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Form & Pressure


Form & Pressure


Hamlet describes the purpose of theatre as being to reflect the form and pressure of the age. This project examines the form and pressure found within a university’s fine art photography department. Through transcripts of real conversations and photographs of their institutional context, Form & Pressure seeks to disentangle the complex network of power relations that exist uniquely in this place and at this time.


“Value is constructed by an elite group of institutional figures.” – Consultant


Consultant:

The advent of photographic theory changed not only how we understand photography, but it changed the ways in which photography is practised, valued by the public, valued by institutions, valued by education. How value is constructed by this kind of an elite… erm… er… group of kind of academics and curators and… institutional figures, because, I mean… that’s true.

Author:

[Well] that’s what I’ve been confronted with recently, and it was all really from one comment made by a tutor in my first group tutorial… and [a student] presented a piece of work and [the tutor] said: “Oh, well another student [did] a similar thing, but what they did was they didn’t photograph the objects themselves, they photographed where the object had been, and that’s quite a contemporary way of doing it.” And I said, “Well, what on Earth do you mean?”

Consultant: [Laughs] Author: [Laughs] Consultant:

[I think] I know who that tutor was, but I won’t mention it.

Author: [Laughs] Consultant: Oohh… Yeah. [But,] don’t, um… er… don’t judge the whole thing on the comments of one person… Author:

No, no, no, I don’t, and I’m trying not to, but it just seems like every time I have a conversation, I can’t – we’re not even speaking the same language.

Consultant:

Yeah.

Author:

Um… and I ha… I’ve been through three tutors [and with each one I’ve] had the same…


[Laughs] … discussion. And, it just feels like, it doesn’t matter what I say… I can’t understand what they’re saying and they can’t understand what I’m saying, and you’re just talking at crosspurposes the whole time, so I have to um… Consultant:

Mm… no, I, I, I can… I think there are difficulties, um… in the shift from… your first two years… and the sudden immersion in a different kind of teaching culture, where the values have changed. In a very sort of… simplistic way, you’ve come from one set of values to, to, to a set which almost completely contradicts them, and, and that for me is the big difficulty. I think [that as an] institution we are doing… a lot to try and cope with that… and deal with it. Um… but I don’t think that those problems will easily go away.

Author:

Well, I think I’ve got to the point now where I know I’ve just got to let the marks fall where they may, um… but, my, my problem is, in the group tutorial situation, I’m seeing other people forced to think things they shouldn’t have to think, or, or… [some of them] haven’t done any work because they’ve been discouraged from doing work in the way that they want to. – Tutorial –


“Persist, push through and struggle to make something – if that persistence and stamina comes out, it shows in the pictures themselves.” – Clinician


Student EJ:

Before I came into this degree I always photographed things which I find aesthetically pleasing. Erm… but I, I really struggle now with photographing something that isn’t that literal.

Clinician:

It doesn’t have to be a pretty picture, you know…

Student EJ:

Yeah, but [if] I want to document something like… the boredom, or the, the – how uninspired I am – then I really struggle with that, because it’s not a physical thing.

Clinician:

It just, it’s hard…

Student EJ:

And a lot of, lot of things that I could take photographs of, [the Warden] would say, which [they’re] probably right, [are a] bit of a cliché and very literal.

Clinician:

Some of the best projects about memory are those ones that solve the problem in several different ways. One of them might literally be, er, the object itself… [or] literally the people themselves… um, sculptural is another method; sound, you know, projection, er…

Student EJ:

See, I was looking at projection and [the Warden] kind of put me off the idea of doing it.

Author:

Do it anyway!

Student EJ:

I’ve looked into memory or relationships, but everything has been done before and I don’t want to be picking up bits and pieces. At the moment I’m not inspired by anything. I live in a student house…

Clinician:

Describe boredom, describe… the misery…

Author:

Don’t make yourself depressed, though, whatever you do! [Laughs]

Clinician:

What will happen is, there’ll be those moments when you’re all sat round, having a curry and a pint, or whatever, and you’re photographing the scene and [then a moment comes and] you


think ‘Wow, actually, that’s, that’s a picture, you know, I’ve got something, I’ve captured something genuine’. If someone asked me to do it, and I had to photograph my [partner] and – you know, at home – making the tea, or sat watching the telly, and doing a bit of DIY. Who wants to look at those pictures, you know? But, as a photographer it’s, it’s a way of wrestling out these… Student FM:

It’s problem solving, isn’t it?

Clinician:

It is problem solving, yeah – and, actually, the thing that makes interesting artwork is those people who don’t try to make pictures that are always about being greatly inspired and fizzing and, you know… those people who can persist and, you know… push through and struggle to make something. If that persistence and stamina comes out, you know, it shows in the pictures themselves. Um… it is really difficult, I sort of feel for you… Just keep it simple. Um… go out and photograph the chip shop or… the supermarket…

Student EJ:

Yeah. That’s another thing which obviously came up in the, in… comes up in my dissertation is the fact that we leave out all of those things…

Clinician:

Well that’s it, yeah, the family album contains birthdays, and contains smiles – the family celebrations – but what about those arguments that your parents have that make you feel really terrible when you’re young – is that a precious memory? It is, sort of is, you know… We find it difficult to be honest about what life is. We make life very saccharine, a lot of the time, through photography. It’s a very sort of Americanised way of… and, you know, everything’s a dream, isn’t it? – Group Tutorial –


“I was rolling on the floor… in agony.” – Client PO


Client AT:

Um… how much of your work is defined by mental health?

Client PO:

All of it, I suppose. [Laughs]

Client IM:

You see, I’d say none of it, personally, because when I’m in a bad place, I can’t function, I can’t wash up… [Laughs] … so how the hell am I going to get creative?

Client PO:

Yeah… because after, after this event there, I had a bad, really bad night, and I wanted to do some more poetry.

Therapist:

Mm, mm…

Client PO:

Could I do that? I was rolling on the floor…

Client IM:

Mm…

Client PO:

… in agony.

Client IM:

And I just find I’m quite envious of people who can sort of paint it out, because I [mean] like a lot of [Client MF’s work was] done when [they were] in a bad place and I just think – obviously I’m not envious because you’re in a bad place – but, you know, it was the fact that you could actually do something.

