PLEASE NOTE: The following gives away an awful lot about about the vacuum cleaner's work Mental, which he's touring into 2014. If you'd rather experience the show knowing nothing, or at least with its surprises intact, it's probably not a good idea to read it until after you've seen it. Thanks.
We shuffle past the closed bedroom door, neatly lining shoes along the hallway wall, to a small, neat living room decorated with insurrectionist art and fabric owls. A cheerful, kindly woman offers tea and tiny carrot cakes, primly arranged on a tiered stand, and though the atmosphere is relaxed, an awkwardness hovers, as though we were gathered for the wake of a distant relation and weren't quite sure what our demeanour should be.
The bedroom, white with pistachio-green trim, is sparsely furnished. Disco sings sweetly from an old-fashioned record player. We snuggle against the wall beneath a giant duvet and slowly a hand emerges from the low bed before us, fingers wriggling as they test the air. Then a face, nervous but smiling. The body is very much alive: it's important to remember this, that we're beginning at the end, with James sitting with us, talking to us. We cling to this fact as his story unfolds.
“I've never done anything like this before in my life. Never made a 'show'. It was a real experiment to try and do it. I'm more comfortable with it now. I've kind of gone, yeah, I spent nearly two years making this thing, I should show it to people.”
Ten days before seeing Mental, I meet up with James-the-vacuum-cleaner-Leadbitter in his basement studio in the Artsadmin building, a square concrete room that might feel like a prison – the one small window is high in a corner, and barely lets in natural light – were it not for the homely clutter and art crowded around the walls. One painting, hanging above the two desks, stands out: a rectangular canvas, painted gold, with the words “Representative art is so 19th century” printed on it in stark black helvetica. In the corner opposite the window, a duvet is crammed in the space above a storage cupboard; beside the door sits the old-fashioned vacuum cleaner from which he takes his pseudonym. He rolls out a folding table for our tea; I sit in a black office chair that insists on spinning me away from him. He laughs: “That's my producer's chair. It's like: get back to the computer, get back to work.”
Leadbitter started making work in 2003, shortly after his first stay in a psychiatric hospital. “The very first piece I did was called Cleaning Up After Capitalism: I had the vacuum cleaner, and wore a yellow bib with 'cleaning up after capitalism' on the back, and I'd go into public spaces or corporate spaces, like chain stores, or the City of London, and do a cleaning act. I'd clean and engage people in conversation. A lot of my work was straddling performance intervention with direct political action.” A lot of it landed him in serious trouble, too. In 2005, he was taken to court by Starbucks for a number of transgressions against its brand, which included defacing Starbucks coffee cups so the logo read “Fuck off” and setting up a website encouraging others to do the same. It's worth reading the “decision of independent expert” document commissioned as part of the case: Leadbitter's irreverence offsets the corporate humourlessness beautifully.
His protest came from a place of boredom: “I got bored with mainstream activism, I got bored with marching against the war in Afghanistan.” And from cultural discussion around branding: “No Logo came out in 2001 and that was really influential. I started to read Adbusters, the Canadian magazine, and fucking around with billboards. Graffiti and street art really influenced me, that thing of: don't wait for the audience to come to you, take the work to the audience, go to the community and present your work to them, go to the contested spaces and make the work there. That always got me really excited.”
But beneath the global-political was the local-personal. “Having gone through the psychiatric system, which felt very oppressive, often it was about creating a space of liberation through these performative acts. I often would look at advertising and feel really alienated, so it would be reacting against that, or challenging that kind of dogma. And I guess I was at a point in my life when, I was 23, I didn't really give a fuck about anything. Not I didn't give a fuck about anything, some things I really cared about, but I wasn't necessarily concerned with what would be the consequences of what I was doing. Also, the medical treatment that I'd got really didn't work, so this became my way of trying to make sense of the world, and make sense of these experiences I'd had in treatment and as a teenager.”
In some ways, teenage Leadbitter was typical, at least of people who end up working in theatre. “I went to a really great youth theatre in Burnley, so I had that bug from an early age. I used to run tech for the whole youth theatre; my mum wanted me to be an actor but I preferred doing design.” When it came to university, he opted for set and lighting design at the Central School of Speech and Drama: what a mistake. “I hated it: it was really conservative, and I should have gone to Dartington with my friend Robert.” He dropped out after a year. But it wasn't just the course: the depression he'd started experiencing before university was worsening. He was already self-harming; now he was suicidal. And this is where Mental begins.
