Interview: Steve Macleod on Hospital Rooms

published on 11 November 2016

Steve Macleod talks to Lara Johnson-Wheeler about drawing on his own experience as a mental health service user when curating art at The Phoenix Unit.

Steve Macleod talks to Lara Johnson-Wheeler about drawing on his own experience as a mental health service user when curating art at The Phoenix Unit.

Landscape photography by Steve Macleod

Lara Johnson-Wheeler: Tell me how you got involved with the ‘Hospital Rooms’ project, curating your art at The Phoenix Unit.

Steve Macleod: It came in a roundabout way really. I’m the Director of Metro Imaging and Niamh White and Tim A Shaw came to see me about investigating different ways of producing work that would cater for the unit, using processes that would be acceptable for the service users, as we’ve produced work in environments that have safety risk factors. They also knew about my own practice as an artist, but it was initially from a logistical conversation that we started chatting about the project.

LJW: Your work considers nature and the darkness and light inherent in natural forms - did you have specific examples of work in mind when you began to consider how you would curate the space allocated to you?

SM: No, not at all. I’ve always been interested in public arts engagement, particularly in non-gallery environments. Hospitals and GP’s surgeries are often sterile - excuse the pun - spaces. The association between medicine and the arts has drifted wider apart in the twenty-first century and society as a whole has little understanding of the historical connection between the disciplines. It’s disappointing and quite sad when you go into these institutions, there appears to be no place for the arts. They are functional spaces and creativity is rarely included, there is a lost opportunity to have people engage with the arts as it is proven that it can support wellbeing. So I was intrigued by the project from the perspective of being in a hospital from the first instance, but I didn’t actually have a concept in mind myself.

LJW: This distinction between the arts and medicine - having seen the images you contributed, I wondered if you tried to bridge that gap. Was that your intention?

SM: My intention was just to be a contributor to this project. I myself was diagnosed with a mental illness in 2000. I spent time in a secure unit being diagnosed with bipolar depression so I went through some difficult challenges - I’ve experienced first hand what it feels like to be a service user. When I came through I made a commitment to myself to not be a revolving door patient, not be a victim to my condition, so I’ve used it, I work with it in my practice. I felt that I wanted to create work that would invite debate, conversation and question; not merely pretty pictures on a wall. That’s the last thing I want, I feel there’s often a naivety to what we are offered in public spaces, like we’re patronising what patients should and can look at - so I wanted to create something that was relevant to my own experiences, and at the same time images that were challenging to look at, that was my brief to myself really.

LJW: Does your image-making reflect your own experiences?

SM: Definitely. I did a project called 'Blackwater' that was a direct response to a period of my life where I was going through sustained cognitive behavioural therapy that I knew would be challenging. It required a sincere commitment from me, because there were highs and the lows, yet I wanted to be able to find a way to cope with my condition. I believe that when you go through a sequence like that it drags things up when you least expect it, it was and still is very challenging. At that time I was going through some frustrating, difficult times, times in my life that impacted on me, my family and everything around me. That project was really a way for me to contemplate the time I was going through the CBT. 

LJW: This ability to be creative, would you say you used that as a vehicle to understand more about your own condition?

SM: Certainly, I think with my condition I go through very active and creative phases. I don’t see it as an incumbent, some of my most bizarre and 'out there' ideas and concepts have come to the fore when I’m at my highest. I’m not condoning my condition, I’ve fought my fear and anxieties about it, it’s part of me but it doesn’t define me as a person, so like most I manage it. As I said before, I don’t see myself as a victim to mental illness, it’s a condition that I cope with, that I have a responsibility to manage for myself and for my family. 'Blackwater' was a conduit for exploring and trying to discover and understand possibly why I felt high, why I felt low; photography was the natural vehicle for the project.

Viewers can read what they read from it, take what they take from it and thankfully we are not the people in control of that, I like that.

LJW: I’m particularly interested in the way that art is increasingly taking on the role of therapy.

