Jenna Watt’s installation, commissioned for this year’s Declaration festival, is deceptively unassuming: simply a table, with a woolen rug, a pot plant, and a hand-painted sign that reads ‘Helpline’. At the centre of the table sits a green Trimphone and a list of 0800 numbers. A pale green theme is used throughout, a shade redolent of hospitals and waiting rooms. Exhibited throughout the whole day, I was curious to engage with the installation but also reticent, discovering myself too shy to lift the phone and dial a number. I am not fond of telephoning strangers.

And yet, that was the very point. As Jenna explained in her afternoon Q&A session, led by the Mental Health Foundation's Andrew Eaton-Lewis, she has always felt like the kind of person who might find it difficult to call a helpline. And this, for many, can present a problem – asking for help can be a significant barrier to claiming our right to health. 

Jenna, award-winning artist and creator of works including Faslane (currently touring throughout Scotland), began to explore this commission by asking why people access such helplines, and what might prevent them from doing so; in her words: ‘Would I be a timewaster if I did? Am I allowed?’ She also questioned the level of care that needs to be afforded to the people on the other end of the line. Those answering calls for helplines often engage with people undergoing the most traumatic circumstances. How are these operators helped to deal with their own emotional responses to these calls?

When I finally dared to lift the receiver and dialed the first number, I discovered that Jenna has removed all but the operator’s voice. The silences in between are left for the audience to fill: an individual process, given that only one person can use the installation at a time. The individual must then either fill the void with their ‘own narrative’ or imagine – from the operator’s responses – who might be calling and for what reason. 

Initially, one feels rather like a voyeur, listening in on someone else’s conversation. But the very intimacy of the experience leads one to engage in a wholly unexpected and emotional way. During my first call, I heard a female operator explain that she would not disclose anything she heard to the police. This made me wonder, with some concern, why the caller would require this assurance. In subsequent calls to other numbers, however, the operator’s responses prompted me to remember past situations in my own life when, had I made such a phone call, I might have received similar replies, such as the sympathetic and compassionate advice to ‘take your time’ when attempting to articulate feelings or explain circumstances that I may not have felt comfortable discussing with anyone but a total stranger. 

Engagement with the installation, then, led to a rewarding and poignant reflection on the many reasons people use helplines, as well as the fears and barriers that can prevent a person from making the first call that might lead them to lay claim to their right to health. Ultimately, the installation succeeds in expressing Jenna’s desire to encourage her audience to use a helpline should they ever feel they need to. 

Helpline is an installation that initially seems small and unassuming, and yet, perhaps because of this, when one finally makes the physically-insignificant but sometimes mentally-challenging decision to lift up the phone and dial, it reveals itself as a very profound experience.

by Mark Jones

 

Jenna Watt is currently touring Faslane, a hugely powerful and timely insight into the UK's current nuclear debate, throughout Scotland until 18 April. For tour dates and ticketing information, visit her website. You can also read Kirstyn Smith's interview with Jenna Watt, which gives an insight into the thinking behind the installation. 

Jenna Watt: Helpline

Jenna Watt’s installation, commissioned for this year’s Declaration festival, is deceptively unassuming: simply a table, with a woolen rug, a pot plant, and a hand-painted sign that reads ‘Helpline’. At the centre of the table sits a green Trimphone and a list of 0800 numbers. A pale green theme is used throughout, a shade redolent of hospitals and waiting rooms. Exhibited throughout the whole day, I was curious to engage with the installation but also reticent, discovering myself too shy to lift the phone and dial a number. I am not fond of telephoning strangers.


And yet, that was the very point. As Jenna explained in her afternoon Q&A session, led by the Mental Health Foundation’s Andrew Eaton-Lewis, she has always felt like the kind of person who might find it difficult to call a helpline. And this, for many, can present a problem – asking for help can be a significant barrier to claiming our right to health.

Jenna, award-winning artist and creator of works including Faslane (currently touring throughout Scotland), began to explore this commission by asking why people access such helplines, and what might prevent them from doing so; in her words: ‘Would I be a timewaster if I did? Am I allowed?’ She also questioned the level of care that needs to be afforded to the people on the other end of the line. Those answering calls for helplines often engage with people undergoing the most traumatic circumstances. How are these operators helped to deal with their own emotional responses to these calls?

When I finally dared to lift the receiver and dialed the first number, I discovered that Jenna has removed all but the operator’s voice. The silences in between are left for the audience to fill: an individual process, given that only one person can use the installation at a time. The individual must then either fill the void with their ‘own narrative’ or imagine – from the operator’s responses – who might be calling and for what reason.

Initially, one feels rather like a voyeur, listening in on someone else’s conversation. But the very intimacy of the experience leads one to engage in a wholly unexpected and emotional way. During my first call, I heard a female operator explain that she would not disclose anything she heard to the police. This made me wonder, with some concern, why the caller would require this assurance. In subsequent calls to other numbers, however, the operator’s responses prompted me to remember past situations in my own life when, had I made such a phone call, I might have received similar replies, such as the sympathetic and compassionate advice to ‘take your time’ when attempting to articulate feelings or explain circumstances that I may not have felt comfortable discussing with anyone but a total stranger.

Engagement with the installation, then, led to a rewarding and poignant reflection on the many reasons people use helplines, as well as the fears and barriers that can prevent a person from making the first call that might lead them to lay claim to their right to health. Ultimately, the installation succeeds in expressing Jenna’s desire to encourage her audience to use a helpline should they ever feel they need to.

Helpline is an installation that initially seems small and unassuming, and yet, perhaps because of this, when one finally makes the physically-insignificant but sometimes mentally-challenging decision to lift up the phone and dial, it reveals itself as a very profound experience.