The Dear World Project launched in 2017, bringing together the ideas of four individuals: Rachel Bedder (PhD student), Cassandra Hugill (Public Engagement Manager), Robb Rutledge (Principal Investigator) and Alban Low (Artist). This multi-disciplinary team explored ways to engage people in the complexities of mental health and the research being undertaken at the Centre.
The group explored many different artistic ideas that would best allow people to share their thoughts and feelings about mental health anonymously.
Connecting themes in Robb and Rachel’s research, including different methods of categorising and understanding mental health disorders and symptoms, they then worked with Alban, an artist who specialises in interactive public art. Alban brought their ideas to life by designing beautiful postcards which formed the basis of this project. Over the coming years, the team attended several festivals and events, where they shared their research and invited thousands of members of the public to contribute their own postcards.
These postcards sparked the team to think more about labels used in mental health and the associated stigmas associated with their use. The project was not intended to say labels were good or bad, but to spark conversation around how labels are used.
Exploring the intriguing and important themes that had emerged in more detail, the postcards were used as inspiration for the science-art exhibition. The exhibition included 9 artworks based around the theme of mental health. One of the pieces was based on the postcards, Sort Circuit. Created by Alban, Rachel and Alex Hopkins, they used machine learning to create the piece, which explored how information like the postcard submissions can be used to further understand the complexities of mental health.
As part of the Dear World Project, the team held a number of pop-up events at community festivals (Bloomsbury Festival; The Great Get Together), music festivals (Latitude) and events to learn more about how people feel about mental health and the labels associated with it.
The pop-ups ran in the format of an installation featuring a post box where members of the public could anonymously send postcards about their own mental well-being. They could then be part of the ‘sorting office’, where they were asked to organise and categorise the messages from others. Through this process, researchers, collaborators and members of the public discussed how symptoms are categorised, how diagnostic labels are used in research and how this relates to a lived experience of mental health.
The Dear World Project exhibition was inspired by the themes and conversations that emerged from the pop-ups held throughout 2018 and 2019. It showcased 9 artworks that explored different aspects of mental health, and which were co-created by scientists and artists. The resulting pieces were exhibited at Stour Space in East London from 20th February – 3rd March 2020.
The exhibition was a process-focused public engagement project where artists and scientists learnt the merits of each other’s way of working and found a common ground from which to make an engaging piece. The artworks produced took a multitude of forms and by definition made their concept and message tangible in a participatory and thought-provoking way.
Working across disciplines brings fantastic opportunities but also a number of challenges. In this project, the team ran a series of workshops with all of the artists and scientists involved to ensure that genuine collaboration and co-production could happen. The three workshops focused on helping the artists and scientists effectively collaborate towards the goal of engaging people around mental health. Each one with a specific focus.
Workshop 1: Communication and learning to hear each other
This workshop looked at finding common ground within the team and learning to be confident in their explanations to, and interpretations of, each other.
Workshop 2: What does engagement look like?
This workshop focused on what makes an engaging final piece… how can we bring the themes to life in the most thought-provoking and involving way? Why should we do this?
Workshop 3: Bringing it all together
This workshop looked at how to find a common thread between each piece to unite the entire exhibition. It was a chance to share plans and finalise how they would have visitors interacts and engage with their pieces.