Anxiety is a defining feature of our age according to current orthodoxy and the King’s University Science Gallery’s current exhibition, On Edge – Living in an Age of Anxiety, reflects this stance. But I am not sure whether the anxiety induced by 21st century social media is any worse than that created by the malicious gossip of medieval villagers gathering around the water pump. There may be millions gossiping about you but at least you will not have to face them in person everyday. As a species we have always felt threatened with social annihilation by the judgements of our peers. The impact is a multiple of their numbers and their degree of intimacy with you. In a village the numbers may be small but their level of intimacy with you will be high. On social media the reverse is true. The type and duration of the social anxiety induced may be different but it is debatable whether the impact on the individual is any greater.
Bodily annihilation by death, disease or injury is a constant anxiety throughout history and it is often conflated with social annihilation through shaming, bullying or ostracisation. This insight is captured succinctly in Leah Clements’ film, To Not Follow Under, which for me was the standout work of the exhibition. It parallels the phenomena of anxiety and deep sea diving by referencing the siren call that they can both snare us with. What the current mental health debate skates over is that we are often ambivalent about the sensations associated with anxiety. Paradoxically the source of our anxiety may be attractive or even addictive. It can also be the path to peace and solace.
These ambiguities are perfectly captured in the film. Its commentary and imagery features a deep sea diver who describes the siren call they experience in the depths of the ocean. The anxiety they feel is translated into a seductive call to go deeper into the danger zone where the risks of annihilation escalate. Peacefully drifting into death becomes attractive.
In another of the film’s sections a decompression chamber is the setting for a distressed psychiatric patient being reassured by a counsellor. The mental and physical depths both have their dangers. We observe the counsellor offering wordless but eloquent non verbal support but the accompanying voice-over allows the counsellor to express their reticence about “getting in too deep” with those in the grip of suicidal feelings. The siren call of empathy is a danger anyone offering psychological support can recognise.
Leah Clement’s film focuses on the carers rather than the sufferers and is highly sensitive to the paradoxes that exist in tackling anxiety. Yet again simplicity in artistic expression pays dividends. This is an important and original contribution to the often confused public debate on anxiety.