‘Heat, noises, whirlwinds’
– Michel Serres, The Parasite, 1982
I want you to think about heavy winds, the disturbances that they bring to systems of all scales, to bodies and legislature. Imagine you’re walking down from an ancient elevation in the North East of England, perhaps Gateshead Fell, while a wind like Storm Otto pulls down in blasts over the crest behind you. As you walk with attention initially drawn to shattered roof tiles and loose scraps of sheet metal shaking flat against trees, you barely notice as your mind is wiped clear with white noise washing through your skull. The wind like a drift of snow obliterating traffic noises, anxiety, anything beyond the moment by moment as your body leads you down the hill towards the river, and the train south along the coast to the Tees.
The high winds of mid-February 2023 colour my whole encounter with Two Plus Two Makes Four (TPTMF), the exhibition produced by Broken Grey Wires at The Auxiliary. My extra time on a speed-restricted train tracking along the shoreline is filled with thoughts about the mistral, the cold seasonal ‘idiot wind’ that rages through France for days at a time. A wave of depressive feelings is said to sweep the area before the mistral arrives to clear the sky of cloud and replace feelings of hopelessness with a volatile irritability. It is also said that the psychic effects of the wind are at times recognised as reducing the agency of people within its path, with crimes being downgraded if they take place within nine days of ‘le vent du fada’.
So, when I arrive at the beautiful and warmly pristine space of The Auxiliary the morning after the exhibition’s opening, I can’t help but approach the work through these ideas, which now structure this account.
TPTMF is framed as an exhibition concerning the lived experiences of mental illness. My first observation is that this isn’t a show aimed at translating such experience for an audience that has yet to have their own. My fear with any exhibition with this framing is that I will arrive to find I’m the object being shown to some imagined subject for whom mental illness is not a baseline of life, community and culture. TPTMF, perhaps more than any exhibition I’ve attended, immediately conveys that this is a space for those of us who the artist Johanna Hedva might describe as having ‘ceased to be contained by a discrete concept of “self”’.
There’s little here that might be considered illustrative of mental illness, and I am particularly pleased that no text introduces the exhibition with argument or rationale. We’re not clubbed over the head with an attempt to replace one mono-narrative with another or offered a simulation of sickness to experience. Rather, we are gently placed within a varied body of artworks and support structures, with a touch so warm and welcoming that the instability and friction between the works is one of the main joys. At no point do I feel I am being told. And where I am being asked, the questions call not for a survey response, but for a creative joining of ideas, experiences, desires and emotions.
It’s in this context that I think about justice in the exhibition. The same justice framework that could reclassify a crime due to weather is apparent in what might be the central text of TPTMF, Luke Fowler’s 2011 work, ‘All Divided Selves’. Central both because curator Lizz Brady has described it as the catalyst for initially launching Broken Grey Wires, and because this ninety-three-minute video collage on psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s ideas and their contexts exemplifies much of TPTMF’s philosophy. I return to this work multiple times, never quite catching the start each time I sit down wrapped in the provided blanket. The image of justice that pulls me in is a scene of archive footage of a person being interviewed by half a dozen doctors, trainees and support staff regarding the progress of their treatment at the psychiatric hospital where they are staying. The camera focuses on the interviewee while the others present crowd the frame. They look hectored, displaying a familiar dissociation, while weighted questions are asked, loaded with subtext and insinuation. After a while the argument is stated as fact to the interviewee: that to get better they should hand over their autonomy to the institution, to allow themselves to be committed. The interviewee stares off camera and then in a gesture of hard driven surrender agrees to this, repeating ‘I submit’ as they leave the room, arms raised. Now that they have left and there is not even the pretence of consent, the doctors discuss upping the interviewee’s lithium.
It’s through this scene that ‘All Divided Selves’, and TPTMF form one particular constellation around the types of justice that are, and the types that could be. It changes the emphasis in the four drawings by Daniel Johnston that first greet audiences as they enter The Auxiliary. These bright felt pen compositions, with a now familiar pantheon of borrowed and repurposed figures, all speak of justice through their cartoon speech bubbles. An empty-headed figure tells us ‘it’s over’, while the devil sings ‘Christ, you know the way things are going, they’re gonna crucify me’, and two more figures discuss their pleasure at knowing they will kill Satan. I think about justice as individual morality and the medical-legal frameworks that have deprived so many people I love of their freedom or lives. Later, when I return to Gateshead, I’ll talk with curator Lizz Brady about the absence of crisis response that doesn’t involve the police and we’ll both be animated with a kind of righteous anger at this loss of justice, but for the moment (while at The Auxiliary) I feel strongly that something reparative has been created here.