There were so many possibilities.
Running in front of a lorry.
Jumping off the roof.
Pills. Knives. Rope-lengths of fabric.
He tells us these stories surrounded by heavy wads of paper, piles and piles of documents, medical assessments, police records, obtained via the Freedom of Information act, each portraying a version of James Leadbitter, the slight man with tufty hair, twinkling eyes and an electric-blue dress scooping from his shoulders, who sits in his bed, in his own bedroom, sharing an outsized duvet with his audience. One by one he slips plastic sheets on to an overhead projector and reads from them the evaluations of doctors and nurses, the clandestine comments of police and their spies. If you're quick, you can read outside the highlighted sections, get a fuller picture. I notice with a catch of breath his birthday: 29th May, five days before mine. Fractured personalities written in the stars.
I don't remember all the details of the life he narrates – it's a few weeks since I saw the piece, and the intimacy of the environment precluded taking notes – but I remember vividly his demeanour. He has the campness of a late-night-telly light entertainer; the roguishness of a small boy doing something he knows he's not supposed to, face sparkling with pleasure in transgressing and being witnessed in his transgression. The line between performing himself and being himself is subtle, and will shift according to the perception of individual audience members: I feel he stands one side of it at the beginning, when he's talking himself into starting the show, the other in the fleeting moments when overcome by a memory of cruelty, or kindness. His inability to comprehend his treatment at the hands of powerful social institutions is ongoing and genuine. But always there is this levity in his narration, which comes from a place of generosity, a desire to support his audience as we listen and absorb.
The disco soundtrack, soft and radiant with love, gifts more lightness. One song repeats over and over:
Love is, love is the message that I sing to you
Love is the message that I bring to you
Love is the message that I bring to you
The contrast of that care with the official language of the documents is sharp. Here, Leadbitter is a number, a sequence of actions, a list of medication. His humanity is bypassed. Frequently Mental feels like a work not of individual autobiography but of exposure, indicting a society that practises institutionalised betrayal. No one who works at the hospital where he is first sectioned tells Leadbitter that it specialises in treating personality disorders. The more successful he becomes as the vacuum cleaner, the more rigorous and resourceful the police become in inhibiting his activities. It's not until he recognises a face on Channel 4 that he can explain this feeling of being targeted: the groups with whom he has been working have been repeatedly infiltrated. The police documents are packed with personal information: address, identity numbers, hidden distinguishing features such as the tattoo on his back that reads “our civilisation is fucked”. They got that one wrong, says Leadbitter, mouth curled in a sardonic smile. He turns around, pulls up his frock; the light catches on the letters carved into his skin: “THIS CIVILISATION IS FUCKED”.
“People talk about mental illness as this monolith, but it's as broad as any other – schizophrenia to anxiety is what cancer is to a common cold. It's not comparable, but, you know.”
At the age of 19 – he's now 33 – Leadbitter was identified as experiencing multiple mental health problems: depression, general anxiety disorder, panic anxiety disorder. More seriously, he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Only no one told him. “It's quite common if you have what's called a serious mental illness, so things like paranoid schizophrenia, borderline multiple personality disorder. For a long time they wouldn't tell you because the stigma of the diagnosis could be as bad as the actual diagnosis. I get that, but for me that's not the issue: the issue is how you inform the patient.” He finally found out about two years ago, at the end of an assessment process, when he was handed a sheet of paper with his diagnosis and sent on his way. There's a painfully funny scene in Mental when he pulls a copy of Borderline Personality Disorder For Dummies (it genuinely exists) from under the duvet, one of many books he bought when trying to make sense of this new information.
Essentially, he was being medicated for a condition he didn't know he had, and that, says Leadbitter, “was really destructive. Because by the time I was 26, I'd got a job at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire in Glasgow, I was in a relationship, but I was still completely undiagnosed, and all of that crumbled in my hands. I totally destroyed it all because I didn't know what was going on. I didn't have the language to talk about it, couldn't reflect on it, you know?” He moved back to London and attempted to reconstruct his life, “in a way in which I could cope. I developed all these coping strategies, smoking a lot of cannabis.” But they didn't work, and in 2009 he had a relapse and was back in hospital.
