make total sense to me. Sharing such accounts of personal experiences and thought processes breaks down the stigmas that are often deep rooted in society, stigmas which do nowt but generate fear and isolation. You know this, I know this, but you’d be surprised how little open conversation is valued outside of the communities who champion it! I’ve been advised by a number of people against talking about my mental health publicly as a small business owner, especially as a blog, on my website, in which traffic is directed. If you consider this to be ‘bad business sense’, I ask you to critically question your assumptions and own attitudes about that! That feels like a debate for another post, but I’m going to bring it back around to my experiences which in turn will relate to what this post is meant to be about!!
My depression is longstanding (~20 years, can’t be arsed to go into it all) and recurrent, or ‘unipolar’. I know that it’s going to come once or twice a year and last anywhere between a couple of weeks to a few months, and be anywhere between mild and pretty severe. And for the most part, there’s naff all I can do to prevent it. I can put up a tidal barrier (doing the things which maintain healthy well-being), which can hold off the smaller ebbs and flows, but there’s no guarantee that it can hold bigger waves or impending tsunamis of doom. I know it will pass eventually though; it’s just a case of riding it out. I feel fortunate to have some insight into it – After years of managing it, I recognise it coming, see that it is what it is and am now able to speak about it at the time of drowning. It’s atypical to an extent but the low mood, paranoia, anxiety, self-criticism and all the rest of it acts as an obnoxious undercurrent to daily life. It’s a lot harder to build motivation and keep focused during this time, and my perception of reality is skewed; the world feels intense but dulled down all at the same time, people feel distant behind a glass wall but magnified in terms of what they say/do and the internal monologue we all have becomes more savage and the volume is turned up all the way to 11. Fun stuff.
It was just prior to, during and after the residency where it began building momentum, meaning my perception of the weekend wasn’t as positive as I’m sure it would have been if I had been within my ‘normal’ range of well-being. Reading back through my own reflective journal (written at the time), I can see that I spent a lot of the weekend feeling quite paranoid, self- hypercritical, frustrated at myself and very vulnerable. Looking back as well, I cringe a bit at some of my thinking and interactions with others – it wasn’t me. I shared how I was feeling (to some extent) to my fellow UNIONites and leaders who were very kind and supportive about it all (and it was really appreciated, honestly. Thank you all <3). I got the impression that some may have not known what to do or what to say to me, however, which is understandable. Especially if you don’t know someone all that well. For anyone wanting to support someone with mental health stuff: generally speaking, extra doses of kindness are noticed and appreciated. And I felt the extra kindness from some individuals in particular – thank you!
I think that when writing about my perspective of the weekend, it is important to consider that it was perceived through this filter.
FRIDAY 5 APRIL 2019
Our group packed out Kardomah94 (alongside a load of steampunkers, randomly) as we sat down to a MONSTER dinner. Salad, hummus, bread, vegan pizzas, nachos… it just kept coming out lol. The Hullians then took folks off to various places (well, the people who wanted to go do something). Hannah took some to a drumming circle session (which sounded awesome and I’d have loved to have gone), Steve had invited folks to a Hip Hop fundraiser he was doing for Dove House Hospice, and Ailsa, Vickie and I took people on a tour of the City Centre, showing off some of Hull’s public art, sharing random tidbits of history and explaining some things related to the City of Culture. The theme of the weekend was surrounding megaevents and the role of arts in place and community (and the ‘hangover’ of City of Culture), so the tour was quite apt. Ailsa was a tour guide in Hull, so she was very professional (and knowledgeable!) about it whereas I kinda chipped in/interrupted with my own sweary quips and pockets of knowledge. We ended up at Thieving Harrys, but everyone looked shattered so we weren’t in there long, but it was nice to have a bit of a catch up with folks. Best thing about being at home is climbing back into my own bed at the end of the night!
I really like oat milk. And vegan cheese. And vegan cheese on pizzas.
SATURDAY 6 APRIL 2019
Rocked up to Artlink, one of my favourite arts spaces in Hull. The morning was quite heavy, but I really enjoyed it. Vikkie showed a Powerpoint explaining all about the City of Culture (C0C) in Hull – it’s amazing how I had already forgotten about half of the stuff that happened. That’s quite bad isn’t it? It led into a big discussion about both the benefits and criticisms of the management and delivery of CoC, to which the Hullians gave their perspectives through discussion and within a carosel type arrangement. That morning, Franco Bianchini, Director of the Culture, Place and Policy Institute from the University of Hull, came to visit us and gave us a presentation on the statistical analysis of CoC. It was heavy and the facts and figures we’re fired like a machinegun but were REALLY fascinating; I found Franco himself very interesting and if I were in a better place mentally, I think I would have liked to have a natter about it all.