I have written a little about how welcoming this exhibition feels, while never directing its audience. This brings us to the flip side of justice and another part of the mistral (if we read it as granting a licence to step outside of laws), namely permission. Above all, and again reflecting the version of Laing that speaks in ‘All Divided Selves’, TPTMF categorically grants its audience permission to attend. By this I mean something far more than having a door that opens so that the artworks can be seen and heard. I’m surprised at how much I’m affected by finding blankets draped over seating and how much it melts the sense of alienation I often feel in galleries. How I genuinely have permission to stay here for the full four hours The Auxiliary is open. In other contexts, the aforementioned lack of introductory text or labelling might be standoffish, especially for us that struggle with unspoken social codes, but here there’s none of that anxiety. I relish not being pointed to some interpretation that will explain away the exhibition but can’t quite pinpoint why this feels so welcoming. I think some of it is down to The Auxiliary as a space, and the presentation of works within it. Both present a juxtaposition of the DIY with an immaculate level of care. CRT monitors are mismatched, displaying marks of many previous instals, but are placed high on purpose; open frames of welded steel complete with hooks made to fit their equally mismatched headphones. At the end of the gallery is an OSB cabin labelled ‘the comfort zone’, housing sofas, a heater and a library of zines. It feels neither coldly sterile nor ironically rough and so without really considering whether I might be misreading the codes I drop into an armchair to write up some of my notes.
Permission is extended most directly perhaps through ‘The Mad Manual Toolkit’. This serves as a modular system to support and enhance engagement with the exhibition, and beyond. The Mad Manual Toolkit is comprised of a small ring binder that houses an introductory text and pen. On the wall of the gallery, held on colour coded pegs are copies of twenty-four different activities grouped around the themes of mindfulness, movement, writing and drawing. Each activity consists of a folded and hole-punched page with a written set of directions at the front, a drawing at the back, and space for the user’s response in the folded section. Here is an example of an activity direction:
‘Find a piece of art in the exhibition that draws you in.
What happens when you look at your chosen piece for longer than you usually would? Does it change at all?
Make a note of what has changed.’
As with the blankets on the backs of the video viewing seats, I’m genuinely startled by how this intervention changed my emotional experience as an audience for TPTMF. The permission granted by the toolkit activity also provided a framework, a number of things to plug into the artworks and traverse from the self-aware position of ‘being in the gallery’ to engaging with the art in a manner I generally only reach when looking at artist monographs in my studio. I took this activity to my favourite work in the show, Kier Cooke Sandvik’s ‘They Got Sicker but Die Hard’ (2021) and the simple directions let me tune out everything else, including that background anxiety I frequently get in galleries that worries I’m spending too long looking at something.
Something I noted about the activities, is how a number of them take the language and processes of therapy, before altering and repurposing these. A number of the mindfulness-themed activities for example were very close to exercises I’ve been led through in various rooms of NHS buildings in the North of England. There is something very empowering about recognising these things from some of the most vulnerable and isolated periods of my life, and finding them here redeployed as generative tools for the creative process of engaging with art. I said earlier that the Toolkit supports and enhances engagement with the exhibition (and beyond), because, as in other works in TPTMF, it serves as an invitation to create one’s own path. The simple provocation of an activity easily leads to variants, to the audience developing new activities with which to structure and expand the process of looking at art. Equally, nothing about the toolkit restricts it to this exhibition alone, and it is effectively an open-access system for engaging with any exhibition. I also like that at twenty-four, there are too many tools for a person to reasonably use so it precludes any completist need to get to the end and turn a process into tasks that distract from rather than support the encounter.
My favourite of the activities, and one that I will likely use again and again in the future is a simple breathing exercise to perform while paying attention to a specific area of an artwork that includes a landscape of some type. I spend an incalculable amount of time in front of Oliver Ventress’s video ‘Everything has Turned to Dust’ (2022) and it’s here that I start thinking about another aspect of the mistral, how it cuts a line that connects the landscape, the body, the social, the durational, the chemical and the emotional. In Ventress’s work a future topography is reduced to a horizon of dust and a sky above. Staring at this image, its scale undeterminable and oscillating from the micro to the macro, I keep thinking about how a ridge of high pressure at the Gulf of Genoa can transform both the emotional interface through which a person engages with the world and the response of the state to that engagement.
I think about Ventress’ video landscape being obliterated by/ into dust, and all the other instances of obliteration that occur in TPTMF. The static-filled TV eye of Brady’s own sculpture ‘The Invaders’ (2023) looks down on the collection of video works primarily concerned with disintegration (Pipilotti Rist’s 1986 ‘I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much’), erasure (Vito Acconci’s 1972 ‘Face-Off’), or collapse (Jochen Gerz’s 1972 ‘To Call until Exhaustion’). In another (less caring) arrangement, it might be easy to read such thematics as nihilistic. As a hands-up gesture of ‘I submit’, a response to the chemical flattening of bodies and emotions through pharmaceuticals, the courts, the diminishment of support systems that we have felt as hard here in the North East as anywhere else in the country.
However, in the warm, welcoming, possibility-filled space of Two Plus Two Makes Four such obliteration feels rapturous, divine.
I think about Hedva again:
‘Because of these “disorders,” I have access to empyreal emotions, flights of thought, and dreamscapes, to the feeling that my mind has been obliterated into stars, to the sensation that I have become nothingness, as well as to extraordinary ecstasies, raptures, sorrows, and despair’.
The glorious affective rejuvenation of being out in a storm. Bathing in white noise, emotions inseparable from geography. Held.
Uma Breakdown is an artist and award-winning game designer interested in animals, horror, queer feminist literature, and games design.
This review is supported by Broken Grey Wires
 Johanna Hedva, ‘Sick Woman Theory’, Topical Cream, 2022.