LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS
Charles Street Video
Organized by Margin of Eras Gallery
February 14th – March 14th, 2020
By Adele Lukusa
LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS is both a figurative and literal invitation to Rea Sweets’ bedroom. Tucked into Margin of Eras Gallery’s Charles Street Video space, on the second floor of Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC), the immersive installation explores being a neurodivergent, mad, and disabled individual pursuing higher education. Swept in red lighting and underscored by soft indie tunes, the disheveled and realistic bedroom evokes the artist’s presence: a desk with stacks of discarded clothes, notebooks, and food; a bed and screen-printed pillow to rest your head on; and two towers of stacked empty prescription bottles, with an LED sign with the word “take your time” sitting between them. Slide the headset over your ears, and get transported to an all-nighter with Sweets typing rapidly with coughs. A short film documents her executive dysfunction. And if you’re lucky, you could converse with Sweets herself (or scribble messages in her guestbook if you miss her).
If madness is messy, then Sweets embraces it passionately and unabashedly. At its heart, LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS is an ode to Sweets’ relationship — or rather, her break-up with post-secondary education. Through the interactive nature of the work and the accompanying public programming, LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS also demonstrates how vulnerable art can foster community dialogue.
Incorporating disability and madness into her art had not come to full fruition until Sweets signed up for Ryerson’s Cripping the Arts in Canada and A History of Madness.
Both classes are rooted in disability justice and encourage students to think critically about the ways in which society has created and enforced “normality” in relation to disability and madness, while examining the overlap between those two communities.
According to Eliza Chandler, former artistic director at Tangled Arts + Disability and disability studies professor at Ryerson, the term “mad” refers to individuals with a history of mental health diagnoses or experience with the psychiatric system, which may include institutional stays, prescribed medication use, therapy, and other medical intervention. Members of the mad community may identify as consumers, survivors, and current or ex-patients of the psychiatric system. Historically considered a slur, “mad” is currently being reclaimed by those classed as mentally ill or neurodivergent. It can encapsulate all who experience oppression due to sanism.
“[Mad] a small, monosyllabic three-letter word, but it really did afford me the kind of freedom to stop pretending,” said K Zimmer, a poet and English Literature student at the University of Toronto.
“Language is power,” said Sweets. By learning about terms like neurodivergent and mad, as well as hearing students speak about madness and disability, Sweets could better articulate her own experiences, specifically her executive dysfunction that had only been exacerbated in university.
“It’s like your capacity is always on cooldown mode,” said Sweets of executive dysfunction. “You’re smashing buttons, trying to get yourself to do things but your body-mind says ‘We can’t do that yet. We’re still recharging’.”
Within a university setting, Sweets routinely had to pull all-nighters to finish essays when professors refused accommodation.
“No matter how much you accommodate me, or think you’re leveling the playing fields, it will never be as if I am on the same level as of a neurotypical student,” Sweets says, “I’m still going to have to sacrifice my health or in some way, shape, or form.”
Art was a way to motivate herself to create beyond the academy. “At least if a situation is incredibly shitty, I can make and mold something out of this, she said. “Creating artwork for myself as a form of agency is really important for me.”
For folks like Sweets, stepping into mad-positive spaces is essential. Classes in disability studies were the first time she felt “welcomed and encouraged.” Instead of handing in an essay for her final Cripping the Arts assignment, Sweets asked if she could submit a proposal for a showcase idea. Chandler gave her the okay, and so LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS came to be.
At the front of the room, Sweets is on the mic asking about the ways madness manifests itself in art. By Sweets side are fellow mad student-poets Zimmer and Twoey Gray, as well as Max Ferguson, her mentor. Though set up as a panel discussion for the public, the conversation shared by these four artists is filled with uncommon honesty and vulnerability.
There’s no sugarcoating their experiences of sanism, of the ways pursuing post-secondary studies has impacted their desire to succeed academically at the expense of themselves. Their stories are being told, not as a heartfelt tale to make others feel better about themselves, but to embrace the good with the bad that comes with being mad.
Gray described the panel as a very “affirming” space, a sentiment echoed by Zimmer.
“There were times [when I thought], ‘Oh, I’m royally fucking up’,” they said, “[But] I could trust that I was going to be accepted in that space.”
The comfort, acceptance, and vulnerability present within that discussion is an extension of Sweets and the artwork itself. Take, for example, the wall of actual diary entries, email exchanges, and therapy notes speaking to her madness, a kind of vulnerability described by Gray as “hypersharing.”
“In some ways, the more naked and exposed and vulnerable I am, the more I’m giving [to the audience] and the more affirming my artwork happens to be,” said Sweets.
It’s what makes Sweets’ artistry so brave, according to Ferguson. “She’s incredibly good at balancing being approachable and being brave,” he said, “And she inspires others to be brave.”
When doing outreach for this show, both in-person and online, Sweets ensures she can be at the gallery. In order to accommodate for COVID-19 measures, she also narrated an online virtual tour of the exhibit through Facebook Live.
“Listening to and seeing the comments is inspiring,” Ferguson said, “It’s inspiring to see [Sweets’ art] inspire other people.”
That inherent reciprocity is what distinguishes LOVE MY DYSFUNCTIONS and all of Sweets’ work.
“That has helped me feel like [sharing] my vulnerabilities are worth it and I feel less like an open scar,” she said. “It doesn’t burn. It’s good.”