The weight of paper

How a simple people’s choice award at a consumer art exhibition promoted social connection for people living with a mental illness, whilst mirroring some interesting insights into power relationships between organisation and community.

As an artist, I know how the simple act of making and sharing can bring joy that radiates outside the moment, creating positive self regard, pride and means for establishing positive connections with strangers far past the completion of a work. 

The way we present an exhibition of artworks to an audience is an important process for determining how that story is internally perceived and consumed by the viewer, which becomes a vital consideration when giving voice to the narratives of people who experience stigma based on having experienced a mental illness in Australia.

I felt a gap stopping people from connecting emotionally to the journeys behind the works. I thought we could found a way to fill this gap, and to not settle with people engaging only objectively.

Some questions came to mind:

  1. Could this event further encourage protective factors for the artists like creating positive sense of identity, connection to community and realising a meaningful life, and;
  2. was enough being done to create a consciousness for empathising with the experiences of mental illness that will affect almost half of us at least once in our lives.
From taking to giving

The consciousness of ‘taking’ from an art exhibition is created by consumer culture. It’s the reason travel agencies at the shopping centre sell opportunities to go overseas to bring experiences back, with no expectation to contribute any of ourselves for the benefit of the local people or community. This is the toxic individualism of the West they teach us about at university, the same social norms that correlate with the highest rates of mental illness in the world.

These norms create an environment where the consumer does not need to think about why they like something, they just need to act on knowing that they do. This makes it difficult for people to consider let alone empathise with stories of people behind the creation of objects, and with such strong market forces it is unlikely to come naturally to us.

To reframe this consciousness to one of ‘giving’ or ‘contributing’, I created a public voting system, so the people’s choice award was created to find the most popular artworks among the people.

Gallery spaces are often rigid, contrived and bound by strict etiquette, and ironically, allowing little room for expression. For a person experiencing social phobia or a related anxiety disorder this situation could be hugely stressful. Adrian and I stood at the door handing out small pieces of paper as ballots, which immediately got people comfortable with the space, and allocated power to those who walked in the door. This also created context for conversations between strangers, which promoted more social interactions for attendees and the artists. 

After tallying up 100+ public votes, the results were surprising.

Power with, not power over

The artwork selected to be a winner by the organisation, did not receive any votes from the public. Also, the 5 top finalists selected by a major Victorian art curator also did not receive any votes from the public. These results were surprising, and did raise some questions for me:

  1. Does the organisation exclude the community from other areas of decision making, and;
  2. could this be harmful to the people they work with?

The AASW outlines ethical guides for decision making, promoting “being open, accountable, transparent, collaborative and inclusive of the relevant stakeholders in the decision-making process”.

An important aspect of the peoples’ choice was a capacity to create a greater sense of recognition, connection and hope for the artists, through the acknowledgment of their peers. A sense of positive connection to others is a protective factor against mental illness, and so this simple idea was aimed at using our limited resources to create a more socially supportive and inclusive event.

A big shout out to Adrian, David and Angela.

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