Acquiring and reading through the thousands of pages of medical notes written about him over that 14-year period has been “one of the hardest things I've ever done”. Did he recognise himself in the descriptions he encountered? “It's really different. Some bits you're like, yes, that's so correct, and then other bits you're like, what the fuck are you talking about? Who are you talking about? It really depends on the person you're talking to, because there isn't necessarily a test for it, it's not like you can do a blood test and be told, you have bipolarity, it's so much to do with your own representation of your experiences, how you talk about your experiences.” Which might be different on any given day, I note. “Exactly. Some days you can't even speak, and some days you're spilling rather than sharing.”
I ask if there's a family history of mental illness; there is, but, he emphasises: “I don't buy that [mental illness] is just genetic or it's just social. I have a very strong attitude that anybody that wants to apply a simplistic model to mental health is getting it wrong, because it's infinitely complicated.” Talking therapy – of which he is a staunch advocate – offers a brilliant insight into those complications, he argues. “Although it is utterly, utterly painful, and quite horrific at times, it's also a wonderful process of discovery, not just in terms of yourself and your mind but how that relates to the world that we live in and how society functions. You learn that everything is so utterly complicated, there are no black-and white-situations.”
The lights dim and Richard Hawley's voice, comforting as a sheepskin coat, croons in the darkness:
Roll river, keep on rolling
Ancient lady cold
I'm forsaken, lost and forgotten
Roll river roll
In James' bedroom, watching a shaky film of a tiny, adored figure walking in the middle of the street in a Glasgow full of snow, I absorbed Roll River Roll as a love song; it's only later, reading the lyrics, that I realise it's the ballad of a man about to drown. James' description of his post-relapse suicide attempt is delivered lightly, with a tender solicitude, for himself and his audience, but with every accruing detail it becomes harder to hear. He mentions the carrot cake he bought for his final meal and I remember eating mine before I came in and want to cry. He shows pictures of his room in the hostel he moved to after leaving the hospital, a safe house for people at risk of suicide, remembers the night in the kitchen when he had to resist the siren call of the knife drawer, and was held by a warden whose non-judgemental understanding cracked the ice of his benumbed soul, and we all want to cry, James too. Always there is the knowledge that he is here, telling us these stories; he survived and continues to survive. But it's the overwhelming awareness of the pain he has experienced that makes Mental so difficult to sit within. That, and the fact that he relives it, in front of an audience, night after night after night. That in itself feels like a kind of self-harm, and I don't know how he can do it.
“In the three hours leading up to the performance, it's very like, 'Am I really about to share all this stuff? Why am I doing this?' And then I start and do the show and afterwards I feel really icky.”
One of the things I like about following the vacuum cleaner on twitter – aside from his ongoing campaign against mental-health stigma, embedded in our culture in the abuse of words like mental, crazy, bonkers, nuts, which he attacks with weariness, fury and sparks of dry humour – is that every now and then he'll have a sharp little dig at conventional theatre. He looks a little shame-faced when I bring this up. “I'm not a big fan of what I call theatre-with-a-capital-T. I guess I struggle with a lack of legitimacy in a lot of these things: when you've been in a psychiatric hospital, you go to the theatre and, like, this doesn't compare. When was the last time you saw a mad person play Hamlet? And how amazing would that be? So yeah, I do bitch about it quite a bit.
“It feels like theatre hasn't quite caught up with visual-art theory, you know? Visual art has very much abandoned representative practice, but theatre is still wrapped up in that. When I do go to a theatre and see the things that I really love and get me excited or angry or upset, it's people speaking about their personal experiences, like Kim Noble or Bryony Kimmings. The first time I saw Franko B – and we've worked together a bit – it really hit me: it wasn't just this pretending, it was very, very real. I can relate to that on a very personal level, but I also like that immediacy.”
When performing Mental in cities other than London, Leadbitter always aims to find another bedroom to house it. His one experience of staging it in a theatre venue has confirmed to him how important that is. “I did it at the Tramway in Glasgow a few weeks ago, that was to 50 people, and it was really difficult. I don't think it ruined it, but it did change it quite a bit. I had to extend the range of my performance, some bits had to be a little bit bigger. At home I can be quieter, I have that real intimacy. It changed it for the audience, too: there's this bit in my story about the police coming into my bedroom to take me into hospital, that's much more significant when it's in my own bedroom.”
