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> > > Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age at FACT, Liverpool

Originating from FACT’s extensive work within mental health and wellbeing, Group Therapy explores the complex relationship between technology, society, and mental health. Jade French responds to the brilliant lens the exhibition holds up to some of the darker aspects of living with mental health issues.

photo of the author inside an installation with brilliant purple folds and a cloth with a frightening face

Labyrinth Psychotica by Jennifer Kanary Nikolova. Image © FACT

Group Therapy urges audiences to rethink their understanding of mental health wellbeing, by exploring how our mental health is related to the society we live in and the impact of new technologies.

The artists exhibiting use a variety of digital tools including apps, games and online forums, as well as films, installations and animations, to illustrate the diverse ways we use technology to manage and mediate our emotions in the 21st Century.  

How does technology affect our mental health? Does it provide a safe haven for retreat? Or a place to hide from our true selves? Even over my life time, I can see how technology has drastically developed and changed the way in which we interact with each other, I wondered how artists would capture this seismic shift.

Firstly, this exhibition requires time. Split over two floors, much of the artworks are film based or require some sort of interaction.  When you enter the building you are immediately confronted with the weird and wonderful installation titled 'Madlove' by the Vacuum Cleaner. Walls are painted a brilliant turquoise, and all over the ceiling there are umbrellas to which you can change projections of the weather depending on your mood. I was fascinated by the selection of bizarre scents you could spray; sea breeze and fruit salad are uncanny, and was surprised at how relaxing the blood red padded cell was.

The ground floor space is pretty dark, but this allows the many screens inside to be enjoyed without glare. I took a seat on the oxblood chesterfield in a small room, which was staged like a mock-up psychiatric practice. On the table was an iPad containing the 'Psychosis Sensation' app by UBERMORGEN, a piece of software that allows users to ‘self diagnose’ and print prescriptions for various mental health conditions. 

Walking through the room, the eerie electroconvulsive machine, a real life relic from the 1950s caught my eye, as well as an intelligent animation titled 'Me and The Black Dog' by Kate Owens & Neeta Madahar. This uses the black dog as a symbol of melancholy, investigating the idea that the dark element of one’s personality isn’t necessarily something to eradicate, but can be valued as an intrinsic part of oneself.

The stand out piece for me was Jennifer Kanary Nikolova's 'Labyrinth Psychotica' up on the 2nd floor. I warn, that this piece may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I thrived on this experiential artwork. Upon entering the dim and shadowy room, just ahead I could see the labyrinth – a construction made from heavy dark cloth. 

The gallery staff requested I remove my bags and jacket, and instead adorn a white lab coat. Stepping into the labyrinth, I felt a rush of excitement like I was embarking on a Crystal Maze quest, but that soon wore off when I realised that it was dark, disorientating and a little scary.  

Moving through the cloth only seemed to reveal more cloth and more darkness, and I wondered when it would end. I could sense my movements becoming increasingly erratic until I stumbled a beautiful light piece amidst the darkness. This installation, in a creative and engaged way, attempts to show the audience how psychosis blends realities and perceptions. I certainly experienced an altered state of mind.

Looking through the interactive archive of 20 years of FACT projects for participants with mental health issues, for me, FACT will no longer be considered just a cinema. FACT provides a brilliant lens in which to consider mental health in todays’ society and this exhibition is smart, sensitive and unafraid to show the world the darker aspects of living with mental health issues. Group Therapy works hard not just to show this to its audience, but to allow them to experience it. 

Group Therapy is on show at FACT, Liverpool until 17th May 2015