After lunch, the Hullians took the group to various people/places within the city as a bit of ‘field research’ about the impact of CoC to learn of some different perspectives (and in turn, how that relates to personal practice). The group were invited to choose between going to:
- a studio in town to see a local artist, with Ailsa – I forget exactly who and what it was exactly!
- a big community graffiti event down Preston Road, with Steve
- an activism event/performance at Bean and Nothingness, with Hannah
- to the Park Ave art studios to see local (community/) artist Sharon Darley, with myself
I had a good group come with me to see Sharon – we were there chatting to her for about an hour. Shaz is my studio neighbour and in the ~4 months we’ve been in there together, we’ve become pretty good mates and seem to be quite good at lifting each other up; Shaz is great and I have a lot of time for her. Before recently focusing on her own practice, she worked with the Goodwin Trust in developing community arts in Hull. She did a lot during CoC and is very involved with arts and culture in the City, so I asked if she would be happy to share her experiences to the UNIONites as she would have a very unique perspective on CoC and would be very insightful and honest about sharing her experiences. And wow, she didn’t fail to deliver! Sharon, if you’re reading this, you certainly made an impact.
She spoke about how CoC changed her life and gave us answers to questions that we went to ask, but it was the other more personal, meaningful stuff that I (and I’m sure the others) remember the most. Shaz was relatable and reassuring to literally everyone who came to see her, and made us all feel very positive and optimistic about ourselves as artists and change-makers.
After heading back to Artlink, we relayed what we had found out to the rest of the group. Some of the most heard phrases that afternoon included ‘Shaz is amazing’ and ‘We love Shaz’! It was great to hear what the others got up to though – the Preston Road graffiti event seemed to have made an impact on those who went too. I would have loved to have gone to Bean and Nothingness but I’m glad I went to the studios! It felt strange having others in my studio space though – there’s something quite vulnerable about it.
The following task involved mixing up the groups and coming up with some idea about how we would respond to a CoC event landing in our home town, using the information we’ve learnt and the criticisms raised of CoC from Vickie, the Hull UNIONites, Franco, the cities artists and our own practices as inspiration. Living in Hull and experiencing CoC, it was a bit tough to think what I’d do in response to a megaevent ‘after the fact’ (if you know what I mean), especially since I’m already responding with The Critical Fish.
It’s been almost a month since the residency, so I don’t remember all the presented ideas, but my groups idea involved inviting the city’s artists (as a critique of CoC was that local artists weren’t involved/consulted/supported or raised on this platform) to work collaboratively with the community (as much of CoC felt ‘done to’ instead of ‘done with/by’) on the back of already-scheduled buses (simple way to bring culture to diverse communities whilst promoting environmentally-friendly transport). The back of the bus could host performances, gallery spaces, drop-in workshops, poetry readings, conversations… whatever reflects the resident artists practice. Artists could sit in residence as part of an organised programme of bus residencies, or randomly, or both. They can choose to stay on one bus, or bus hop. In addition, bus fare would be included in the booking of tickets for organised cultural events (as transport costs are often a barrier for everyday folk to access arts). On the buses, there would also be a way of displaying a real/digital community notice board, which people could post offers of car shares or proposed shared taxis to cultural events to further reduce barriers. Art on buses. I reckon it’s a corker of an idea. I’ve got a thing about buses as a tool for community cohesion – I’m already trying to get a Recovery College bus!
We did a bit of reflection in our journals before ending for the day at 5pm. We went over to PAVE for a coffee before heading to a nearby Thai restaurant for dinner at 6pm. The meal was lovely. Some went out partying/drinking/socialising after the meal, but I weren’t feeling right in the head so I felt it would be best for me to head home and have a chilled night. Which I did!
- I am genuinely ashamed of the racist alt-right attitudes apparent in Hull. Obvs, not every Hull resident is like that, but it reared it’s ugly head and it made me angry and sick.
- We love Shaz. And everything she said.
- The concept of artists being a target for violence in society had never occurred to me. I know it goes on all over the world, but surely not in the UK? Naive, possibly, but it did shock me a bit.
- Authenticity is king.
SUNDAY 7 APRIL 2019
Sunday felt like a bit of a blur? The focus of the day was reflecting on who we are as artist-activists (Artivists) and what we need to get to where we want to be. Back at Artlink in the morning, and we spent some time going over and refining the UNION agreements. During that day, we also did an exercise exploring where we sit on the poles of:
Past ——————- Future
Individual ————- Collective
Inner —————— Outer
Compliant ————– Rebellious
I found this exercise quite difficult as different parts of my practice can sit on opposing poles. For example, the work I make for ME (physical art-making) is individual, inner, in the present, rebellious… where the stuff I like to do with people (e.g. Fish, Recovery College, workshops etc) is generally future-orientated, collective and outward looking. Which is fine, of course, but it was difficult to plonk yourself along a line when your practice is so varied.