Client PO:

If it’s health, if it… if you’ve arrived at a state of wellness through your creativity – even if it’s only fleetingly – it’s a way forward, it’s a way, it’s a, it’s a – it’s a building block…

Therapist:

It’s a way forward…

Client IM:

Mm.

Client ZR:

Well I think for me it, it varies, because my artwork comes from a part of me that, that hasn’t been damaged by mental illness.

Client OJ:

Yes, I would say the same.

Client ZR:

You feel the same, [Client OJ]?

Client OJ:

Yes.


Client PO:

Yeah, that’s interesting.

Author:

Yes, I think on that one, there’s quite a lot of, erm… People are under quite a lot of pressure, I think, to…

Client PO:

Mm.

Author:

… to define it, or not be defined by it…

Client IM:

Mm.

Author:

Erm, I mean, you know, people who have a condition are under pressure – they feel under pressure maybe in the early stages to talk about it a lot – it’s like something that’s lingering – or it, you know, or… another kind of experience of life, if you’ve had something traumatic happen to you… and you, you know, you should be free to talk about it, or not talk about it…

Client IM:

Mm.

Client PO:

Mm.

Author:

… and that that person can’t make sense of it, they can’t make sense of whether they need to talk about it…

Client IM:

Mm.

Author:

… or whether they’d rather forget about it or…

Therapist:

So you…

Author:

… and then they’re under pressure to…

Therapist:

You should be free to talk about it or not talk about it…

Client IM:

Yeah.

Therapist:

This, can somebody get – capture – that. It’s that kind of thing, that [the Author] was saying, because [they’re] still talking, we should be free to talk about it and not talk about it. – Art Therapy Group –


“There is only one monolithic structure to which everything appends.” – Author


Author:

I’ve just had a series of events in my life that have made me feel well. Right, even though, actually, my condition is one that’s periodic, I felt unwell [all of the time] because I’d been medicalised. So now I’m beginning to move beyond this in my own thinking about myself. And, therefore, what is this? Why is this conversation mad and why is this not?

Warden:

So… yeah, so initially this question about how we’re controlled and kind of medicalised and labelled…

Author:

I mean, mine is from a kind of post-medicalised point of view. You have to find out what the problem is before you can deal with it. This guy who talked about his son who [tried] to commit suicide, said to him “If you take control of this then you’ve got it and it hasn’t got you.”

Warden:

Areas of control are everywhere in our society, and it’s great that you’ve focused it down on the medical profession, but you could open that out to different types of control…

Author:

Well I am already because this tutorial, to me, is… there is a controlling element to it.

Warden:

You’re not recording this, are you?

Author:

Yes.

Warden: [Laughs] I’m just thinking: ‘Hope I didn’t swear!’ Author:

You didn’t.

Warden:

Oh, OK…

Author:

When someone’s telling you that your way of thinking about things is wrong…

Warden:

No, I don’t think… Do you think that’s happened here?

Author:

Yes. I still feel like, even between us, we’re talking a different language. Although we’re both notionally [talking about]


photography, we’re talking about it in different terms. Warden:

Um… Well, I think everyone does, and I think I agree with you, institutions each have their own flavour, for sure, um… I’m saying a lot of ‘ums’ now, and I’m going to be reading it! [Laughs] But, as you said… you don’t have to do what anyone else says…

Author:

I’m at that point now where I feel confident to do that, but when people are younger, where they are constantly being told ‘Really good piece of work: fifty-nine per cent.’ [Laughs] And that will always influence people. [That] level of awareness, or self confidence, [when] that person feels that they can resist it or ignore the process and go for the ends…

Warden:

I want to make sure that students – not you, because you know what you’re doing – but there are some students that actually want that structure and direction, and there’s a very limited amount of time to give that to them.

Author:

I mean, what I just think in this context – in group tutorials – I detect a heavy level of subjectivity to what is being suggested about how people should do it, and each tutor has their own view. And I think that, whilst that is to some extent inevitable, I don’t think that should be celebrated.

Warden:

It’s all about weighing up different people’s points of view, and that’s what you’ll always have to do in the world…

Author:

But, you know, I have [visited] other [institutions] in which, actually, it’s recognised everyone has a different point of view, and that if they say something, they don’t simply say ‘Well, I think you should think about it like this.’ Here, I feel like there is only one monolithic structure to which everything appends. – Group Tutorial –


“You must be relentless: going on and on and on – pushing, pushing, pushing.” – Practitioner


Registrar:

Making work as a photographer involves, erm, a kind of selfishness. You have to kind of [be] blinkered, if you like. You’re not in a university situation where you’ve got lots of support structure around you – you’re out there on your own and… it can be a very difficult and competitive environment.

Practitioner:

One [must be] relentless… going on and on and on and on – pushing, pushing, pushing. The other thing is – another way I would put it is you need to be ‘ruthless’. I’ll give you a little chippy anecdote, which is… almost the most extreme example I’ve ever come across. An [artist I know] went out for a meal one evening with [their partner] and said: “I’m going to ask you a question in a minute, but before I ask you the question – no children. Now, would you like to marry me?”

Registrar: Mm… Practitioner:

And [the partner] did and no kids and [he/she’s]… not at all well known, but a brilliant [artist].

Audience:

[Outburst of laughter] […]

Practitioner:

Why, why is what I’m doing significant? If you can’t articulate that for yourself and then to others, the chances are… I remember, many years ago, or a few years ago, saying to [the Registrar], “Have you ever thought of publishing this person’s work?” and [they] basically said “No – yep, thought about it – makes no contribution.”

Audience: [Laughter] Registrar:

Did I? Harsh.

Practitioner:

It was – it was quite blunt – and so… what’s it adding to, to, to the world and knowledge and kind of photography?


Registrar:

[Successful photographers are] quite hard on themselves. It’s no good, erm, having a kind of slightly dewy eyed, er, vision of what you’re doing, in relation to other people. You need to… continually be able to… measure what you’re doing, in terms of the culture out there.

