Often there appears an impenetrable wall between the sciences and the arts. On one side of the dichotomy is the world of the rational and clinical, and on the other a world embodied by passion and emotion. It often seems, especially in the current difficult financial times, that this world of logic is valued far more highly, with arts funding first on the block. But this schism is being challenged. The 2014 Sick! Festival in Brighton is questioning the divide between doctor and performer with its international cross art-form programme focusing on adolescence, mental illness, ageing and death.
To tackle these frequently taboo topics, Tim Harrison, Director of Development, stripped them back to their essentials, devoid of any imposed understanding: “I think our starting point is talking about life and the s**t stuff that happens within life basically.” Having this as a foundation, medicine or performance merely become “different languages” to approach these often stigmatised subject matters. Not only does Harrison comment on the lack of communication about these four topics but also on the ambiguous labelling of someone as “sick”: “Its got so many meanings and obviously it can be physically ill or mentally ill, but also a social judgement about things that we don’t like.”
To query this societal assessment is at the heart of what the Sick! Festival is intending to do. The organisers are aware that these performances will not magically heal people nor raise a huge amount of awareness. However, Harrison believes: “There’s something about facilitating debate but also bearing witness. Making a statement that this stuff is important in our lives. It’s here. Don’t hide from it.” This viewpoint is emphatically supported by the festival’s drive to make the arts more accessible, demonstrating how “the arts should somehow engage with real lived experience”.
For Harrison this has an especially personal resonance as he had his own experience of mental illness in his twenties. And, given that one in four people experience a mental health problem in any given year, the goal to “talk to a much wider audience” is a crucial aim.
If last year’s figures are any indication, the blending of arts and science in Sick! Festival’s programme is also shown in the audience: “We get all kinds of people who are coming not because they’re arts people, but because they’re interested in the subject matter.” At a dance show about Parkinson’s disease last year there were dance fans, adults whose ageing parents were suffering from the illness and health care workers. The merging of medicine and performance is also shown in the festival preparation as “we’ve been talking to health service users, charities, people who are on both sides of the thing”. This holistic approach has helped to “bring a completely different perspective” to the programme, and lead to a cross-art form programme.
As Harrison states emphatically: “We’re not hung up on art form at all.” The festival features comedy, film screenings, debates, dance, theatre and more to highlight its four themes. While Harrison concedes that his and the other organisers’ background is in contemporary performance, he believes that in this genre: “there is an inherent kind of edginess to the work that we’re into – actually that is willing to say things that aren’t normally sayable.” The breaching of a usually reserved silence on distressing topics has already caused a complaint, but this is a murky subject as Harrison acknowledges: “It’s really tricky because some of those kind of things are upsetting to people, but does that mean we should never talk about them in public?”
The festival’s determination to improve communication on these difficult subjects and break down supposed barriers between sectors is depicted through Sick! Festival now being cited as part of Brighton & Hove City Council’s public health strategy. Harrison speaks of how their goals, no matter how differently presented, are similar: “They’ve been incredibly open-minded and incredibly supportive, and gone ‘actually we want to talk more openly about public health issues – this is exactly what you’re doing so lets work together on it’.” Harrison also acknowledges the welcoming attitude of a Brighton audience to performances, as the city is after all the host of the largest fringe festival in England.
The support from the City Council is another indication of how much this festival has grown since its inauguration only last year. In 2013, the team only had six weeks to throw Sick! Festival together but this year “it’s grown in every way, basically”. With the number of venues more than doubled and more sponsors aboard Harrison’s excitement is palpable: “It’s much bigger! It’s kind of exploded actually and the enthusiasm after the last festival was just incredible.” The support has not only lead to the festival’s continuation in Brighton but also the potential for 2015 to see the Sick! Festival taking place in Brighton and Manchester simultaneously. Funding applications are currently underway with the provisional themes standing as suicide, abuse, cancer and sex.
The popularity of the Sick! Festival with a vast range of people, from your stereotypical arts festival goer to nurses to city councillors highlights how crucial breaking down the taboos and stigmas surround adolescence, mental illness, ageing and death are. The interest generated by this combination of science and arts demonstrates how both disciplines are essential, and how they can be viewed as merely differing pathways to a shared goal. Nowadays where arts appear to have their funding slashed and face challenges in every corner, Sick! Festival serves as a timely reminder of the importance of arts in challenging the same subjects that stereotypically reside within a scientific realm.
For more information about Sick! Festival and the shows it features, visit the website.