Conversations for Change is a public art project about mental health.
In January 2015 a Creative Team of people embarked on a mission to generate as many conversations on the topic of mental health in as many everyday places and situations in the community of Edinburgh as they could. You might call their work artistic interventions, experiments or interruptions to people’s days.
They went to many places, including the Meadows, Hidden Door arts festival, Edinburgh Central Mosque, the Chancellor’s Building at the Royal Infirmary, the Scottish Parliament building, a church coffee morning, Hibernian football ground, a red telephone box, a yellow bench and the streets of Edinburgh. Their final intervention in October 2015 was called ‘Platform 2’ and took place at Edinburgh Waverley Train Station. During the 9-month intervention period the small team had spoken to 1047 people - asking them each the same question.
The team was formed of people who all have lived experience of mental health issues, yet their conversation was for everyone, including other people who have experienced mental health issues, people who know someone who has, for those who have not experienced them and who do not know anyone who has. They hoped that their work would have a ripple effect - that as a result of having a conversation with them, that the person might be more prepared for a conversation about mental health in the future, which might prepare others. And so on.
The idea for the project began when a group of people involved in the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival through CAPs Independent Advocacy, discussed doing something something really public, using the arts, which might address some of the issues facing themselves and other people in their community. Some of those individuals were the first members of the Creative Team, including artist Pam van de Brug who has since guided the work.
The next year was spent securing funding which was granted by See Me, Scotland’s national mental health anti-stigma organisation and in January 2015 the Creative Team was formed. They began without preconceived ideas about what they would do. In short their brief was - to engage people in the community of Edinburgh, using the arts on the topic of mental health, and to work towards making a final artwork.
Throughout, the team worked as a collective mind. Each bringing their own experience of the topic, individual skills and knowledge of Edinburgh. Their first objective was to define their aims. Many in the group felt that mental health was still a taboo subject for conversation in society. So, they began to ask themselves if they thought that mental health was a difficult topic for everyday conversation, and if so why? They also wondered what life could be like if talking about mental health was easier. Then, they asked their friends and families the same questions. Sandra was the first on the team to engage people she did not know. Whenever she used a taxi she would ask the driver if they thought mental health was a difficult topic for conversation.
People were always interested in sharing their thoughts on the matter and conversations also challenged the teams own ideas and feelings about speaking about mental health.
The team began then to think about how conversations could be instigated in a more public setting. They took inspiration from other public art projects, such as ‘The Crystal Quilt’ by Suzanne Lacy, Minneapolis (1987), ‘Creating the Spectacle!’ by Sue Austin in London (2012) and ‘Albert Drive’ by Glas(s) Performance in Glasgow (2013). Soon the idea of creating ‘artistic public interventions’ in Edinburgh had been formed.
They carried out their first intervention in the Meadows in Edinburgh a few days after the May 2015 elections. Placing the question ‘Is mental health a difficult topic for everyday conversation?’, word by word in the grass along Middle Meadow Walk, on what might have looked like campaign boards, they waited to see if passers-by would notice. In just an hour and a half, 113 people responded. Some shouted a reply from their bikes and many stopped to talk at length.
The team members present that day noted that although their question was a closed one ‘Is mental health a difficult topic for everyday conversation?’, that it resulted in open ended dialogues, which were varied and often in-depth. From this first experience the team felt that mental health was indeed a topic that many were keen to discuss and they resolved to continue their work and to speak to as many people as possible.
Throughout the year new people joined the team, through word of mouth or through meeting the project during an intervention. New members brought fresh insights and ideas and the team became more confident about speaking to the public . They met regularly to plan, discussing every aspect of their work - identifying groups and potential locations, planning the interventions and even deliberating the colours of the website.
Before embarking on their public interventions they discussed potential issues, and strategies to keep themselves and the public as safe as possible, both physically and emotionally. This pack offers more of the team’s thoughts on this in the Conversations for Change Pack. As well as planning, individuals also worked in a practical way as suited their skills, interests and time availability, whether this was physically preparing a venue, contacting an organisation or promotion.
Speaking to members of the public during interventions the Creative Team were open to any response offered. Whether a person simply stated yes or no, looked at the question and walked on, or stopped to speak. Often though a person would stop to talk for a few minutes or perhaps an hour. Each conversation was unique and of equal value, and belonged to the Creative Team member and public member/members involved.