Practitioner:

In the movie industry they call it ‘the pitch’. A few minutes of pitch, here are the pictures – five, ten minutes down the line you’ll be staring at a set of glazed eyes… […]

Registrar:

I think what we’re stressing is it just takes a lot of energy, you know, you’ve got to be prepared to put a lot of energy into it to get the results. Your enthusiasm and love of what you’re doing… [is] what you need, to be able to sustain all this. It’s good to really be honest with yourself right at the beginning, erm… whether you really are absolutely and utterly convinced it’s what you want to do. That belief in yourselves and what you’re doing will drive you forward. Publishing is entirely and utterly about collaboration. To adopt an entirely uncompromising attitude is not always the best way to conduct those relationships.

Practitioner:

[But it is] a negotiation, I’m not going to just sort of ‘Right, OK, we’ll take those out,’ but unless you’re prepared to sit down, discuss, argue, negotiate and so on, um, you’re probably not going to move forward in terms of the personality – in other words, a publisher or an editor’s – largely the publisher’s – got to feel that there’s going to be an interesting dialogue…

Registrar:

But, if you, as [the Practitioner] says, if you embrace this attitude that it’s a collaborative process and that compromise is not always negative, erm, then I think it’s entirely – it can be an entirely – enjoyable process. – Lecture –


“Increasingly lonely, separate and disintegrated.” – Clinician


Author:

[The art therapy group] prefer an ‘experience of life’ rather than actually ‘experience of mental [illness]’. It reflects the fact that anyone at any time could develop a mental health problem. We’re all weak to that, on some level… You know, people asked me when I was on this course, um, ‘Why are you here!?’…

Clinician: Mm… Author:

… because I was disagreeing with some of the stuff that was going on…

Clinician:

Right, yeah.

Author:

… and people asked me, in a slightly less intense way, um… ‘Do you like living in [this city]? You must like living in [this city], you live here.’ There are things about it which I like, but [it’s] a divided city in some ways. I feel that there’s a possible broader theme here than simply the tutorials – also it’s to talk to people who have had an experience of mental health difficulty – of, of institutionalisation, maybe. I know there’s one person [in the therapy group] who has been – I was never hospitalised.

Clinician: No… Author:

Erm… and that sense of not… of being in a place, but not being welcome, or not feeling welcome, or not feeling at ease… [A few weeks ago I started attending Quaker worship. Quaker meetings take place in silence, interrupted only when friends feel moved to speak. But the ringing of the bells at the nearby Abbey now coincide with the first fifteen minutes of worship.] The Friends’ Meeting House [was] experiencing this incoming noise, um… and they’re a peaceful group of people and they’re very reluctant to make a fuss about it. But is it that much of a burden to the church to simply ask ‘Could you not do it at that time?’ And, then, there’s a chance for a dialogue. There’s this sense of community that completely doesn’t exist over a


distance of about two-hundred metres. Clinician:

The opposite of that is actually more prevalent – that people demand and push and object and are angry. They’re absolutely dying to tell everybody what to do, or be completely unrelated to anybody else, and [it’s] a sort of early twenty-first century predicament that society finds itself in. In one sense [it is] extremely open and extremely communicative, but [people are] actually [becoming] increasingly isolated, lonely, separate and disintegrated. Those opportunities for generous conversation are being lost in a society that’s interested in speed.

Author:

I stayed for the [Quaker] business meeting… and, nearly everyone that stood up, said “I don’t think we should do anything about it, doesn’t bother me.”

Clinician: [Laughs] I love the sound of that… Author:

But the kind of person that’s going to be bothered by the bells is also the kind of person who isn’t going to stand up and say anything about it. And my friend who, who I joined in going to this group, [they] have the same mental health condition as me, but… more intense, and [they have] panic attacks. We went to the cinema to see Batman. If I’d known [them] better I would have known that wasn’t a good idea, but [they] left within about a minute of the beginning of the film, panicked…

Clinician:

It was just overwhelming, overwhelming, yeah…

Author:

… and um… [they get] it in these Quaker meetings when the bells stop. So you have this intense noise, and then suddenly silence, and this really disrupts [them]… But [they] would never, in a million years, stand up – let alone stay for the [committee] meeting. It’s just another example where there’s a silent proportion of people… who don’t or are unable to speak and, um… and perhaps a reticence of people who could speak to speak. – Tutorial –


“Creativity is a really exciting thing, and I see it in students – I see brilliant things happening.” – Clinician


Author:

… and when I did the thing that I was going to do anyway, I realised I should have just done that initially, and ignored the feedback.

Student FM: But, it’s going from a different background, like. I go through a definite struggle about what I produce. I had a tutorial and then – the same thing with a lot of ‘ologies’, phenomenology – and I was like ‘Oh my word… what am I doing!?’ It felt counter-productive, um… initially. But, it’s about forming relationships, because – like you said – it’s quite hard to say ‘You’re talking rubbish’ to someone who you possibly haven’t got that, um… You know, you’ve got to sort of follow your instincts, but still be open to some kind of guidance, because… Clinician:

Yes, well, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?

Student FM:

I said to [name omitted] in a tutorial last year “How did you know that it was right?” [They were] like, “Well, you’ll know when you’re doing the right thing because… sort of… you’ll just know.”

Clinician:

The materials, somehow, just start piecing together the way you want them to.

Student FM: You know, it might not work this year, it might not work next year, but, you know, it’s all sort of a journey down the line, maybe you’ll… Author:

I guess I just feel that life in general is a little too linear and there’s not enough – there are choices, but they’re not real choices – because ultimately you need to do what you need to do and sometimes you come up against something that, actually, you don’t want to do, but you have to do.

Student DU: Well you don’t have to do anything – it’s still a choice. Author:

That’s true, but, erm… I think that… you know, as this is a capitalist system – which is better than feudalism, but not much better – we have to do certain things in order to make money,


and therefore survive. Clinician:

Well, one of the great things about university is that – you know, in terms of the ‘pocket’ that we’re in – those things are free, actually: non-linear, random, creative, spontaneous, multifaceted.

Author:

Hm… not sure I agree with that. [Laughs]

Clinician:

I respect your, you know, your opinion, but that’s, frankly, nonsense.

