SICK! Festival of Contemporary Performance Art produced by contemporary performance organisation the Basement, played in Brighton from 1- 16 March. John O'Donoghue went to see the vacuum cleaner's show Mental, which documents 10 years of being an outlaw, inpatient and artist activist
The vacuum cleaner is a collective of one, by turns activist and artist, and his show Mental is “…how the story ends.” But if you’re expecting a straightforward narrative then you’re in the wrong show. There is nothing straightforward about the vacuum cleaner.
The programme notes bill him as a kind of Scarlet Pimpernel of the Occupy Generation and as the piece progresses what amazes you most is how he’s still here at all.
The piece opens with a set bare except for a bed, a side table, and an overhead projector. From under the duvet first a hand surfaces, then a glimpse of a few tufts of hair, then he’s there, the mysterious vacuum cleaner. He tells us that he’s accessed his mental health medical records, a few hundred pages of corporate documents –
mainly legal actions against him – and some highly redacted Police Forward Intelligence files, including an out of date photo.
His story is divided into chapters and we start with Chapter 1, 1999 – 2002. This part of the show largely documents his time trying to sort out his mental health. We don’t learn what led to him being suicidal, nor why he was in such psychological pain. Instead we are plunged into a trawl through the lower depths, mental and social, that he’s been through: psychiatric hospitals, hostels, B & Bs.
Then we come to Chapter 2, 2003 – 2009. the vacuum cleaner decides to break off all contact with psychiatric services. It’s a little unclear here but it seems that at this point his activism takes off. He mentions the G8, Starbucks, and E.ON. He’s in The Clown Army, and now the Police are on his case. And not just the local bobby on the beat, but the Forward Intelligence Team. They’re the cops who go to demos and actions and take photos of activists. Then one day he’s watching Channel 4News and he finds out that undercover police officers have infiltrated his network of protestors.
Soon we’re on to Chapter 3, 2009 – The Present. He’s back to accessing mental health services, to the wards, the B&Bs, the hostel were he ‘can feel the sadness behind every door.’ It looks like he’s back to square one.
Then we come to final part of the show, Chapter 4. the vacuum cleaner decides to draft his own Mental Health Act and sections himself under Section 1.
And so we come full circle.
I came away from Mental with more questions than answers. What led the vacuum cleaner to end up in feeling suicidally depressed? Did it just come over him, or were there trigger factors? How did he get into activism? How did he choose the actions he took part in?
The show is all about power – the way mental health services can ask you to surrender power in order to get help, the way they can have power over you, the way the disempowered can take back power through activism, the way power is being used to crush dissent and opposition, the ultimate fusion of these two strands in the vacuum cleaner’s brilliant sectioning of himself under his own Mental Health Act.
I would have liked answers to my questions but as I came away I got the feeling the vacuum cleaner has been helping various people with their enquiries for far too long. It’s high time his evidence was heard in theatre’s open court throughout the land.
Mental concludes the Sick! Festival. For details go to: www.thebasement.uk.com