Celia Graham-Dixon in Conversation with
As part of Hysteria, a series of events organised by Ladybeard magazine, feminist art and design magazine Syrup is hosting Spiral, a creative exploration of anxiety through the modes of moving image, installation and film screenings. To discuss her work and the idea behind the event, Emily Briselden-Waters, participating artist and Syrup co-editor talks to writer and researcher, Celia Graham-Dixon.
CeliaAs a starting point, I’d like to talk about the idea behind putting on an event like Spiral and in what ways it comes out of the work you do at Syrup Magazine. It seems that it’s been important for you to give space to different interpretations of anxiety and how thinking of it through a feminist lens gives way to distinct visual languages that it can be explored or illuminated by. All the work in the show is in some way screen-based, which draws out the immersive abilities and affective qualities of this surface. Immersion is a state that pertains both to artistic involvement and anxiety, in what way is this a key theme running through both the event and Syrup as a wider project?
I don’t think we can talk about mental health without talking about gender, so the show tries to give a voice and a platform to anxiety as a feminist issue. Immersion was an important factor in thinking of how to present the work and how to physically envisage the theme. Screens are used in several different ways throughout the space. Some of the works use screens in an installation context, while others present collage and drawing digitally. There is also narrative film, which calls for a more focused viewing experience and a different type of immersion. We wanted to think about different ways that work can be shown and new ways that the theme can be explored. It needs to be an open and varied discussion because everyone has their own experience that leads them to the point of anxiety. This speaks to the ethos of Syrup too, which I created with Grace Crannis as a way of exploring how creativity and design can be used as tools for change. We wanted to rethink what a feminist publication could look like and create a well-designed piece of activism that people want to sit down with and read.
CI’m really interested by this attempt to visualise and give form to anxiety, both through the individual works and how they interact with each other in the space. In some ways, this gives materiality to something that is intangible and nebulous, but in other ways it draws out the material qualities of this state, which can often engage and test the body in unexpected and challenging ways. Can you tell me a bit about how you explored this in your MA project, Circus of Anxiety?
The physicality of anxiety was a key element for me and something that kept coming up throughout the project. I did a lot of interviews with medical professionals and people who suffer from anxiety and every time I asked people why there was a stigma around anxiety, they’d say it’s because you can’t see it. I wanted to explore how tangible anxiety can be and how internal thought gives way to physical experience, which is why I used installation, projection, costume and set design to try and communicate this. This is also something that comes up in Shelter, Sheltered, the piece by Grace, Emilie and Jenny. Their work looks at physicality from the opposite direction and envisages the ways that domestic physical space can lead to and have an effect on the way we experience anxiety. This is echoed again in the show’s narrative films, which deal with the affective power of familial and cultural spaces.
The use of different physical and immersive elements in your work emphasises the need to affirm the realness of anxious experience. As well as touching on the stigma attached to mental illness and the myth that they are somehow less ‘real’ than other illnesses, this also suggests the need to create a new visual language or set of explicative or interpretive gestures to explore anxiety. In what sense do you think the realm of art and specifically feminist art can offer new and productive ways to discuss these issues and form strings of connection for people?
The initial idea for my work was based around hysteria and how it’s been historically performed. I was trying to reclaim this element of performance and gesture and rephrase it in a celebratory way. I wanted to use my work to explore how women can reclaim their physicality and their bodies in relation to this illness. In a sense, I’ve mirrored the processes of how anxiety has been performed historically, but I’ve tried to do it through a feminist lens and claim more ownership of the body. A lot of the references in my costumes are from Bauhaus. This aesthetic mirrors the geometric and circular shapes that were produced when I asked people to draw their anxiety in the beginning stages of the project. This also echoes the idea of rumination, overthinking and spiralling, hence why we chose of ‘Spiral’ as the name of the event.
CWith hysteria being historically, and indeed etymologically, associated with women, it seems crucial for women to reclaim the conversation about our mental health as a political issue and to consider the part social factors play in how each of us experiences or is treated for anxiety. The way anxiety and mental health is understood, both within the health service and outside, can often overlook issues of race and class. This is where the politics of self-care comes in, which black feminism has already done so much to show is a radical act for women of colour. Audre Lorde said that self-care is an act of self-preservation and political warfare and more recently Angela Davis has spoken about it as an important aspect of holistic political organising.
If we’re going to talk about anxiety as a feminist issue, we need to do that in an intersectional way. It also comes down to language and what language we’ve been given or been given the right to use in relation to our mental health. This makes me think of the work that Arts Sisterhood UK have done, which was set up by Ali Strick as a direct response to the growing cuts to mental health services. They run affordable art therapy classes for women and non-binary people, which speaks to the importance of giving people new ways to visualise and communicate emotions and mental health. When I asked people to draw their anxiety for my project, I was interested in people’s ability to give their anxiety imaginative form. The process of creativity is one of self-care, so it was important for me to include this aspect in the project. This is a notion that is also present in Rachel Davey’s hand drawn illustrative work.
CI’m interested in the question of whether art has transformative capabilities, for both the maker and the viewer. In terms of the screen specifically, its textured and tensile qualities give it a material agency that has the ability to draw viewers in and provide the possibility of an affective aesthetic encounter. I have seen the screen be harnessed as a surface of connectivity and compassion, both of which seem crucial in a discussion about anxiety. This is something that Hanna picks up on in The Thin Layer, which incorporates VR – the so-called medium of compassion. What role do you think artistic practice and specifically screen-based media play in helping move people out of certain states?
This brings us back to the idea of immersion and the crucial part it plays in art’s affective power. This is something Lily explores in Walking the Long Way Home, which is filmed from the perspective of a woman walking home at night. This puts you in an immersive space, which speaks to anxiety as a very personal and subjective experience. Hanna’s use of VR picks up on the way that we understand and process through experience. She shows how the medium can be used as a visceral communication tool to help people understand anxiety, which is also a visceral experience. What’s also interesting is the paradox between technology helping us to understand anxiety on the one hand, but also reinforcing it on the other. This is particularly contentious in terms of social media.
This exhibition has given you the opportunity to open up the theme of anxiety to several different artists and I’m interested in what effect that has had on your understanding of the theme and of your own work.
EAnxiety and making work about anxiety are both such personal experiences, but it’s been really important to collaboratively explore the different layers of how people think about it. Everyone has their own individual relationship and response to the theme. The process of putting the event together has led to a very strong and diverse body of work. The show is so much better for having several different interpretations – we want Spiral to be a celebration.
Celia Graham-Dixon is a writer, researcher and editor based in Amsterdam.