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SICK! Festival: mapping the impact of lockdown on Manchester’s mental health

Returning for it’s ninth year and as relevant as ever, SICK! Festival is an international arts programme that aims to get people talking frankly about their health. To this end, the organisers commission artists from across Manchester and beyond to examine how the interactions between individuals and communities affects our physical and mental health.

This year, the festival’s events – workshops, debates and artist interviews – have gone online, while five ‘MINDSCAPES’ artworks are on display both virtually and around Manchester. These include: illustrated maps exploring neighbourhoods from local people’s perspective; an interactive online game simulating the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Universal Credit; and street poetry displays.

“I come from a lonely place”

Manchester Mood Drawings are a series of posters displayed at Metrolink stops across Manchester showing intricate maps of communities, combining text with hand-drawn illustrations of local landmarks. They were produced by the Dutch artist Jan Rothuizen, based on ‘virtual tours’ he took via WhatsApp with individual local residents. In a recorded interview for the festival website, he describes them as “reportage drawings” or “soft atlases”, which map the subjective, emotional experience of belonging to a place.

Photo: Mark McNulty

Not all of the drawings are strictly cartographic, however: Wythenshawe’s shows the living room of a resident ‘John’, who is providing domestic care to his wife after she had an accident. These smaller-scale ‘maps’ serve as an important reminder of those confined to home, or even who suffer from claustrophobia in public places: as we’ve learned in the past year, our sense of scale can be quick to adapt.

While the drawings themselves are absorbing to look at, I couldn’t help feeling that they could be better promoted on the festival site. You can watch all of them in TED-style animated videos, but often the camera zips across the canvas too fast for you to take in the detail and read the text. Moreover, the main page for the drawings only features a map of those located at stops in the city centre, without making it clear that the drawings at all of these locations are the same (the other drawings on display at unspecified locations outside the centre).

I drive a taxi – what am I?

‘While Waiting, Wait Here’ is an online game simulating the experience of Universal Credit from a claimant’s viewpoint, which manages to be equal parts funny and depressing.

Creator Merel Smitt uses her art to make interventions in the public sphere. She claims the game is based on extensive research and deliberately intertwines fictional elements with testimony from users and experts, in order to make us question how far the benefits system would go to sanction and discipline claimants.

Image c/o Merel Smitt and Maaike Canne @SICK! Festival Facebook

It consists of the animated waiting room of a Jobcentre, with a series of clickable icons that allow you to pass the time with activities such as calling a helpline (leading to a series of oblique options, giving you the farcical freedom to “choose how you wait”) or completing a patronising riddle wordsearch (‘I drive a taxi; what am I?’). It pokes fun at the absurdity of a system that can often seem inhumane and condescending, without losing sight of the fact that this absurdity has a very real human cost. A rolling news-style ticker at the top of the screen details cases of suicides linked to the stress of capability-for-work assessments.

SICK! Festival is a timely intervention and an encouraging example of art being harnessed for a social purpose. These and other artworks – including a ‘Sound Paths’ app giving you an audio-guided tour of Moston and Harpurhey, and a ‘living zine’ of young people’s confinement to their bedrooms during lockdown – are worthy of your time and attention as we prepare to venture outside again.

MINDSCAPES will be available to the public until 16th May 2021.

Tags: illustration, lockdown health, Mental Health, outdoor activity, SICK! Festival, street art

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