Interview with Jano Ballx in his psychiatrist´s office in Bratislava, May 18, 2016
There is something exciting about how Ballx works, lives and paints and how he talks about it. Ever since he can remember, he has drawn. And he still does, while working as a psychiatrist in a psychotherapy out-patient clinic, with a studio right next door. So he had been drawing before 2009, when, together with Peter Stach, he established, in the Transit studio, the artistic /artificial group called DEBILI. And he has continued even after the group ended its activities. His archive contains drawings he made at the age of nine, carefully shaded figures, objects, scenes from dreams as well as from “life”, but also drawings reminiscent of the mental automatism of avant-garde surrealists of the 20th century, similar to today´s doodles, which he recently exhibited in the HIT Gallery in Bratislava. We talked about obsession, creativity, about how and when we are creative and what happens when we materialize thoughts.
X: In the current issue we deal with drawings arising from an urgent need, which, in some artists, turns into a kind of obsession. We are interested in what the term obsession means from the psychopathological point of view and, what parallels to “obsession” can be found within the artistic environment.
Ballx: I´m interested in obsession as a way of psychological adaptation - it is an interplay between circumstances and a type of personality. Probably everyone can experience it in certain situations. It can be also an advantage, giving rise to a creative solution to a problem, creative adaptation, but also the work of a lifetime. I think that from the psychopathological perspective it is not “only” a disorder with restrictive handicap. The subjective experience of obsession is primary; it is an obsessional anxiety, which only secondarily manifests in thoughts and actions. A phylogenetically “older” behaviour that can be observed in animals similar to the obsessive behaviour of people indicates that obsession could be common also in animals and, it might have its purpose in the evolution of life per se.
It also relates to the question of whether animals have emotions. In my opinion, even reptiles may already have some sort of subjective experience. We can observe it, we can mentally project on them and personify their actions. If we say that someone is a “snake”, we are expressing something particular about his/her/our inner world. Just watch how obsessed today´s kids are by dinosaurs. I am also fascinated by it - in children’s fantasies, maybe they realistically revive phylogenetically old emotions of animal species. For two years, we had with the kids a season ticket to the ZOO and Dino Park. Sometimes we went there even twice a day, so I really know what I am talking about. The way of expressing emotions can be repetitive, in terms of content and form poor and, at the same time, at the higher level of perception the repetition can be “dense”, urgent, loaded with the energy of repressed feelings. The most interesting for me is the elementary emotion of excitement – the “seeking”. You can see it everywhere; I think it is also related to obsession. For example, birds: when you feed pigeons, they go round and round, pecking the ground, collide with each other. They walk in a circle, spend a seemingly unreasonable amount of energy, they are excited that someone has thrown them a crumb, they have no control over their behaviour. In the flock they fall into “mass” ecstasy – and obviously this is not only about satiation. It looks like a ritual dance to attract food. It is actually described since Skinner as an adjunctive behaviour. Just go take a look sometime, it´s really impressive what they create.
X: What is obsession, then? When did scientists started denominating symptoms and why?
Ballx: Since the 20th century, it is a scholarly term for a mental disorder. It builds upon the original meaning of the word from the 17th century, namely the deeds of evil spirits. But unlike “possession”, “obsession” was taking place without the demon actually inhabiting the body. The Latin origin of the word means siege, blockade.
It is interesting that the term was introduced by religion and exorcism; that´s where pathological compulsiveness often appears, e. g. blasphemies or strict rules and attitudes in a negative sense. Praying the Rosary can be a non-pathological example... tossing balls in hands, repeating the same thing over and over – that´s the obsessive reaction in a modern/ psychological sense; actually, any ritual is a sort of obsession. Repetition, precision, perfectionism, paying extreme attention to details – all that forms an obsessive style and, it may also be one of the possible ways of handling an urgent emotion, as I have already mentioned. Obsession, in my opinion, is above all a possible way to survive.
X: Is it possible that we all “filter” anxiety by obsessive records?
