Commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery to accompany 'For They Let In the Light', a project by James Leadbitter (vacuum cleaner) and Caroline Moore with staff and former inpatients at the Coburn Centre for Adolescent Mental Health.
Reading time 8'
I’m sitting in a circle with a group of people at an event, listening to two participants cathartically lay into the world, joyously telling all and sundry to fuck off. It’s quite something as I draw up a mental checklist of my own adversaries. The fuck you game is the climax of a rehearsal, the culmination of an 18-month collaboration led by James Leadbitter (the vacuum cleaner) and Caroline Moore working with staff and former inpatients from the Coborn Centre for Adolescent Mental Health in Newham. Throughout the event, we hear from a group of young people reflecting on their mental health journey through a mixture of song and narration as they rehearse their new commission, For They Let In The Light. The world is a heavy place right now and telling it to fuck off seems like a good place to start. So here we go, fuck you, world!
Fuck is the swiss army knife of the English language. It can be a verb (fuck you), a noun (for fuck’s sake), and an adjective (he’s a fucking idiot). It can be expletive, despondent, and carnal. The word intensifies and amplifies to be deployed at a choice moment. Telling the world to fuck off feels like a cathartic opening gambit; a clearing of the decks;a foreword to a book with a new type of story. In refusing a world of ableism, racism, inequality, classism and patriarchy, we start creating a new one. In this imagined space, we may not have all the answers, but we can begin to ask the right questions. Writers such as Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Octavia Butler and Audre Lorde have written eloquently on how we become the images and stories we put into the world. For They Let In The Light takes the form of a collectively authored story; written by the young participants, facilitated by Leadbitter and Moore. While these stories are shaped by previous traumas, they are prompts and tools for creating possible spaces that the participants might act into.
Girija Kaimal, a professor of Creative Art Therapies at Drexel University, writes on this creative necessity as an act of world-making. For Kaimal, the brain is a predictive machine that continually rehearses scenarios so that when they arrive, we are equipped to respond to them. We predicate based on our experiences in the world. If we have anxiety or are experiencing a crisis, we are far more likely to shape our sense of the future through this vision. Someone suffering from trauma can struggle to imagine any kind of future. Imagination can take many forms, but creativity enables us to unlock different ideas and rehearse situations we can negotiate. As Kaimal states, imagination is a fundamental tool of survival rather than a diversionary tactic.
It feels like a prescient moment to think about the future, shaped by recent social trauma. As Covid-19 recedes, a mental health crisis has replaced it. You don’t have to look very far to see alarming figures and waiting times for people seeking counselling and support. According
to the organisation Young Minds, one in six young people identifies as struggling with their mental health, up from one in nine in 2017. 83% of young people believe that the Covid pandemic has made their mental health worse.
Why are so many young people struggling with mental health? Leadbitter posed this question when he began working in Newham with young people in Spring 2021. Sessions typically involved three
to eight participants led by Leadbitter, with a facilitator and healthcare professional. Leadbitter talks of getting the basics right: feeding people and listening to them as they discussed their mental health journey. The evolving group would come together, talk and create videos, audio and text responses made in response to a series of prompts inspired by the original question. Much of the material took the form of diaries and letters addressed to adults and their future selves, articulating the participant’s complex lived experiences.
Creating an environment based on trust was paramount. Conversations grounded in often harrowing and difficult topics were punctured by games. Dance featured regularly. Bad dad jokes featured even more. Reaction games such as ‘Zip, Zap, Boing’ and ‘Would you rather’ became places of gladiatorial competitiveness. Laughter and silliness became important tools in creating a sense of psychological safety. Like any project of this complexity, things changed: some participants moved on while others remained a mainstay through the project.
The public articulation of the project at Chisenhale keeps the sense of intimacy and one-to-one scale, with Leadbitter describing the sharing events as collective studio visits. This safety is expanded from the workshops into the gallery: hot water bottles, weighted blankets and fidget toys create a sensory and comforting space. Presented in sharing events over a 2-week run enables a more structured infrastructure of support for participants and the public. A healthcare professional will be present in the sessions, just as an oversight therapist was available throughout the project. The material has a public life span of five years and can only be publicly viewed in Leadbitter’s presence.
