I was lucky enough to attend the launch event for Erasing The Distance’s Room For Light exhibit last night. Erasing The Distance is a non-profit organization located right here in the Windy City that works to de-stigmatize mental illness by inviting those who live with a mental health condition to tell their story. The stories are then shared in podcasts and presentations to help individuals connect and understand what living with a mental illness can be like.
The Room For Light opening was held on the thirtieth floor of a skyscaper overlooking Chicago’s Milennium Park, so that was an attraction in and of itself. It was fun to see people window gazing. The immersive exhibit was comprised of 8 x 8 light boxes that each featured a photograph of someone who lived with a mental illness. These portraits were striking and one thing that stood out right away to me is that the subjects appeared to be young, healthy, and happy—I think all of them had bright smiles and looks. Right out of the gate, that might work against some stigmatizing beliefs people have about the mentally ill, such as that they are scary or mopey or dangerous.
Next to the light boxes were a few artifacts telling the individual’s story, and also a pair of headphones connected to an Ipad where you could listen to that individual’s story. There was only one set of headphones next to each piece, but one clever thing the exhibitors did was including a QR code that you could scan to listen to the story on your own device. Young folks seemed to pick up on this quickly and you could see some of them in clusters listening to headphones.
If I have one critique of Room For Light it is that so much of the exhibit was audio-based, like an individual tour through a museum. I don’t recall that being in the description of the show I read or being advised to bring my own headphones. A lot of the interviews were broken into clips of five minutes or so, but some ran for as long as twenty minutes, and only one person could listen at a time. I wonder about the accessibility of the exhibit for the hearing-impaired, and the individual listening didn’t encourage the kind of community discussion that I think was one of the goals of the show. I realize that recorded interviews are the highlight of what Erasing The Distance does, however, and I’m not sure how I would change it. Maybe having a transcript in a binder as an alternative, or a little video clip with scrolling text as well? I know that it is easier to criticize and harder to do, and it was still impressive.
The portraits and light boxes were absolutely gorgeous and dramatic in lighting up the room. They were beautifully shot and some of the pieces the storytellers included were really creative, including one participant’s different items of clothing that reflected her alternate personalities, all with their own names and character traits, or collages and digital prints celebrating overcoming adversity. Additionally, some of the storytellers did include their own diaries or notes as a part of the exhibit, which was another way to access their personal narrative and really get a glimpse into their mind.
Erasing The Distance is such a great idea, and I’m a bit embarrassed that they’ve been around so long in Chicago (since 2005) and I wasn’t aware of them. They are looking for more storytellers and I just might sign on. The name is absolutely perfect–when we get to know people who live with a mental illness and relate to their struggles and perseverance, it becomes more difficult to categorize and treat them as the “other.” Our stories help erase the distance between those who live with a mental illness and those who do not by highlighting our commonalities and interests. They can help de-stigmatize pre-conceived notions about whether or not those with a mental health diagnosis can lead stable, productive, and even joyful lives. Included in the exhibit were musicians, artists, chefs, designers, and more.
Another thing about the exhibit is I noticed in the Ipad bios next to the interview clips, there were labels that the storytellers used to define themselves. They used words like “drummer, animal lover, biker.” I don’t think there was a diagnosis label on any of them that I saw, and for a few exhibits I wasn’t entirely sure what it was until I listened to the story. I think that was an intentional choice.