There’s plenty of evidence to indicate engaging in the arts is beneficial to mental health, says Festival Director Jill Bennett.

The arts have for centuries explored the distress, anguish, pleasures and pains of mental life. Today there is an abundance of evidence to indicate that engaging in arts activity is beneficial to mental health. Participating as either a creator or a consumer can help us reflect on and process complex emotional states, as well as increase our capacity for empathy and understanding the inner experiences of others.

The Big Anxiety is distinctive as a contemporary arts festival for setting the goal of promoting mental health. It favours participatory and conversational work; a programme of Awkward Conversations, for example, draws upon artists’ skills at designing engagement to address the inherent difficulty of conversations about mental health (one international guest being US performance artist, Lois Weaver, who now holds the prestigious Engagement Fellowship at the UK Welcome Institute where she researches conversation-based art practice). At the other end of the scale from the low-fi intimate conversation, there are large-scale, technically innovative, immersive environments, the result of collaborations between artists, scientists and communities.

The Big AnxietySnoösphere at The Big Anxiety. Photo supplied. 

Snoösphere, for example, is a sensory environment created by Lull Studios and collaborators, including autistic artists who are exceptionally sensitive to sensory stimuli, like Dawn-Joy Leong (whose solo work is in NeurodiverseCity at Customs House). Inspired by Dutch snoezelen, which are stimulation and relaxation environments used in care contexts, this project was developed from workshops in Sydney and Singapore with young people with neurodivergent conditions (such as autism, dyspraxia or ADHD). It is one of several projects in the festival to investigate the relationship between our moods, bodily sensations and the surrounding environment, in this case though an engaging multisensory experience in which sensations may be controlled.

Such projects not only offer practical methods for de-stressing but explore how environments can be aesthetically designed to reduce anxiety. This double focus on both the inner human experience and surrounding conditions is at the heart of the festival’s approach. Going beyond a self-help ethos, it aims to shed light on the social conditions that determine mental health, challenging labels, and asking questions about responsibility. Fundamentally, it is about empowerment.

Clive Parkinson’s powerful performance-presentation, dis/ordered, staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is a moving exploration of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), proposing that what psychiatry describes as ‘disorder’ may in fact be a rational response to the chaos of life – a meaningful attempt to impose order. The notion that an individual’s story is the key to understanding symptoms is gaining traction in psychiatry; artists like Parkinson develop the rich methods of storytelling we need to convey personal narratives.

Likewise, Parragirls Past, Present, one of the major festival commissions, relates to the experience of women who in their teens were residents of the Parramatta Girls’ Home. This groundbreaking work is a collaboration between immersive media artists (Volker Kuchelmeister, Alex Davies) and the “Parragirls” themselves, building on a long‐term arts project led by artist-researcher Lily Hibberd and former Parragirl Bonney Djuric. It is an immersive 3D cinematic production, taking viewers into the site of the Girls’ Home, through the lens of Parragirls returning to the site some 40 years after their stay. Behind the hi-tech production is a community project, focused on advocacy and recovery in the context of institutional abuse and trauma. The Parragirls have recently testified to the Royal Commission; their stories are now on the official record after being denied for decades and often met with punishment. But what is important to them is to feel that they are the authors and tellers of their own story, that its truth is conveyed. Parragirls Past, Present is for them an experimental artwork that aims to do this; it is equally experimental as a contribution to the emerging art of immersive cinema.

The Big Anxiety is not business as usual for the arts. It aims to establish a new space of operation, building on and drawing together a vast array of art practice that touches on mental health in ways that are deep and moving as well as often funny, exhilarating and entertaining. As the arts become more interdisciplinary and hybrid, and as society becomes more aware of mental health and the need to do something about it, we believe it’s timely to link arts + science + people in this vibrant, messy space of everyday life.

The Big Anxiety: Festival of arts + science + people presents over 60 events across Greater Sydney, September 20 – November 11.