Author: Panagiota Karagianni
Alex Widdowson is a very talented artist and an Animator living in London. Alex had been preparing a beautiful animated documentary for four years, in which he covered fundamental issues on mental illness and the treatment that people from around the world get in clinics. The title of this documentary is “Patients” and is a tough but a really realistic approach of the lifestyle of the people that are mentally ill. Lately, he prepared a new video based on the previous version, a stronger representation of the topics covered in the “Patients” and you can watch it here:
How and when did you realize that all you want to do as a job is to be an Animator?
Animation seemed the most useful medium to process and communicate my confusing and traumatic experiences of mental illness. I initially started a fine art degree at the relatively prestigious college Goldsmiths, London in 2007. However I became quite unwell for the first time and quickly dropped out after causing a whole host of chaos. My subsequent hospitalisation and recover were truly devastating so by the time I restarted a fine art degree at Loughborough University I had something to prove. I felt it was my duty to push myself, taking on challenges that were truly daunting. For a while I experimented with immersive performance, this involved founding a cult based on agnosticism. The goal was to lose track of whether or not I was joking and that the cult was indeed fictional. It was so evocative of my first experiences of mania and psychosis that I effectively induced these states and that summer I was in hospital again. Broken and medicated I picked up animation as a way of directly processing some of the trauma of my treatment and illness. I was haunted by having injections forced upon me by a team of nurses when I was running around wild on the hospital ward. Animation was a means to an end at the start but it also fitted well within my desire to push myself. I like to think of the medium as a multi-dimensional canvas. If you can picture it you can animate it. The only limitations are time and energy.
How would you say that you feel when you do art, when you express yourself through art?
The whole process is utterly stimulating; animation challenges me as a writer, journalist, director, draftsman, actor and mechanic. But often animation is very methodical. After the initial planning you are more or less locked into an intricate process for rendering. I find this sort of intense and rhythmic process soothing. It reminds me of a math class at school where you are taught a complicated formula, you repeat the exercise and then move onto the next similar problem. There is also an extraordinary feeling with hand drawn animation when you piece it all together towards the end of the day and see the scene in motion for the first time. I’ve never found this suspense and release in any other medium. It makes me very happy.
Do you often like to undertake a social range of issues in your art as you did with the Patients documentary?
I’ve become increasingly interested in animation as a tool for exploring real-world topics where often live-action might fall short. While researching and writing for the blog animateddocumentary.com I was constantly amazed by the new ways artists use animation to explore factual content. These stories deserve so much more than a talking-head interview or reenactment. Initially I didn’t see my work as serving a critical social function. Patients, for instance, was primarily indulging my own need for catharsis. As the project developed I ultimately saw its value as a tool to help people understand what madness felt like. Now that I’m making films about other people, from the start of the process I have to be much more aware of the socio-political framework that encompasses their stories.
And talking about Art and Social issues, Patients and your latest reworking of that project, actually are a great presentation of a very big issue of our society: mental illness. What did inspire you to occupy with an edgy and so alive issue like this?
It’s nice that not everyone assumes that these films are biographical. They most definitely are, but still, it’s comforting that sometimes people assume they’re no more than an artistic and journalistic endeavour. The truth is that they are painfully close to my heart. Part of the value of these films is that when I look back at my most difficult experiences, those traumatic images have now been substituted by my drawings. This pain has been so heavily processed I often perceive the scenes I’ve made in my films rather than a direct memory. I feel very blessed that I can use art in this way. Mental illness is a very tangible and pervasive phantom in all our lives. If you have never been affected directly you may at least know someone who has, yet until recently in Britain there was a strong convention not to talk openly about this topic. Charities like Mind and Time To Change had genuinely shaped the landscape when it comes to stigma. I hope my films made a modest contribution.
William Shakespeare used to say that the purpose of Art is to give life shape. Do you feel that art can really reflects the real life without senses of exaggerations?
I don’t worry that exaggeration is a problem. The films I make have carefully translated, condensed and articulated experiences as honestly as possible. Their value comes from the accuracy of these processes.
What do you manage to bring off through your animated documentary in which you cover that kind of issues? (Feelings or beliefs)
The premise behind Patients was to create the clearest and most accurate depiction of psychosis I could muster. Madness is often perceived as horrifyingly nonsensical, but for the most part it feels like a muddle of your existing persona and experiences mixed with a bit of fantasy and fear. I wanted to do my best to smooth over some of these ambiguities and depict a simple sequence of events that lead the protagonist to realise they might be unwell. With Patients I hope to make psychosis less scary, where as my retrospective film, Animated attempts at documenting mental illness, made use of the rough and more expressive animation tests I’d made to capture the frenzied sensations of psychosis. While these did nothing to make psychosis seem less intimidating, it was a more honest representation.
