Psychic Refuge: autonomy and self-healing in the work of Sophie Hoyle
Published 29 January 2021 by Rob La Frenais
Sophie Hoyle is an artist and writer whose practice explores an intersectional approach to post-colonial, queer, feminist, critical psychiatry and disability issues. Makery met them before their EMARE – European Media Art Residency – project at Antre-Peaux in Bourges, France.
Sophie Hoyle is a prolific artist and writer, with an Egyptian and Lebanese background, who describes “exploring an intersectional approach to post-colonial, queer, feminist, critical psychiatry and disability issues.” Starting with the Middle East and North African diaspora, Hoyle has explored “lived experience of psychiatric conditions and trauma, or PTSD… and the history of biomedical technologies rooted in state and military surveillance and control.” The artist is hoping to work with communities of people similar to herself in Bourges in April, but the work will start remotely from London, UK. I started by asking about their science fiction project ‘Shards’, done in Tsarino, in a formerly abandoned village in the Bulgarian Rhodope Mountains run by an international collective of artists and an architect.
“That’s really interesting that you chose ‘Shards’ to speak about for the first question, as I’ve never really talked much about that work outside of the immediate context in which it was made—a small, grassroots residency in Tsarino, Bulgaria. The overall project is made up of a series of texts, photos and events loosely responding to the specificity of the place, both in terms of geo- and local politics: as a small, once-abandoned village in south-east Bulgaria on the border with Turkey and Greece. Socio-economic circumstances have changed the landscape, as people moved from the mountain villages for jobs, eventually abandoning their houses. It felt like the beginnings of a low-key dystopia: abandoned houses with so remains or residues of former inhabitants (from clothes to furniture), but with a new community re-building it and learning to survive in it, so I began to speculate on future scenarios of climate change and regional conflict and different phases of abandonment and recovery that could take place there. It’s part of a general process, of seeing how wider political forces manifest in a local context.”
Physical and technological approaches to the relief of anxiety also forms part of the artist’s work. The DIY maker community might be interested in the work of inventor Saemunder Helgason and his Solar Plexus Pressure belt. How did they arrive at this collaboration? “Saemunder is an Icelandic artist who I knew from studying together in London. His project ‘Solar Plexus’ addressing contemporary anxiety is made with Fellowship of Citizens as part of a campaign for basic income. A large emphasis in my work is about anxiety disorder on an individual basis and about collective anxiety generally, so Saemunder invited me to write a text. The project has had many stages and incarnations, from fashion design, video, ‘Working Dead’ (2020) to installations, including a current one in Shanghai. The Solar Plexus Pressure belt was engineered and designed by Saemunder in collaboration with fashion designer Agata Mickiewicz; when worn the belt or harness works using deep touch pressure therapy (DTP) by pressing down on the solar plexus, a pressure point located on the torso. It has both a physical anxiety-reducing effect for the person who wears it, as well as being a piece of speculative design to open up discussions about anxiety disorder in the current context of late-capitalism, which is often linked to precarious labour, poor working conditions and a declining welfare state. I really enjoyed being able to see the text I wrote morph and change as the project developed, and how it got incorporated into the video in a more creative playful way; it can be refreshing to hand over some elements of my practice and see how it gets re-framed or re-interpreted.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
I asked Hoyle how the work ‘Psychic Refuge’ connected with personal history. “‘Psychic Refuge’ came from ongoing research and activism around refugees and asylum-seekers, especially in relation to the Middle East where some of my family are from, and as a high number of refugees have PTSD or other mental health problems, so I connected this to my own experience of PTSD, and researched more into transcultural psychiatry and critical psychiatry, especially since Frantz Fanon’s studies on the psychological impacts of colonisation. Palestine is especially important in a UK context (as well as the wider West) as the UK ruled over Palestine (1920-1948), but very little is actually taught about this in British education and no historical context is given in news media coverage. This is the same for the other countries that it colonised, and seems similar to a lot of other European countries that never really teach about their colonial histories.”
Another work ‘Sheer Naked Aggression’ also addresses these themes. Hoyle writes on their website: “from the glint of leather in the corner, to way back in my head: the firm boot in the sand by the border checkpoint…” “‘Sheer—Naked—Aggression’ explores how cultural symbols of violence intersect with structural violence. It connects direct experiences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and having grown up in the Arab diaspora to specific contexts in the Middle East and North Africa including military intervention, torture, conflict and occupation.”
A never-ending pandemic ?
How has the work been affected by the seemingly never-ending pandemic and its effects on artistic creation and presentation? “Thankfully I haven’t been affected directly or too badly from COVID. In some ways, as a disabled artist, not much has shifted in my routine, as I often had to work from home, or had limited mobility and restricted routines, so it was more that wider society suddenly came into sync with some aspects of disabled ways of being. So I feel quite safe in my own personal situation, but obviously not everyone in the UK is, with high death rates, and people working in healthcare (hospitals, nurses, doctors, cleaners) or frontline services (public transport), and BAME communities that are disproportionately impacted. And globally things are much worse e.g. seeing what’s happening in Palestine in relation to COVID, where political and healthcare inequalities are just exacerbated at the moment.”
