Photography: Keith Ainsworth / arkimages.co.uk

Shannon Sickles

17 Love Lane 25/1/17

In the dimmed light of a unit underneath the old railway arches on Love Lane, I look across a disconcerting scene: four hospital beds are arranged like a makeshift ward and a nurse with a clipboard is stood waiting to admit me. This is the way REASSEMBLED, SLIGHTLY ASKEW begins, throwing you off guard from the outset.

Conceived as a piece of installation art, Reassembled… is a sonic experience that wants to take you out of your comfort zone. Dislocation, helplessness and frustration are the emotions it’s designed to evoke, and it’s not something you’ll find the artist responsible for it, Shannon Sickles, apologising for. In 2008, Shannon developed a strong head cold that caused her to start seeing auras. It wasn’t until she started acting irrationally and arguing with people in the street that she and her partner, Gráinne Close, became alarmed. Shannon was diagnosed with a rare brain condition when she was admitted to hospital, and had to undergo emergency surgery to save her life, before being put into an induced coma. This traumatic experience, as well as the long road to recovery, was something that Shannon felt that she had to share with the world.

“I think the process of creating Reassembled… helped me understand the magnitude of what I had been through – but only at the end of the process of creating it,” Shannon explains. “I never set out to make it as a cathartic process, as I’m actually a very private person. I was fascinated by how my brain had changed, and how to artistically create something that captured my journey in an interesting, exciting and challenging new way.”

I’ve filled out my admission form and now I’m sat on the edge of one of the beds, taking my shoes off. Suddenly I feel quite vulnerable, weirded out. ‘Am I really ready for this?’ I ask myself. Too late: the eye mask slides over my head and plunges me into darkness. I can feel the plastic out-patient wristband chafing at my wrist, but other than that I’m rudderless. There’s nothing left for it now but to lie back and submit to the headphones treatment.

“The binaural microphone technology we used was integral in recreating what I experienced in my journey of acquired brain injury, in particular the sense of internal confusion and frustration, noise sensitivity and feelings of passivity. The artistic team had explored how to recreate my process of hemiparalysis and learning how to walk again, but the missing pathways between my brain and the left side of my body couldn’t be captured as accurately as we had hoped.”

Unaware whether or not the experience has started yet, I hear a car driving past to my left and I assume someone has opened the door to the ‘ward’. In response, the whole left hand side of my body goes cold as if experiencing a blast of wind from outside. But there is no open door: my body is perfectly warm, but my brain is interpreting the sounds I’m hearing through the headphones and getting confused.

REASSEMBLED, SLIGHTLY ASKEW Image 2

The binaural technology creates a spatialised, 3D audio sensation that’s quite unlike any other sound experience. Somehow the sounds I’m hearing – of Shannon’s journey back from the shops, the rustling of bags, her inner monologue, the passing cars – aren’t taking place in my head, in between my ears like conventional audio does; it’s happening around me, like I’m walking along the street with her. It’s quite an uncomfortable sensation, disorientating even, quite different to my previous experiences of binaural technology through triggering my ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). But I guess that’s kind of the point, right Shannon?

“We were aware of the boundaries of how to take the audience to the edge of their comfort zone, as that onslaught – that they only get a hint of – is what my noise sensitivity is like – but I can’t escape it. I wanted the elements of sound and movement to be dynamically explored, as my noise sensitivity and the hemiparalysis down my left side were such terrifying aspects of my acquired brain injury. I think a strength of Reassembled… is that it’s a strong match between content – what the story is about – and form – how the story is told. Reassembled… takes audiences inside my head for a story about how the inside of my head has changed.”

In total I spend 47 minutes inside Shannon’s head, swimming through the jumble of memories. During her recovery, she veers from post-operation elation (where she believes she’s still going on holiday to Mexico) to intense frustration at her doctors and the pace of her recovery (“I just want my brain to BREAK!” her voice shouts at one point, jolting me out of a reverie). The value of this total immersion in understanding the ways in which the brain works is not lost on the medical profession, and Shannon has collaborated extensively with various neurosurgeons in creating the whole experience. I wonder if she’s noticed any differences in the way people have responded to it, depending on their background?

“One of the focus groups we ran during the research and development process was a group of very skeptical neurosurgeons,” Shannon explains. “I was pleased that all responded positively, even one saying he thought it would be ‘something arty-farty’ and that he ‘had no idea it would affect [him] so profoundly and so viscerally.’ I’ve had neuroscience nurses say that, after hearing only a 10-minute sample, they would change their practice. One consultant neurosurgeon at the Society of British Neurosurgeons wouldn’t give a potential job applicant the position unless he went and experienced the audio sample I was facilitating. It’s fantastic to know that it’s made such an impact in personal and tangible ways.”

It finishes as it begins, accompanying Shannon on a journey along the street – but there’s a subtle difference to the underlying tone now, one of optimism rather than a mind-spinning sensation of impending dread. I spend a few minutes after it’s finished letting the layers of my mind settle back into some normality, and wondering if something like Reassembled… can really help to change the narrative and stigma around brain injuries.

“I hope that it increases empathy and awareness about the hidden disability,” says Shannon. “The feedback we’ve heard from audiences since its premiere in 2015 is that it is accomplishing that. Which is a lovely result after such a personally harrowing experience.”

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