9 minutes reading time (1884 words)

Aidan Moesby: the cold and the warm(ing)

Aidan Moesby: the cold and the warm(ing)
We are at a critical point of the climate change and mental health crises. We are the most connected 'on demand' generation yet seem to have lost touch with who we are and where we fit in the world. We mediate our life through technology and screens. Are we ever truly where we are and present?

I have just finished the research and development of my latest project I was naked, smelling of rain. This is the culmination of a year long collaborative project with Dr David Cousins. It  responds to our sense of dis/connectedness and being 'alone' or 'lonely'. Regardless of digital (dis)connectedness and proximity, we are all physically connected by the weather.

As an artist and curator my work is situated at the intersection of the visual arts, wellbeing and increasingly, technology. I am concerned with weather as metaphor, both the real 'physical weather' we experience and our 'internal weather'. Much of my work explores the double crises of Climate change and mental health. 


The climate as situation

Obviously in recent times, the climate crisis is getting the coverage it deserves thanks to Greta Thunberg’s Skolstreajk för Klimatet and Extinction Rebellion. This crisis is thankfully on the social, cultural and political agenda. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for mental health.

The statistics are frightening. In 2017 there were 5,821 suicides registered in the UK. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45, as highlighted last year in the campaign Project 84. According to the WHO, a suicide occurs every 40 seconds. Behind these headlines are the 1-in-4 figures for those experiencing serious mental health issues, the ever increasing antidepressant prescriptions, and the failure of the government to adequately fund mental health services. The ONS reports on loneliness make equally stark reading.


Presence

I have been collaborating with psychiatrist Dr David Cousins for around 5 years. Our work has a shared relationship with conversation, and we also share more than a passing interest in the human condition and weather.

I can't remember not being fascinated by, or rather, not loving, the weather. However, I became to think about the internal and external weather during a period of ill health which coincided with me reading about Robert Fitzroy, the founding father of weather forecasting and the first head of what is now the Met Office. After a period of sustained stress, he took his own life. I began to wonder about psychological weather forecasts.

It is not quite that simple. It never is. I wondered if every sector of life could be treated as a discrete weather system. Is it the case if you are deluged in your work life, are you experiencing a drought in your social or familial life? It’s a very reductive example, but it illustrates where my thoughts lay and where the conversations with David began. 

In 2013 I produced Sagacity: the Periodic Table of Emotions. It is a periodic table of emotions with each grouping weighted according to intensity/heaviness and is colour-coded to visualise the wellbeing of the city.

Most wellbeing indicators use parks and jobs and houses as metrics. I find it difficult to express how I am feeling without using an emotion. However, most people exist in a binary of happy or sad, good or bad. Emotions and feelings are much more nuanced than that. We rarely, unless we are experiencing extreme mental ill health, exist in a mono-emotional state. The reality is we often experience conflicting emotions – we can be excited and anxious, they are not mutually exclusive. Sagacity exists to be interacted with: a digital installation which is activated through Twitter.

During the research, I had a focus group basked in Dundee where I texted questions each day for a fortnight. These ranged from 'on a scale of one to ten how do you feel today?' through to 'where do you get your support from?' 'how connected do you feel to the city?' to 'where would Dundee take you on a date and why?' The retention rate was amazing, as was the honesty and openness of the anonymous respondents. I was amazed at what people were prepared to tell me through the anonymity of a text.



Isolation

When I used to travel, I would be in a queue, on a bus, sitting in a bar and usually get chatting to someone. There was a preparedness to engage, to be open – the fear of the other was not so prevalent. Now, when I travel, I rarely get to speak to anyone in chance encounters. When I go into a bar in Copenhagen, people are physically present but digitally they are in San Francisco or Tokyo – physically present, but emotionally absent. I recently took a 15-hour flight and the person next to me did not speak a word. He was fixated on his hand held screen, or the screen on the back of the chair, or his computer. 15 hours. Not one word.

