A Message from the Director

Welcome to The Big Anxiety Festival

image of jill bennett wearing a green shirt and blue pale denim skirt she has red hair and is leaning against a wall

Image of Festival Director Jill Bennett

For centuries, the arts have charted the anguish and trauma of mental life, bringing to light experiences that are barely expressed in everyday language. Historically, a romantic view of madness cast the artist as a disturbed genius, somehow distinct from normal society. Today we know that our collective mental health depends on the richness of our cultural expression. Not on cultural artefacts locked away in museums, but on living cultural expression that connects us to ourselves and to each other, that creates a pathway to reflection and self-knowing, and gives us the confidence to shout about what’s wrong in our current Age of Anxiety.

When we first conceived The Big Anxiety, we were motivated by two ‘big’ factors. One was a mental health crisis – manifested in high rates of anxiety across the general population, an alarming increase in the numbers of teenagers in severe psychological distress, the catastrophic health consequences of mandatory detention, suicide emerging as the biggest killer of young people under 45, and appalling rates of youth suicide in Indigenous communities. The other was political – the legacy of the global economic crisis and festering politics of fear during the first decade of the 2000s, now giving rise to Trumpism and new mutations of xenophobia, stoking anxieties at-large in the wider population. In other words, The Big Anxiety is not simply concerned with anxiety as an individual ‘disorder’ but with exploring the many forms of stress and anxiety that permeate society and the impact this has on quality of life.

These big factors are entangled. Anxiety and mental health are influenced by living conditions. Poverty, disadvantage, toxic working environments make it worse. Better outcomes require not only services and social supports but a culture that enables insight: ‘the capacity to alter how we live our lives is only possible with adequate access to space for reflection’ writes psychologist Jay Watts in a recent column on depression. The cultural sector creates that space for reflection but we have only just begun to envisage this as the massive social project that it needs to be. Rich and varied strategies of engagement are needed when, as is apparently the case in Australia, 65% of people with ‘mental health issues’ do not seek help.

The Big Anxiety is not business as usual for the arts. It is a call to action – an occasion for artists, scientists and communities to work together. We have asked all our artists and collaborators what their projects can do for people – how they can help us to shape our lives and environments. We want to deliver projects with effect, encounters that spark connections and actions.

At the same time, we hope our exhibits, environments, workshops, performances, and other events will be immediately accessible. If all you want is to chill out in a multisensory environment such the Snoösphere, or transport into virtual reality, lie in a pod designed to promote mental health, or have a conversation without saying a thing, The Big Anxiety Hubs are the places to be. And in our Mobile Mood Lab you’ll be able to try out a unique relaxation exercise, using vibrant imagery driven by your own heart-beat.

Alternatively, you may be stimulated by a journey into the Parramatta Girls’ Home in a world-leading 3D immersive cinema, or by participating in ‘Mood Experiments’ that use immersive technologies to explore social interactions. You may want to find out more about Islamophobia (We Are All Affected), the effects of digital media (Group Therapy) or the benefits of a NeurodiverseCity, in which neurodivergent artists reimagine a city that is less anxious, more relaxing, and #comfortablewithdiversity.

If this sounds challenging, our Awkward Conversations program is designed to make the act of conversing easier through a program including one-to-one conversations that dispense with the ‘normal’ rules of social engagement; informal Long Tables, Porch Sittings and a Care Cafe; and facilitated discussions of intensely moving and provocative art projects on OCD and suicide. We will also be tackling a spectrum of everyday concerns from performance anxiety to toxic workplaces in off-beat and entertaining forums.

This is the first time that artists, designers, technical innovators, psychologists, psychiatrists, mental health experts, and experts-by-experience have come together on such a scale to create a cultural festival of this kind – one that addresses mental health as a collective, social responsibility. By mental health we do not simply mean ‘illness’; nor indeed, its vague antithesis, ‘wellbeing’. Our Mental Health Day speaker, Peter Kinderman (former President of the British Psychological Association) argues that viewing emotional distress as an individual illness ignores how it is part of our culture, attesting to the violence, abuse and pressures of that culture as well as to its approach to care. We need to see mental health in its psychological and social context – and for this we need the arts along with science.

We believe that a radical and truly effective approach to mental health must involve arts + science + people. Together these elements can produce a revolutionary citizen science in which we all have access to the most creative and innovative means for understanding our mental lives.

We invite you to join us in fostering this festival of arts + science + people. We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which the festival takes place.

To find out more, please check out our resources, such as: 12 points about anxiety [PDF]. Launching on 1 September is the Anxiety Issue of Artlink.  On Art and Anxiety: read my article: ‘We Are All Anxious Now’ Tate.

Jill Bennett
Executive and Artistic Director