What do the Southbank Centre near Waterloo and Sigmund Freud have in common? Not a lot at first sight. But in many ways the recent Changing Minds festival weekend held at the former, and the on-going series of Freud’s ‘shorts’ at his honorary Museum in North London, invite a renewed engagement with psychological selves – both our own and those of others.
Running on the weekend of 6 -7 February, Changing Minds was billed as a festival about mental health and the arts with highlights including ‘Arts Versus Chemicals’, a panel studded with expertise and opinions debating the pros and cons of psychiatric medicine, ‘Creativity of Sadness’ which featured a group of artists, writers and musicians exploring the role that sadness and deep depression can play in the making of art and ‘Race and the Politics of Mental Health’ which punned on the acknowledgement that mental illness does not discriminate, so why are there such big inequalities in the way it is treated, and what can be done to change this?’.
As one might imagine from such a high profile event, the weekend adopted some renewedly de rigeur laughter yoga and mindfulness exercises in the central gallery, segueing seamlessly into comedy sketches on mental health stigma and reactions to it including a performance by Sue Maclaine of ‘Can I Start Again Please?‘ which examined the power of language (the show won the Total Theatre Award 2015). Perhaps of most personal interest was the ‘Arts Pharmacy’ in which you were invited to share whatever was ‘on’ your mind, no matter how insignificant, with one of the expert ‘arts doctors’ and receive a personalised arts prescription.
Aside from the occasional gimmick in the form of possibly cliched thought trees, qualifying the Changing Minds festival in terms of value judgement is not of immediate importance. Indeed, given the volume and diversity of people and the reports that have been proposed as a result of its success, the words and actions of our minds were celebrated and considered anew, drawing on the Gresham College lecture delivered by Professor Gwen Adshead titled ‘Changing Minds and Mental Health’ focusing on the role of medicine in this activity through history. This refreshed vision is also to be found in BBC One’s ‘In the Mind’ season, which has returned for broadcast from its original guise as BBC Radio 4’s Minding the Gap series.
In her lecture, Adshead discusses how the four concepts of ‘mind’, ‘self’, ‘personality’ and ‘identity’ must all be considered in terms of making this change. Across the Southbank festival and the series of short films documenting Freud’s infamous case studies (‘Dora’, ‘Ratman’, ‘Anna O.’, and most vexing to categorise – ‘Little Hans’) there is a consideration of how these concepts can be synonymous and simultaneous, the latter being an interesting parapraxis, identifying the role of time in our understanding of psychological selves and how these can be mutable, but temporarily so, retaining something of their original state.
Part of this process of understanding the self is acknowledging our role as actors and narrators of, and within, our own personalities. This self-narration is interesting when transposed onto Freud’s ‘Dora: An Analysis of a case of Hysteria’ (1905), in which he adopts an unsettling didactic voice that straddles both the familiar personal friend and pioneering psychiatrist which sees the very essence of ‘Dora’ cast only through the words of Freud.
Claire Pajaczkowska, one of the directors of the Dora ‘short‘ (who interestingly caveated the marketing team’s adoption of this word suggesting Freud’s, and her own, artistic desire for both case study and film in focus to be an invitation for wider discussion and interrogation – that is to say, anything but ‘short’) introduced the piece explaining its structure, motivation and content. Ultimately, she highlighted her shared desire to challenge perceptions of mental disturbance and production. The film takes three parts. The first is a conventional talking lips piece exploring the relation between history, desire and discourse and highlighting the tension between subjectivity and objectivity.
The talking lips model is self-consciously intended to be confusing, typifying the 1980s cinematic approach of not being able to listen and read at the same time, loosely related to Freud’s theories of transference and the pre-verbal and his focus on bodily experience rather than coherency of narrative. This section of the short was succeeded by a verbatim case study. It is useful context to know that ‘Dora’ (1905) was already a retro-narrative as written after the events by Freud. Talking lips have, by this time, become talking bodies in the short: corpses without heads cast as if through a deconstructed lens akin to Lacan’s subsequent writings on our plurality of selves, mind and body.
Finally the film orientates around a failure of expression (both creative and narrational). Indeed, Freud considered ‘Dora’ a failed case, as the female subject terminated treatment before he considered a cure had been reached. This study prompted what might be termed truth-finding on Freud’s part. He needed an object or patient to project his thoughts and considerations onto, in particular to assess the role of the mother or pre-Oedipal phase. In a similar way, as individuals, we can often be unaware of considering ourselves – our many selves – as subjects to be explored. This dislocation need not be seen as narcissistic, but can be deeply productive, heralding a possibility to reach personal understanding through standing outside ourselves, by stepping back, by considering ourselves with cocked head (optional).
There is no singular way of reaching an understanding of our own minds or of changing them, but this is a very live discussion across general public and policy platforms and is certainly something Freud would have championed should he stumble across a blustery London Embankment anytime soon.
Image Credit: Kai, Flickr