As part of our temporary weekly programme Under Construction, every Friday Bethlem Gallery present artists’ work through film & video screenings, conversations, resources and online projects.
This week we have invited artist Bobby Baker to speak with us about her work Pull Yourself Together.
We had the privilege of showing this work at Bethlem Gallery last year in the exhibition ‘Art & Protest: What’s there to be mad about?’, curated by Dolly Sen and it was hugely popular with visitors. Tell us about where this work comes from, how your experiences informed it?
It was an amazing commission that I got in 2000 from Live Art Development Agency, who with a couple of partners, came up with this idea Small Acts for the Millennium. The brief was for artists to do something in response to the Millennium. I immediately had this idea, I think it’d been brewing for a while by then, because I’d been in the mental health system officially three years. It comes from this outrage at how, in our society, there’s a history of being told to buck up, which apparently comes from the drive for Britain to build an Empire. The education system was focused on suppressing displays of emotions, because otherwise people wouldn’t go to war, wouldn’t do as they were told or they wouldn’t work on the land. So I’m interested where that notion of being told to pull yourself together comes from. It’s certainly the environment I grew up in as a middle class family and my Mum, bless her soul, she was pretty troubled in many ways but also troubling. She used to regularly phone me up when I was in the mental health system and she had rather a large personality, and she’d say ‘pull yourself together!’ but then she’d say ‘ I must pull myself together’ because by then she was quite depressed. So, it’s a family joke but also really annoying of course. I realised gradually that it was an attitude held deeply in our society. I can see a place for certain emotional boundaries but these phrases aren’t so helpful when you’re in a level of emotional agony that many of us are or was – I am very fortunate that that’s in the past now.
So, I just had this idea that I wanted to give it back to people, and it seemed obvious it would have to be on the back of a truck with a megaphone. For the first time we did it, in London, it was eight hours driving around the streets of London. We got the truck and we set up banners all round with one on the back which said, ‘Mental Health Action Week’. There was a car seat bolted onto the back of the truck for me, and I had a megaphone. I couldn’t actually communicate with the two people in the cabin of the truck very easily and I suddenly realised how embarrassing it was – I didn’t know how I was going to get the courage to shout at anyone. We finally got down to Camden Town and there were some workmen on a building site, so I tried it on them. The megaphone is directional, so you only hear it vaguely until it hits your zone, so I shouted straight at them and they were really funny. They danced around saying ‘No! No! We’re not going to pull ourselves together!’ and then we drove around London, trying it out. Then in 2007 I did it again at the wonderful Bonkersfest! in Camberwell Green, set up by Creative Roots and then I got asked to do it again for the 3rd International Festival of Madness and Art in Haarlem, Holland where there is the Het Dolhuys, Museum of Madness. It was such a beautiful place Haarlem, very cultured and smart really, very genteel. I had the same problem heading off from that lovely museum and thinking oh no! this is so embarrassing! The Dutch expression is ‘kop op’ you know, ‘buck up’. I tried a whole variety of phrases but for some reason I kept shouting ‘Hello Haarlem’ which just seems so British and ridiculous! Most of the time I was going ‘Hello Haarlem! Pull yourselves together and kop op!’. They’d set up this really good film maker, he was up on the back of the truck and we just rambled around, it was good fun. I’ve not done it again since and I’m actually really keen to.
It feels quite pertinent to now and our situation. It’s interesting what you’re saying about the military and our education system and the idea of being productive in the eyes of the state, it’s that kind of stiff upper lip rhetoric.
Yes, so apparently that was the foundation of the public-school system. Well I based it on Ian Hislop who did some amazing programmes on telly, like his series on the Emotional History of Britain. He made the case that in mediaeval times and with Regency Britain, to be expressive and emotional was very fashionable and then when imperialism and the grab for global power came in they had to have armies that did what they were told. I know that’s not the same as mental illness but it’s the root of a kind of hatred of people who don’t toe the line.
But expressing emotion is a way of staying well, it’s necessary, a human necessity otherwise things kind of bottle up and build up and then explode.
Yeah, it’s about finding ways for people to listen and to have conversations. I know, having suppressed my feelings most of my adult life till I got to my mid-forties, I couldn’t hide the early traumatic experiences and how I felt about them, it’s not good. So, Pull Yourself Together was kind of a strange thing to do but the good thing was it was funny and it clearly made people think. I realised that I want people to be engaged in my work, I tried not to be funny with my early work but there was always something a bit farcical and actually if people get into it and then go away and think about it, then that is quite helpful.
