CW: Mental health
Interview with Pam, the Arts as Advocacy Manager, and Elspeth, one of the founders and original planning group members.
Unfiltered. Community. Human.
These are the words that came to mind when asked by one of the invigilators how I would personally describe the Out of Sight Out of Mind exhibition.
Celebrating its tenth anniversary, OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND, is a free exhibition at Summerhall showcasing over 200 works of art by those who have lived through their own mental health histories. Launched on the evening of October 11, this showing lasts until October 30.
Many of the pieces were so frank. A range of media, from photography to sculpture, pours out such vivid emotions. Unlike the stereotypical “art institution”, Summerhall houses a space for OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND establishing a non-judgemental and open forum for artists across the city to speak their mind and be heard.
Ten years on from its emergence, our society still grapples with representing mental health. With mental health campaigns plastered on social media, community boards and adverts, many are breaking the stigma and taboo of talking about mental health, however, there are so many experiences that are still not publicly discussed.
I was lucky enough to speak to Pam, the Arts as Advocacy Manager, and Elspeth, one of the founders and original planning group members, in the Corner Gallery upstairs, about the behind-the-scenes of the exhibition and its evolution.
Can you explain how the ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ exhibition came into being? What is its origin story?
Pam: “I saw the first exhibition as just a visitor and I was blown away by it, particularly I remember Elspeth’s patients’ letters and speaking to one of the invigilators…the experience was so powerful… just from speaking to people, it was just that, a collection of people, it was part of the Scottish Mental Arts Festival.”
Elspeth: “Out of Sight Out of Mind has its roots in collective advocacy which is how CAPS were fundamental in funding and supporting it.”
Pam: “It’s the agenda of the people involved, that drives what happens, not the organisations nor the workers of the organisations. That’s kind of the spirit of this exhibition… There is an aim of equality, equity, everyone being equal.”
Can you explain the behind-the-scenes and planning process?
Pam: “Everyone in the planning group works on a voluntary basis. Everyone is equal, involved in the budgeting, in the curation, in how we write our forms. People with lived experience of mental health issues are at the centre of how we make our project.”
Elspeth: “CAPS often facilitates a space for us to meet, provides the free coffee and can often mediate things. Whereas we are the ones who want to say what we want to say, CAPS can make that happen by giving us a forum to meet. We are here to say what we want to say as artists or being involved in the planning committee. Advocacy workers don’t have an agenda nor tell you how to do things.”
Pam: “We started in February this year. It’s a project of heart and passion, people are really passionate about it.”
Elspeth: “As soon as the exhibition is up and running, some of the artists are working on their artworks for the next year. For some, it’s a year-round cycle.”
How does this differ to traditional art institutions?
Pam: “People on the planning group, we don’t view them as volunteers. CAPS is working in service to them, it’s a different relationship.”
Me: “I guess that is how this defies the “institution” and “stereotypical galleries”.”
Pam: “And that’s what people feel, people tell us that difference of the sense they feel.”
Elspeth: “I think people feel for all sorts of reasons that they belong, that they belong here. It’s a sense of validation without necessarily knowing that it is part of collective advocacy. But there is the repeated theme that I am being seen, and I am being heard.”
Pam: “We need more spaces like this, collective advocacy spaces are needed. This project is funded by the NHS and therefore sets it apart. It doesn’t have a health agenda, but if it was in the arts, it would probably have an arts agenda. The lovely thing is that the funders have let this project have its own agenda.”
How has the exhibition evolved over time? How has the exhibition expanded physically and in popularity?
Pam: “We offer an annual theme for exhibitors who like to work by a theme, this is completely optional. This year the theme was: “gather”. The artworks, a lot of them aren’t about mental health. We don’t even make a distinction, every artwork is equal.”
Elspeth: “There was originally the use of a separate brick building, it was a short-term animal hospital. It has cages that are human-sized prison cells for horses. To have that space when we are talking about confinement and Victorian institutions where you were locked in for life, having the cages was a godsend. It was such an atmosphere in that building.”
What is the response from the public like?
Elspeth: “The lovely thing about it is people’s sense of connection. Here, it’s about the rawness of the art, I am not saying it’s outsider art, this is not the case at all; it’s the directness with which they express their personal lives and their experiences. This really resonates with the visitors because they get it. Although the overarching participatory element is mental health, mental health is purely an expression which is labelled all for peoples’ emotional responses so the artwork often does that in an extreme ‘in your face way’.”
Pam: “Their experience is validated on the wall”
Elspeth: “Mental health is incredibly isolating and here there are 200 participants who are saying look at this, this is human”
Pam: “It’s a normal part of everyday life”
How has COVID-19 affected the exhibition? Are there certain messages that have been accentuated by social isolations?
Pam: “Our numbers have doubled since last year; I am not sure whether this is covid-related… We did run them in person, we just managed the first one during two lockdowns. The planning group also commissioned a website. We asked exhibitors whether they wanted their artwork to be in person and almost all of them said yes. It was different then; people had to book and wear masks”
Elspeth: “Pam facilitates these ‘Meet the Artist’ sessions which is a great opportunity for people who are maybe exhibiting for the first time or have always wanted to do what they are doing to speak to a group or individually about what their artwork says and how they created it”
Are there regulations for submitting the work, or is it totally open-ended to encourage freedom of speech?
Pam: “There are guidelines, but they don’t include censoring peoples’ voices. They don’t tell people what they should say and how they should say it. At the same time it’s an exhibition that represents a lot of other people. We would only request a change if we maybe couldn’t fit the artwork in or if it was going to impact on the whole in a negative way. We are all accountable to one another.”
As noted by Pam, there are “Guiding Principles” for how the exhibition runs which are displayed in the Archive gallery and online. These embrace equality, no judgement, openness to content and media and listening to every participant.
What does the next ten years hold?
Pam: “The funding is a massive part of why it can be the way it is. We have this funding until 2028… This is from Thrive Edinburgh, part of the NHS. We hope that Summerhall will still be here…I think where you were talking about having a seat at the table is rare… Collective advocacy spaces are needed.”
I advise a trigger warning for viewers going to see the work as this exhibition deals with many themes of mental health, including hospitalisation and abuse. This is what makes the artworks so powerful, they are expressions from real people with very real perspectives. Nonetheless, for those who are interested, I would highly recommend getting involved, whether that be visiting the space or submitting your own work.
Please see the below links for recommendations of where to now view the 2022 and previous exhibitions digitally, as well as additional contacts referring to mental health support services:
Images courtesy of Sienna Woodward, Art on show at Summerhall Exhibition courtesy of artists.