by Rahul KumarMay 04, 2022
Science Gallery recently concluded an exhibition titled PSYCHE. It explored the complexities of the human mind in socio-political and cultural contexts. The project was developed in collaboration with National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) (Bengaluru, India), The Wellbeing Project, and Museum Dr. Guislain in Ghent, Belgium. PSYCHE brought together philosophers, neuroscientists, artists, psychologists, filmmakers, sociologists, writers, and performers. Shaped with the advice of a multidisciplinary panel of scholars - Richard Wingate, Sanjeev Jain, Ulrike Kluge and Vikram Patel, and curatorial advisors - Jill Bennett, Marius Kwint, Natasha Ginwala and Ruth Garde, the exhibition featured 10 works of art, six films, and extensive pedagogical programming.
While seeking to break down barriers between research and society, the 10 multidisciplinary projects trace the complexities of the mind from the depths of anxiety to the heights of euphoria. For instance, an audio-visual art installation, Black Men’s Minds, rests upon the voices of black men who are often missing in conversations on mental health, trauma, and stigma. Another work titled McGill Pain Questionnaire visually investigates the objective method for appraising pain in relation to a subjective experience against the backdrop of a classic clinical pain assessment tool.
I speak to the founding director of the gallery, Jahnavi Phalkey, artist Andrew Carnie, and archivist Anuj Malhotra.
Rahul Kumar: It is interesting how the very complicated idea of the human mind is explored through artistic presentations. Could you talk about the genesis of this exhibition and more specifically how each of the projects were curatorially conceived?
Jahnavi Phalkey: Mental health is a growing concern globally. Given the manner in which the pandemic unfolded has only exacerbated many of these concerns. We decided, therefore, to explore the phenomenon by taking a step back from the discussion. Each art exhibition season at Science Gallery Bengaluru holds to light an object of inquiry in the human, natural and social sciences - and this season became all about the human mind. From the historical to the speculative, the exhibition interrogates the human condition.
Were we to ask questions of and explore the mind in the context of knowledge available to us from across disciplines, it serves as a good starting point to begin a discussion on mental health from a better-informed position. We received 180 submissions to our Open Call for submissions from which Black Men’s Minds, Playing with Reality, HAMLETS Live, Serpent of a Thousand Coils were chosen. At the same time, Change My Mind, Perspectives on News Events, Synthetic Self and McGill Pain Questionnaire were invited exhibits drawn from discussions with our Curatorial Advisors. The Asylum, and Schizophrenia and the Brain are developed in collaboration with people at the National Institute for Mental Health and Neurosciences, who are our content partner.
The exhibits together with our programming - public lectures, masterclasses and workshops, and films explore how a sense of self comes to be constructed and what happens when this sense is disturbed or experiences loss. All our offerings draw upon cutting edge clinical research, archival materials, lived experience and public participation.
Rahul: How are the works helping put a spotlight on underlying issues like mental health, ‘objective’ pain (vs. clinical plain), and issues of certain communities like the blacks?
Jahnavi: Matters of the mind - considered either normal or disturbed - are slowly gaining some space in our cultural conversations. We do, however, need a more inclusive, empathetic, contextualised and research focused approach to it.
We have in the exhibition Serpent of a Thousand Coils and Playing with Reality - both drawing upon lived experiences of those diagnosed with mental illness. Both also use the online gaming space to share with us an empathetic and incisive look into the experience of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Schizophrenia. This is especially important for generations born digitally native as they are able to connect into the experience in a more familiar mode.
Thinking of another aspect, chronic pain - while prevalent, it is again something we don't have an easy social acceptance or understanding of. All the more difficult is a discussion on both the treatment of and discussion on pain experienced by women. McGill Pain Questionnaire opens up the space between the efficacy of clinical diagnostic tools and the subjective experience of pain for individuals - highlighting how often those who develop these tools are unable to understand and at times unwilling to accept the nuances and circumstances of less represented communities. This idea is also reflected in Black Men’s Minds through the voices of Black Men who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act of the UK. The healthcare system can often fail those who need it the most. It also provokes a discussion on race, trauma, masculinity and living with mental illness as a marginalised citizen.