Ballx: Or the other way around: an obsessive record is an expression of anxiety. A synonym for obsessive behaviour is anankastic behaviour. And, we also know types of personality which is more prone because of their obsessive reactivity. Such a person may be a pedant, a stickler, extreme perfectionist, but often also too rigid, unable to react flexibly. So, in the end, it may be detrimental to the achievement of the desired goal. There is also a connection between inner depression and repressed aggression or anger. Such people are also called “anal types”, such people are literally able to “piss off” others. In the psychoanalytical interpretation, an obsessional response relates to the control of self and others. Children, when being potty trained, that is to use the toilet, not only gain control over themselves in the physical sense, but also over others in terms of relations. The child learns that if he/she remains clean and dry, he/she would not only feel better but, as a bonus, would also be praised. He/she knows how to do it, by having control over one´s self. On the contrary, if he/she deliberately shit in his/her pants, he/she would be rebuked, but would also have the opportunity to release anger. This may occur again when a person becomes demented. Because of helplessness or sulk, he/she may use stool and urine as a communication medium or, in case of extreme depression, everything begins to twist around excretion, dealing with feces, persistent physical concerns, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting. Obsession often relates to a sense of soiling, fear of contamination. There are people who wash their hands until their skin frays, but cannot stop doing so.
Due to the domination of cognitive science, the prevailing opinion in today´s psychiatry is that one of the characteristic signs of obsession is obsessive thought. I do, however, think that primary is an intense feeling, which the thought or behaviour attempts to “knock-out” or neutralize, which at first manifests through anxiety – that is essential for me. Anxiety can be a repressed primary emotion and, it is also impossible to differentiate its bodily symptoms from excitement. When a person wants to express something, his/her whole body trembles, but doesn't know what will burst out – whether he/she should stifle it, or burst out laughing. He/she experiences anxiety, but maybe just withholding emotions. Obsessions are often associated with aggression, but not only that. Fritz Perls described, in connection with the awareness of emotions, a so-called layer of implosion, in which emotions are inaccessible or suppressed and, when one penetrates that layer by expressing, creating and capturing something, it may lead to an explosion of emotions. For example, someone who was brought up saying that “shit” is a rude word, and at some point dares to say it, at that moment he/she releases the tension – it´s trivial: implosion gets released by explosion.
X: We can assume that by treating anxiety, or letting the emotions explode, the person would also be deprived or “cured” of his/her creativity?
Ballx: In practice, I have repeatedly faced such concerns. When people are to be treated for depression, they often fear that their creativity will change or cease to exist. Something similar has been experimentally confirmed: grief probably facilitates creativity. For example, at the Columbia Business School, they randomly divided students into two groups. One of the groups was told that their response was good and it was applauded, and they told the other group that their response was poor and they shook their heads as a sign of displeasure. Then they asked them to make a collage. The quality of creations was evaluated by professional artists who did not know to which group the particular creator belonged to. The respondents in which sadness was induced, turned out significantly more creative than those who were tuned cheerfully.
X: We can find out many things about a person based on a drawing. There are many psychological drawing and visual performance tests. Can works of professional artists be reviewed that way as well? Can we find out anything about the personality traits of artists based upon their works?
Ballx: Personally, I don´t believe much in such tests, especially with regard to visually creative artists. When it comes to diagnostics, we have to be very careful making conclusions. Drawings and drawing tests may, however, give rise to interesting questions. For example, if the drawing is small, somehow distorted or asymmetrically positioned in the corner, we may ask how did that happen, whether that somehow reflects the relationship to one´s self, perception of the world, relationships with others ... It may also express a yet ungraspable feeling, mood. I personally leave the freedom of interpretation to the creator and, my conclusions may be only hypothetical, individual. Without context, the diagnostician may confuse the originality of the creator with pathology. The same applies to art therapy. I personally disrespect mixing psychopathology and creativity. Neither can be objectively measured, and arriving at the conclusion that it´s the same thing is misleading. For example, a test in which you have to draw ten pictures very fast… A patient without artistic education, whom I know well and I know how his disability makes sense in the context of his life story, made ten simple drawings, which made a good impression on me. One of my colleagues, who evaluated the pictures, arrived at the conclusion that the patient´s expression includes some seriously distorted elements. The terse statement of distortion abolished the subjective aesthetic value. But, be very careful about opinions like “fools are artistically interesting”, because such views are shallow and unfounded. Exceptional people naturally have a higher risk of mental disorder, but this does not apply the other way around. And, above all, it seems disparaging to me. Mental disorder as a deficit is not a positive quality, but may be the best possible available way of survival, and a creative adaptation. Psychopathology can also be considered from an aesthetic point of view. Aesthetics in the synesthetic sense, not in the sense of “like/dislike”, but as a phenomenological diagnostic approach. This is what I regard and what I strive to do.
