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’re screening A treatment journey by Courtney as well as sharing a conversation with the artist to find out more about the ideas behind his work.
A treatment journey
Repurposing the institutional spaces around him as a studio and site for artistic enquiry, Courtney (formerly John) presents video documentation of his creative interventions. These processes and acts form part of his ongoing attempts to explore and communicate the intricate complexities, contradictions and tensions felt by an individual navigating a psychiatric institution and pathway to recovery.
Camera work by Josip Lizatovic
*there is no sound in this video
Thank you for sharing this, there’s an openness, an ambiguity in the video that opens up different thoughts and ideas as we watch it unfurl. It’s beautiful to see the way you work with found and made objects and situations.
Using the lone cut out figure, going over lino, over colours, words and grass creates a a multi layered journey, there are peaks and troughs along the way to try and capture some of the emotional content of my own journey. The lino flooring was all speckled that was interesting visually to me and there was all these little bits of grit and gravel getting stuck on the way which I found striking; what did all these little bits mean to me personally?
Yes when watching it your attention is drawn to what is inside the negative space of the figure, there we see what the individual is comprised of, many things, drawing, lines, colour, institutional space, grass…
We used a perspex sheet with the cut out figure on top of it and filmed that. Going along the various corridors it has a reflective value so you could see inside the buildings, see the clouds and the sky as you were going along the journey. Passing through the building, to the outside. For me in terms of my own journey, that was going to be a goal, beyond institutional care or psychiatric treatment. So that was about positivity and hope, I wanted to try and capture that with the reflections, to reflect my hopes and aspirations as well as it being about me, physically about me and about my ideas and plans beyond this treatment journey, life beyond this place.
There are parts in the film where there are bars, locks and those sorts of constraints, I tried to show the physical kinds of boundaries in this place that also represent something else for me personally. There are elements of myself that would prevent me from trying to engage with life or engaging with other people, I was actually holding myself back. I used images of bars and other constraints as kind of boundaries that represent some of the psychological or emotional problems I face.
The figure’s continuous movement through the space really emphasises the feeling of a journey, and idea of a journey implies ups and downs.
Well I tried to make it so there were pauses, like a pause for thought, as I was going along and I was thinking about what I wanted to say and how I was going to say it. It’s important on a journey to to stop and think and take stock of what’s going on. Whether its how you’ve grown and developed or understanding how you have been reshaped by difficulties and how you respond to that reshaping. It was important to have these pauses in the figure’s journey but also to explore the texture changes as well, there were little bits of grit or dirt sticking to the figure which were maybe the remnants of a past which occasionally come back. Going out over the grass and the floral element was something that was more in keeping with progress and hope and change. The pauses to stop and take stock were also about not just admiring what was going around me but also within me, taking time out to appreciate some of these changes.
The term, journey is interesting because it is part of the language of recovery and used by psychiatry, but in this artwork it feels like your ownership of the term really humanises it.
For me my journey has been very emotive and the work was to try and capture some of the tensions and some of the emotions, I wanted to try and capture what happens in my treatment because there are moments that are really difficult. To try and capture their texture is really challenging.
A lot of my world is shaped by art and it’s an important way to express things that I might not be able to articulate in a clear way. I try to do that using the environment around me, and its that environment that helps me as well. Not viewing the environment as something hostile or something to fight against but to embrace it, welcome it. There are people around me who are there to support and guide me as I go, although the figure in the video is alone, there are many other elements in my journey that you can’t see.
Thinking about the second part of the video where we see paper figures hanging up moving in the air, what does it mean to you to make interventions on the ward?
With the hanging figures in the ward corridor, I wanted to equate myself with another battle and that is the shape of my own body and the difficulties I’ve had earlier on in my life where other people would make me aware of our differences and not our similarities. I wasn’t really seen. So using the paper figures, they take on a different shape, an interesting shape. I was trying to get across how I felt about not being seen and having to do something in order to be seen. That is what I was drawn to here, what to do in order to be seen. The piece of lino sticking up from the floor, people would have walked past and not seen it, it needed to do something to be recognised. When it changed, people stopped and noticed it. So when I developed that piece of lino and gave it more life, more meaning, that is how I felt that I needed to do things, to give meaning and to be seen and appreciated. But actually just being myself was fine, I didn’t have to have all sorts of tinsel on me, I could just be me, I wanted to capture that element of my journey too. How that insignificant little piece of lino blossomed into something else and changed people’s perspective of it.
