Brad Necyk knows what living with mental illness is like, and his VR art shares the patient's POV

After a CAMH research trip, he had his worst manic episode. Brad Necyk's latest work pulls the experiences together through VR.

After a CAMH research trip, he had his worst manic episode. This show pulls the experiences together

Brad Necyk. Creating Otherwise. 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

For an artist, Brad Necyk does a lot of his work in hospitals.

He's collaborated with transplant patients as part of a year-long residency, and another project, started in 2015, found him working with head and neck cancer patients. In both cases, the M.O. was the same: what is it like to be ill — to get treatment, and seek it? And his latest works tap into the perspective of mental health patients specifically, a story that began last spring, when the artist, who lives in the Edmonton suburbs, arrived at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

"I'm not an art therapist there to heal," explains Necyk, who arrived at CAMH as part of his Ph.D in psychiatry. (He started his program in 2015, following an MFA at the University of Alberta.)

The more accurate job description is probably artist/researcher, though a research trip, like the one he made to CAMH, isn't guided by any hard-line objective. He's there to be a hands-off observer, always open to listen — and collaborate with — the patients on site. At CAMH, which he visited twice last year (spending a week with a different unit each time), he'd drop in each morning to follow the daily routine: breakfast, supervised walks, group therapy sessions, etc.

I'm trying to develop those stories, that language that we need to talk about mental illness.- Brad Necyk , artist

Being the outsider, that guy who's always drawing in the TV room, naturally brings attention, he says.

"You just go in and be completely present and attentive," he says. "That was how I approached it. And it allowed things to emerge organically through conversation and being together."

"Eventually, after probably five days, we started making work together, and more people on the unit got interested in what was happening and started joining in." He and group of youth patients eventually collaborated on a day-glo mural, a jungle of free-form shapes. While spending time with a mood and anxiety unit, he produced a "portrait" series, pictures of empty hospital rooms that were staged by the patients and captured by Necyk.

Photo from Brad Necyk's Psychiatric Rooms series. (Courtesy of the artist)

After that particular visit, just a few weeks after he'd made it back home, he fell ill. "It was the worst manic episode of my life."

Necyk himself lives with bipolar disorder. Many of the people he collaborated with at CAMH have it as well. "The mood and anxiety unit hit very close to home for me," he says. "I'd never seen it from an outside lens before."

"Each time I'd be there [at CAMH], it would come at a very intense emotional, psychic cost. And I myself would get sick." Necyk says the manic episode lasted a month.

"It takes a little bit to know you're going manic," he says. When things "start speeding up," as he puts it, "it's quite a pleasurable experience at first. All of a sudden you have tons of energy, you're happy, you're intensely productive and creative."

"About a week in," he says, "it starts getting incredibly destructive. All of a sudden not sleeping for a week adds up, takes a toll on your body. I couldn't eat, and then I started having a lot of temporal dissonance. Like, time doesn't make sense anymore." His vision, too, begins to distort. "Things would become jittery."

"What happened was all of the ideas I'd been thinking about [at CAMH] got filtered through my own illness," he says. He worked through both the manic episode, and the month of depression that followed, making paintings, composite photographs, writings.

Brad Necyk. Painting from "Mania" series. 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

Treating Otherwise, an exhibition of Necyk's recent work, is now on at Toronto's Double Happiness Projects to September 23. What you'll see in his prints and VR videos are rooms.

There are rooms with mirrored floors and abstract day-glo wallpaper and a graphite mountain where a sofa might be. Paradoxical rooms — with ceilings that stretch to infinity despite their claustrophobic square footage. (To get a continuous view of a painting propped against the wall, for instance, you'd have to twist your neck 180 degrees.)

The scenes are influenced by Necyk's field notes from CAMH, as well as his own experience with mental illness. The photographs he made with patients appear in the virtual spaces along with his paintings. In one VR piece, "Creating Otherwise," the walls mimic the mural he made with the CAMH youth unit. 

"Every one references my experiences, but also somebody else's," says Necyk.

VR is often talked about as being a tool for creating empathy. After all, strap on a headset and you're essentially looking through someone else's eyes. "I think empathy is important in my work," says Necyk, "but I think what I was thinking about was actually embodiment. [...] My practice is about creating these embodied sensations in people" — to not just understand what it's like to be a patient, but to feel it.

"For me, as an artist/researcher, I'm going in and trying to find new stories to tell that maybe people can use in some kind of way. Doctors can use it to think about their patients. Patients can use it to think about their illness — all those different sides. Families and support networks can understand the person that's going through this maybe a little bit better, because that story maybe makes a bit more sense than saying someone's 'mad' or 'insane.'"

"I'm trying to develop those stories, that language that we need to talk about mental illness."

Take a look.

Brad Necyk. Waking Otherwise. 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Brad Necyk. Storing Otherwise. 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Brad Necyk. Treating Otherwise. 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)
Brad Necyk. Healing Otherwise. 2018. (Courtesy of the artist)

Brad Necyk. Treating Otherwise. To Sept. 23 at Double Happiness Projects, Toronto.

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.