A flat surface that’s big enough to sleep on, a wardrobe missing a door, no clothes hangers. This is my seventh stopover at a mental health hospital, but compared to the last, this somehow feels different, even better. Maybe because the room has a window. I look out the window and see a car park. It’s not a river, a forest or rolling mountains, but at least I can watch the world pass by. “Who designed this place, and what was wrong with them?” I think. I can see other people who look ill, they are mostly lying down, they have big pillows, flowers and get-well-soon cards. These patients look hopeful. But I don’t look ill, I’m not lying in bed with the papadam-thin pillow, I don’t have any flowers or cards. And unsurprisingly, I don’t feel that hopeful. Something’s not right here, or am I just mad? I wonder why I’m legally detained here, and how that’s supposed to lift my spirits, or give me hope.
A few years ago while spending a week staring at static cars, I got to know I had multiple serious mental illnesses. It was never going to be easy. For me, at the age of 18, it was a moment when my fears about what was happening in my mind were confirmed. Luckily, my friends, family and most people I’d met were sympathetic. Illness is only a part of life, right? But having spent a large part of my adult life in different mental health hospitals, sometimes by choice and sometimes not, legally detained in hospital, or taken there by friends, it doesn’t surprise me that people don’t want to get help. After all, why would you want to be in such a place?
But imagine if seeking support for your mental health was seen as a good thing, or the place you could go to get that support was safe and a really nice place to be. This question is something I’ve been exploring in my latest art project, ‘Madlove: A Designer Asylum’. What should the perfect asylum be like? I’m not sure it exists and I’m not sure it ever could. But I’m not looking for perfection. Utopia is a path, not a place, and the journey is important. I say, let the lunatics take over the asylum. In fact, let us design, build and run our own asylums. Living with a mental illness when the quality of care is so poor means you become an expert, so why not put that knowledge to good use?
Since the autumn of last year, my collaborator Hannah Hull and I have been speaking to people with lived experiences of mental illness, caregivers, doctors and nurses. We’ve asked them specific and non-specific questions. Like, what does good mental health care taste, sound, smell, look and feel like? Or, if you could design your own asylum, what would it be like? The answers have been diverse, possible and impossible, obvious and beautifully ridiculous. From simple gardens with tree-top houses, rooms of Faberge eggs and hammers, walls that change colour and the world’s most comfortable bed. This spring, we opened a small test version of our ‘Madlove: A Designer Asylum’ in Liverpool and are working towards setting up a complete version of this temporary space in London soon. It’s important to not be delusional though. Designer asylums aren’t going to rid the world of mental distress, even if they could radically change how we experience madness and our attitudes towards it. There are many contributing factors to the human experience that we can’t and shouldn’t control. Mental distress will always be with us, it’s a normal part of the world. What is crazy is punishing people for being mad when they need love.
James is a renowned UK-based artist. His work has been exhibited throughout the UK; E-mail your columnist: suck [AT] vacuumcleaner [DOT] co [DOT] uk