In one scene, two figures are restricted in containers up to their necklines, reminders of early medical treatments of steam cabinets as hydrotherapy. Their faces express a range of different emotional states, recalling the historical use of photography and film in physiognomy to record, typify and categorise human behaviour and mental conditions. In another, split across two channels, a ‘doctor’ writes medical notes directly onto the surface of a table, displacing the process of ‘diagnosis’ into a surreal, alternate reality. These images and experiences come from two exhibitions in London —Pil and Galia Kollectiv’s Progress Report from the Strategic Sanctuary for the Destruction of Free Will running February 25 to April 3 at Pump House Gallery, and Josh Bitelli’s A Partition, running April 28 to June 12 at Cell Project Space. They each use moving-image to address anxiety, the human body and medical institutions, and question the authority and bureaucracy of state and healthcare services.
In Pil and Galia Kollectiv’s Progress Report…, a 30-minute film loop plays on the ground floor of the gallery, shot and edited by Kollectiv throughout the course of the show. It’s set in a clinical black-and-white film set constructed from cardboard on the floors above. It’s minimal, angular aesthetic draws on the Modernist avant-garde, specifically the Russian Constructivism frequently alluded to in Kollectiv’s work. This reference to past visions of social utopia is one of many trans-historical connections in the show, linking the social critique of anti-psychiatry and the psychedelic counterculture that began in the 1960s as having continuing potential to forge alternative social structures. The characters on-screen wear paper masks with painted graphic icons of faces, performing to voiceovers from archived audio recordings. These are interspersed with titles like ‘Part II: Emotional Deficiency Diseases’, recalling public information films of the post-war UK Welfare State. Diagrams and animations of grids labelled with computing terminology draw parallels between the human brain and computer or electrical circuits.
Kollektiv’s exhibition title —Progress Report from the Strategic Sanctuary for the Destruction of Free Will —immediately suggests institutional bureaucracy, though the accompanying image is of an altered Penguin book of R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. The original was a pioneering and unconventional study of Schizophrenia and a critique of repressive mainstream psychiatric practice. In this light, the machine metaphors in Progress Report… suggest reductive explanations of the brain and mental health, and the inability to convey complex human emotions through simplistic models.
Cardboard surveillance cameras look down on sleeping patients suggesting the ever-present mechanisms of visibility, regulation and control in mental health institutions. The lingering and unsettling soundtrack is a recording of a live improvised performance by Cabiria, an experimental music collective comprised of Diana Policarpo, Hannah Catherine Jones and Marina Elderton. This ominous score featuring the performer’s respective percussion, theremin and electric guitar instruments recalls both the oppressive nature of psychiatric institutions, as well as a state of ritualistic trance of LSD-taking psychedelic counter-cultures implying that a resistance is forming.
In Josh Bitelli’s solo exhibition A Partition, curated by Rebecca Lewin, a hospital curtain curves through the space and is bathed in white neon light from ceiling tiles above. It is a strangely empty, unpeopled space, except for the voices that lead the viewer around the drapery to locate them emanating from a video work called ‘All Doors and No Exits’ (2016). The piece spans two screens, placed vertically above one another, where diagnostic criteria from medical handbooks describe symptoms of psychiatric conditions that are paralleled by its actors’ body language. Through jump-cuts and glitches that emphasise the awkwardness of the non-professional actors (who actually work as medics), the apparent impartiality of both the medical language and the medium of video is broken down. The work deals with translations and discrepancies between the text of the script, director’s notes and suggestions and the resulting footage. It also references direct linguistic translation used in public health services in the UK to increase accessibility to healthcare by different communities. ‘All Doors and No Exits’ dismantles ideas of ‘knowledge’ and professionalism, as evidenced by the de-skilling and re-learning by medical practitioners to perform as actors. A section of the video has a curtain backdrop and landing mats with actors falling onto them on cue. These repetitive actions suggest warm-up exercises for performance rehearsals, or perhaps a First Aid medical training scenario for when someone faints. In looking closer we see it is the same space of Bitelli’s performance at Chisenhale Gallery earlier in 2016, a musical composition sung by members of the London Doctors Choir with lyrics drawn from medical guidelines as part of Chisenhale’s 21st Century program.
These exhibitions self-reflexively de-construct the supposed authority and legitimacy of film as conveying fact or evidence. The medium was historically entwined with the birth of biomedical science, and in turn of psychiatry, and video is still currently used both in medical procedures and remote medical interpretation services. Through dismantling the conventions of film and documentary, these exhibitions also question the medical bureaucracies of reductive diagnoses, patient monitoring and gatekeeping access to services, made even more urgent in the context of cuts to healthcare funding in today’s Austerity Britain.**
Header image: Josh Bitelli, A Partition (2016). Exhibition view. Photo by Original&theCopy. Courtesy Cell Projects, London.