In January/February 2024 CAST presented Marcus Coates’s Artangel commission, The Directors, a collaboration between the artist and five individuals in recovery from different lived experiences of psychosis. Marcus Coates visited Cornwall to give an artist’s talk at CAST and to engage in conversation with psychoanalyst llric Shetland. On the morning of that day, he visited Helston Community College to meet students there, one of whom, Charlotte Williams, subsequently spent two hours watching all the films in The Directors and wrote to ask Marcus if he would be prepared to answer questions. Charlotte’s questions and Marcus’s responses formed the primary research component of her Photography A level, which explored aspects of mental health and how it is depicted.

Charlotte and Marcus have kindly agreed that we can publish their exchange.

CW: Which are your favourite materials/mediums to work with and why?

MC: I’m most comfortable using performance, photography, video, sound, painting and drawing. I’m doing more sculpture, but always find this more challenging. I don’t really see materials as mediums, they are more like tools. I think of my medium as empathy.

CW: How do you most often start to come up with a concept/idea for a piece of work and what inspires you?

MC: It’s often a need to fix or reconcile a problem. That problem is usually a difficulty in relating to another person or other being and my idea is formed from a need to address this inadequacy I feel – whether it’s personal or that the cultural tools or language are inadequate. I try to make a culture to address this.

CW: Do you prefer to work on your own as an artist or work collaboratively, to share and compare thoughts and ideas?

MC: I need to do both. They are very different ways of working. Working with others and collaborating is a way for me to go beyond myself into unknown and often uncomfortable territory. I think this is really important if I want to learn and create something that helps society. My studio work is more reflective and more intuitive. Here I don’t need to explain or justify my decisions, so there’s a different kind of role for me. They are both very challenging, exciting and difficult ways of working. But both are necessary for me to maintain a creative balance.

CW: Did you struggle to create your collection of films The Directors because of both its intensity and its significance?

MC: The struggle was initially personal, my barriers to relating to others with very different experiences of life and reality than my own. Then the struggle was to persuade people to help me make the work. It is a difficult ethical line the work walks. The work mustn’t exploit or dramatise people’s experiences for their entertainment value – this was something I had in mind all the while. The significance of the work for me was my responsibility to the people with lived experience of psychosis. Now the films are finished they are being used by the NHS as training tools, so they have become more significant in their influence now, which I didn’t anticipate.

CW: How difficult would you say it is to attempt to create an art form that is close to an authentic experience from someone struggling with a mental health issue, and how did you get around these difficulties?

MC: It is impossible to represent any experience of anyone else in its entirety or in a way that is totally accurate. Language, whether visual or the word, can never achieve this, but my intent was to explore the degrees to which this might be possible, if only to a limited degree. The art form for me is not the film, but the framework – a relationship/dialogue that was created in each film that allowed this exploration. This was different for each film, because each individual is different. The Directors all said that the films represented their experiences with authenticity because they came from their voice and their narrative, and they were in charge of that. They used the films to show their families etc their experiences in a way that they struggled to explain with words.

CW: Do you enjoy challenging societal norms through your work and, if so, how would you often go about doing this?

MC: I see this as the point to my work. This is usually the inspiration, where I identify that the norms don’t serve society well. My next project is about Climate Change and how ‘normal’ life needs to be seen as abnormal and destructive.

CW: Have you yourself been inspired by any particular artists or photographers and do you tend to be more inspired through their work or the concepts behind their work?

MC: If I’m inspired by artists it’s usually because they have found a special way of seeing the world differently or they have been brave enough to take risks that create positive change and stand outside of norms.

CW: Who influenced/s you and in which ways is this evident in your work?

MC: I like Andy Kaufman – comedian – he was brave enough to challenge the idea of comedy and what a performer does. He had a sense of what the audience needed from the performer and his role within that. I’m influenced by people who have in-depth knowledge of their subject. I like to collaborate with them. I can then be a sort of translator and communicate their knowledge through new forms.

CW: Who originally inspired you and how does this differ to your influences now?

MC: Early influences were people who were involved and had passion for their subject and seemed to create a life for themselves around it. Artists were an obvious example of this, but naturalists like Chris Packham were important influences as I also had a strong interest in nature.

CW: Has one particular artistic style been more enjoyable/interesting to produce than others?

MC: Each ‘style’ is a language with its own possibilities and limitations, and each is suited to express or explore different things. I try to use visual languages like film or painting or photography where they are each most effective and evocative. Painting isn’t great for conveying a message to many people. Video is often better for this, but painting can be very powerful for different purposes. I am lucky in that I don’t restrict myself to a medium. The risk is that I am not expert or fluent in any of them, but most of my work doesn’t, like some art, attempt to redefine a medium. I use them in a much more utilitarian way.

CW: In one of your interviews I read online you spoke about how animals are drawn to intoxication and that we as humans are also drawn to the state of trance and the removal of our own everyday consciousness. Throughout your artwork you bring the two worlds together, of the conscious and unconscious states, to see where they cross over. It is thought that we can learn something from being in a state of trance. Could you tell me a little more about this whole process that animals and humans can go through and that state of being in touch with the less conscious state of reality and what you believe we can learn from it?

MC: We can see from our behaviour that we seek to escape being caught up in our own thinking, but we often don’t do this in a way that is more than just escaping. In my culture we don’t see a lack of control over our thoughts as a productive space, but this is where so much creativity is – when we allow our thoughts to run, to not restrict them because of fear of judgement or that they might misrepresent us somehow. I think it’s strange to think that our thoughts are us. They are part of us, but to enable oneself to recognise them as independent from oneself is an important part of creativity. In all my work this is necessary. In some of my performance work this state of ‘trance’ or lack of conscious control is a state I deliberately enter to problem solve and make problem solving narratives for others, in a way that my conscious controlled thinking never would be able to.

CW: How much do you appreciate living free from mental illness? If down the line you began to battle mental health, what, looking forward, would you want to tell yourself or for you to know/be aware of?

MC: The Directors project showed me that the reality we create for ourselves is fragile and changes constantly. It’s not something we should take for granted. We need to listen for warning signs, for instance that we are creating extreme coping strategies and narratives and, if so, get help. We also need to invest in our own mental health in terms of giving ourselves time and space where we can reflect and not be stressed.

CW: How do you feel about the concept that we as humankind naturally create our own realities, through the way we think, what we feel and how we interpret things?

MC: See the previous answer. An example of this is recently I had an argument on the street and after this every stranger that I saw that day was a threat – the world had changed from a place I trusted to one that I feared. This happens in less and more extreme ways all the time for everybody. I feel that when we are making sense of the world we are reality-making.

CW: Through The Directors series, how have you learnt about the isolation of individuals and how they cope in particular situations, and how has it changed any of your previous perceptions?

MC: Human society relies on trust. When that breaks down people feel very isolated. Stephen, for example, because of his paranoia couldn’t trust anyone and this led to his extreme isolation and loneliness.I have changed how I make sense of people’s behaviour, I’m less judgmental now and more forgiving, understanding that everyone to a degree struggles with their own version of the world.

CW: Thank you so much. You have really inspired me and I hope to see more of your future projects. Please keep doing what you are doing and keep being inspiring.