X: Why do people associate creativity with madness?
Ballx: It reminds me of the stereotypical Slovak “inferiority complex” - if someone knows something, is exceptional in something, you try to identify what´s different, strange or wrong about him/her. As far as he/she does not stand out from the crowd, does not differ from others, then he/she does not endanger the average tribesman; however, if he/she differs, creates something and, God forbid, does not even hide his/her quality – then there is a problem. The principle of hatred, which, I think functions in fascism - the cumulated odds of a majority versus an available victim.
Moreover, the notion of madness you referred to is more a dimension of social conformity than a term for internal psychological experiencing, it is a collective valuation. For me as a psychiatrist, it is unnecessary for the therapeutic relationship with the concerned. I have multiple experiences that a person who conforms can be a lot more “mad” than the eccentric or creative individuals. My experience is that relatively healthier individuals also suffer from anxiety; and persons who seek psychotherapy because they want to deal with and honestly address their issues, they are considered a rare anomaly in contemporary society. I feel that what we today consider normal is numbness, automated behaviour and cheap worthlessness. I´m disappointed to see that image and I try to live differently.
X: Particular stages of a child´s drawings are specific to a certain age. Is it possible to diagnose disorders in children from their drawings based on their irregularities?
Ballx: Yes, this is possible, but, for example ... when my daughter, at the age of four, started going to a nursery, after the first day we were told that she could not hold a pencil, indicating that she was mentally immature. The problem, however, was different: on the first day of kindergarten, children were asked to draw a picture of “my kindergarten”. And she, instead of the expected square with the roof, scribbled the paper with multiple colours. When my wife went to pick her up, her first words were: “Mom, I am angry.” When I later saw the picture, I understood that she had expressed her anger through it. As far as her drawing performance, she is still clumsy, a bit savage, but authentic. Also, she had several remarkable themes – she was very fond of the theme of “Jesus on the cross”. I think she is increasingly interested in emotions and in extricating feelings through movement and colours. Occasionally, she asks us to print pictures she is interested in and she expressively scribbles them. With my wife, who is an art historian, we have fun seeing how reliably we can distinguish our daughter´s drawings from those of other children, even though the freedom of expression and clumsiness are adequate for her age. At the same time, however, we can also see the influence of other children and expectations of the teachers. It is only natural to adapt to the environment. I think that each child has their own way of expression, and it is important to develop it further. It is then easier to build on the inner freedom than on the external dressage. I have an unverified hypothesis that a child with a technical and exact guidance in painting rather loses then gains creativity. I would like to protect my children from unnecessary evaluations and restrictions like “you should” or “this is nice and that is ugly”. Namely because we often forget that a child is weaker also physically, his/her body has different proportions compared to the body of an adult; that very fact I consider potentially traumatic, not to mention the given psychological dependence. The dark side of it would be the Mowgli syndrome, when the development window of learning has been missed. But I think, with regard to drawing, there is enough time for it even in adulthood :-).
X: Drawing can also be understood as physical activity, something originating through movement in time and space. What is the significance of motor skills and, how the idea “behaves” in such context?
Ballx: Visually, the idea is transmitted into embodied experience, and relates to the verbal, but Hell knows how. We imagine intuitively ideas as text. Ideas, however, are not texts, initially the ideas are not words, perhaps rather synesthetic motomuscular states – experiences. In that sense, drawing is rather interesting. It is very close to movement; it is pre-verbal. For example, geometry is sexy, you suddenly discover things, something enters into something else, or comes out, the laws of physics apply; drawing involves an “obsessional” compulsion to depict/represent: obsessional thoughts and grapho-motor rituals, ornaments, something that constantly repeats itself, expressing and recording something important. Children with crawling disorders may later have reading and writing disorders; motor skills relate to language. Who knows, how it is, but it is certainly important. It is necessary to draw and paint and to find it out through direct experience.