The decision to stage Mental in a bedroom rather than an open social space like a theatre also demands that the audience travel somewhere unfamiliar – in my case, in the dark and on my own, which always generates mild anxiety in me. “There's a slight challenge in there,” Leadbitter agrees. “That's something I found doing the show in Latvia, at this amazing festival called Homo Novus. A lot of people were coming to me afterwards and saying: 'I was really frightened about coming to see your show, I was going to be in this bedroom with this crazy person, the police say he's a domestic extremist, I was frightened! And then it starts and you just destroyed that thing immediately.' I hadn't really thought about it like that at all.” But that's wonderful, I say. “It is! And it's nice to challenge that preconception of mental illness as well.”
It was the second hospital stay that encouraged Leadbitter to reconsider his work, and made Mental possible. The difference, he says, was that the breakdown: “was really public. I was doing this big commission with Artsadmin, I had to drop that. That was really difficult, because I felt like I was letting them down. And I was tweeting about it a bit at the time. It was this thing of going: this is so fucking intense for me. I was very close to dying on a few occasions.
“Actually, this is something that's really amazing: for me and a lot of my crazy friends, we all say this is our civil rights moment. A lot of us talk about coming out of the closet. It's this thing of going, fuck it, I'm not hiding this any more. So although it was very difficult, it had some positiveness to it. And it really changed the direction of the kind of work I was making. Also – I found this doing the Mental piece – coming out and going, OK, this is the shit I have to deal with in life, you get other people going, yeah, I can relate to your experiences, and these are my experiences. That solidarity is so, so empowering. When somebody says, I know what that's like, and you know they know what that's like, you go: OK, I'm not on my own, this person can genuinely relate to me.
“The language that people use is really, really different to when you're in hospital and you say to the nurse, I don't want to continue any more, I can't take it any more, and they say, we're going to help you get through this. The response is so different. It's little things like, I said to somebody I really want to self-injure, and they were like: have you tried putting elastic bands around your wrists? When you really want to do it, pull them really hard and flick them against your wrist. I tried it and it was great. Or I'm having a panic attack on the ward and an old guy comes over and calms me down in 10 minutes, no drugs, sat with me, held my hand. It's a really beautiful and amazing thing to have that solidarity and mutual care. More of that please.”
Increasingly, his work seeks to create places in which solidarity, empathy and empowerment can flourish. Many audience-members have commented that they could do with sharing the cup of tea after Mental, rather than before, to decompress after inhabiting such an intense space; Leadbitter understands that need, but asks his audience to leave directly after the show, because he too needs space to look after himself and decompress. (This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, and compassion is exercised: the night I saw it, one member of the audience was so affected they left the bedroom, went straight to the bathroom and burst into tears; they were then allowed to stay in the empty bedroom until ready to face the night.) As quoted above, performing Mental makes Leadbitter feel “icky”; what pulls him through is the audience response, not in the room so much as in conversation, on email and on twitter in the hours and days afterwards. People open up to him about their own experiences with depression, doctors, anti-depressants; they ask his advice; they tell him: “I can relate.” In Latvia, he says, “a 19-year-old woman came up to me after the show and said, 'I've never said this to anybody, not even my parents: I have a psychiatrist. I've never told anyone and I've seen your show and I'm not embarrassed any more.' For all the difficult it is for me to do the piece, for that one person, I'm happy.”
Prior to Mental, he made a piece called Ship of Fools, in which he turned his flat into a hospital for a month and sectioned himself. “The Ship Of Fools will function as an inter-section between mental sanctuary and creative liberty,” he explained on his website. “As part of this time the vacuum cleaner seeks creative residencies at the Ship Of Fools: both artist and non-artists alike in an attempt to find creativity in madness.” His next project takes that idea much further. “It's called Madlove – A Designer Asylum. I'm a big believer in the notion of an asylum, a safe place to go to experience madness, but it's going to be an asylum designed by mad people for mad people to experience madness in a more positive and less painful way. We're going to bring mad people together and people that work in the mental health industry, or people that are carers or that support people, and say: right, because psychiatric hospitals are so oppressive and so difficult to be in, let's redesign it completely. Let's think about what we need to go through this experience. It's still going to be painful, but let's change it. My producer has this really wonderful statement: it's putting the treat back into treatment.”
I can't wait to visit.
