Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age (between 5 March – 17 May 2015) explores the complex relationship between technology, society, and mental health.

Originally published for OPEN Magazine

It’s been 10 years since I upgraded my Morgan schoolbag to a little Warehouse number and sauntered off to college; thinking that I looked the height of sophistication. If you’re ever looking for a reminder that you’re now hurtling towards 30, the realisation that nearly a whole decade has passed since you attended your leavers’ prom, dressed like a reluctant bridesmaid, ought to do it. I sat my GCSE’s during a time when Steve Brookstein had a number one album, the Crazy Frog ringtone was very much a thing, and The Sugababes had only so far made their way through two line ups.

A lot has changed over the past decade when it comes to technology; MySpace is over (Give it up, Justin – you can bring sexy back but not MySpace); you can check your bank balance online, unlike the quite frankly barbaric days where you had to go to an actual cash machine or local branch; and possibly the most impressive – you can order, and track, your takeaway via your phone. That’s right; the Just Eat app has got your back to ensure you don’t need to go to all that hassle of making a 30 second phone call to Nabzys.

Although catering to my desire to reduce my human interactions to an absolute minimum, not all technological developments are positive. I may be the first to roll my eyes when my mum tells me all about the latest ‘Digital Detox’ she’s read about in The Guardian, but when you start to dread the sound of your phone’s notification alerts, it’s hard not to wish you had the willpower to log off everything for a few days.

Back to the start of my college days, all those years ago; the smartphone was in its infancy, and there was no danger of your teacher adding you on Facebook, as half your classmates hadn’t even got an account yet. However, although being ‘tagged’ was still associated with a playground game, not a photo of yourself online, Revenge Porn still managed to make an appearance on campus. One afternoon saw every student in the cafeteria receive grainy footage via Bluetooth (God, I’m old) of a fellow pupil engaging in a sex act. Back in 2005, Revenge Porn wasn’t even a term – let alone illegal. While teenagers (and, rather disgustingly, some lecturers) buzzed off a bit of salacious gossip, and being part of what was to become a local viral sensation, no one really stopped to think about the mental health implications for the victim of something now dubbed ‘virtual rape’.

Sadly, we all know this wasn’t a one off event; the past decade has seen many, celebrities included, become the targets of iCloud hacks, leaked nudes and gross invasions of privacy; with technology lending a hand to the abusers. Whether it’s a teenage girl having her topless one second Snapchat screenshot, or Jennifer Lawerence’s entire camera roll ending up online, the digital age is proving to be problematic. Throw in online abuse; with Twitter’s chief executive recently acknowledging in a leaked memo that the company “sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform, and we’ve sucked at it for years”, and the realisation that we have to have an online personal brand and persona, as well as just, you know, an actual IRL personality, and suddenly that digital detox I roll my eyes at sounds more and more tempting.

With all this in mind, the latest exhibition at FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) should be worth a visit for anyone who’s ever felt their head get a bit ‘crowded’ from the modern world. Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age (between 5 March – 17 May 2015) explores the complex relationship between technology, society, and mental health.

It’s hardly ground-breaking news to learn that today’s society is characterised by a constant use of digital devices. Simultaneously, most of us face some kind of mental health issues during our lifetime, affecting either ourselves, or a friend or family member. But how is our use of technology connected to our wellbeing, and how does it affect our values and the way we see ourselves?

Coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week 2015 (11 – 17 May), works by designers, researchers and artists will encourage visitors to rethink their understanding of mental health and wellbeing, by exploring the past, present and future of mental health and wellbeing in relation to societal values and technology.

A variety of digital tools including apps, games and online forums will be displayed, illustrating the diverse ways we use technology to manage and mediate our emotions in the 21st Century.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the exhibition is certainly The Vacuum Cleaner’s major new commission Madlove, supported by the Wellcome Trust and The British Psychological Society (BPS). Based on the artist’s own experience of psychiatric hospitals being punishing rather than loving environments, he has worked with members of the public to collaboratively-design a more appropriate asylum. Madlove features advisors from across the health, high education and science as well as design sectors, including principal partner the Institute of Psychology, Health and Society, University of Liverpool.

“I began to struggle with my mental health at the age of 17; suffering from depression and anxiety,” The Vacuum Cleaner revealed in interviews prior to the exhibition. “By 19 I was admitted into my first mental hospital, for a year, and began to become fully aware that they aren’t conducive with good mental health.”

Just what is it that fails institutions?

“Aside from the fact that mental health is dangerously underfunded; there is no consideration for how the space is designed and the impact it has on a patient’s mental health. For me personally, and many people I’ve spoken to, you can often leave these places more traumatised than when you entered. A locked word, no access to outside space, nothing to do, boredom – it can feel more like a prison which is so messed up. You’ve done nothing wrong, you’re just ill.”

“This project is a test of the research that we’ve done so far – we’ve held seven workshops across the country and worked with people with mental health issues, and other stakeholders, about just what a good space entail.”

And the name – why The Vacuum Cleaner? Cocaine addiction?

“No, no. When I began making work, like a lot of street artists, a lot of it was on the boundaries of being illegal so I don’t work under my own name to protect myself. The Vacuum Cleaner comes from an exhibition I did called ‘Cleaning up after Capitalism’ in which I cleaned the streets of Wall Street and the City of London.”

Group Therapy: Mental distress in a digital age will also display how artists use new technologies to enable visitors to explore the feelings of themselves and others. Lauren Moffatt’s 3D stereoscopic film Not Eye deals with the anxiety and paranoia created by a society saturated with images. The common perception that technology distances us from our bodies is challenged in George Khut’s interactive installation The Heart Library, where the user’s heart-rate influences the colour and sound of a large, ceiling mounted video projection – digitally connecting body and mind. Katriona Beales’ new commission – an installation combining sculptural elements with moving image and audio – responds to the emerging field of Internet addiction and has been created in dialogue with Henrietta Bowden-Jones, neuroscience researcher and specialist in Internet addiction.

Vanessa Bartlett, who is co-curating the exhibition with FACT’s Director Mike Stubbs, says ‘Group Therapy proposes that art and the creative use of digital devices can challenge dated ideas about mental illness, helping to reduce stigma and encourage open discussion about our personal wellbeing.’

Part of the exhibition is also an interactive archive showing 20 years of FACT projects for participants with mental health issues, in which artists have been working closely with the community in creative projects as well as created digital tools that support mental health. These projects have been organised in collaboration with various mental health organisations, including Mersey Care NHS Trust.

Other artists include Dora Garcia, Kate Owens & Neeta Madahar, Quintan Ana Wikswo and Katriona Beales.

Group Therapy: Mental distress in a digital age

Exhibition at FACT, Liverpool: 5 March – 17 May 2015

See also: Follow at FACT Feat. Shia LaBeouf