Cheer up! It’s such a difficult phrase so often used without thinking. There is an inherent power imbalance implied from the start where the phrase user insinuates that there is nothing to be upset or down about and that everyone else should be seeing things from their perspective. It just says so much in two words…
People say, as an older woman you become invisible and how annoying that is, I find it quite a relief actually, you know to stop attracting men’s attention in the street. When I was young, I am very emotional person and much happier now, but I’d be walking down the street looking slightly tortured and a car would drive past and these men would shout out ‘Cheer up darling! It’s not the end of the world!’ I didn’t mind that too much, you know, jokiness but that can quite easily then turn into a really oppressive judgement and lead to a culture of exclusion and bullying. I’ve experienced that very badly at certain stages during my life. And yet, the alternative, of everybody expressing emotions all the time, is really annoying! It’s about finding ways that people can be expressive and feel supported.
Would you say that language is important in your work?
Oh! Obsessed with it! And the people I work with we’re always looking up definitions, constantly going back and forth putting words together. I’m not a person to really ever study academically, I like little bits of knowledge and then trying to fit them together. But I’d love to go to whole series of lectures by linguists, to talk about language and how society frames the way that we talk and discuss things is really interesting so yeah it is very important in my work.
I felt that when you started Daily Life Ltd, there was an interesting shift that made me think about language and social change and I think similarly with Bethlem Gallery, we’re all working towards thinking very carefully about the language that we use.
Well I really love that about Bethlem and organisations like Outside In, it’s a really respectful consideration of the whole survivor movement of how do you talk about these difficult things without medicalising them, how do you acknowledge great difference and difficulty and trauma or whatever it is ,without undervaluing it. But not just going into lazy habits, which I feel the media does again and again and again. For them, there’s only one way of thinking about mental distress and that is to talk about it in a kind of diagnostic way, and obviously that is important on one level but like now, with COVID-19, saying these melodramatic things like ‘the whole world is going to be mentally ill’, it’s like trauma happens, there are ways to process it. I’m part of a culture now where consideration and care is of interest and they can and do make a difference.
Thinking again about the phrases, do you think we find it difficult to be honest to each other when things are hard? What would life look like right now if we’d all been more honest with each other and said ‘yes things are pretty shit right now and I don’t know how we can make them better’?
Well people acknowledge that more now, but my thing again, again and again is to come back to dealing with things when they happen. So, if children are abused or there are traumatised families or bad things happen, society knows how better to deal with it, to support parents to acknowledge the cruelty and abuse and to deal with it at the time. Then you wouldn’t have these things quite so buried. My father was drowned on a family holiday when I was 15, it was one of the most devastatingly tragic things to happen and it’s actually quite difficult to talk to people about because it’s such a shocking story and yet these things do happen, it is part of life. It was a long time ago and he was a lovely man, and he was in my life for 15 years, so I’m lucky in that respect. I have sort of made sense of it but what was so difficult was the next 9-10 years of my life because it wasn’t dealt with well you know; it was a time when it was never spoken about and a lot of things went wrong. I think that’s it; how can we support people in the time and at that moment and validate really difficult experiences, experiences which I think are the route of a lot of problems.
Yeah I think you’re right we find it very difficult to talk, we’ve become so advanced in many things but actually talking about difficult things and emotions we’ve got a lot of work to do and catch up on.
And that is where art comes in! Because I actually think that things that are really difficult, can be expressed through a story, a film, an artwork and it triggers off something or it’s something outside of all of you. I think it is not the only solution but it’s a great resource where we can reflect.
Pull Yourself Together has been described as a ‘cheerful revenge’ which is an interesting concept! Is there a therapeutic element in performing this kind of revenge or retaliation? And in your performance work in general?
I don’t know, I’m always a bit wary of bringing in the notion of therapy to my work. I’m making it because I want to communicate with other people but I’m also making work that I would make anyway for myself. The point, particularly with that show, was communication. I wanted to make a statement and no it wasn’t therapeutic; it was funny and fun. I think there was certainly a degree of revenge, after many years, several decades of being told to pull myself together, it was just fun. Although fun is not right word, it was pointed. And yes, I do like the word cheerful!
So, I wouldn’t say that it was therapeutic, as it was actually a scary thing to do as you are quite exposed sitting on that truck. When I’m performing, usually you see can see people around you. When I’m making a film and editing, you can be careful in controlling what happens. But when driving about on the back of a truck, you have no way of knowing what is going on. I did feel quite exposed at times and felt that people could attack me. I know that the driver, Steve, would have got out and defended me. I quite often do things without foreseeing the risk or I’m told about the risk and just ignore it and then when you actually do it you think ‘Oh no! why did I do this!’. So yeah it’s kind of therapeutic in hindsight.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about it now and actually realise how exposing it was at the time, I guess on camera, you look very at ease…
Well I’m performing, I’m performing the ease. If you think about performing in the wider sense, that’s what I was doing and it’s a very long time to be doing that. There were these constant little encounters on the way, one really terrifying run-in when I was doing it for Bonkersfest and we got stuck at the lights in Stockwell on the A23. There was this car full of the most beautiful women, all dressed up going some church you know, very dignified, graceful, older women and we just looked in at each other and I was just so embarrassed! I thought, what must they think of me? They sort of smiled and waved to begin with and we just went on and on and I felt like such an idiot. So yeah there were strange things but mostly I was really pleased to have had the chance to do it and we’ve still got the car seat ready to bolt on some other truck when we get another gig.
