Learning from mad knowledge more vital than ever

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Critical Voices Network Ireland (CVNI) is a coalition of people with lived experience, survivors, supporters, practitioners, academics, and campaigning and advocacy groups, all interested in a mental health system based on choice, respect, dignity, non-coercion and principles of social justice.

The CVNI advocates for a shift away from the current narrow focus on individual pathology in mental health practices, towards approaches that acknowledge and validate the complexity of human distress.

Lydia Sapouna and Harry Gijbels have organised the Critical Voices Conference in Cork for the past fifteen years.  It’s an impressive achievement.

This year’s conference provided ‘opportunities to consider mad knowledge and the challenges involved in learning with and from Madness and distress’. We, in the Madzines Team, have been thinking hard about how Madzines can help to nurture and honour Mad knowledge. We’ve been curious about what it means to learn from these informal, DIY publications – in both informal settings and in universities. I’ve been hearing about the conference for years, so it was great to give the Madzines project its first outing there – and to take along some copies of Asylum magazine too.

A very early flight from Manchester meant a whole day, before the conference, to explore.

That day stays with me as a stream of visual images: from the powerful Cork Housing Crisis mural; through a deeply moving exhibition – To Ashes – by Evgeniya Martirosyan; to illuminated stars in the English market, a crow atop a signpost, intriguing graffiti and the dreamlike sequences in a Thai film – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Part Lives – at the Everyman.

 

  All photographs by Jill Anderson

All became entwined, in complex ways, with my thinking about zines; about communication without words; about trauma and distress.

The second day took me to the campus of the University of Cork.

 

 

My partner, Martin, is a mathematician so I took a snap for him of the statue of George Boole, the ‘grandfather of the digital world’. It seemed ironic to be encountering this while clutching my little envelope of – defiantly anaologue – Madzines.

The Critical Voices conference, held in the Brookfield Health Sciences Complex, is completely free to all delegates, and is deliberately held in the middle of the week to maximise its accessibility to current students. A lot of them were milling around, as I entered the building, together with delegates from further afield – a few I knew already and many more I came to know over two days at this friendly conference.

In the opening keynote of the conference, Tina Coldham and Sarah Carr explored how discriminatory processes and practices in universities create barriers to the nurturing and valuing of mad knowledge. It’s an issue we have been thinking hard about ourselves.

In a related talk, later in the day, Lydia Sapouna reflected on how narratives can be used by mental health and educational systems to promote their own agendas. It was a timely reminder that seemingly emancipatory approaches to education and activism – the making and sharing of zines for example – can still result in exclusion, particularly where the complexities of madness and distress are not engaged with.

There can be pitfalls, Lydia suggested, in sharing stories – though that is not to deny their power. It was great to hear, for example, about the Hearing Voices Network in Greece and I learned much to take back to the Critical and Creative Approaches to Mental Health Practice (CCrAMHP) group in Lancaster.

There were some wonderful talks in parallel sessions across both days. I deeply appreciated Fiona Stirling’s talk on ‘finding/making spaces for madness in counselling education’ and in particular how, through embodied visibility’ – i.e. making her self-injury scars visible – she enables her students, to ‘learn about themselves by seeing me’. Fiona is based at the University of Abertay in Dundee, Scotland.

 

Visibility and invisibility were key themes in Nicole Schotts talk too, that focused on the contested concept of ‘eating disorder’ and the, less visible, eating ‘orders’ that violently shape our lives. Nicole’s call for papers on ‘Madly Questioning Eating Orders’, and the images that she shared, set me thinking about the role Madzines might play in developing and disseminating thinking in this emerging field.

 

I attended a lively and interesting presentation by the Gateway Mental Health Project – a peer led community development project in Dublin – on how they had responded and adapted to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

 

There was a lot to learn from their experience – and also from how – faced with a lecture room that couldn’t meet their needs – the group simply swung things around, so the presenters occupied the back row and we, as audience, sat backwards in our seats!

Although there was sadly little time to chat, members of the group took away a bunch of copies of the latest issue of Asylum, and I was left wondering if the Gateway project might prove a receptive home for a Madzine workshop or collection of Madzines,

Owen O’Tuama gave an affecting account of the knowledge he has gained through lived experience which he puts to use in his work in the Donegal mental health service.

Lisa Archibald, co-director of Intentional Peer Support, with examples drawn from her own life, asked whether experiential wisdom has now moved from ‘curse’ to ‘commodity’. She has concerns, in particular, about how peer support workers employed within services – and Mad Studies programmes based within universities – are being depoliticised and compromised. It was a theme picked up again in the closing plenary, in some moving reflections on absent friends.

I gave a presentation about our Madzines project. It was great to sense and spark people’s interest in zines. I focused on teaching sessions we have facilitated with diverse groups of learners: one with students on a Mad Studies programme (several of whom were at the conference) and others with undergraduate students undertaking a Mad Studies module and a degree programme in health and social care.

I explored how through reading and making zines, students have been able to begin to process their own experiences, critique current services and responses, and access and imagine alternatives.

We touched too on how Madzines move in and out of community and practice settings, and places where they can’t move freely. I shared – without reference to George Boole (see above!) – how Rachel Rowan Olive has helped us think about the ‘ethical mathematics of Madzines’.

Some interesting discussion followed, including with Eleni Alevanti from Brussels – who has written about Belgian mental health reform – who plans to share with us some examples of MadZines in the French language; and Joseph Sexton from the US.

In his own fascinating presentation, Joseph pointed out that young people in Gen Z (born between 1997 & 2012) have been ‘trained to follow and promote a medicalised narrative’ from which, however, resistance is beginning to emerge.

 

Such resistance is, in Joseph’s view, unknown to most established scholars because it takes place on non-traditional platforms such as TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.

Like zines, these new media have potential to open up new spaces of knowledge production.

A highlight of the conference for me was the opening of an art exhibition by Michelle Dalton, entitled Discomfort.

In particular I was struck by Michelle’s sculpture of a cast iron single bed frame with personal medical notes handwritten on organic linen sewed up as a duvet. Like some of the zines we have encountered, it made clear that engagement with the ‘audience’ can be on the creator’s terms.

 

The two days in Cork were thought provoking and inspiring. I hope other members of the CCrAMHP group (that I’m involved with in Lancaster) can attend the Critical Voices Conference next year.   A number of us have been contributing to  Asylum magazine.  It would be great to run a Madzines workshop then, and to help to bring more creative approaches into the core of the conference.

In the meantime, we are continuing our own learning from mad knowledge and, through Madzines, to move ideas around. We have just got back from running a workshop – with Tam Martin Fowles – on Madzines and the struggle for social justice at the amazing new premises of the Glasgow Zine Library.  Zine archives are so important in facilitating access to Mad knowledge.  Perhaps we can make links with the Cork zine archive, too in 2024!

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