I watch a rather world-weary woman reading aloud – a ‘goodbye letter to alcohol’. It is an exercise that I often use when working with patients at Castle Craig Hospital and will be familiar to anyone with experience of addiction therapy. It is an effective recovery technique. Nothing new there. But this is an artwork, a video installation and what makes it different is that there is another presence in the video – a rather malign looking lady representing the drug alcohol, who gives a threatening yet poetic response to the goodbye letter. It adds something extra and gets me thinking – ‘yes, alcohol always wants to have the last word, never gives up.’ Perhaps this is an example of what I have come to find out – how science and art can collaborate to bring something extra and new to an issue – in this case, the issue of addiction.
I am at London’s just-opened Science Gallery’s inaugural exhibition ‘Hooked’, at London Bridge in the shadow of the mighty Shard, London’s tallest building. The exhibition aims to: “delve into the complex world of addiction and recovery. From gambling to gaming and smartphones to social media, ‘Hooked’ will question what makes the human race vulnerable to addiction and interrogate the underlying factors and routes to recovery. Artists, scientists and researchers …….will invite visitors to explore the latest research and thinking on the subject while questioning their own ideas about the scientific and cultural aspects of this much debated topic.” (Science Gallery London – publicity material)
It all sounds fresh, stimulating, a touch grandiose and a bit intellectual, but I am keeping an open mind as I enter the building. It is beautifully appointed and the staff are all welcoming and interactive, only too keen to explain an exhibit or indulge in discussion (you don’t get much of that at some other London galleries I know).
Nearly all of us use drugs, whether we realise it or not. Tea, coffee, cigarettes, alcohol and many prescription medications are mood-altering substances, and therefore drugs, that we can take perfectly legally. Then there’s all the illegal stuff. You have to be a pretty fastidious and vigilant person to avoid drugs altogether. And where there are drugs, there is addiction. The exhibition publicity puts it like this:
“We live in a highly addicted society. In a choice environment encompassing everything from social inequality, genetic predisposition and peer pressure, everyday things transform into addictive substances and behaviours. (Science Gallery London” – publicity material)
Death and taxes, as Benjamin Franklin famously said, are life’s two certainties and we can probably add a third, addiction – if not for ourselves, then for someone we know or love. It behoves us all to educate ourselves about it. And our families too need education – on the causes and consequences of addiction and the remedies to apply, if someone should become ‘hooked’.
In parallel with this, society in general needs to re-evaluate its stigmatising attitudes and indeed, shoulder some of the blame. These days, addiction is about behaviours as well as substances. Shopping, gaming, social media and phone use are all everyday pursuits that can turn into addictions
But I’m still a bit doubtful about this exhibition – addiction is a cunning, baffling and powerful disease in my view and loves its victims to talk and intellectualise, rather than to actually do something about it. Isn’t addiction about emotions rather than thoughts and ideas? Wouldn’t any struggling addict coming here be thinking more along the lines of Virginia Woolf: “what does the mind matter, compared to the heart?” (As a long-term abuser of prescription drugs such as Chloral, Virginia knew a thing or two on the subject).
Any exhibition or event that explores such issues is certainly to be welcomed. This presentation approaches addiction in a refreshingly new way. it aims to take us out of our comfort zone by asking us to look at certain issues, the first being Addiction, from the perspectives of science and art.
“Science Gallery London (SGL) is a space where art and science collide. The gallery connects art, science and health to drive innovation in the heart of the city. A flagship project for King’s College London, the Gallery focuses on engaging 15–25-year-olds in cutting-edge research in science, art and design. Through exhibitions and events, Science Gallery London brings together scientists, artists, students and local communities in new and innovative ways to stimulate fresh thinking.” (Science Gallery London, – publicity material)
From the essential conflict between science (the mind) and art (the emotions), it seems to say, will come fresh debate and new ideas. And does it? Well, up to a point Lord Copper, as Evelyn Waugh might have said (and dammit, he’s another of these authors who hammered the pills and alcohol).
BBC Radio 4’s Adam Rutherford conducted a stimulating review of this exhibition last week and some of the exhibits here certainly carry a punch. I particularly liked the Hashish Club video installation.
