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> > > Interview: Gus Cummins talks about his new work Ictal

The Ictal Project

Gus Cummins was the 2007 DaDaFest visual artist award winner. At DadaFest 2008 he presents a newly commissioned film as part of his work about epilepsy.

Gus Cummins is creating a variety of visual arts and media, inspired by his experience of epilepsy. The work ranges from painting to video and digital installations. The first phase of the Ictal Project was an exhibition of prints which were shown at the NeuroSupport Centre, Liverpool, until the middle of July 2008. Previously exhibited at the Royal United Hospital in Bath, the exhibition is intended to present non-stereotypical and educative views of the condition, to challenge stigma and dispel myths.

Further activities include a video installation as part of DaDaFest International 2008. A digital installation driven by EEG data, recorded during Gus Cummins seizure activity, will show as part of his exhibition at Exeter's Phoenix Media Centre in December 2008.

Colin Hambrook asked Gus a few questions about the work in development.

I'm interested in how you came to the idea of making work that comes out of your experience of epilepsy?

C-type print entitled Aura - the moments preceding a seizure. Gus Cummins

C-type print entitled Aura - the moments preceding a seizure.

Image: Gus Cummins

My first seizures occurred in 1991, and I did not recognise them as epilepsy. As a result, I was not diagnosed for two years. My very first seizure felt like an out of body experience – walking along a road I had a glowing sensation in my abdomen, rising through my body. This was followed by a sense of unreality, like a very intense déjà vu. As the episode ended, I smiled involuntarily – I wasn’t particularly happy, more intrigued as to what had just happened (I now know that it was a typical Temporal Lobe Seizure).

Over the next couple of years the seizures continued, increasing in intensity and frequency. At the same time I started an Art Foundation Course. This was a fantastically creative time of my life, and I will always associate epilepsy with art. The seizures provided me with creative material, and somehow I shrugged off the fact that I didn’t know what was happening.

Eventually the condition intensified into Grand Mal seizures – ‘tonic clonic’ is the current term for these convulsive fits, which leave a person unconscious, and recovering in great pain and confusion.

I was diagnosed and medicated, and the epilepsy was 95% controlled. At that time my artwork lost a bit of spark in my opinion – I was now on a drug that tamed my brain, and I felt it did the same to my creativity.

Nearly ten years later epilepsy returned with a vengeance. Once again it came in the back door. I didn’t realise that sleep time episodes of writhing were the beginning. Then the Temporal Lobe Seizure returned, along with episodes that led to periods of dysphasia – inability to speak or understand language – and confused wandering.

I was referred to a neurologist who worked hard to find a combination of drugs to control the epilepsy. When she couldn’t completely control the condition after trying a few combinations, she explained that medication was now unlikely to achieve the control it had previously. I was now offered the option of brain surgery, and began a long episode of scans and tests – which has now been ongoing for nearly four years.

C-type print entitled Spike - a spike in an EEG reading of my brain activity precedes a siezure. Gus Cummins

C-type print entitled Spike - a spike in an EEG reading of my brain activity precedes a siezure.

Image: Gus Cummins

At the same time I began painting with a new intensity. I was initially fuelled by the need to release my feelings. My paintings began as dark and cathartic. As my trust in the medical establishment grew, I became more positive, and began to make brighter paintings.

I sought luminosity – laying coloured glazes over reflective under painting. I used geometric harmony as a subject, but still hidden within some of the images was a private language of imperfection and dysfunction.

As I underwent tests, I was immersed in a scientific world of brain scans and analysis. I asked lots of questions; I wanted to know about my condition and the possible outcomes of different treatments. Then something clicked - the elements were in front of me: I was a creative person. I’d been through dark times due to my ignorance of epilepsy. I was surrounded by great imagery related to epilepsy. If I created using the brain scans and scientific data I could make an exhibition of artistic and social merit. I decided to make work informed by epilepsy.

Fyodor - artists EEG trace with quote from Dostoevesky Gus Cummins

Fyodor - artists EEG trace with quote from Dostoevesky

Image: Gus Cummins

Who were your creative influences?
My creative influences have been diverse. I was lucky to travel in Asia 20 years ago and was very impressed by Indonesian art, especially fabric printing and weaving techniques. The processes required a lot of discipline and were steeped in tradition. 

Researching Asian art led me to Taoist philosophy, and also to Japanese art and music. I was very influenced by an exhibition by Paris based Yoshida Kenji in about 1993. I admire the work and ethos of Bauhaus artists, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian. Kandinsky used music as a device for visual composition, a technique that I have used. Klee also associated music and vision. Mondrian divided canvases into panels, with ratio and proportion as a priority.

My paintings with large areas of single colour recalled the work of Mark Rothko. When I made the first Ictal Project exhibition with its screen-printed images, it was with respect to the work of Andy Warhol.

I've long been fascinated by Dosteyevsky's descriptions of having a seizure, as the feelings he describes fit some of my own experiences of having out-of-body experiences. However, rather than epilepsy my own diagnosis has always been on the maniac depression / schizophrenia threshold. I think it shows how little is really understood by the medical profession.

I identified with some of the experiences of Prince Myshkin, the character with epilepsy in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. Dostoevsky uses Myshkin to describe aspects of the epileptic experience, occasionally sublimely beautiful, usually blurred and dark. This matched Dostoevsky’s own experience of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. I only had the beautiful feelings on very rare occasions, but they are permanently etched on my memory.

How are plan for the video installation coming along?
This is progressing well. I have strong support from PVA Media Lab, and people there who I worked with on a residency in Spring this year. My main challenge at the moment is cutting my material down to a manageable size.

How will this work progress the ictal project?
The first phase of the Ictal Project was an exhibition of prints, which was like a ‘coming out’ for me. Now I’m beginning to spread my wings, and explore other media. I think that film has the potential to be more accessible, although I don’t believe I’ll ever leave 2D images behind.

There is controversy at the moment about people placing films of epileptic seizures on YouTube online, and this is being called voyeurism. I think its important to think carefully about what kind of material would serve a useful purpose in that kind of arena.