Students:

[Outburst of laughter]

Author:

Well, what we’re, what we’re coming up against here is that, actually, we’ve got a different world view, and so…

Clinician:

I’m not talking about a world view, I’m talking about photography in a university and what it represents, and it isn’t linear, it’s creative, it’s multifaceted, it’s brilliantly spontaneous – everybody’s work is different and it’s free to be different. It’s absolutely close to an anarchy, actually…

Author:

Well I would say it’s very far from anarchy, I would say it’s much more close to… In fact, I can’t be bothered. [Laughs] But, but… that’s fair enough. But, er, I take a different view.

Clinician:

Sure, we’ll agree to disagree. My job is absolutely to encourage…

Student DU: Creativity! Clinician:

Creativity… which is a really multifaceted and exciting thing, so… um… and I see it, you know I see it in students – I see brilliant things happening, you know…

Author:

And in so far as that works I commend you for doing it. – Group Tutorial –


“What a worthless specimen.” – Client UN


Client UN:

Well, unfortunately, unfortunately, unlike therapy, counselling, or my, even my GP, [they have] no duty of care to me and… there’s no trying to put everything in a positive, so after one hour of, of telling [them] why my life was com… a complete wreck, and how, and focussing on how crap I was… I came out, for the first time in my life I had the most horrific terror – night terror – so I woke up, in the middle of the night as if I had been held under and had finally come up for air. For, for about five minutes I’ve never been so terrified – of what, I don’t know. The only answer was to die. It was triggered by, you know, trawling through my… my deepest, darkest unconscious and finding the evidence to prove how rubbish my life was… [In] all my therapy if it’s too painful, you can leave!

Author:

Yeah, yeah.

Client UN:

You have the power to say ‘I don’t want to talk about that,’ or… or I think I need to leave now, and they are giving you tools to deal with the feelings attached, but in this, this capability interview, it’s just fact finding… I had black and white evidence that, you know, I was a write-off, basically – from the interview and the way the questions are selected, to get to the root of ‘why can’t you work?’

Author:

It’s an interesting dynamic of the inspection process… that a person coming in… having previously had treatment through a psychiatrist or a therapist of some description… It feels [to them] probably that they need to upturn their whole being in order to get those facts out, and so they are put into a… seemingly therapeutic situation which is the very reverse of that. That it appears to be an opportunity for you to, to feel a bit better about yourself… [Laughs] … but actually it’s a dredging process.


Client UN:

Yes, exactly, but’s it’s, it’s so sterile. We go from, we go from the showering to the not dressing – which is all stuff you don’t really want to share with a complete stranger… You start to realise exactly what a worthless specimen you are. But [they’re] just making assessments like if you shower every day or three times a week, because it’s all number based. If I then had to go to the job-focussed interviews and the jobfocussed groups…

Author:

Yeah.

Client UN:

… and being pushed, continually: have you applied [for] this job, that job, the other…

Author:

Yeah.

Client UN:

I know that I would be straight back to [aggression], violence, snapping, and the depression and all the rest of it. My sponsor, who knows me intimately, just looked at me and said “`Who’s going to employ you with your attitude?” [They weren’t] trying to be hurtful…

Author: [Laughs] Client UN:

You know…

Author:

[They were] a bit, but yeah.

Client UN:

Well, [they were]… [they’ve] got a lot of insight – [they’ve] seen me losing it, inappropriately… with different people and stuff – and, unless I can control myself, or I’m very, very, very well I’m not going to keep a job for very long at all. You know, I could be in it and out of it, but… the process of going back to work would, I would struggle with it. You know, just getting up at the right, correct, time every day is a nightmare. – Art Therapy Group –


“Reclaim who you are, because those things bother you in your psyche.” – Warden


Student AE:

Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing, my Dad doesn’t really talk about Mum. Like, my Mum, my Mum will talk about things, but then she’ll end up screaming at you. My Dad can’t… doesn’t really like to say.

Warden:

Have you seen that film ‘Secrets and Lies’? Really good film, watch it.

Author:

Now you’ve got to be careful with this stuff, because actually… If you can be dispassionate about I would say, you know – I’d say talk to a counsellor about it, but I know how bloody awful a lot of counsellors are…

Student AE:

I don’t like counsellors…

Author:

… and it might make things worse.

Student AE:

Yeah! [Laughs]

Warden:

Well, but I do – I think it’s good advice, though, actually, just, just to support you.

Author:

No, I don’t mean to support [them] – I mean if you wanted to understand what you have in your own mind or think about it clear… clearly…

Warden:

There’s lots of issues here, but I mean if you just see this as the thing about, you know, reclaiming who you are and make it clearer in your head, because I do think that… those things bother you… in your psyche…

Author:

I hope you bear in mind, though, my real precaution is that, actually, your feeling OK about things, is more important than producing the piece of work… [Laughs]

Student AE:

Yeah, I don’t want to, I don’t want to…

Author:

So, if you – by going into the work – you’re actually going to


make yourself unhappy… Warden:

[But], also, not addressing things is also where, you know, blockages are. I think it would be good for you to, you know, see the counselling service here. I mean, you don’t just have to go there in a mess. I’m sure you could just go and just talk this through and say ‘Look, I just, I just want to just check this, you know, and I’ve got some support if I need it.’ It’s like the thing about doing, um, you know, performative work is that you’re getting put in amongst all of it…

Author:

I wasn’t really thinking of it in terms of support, I was thinking about it in terms of you not having to have a conversation with your Mum…

Warden:

Oh, yeah.

Author:

… and they might be able to help you sort of write out… what your, what your memories are.

Student AE:

Yeah. I once went for bereavement counselling. I found it difficult to talk. It was stupid of me, to begin with, to go into counselling to presume that the things that I felt were any different to anything that other people have ever felt – there’s probably hundreds of people who’ve felt exactly the same way as me.

Author:

Mm.

Student AE:

And, erm, I didn’t realise this at the time and I told – I spoke to a counsellor – and I chatted for ages to [them] about it and [they] handed me an A4 bit of paper with a diagram on – it was like a little flow chart thing – and it showed me everything that I had felt about everything for the last, like, six months – I was, like, ‘Oh, well, I’m no different [from anyone else]’. – Group Tutorial –


“Maybe I don’t need to deal with it.” – Client IM


Therapist:

Because there was als… also pressure I felt from some audience members – maybe, like me – who felt that they had to define something for themselves. You know, so then this pressure starts being outside as well – not because of you, but because of them.

