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Wonderland: the art of being human


Art is usually something we can only appreciate as a finished article.

Even looking through notepads and sketches doesn't really bring us close to the manner in which a piece was created.

But Arts and Humanities Research Council’s award-winning film Wonderland: the art of being human sets out to inject the audience directly into the creative process and use this as a means to explore the transformative nature of recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

Moving portraits

Participants are filmed together as they arrange themselves for a group portrait
A moving portrait, participants are filmed as they arrange themselves for a group portrait. © Amanda Ravetz

“What we see in the film is almost a moving portrait,” says filmmaker Amanda Ravetz of Manchester School of Art, MMU.

Wonderland documents the artist Cristina Nunez's use of self-portraiture with a group of people in longer-term recovery and captures their ambitions to 'feel and be felt by other feeling people'.

Cristina produces her work by instructing her subject and then leaving the room.

“By placing another camera in the room and leaving it there we captured something additional,” says Ravetz. “When you look at a still portrait there are often questions about how it was created. We wanted to understand that process, and film is obviously very good at that capturing process.”

Behind the camera

Using a documentary style, Wonderland explores how the photography project unfolds and the how relationships of those taking part develop. It uses a voice track of raw personal testimony from the participants, over footage of them being photographed or work-shopping the programme as a group.

Amanda Ravetz was particularly interested in the way the act of being filmed can catalyse something in people. “The camera makes things possible that aren't otherwise possible,” she says.

Participants taking part in a workshop session
As well as photography, participants were involved in workshops as part of the programme. © Amanda Ravetz

“We made the decision very early on that we wouldn't follow people anywhere outside the studio and the classroom. We would stay in those spaces and that creates quite an interesting, claustrophobic feel that focuses directly on the process. We wanted to care as much about the art as the people.”

Portraits of Recovery

Taking part as both participant and project manager was Mark Prest, founding director of Portraits of Recovery. “What I was particularly interested in is the way that a lot of the magic of art is lost when it is presented to the public, and I wanted to put that back,” he says. “I also wanted to show how art can support the recovery dialogue; about how people talk about themselves beyond the label of 'addict'. In the film we are looking at recovery as a transformative social process.”

Having two roles within the project was challenging. But through the process Mark came to realise that the opportunity to be a participant was in some ways more significant.

“At first I was sceptical in how much it would support my own recovery,” he says. “But, for me, taking part brought with it a sense of normalisation, or re-normalisation. I felt vulnerable and exposed. But it was also a very freeing experience and it really underlined the transformative power of art.

“On a simple level it increased my sense of self-esteem and confidence.”

Beauty in truth

A portrait of two participants, copyright Cristina Nunez

One of the particularly powerful elements of the experiment was that it confronted directly the fact that many people in recovery are very insecure about how they look.

They don't want to look at themselves or look in the mirror at 'the truth'.

“But the project really made us see the beauty in the ugly and get comfortable looking at self,” says Mark. “If you get comfortable looking at the worse you see in yourself, that increases self-value.

“When you are very used to being seen through society's eyes it's really liberating to see yourself through your own eyes.”


From recovery to Utopia

Mark's experience fed directly into the project’s three research goals. These were, firstly, to understand the recovering person’s emotional landscape, especially people in longer term recovery. Secondly, to explore how art can strengthen the health of communities. And thirdly to ask what experiences of recovery can tell us about utopian impulses and our desire for a better world.

Michaela Jones, filmmaker, participant and Community Director at in2recovery says: “I came to this from the starting point of not engaging with the artistic process or realising the way in which it could impact on recovery. But I found the whole process very liberating.

“As a person in recovery I often feel stigmatised. I don't often see myself represented very fairly in the media. And to be able to do something to counteract that representation was very, very important to me.”

Amanda Ravetz, Michaela Jones and Mark Prest on their Utopia Award

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