The sculptural elements you tie onto and place next to the lino, they add all this interest and value, does being an artist and making art do the same thing for us as people?
It does exactly that and by using the world about us in a creative way. It was wonderful to be able to see the work grow and develop and the ideas of what we could do to that small piece of lino, giving it a whole new life and meaning. Thats what I try to do with my art, it becomes something quite magical and then sometimes I am spellbound by the results.
With the hanging ‘perfect body’ paper figures, when they were cut from a bigger sheet of paper, they immediately started curling and gyrating and dancing and moving; that reminded me of my journey and treatment, that sense of being liberated. It related to how I felt when people viewed me and the shape of my body, that I was strange and unusual and different. There was a real sense of joy when they dance, they became alive and started moving of their own accord. They weren’t comfortable with the shape they were in. As soon as I cut them from the shape that was preventing their movement, they were liberated and then they were full of life and began moving all around, it was like a dance.
You have a really interesting relationship to materials and objects in the way that they become emotionally charged…
Yes there is a kind of Bauhaus element to this, seeing life in a seemingly inanimate object. If you change the lighting or the perspective, if you change something about the environment, you start to see a new side to the object, it becomes interesting. Walking along and seeing things and noticing them and thinking about possibilities, ‘what if I… what if?’ that’s the question that is always there. In terms of my anxiety, it was always about say, crossing the road and thinking ‘ but what if a car comes?’ and being hampered by worry around hazards. But if I look at an object and apply that ‘what if?’ and think about ‘what if I change the light here…?’ then that relieves the tension in me, I’m distracted and it becomes an exciting journey, it’s exciting to see the possibilities.
Yes you take a negative ‘what if?’ and make it a positive artistic ‘what if?’!
Sometimes I take cardboard boxes and make them into something interesting, other people get engaged with it and that is good to watch. That little piece of lino, if I signpost it, make it interesting and see the life in it, I try to tease that out and give it language and meaning and a purpose. I have a relationship with these things and that is interesting.
When I see something with potential, I try to find another language to describe what is going on for me. Its about an inner strength that I don’t often recognise with myself. I work with Josip here and he might use cameras to document things and then I build on that, and that is what I get from the relationships I have with the people I work with. We see things together and we exchange ideas, then things develop and grow as a result of these exchanges.
The making of your art, videos and drawings seems to be a deeply reflective learning process for you, for people encountering your artwork who haven’t had these conversations with you, they can access the work in a very open way and take their own meanings from it.
Yes I have had people see these films and been deeply moved by it, they become quite overwhelmed, art can change the way people think about the things around them. I get a lot from what the artwork does for somebody else and what they are thinking and feeling. People go to galleries to appreciate art for all sorts of reasons and that is why its exciting, when I talk to people from all walks of life about my art, they give me a very human response and that is what I love.
We’ve been lucky enough to have screened this video a few times over the years at Bethlem Gallery and at the Dragon Cafe but it’s really interesting to watch this again now. With all our lives changed by the arrival of COVID-19 and the way we are adjusting to loss of freedom of movement and finding ways to cope with extended periods of time in confined space; I wonder whether people may draw more parallels between your work and their own lives?
I think so, I think people will realise we are all on a similar journey and we’re all hoping for same sort of ending, we’re all striving for the same sort of goals. I hope people can recognise the similarities rather than the differences, which I felt earlier on in my life. Actually there is something more harmonious about this, the engagement between people is strengthened by the fact that we can all relate quite directly to other people’s experiences. That strength and the quality of the relationship we have is that we are all it it together and all feeling similar effects. I spent a lot of my life living in boxes of stone and people sadly are experiencing that and the difficulty that it comes with being confined. For me, this experience brings home to me and my family about what my life has been like living for long periods of my life in these places on my own and having my movements restricted and limited for different reasons. From my perspective, we are living through this together and are in this experience together, we are all trying to solve the problem and work on it. I think that will strengthen the relationships people have with one another when we come out of this.