Client ZR:

A lot of people said they didn’t really know what they were coming to, but they still turned up – they came holding the flyer, or whatever…

Therapist:

Mm, mm.

Client ZR:

… and they said “Well, we don’t really understand what we’re coming to,” – but they were angry about that…

Therapist: [Laughs] Client MF:

One woman said “Is this the mental group?”

Client IM:

[Laughs]

Therapist: [Laughs] Client IM:

See, I found that very difficult last week.

Therapist:

Write it down.

Client MF:

It cracked me up. [Laughs]

Client ZR:

Yeah.

Therapist: [Laughs] Client ZR:

Well, one, one, one [person] said, [they] said, “Oh…” [they] said it – because people just assumed I was not mentally ill…

Client MF:

Mm.

Client ZR:

… [they] said, [they] said “Oh…” [they] said “it’s really amazing what these sorts of people can come up with…”

Clients: [Laughter] Client PO:

Oh dear.


Client IM:

I mean, I was very emotional on Sunday, and I did ball into the washing up on Sunday night, I will confess to that… Everyone who had something to say about us said something about mental health and mental care, and I felt really that it stirred up a lot of stuff that, maybe I’ve not dealt with it, but maybe I don’t need to deal with it.

Client MF:

It’s because people like to put labels on things…

Client IM:

Yeah.

Client PO:

Yes.

Client MF:

… and put people in a box or put things in a box, to help them understand stuff. It’s a very narrow-minded way of doing things, but people are like that.

Client ZR:

And there’s also the other way round, because there was a comment in the comments book about – which was very from the heart – about how well fellow sufferers had done…

Client IM:

Mm.

Client ZR:

So it, it, it works both ways round, too.

Therapist:

I think some of the perplexed feelings and slight anger is part of an ar… artistic conceit, which I own up to, about [the] idea [of this group] that we belong to, and I think, I think it was intriguing enough for some people to turn up not knowing whether they’re going to be badly let down or not because they didn’t know what they were coming to…

Client IM:

Mm.

Therapist:

… but that’s, that’s art, you know…

Client IM:

Mm!

Therapist:

… I’m sorry. – Art Therapy Group –


“You have to make something of a system you essentially know is flawed.” – Consultant


Consultant:

If we first look at the picture, we would first see it’s just a photograph of a horse and cart: is it a good or bad one? [But], even if we look at a photograph of a horse and cart, um… that’s not the meaning of the photograph. The meaning is embedded in who took it, when, why, where was it going to be published, what was the institutional framework within which it was taken – that’s its real meaning, that we don’t see when we first look at it. The semiotician is interested in this meaning which lays underneath that. The meaning that you don’t see in the picture… [Laughs] It’s what they call ‘critical studies in photography’… that photographs, um… do not tell the truth … and one has to kind of point that out, in a fairly specific way, in your practice. It’s like a kind of catharsis or something where you have to confront these things and then you come out the other side and you’ve absorbed them and you can kind of practise, er… the medium, as an aware person, of its shortcomings, you know, and all this. Um… [Laughs] […]

Consultant:

How does, how does one say what is good, and what is bad? Or how does one say that this is better than that in photography, now?

Author:

Yep.

Consultant:

As opposed to in the 1950s, when it was much, much easier because it was actually, well: is that in focus? Are there, is it good printing? Have they framed the subject well? You know… is it showing an artistic eye? But within this so-called contemporary time frame, er… critical studies time frame, um… it is no longer possible to assess value


in that way. Now, OK, why? Why isn’t it? What’s produced this questioning attitude to photography, and why is it so prevalent, and why do we need it? That’s a, that’s a really good question! Because we’re all, and you’ll find that the photographic community’s still terribly conflicted about all this. So the comments you have received might not necessarily be the consensus, is what I’m saying… Author: Yeah… Consultant:

That, actually, you know… I look at a lot of 1950s photography and it’s some of, you know, the best photography ever! [Laughs] Do you know what I mean?

Author:

Yeah.

Consultant:

I’m not wholesale, um… I recognise the importance of the discourse… but I’m not, I’m not…

Author:

Hidebound by it…

Consultant:

Hidebound is a good word – by it – yep. So it’s… I’m, I’m able to think independently of it, and I think a lot of people here are, but I think, you know, to see how that has shaped education, and to see how photography education is in thrall to ideas and theories that were written thirty years ago is, is a really interesting point. You can see the contradictions in something, and you can see the weaknesses of certain arguments, but you have to kind of exist and make something of a system that you essentially know is flawed. There isn’t, I don’t think, a history which puts all this together – it’s not been written yet, certainly on an institutional level it’s not been written. There’s nothing written on photography education, I don’t think. – Tutorial –


“Go free and live on an island somewhere.” – Clinician


Clinician:

In, in, in what context? Where are they being recorded?

Author:

In public, erm…

Clinician:

OK.

Author:

… and in… the university. […]

Clinician:

When you play this back, it won’t sound like our conversation, it will sound like a recording, because we have to have that body language, we have to have all of the other elements that are within it: the environment… The photographs and the text in this book are fragmented and limited, its limitations are what makes it interesting. You know, when somebody says “Don’t worry, I’m pulling your leg, it’s brainwashing, really” and the next person says “Oh, I see, very good, well…”

Author: [Laughs] Clinician:

You think… what the… what is being said? And the… “freedom”, they’re talking about freedom? “Go free and live on an island somewhere.” […]

Clinician:

The photographs are sterile in a way, whereas the texts, they’re human and rich, and… fascinating…

Author:

In a way that’s quite contradictory… In the sense that, you know, it is an institutionalised way of describing things, and laying things out, um… but there is that kind of, yeah, there is that… democratic element, um… because people speak for themselves.

Clinician:

Is this, is this… Some of this is the conversation we had!

Author:

Yes.

Clinician:

Fabulous. I thought about that conversation a lot over the last year.


Author:

Really?

Clinician:

Yeah, I thought I was quite… robust with you, and um… I liked, you know, the challenge, but I think I was a bit short, in a way. And, just reading it back… the… I don’t know whether it’s all me, because…

Author:

You’re the ‘clinician’.

Clinician:

Oh, right, OK. Is that me… is this accurate?

Author:

Yeah.