The Hashish Club – Joachim Koester (2009)
The exhibition is full of screens and installations where lights flash and voices are heard. Its certainly fascinating to see how some of them get our addictive responses engaged in an almost Pavlovian manner.
Neuroscience and electronics do go well together and some of the artwork, such as the intriguing ‘Sugar Rush’ by Atelier 010 – a disintegrating table made out of actual sugar – are well worth examination.
There are four distinct sections to the exhibition:
- NATURAL BORN THRILLERS – how do fun experiences and daily routines morph into addictive behaviour? ‘Can you tell the difference between sober and inebriated mice?’ asks the first exhibit I study. ‘Well, yes but should I need to?’ I feel doubts rising within me.
- SPEED OF LIGHT – the power of the digital world and the hidden persuaders that lead us into addiction. ‘Please Don’t Like This: A Social Media Conundrum (2015)’ is an installation by Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Benjamin Grosser that fires up my addictive responses. But I already know I’m a Facebook sucker.
- FREE WILL – do we have choices about addiction and should society re-examine attitudes and be less quick to stigmatise? If you’re drug free, you’re ‘clean’ so does that make every drug user ‘dirty’? Some words do need closer examination, that’s for sure. Not something I’d thought about.
- SAFE FROM HARM – how do we repair the damage and rehabilitate? This last section contains some remarkable examples of the addiction experience from artist Melanie Manchot in ‘Twelve’ a series of videos that I could really relate to.
In choosing addiction as the theme for this inaugural exhibition, the curators have taken on a complex, multi-faceted subject. To some of us, this adds to the fascination – we have an intellectual problem that we can pick over and endlessly examine.
This is not an exhibition that asks questions rather than provides answers – perhaps no exhibition does that. But it certainly does ask some good questions such as –
– What tips us over into addiction, and how does it happen?
– How much is the digital world to blame for addiction?
– How much choice do we really have and how much are we being manipulated?
– What does recovery mean and are there better approaches?
Questions not asked, but ones relevant to the ‘collision of science and art’ that this exhibition is about , and perhaps could have been asked, include:
– How do mood-altering drugs help creativity?
– How should relatively new drugs such as Naltrexone and Buprenorphine affect our approach to addiction recovery?
– If we really are being manipulated into addiction, both behavioural and substances, by the hidden persuaders of big pharma and the digital giants, then how can we counter this?
– How can artistic creativity help in recovery from addiction?
– Isn’t it time we had a definitive answer about the usefulness of not, of cannabinoids – after all, hash had been used recreationally for hundreds of years?
For those presently struggling to stay sober a day at a time, or those coming to terms with the loss of a loved one, addiction is a horribly raw and immediate problem. For such unfortunates, this exhibition may seem a bit like discussing the science of buoyancy while the Titanic sinks. For they are caught up in addiction, are dealing mainly with emotions and are looking for support and practical solutions. In this maelstrom situation, they might be forgiven their: “What does the brain matter, compared to the heart?” moments.
Indeed, this exhibition was never meant to be a place of support for those in the grip of addiction who are suffering serious consequences – it is not a place to receive therapy, or the advice and support of the kind you find at an AA meeting, for example. In fact, the initials AA so not feature anywhere that I could see. This is not a criticism – it is just not that kind of event.
Significantly though, and likely to have practical impact, the exhibition is not static but includes workshops and other events at various times, such as ‘Digital Dependence, a Data Detox Workshop’, ‘ Click-click-boom-life-online – the role of the Internet in our society afflicted by addiction’, and ‘Whitney: can I be me? A documentary on the life of Whitney Houston’.
But is any of this exhibition new? Not really, in itself, but perhaps in its presentation, it’s perspectives and the questions asked, there lie thought provoking questions that, if pursued, may yield some sort of long term results in the way that we – individuals, governments and society at large, change our attitudes and thus our practical responses to this enormous and complex problem. And if we end up doing some things differently, it may mean that we are more successful in helping people best addiction. Time and the statistics, will tell us that.
After a very good croissant and coffee, I step out into the street again. Yes I think, there is something to be said for the intellectual approach to addiction. The mind does matter, as well as the heart.
I glance up again at the Shard and suddenly it looks not like the mighty tower it is, but like a, monstrous, up-ended spliff. It doesn’t take much to get my addictive responses moving.
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