As he prepares to perform at London’s Anxiety Arts Festival, artist James Leadbitter, aka The Vacuum Cleaner, explains why media coverage of mental health issues still leaves a lot to be desired
I could’ve asked the artist James Leadbitter why he calls himself The Vacuum Cleaner during our interview, which takes place in his cluttered but comfy subterranean studio in London’s Spitalfields. It’s on my list of questions but slips my mind during the hour or so I spend with James, discussing the UK media’s frequently insensitive reporting of mental health issues, his own battles with mental illness – the details of which won’t be explored here – and how this dictates his work. James is a frank and open interviewee, traits that also manifest themselves in his largely performance-based artwork: he’s currently working on bringing his show Mental, in which he reads excerpts from his own mental health assessments to a captive audience, to the Edinburgh Festival. Prior to Edinburgh, James will be performing a similar, specially commissioned show titled The Assessment at the inaugural Anxiety Arts Festival – organised by the Mental Health Foundation – which takes place in various venues across London throughout June.
“It feels like the right time to be making this work,” he says. “Certain celebrities – Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry – have been very vocal about it; mental health charities are giving it a big push. Friends who have also been through difficult times and I talk about this being a civil rights moment for us. We’re calling for equal treatment. You see a story in the mainstream media about mental health and it’s still about the psychotic axe man who’s murdered someone. Actually the reality is you’re less likely to be murdered by someone with a mental health problem than without. It’s important not to demonise people or tar everybody with the same brush. It’s a very broad experience.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of friends and got copies of their assessments – we’re creating a greatest hits!” he says with a chuckle. “The audience will come to a really beautiful space (the Anatomy Theatre at King’s College) and we’re going to assess their mental health through these forms. It’s a way for the audience to assess the process of diagnosis – I don’t think many people know how a mental health diagnosis is done but it can be a really horrible experience. Often it’s all about your symptoms rather than the things that have led you be in that position. Within the mental health community, standardised assessment of the human mind has been a really big issue. I wanted to play with that a little bit.”
James is also on a mission to educate the public about the language we use, our all too flippant use of the word ‘mental’ for instance, to describe an evening out or an over the top reaction. He see similarities between this and the way the word ‘gay’ is still used out of context as a derogatory term. Despite this, does he feel attitudes towards mental illness are changing?
“I’ve been attacked leaving hospital, but in terms of representation on TV and films it is getting better – Glenn Close recently apologised for her portrayal of the ‘bunny boiler’ [in Fatal Attraction], saying it was derogatory and insensitive. But there’s a big thing about ‘pill shaming’ at the moment. There’s been quite a lot of articles in The Guardian about “Happy pills” and there’s been a strong reaction to that because people are saying ‘Actually, they’re not happy pills, they’re I’m-not-going-to-throw-myself-off-a-bridge-pills’. It’s still difficult, but there is more awareness and it is slowly getting better. I think we’ll get there eventually.”
I put it to him that the word ‘anxiety’, a broad term, is a good hook to get the general public interested in a festival such as this. “Yeah, I don’t think ‘Depressed Festival’ would have been such a great title” he says as we both laugh, picturing a dank and gloomy dubstep or heavy metal event. “Because it’s mental health there will probably be people who have been through the system. I imagine they’ll be a lot of people who work in the industry. They’ll probably be a certain amount of the art audience, people who have mild anxiety or mild depression, but have never come into contact with mental health services, who are fascinated by it, psychology students… You don’t need to have had a serious panic attack to have status anxiety, or anxiety about your job or relationships. It’s common and normal and healthy.”
I finish with a question that’s been nagging away at me, though it’s one which I’m hesitant to ask for fear of appearing insensitive. Does he feel the problems he’s encountered have made him a better artist? “It’s not an insensitive question,” he reassures me, “but I think there’s a danger in that way of thinking because of the image of the mad genius. I’ve spent enough time in enough hospitals to know that it can utterly destroy people’s lives and they have no creative output as a consequence of their mental health. I know when I’ve been suffering from acute anxiety for months I can’t do anything.
“But I do also think there are moments where you might be experiencing acute anxiety or feeling really distressed that open up spaces in the way that you think about things. Sometimes when you go down to the bottom you do ask questions that stick with you, about how society functions or about how we treat people. Good art also asks good questions.”
So how about that question, which I finally get round to asking several days later via email: “When I started making art I was advised not to work under my own name (like a lot of street artists) and the first performance I did (Cleaning-Up After Capitalism) involved a vacuum cleaner.”