SM: I’ve been with other people when they’re going through therapy and they often do not engage with the arts as a natural choice to support them. Often the environment they occupy is a hot spot for information and instructional posters and little else. In these environments people can be emotionally challenged, it’s quite an intense place to be in, yet it is sanitised, functional and remote. We are missing a trick as I think art could be used as a vehicle to empower patients to engage, consider and be open about their condition at a time when they can be both physically and or mentally unwell. Our society doesn’t experience art as much as it should; most art is placed in galleries or museums and this can create prejudices. Galleries feel like an alien space for the majority of people and this can create a barrier for many to participate, art in public spaces diffuses this notion and creates a democratic, art for all environment. Viewers can read what they read from it, take what they take from it and thankfully we are not the people in control of that, I like that. The idea that they can have a fleeting glance of something and it could resonate with them, or they could study something for a very long time and it possibly means nothing is very powerful and I don’t think we should try and control people’s responses. If it’s therapy and it helps them then I’m all for it. 

LJW: Were you expecting a certain reaction to the work you’ve contributed from the service users and from the staff at The Phoenix Unit?

SM: No, I didn’t expect a reaction, my greatest hope was that it would open service users up to engaging in different ways. Niamh told me they had a patient that hadn’t spoken for years, they sat looking at one of my works for over an hour and then spoke for the first time since being on the ward. He said some pretty derogatory things about it but he started speaking to his care worker. That to me means the world, that to me is something that is incredibly powerful.

LJW: The sense of engagement that this project entails is significant, but it must be a challenge that simultaneously these artworks all have to have an inherent practicality.

SM: Yes, of course. I printed my work on vinyl; a lightweight material in order that, should something be damaged or fall, it would not hurt anyone. It was a priority for me to respect the space, I visited the ward and looked at where footfall would be, how the space was navigated.

LJW: Were your choices influenced by the physical space you were allocated in the hospital? I know you have work in the hallways and communal spaces.

SM: I was especially taken by the curved walls in reception and created a space where people felt as if they were sitting in the ground, I really responded to that. I looked at the communal areas and was taken by the sweeping arch of the main ward corridor. I didn’t want my work to feel static; I used layered images that created an imagined landscape. There is one image of a petrified forest in Essex that has 28 trees, it was petrified 300 years ago when the trees were already mature, they’re huge skeletal lumbering oaks. I photographed the location over the course of a 12-hour period, moving with the sun so that the direction of light is always coming from the same direction. It’s a composite of four images, so it’s the same trees from different depths of field and different angles to create this imagined world. And that was one image that I thought would work well above the dining room. Pictorially it’s a landscape, but a landscape we could never really find.

LJW: Your images seem to me as though they were a window. That you could imagine that they were something you were looking through to.

SM: Yes – a lot of my work is about imagined places, with my own condition I often find it challenging to keep going. I’ve experienced emotions that I have struggled to deal with. I would get high but I didn’t really get low, I would be destructive. I would strive to correct my behaviour but it was as if I was somebody else looking in on who I was. I wanted people to be able to look at landscape all the time in the communal areas. I often ask people to not only look at my work but ask them to see some meaning in the work that is personal to them, what do they feel? It's not necessarily a reflection of what I’m thinking, it’s about what they might also get from it, or not. My work isn’t really about photography, it’s more about questioning a world and how we see ourselves in that world.

LJW: Do you think that’s something that you’re trying to provide for service users?

SM: I’m not trying to dictate to them what they should think about the works – I can only show them how I see things, and when people look at my work - if they take anything from it I want them to see that things are real but they can also be imaged, it’s an illusion and its as real as you want it to be. There is a grey area because all of those landscapes exist, but what I’m doing particularly in camera is distorting, making you question maybe yourself or your circumstances or what that reality is. Mental health doesn’t define my practice, I’m not trying to say anything more than that it’s part of me, and it informs parts of my practice.

LJW: It’s fascinating that you’re able to share that now with people who are in that situation.

SM: I think for me it’s been an interesting vehicle, if I can call it that. Anybody that knows me or that has worked with me knows I’m not ashamed of my condition, I have accepted it but I am not at the mercy of it. But yeah, I’m blessed to have the opportunity to express myself through photography in this way.

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