Clinician:

God, amazing. [Looks at book, laughs] What’s interesting is I don’t recognise my own… my voice at all in it, I don’t recognise that I would say those words. So what’s interesting is that the written text, which is apparently rigorous and accurate, is also subject to your influence…

Author:

Yeah, of course, yeah.

Clinician:

… and manipulation through editing… God, you know, mate, I’m quite amazed by that. I like, I say something… you’ve put “nonsense”, I remember saying ‘bollocks’. [Laughs]

Author:

Do you? No, it was “nonsense”. I didn’t really relish listening back to it. I kind of thought ‘What have I said?’ But, erm…

Clinician:

But at the same time it’s… you get… you rarely get the chance to have er… intelligent disagreements, you know.

Author:

But actually I found that… that I was more… I was… I sounded calmer than it, than I felt. – Tutorial –


“A clinician might exert certain pressures. If there is no struggle, is the work interesting?” – Clinician


Clinician:

We participate in a system that, er… functions around assessment, and measurement and, erm… that’s what people buy into when they take on the course, but [it’s] so alien to any kind of traditional ideas around creative life… Everybody’s aspirations are that, er, the tutorial structure isn’t about pinning people down to an assessed measurement point, but opening up possibilities for people to find their way through to something that can be very well measured. If you crush somebody’s possibilities by embarrassment then the tutorial is completely dysfunctional. The pressure that you choose to exert, in the same way that a clinician might exert certain pressures is a psychological judgement. Underneath the surface of a tutorial, you’re constantly trying to judge: how much can I question and push, how much can I encourage by pressure, or how much actually do I need to let go and allow the thing to just take place? […]

Clinician:

So, so do you think that the things that people never say – the invisible threads that underlie conversations – is that the thing you’re hoping to begin to illuminate through the texts and the photographs?

Author:

It’s not something that at the moment I’ve written into the fabric of the…

Clinician:

No, no, no. I think it, I think it emerges, though. […]

Clinician:

They are always dynamic things, tutorials. You don’t always get that completely right. I thought that was a pretty provocative tutorial, that day.

Author: [Laughs] Clinician:

I did enjoy it, but I think… I didn’t quite do my best job.

Author:

OK.


Clinician:

But it’s interesting, still, and it’s still lingering… [Laughs] I’m glad it’s not completely pushed you away from me.

Author: From here? Clinician:

Yeah, and from, and from me, yeah.

Author:

Oh, right, yeah.

Clinician:

Um… because the work’s really interesting, and valuable, and… important. […]

Author:

You said in that tutorial… that… struggling to make something often produces the best kind of work, but… I don’t want to struggle, and… I think struggle is…

Clinician:

It’s, it’s…

Author:

… inevitable, but…

Clinician:

Inevitable.

Author:

… but… it’s not something that should be seen as a good thing in itself. [Laughs]

Clinician:

No… no, no, no. The flip side of it is: if there’s no struggle, is the work interesting? – Tutorial –


“Where does it end?” – Graduate GE


Graduate QH: I’m not sure about that struggle thing. It sort of harks back to the romantic notion that you should suffer for your art. Why should you suffer for your art? Graduate GE: [It] will to some extent make for more of a potent piece. I mean if you just lived in, like, magical la-la land and when you look at the work you just go ‘Yeah that’s nice, yeah, it’s like paper doilies and ponies galloping.’ Author: [Laughs] Graduate GE: But it’s watercolour… Graduate QH: Paper doilies and ponies!? Graduate GE: And watercolour, too. You’re like, ‘Eyeurk, that’s, that’s nice.’ [Laughs] Author:

It’s kind of linked to the idea of art and madness and how those things mesh together and to me it is not a compensation for having a disorder. I would rather be the dullest person on Earth and not have the disorder…

Graduate GE : Well it shouldn’t basically be part of, like, an equation to make a great piece of artwork. It shouldn’t be ‘there has to be pain.’ Author:

Let’s not make the stuff, let’s not struggle – that seems to me a better outcome… [Laughs] And it, I mean not, because it is a sort of inevitable part of life, but let’s not celebrate struggle. […]

Author:

The first week we had a tutorial, [my tutor] sort of talked about [my work] as if there was a possible universe in which someone might like [it], but that this wasn’t it and [they] didn’t.

Graduate GE: I think you can tell by their just being so busy questioning every single thing you do – being negative about what you want to do – there was no, like, ‘Wow! Yeah! That’s amazing!’


[One time,] one of the [students’] sculptures was on the floor and then the tutor said, “So, where does it end?” and [they] looked at it and said: [Gestures] “About there.” Author: [Laughs] Graduate QH: Brilliant! Graduate GE: [Laughs] And they just didn’t know what to say! Then, “Yeah but, but, why do you think it ends there?” And [they’re] like: “Because I just think, yeah, I think that feels about right.” [Laughs] Graduate QH: What sort of question is that? [Laughs] Graduate GE: [There’s] no enthusiasm; [it’s] just like, ‘Why are you doing this? What does this, what does this mean?’ I didn’t come to university to get a… whatever you call it – a first. A lot of people got a first with awful imagery, disgusting, like. But, because they’d jumped through every hoop, they got a great grade! I don’t – I’m not necessarily saying that that’s… Graduate QH: [But] it acted as a platform to, to study and to develop your work. It’s not about your ‘I’m doing what I do, but I’m at university.’ Graduate GE: But it was about getting away from a world that I didn’t want to be in any more – not necessarily that I was in a better place – [but] I got to paint for three years. – Fine Art Graduates –


“I’m innocent, governor!” – Graduate GE


Author:

ESA, work capability interview.

Graduate GE: Yeah – oh, that was terrible. In fact, that started to trigger off my panic again, really. [They] could see instantly that I was like… [Makes facial expression] [Makes indescribable sound] I was like “I’m sorry – I really don’t want to cry!” I didn’t want to put on some show. I was like, “This really freaks me out, I’m trying to get myself sorted, but…” Author:

Is that when you go: [Makes indescribable sound] Is that you crying, or snotty, or, like…

Graduate GE: [Laughs] Graduate QH: A serviette comes out of [their] mouth… [Makes indescribable sound] Author:

And then [they] pointed at your mouth and said “There’s your problem!” Like an engineer.

