[ISEA2017] Paper: Vanessa Bartlett & Lizzie Muller — Curating/containing: Exhibiting digital art about mental health


Keywords: Curating, Evaluation, Audiences, Digital Art, Psychosocial Research, Practice-Based Research.

Museums and galleries have always been recognized as creating wellbeing outcomes. This paper builds upon this existing dis- course with a study that is specific to the curation of digital art- works addressing the topic of mental health. It documents my own practice based research and audience response to the exhibi- tion: Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age, held at FACT, UK in 2015. Audience feedback was gathered using a psychosocial research method called the visual matrix, which is designed to capture more affective responses than existing meth- ods of arts evaluation. Presenting this feedback, I focus on a perceived dichotomy between the historical and the digital, where audiences understood the asylum as a place of sanctuary and the digital content as anxiety provoking. I use this tension to propose next steps in my own practice alongside some wider considerations for curatorial approaches to digital art dealing with mental health. Issues of curatorial care are central, as I consider how a curator can support audiences to encounter challenging digital artworks that deal with mental distress. I adapt and test Wilfred Bion’s concept of container-contained (also a key theoretical component of the visual matrix method) as a paradigm for this caretaking function.

  • Vanessa Bartlett is a researcher and curator based between Australia and the UK. She is a PhD Candidate at UNSW Art & Design where her research investigates connections between digital technologies and psychological distress through reflective curatorial practice. Her most recent curatorial project Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age was co-curated with Mike Stubbs for FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) Liverpool, UK in 2015. This show was visited by over 13,000 people and received coverage in international media outlets such as BBC World Service and Creative Review. A second iteration of Group Therapy is currently under development for UNSW Galleries, Sydney, with a focus on mental health concerns specific to Australian audiences including indigenous communities. An important part of Vanessa’s approach is finding appropriate ways to understand audience response to exhibitions dealing with psychological distress. Shortcomings in existing social science methods mean that affective and emotive dimensions are often overlooked. Vanessa is adapting and applying a psychosocial research method called the visual matrix as both a generative and evaluative tool, in order to better understand the affective response of audiences and communities to exhibitions that she creates. Vanessa learned this process by collaborating with its creator Prof. Lynn Froggett, Director of the Psychosocial Research Unit at University of Central Lancashire. Vanessa’s writing has featured in the Guardian and she has given talks and lectures internationally in Belgrade, Ljubljana and Helsinki, as well as at prestigious UK venues including Tate Liverpool, The Arnolfini, The V&A and The Science Museum, London. In the past she has worked as a researcher and producer for two of the UK’s most exciting digital media festivals: FutureEverything, Manchester and Abandon Normal Devices. She has also curated a number of exhibitions at independent and artist led venues including Slowness at Red Wire Gallery, which was highlighted as a must see exhibition by Times critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston. In 2011 she served for a year as Performance Programmer at The Bluecoat, Liverpool, where she managed the annual programme budget and curated and produced a programme of live art, music and dance.

Full text (PDF) p. 279-288