WHEN A CLOSE FRIEND UNEXPECTEDLY succumbed to Covid-19 last April, the fear of contracting the virus, the hospital protocols around handling the body and the lack of an opportunity to say a proper goodbye exacerbated the grief manyfold. To add to this, during the weeks after his death, there was the added complexity created by the undeleted digital presence—the WhatsApp chats, the social media profiles, e-mail exchanges etc. In a true sense, we discovered the difficulties of dealing with grief in this technologically driven pandemic affected world. Memories of this strange and disturbing experience came rushing back as I watched actor Kavya Srinivasan’s character “Kay”—a champion of decluttering on social media—narrate her experience of dealing with the remnant objects of her father’s life after his sudden demise during her online performance based on the second soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These series of online theatrical performances are part of Psyche—an online exhibition on the human mind organised by the recently instituted Science Gallery Bengaluru.
Until recently, the only way many of us first encountered the subject of mental health was when someone chided you, in jest or annoyance, to be sent to the Dharwad mental hospital or Agra mental hospital or NIMHANS for treatment; apart from of course the (mostly) insensitive and incomplete depiction of mental illnesses in popular cinema. One of the reasons for this is our social conditioning , which dictates that any knowledge of mental science beyond this is the responsibility of scientists and doctors. Even when public education initiatives such as science exhibitions are held, the focus is primarily on imparting basic scientific knowledge to children and young adults using a pedagogical approach rather than introducing complex scientific concepts in an engaging, playful, and non-pedantic way.
So, not surprisingly, when I learnt about a 45-day long online exhibition focussed specifically on the matters of the mind, I was cautiously enthusiastic. But for the last few weeks, Psyche has been a revelation.
Apart from HAMLETS Live—a series of six online performances based on the soliloquies in the Shakespearean classic, the team behind Psyche has curated eight exhibits, film screenings, public lectures, masterclasses and workshops.
Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB) is a non-profit public institution for research-based engagement targeted at young adults founded as part of a global network of eight galleries around the world. While the other galleries in the network are part of university setups, India—the second to sign up to the network—is a unique case as the gallery operates as an autonomous institution funded, founded and established by the government of Karnataka and academically supported by Indian Institute of Sciences, National Centre for Biological Sciences and Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. Psyche is the fifth exhibition by SGB since its establishment and it took the shape of an online exhibition as the pandemic induced restrictions were still in place during the planning stage.
Jahnavi Phalkey, a scholar of history of science and technology and the current executive director of SGB, told me that the structural autonomy of SGB has allowed the gallery to extend the scope beyond natural sciences to include social sciences, and use culture as a form of creative expression in addition to art and engineering. Phalkey adds, “The operative word for us is ‘experiment,’ which has allowed us to establish a Public Lab complex where we collaborate with young artists in India to create engaging experiential works.” While the mandate of public engagement is common to all the galleries in the network, the Public Lab complex is a SGB specific initiative. Phalkey hopes that, in due time, the Lab initiative will help local talent collaborate with international galleries.
The first thing that strikes the viewer, as they are welcomed by the abstract moving image on a deeply textured homepage, is the sophisticated information architecture and visual design of Psyche’s website. The viewer is now at the reception and is welcome to follow the menu links to the different sections of this exhibition; there is a link to the exhibition; to the theatre; to a display of images sent by participants in response to one-word prompts; to the programme listing; to the schedule of mediator led sessions aka guided tours; to an intriguingly designed downloadable activity handbook filled with knitting exercise, crossword, instructions to make jazzy 3D glasses etc; to a curated list of books, podcasts and games.
Content wise, the main exhibits can be broadly classified as those which explore the growing role of computer-controlled machines for the treatment of neurological conditions, and those which allow the viewer to experience and learn more about complex conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, psychosis, and physical and mental pain.
The Serpent of a Thousand Coils—an interactive game designed to provide insights into minds of people with OCD by guiding the viewer through an imagined topography of an anxious mind—engaged me with its detailed labyrinthine layout and the game’s requirement to score low on the anxiety metre (by making the right choices) in order to earn the safe path to the exit door. Although relatively less participatory, the trippy design of the interface and Goliath narrating his experience of living with Psychosis in Playing with Reality urged me to attempt to understand how virtual realities of the gaming world can aid in management and treatment of schizophrenia.