Graduate QH: [Laughs] Author:

Do you, erm, do you vomit napkins – yes, no, it varies?

Graduate GE: [Laughs] No, [they were] a really nice [person], and I was just honest. Since then I’ve had to go to the job centre – I said to [them], like, “I’m volunteering in a school, erm, one morning a week and after school club and I’m an artist – I’m really trying, very hard, to push myself out of this situation.” And [they were], like, “Oh – oh right!” [Laughs] “Oh, OK!”


They just didn’t know what to say, because I’m doing all the things I should be doing. [They] said that I was doing was OK, [but that I’ll have to] go to meetings with certain groups. Author:

Work-focussed groups or something, yeah.

Graduate GE: It doesn’t make you feel very good about yourself at all, because you’re going to be assessed about your mental health situation and that it basically, straightaway, makes you feel – one – I felt like I was lying – two – I felt like I had to go in there and be like, like, ‘No, no, no I’m not – I’m innocent, governor!’ Author: [Laughs] Graduate GE: Do you know what I mean? It was really, it was like a really horrible, horrible scenario – and the space was in like an old, it was like an ex-, like this military zone? Author:

Temporary buildings, huts…

Graduate GE: So it’s all of these like, these weird little huts. So you go in and you’re just [thinking] ‘This is not helpful.’ Some of the people – I am being judgmental – but you can tell, they were like: [Makes indescribable sound] Author:

You know you’ve got like a, there’s this, this is one of your, erm… this is one of your, what do you call it – transferable skills? Facial expressions, vomiting noises… You should put that on your CV.

Graduate QH: [Laughs] Graduate GE: [Laughs] But I just wanted to say I’ve been trying to push myself out of my own comfort zone. [I was] honest with them: sometimes I’m OK, sometimes I’m fucking shit! It’s the way it is. Sometimes I’m really good for long periods of time and then there’s a blip – now I have longer periods of time when I’m a lot healthier. – Fine Art Graduates –


“Right, filled that one – who next?” – Practitioner


Practitioner:

And you know how [they] did it? I mean, apart from just having the imagination – [name omitted] was the most ruthlessly subtle networker. I mean, if you went into a room with [name omitted] – you were having a party – within about thirty seconds [they] would block them off. ‘Right, filled that one – who next?’ You know, and [they’ve]always been a couple of steps ahead of anybody else that I know of my generation, because [they’re] just so smart. And, and, and, you know – whoever they are at the moment, there’ll be people out there, carving new territory.

Registrar:

You’re laughing, [Author] – come on.

Author:

I, I, I’m laughing in my head, but, but, the idea that you’ve kind of proposed is that, on the one hand, you need to be this sort of quintessential – and, I think, antiquated – motivated person who sacrifices their personal life and is brutal to all, all that they come into contact with and then, on the other hand, when it comes into the publishing world, you’ve then got to give up all your authority – well, not give up all your authority…

Registrar:

Yeah, that’s exactly what I was…

Author:

… but there’s a balance between, between those two things.

Registrar:

Yeah, that’s what, exactly – there is a shift in emphasis – and I, I mean…

Practitioner:

It’s not, it’s not giving up – it’s using your wits to realise that, you know…

Author:

Well, I mean…

Practitioner:

… very talented and creative people can help you.

Author:

… my view is that it’s more like that, and less like the old fashioned, erm, you know, person who’s pursuing narrowly their own… path.

Registrar:

Yeah, I think that’s right. I want to just go back to something you said, [Author], about the


antiquated nature of the individual we were, erm, promoting, and I’d like to ask you why you think it’s antiquated? Author:

Because we live in a much more – well, I hate – pluralist world. We, we live in a world where power is more disseminated than it was, what – you know, fifty years ago. Erm, you know, and in fact, talk about publishers, you know, the whole financial underpinning of publishing is being challenged by, you know, new, new means of, of receiving… imagery and… you know, for example, obviously, you know, a lot more women in the work place now than there were fifty years ago…

Registrar:

Mm.

Author:

… when there was a, a sort control of who could be a photographer.

Registrar:

In many ways, you know, the profile of the individual we’re sort of pushing at you today, is a kind of cliché, in a sense, and I would agree that things are changing. Self-publishing is born of the challenge to authority – the publishing industry’s authority – and, indeed, the kind of person you have to be to, to, to promote your work. But it’s still true, to a large degree, that the ability to sort of relentlessly promote yourself to the point of embarrassment, [is] a pretty good way of ensuring that something happens. There are always exceptions – there are quiet people – there are retiring, quiet people who – make their work and get it, and get it seen, you know. There are also a lot of people who don’t achieve that. But, the work is the most important thing – you know, that is behind everything – it’s no good being a, a kind of relentless promoter of yourself, it’s no good being, erm – turning yourself into a sort of borderline unpleasant person – erm, if your work isn’t, doesn’t have integrity and isn’t, isn’t good. – Lecture –


“I’m going to put the bag of rocks down for a while and try and live.” – Client UN


Client UN:

Having battled with mental health, now when I look at it, some of those images are really provoking. So I just see this red thing as like the emergency when you realise, ‘Oh, here we go again…’ I was just looking at it and in my chest cavity was like that… [Gestures] … real anxiety coming and I… the clothes pegs – that, like, hanging on – the chairs, that whole, like, ‘Bloody hell, here I am again, waiting… for [my] appointments.’ I just had to turn away and stop looking at the images, because I was then crying and I, I spoke to [the Therapist], because I was like “I don’t know where this has all come from.” I hadn’t had any anticipation that something would penetrate my, like, gut. You try to disconnect all that stuff – those feelings. It’s like ‘Oh right, I’m going to put the bag of rocks down for a while and try and live…’ All that just really hit me on a deep emotional level, because I never actually had a visual representation for the, the really – the, the, the deep negative feelings of being in the system, so, so, just, the bars and the corridor and, um… oh, just the, you know, I was looking at this… [Gestures] … and thinking how many hours and days of my life have I spent – not exactly those colours, but, you know… blue is a nice colour, or orange is a nice colour, but somehow they seem, I guess like how you’re saying – sterile and like the life’s been sucked out of the colour… The cabling and the, the light switches and stuff, that sense that my brain is mis-functioning or the power, the power’s shorted out, or, lot, lots of um… and I don’t know why you took all those photos…

