The city beckons and we answer. Jostling with the crowd to squeeze onto a long steel tube that will rattle through districts in the blink of an eye, offering a multitude of sights and sounds at a blurred and frenzied pace. It rattles past high-rise structures, their oblique windows appearing as eyes, peering down into a cramped carriage, making miniatures of us all. Squeezing off the train, the passage out of the station is controlled by a mechanical barrier that must be fed with a permit before it yields. Cameras on poles monitor every movement and although the organism sways in one mass wave, each cell will look up and sense with individuality the burden of surveillance through the camera’s eye.

On the street, in each face you pass you think you recognise a friend, only to discover repeatedly that you are recognising in yourself the desire to pick out an individual from the mass. The traffic rumbles, sirens whir, road works attack and remnants of passing discourse converge to play tricks on your mind. You think you hear your name being called and pirouette to glance around through the intrusive urban landscape. The street signs, adverts and shop fronts call out to you to fit in, to adhere to the rules or to attain something higher, to be as one or to step out in front. It is a sensory overload that easily brings about confusion and disenchantment.

It is no wonder that a number of recent studies show a significantly higher chance of developing psychosis in an urban environment, with the risk increasing the closer you get to a city centre. Moreover, people who develop psychosis in a city take longer to recover than their rural counterparts, and are more likely to experience a recurrence of mental ill health in the future. The term ‘psychosis’ is an umbrella term for a wide range of experiences, loosely considered as disordered thoughts that disrupt a person’s typical functioning. As such, psychosis might describe phenomena including visual hallucinations, hearing voices, intense paranoia or a firm attachment to delusional beliefs. Lower level psychotic phenomena are relatively common and can vary from experiences of being over-suspicious to losing track of racing thoughts.

In 1903, sociologist George Simmel linked the phenomenon of the modern city to an “intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli […] with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life […] the reaction of the metropolitan person to those events is moved to a sphere of mental activity which is least sensitive and which is furthest removed from the depths of the personality.” Even as early as 1845 in The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels reports of city workers, “They are exposed to the most exciting change of mental condition, the most violent vibrations between hope and fear.”

Although these early theories are still relevant to our contemporary environment, Simmel’s description of “the resistance of the individual to being swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism” has been completely reversed and our heightened sense of estrangement has reached an extreme. We navigate our way through the city with handheld GPSs, following not the actual path but a series of virtual lines and arrows made up to represent our environment. The city’s sonic scape is blocked out as we plug our ears with our chosen soundtrack to the effusive movements. The friends we meet in the city throughout the day are not really there, but instead are represented by the interface of a social networking site. And now with the advent of interactive glasses we will shut off another of our senses. We seem to strive for total sensory detachment from the vivacious sway of city living, to reach a point where it will be only our physical matter that occupies the street whilst our mental state, completely estranged, will belong entirely to the discarnate world of cyberspace.

This month, Manchester Metropolitan University is exhibiting the work of multimedia artists from cities around the world who have engaged with the theme of urban psychosis in contrasting ways. Works include a film by Luke Fowler that delves into the initiatives of the Kingsley Hall experiment carried out by writer and psychoanalyst R.D. Laing, photography by Moyra Davey exploring human interaction on the New York subway and video and performance from Gillian Wearing. Alongside the exhibition, talks will be held by experts in the field, including Will Self, award-winning author and psychologist Professor Richard Bentall, and Jacqui Dillon of the Hearing Voices Network.

The exhibition opens on 14 July at the Holden Gallery.

Further reading:

Dr Kat Taylor & Samuel Buckley