I am not anti-technology. My work uses it extensively, but only where it is appropriate, where it does something necessary rather than as "digital for digital's sake". In fact, my favoured technologies are pencil and paper. The impacts and benefits of technology are huge, and it has amazing potential to make a positive contribution to society and the individual. However, as much as it connects, it also divides. This is not a place to discuss digital poverty and the role it plays in the disparity of access to information and resources and, ultimately, opportunities. Nor, how it reinforces the inequities of rich and poor. However, the digital landscape is contested. At once, a person may be cyber-bullied and turn to an online forum for support. It can connect those separated by time zones and borders. Yet, it can also alienate us and deprive us of those often inconsequential human interactions which can help to place us and to ground us in our community as so eloquently explored in The Village Effect. A brief interaction with a stranger can have real positive impacts on our wellbeing. For this, amongst many reasons, I detest the self-service in supermarkets and other situations which deprive me of a passing-the-time-of-day chat. 

These may seem like small moments which affect only the individual but, to my mind, they manifest in a larger fragmentation and disintegration of the frameworks which maintain the veneer of living in a civilised society. It may seem like a small thing, but I love the way that when in Germany, I wait for the green man to be able to cross the road, regardless of the fact there may be no cars visible. We wait. In its small way, it maintains the structure of society. 



Similarly, climate change is more nuanced. We think about the seasons, the hotter days, the increased energy in the system, and stronger storms. We see the headlines but not necessarily the small print. We don't see the PTSD due to repeated wild fires and flooding, whereas we may see climate refugees leaving famine-struck areas. Extended periods of heat or cold cause an increase in deaths of vulnerable people. People become more stressed in extreme weather conditions, literally boiling over, hot under the collar - in traffic queues and with road rage. Aeroplanes need to fly lighter in hot weather as hot air reduces the lift for take off. Climate change is affecting us in a myriad of unseen or unnoticed ways in our everyday – it is akin to seeing the waves but not the individual droplets of water which form them. As climate change progresses and increases in rate and intensity, we will notice more and more as our privilege offers less protection - is it impacts the centre ground and not just the fringes of society.

I was naked, smelling of rain specifically explores loneliness, aloneness and presence and absence through the lens of weather. As part of the research I went to Kirkenes, in the far north of Norway. It was during the "Beast from the East". With lots of snow and -15ºC temperatures, for all its remoteness, I didn't feel lonely. I met a scientist who had moved from Oslo and he said 'In the city it's all there for you, all you have to do is turn up, be a spectator. Up here you have to be an active participant in making things happen, you have to be present'.

Presence is a major contributor to being mentally well, or perhaps happier. If, in a traffic jam, if we concede to being there and to accept the current situation, it's a lot more manageable and pleasant than stressing about not being somewhere else. But being present really makes a difference.

I reflect on my own loneliness, experienced acutely during a period of mental ill health. Even though it's contextualised in the past, it still feels an inappropriate thing to say, like I am still a pariah. Of course, the irony is no one wants a lonely friend. Conversely, where do we fit friends into our lives. When was the last time you made a new friend, someone who is embedded in your world? Who did you ghost to accommodate them? I know that when someone asks me how I am, they aren't generally interested in the answer, especially if one feels low, stressed or... lonely. That question is a social filler, the white noise of conversation. Rarely is someone present or humane enough to illicit an authentic answer. For me, that adds to the sense of isolation, of not being valued, of not being seen as an individual, as a person.

Perhaps the elephant in the room Is "The Cloud". Servers, data hubs and the digital infrastructure which we all have come to rely on have an insatiable appetite for energy – generated by renewables or not – and pump out hot air in the continual need for cooling. We can't see it. There is nothing palpable about it. Yet we all live under it. Not under 'a' but under 'the' cloud and this concerns me greatly. What, I wonder is the weather of the internet?

I was naked, smelling of rain has taken me to places I didn't think I'd visit and some I definitely didn't want to. However, it has consolidated my thinking on how the external, physical weather and internal psycho-emotional weather can interact, inter-effect and play out. It has also made clear that there is an appetite to have these conversations in a public forum, to acknowledge and address some of the less comfortable mental states we inhabit. By taking the risk of sharing some of my own experiences (without being too autobiographical), and being authentic and present, it has also created a space to be part of a community, albeit fleetingly. I had been of the mindset that as the world gets warmer people are getting cooler, but now, I'm not so sure.

The work consisted of a performative lecture exploring our relationship to the weather, climate change and wellbeing; a performative conversation with Psychiatrist David Cousins; 2 video installations; an audio response to my work by Duncan Speakman and Tineke De Meyer; and a live sonic/text performance with myself and Duncan.


Aidan Moesby is an artist and curator, working principally in the fields of climate change and mental health. He is @TextArtist on Twitter, and his website contains further information on Aidan and his work. 

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