Mandy McIntosh
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Mandy McIntosh
Session by Mandy Mcintosh

Session by Mandy Mcintosh

Scottish artist Mandy McIntosh spoke to APEngine about her latest work, Session, a multi-faceted film inspired by Pero’s room in Bristol’s Georgian House.

Can you tell us a bit about your background as an artist. I know you work across disciplines – film, animation, craft… How would you describe your practice?

I would describe my work as a mobile, its like there’s a core element that these other disparate things can hang from and interact according to what’s in the air, what’s blowing them. The core element is a massive joy in aesthetic pleasure and visual experimenting but that’s underpinned by a seam of political consciousness. Its like Saturn and Uranus. A strong work ethic and sense of social responsibility conjoined with a hedonistic, utopianistic pleasure-seeking missile.

I work across disciplines because I need contrast and the transitions nurture each other. My background is in fashion design, I worked for Kenzo for two years as a studio knitwear designer and a sense of fashion and craft informs my methods, how I make things.

How did the commission to make Session come about?

Picture This got in touch with me after seeing Weightless Animals and Oompie ka Doompie. Oompie ka Doompie is an animation set in Johannesburg in the 70s during Apartheid. Picture This commissioned three new films as part of a wider response to the 200 year anniversary of the abolition of slavery, so I would imagine that they saw a relevance in my work both in terms of how I was looking at racism subjectively but also in how I make site specific film work too.

The film is set in the Georgian House Museum, Bristol. What drew you to set the film at this location?

I was “allocated” that space. And it made sense. It was heaving with decorative objects and redolent with broader meaning, specifically about what was shut to the public and how very few of the objects originally belonged to the slave owner who had built the house in the first place.

The story begins with Pero, an 18th century slave – what was it that attracted you to focus on his story?

It was inevitable that I focus on Pero because his story is the story of the house, albeit a kind of invisible story. The function of the museum seems to be more about discussing white aesthetics and lifestyle and mannerisms than it is about really divulging the nature of slavery although some attempt has been made. But the most shocking thing about the museum, to me, was that Pero’s room was used for storage, it wasn’t open to the public and still isn’t and this seemed to me to be a complete and eloquent metaphor for institutional blind spots or more simplistically, a lack of care. So that was the beginning, I wanted to use that room in a specific way, to empty it and utilise it.

I had read my friend Justine Roland Cal’s dissertation on black mental health in the UK, and how per capita, the statistics were really poor, particularly for African Caribbean men. The statistics are cited in the film, black men are more likely to be sectioned, more likely to have restraining force used against them, less likely to access psychotherapy and so on, more likely to be medicated long term and so on.

And Pero had clearly displayed symptoms of depression and alcoholism. When I spoke to psychiatric consultants, one of them discussed research on Post Traumatic Slave syndrome and how there’s a legacy of mental health issues which stem from that time to now. And because these issues are blanked in mainstream culture we see patterns emerge across generations, there is no real process of reconciliation. So that was the link. The African Caribbean men we worked with were Pero’s brothers. They stood in for him and they received art therapy sessions in Pero’s old room. And the drawings were absorbed back into the film along with the sugar work we made too, the sculptures, made from the substance that fuelled aspects of slavery in the West Indies.

And how did you relate it to modern day Bristol?

Bristol, like Glasgow and Liverpool was one of the main ports in the slave trade.

How did you work with the Two Way Street support group on the project?

We went to the drop in and spoke to Rachel who runs the organisation with Tim who is in the film. It was a speculative conversation to begin with but that first meeting really informed the work, because I had imagined like some kind of Freudian type situation in Pero’s room, a couch and an analyst.

But from an African Caribbean perspective, specifically the women at two way street that we spoke to, this wasn’t the kind of therapy that they welcomed. It didn’t work for them. And they had had these remarkably positive experiences with a woman art therapist called Marian Liebmann who’s a specialist in conflict resolution. They were incredibly positive about her, and we contacted her afterwards and she agreed to work with our participants in Pero’s old room. And in her whole career as an art therapist working with both sexes and many nationalities and people of many diverse backgrounds, she had never worked with black men. No black men had ever been referred tot her. So this was really significant and further underpinned our point. So she provided therapeutic sessions and a woman confectioner worked with us to enable sugar sculpting and manipulating and a percussionist worked with us to make music from the pots and pans. This was a form of Iron band, a pre cursor to the steel band. It’s a form of protest music that came about when African drumming was banned on the plantations, it uses metal utilitarian objects.

How did working with the participants feed into the finished film?

The participants made the raw material that became the film. That’s how I work when I work with community. I give people raw ingredients and they make artifacts, which are then choreographed by me. The nature of the artifacts determines the film that’s what I get excited about.

Were there any surprises that came from working collaboratively?

Yes and no. I’m never surprised by the depth of untapped creativity in people who don’t practice art, and I’m always really blown away by what comes up. In this case I was really surprised by not just raw talent but finesses and eloquence. The objects that were made were pivotal and reactionary and accidental and difficult to determine until they entered the house and were looked at alongside the Georgian artifacts. Then it totally made sense and made a third thing, the third thing was how we felt collectively about the house. We conceptually vandalized it but in a really elegant way.

How did you choose to show the issues affecting the members of the support group?

We cite the stats at the beginning, so that we didn’t need to say anything else. A participant called Winston describes his experience of being misdiagnosed and prescribed the wrong medication long term, which damaged his mental and physical health even further, but we don’t see him. We only see sugar being poured and manipulated and forced into shapes with severe looking implements.

And how did you find dealing with such a delicate subject area with the participants?

It was straightforward. Mental health issues are ubiquitous and affect many people. Its problematic that we perceive it as delicate it isn’t. We need to recognize that more and really embrace the fact that people with mental health problems are often extremely marginalised and under estimated. We need to normalise mental health problems. When we add racism and historical exclusion into the mix then that’s a whole new can of worms and that’s why Two Way Street are crucial, because they speak for their community and they know what is required to help people in really pragmatic, culturally appropriate ways.

The film comprises of live action and animation – why did you choose to combine the two?

It’s the way I work. I create visual tension in that way and I like to collage things to add dimensions and tangents.

The soundtrack is made up of drum n bass and the junk percussion music made in a therapy session by the film participants. How did you decide on the soundtrack?

I bought the Shitmat album when I was living in New York in 2004 and played it to death. I loved it. And it completely made sense for this because its hard and rude and punk and there’s subtext and its basically about rattling the system.

After the Down At the Bamboo Club exhibition, are you showing the film anywhere else?

The film is being screened at Document 7, the human rights film festival, in Glasgow and all over the shop after, we want to hook into the black mental health movement in general and make quite a grass roots distribution system.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I’m making a film called The Animal Riot, which is an 18th century Ukrainian story. Orwell is believed to have plagiarized the text somewhat for Animal Farm but this is hearsay. It’s about a riot on a farm and the aftermath and I’m using drawings by primates form the archive of a Russian primatologist for the backgrounds and to hold the piece down. It’s 3D animation with a soundtrack by Zeena Parkins and voiceover by Aidan Mofat. It’s almost finished. It will tour rural communities in Scotland as well as broader systems.

Oompie ka Doompie will screen at The Scottish National Gallery as part of Running Time, an overview of Scottish Artist Film since the 60s.

I’m also working on a mental health worker public information film with Artlink in Edinburgh which is animated.

Check out an extract of Mandy McIntosh’s film Session here on APEngine. The film is being exhibited as part of the group show Down At The Bamboo Club at the Picture This Atelier, Bristol until 17 October 2009.

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