Author: [Laughs] Client UN:

… I don’t know what possessed you to…


[Laughs] But for me a very strong message and image of um, of, of… that whole mental health realm of illness. Author:

This experience of institutionalisation is something that is, that goes beyond the asylum, it goes beyond the…

Client UN:

Mm… and pressure, that, that valve… They used to say in the war they had to go over the top? The, the worthlessness, the shame, the fear, the guilt – all those feelings. And, and, er… yeah, just short-circuiting, like your brain is short-circuiting, so all that electrical stuff – temperature rising and, er, the switches, like the fuse has blown and, and just so, so many like clichéd expressions. It’s almost like going, going over the edge, when… you know, like, ‘Am I going into another episode?’ Even now, I’ve just felt it then, I can feel it in my chest cavity that, like, a tension begin and it’s like quivering, but not quivering with excitement and I’ve started to learn that that’s anxiety and slightly fear-based. That clench and then sort of tension.

Author:

Well, this is the tension that I feel in this city is… there can be no…

Client UN:

Mm!

Author:

…there’s no escape from it really, it is so… samey, everywhere you go. You know, you get out and…

Client UN:

Mm.

Author:

I don’t, I don’t feel it hugely, but, but when I leave, then you realise that there’s some freedom. The architecture is not the same, not everything’s the same colour. – Art Therapy Group –


Madness & Creativity Is there any useful distinction to be drawn between these things? In Foucault’s terms, madness is interchangeable with the idea of ‘déraison’ – a way of thinking unconstrained by the rigours of logic. As someone diagnosed with a psychiatric condition, this dispassionate description can be difficult to reconcile with personal experience; creative life, for the patient, becomes something to contain – knowing that, if not properly monitored, it could spill over into delirium or catastrophic psychosis. Studying photography as a fine art opens you up to much scrutiny and expectation. As one tutor put it: “The [people] that make interesting artwork [are those] who can persist, push through and struggle to make something. If that persistence and stamina comes out, it shows in the pictures themselves.” In today’s world we have a one-dimensional understanding of the good life: hard work as the route to salvation, at the expense of our needs. One must “go on and on and on, pushing, pushing, pushing,” as another tutor remarked. It is, by definition, a manic existence. There is currently a debate surrounding the usefulness of psychiatric diagnosis, following a critical statement made by the British Psychological Society. From a purely personal perspective, I know that I would not have achieved what I have without diagnosis – it is central to the management of my disorder; but what is it to be bipolar? I believe this is actually very easy to explain: it is a failure to tire. Those with the condition do not experience the normal reciprocal relationship between fatigue and rest. When married to new-found obsessions, a person is driven into a state of hysteria – as anyone might be when deprived of proper rest, food and care. In light of this, I have faced a personal challenge in articulating a response to the language of obsession and creativity presented in a university setting.


Form & Pressure seeks to disentangle the complex network of power relations that exist uniquely within the photography department where I study. In reality, this project entangles as much as it disentangles and raises perhaps more questions than it answers. What is it, for example, to participate in the life of an institution? This body of work is as much a portrait of myself as it is of the people who tried to guide me. In the transcripts, we can see people speaking with my voice, rather than their own. For example, when the Consultant speaks of all-powerful “institutional figures”, he is in fact reflecting my sense of disaffection with the art world; likewise, when I eventually admit that we live in a “pluralist world, where power is more disseminated than it was”, I have clearly moderated my views. Under the right conditions, people will say almost anything, and the tutor’s comments above about the centrality of struggle to the artistic process are an interesting case in point. A different version of the same conversation appeared in the my previous book, First Signs of Madness. The Foucauldian archaeological process of re-transcription, in which previously untranscribed comments were restored to their original context, enabled a new reading of the events from the perspective not of the student, but of the tutor. Drafted in to cover for an absent colleague, the tutor was unknowingly entering into the semi-fictional world of the asylum. Constructed in part as a figment of my imagination, the asylum was also a reflection of the grinding pressure exerted by the Warden upon newly inducted students. This group of students, segregated from the internal cohort, had all signed up to convert their vocational qualifications into academic degrees, and it was therefore deemed necessary to get these people ‘up to speed’ so that they could then graduate on equal terms. The compassion the reader may feel for the tutor, however, does not resolve the point entirely. The purpose of Form & Pressure is to explore the implications that the modern world’s obsession with hard work has for the lives of ordinary people. It was therefore necessary to juxtapose the dialogue within the department with conversations from outside. The group referred to as ‘clients’ are members of an informal art group designed to give voice to adults with lived experience of mental illness. Within the transcripts, the clients make clear each of their own, very individual, responses to the


question of the relationship between their mental health difficulties and their creativity. During the time I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the condition has gained increasing traction in the media. The downside has been its association with celebrity and the belief that manic depressives are all highly creative and successful people. The reality is that those diagnosed span the full range of abilities – with careers and without. I myself have lived for a number of years with the generous support of welfare and family – but in a world where livelihood is indivisible from identity, what kind of life is this? Incapable, or incapacitated, was until very recently the official language of the Department for Work & Pensions. As I look now to a life away from education, I have of course been contemplating the nature of my capabilities. What I see now is that my disorder is not really a mental illness as such – more accurately it is a disability. What my biochemistry lacks is simply a limitation on energy – where normal people would become tired and fall asleep, I instead go “on and on and on” to the point of paranoia and psychosis. The challenge for the self-manager is to remain alert to the possibility that a good day is not always a good thing and, where necessary, to put aside ambition and creativity in the interests of stability and health. It barely needs saying, but this is of course antithetical in a world “increasingly interested in speed.” The purpose of this project is to draw attention to a language of obsession, creativity and hard work which confines us all. For those who feel hemmed in by the form and pressure of the age, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish generosity from hostility. In putting this project together I have faced significant challenges in managing my mood in the face of demands from the course, the tutors and, most importantly, myself. It would not be right to finish it without acknowledging the vital contribution made to it by the staff and students of the photography department – in particular those whose words have been reproduced here. To the participants I also owe an apology for the times when I have misunderstood or misrepresented their words and actions because, whatever the perceived distortions of modern life, one must be grateful for just such opportunities for generous conversation.



Form & Pressure