On Tuesday October 7, 2014, I voluntarily admitted myself into the Madlove mental asylum, a three-hour workshop facilitated by the vacuum cleaner and Hannah Hull, presented as part of Fierce Festival. The workshop temporarily converted the Fierce Festival Hub in Birmingham into an open space for participants to collaboratively imagine the asylum of their insanest needs.
Participants were greeted with a generous supply of tea, coffee, biscuits and fruit platters, which was already the makings of an ideal asylum. We settled into groups around two tables while the vacuum cleaner and Hull introduced their plans for the day. I was slightly apprehensive about it all. Not because I was afraid I might be asked to share my experiences of mental illness, but because I didn’t want to be part of something that made a circus out of it. My fears soon dissipated when the vacuum cleaner spoke about receiving psychiatric care throughout his life and how hospitalisation had often made him feel worse rather than better. This had prompted him to create his own methods of detainment during a time when his health was suffering. From this, he is now designing a self-defined day centre for mental health care that others can also benefit from. His intention for the workshop was quite straight forward. He was asking participants what they wanted and needed an asylum to be. His intention was to challenge the model of healthcare as it stands today and to design something that would lead us back to the original meaning of the word asylum - a safe place. It was at this point that I knew I was in capable hands and surrendered my madness to his method.
We began the workshop with unconventional conversation-starters like “What does good mental health feel like?” and “What’s it like to care for someone?” In a matter of minutes, participants seemed comfortable enough to share a wide spectrum of opinions, needs and associations relating to their individual views of mental health. The workshop moved along at a swift yet sensitive pace, leaving enough room to unpack some of the complexities associated with mental health care whilst managing to dodge any sentimental monologues. It was delivered in a way that was witty and playful but didn’t shy away from getting ‘heavy’. Throughout the day, we were guided through a series of group and partnered discussions, abstract activities, illustrations and dialogues. For three hours we pooled together our private worlds to find a common ground from which to redefine mental health care, on our own terms.
Madlove didn’t simply ask us what colour we’d like to repaint the healthcare system. It allowed us to redefine the actual blueprint of what mental health care could be. It did so by opening up a dialogue around what good mental health care actually felt like. We were guided to unpack each of the senses associated with good mental health (smell, touch, taste, feel, sound), in order to get to the bones of what we each needed. Madlove honed our attention into conversations that were as detailed and descriptive as possible, and this attentive focus allowed us to move past the usual shorthand ascribed to mental health care (terms such as wellness, balance, intervention, treatment, medication) toward a language that was far more expansive, creative, difficult and relevant. Rather than finding ways to make mental illness fit into healthcare systems that already existed, we were encouraged to create more space around illness.
When asked to describe what types of people we wanted around us in our asylum, the responses ranged from: a monk, someone older, someone pragmatic, someone who intuitively knew when to step in and when to pull back, Chomsky, a general supply of cats and mums, someone wise up the top of a mountain to give you advice when you sought it, guest speakers with different knowledge bases, a life admin nurse to answer your emails and pay the bills, a toad at the bottom of a well to shout your shit at who wouldn’t get offended, a pianist, a magician, someone to read to you, someone to brush your hair and make you mixtapes, someone witty, someone who wouldn’t judge, and curiously, not a single mention of medical practitioners, psychiatrists or doctors. The diversity of how people interpreted their needs and the lack of similarities in what people wanted from their asylum was the most interesting aspect of the workshop.
What we ended up with was far from a cohesive plan. To me, however, it was irrelevant if this imagined asylum was possible or not. The very act of dedicating three hours of attention to redefining the terms of my own mental health was powerful enough in itself and something I rarely make time for, and certainly never in a group, or part of an art festival. Whilst the artists’ purpose was geared toward gathering a larger body of research for the design of a mental health care centre, the experience of the afternoon felt like a complete work in itself. There were times when I felt like my health issues were being churned into market research, but the experience that was given back to me in return was something that made the exchange an equal and satisfying trade. Adding my experiences to the blueprints for a new vision of mental health care could only be a good thing.
Madlove was a serious, honest, enjoyable and incredibly funny workshop. It left me feeling renewed, which is exactly what I seek from asylum.