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Talking Heads

Artist Mel Brimfield collaborated with Prof Sukhwinder Shergill and the Department of Psychosis Studies team to develop a series of ambitious binaural audio monologue artworks exploring the phenomenon of hearing voices frequently associated with schizophrenia and psychosis



The research was firmly rooted in an extensive period of first hand consultation with people living with psychosis, and with the carers, occupational therapists, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, psychiatrists, research scientists and advocates who work to understand and support them. As a key part of this activity, Brimfield attended Prof Shergill’s weekly ward rounds at the National Psychosis Unit at Bethlem Royal Hospital to consistently observe the progress of patients currently in treatment. The experience of these many encounters and conversations resulted in development of ‘Talking Heads Comics’, a series of directly representational ‘verbatim drawings’, illustrating transcribed descriptions of hallucinations, personal experiences of psychosis and daily life at the Unit. Further diaristic drawings represented a layman’s attempts to get to grips with the complex academic research field surrounding schizophrenia, and the ethical, social and political implications of clinical treatment and the alternatives.

The audio monologue artworks adopted a more metaphorical and tangential approach to the subject. Still, the scriptwriting aimed to process the mass of research undertaken with sensitivity and accuracy, using the uncanny sensation of proximity enabled by binaural technology to encourage mimesis and summon our empathy; the result was an intimate experiential journey into a frequently misunderstood and much feared neurological condition. As an additional research trope, the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience researchers and invited theatre practitioners and filmmakers engaged in a series of roundtable discussions at Somerset House Studios to explore the phenomena of perceptual processing within a dramatic context. The aim was to investigate the devising of immersive dramatic work that demonstrated neurological activity as it occurred in the brains of its audience, like a magic trick that slowly lays bare its mechanics.

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At the culmination of the first stage of research, some of the binaural works will be reconfigured for live performances at Somerset House Studios and Bethlem Gallery. At a later stage of development, the work will form part of a series of large-scale solo exhibitions that take neurological malfunctions and disorders causing cognitive, linguistic and motor functions as a subject. 

The pieces are written for and performed by David Cann, an actor best known as one of the small company of actors and comedians appearing in Chris Morris’s groundbreaking cult radio and TV series Brasseye and Jam. Brimfield’s regular collaborator Paul Higgs will act as composer, sound designer and musical director for the project, with award-winning binaural expert Gareth Fry as consultant. 

In early 2019, Mel developed Talking Heads into an exhibition for the Attenborough Arts Centre which includes a range of sound installations, sculpture, multiple films and large scale comic-like drawings. 

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Project team                             

Mel Brimfield is a visual artist working at the intersection of film, theatre and live art, and is a resident at Somerset House Studios, a new creative community and experimental production hub. She is also a Tutor in Contemporary Art Practice (Performance at the Royal College of Art). Beginning as an evaluative research practice bent on challenging the dominant themes of body, gender and identity politics within curatorial and museological versions of performance art ontology and history, her work is predicated on developing active modes of meaningful interdisciplinary dialogue that embrace narrative, theatricality and virtuosic performance skill. A range of wildly inappropriate absurdist narrative forms are used to articulate the findings of rigorous academic research processes, including elaborately choreographed musical theatre numbers, gymnastic routines, stand-up monologues and queer cabaret turns. The work aims to combine audiences for the arts and erode outmoded distinctions between creative fields. She has presented solo exhibitions and commissions at diverse venues and for organisations including the Government Art Collection, Wilton’s Music Hall, Whitechapel Gallery, Henry Moore Institute, Tate Liverpool, Art on The Underground, London Word Festival, Kinsale Arts Festival, John Hansard Gallery, Ulster Museum and Jerwood Visual Arts. 

Prof. Sukhi Shergill BSc MBBS PhD SFHEA FRCPsych is professor in Psychiatry and Systems Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London, and a Consultant Psychiatrist in the National Psychosis Service at the Maudsley Hospital, part of the South London and Maudsley Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. People who suffer from treatment-refractory psychosis are referred here from across the UK and Europe.  His research uses neuroimaging techniques to understand more about the brain mechanisms involved in the symptoms of schizophrenia – both the 'positive symptoms' (unusual experiences such as hallucinations and paranoia that are characteristic of episodes of psychosis) and the 'secondary' symptoms that affect memory and attention, and make it difficult for people to interact socially and sustain relationships. The aim is to use this knowledge to aid the development of new, effective treatments for the large number of people with schizophrenia who do not respond well to antipsychotic medication. He heads the Cognition, Schizophrenia and Imaging Laboratory (CSI Lab), comprising two-dozen academics, clinical researchers, PhD and other students; and is director of the King’s Centre for CNS Therapeutics which facilitates academic and clinical links with commercial and charitable enterprises in order to develop and trial novel interventions for CNS disorders.

Talking Heads is a collaboration between King’s College London’s Department of Psychosis Studies and Mel Brimfield. It was supported by the university's Culture team.

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