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A trip to the Bethlem Live Lounge

Phoebe Wallman

PhD Student - School of Academic Psychiatry - Psychosis Studies

24 June 2024

From 8 May to 13 July 2024 the Bethlem Gallery has been transformed into a ‘live lounge’, where visitors come into an space filled with wall hangings, sofas, rugs, projections, keyboards, drums, digital musical equipment and a DJ booth. Phoebe Wallman is a PhD student in Psychosis Studies with an active interest in outreach and public engagement work and she has written a review of the exhibition.

When I was asked to explore and write up the Bethlem Gallery’s Live Lounge, I was apprehensive. I am distinctly un-musical (as anyone who had the displeasure of hearing me “perform” Like A Prayer at the IoPPN Christmas party can attest to!)

I edge past the heavy curtains and into the gallery, transformed with banners and fabric like you might find flapping in a Glastonbury crowd, and quotes painted across the walls. There’s a homely nature to the room and I can’t work out how to describe it. A teenage bedroom? An eclectic living room? “…A squat?” laughs Mark McGowan, aka the Artist Taxi Driver who curated the Live Lounge, “Although you probably can’t say that anymore!”

The Live Lounge experience

I wedge myself into one of the quilt-draped sofas and observe Mark invite some Italian visitors to share their favourite songs and queue them up on the sound system. Later Mark tells me that this is a great way to uplift people. “It’s about familiarity, memory, it brings you back to that place.” Hospitality is important. “It’s a space for sharing ideas, music, experiences and making connections.” Most people here have stumbled across the room in passing and been drawn in by curiosity.

There is a stage, or more specifically, two wooden pallets that Mark found outside Tops Tiles. He says they are “seven inches of importance.” Everyone is invited onto the stage. It’s seen performances from big hitters such as Adamski and Martyn Ware from the Human League to American exchange students beatboxing and staff members belting ballads, NHS lanyards swinging. It’s genre-defying and experimental (one of the jamming sessions even involved holding a microphone to pick up the heartbeat of a pregnant staff member’s baby).

Bethlem Live Lounge Image

Mark is no stranger to performance art, I discover, as we scroll through quirky news articles detailing his escapades, some of which include pushing a peanut from Peckham to Downing Street with his nose and sailing to Scotland in a shopping cart (“Well technically punting,” Mark corrects). He uses his creative knowledge from his time at Camberwell College of Arts and Goldsmiths, University of London, to create a frame where everyone and anyone can have their ephemeral moment.

The idea for Bethlem Live Lounge was born out of the collaborative process of making the album Melancholy and Madness. Produced by Gawain Hewitt (winner of the Mastercard BRIT Awards Trailblazer award 2024), the album is an experimental soundscape of mental illness and hospitalisation created by the Bethlem community. It features the voices of Bethlem artists, the Mind & Soul Community Choir, and internationally renowned musician Nitin Sawhney. Gawain worked on the Scoring Mental Health project with Professor Sally Marlow which brought together experts by experience, artists and musicians from City of London Sinfonia to create music that was played on Radio 3 as part of the Between the Ears programme and performed last year at King’s College London and the Bethlem Gallery.

Making sense with music

After a stonking great cheese and kimchi toastie with meadow flower sourdough at Bethlem’s own GUTS café (a must of any trip to the Bethlem), I meet Finn, who is part of the Bethlem community or Bethlem’s “alma mater”, as they joke with Mark, who features on the album. They tell me they began making music whilst staying at the Bethlem, a time in their life when they felt particularly disorientated. Writing songs helped them make sense and find “wisps of meaning” and “threads of beauty”, providing comfort and a mode of storytelling. These songs have turned into a series that is in the process of becoming an EP. Finn perches on the couch with a guitar and gives us an intimate performance. Despite the banging of doors and general hubbub of people coming and going, there is a sense of peace as their voice gently swells in the room. “Everyone has so much creativity," Finn says, “it’s just about being comfortable enough to express it.” And if that is the goal of Bethlem’s Live Lounge, well, then they’ve succeeded.

Come and be part of their next album! Recording will take place during workshops, music lessons, spoken word and open mic events throughout the Live Lounge run. The programme features meditation, art, instrument making, and film sessions or come and browse reimagined vintage rock t-shirts and observe this immersive recording studio.

Bethlem’s Live Lounge is on until 13th July at the Bethlem Gallery.

Live Lounge Symposium: Music and Mental Health – What do we know? is a satellite event at King’s College London, The Exchange on Wednesday 26th June at 5 – 6.30 pm.

Order the limited edition of Melancholy and Madness - a limited-edition 12" vinyl LP by Bethlem Live Lounge.

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