I’m looking over the website for Touched By Fire, and am struck by the richness in the drawings, paintings, photography, multimedia and digital works posted by over 300 individuals. Some contributors post only one work while others have a series, so there are likely over 1000 pieces posted, with more to come as there are perhaps 75 spots marked with a contributor’s name but having, as yet, no posted art. Some contributors appear to be professional artists and others are clear that they produce art only because it is personally important to them.
“You have to be crazy to join us,” the site announces because exhibiting is open only to those who declare themselves to be recovering from a mood disorder. What is a mood disorder? Touched by Fire is affiliated with the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario (MDAO). The MDAO website contains links to factsheets explaining various diagnoses, scientific conclusions on the prevalence and causes of these conditions, and advice on professional treatment and self-help resources.
Sharing art through Touched by Fire is voluntary, but conditional on willingness to be identified publically as having a mood disorder diagnosis. Some contributors are quite explicit. In her artist statement Allison MacDonald says, “The works I have created have been the result of many mixed episodes of depression and mania. Although only recently diagnosed with Bi-Polar, I have been suffering for a number of years.” Since those who have a mood disorder cannot be identified by appearance, such a posting might be a form of “coming out.”
Lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people, a group very experienced with stigma, “come out of the closet” when they are open with others about otherwise invisible sexual orientation or gender identity preferences. For LBGT people, coming out in large numbers has decreased stigma by increasing the public visibility of their positive personal stories. Those involved in Touched by Fire likely hope for a similarly positive visibility for individuals affected by mood disorders. However, coming out in the 1970s and 1980s involved individuals discarding medical diagnoses as “male and female homosexuals,” and thus as neurotic sexual deviants. Lesbians and gay men pressed instead for names of their own choosing, associated with loving relationships. As a result and in time, “lesbian” and “gay” became common language and the basis for LGBT people establishing more positive connections to family, community, and the larger society. The stigmatized medical terms became linguistic history.
What is happening at Touched by Fire seems different. Having to identify oneself as having a mood disorder in order to exhibit requires participants to declare publicly an unappealing medical diagnosis. This situation seems more comparable to what individuals with HIV infection and AIDS experienced during the early years of the epidemic of HIV-related illness. Those individuals pressed professionals and the public to call them “persons livings with AIDS” rather than “AIDS victims” in order to emphasize that the diagnosis was not their identity as a person.
Touched By Fire nods in this direction by saying that those who exhibit must be recovering. Still, one wonders if the posting requirement encourages exhibitors or the public audience to believe that having a mood disorder is the main or only story relevant to knowing the exhibitors as people. If so, could this be positive? Possibly. In her artist statement, Victoria Krikorian says,
“From childhood to adulthood, Victoria weaved her way through streets of industrial towers, the security and judgement of christian nuns, the youths of the Zooloo nation, daisey dukes, Mariah Carrey, Alcoholism, Rape, Bi-Polar Disorder, Feminism, the Reign of George W. Bush and the Embrace of Buddha’s teachings. . . . These works were made to honour and announce the value of a woman’s experience that for so long was silenced.”
For others, public disclosure of a mood disorder may marginalise, even obliterate, other and perhaps richer life stories. I worry that Ms. MacDonald’s public showing of her art comes with a statement that seems to define her life as medical diagnoses. Marinus Abrahamse’s complete artist biography is “Bipolar.”
Is there some way to continue this wonderful display of art without requiring individuals to declare a medical diagnosis as a condition of posting? In many circles, I hear those who have struggled with emotional pain and other life difficulties described as individuals “with lived experience.” I like this name because it implies a a kind of knowledge or expertise in life that has been acquired first-hand and might of benefit to others. What would Touched By Fire be like if individuals were asked, at a condition of posting, to declare themselves as having had “lived experienced with emotional pain”?
Production: Touched by Fire website.
Now on or upcoming: Transformation by Fire, February 7-April 8, 2013, 111 Queen’s Park, Gardiner Museum, Toronto.