Last Night Art Saved My Life: strategies for surviving

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Last Night Art Saved my live was an informal series of discussions about arts and mental health, curated by the vacuum cleaner, produced by Artsadmin and hosted by the Live Art Development Agency (LADA) in London, 26 June. Artists Selina Thompson, Lucy Hutson, Bobby Baker, Hana Madness, Daniel Oliver and the vacuum cleaner presented short provocations on their strategies for survival. Review by James Zatka-Haas.

James Leadbitter presenting to a group

The vacuum cleaner speaking at Last Night Art Saved My Life. Photograph: Hana Madness

If the current mental health crisis is to teach us anything, it is that an attentive pair of ears is essential. Sharing experiences – like last night’s discussion at LADA has shown – can and does provide a space where people can stand up, share and reconcile with their past. Both for the speakers and the audience members present, Last Night Art Saved My Life was a moving insight into the way art can be a liberation from negative mental health.

The night took the form of a series of informal talks and discussions, responding to provocations on survival; Are we surviving? How can we work together to survive? and can art save us individually and collectively? Each speaker responded candidly, sometimes giving clear cut answers and sometimes pointing to more questions. It was a discursive approach that lent itself to the theme. Everyone spoke with absolute truth and sincerity, and each one in return listened with openness. We were all deeply engaged.

Because of the subject matter, It was important to create a space where everyone felt comfortable. The relaxed nature of the event meant that people could come and go as they wished, and act in a way natural to them.

Over two hours, several speakers spoke about art and mental health. Their approaches were all different. Some, like Bobby Baker – who screened her film, ‘Spitting Mad’ – provided context for the themes, whilst others, like Indonesian Artist and Unlimited delegate Hana Madness, and performance artist Lucy Hutson, gave biographical accounts and offered examples of where art has mattered most to them. Leeds-based performer and artist, Selina Thompson makes work focused on the politics of identity, and how this defines our bodies, lives and environments. Her provocation was a poetic exploration of exhaustion and recovery.

Performance artist Daniel Oliver gave an amusing account of the connections between live art and dyspraxia, and how both can feed into each other, where that feeling of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing / What is happening?’’ can be cultivated; where the unexpected is good.

Lucy Hutson, Selina Thompson, Hana Madness, Ria Hartley, Daniel Oliver and James Leadbitter

Artists Lucy Hutson, Selina Thompson, Hana Madness, Ria Hartley, Daniel Oliver and the vacuum cleaner

This pride was evident throughout the night, and despite the debilitating symptoms, the speakers approached mental health, and how it varies in all of us, with care and respect. The vacuum cleaner’s work with the patients at Broadmoor Hospital – and his belief that we can adjust our relationship to the term madness – proved that just by listening to the needs of people, we can put in place radical measures that actually help.

Towards the end, the strategies for survival appeared simple and self evident; that we should (where possible) be open about how we are feeling, and in turn receive the necessary help and attention that we need. Artist and educator Ria Hartley has developed ‘Ecologies of Care’ an access awareness platform that will allow artists and creatives to express their access requirements, and seek the necessary support that will better enable them in their practice.

I found that listening to the experiences of others showed that we are not alone, and the struggle between artistry and mental health is as pervasive as it is ubiquitous. But It seems the communities are beginning to better understand that now, and although we still have a way to go, empathetic measures like Ecologies of Care prove that it is possible to survive and flourish regardless of your mental health. ‘Last Night’ feels like only the beginning, and if we have more conversations with open ears and less stigma, the need to survive will be a thing of the past.