Nick Jordan: Mental State Signs
1 June – 24 June, 2018
Review by Sara Jaspan
The title of Manchester-based artist Nick Jordan’s current solo exhibition, Mental State Signs, is borrowed from the name of a clinical tool used for assessing mental health disorders and diagnosing psychological conditions. But what does the test really measure? While broadly accepted within common parlance, the term ‘mental health disorder’ seems quite troubling when examined more closely. It suggests that there is either a ‘correct’ order of the mind or an ‘incorrect’ order; a dis-order that needs fixing. You’re either on the ‘right’ side of the line or the ‘wrong’.
Alongside his artistic practice, Nick Jordan has spent a number of years filming mental health training videos for the University of Manchester’s hospital teaching unit, encountering many cases of ‘disorder’ as a result. This latest body of work, presented at Paradise Works, on the border between Manchester and Salford, responds to one kind of psychosis in particular: a manifestation of schizophrenia known as ‘thought broadcasting’, whereby patients believe that their thoughts are being transmitted and heard by others.
Entering the gallery space, you are immediately gripped by a palpable atmosphere of paranoia – strikingly akin to the stifling climate of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And, as in the dystopian masterpiece; surveillance is a dominating theme.
Two large black-and-white photographs show austere-looking buildings which register as impenetrable watch towers – one with a steely grid of countless blacked-out windows, the other with a plethora of satellite dishes protruding from its roof. Hanging alongside and preserved in two glass display cases are a hoard of complex diagrams, charts, yellowing typewritten letters, peeling photographs, bulky old film reels, and a pile of officious-looking clinical index cards with scrawling handwritten annotations, that carry a faint yet definite hint of obsession and/or compulsion.
An electric buzz and the crackling sound of transmission signals fills the air, leaked from Thought Broadcasting; Jordan’s hybrid documentary which plays in a curtained-off room, featuring a soundtrack score by artist Lord Mongo. Described by Jordan as ‘part clinical-observation video, part psychological horror’, the short film portrays the strangely detached, silently watchful presence of several white-coat clad clinicians, juxtaposed with the fragmented, anxious inner world of a patient plagued by the inescapable army of satellite dishes and transmission towers that now populate the modern landscape (rarely noticed by most due to us growing so accustom to their presence.)
Yet it is the fine, perhaps somewhat arbitrary line between what is judged to be a ‘correctly-ordered’ and a clinically ‘mal-ordered’ (psychotic) view of reality that the exhibition riffs upon. In light of the Edward Snowden revelations of 2013 and growing public awareness of the way that governments and corporations intercept, harvest, monitor and analyse our thoughts, attitudes and behaviours through our online activity; is it not in fact ‘deluded’ to deny that a form of ‘thought broadcasting’ is actually endemic to modern society?
The very notion of anyone possessing a perfect, non-distorted handle on ‘reality’ is also brought into question through the subtle blurring of fact and fiction that occurs throughout the exhibition. The archival material is mostly genuine, salvaged by the artist from the former psychiatry video unit of an abandoned hospital in South Manchester. Yet it is interspersed with a number of ‘decoys’, such as the drawing of an electricity substation described as being by a schizophrenic patient, but which is really by the artist’s son, Fine Art student Isaac Jordan.
Likewise, the two secretive-looking buildings – one labelled the ‘Psychosis Research Unit Manchester (PRUM)’, the other the ‘Manchester Institute of Psychiatry (MIP)’ – are, in ‘reality’, simply an unidentified block on one of the city’s outer-ring roads, and the locally-nicknamed Toast Rack (previously a catering college, now due to be redeveloped into luxury flats). Elsewhere, a photograph showing a vast store of patient records has in fact – as so often occurs in today’s visually-saturated culture – been digitally manipulated for heightened effect. (Which begs the starkly Platonian question: Is our commonly-shared, strictly-defended understanding of reality nothing more than the version of the world that is presented to us?)
These playful fabrications are mostly the exception to the rule, however. What is most notable overall is the distinctly ‘crazed’ impression that the largely legitimate, seemingly unintelligible collection of archival material gives. Why are we so obsessed with observing, monitoring, documenting and classifying the behaviours of others? Can ‘reality’ really be tamed into the schematic flow charts and technical terms we attempt to map onto it? Who should be the one to judge the ‘reality’ of another or its validity, and what does that judgement (in clinical terms referred to as a patient’s ‘mental test score’) mean? If psychosis is characterized by an impaired relationship with reality, are we not all psychotics together? I.e. ‘normal’.