The people on the streets of Haarlem who encountered and engaged with the act itself, experienced it in a particular way where they didn’t necessarily know it was art. Then you have a secondary audience watching the documentation online who know it is art. I’m interested in the difference between those experiences. Does calling something art ever get in the way of making social change?
I always think it’s worth a go, I think it’s the way it’s curated or presented isn’t it? The great thing about that film is it’s been on YouTube, which is very democratically available. I don’t know if the film had ever been curated into an exhibition before Bethlem and so there, it was very much formally art and I was just thrilled by that because I just felt so proud to be part of that show. The way the work was presented and seen and talked about and then how I defined myself in that context; it was like coming home for an evening. There was a sense of relief. I loved so much of the work there that I hadn’t seen before but had read about online, like Mad Chicks and their history as well as the work of gobscure, the way it was all curated I thought was really exciting.
In this piece, as with much of your work, you expertly combine humour and an uneasiness, you invite people into that awkward position where issues around mental health are made fun of. What kinds of reactions do you get?
Well a massive range, it’s a bit of a fine line and I’ve made quite a bit of work about that stage of my life, I’m not making work about madness now. It’s interesting, the range of reactions, because people are a bit shocked and feel a bit indignant afterwards saying you made me laugh and you made me cry. A lot of my work does that and I think, well so? I think there is something, and I would acknowledge it, slightly manipulative about the humour. It’s sort of lulling people, but it isn’t really that because I find I laugh virtually the whole time at life. I come from a family that laugh at things, I think it comes from a position of oppression, to laugh back. I read a rather alarming statement recently from somebody quite famous, saying basically that satire comes from the position of the oppressed but you’re never going to change things by being satirical and I was like oh no! But I love that, I find things funny and absurd so authentically, I am laughing. But I really want people to think, the whole aim is to communicate what are sometimes complicated ideas and to enable people to step back and think a bit, and sometimes that can be uncomfortable and awkward and people can be confused. I don’t want to make people feel uncomfortable and awkward but what annoys me, because of the stigma around psychiatric labelling , there isn’t public understanding that people can get better. I’ve been good for a very long period of time now. I think there needs to be stories of people changing their life and I’m not saying everybody can, but I did, and some people do. I’m older and happier, I’m proud of that and yet I still get people assume, from having seen a piece of work about that period, they get the nodding bird head going ‘how are you?’ and I get so annoyed.
So yes, the reactions are very varied and depend on the person but again it’s how you frame it and how kindly you relate to it. The ones that make me the happiest is when people have had a similar experience or laughed as much as me, who’ve been as mad as me.
What’s been your experience been during the Covid-19 pandemic? Have you been able to create any work?
I am really interested in that. Well I am meant to be doing these drawings and I know what the drawings are but I’m doing everything else, including a lot of cooking, knitting, lots of gardening and I seem to be incapable of drawing. I’ve got to make a small homemade movie this week and I’ll have to do that because there is a deadline but yeah, I am finding it really difficult in parts. So I am not making any work which is annoying because I have more time. I think it’s going to be very strange coming out of it. I’m doing a lot of talking and thinking about ideas which is fantastic. And looking at a lot of work online, reading, watching online festivals and seeing lectures that I would never get chance to go to, so that’s probably the best way to look at it and think hopefully a lot of thinking and work will come out of it.
About Bobby Baker
Bobby Baker is a woman and an artist acclaimed for producing radical work of outstanding quality across disciplines including performance, drawing and multi media.
In a career spanning four decades she has, amongst other things, danced with meringue ladies; made a life-sized version of her family out of cake; and driven around the streets of London strapped to the back of a truck yelling at passers by through a megaphone to ‘Pull Yourselves Together.’
Baker’s touring exhibition Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me 1997- 2008 premiered at the Wellcome Collection in 2009, and the accompanying book of the same name won the Mind Book of the Year 2011. Her most recent exhibition, Tarros de Chutney, was held in Madrid at La Casa Encendida in 2019.
Baker occupies a unique professional and personal position in the worlds of both the arts and mental health. Following an AHRC Creative Fellowship at Queen Mary University, London she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 2011.
Image credit: Bobby Baker, photography © Hugo Glendinning