Caro Meets Festivals Interview

Bobby Baker: The Expert View

By | Published on Thursday 30 April 2015

Celebrated artist Bobby Baker is well known for her performances and art works, in particular her Wellcome Collection exhibition, which has toured widely, and formed the basis of her book, ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me’ which won MIND Book of the Year in 2011.


It recently came to my attention that she, via her disability led organisation Daily Life Ltd, was planning a two day micro-festival, set to take place next week in East London. I sent some questions over to Bobby, to find out more.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about The Expert View – what can we expect from it?
BB: The Expert View is a two day micro-festival in East London exploring ‘expertise’ in arts and mental health. It’s a two-day extravaganza of entertaining cabaret, thought-provoking performances, visual art and a specialist symposium organised by Daily Life Ltd, my Stratford based charity. The programme includes music, poetry, exhibitions, films, talks and discussions.

All the work we are showing, including my own, is by people who have lived experience of mental distress. People who come can expect to be amused and entertained. We hope people leave with lots of new interesting thoughts and reflections to dwell on, as well as having a great time! We are very excited, as we have a great line up of artists and speakers which includes Irish singer-songwriter Dylan Tighe, Yorkshire artist Selina Thompson, activist Jacqui Dillon, and others.

I consider myself to be an ‘Expert by Experience’ of the mental health system, and will host and compere the festival and revisit one of my classic performances. ‘Ballistic Buns’ is my performance, based on my own family history, family survival techniques, the impact of war and frustrated ambition. It also takes in the impact of all this on future generations, the ‘Dambusters’ theme and bouncing buns!

We believe that ‘experts by experience’ collaborating with ‘experts by profession’ can produce great results so we very much hope that people who work in mental health will come too!

CM: What inspired you to create this micro-festival?
BB: The Expert View is our first ever micro-festival. We decided it would be interesting to programme a series of arts events in East London on the subject of mental health and expertise. There’s so much more in the media about mental health these days – about depression and anxiety, about celebrities with their own stories, about diagnosis, about the NHS and who should pay for mental health care. It’s a big subject in the run up to the election. But there’s still a lot of fear, confusion and prejudice about mental distress. We think art can help people reflect on big questions like these – sometimes playfully, thoughtfully or even in an entertaining way.

Society loves an expert. Someone who can answer questions, take responsibility and be called upon in a crisis. Poor mental health affects 25% of the population during their lifetime, so clearly expert care is needed. But is placing the responsibility on any one person, or profession, the most effective way of resolving distress? The festival will consider questions such as what does it take to make an expert? Can anyone become an expert, especially about his or her own mental health? And what part does art play in all of this?

CM: How did you go about choosing the events, and the acts that are appearing?
BB: We know lots of talented artists, musicians and performers so we’ve put together a programme of some of our ‘top tips’ who are touring work that fit the theme and we hope will appeal to audiences – you really should come along!

CM: Your organisation Daily Life is behind this event – can you tell us about it, and what it does?
BB: Daily Life Ltd is a small Arts and Mental health charity based in Stratford, funded by the Arts Council. The ‘Ltd’ bit is important to include – we don’t claim to do everything related to Daily Life – only the bits that interest us!

I’m the Artistic Director of the company and I’m a woman and the artist. I have been making work based on my own experiences for 40 years. Daily Life Ltd used to just produce my work but now we promote the work of other artists too. Our mission is to create powerful art that changes the way that people think about mental health. We promote the talents and insight of artists, performers, writers and musicians with personal experience of mental distress online and on the ground.

CM: What made you decide to create this project?
BB: I really just wanted to share my experience, to encourage and promote other artists who are creating high quality work and put it in front of new audiences.

CM: Has your own mental illness informed your art at all?
BB: Between 1997 and 2008 I had very serious mental and physical health problems and became part of what’s called ‘the mental health system’. I was fortunate and eventually emerged from a really harrowing and awful few years better and more content with my life than I’d ever been.

Art definitely helped me to get to that point and to make sense of what had happened to me. Eventually I worked out my own understanding about things and could reflect on my early life and come to terms with difficult experiences. During those eleven years, and since, I have met other people who described themselves as ‘experts by experience’ of the mental health system. This led me to think of all that I had learned and how ‘expert’ I had become in so many new ways as a result of having been so ill. One of the best things about that time was meeting people whose lives had been very hard but who had found ways of making sense of it – through campaigning, helping other people, making art, whatever – even just simple ways of living daily life and having small bits of fun. Its surprising how hilarious madness can be sometimes!

I had an exhibition of the diary drawings I’d been doing between 1997 and 2008 at Wellcome Trust. It was a huge success and attracted over 55,000 people in the first four months. Since then a book of my drawings became MIND Book of the Year and the exhibition is still touring. So this convinced me that the arts can help communicate new ideas that sometimes seem difficult. And that I’d like to help contribute more opportunities to present great work by new people.

CM: Is this micro-festival a one-off, or do you expect to stage similar events in the future?
BB: It’s just the beginning – we’ve got lots more planned for this year. We’ll be curating our own section of SHUFFLE Festival in Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park in July, followed by our second public Lightbox Exhibition in Newham later in the year. This will be an attention grabbing themed exhibition of high quality visual art in lightboxes in a high profile, high footfall public space.

The Expert View Micro-Festival takes place Thursday 7 May and Friday 8 May. For more info and to book tickets see the Daily Life Ltd website here.