Do you believe that a diagnosis of mental illness can put the personality of the ill person aside and degrade him as a human being?
From what I see this is certainly becoming a more popular perspective in psychiatry and psychoanalysis. Doctors identified two episodes of psychosis in my life. This is indisputable. However I’ve never been given a diagnosis of an underlying condition that causes this. My doctor’s exact words were that I have ‘Alex Widdowson’s disease’. He said that as I didn’t neatly fit any of the diagnostic models there was no use in labelling me. Yet I have older colleagues from Sage Community Arts, a mental health charity where I was artist in residence, who were been given a different set of diagnosis every ten years, never quite fitting any of them. If the label helps you, your loved ones or medical professionals more easily understand what is happening then I think that shouldn’t be suppressed. But I’m also much happier with the newer, more open-minded model adopted by parts of the British psychiatric services. However I need to remind myself that mine is a story of successful treatment. I feel like I was treated incredibly well and was able to recover quit effectively. I’m aware that some people had a terrible time and perceive the psy-professions with great suspicion.
FEAR is the number one reason why people treat mentally ill people the wrong way and why ill people live under the “stigma” of illness. What place do you believe that FEAR occupies in our lives and how would you advise someone to control it?
I’m sure it was tougher in the past but personally I feel like I’ve encountered very little discrimination in my life. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by supportive and sympathetic friends who I can be open with. They project little judgment or unnecessary concern. However my circumstances dictate how open I am about my history of mental illness. When I started working in a more strait-laced job, as a graphic designer, it just didn’t feel appropriate to expose myself that way. Even though I am a little secretive I believe that if I ever became ill I would maintain the respect I’ve earned, be given time recover and be invited back to work. Essentially, I feel safe. What really worries me is the potential doubt in people’s minds that I am not aware of. I cannot calculate or predict this. For all I know it doesn’t exist. So sometimes I find it easier in a professional situation to restrict it to a need to know basis. I would say this is an important skill I have learnt. I was so open about my issues at the beginning, not because I felt safe or wanted to address stigma but because I was so uncertain about my experiences I compulsively put details out there to see how people reacted. If they dealt with it badly I knew not to trust them and vice versa. It wasn’t until I found some inner peace that I was able to choose when to talk about it.
Do you think that the common opinion assists the regulatory function of the psychiatric professions and why do we need to be normal to live?
The idea of being normal is ridiculous. It sounds to me like a synonym for being boring or scared. For instance, I don’t really trust anyone who enjoyed being a teenager. These people confuse me. It’s my guess that these are also the ones who strive to be normal. I believe one should nurture their eccentricities.
I often work with the Philadelphia Association in London, set up by R.D. Laing in the 60s. He was a very well known counterculturalist who helped spark the anti-psychiatry movement. He questioned our rigid perceptions of sanity and madness asking whether it is indeed our society that is sick. Laing asks: ‘Who is more dangerous? The psychotic who mistakenly believes he carries a hydrogen bomb in his stomach or the perfectly adjusted B-52 bomber pilot who will drop very real hydrogen bombs when ordered to do so?’ These sentiments seem entirely relevant in the past 15 years of British foreign politics and the financial crisis. Our government waged two seemingly pointless wars in order to keep our American friends happy. Five years later the financial sector started to realise they had conceptualised the practices of lending and debt so far beyond its rational definition that the entire system imploded. Yet rather than Tony Blair being condemned as a war criminal he was made peace envoy to the Middle East; rather than prosecuting bankers for corruption the state propped up the banks. These absurdities exist at all levels, in all parts of society and in the individual. I believe those happy healthy “normal” people are just as scared and conflicted as the psychotic if you dig down a little.
How do you think mental ill people should be treated and what should change on the function of the psychiatric wards so ill people can have a better and more balanced and comradely way of life?
From what I remember I went through some pretty extreme experiences on those psychiatric wards, but in no way do I disapprove of how I was treated. When I was lucid I was offered extraordinary levels of respect and patients, and when I was at my worst I believe they restrained and sedated me for my own protection. I don’t think there is much of an issue about how patients are currently dealt with in the UK other than the funding cuts. Austerity measures imposed by the Conservative government have had a massive impact on resources for the treatment of mental illness. The inpatient clinic where I was last hospitalised has been shut down. For me this is the real battleground.
And coming to an end, i would like to know if you are preparing something this season?
I’m currently working on a short animated documentary about addiction but it’s a little early to really go into any detail.
A wish for Animartists
I was really struck by an Oscar Wilde quote brought to my attention by the experimental animator, Paul Bush: ‘The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’