Early on the decision was taken not to record or write down in any form the conversations. The team considered that the action of the conversation was the artwork. Like all artworks their work aimed to provoke thought. Sound recording and other methods of documentation also had many disadvantages, it could cause the person speaking to feel uncomfortable or pressured and may also result in them feeling committed to a certain viewpoint.
In planning interventions, the Creative Team team thought about the different groups of people in their community such as people of different cultures, religions, ages, genders, and so on. They also thought about where people in their community have conversations in public settings – cafes, churches, bus stops, parties, park benches, radio shows, by phone and in the work place.
Each element of an intervention was considered and aimed to meet people in their own environments and on their own terms. For example, the team learned that at Edinburgh Central Mosque after Friday prayers it was not unusual to be met outside by people selling cakes or books for charity, and so the team spent a week baking and ‘Conversations for Cake’ at the mosque was created.
Another example of this is the decision not to do any interventions in places serving alcohol, or to serve alcohol at an intervention. Whilst they recognised bars as places where people may have conversations readily, we decided that it would not be fair or responsible to provoke conversations about mental health whilst knowing that they might be under the influence of alcohol. They recognised that alcohol issues and mental health often go hand in hand, and that a person may be more vulnerable, and potentially less equipped to have productive thoughts once the conversation was over.
Conversations for Change has involved the collaboration of a large number of people – friends, family, people working within organisations, business owners and staff.
Some interventions came about through invitations and chance meetings with people such as the intervention created for Chancellor’s Building at the Royal Infirmary which came about as a result of a member of teaching staff getting in touch who spoke to the team about difficulties that medical students have around being open about mental health.
People from out-with Edinburgh also got in touch to suggest that Conversations for Change might bring their work there. Enquiries came from Glasgow, North Ayrshire, Stirling, and even from someone living on Burnt Island in North America!
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THE FINAL INTERVENTION
In September 2015 the team took a break from the public interventions to plan their final work. They were delighted when the manager of Edinburgh Waverley Train Station agreed that they could use their public space beside platform 2. A highly public location where people from all walks of life, ages and cultures might be met.
They called the final intervention Platform 2, and it was to bring together elements of previous interventions and learning from their work.
On Saturday 3 October 2015, seven LED screens and pairs of benches were placed along the public space at Edinburgh Waverley Train Station. The benches were inward facing and unusually close. A motion graphic appeared on the screens which asked if students, nurses, tall people, train drivers, non-Scottish people, unemployed people and many others if they thought that mental health was a difficult topic for everyday conversation.
In contrast to previous interventions, Platform 2 prompted people to speak to each other rather than to the Creative Team.
During the day the Creative Team were joined by others who had become supporters of their work. People coming, going and waiting in the station as well as an invited audience were welcomed to the benches and more than 300 people had conversations about mental health, many of whom stayed for several hours.
Film maker Paul Diffley captured Platform 2 on film and he also interviewed the team. His 7-minute film has since been used to continue Conversations for Change’s work through exhibition and screenings. It can now be viewed on the website as well as downloaded by people wishing to screen the film.
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Since Platform 2, the team have met many people who feel that the work could be useful in their communities and networks and so, using the work they have already created the team have found many ways to keep their conversation going.
Firstly through a retrospective exhibition at Out of Sight, Out of Mind festival at Summerhall in Edinburgh in October 2015, and in November 2015 Conversations for change was awarded Creative Edinburgh’s Social Award, shortly after this they were awarded further funding from See Me to take the retrospective exhibition on short tour.
Talks, screenings and exhibitions have taken place at Edinburgh Napier University, Creative Edinburgh’s Talking Heads, Hidden Door art festival in Edinburgh, The Stove in Dumfries, Wellgate Shopping Centre in Dundee, Galashiels Library, The Interchange in the Scottish Borders and the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling.
Most recently a Conversations for Change pack has been created, to enable those keen to instigate the conversation in their communities and networks. Using the tried and tested question, the pack will help others share the story of the work, screen the film or create their own interventions.
Through Conversations for Change, the Creative Team concluded that mental health is an interesting, complicated, useful, and relevant topic for everyday conversation. They hope that this work will keep being an invitation for people to talk.
One evening, long after the final intervention, a Conversations for Change mug was found on a doorstep in Tollcross, Edinburgh by a member of the team. They don’t know how the mug got there and they don’t know where it is now. Its discovery reminded the team that their conversation might well be continuing without them doing anything at all. Their conversation is for everyone. They invite you to join.