As we selected the exhibits and discussed the complexity of their making with artists and scholars, it has been critical for us to ensure that none of the works or the ideas become reductive or provide a voyeuristic distance gaze. We have prioritised the making of a space where different voices are heard.
Rahul: Some of the works in the show deal with fairly complicated theories. Like Playing with Reality unravels what the phenomenon of psychosis can teach about the limits of reality. How important is it for the science of it to be interpreted as a work of art?
Jahnavi: All exhibits at Science Gallery Bengaluru are grounded in research whether in the human, natural or social sciences and art practices. This is often reflected in the background of the artists and scholars who create the work. In Playing with Reality, the designers and filmmakers at Anagram Studios and Floreal Films, worked very closely with Professor David Chalmers (Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at New York University) and Goliath (the gamer on whose life the exhibit is based).
We hope that the exhibit experience will provoke visitors to think about schizophrenia and psychosis. Through our connected resources and programmes they can then dive deeper into either the clinical basis of these mental health conditions or how the brain constructs its sense of reality. To this end we have masterclasses with the artists, lectures with clinicians studying severe mental illnesses, neuroscientists breaking down the brain and philosophers who try to understand what “reality” means. In sum, our exhibits are an experiential starting point that bring knowledge closer to daily life and often leave you with more questions than answers about the mind. Asking good questions is the best way to self-driven learning. What one learns out of curiosity, stays, allowing for a deeper engagement and understanding. We do our best - as a follow up to the questions we help raise - that the programmes led by leading scholars help find the path to find the answers as well!
Rahul: Please explain how the interactive and participatory work Change my mind is structured? How do you anticipate the work to be experienced by those actively participating or by those who are passively in the audience?
Andrew Carnie: Change My Mind was instigated as a collaborative project to get participants and an audience to think about their minds and what they might like the future of their minds to be. Scientists are at the start of mechanically and gnomically altering our minds’ capacity. Sometimes this is for medical reasons, fair enough, and especially if we can make such changes available for all, but if we are going to enhance the mind, how are we going to do this; do we want it; are there inherent dangers?
Too often the technologists map the ways we move forward into this sphere. Other ideas and possibilities should be put forward. Thinking visually should be part of this. By inviting a few artists and through an open call, the project was hoped to engage with an audience to think about the topic. Initially by looking at the creative array of work produced and then by engaging with the linked statements and the plethora of talks that make up the Science Galleries online assemblage, PSYCHE.
For all of us it is a challenge: how do we face our bodies, our future, when the body and hence the mind will not, does not stop at the skin?
Rahul: How does the work The Serpent of A Thousand Coils help unravel the thought process of an individual dealing with OCD?
Anuj Malhotra: The Serpent of a Thousand Coils attempts to serve as a live demonstration of the cognitive aspect of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (or CBT), the therapeutic school recognised globally as the most potent tool of management for the OCD condition. In this, it provides a visible form to the relentless obsessions, thought loops and 'what-if' spirals that plague an anxiety sufferer. The game then engineers a binary system of responses to this inquisition: an intuitive, automatic and rigid response as certified by culture, and a rational, effortful response that accepts nature's inherent chaos. One of these yields progress, and the other regress within the world of the game.
The sensorially dense universe of the fictional small town within which the game is set allows each player to roam a landscape beset by temporal heaviness. This allows them enough dwell time - a consciously cultivated pause - to reflect on how they answer the questions posed to them and the results these produce. The ambition of the game is that this internal meditation will allow the player to both glean the thousand coils within which anxiety encircles its sufferer, and also the method, therefore, by which one may be able to escape its grasp.
As such, the game combines lessons from the radical model of betterment as pioneered by Dr. Albert Ellis (REBT) with the spectacular observations of Daniel Kahneman to construct a depiction of both the anxiety condition and its eventual resolution.