I asked Hoyle about a couple of recent projects done in the UK before and after everything was shut down by the virus, ‘Insula’ and the biohacking lab with Quimera Rosa.“ ‘Insula’ was a video version of a performance I did last year (2019) with Terribilis (Molly O’Reilly) at Science Gallery London, and the Almanac project took place via Zoom, but this digitised or mediated way of working wasn’t such a major shift. The ‘Trans*Plant’ biohacking lab with Quimera Rosa took place in London, as part of the Ecofutures conference by Cuntemporary. This was happening simultaneously with a Shape Arts residency that I was doing at BALTIC Contemporary in Gateshead, in the north-east of England, where the Comfrey Project was a community garden for refugees and asylum seekers. I connected these two things together as I was thinking generally about how to find autonomy and ways of self-healing outside of institutionalised medical and therapeutic norms. Especially in the UK where funding for the healthcare system (NHS) has been cut so much, and where there is now even less funding for services or for specific groups like refugees. In ‘Excoriate’ I brought these different elements together through a multi-channel video installation, with a soundtrack composed of binaural beats (e.g. beta and theta waves), used to treat anxiety, trauma and sleep disorders through ‘neuroacoustics’.”
‘Translation’ of internal bodily processes
I asked Hoyle how the collaborations with ‘Swan Meat’ and the other artists in ‘Chronica’, taking place at Jerwood Arts in London came about.
“Some of the artists (Blue Maignien -part of Cherche Encore – and Eyemeasure, Leah Clements and Nicola Woodham), I’d either known their work over the years or we’d had conversations about chronic illness, ‘cripness’ and making work. I just really liked listening to Swan Meat’s music, so it was an added dimension when I was reading an interview and learning that some of her earlier albums were about her experiences of hospitalisation. So, I reached out to her, and she was open to collaborating. She was really lovely to work with, really great, and we talked about our shared like of Electronic Body Music, film soundtracks and the Tetsuo soundtrack specifically and she really got the live score for the performance perfectly. The same happened with Terribilis, after having heard her DJ at parties and then read about her music in an interview that there was this added layer of shared experience. We all discussed our experiences of healthcare, diagnosis and treatments which can use biomedical technologies to measure and monitor the body; but also how this process of ‘translation’ of internal bodily processes isn’t as exact or precise as it’s often made out to be, and how it can in itself make the patient feel isolated and alienated from their own body. I wanted to include this process of measurement in a live performance through using ECG (electrocardiogram that measures heart rate) to measure anxiety levels, via a Bitalino board (Arduino). The live anxiety levels that were measured would in turn inform the selection of videos that are projected throughout the performance, which was coded by Charles C Hutchins, while Swan Meat responded to the videos.”
A lot of the work seems collaborative. How did Hoyle find other artists and musicians that she resonated with? “Making and showing work is inherently quite collaborative and relational, but in terms of more direct collaboration, it’s reaching out to like-minded people, having a conversation, a shared feeling and reciprocity and going ahead with it…or people reaching out to me, which is always really nice to know your work is circulating beyond your known circles. Perhaps a lot of the work as self-employed artist in the studio or bedroom feels very isolated and inward-focussed, so it’s nice to be pulled outwards again to someone’s work which may be similar but also has its own life and energy. So usually events or exhibitions are a good reason to draw people together to create something new.”
Finally, which work would be presented at Antre Peaux and how would it be adapted to the continuing closure of galleries in France? “The initial idea was to follow a similar process of reaching out, having discussions with local artists with chronic illnesses, and collaborating on something, responding to the local context. That’s changed in that the first part of the residency will be remote from London, but hopefully I’ll be able to travel and be there in person for the second part in April. Though the closure of spaces and the shift online does kind of fit with the themes of the original proposal: around ‘crip theory’ and ‘crip time’, chronic illness and mediated presence, or other ways of being beyond the ableist expectation of requiring you to be physically present all the time. And, in a way, as chronic health conditions are unpredictable and ever-changing, and many art projects are short-term meaning that you always have to shift and adapt to different contexts, things are not that different to usual. However, I would really like to be able to use Ursulab at Antre Peaux, so may have to find ways of coming up with my own lab in the meantime, but which again fits into the DIY, autonomous nature of biohacking. However, in the likelihood that I won’t be able to travel to France, I’d still like to make a connection with disabled artists based in or nearby to Bourges, so perhaps this interview could be an open invitation to start a discussion or a space where we can share and exchange our experiences.”
Sophie Hoyle is the EMARE Antre-Peaux artist-in-residency for 2021.