Features Published 12 October 2021

How do we begin to heal from all this?

Artist the vacuum cleaner talks about his interviews with health workers in Newham, and how his new installation-performance EXPOSURE aims to create a space for exploring collective trauma.

the vacuum cleaner

Newham healthcare workers. Photo: Richard Pelham

“What makes Newham, Newham? Describe your first contact with a covid positive (or covid suspected) patient? Is clapping enough? What was your most challenging moment?
And what was your most beautiful moment? Are you going to be ok?”

These are some of the questions I’d ask the 47 health workers I interviewed in Newham last Autumn, one of the worst affected areas in Europe, as part of the process for my latest piece EXPOSURE. I’d often end by asking them to think about the future. “If you could wave a magic wand over Newham, or Newham hospital, what would you do with it?”

“I’d go back in time and undo some of the traumatic things that happened to people in Newham. Then I’d go further back in time and undo some of the traumatic things that happened to those that caused the trauma. And so on,” says Jenna, an art therapist who worked at the Newham Centre for Mental Health during the first wave of the Pandemic.

I ask “Would you say there is generational trauma in the community that you serve?”

There is a pause.

“Yeah” she says, her eyes connecting with mine, the weight and sadness of that statement hangs in the air.

It’s perhaps not a surprising answer. We know very little about trauma – whether physical, emotional or collective, and how it affects us. But you’d have to be a pretty cold person to think that it doesn’t get passed on from one person to another. Whether through learnt behaviour, the rewiring of our mind/body or the sheer sadness of an individual surviving it.

I’ve spent decades in therapy dealing with my personal trauma. But collective trauma, like collective grief, is something bigger, harder to understand and deeply difficult to sit with.

It’s also a space I’ve had to sit in for the last year as I’ve tried to make EXPOSURE, which is an installation-performance that uses video footage and design by Sascha Gilmour to offer a collective space for healing.

It all started with my friend, who is a doctor. She works at Newham hospital, she’s smart and emotional (in a good way). And once the first lockdown lifted, I began slowly to understand what she had been through. It was a lot….

At the time, and like every other artist I was making work online. So I filmed my friend Emma, for this conference I was doing with a different friend Cecilia. And at the end of the interview Emma said, “y’know I’m just one person at Newham, and I’m fairly senior and it must be the most diverse workplace on earth. After everything we’ve been through, someone should capture it, our stories, like you have just done with me. You’re good at asking questions…” I smile and say “dude, I’ve been in therapy for 15 years, I was just copying my therapist”. And Emma smiled, and gave me a look of ‘off you go, go film’.

So after that, last summer and autumn, I had the huge privilege of sitting opposite 47 of Newham’s health workers. I asked them a series of simple questions and filmed our conversations with my camera in my studio (behind layers of masks and visors and alcohol gel). My producer Becky (and Joyce when Becky had to isolate) the only other person in the room. I amassed 60 hours of footage, from the medical director of the hospital to doctors, nurses, midwives (people still have babies in a pandemic), house keepers and a mental health art therapist.

It was both a hugely distressing and profoundly beautiful experience. I learnt about the emotional effect of not having PPE – feelings of abandonment and lives not valued. The sheer sadness of a nurse holding an iPad whilst families said goodbye to their loved ones (I still weep when I watch the nurse describe this moment). The wonderfulness of solidarity through co-worker care – ‘you are now your brother’s keeper’ becoming a motto. The effects of lockdown on children’s mental health, and of course the huge loss of life, including co-workers. But also the hopes of these health workers that now, after this, after what happened in Newham, like Barking and Dagenham and Brent – that health inequalities, rooted in racism, classism and ableism and more – may finally be addressed.

If you don’t know Newham, like Brent and a few others, was hit hard by COVID, really hard. You hear about street where 10’s of people, families, mothers and fathers and brothers have been lost, grief and trauma on a collective scale.

FUCK THIS VIRUS, and fuck the systems that allowed disabled people and people of colour to take the hardest hits. My heart burns.

So.

This is all very depressing and frightening, and yes there is serious work to do. Jazz hands this is not. But I don’t believe it’s my responsibility to wave my hands and clap. For me art can help us all heal. Yes I still love dancing, and disco, and espresso martinis – and art still needs to do these things, but hey – I’m sure we can multi task, right?

How do we begin to heal from all this? How do we begin to understand what has and is still happening? How can we see the details? (Because the details matter). How can we move between these details and the large patterns? How can we respond by not closing our hearts and minds and retreating into reactionary positions?

For me, as an artist that came to making art through radical direct action of the 2000’s when being an activist was a dirty word, we don’t really have a choice but to listen, deeply. To bear witness, to understand the complexity and begin to move towards a solidarity so strong, a care so profound and maybe even a love so deep that we are unshakeable. That we can take on this COVID crisis and take on all the other fuckery that dominant culture throws at us.

How do we heal from all this?

I have no fucking idea… I’m an artist, not a shaman or a therapist.

But I do know that turning away, dismissing, or not holding onto the reality of people’s experience is super toxic, it leads to generational trauma. It wears away our bandwidth, it cuts us down and stops us shining.

I invited Newham’s health workers to come and sit in my studio – I thought maybe eight would come, but they kept on coming (and the only reason we stopped is because of the second wave, and also because the trauma therapist who was supporting us said we had too…). I tried as hard as I could to make them feel safe. I believed them and respected their experience. We sign posted them to therapy services. We tried to show care, not just in an emotional sense, in a political and practical sense too.

This was last summer and autumn before the second wave. Since then we have been making each interview into a film portrait that will be archived by the Wellcome Collection. Not all of this material will become public in our lifetimes as the details include very personal material. But I hope this record can help this moment of history be understood by future generations.

In addition to this archiving over the spring and summer of this year and with designer Sascha Gilmour, artist Rhiannon Armstrong, artist and mental health nurse Fox Irving and curator and ethics queen Cecilia Wee we have also made an evening for audiences to hear some of what I caught on camera. We decided to show this work in Newham, in two community spaces. To take a moment for the health workers to reflect, for a community to be together in their grief and for us all to sit with this hugely challenging experience. To honour and bear witness. To begin the process of collective grieving and collective healing.

I’m not under any illusions that this will heal, two hours of art. But it’s a start, and like I said, we better start learning to care and listen better, otherwise the violence of this moment and the past will just keep going.

It’s ok to be frightened, I am too.

Exposure is on from 14 to 30 October 2021 as part of the Newham Unlocked & Royal Docks Originals Festivals. For more information and booking, click HERE

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the vacuum cleaner

‘the vacuum cleaner’ is the name of UK based artist James Leadbitter, who makes candid, provocative and playful art which draws on his own experience of mental health disability. He works with groups including young people, health professionals and vulnerable adults to challenge how mental health is understood, treated and experienced. With roots in activism and radical art, the vacuum cleaner has created one-man interventions and large-scale actions as well as performance, installation and film. Previously he has been commissioned by Wellcome Collection and Festspiele Zurich, and was one Tate’s Moderns artist in residence 2016/17. Recent commissions include Chisenhale, which will be shown in 2022.

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