The archival study of the history of mental health institutions in Bengaluru, Chennai, Ranchi, Delhi and Kolkata by psychiatrists Alok Sarin, Pratima Murthy and Sanjeev Jain presented as part of the exhibit The Asylum traces the stories of the early hospitals and care facilities for the mentally ill in these cities. Using photos, maps and text from the archives, these engaging narratives help the viewer understand the role of people like Lt Colonel Berkeley Hill, Mirza Ismail, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, Major Dhunjibhoy, Major C J Lodge etc. in setting care facilities for the mentally ill. Well researched and curated material provide a window into the early psychiatric treatments (lobotomy, occupational therapies etc.) in India and the socio-political issues surrounding the subject of mental illness.
What does it mean to have your behaviour and movements controlled by a chip implanted in your brain? Are your thoughts still your own or the machine’s? Will you be willing to use a machine to extend your physical capabilities beyond human limits? What happens to one’s identity and agency when a machine takes control? Synthetic Self and Change My Mind are two exhibits which explore possible answers to these questions. The video compilation of the performative art installations (Synthetic Self) by the legendary Australian artist Stelarc in which he explores the possible impact of machine extensions on anatomical architecture of the human body through actual physical performances, albeit watchable, did not do justice to the complicated long duration performative aspects; and the absence of audience interactions transformed the exhibit into more of a summary of the artist’s experimental works. Similarly Change My Mind, a participatory art work by Andrew Carnie, which explores the implications of brain implant technologies, did not involve the immediacy of online participation for the audience. One wondered if these two ought to have been included only in a physical exhibition. However, an equally passive exhibit— Schizophrenia and the Brain, proved to be a rewarding learning experience because of the way the complicated subject was broken down into easily digestible information packets including an engaging minute-long animation film.
The HAMLETS Live series, performed live online by various artists and directed by the Bengaluru-based playwright and theatre director Chanakya Vyas, is an interesting series of interpretive performances, inspired by the original play but rooted in contemporary internet culture. Prasad Cherkady’s performance of To Be or Not to Be, set in the life of a contemporary Yakshagana artist who is battling his own self-doubts of whether to fight the traditional hierarchical structures of the celebrated folk form or continue to toe the line, was particularly engaging. Kavya Srinivasan’s entertaining performance as Kay — host of an online show focussed on decluttering titled Klearing with Kay provided intelligent commentary on the social media influencer culture and the mental and emotional challenges of the internet age.
Psyche also has a theatre section where films are made available for viewing for 14 days followed by a conversation with the filmmaker. Nilita Vachani’s acclaimed Eyes of Stone (1990)—a deeply compassionate film on the practices of spirit possession and ritualistic healing in rural Rajasthan, and Émilie Serri’s Damascus Dreams (2021)—a beautiful film about the search for identity and belonging to a homeland through memories, dreams and nightmares—are part of the screening line up. There is also a section titled Media Lounge where curated books, podcasts and other resources are listed for viewers’ benefit.
Interestingly, each of the exhibits is accompanied by information about the team behind the artwork, the process of making and related resource material; and there are also scheduled masterclasses and public lectures by the artists. Phalkey says the idea behind this is to educate the young audiences of the creative processes involved in the making of the exhibits and for this reason, the artists/experts are requested to spend extra time specifically with young audiences after their lectures.
While many of the exhibits were sourced by invitation via the global network, the rest of them were chosen by the curatorial team of SGB from the 180 applications received in response to their open call.
At a time when our society is polarised and science rarely features in popular media, an engaging interdisciplinary science exhibition which is participatory, experiential and non-instructive, and is focussed on young adults, is exactly what we need. But will such exhibitions attract young adults across all classes and backgrounds? Phalkey responds: “We have made the whole exhibition available in Kannada too and we plan to visit colleges across the city and elsewhere in Karnataka soon. And most importantly, we don’t charge fees for any of our exhibitions or events. Comprehensive outreach will take time, but we are confident of making it happen.”
The other thought which marked my experience of Psyche was the lack of cultural familiarity of many of the exhibits. I asked Phalkey, how can we root such interdisciplinary exhibitions in our culture in order to make it more relatable to young adults? Could there be a possibility of an Indian folktale or a socio-political issue closer to home, instead of Hamlet and Black Men’s Minds? She says, “Hopefully with time, more artists across mediums will engage with science and collaborate with SGB resulting in more possibilities of culturally rooted experiences.”
When I first glanced at Psyche, I wondered if SGB has enough material to engage a person for 45 days. Now, after two weeks of immersing myself in it, I realise the meticulous planning and hard work that has gone into curating the resource materials, lectures, performances and exhibits for this marathon. While there is always room for improvement, there is no doubt that Psyche has set the bar high for interdisciplinary science exhibitions in India.
(Psyche, organised by Science Gallery Bengaluru, will run online till May 15)