Seeing Mental had and continues to have a profound effect on me. It's affected how I watch theatre: a few days after I was in Leeds and happened to catch the James Brining production of Sweeney Todd at West Yorkshire Playhouse; its first scene is set in an asylum, and it looked exactly like the asylum in Joe Hill-Gibbins' Young Vic production of The Changeling, right down to the individual gestures of the actors. I left at the interval, unable to watch any more, feeling no connection with what I was seeing. At the end of November I caught up with Hannah Silva's The Disappearance of Sadie Jones, a taut three-hander about a woman whose depression has led to anorexia; there was much about it, not least in the breakdown of language, that felt insightful, and yet part of me was troubled by the aestheticisation of this experience, particularly in a scene when Sadie kneels on a cabinet and slowly wraps a red chiffon scarf around her waist and wrist, delineating self-harm. In that moment, honesty was replaced by theatre.
X Mental has made me reconsider what it means to be honest. Now and then people commend me on the honesty of my writing and I feel quietly fraudulent, because I hide as much as I reveal. I come from a very old-fashioned culture that believes fundamentally in putting up a front; much as my family rail against its hypocrisy, it's coded within us and that's a hard habit to break. But it's also typical of me to interiorise everything: keeping a blog has been extraordinary in that respect, in reminding me that self-expression isn't just possible but OK.
Increasingly I'm interested in what it means to invite someone to listen to the voice that rattles around your own head. A lot of the work I've really cherished this year – Mental, The Worst of Scottee, Laura Jane Dean's Head Hand Head, Peter McMaster's Wuthering Heights – in some way or another does exactly that. Head Hand Head X really touched me: for maybe 40 minutes, Laura enacts the different obsessive compulsive routines that she has adopted over time to cope with the paradoxical trauma of being so terrified of dying that you're afraid to be alive. The voice that speaks to us is the same voice she hears inside her head. It felt like a privilege to be given access to something so private.
Mental felt like a privilege, too. I left it feeling intense gratitude towards James, for sharing his internal voices with me. I heard enough of myself in it that I've been galvanised into doing things I hadn't previously thought possible, into engaging in conversations that I hadn't previously been able to contemplate. The narrative of struggle, or not being able to cope, is still expressed so rarely that people are startled by it, or react negatively to it: we need to work together to support its honest expression, and through that change the social conditions that make struggle and the inability to cope so much a part of our lives.
“Do you feel in control?”
He shakes his head. A barely audible whisper: “No.”
“What could be done for you to feel in control?
There's a small pause. “Well, I think that the art world needs to get a bit real about supporting disabled artists. Artsadmin are phenomenally great at it but I feel that a lot of the time me and my producer are really having to fight for the support I need to do the show; we're having to say: 'This is why it's going to be a bit more expensive, because somebody needs to help him and look after him.' So that could be better.
“Not being attacked by the state for being disabled would be a help: I'm going through the Atos process at the moment – Atos Healthcare are doing the whole welfare reform process – so I'm having to defend my benefits, it's really anxiety-provoking and the stigma is still really horrific. I've been assaulted coming out of the hospital, people have attacked me because I'm coming out of the psychiatric hospital. Casual use of the word mental, or the casual use of the word crazy, it hurts, it hurts when I hear it, so that's still difficult. It's difficult to have to go: listen, I don't want to be aggressive or assertive about this, but can you not use that word around me because it hurts.
“There are some really amazing people out there who get it. Without Gill Lloyd [co-director of Artsadmin], without Lois [Keidan, co-director of Live Art Development Agency], I would have stopped making work three years ago. Gill has fought, she's said: 'James, you need to keep going; I'll help you write an Arts Council application because you can't even read at the moment; if you've nowhere to go, sleep in your studio, don't worry about the rent, it's fine.' I was going to get kicked out of the homeless hostel I was in and the fact that she would stand by me and write to the council and say, 'You can't do this to somebody', that is phenomenal.
“The way I describe it to some people who I feel don't quite get it is: 'Imagine you're doing a show in a building and it's not wheelchair accessible, you wouldn't say to the person in the wheelchair, you need to build your own ramp to get into the building.' But often that's what happens to me: often, I have to explain that I need to bring two people with me, one to look after me during the show, one to look after me outside; I need a quiet dressing room because when it's noisy I'm going to have a panic attack.
“That's part of the battle and I'm prepared to fight for that, because it's not just for me: it's for every person who has a mental illness.”