Now this is where I have written a whole in-depth bit of reflective text but have decided that it’s maybe more suitable for my journal instead of on here – the key points though were that I have become much more risk-averse in recent years (possibly also related to my mental well-being) and that that is something I’m already working on. I seemed to fixate on that point during group work (don’t forget, I was in a hypercritical-of-self negative state) which may have suggested a nature not actually reflective of myself. I’m superorganised but I’m not controlling or unbearably pedantic!
With these thoughts and ideas in mind, we did an activity of working out what we had to offer and what it was we needed:
3 things I have to offer:
- Ideas and advice on direction/connections/opportunities
- Perspective, experience and viewpoints relating to NHS, setting up a business, mental health
- Support regarding new ways of looking at things, such as situations, art crits, creative blocks etc
1 thing I need:
- Loosening up and exposure to new experiences
Still think I need that one thing. I do suffer from stress and when I’m in a low patch I can get much worse. And I tend to isolate myself. It’s just what depression does. I meditate and my interests (arting, ukulele, reading, writing, gaming etc) chill me out but they’re quite internal activities. I could still do with some more active, ‘external’ spontaneous loosening. I exist very much in my own head – which is a tendency of an overthinker. It’s an existing quest of mine to live in the moment but have things to look forward to. Which includes new experiences. Always. I’ve been fortunate to experience lots of pretty incredible things in my life – I’ll show you my Life List sometime. But the frequency has slowed down in the last 5 years or so (to be fair, a big part of that relates to finances) so that needs to change – but booking a random trip to India has already shook it up a bit!
After making plans to support one another with various things, we were asked to make an image – a selfportrait as an Artivist. In mine (featured image), there was something about knowledge and growth and developing myself into a tool for change.
Chris asked us about creating a term for ourselves that summed up ourselves as an Artivist – his was cool: Mystic Revolutionary. In my irrational mindset however, I found this difficult as I kept going straight for negative adjectives and verbs. I have been thinking on this since though, and the one I have sort of settled on is: Restless Conspirator. Restless because I can’t stay still, I have to always move forward, be proactive, improve the situation (and because I exist on a cocktail of anxiety and frustration!)… and Conspirator because I notice that I get people onside before plotting/collaborating with them to think up better ways of doing things, and then often lead by example in tactfully shaking the boat a bit. I’m not naturally a rule breaker but I am one for challenging the status quo. I think my process involves seeking to change hearts and minds with compassion, reason and lived experience before proving my point with direct, pacifist, creative and effective demonstrations of my argument. As opposed to the anarchic distruptor that most people probably picture when thinking of ‘activist’.
I could do with being a little more anarchic, to be fair . But the term ‘anarchy’ seems to no longer simply mean ‘leaderlessness’ but instead implies anger at any authority, which when stirred by the excitement of protest, can lead to unnecessarily violence But this anger runs the risk of pissing people off and harming your cause if not thought through and/or executed appropriately. How can you make change if you piss off everyone and get the backs up of the people you’re trying to win over? I’ve seen too many worthwhile causes and campaigns get backlash and lose support because of this, or through the invitation of negative spin. Also, in my experience, once walls are built and opinions formed, it is all the harder to bring back down as no-one likes to admit they’re wrong. I’m all for disruption (I goad people on Twitter occasionally – what a rebel) but I think in my day-to-day I hold a bit more of a Sun Tzo approach to activism.
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
“The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
“To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy.”
Sun Tzo. What a baws. It was a really interesting way to reflect on the self as an Artivist, although it raised more questions than answered them!
There were things in the Sunday outline that would have been really helpful to have had the time to explore, especially in the mind I was in. About self-care, identifying the next ‘threshold’ in our journeys and exploring the fear and doubt about moving forward. Perhaps that was explored in some ways through the sharing of skills and ideas and thinking about what we needed support with. Dunno!
The end of the day saw us planning the next weekend, which would be in July. Would appear to be in Manchester. After that Fri/Sat/Sun there, I will be travelling to London on the Sunday night to start my fortnight-long Royal Drawing School Summer Programme, which is being funded through my Emergence Bursary. I’m gonna be knackered!
- Calm down.
- Take risks.
- Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.
- I am a Restless Conspirator
Despite how I felt during and around the time of the weekend residency in Hull, I genuinely had a good time. I loved seeing everyone again, and folks felt much more comfortable in each others presence. The whole programme is brilliant and I love the company of my fellow artivists. Us lot are gonna change the world, you know.