A two-screen film filmed by the young people on iPhones, edited by Leadbitter, captures activity from the sessions. We encounter dancing and singing, people playing the piano, footage of participants walking around the site: corridors and locked doors capturing the feeling of isolation, heightened by Covid restrictions. Healthcare professionals read out letters to a future self, written by the young people. In another scene, the participants choreograph the nurses in a mass dance-along to Corona’s anthem ‘Rhythm of the Night.’ The song’s catchy refrain echoes through my brain on the way home. Moments of stupid joy punctuate the difficulty. There is a sense of shared agency and decision-making, power dynamics being slyly prodded and upended. Importantly, there is a sense of difficult things being worked through by multi-faceted participants; people touched by trauma but not defined by it.
Many of Leadbitter’s previous projects involve co-production methods with communities to imagine spaces of radical possibility. In Madlove (2014-ongoing), Leadbitter works with a diverse range of people to design and create a space where “madness can be experienced in a less painful way.” Involving many workshops with participants with lived experience of mental health institutions, the project encourages those to imagine a space where “mutual care blossoms, stigma and discrimination is actively challenged, and divisions are understood.” Leadbitter imagines a new type of care infrastructure created bottom-up by “lunatics” who design, build and run their own psychiatric centre. Political theorist Joan Tronto distinguishes between caring for (physical aspects of hands-on care), caring about (emotional investment in others), and caring with (working with others to transform the world). While Leadbitter’s projects encompass each of these forms of care, his work derives much of its power from the sense of working and caring with others. This solution-focused bottom-up model of cooperation draws from lineages across community healthcare and civic life. In particular, the history of 20th-century psychology has faced many radical critiques from figures such as Franco Basaglia in Italy and David Cooper and Maxwell Jones in the United Kingdom, who sought to overhaul the old asylum system.
This long and complex history can’t be fully articulated in my word count here. Yet, we can see For They Let In The Light — and Leadbitter’s broader practice — as part of a historical lineage of transformative models of care. The pioneering work of Keith Kennedy at Henderson Hospital offers a particular touchstone. Kennedy was active in the late sixties and seventies and was briefly assisted by the photographer Jo Spence. The therapeutic community movement that grew out of the post-war period significantly influenced Kennedy’s work and frames many of Leadbitter’s strategies. This movement foregrounded recreational and craft activity as well as peer-to-peer counselling for veterans traumatised by conflict. Kennedy worked with art students from Hornsey College of Art alongside participants drawn from psychiatric wards at Henderson. Much of their work involved performative games and role-play to camera, addressing past traumatic experiences in often playful ways. This endeavour went on to inspire Jo Spence and Rosy Martin’s work in Phototherapy. The choreographer Marion Chace offers another historical touchstone. Chace took dance workshops into hospitals, exploring the therapeutic potential of movement, drawing upon the methods of inspiring figures such as mother and daughter duo Daria and Anna Halprin, who set up the Tamalpa Institute with similar ambitions.
While varied, many of these examples explore the role of art in deeply traumatic memories. We hold stories in our bodies as they wait to take shape in words and music, movement and images. In participating in For They Let In The Light we are listening and acknowledging other people’s intimate stories. We are hearing people tell the world to fuck off so they can start building a new one.
1) Young Minds, “Mental Health Statistics UK | Young People,” Young Minds, 2021, https://www.youngminds.org.uk/about-us/media-centre/mental-health-statistics/
2) Joan C. Tronto,Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice, (New York: New York University Press, 2013)
3) George Vasey, “Keith Kennedy’s Group Photography and the Therapeutic Gaze of Jo Spence and Rosy Martin,” Burlington Contemporary, 2019, https://contemporary.bur- lington.org.uk/journal/journal/keith-kennedys-group-photography-and-the-therapeutic- gaze-of-jo-spence-and-rosy-martin.