X: How does the “out-transfer” of ideas work? Can we tell what´s going on when we create?
Ballx: I don´t know. For example, there are two theories which amuse me. One of them is the concept of a transitional zone and a transitional object, which was, I think, best formulated by the experienced pediatrician and renowned psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. I have talked about it also in the interview for N-Daily. First of all, creativity is a relational phenomenon. We create that phenomenon internally. We create an entire inner world, and this world is a creation not only for me as a person, but also for somebody else. And this is important in creativity; whether and how I perceive the other, how does he/she look at me, how does he/she feel about me, how does he/she treat me. And this «something» of multiple qualities of the other, I transfer, through my senses, onto myself. Movement between subject-subject creates an inter-subjective space, in which creativity takes place. And the second concept is the one by Merleau-Ponty, claiming that human perception is, in an elementary way, always embodied. Everything experienced is in the end only in the body – “flash”. This philosophical opinion has, after the 1960s, been confirmed also by neuroscience. Creativity is the expression of the perceived body. A thought, an imaginary concept, that is never outside the body. The thought does not go out of the subject, it is a consequence of the feeling – as it is perceived. And the feelings arise again and again inside, where they are expressed. In particular in drawings or paintings we can see the role played by proprioception, movement, touch, physical coincidence. The difference between the concept and the ultimate result reflects your ability to capture the process as it goes, sort of inadvertently. Because what you are expressing becomes what is expressed in the process of realizing the expression; in fact, it originates through its expression. Also in therapy, when people have a certain feeling arising from a certain personal memory, that feeling can change by its expression. When you say aloud what you feel inside, put the story into words, into motion, into emotions, perhaps drawing or gesture, using all your senses, you will suddenly experience the story differently. All of a sudden, everything will be different, and mixed with all you have remembered. And that mixture will be remembered along with the originally experienced story. And again, it´s a movement of “out-inside”. Memories function so that whenever you tell the story, it will be “saved” anew, in a slightly changed form than what you remembered. At the level of feelings, the narrator is certainly also affected by the situation, the target audience, and not just his/or her own statement. So if creativity is a relational phenomenon taking place between subject and subject, it is about the statement and expression, which is comprehensively interactive and always physical. It´s quite simple. Although there are certainly countless other theories that can be just as interesting, so far I like these the best.
X: What are the two subjects in an intersubjective relationship like?
Ballx: One person does not suffice for an intersubjective relationship. He/she needs to have at least some experienceor an imagination of the other person. That is sometimes called “half-entity” of relationship. In a relationship, there is one and there is the other one. These are the entities and, between them, there is a half-entity, that is their relationship. It is neither one nor the other. In the HIT Gallery, when I made the guided tour of the exhibition, I called upon the visitors to make pairs and each of the pairs had to hold one end of a strap and observe it as their relationship. It is not possible to say with certainty whether the strap is the expression of one or the other. It can never be an expression of only one of the two, even if one of them decides to tell the other what to do. The other always plays the role of a subject and non-deterministic body - he/she may hold or release the strap... Nothing else is creative. The rest can be recalculated by a computer. What is creative, hails from the relational, and this relational phenomena is not in objectivistic form. The third - observer, the one to whom the result “arrives”, albeit he/she is important, but can never “see” and feel instead of the first two, never directly experientially knows what´s going on between those two people. The result of creativity is often also something material - objective, something that can be shared, communicated/authentically reproduced. And then comes the mentioned gatekeepers of the art. The result, let´s say it is art, must then be perceived, assessed, collected and archived by someone.
X: You create, know the artists, go to the exhibitions and exhibit your works. Is your relationship to fine art long term? What has led you to it and what does it mean to you?
Ballx: I have drawn and painted ever since I can remember. Drawing itself, that “inventing” is an adventure for me, part of my life. The art scene, or how to call it, and the process of how and since when I have actively been involved, is a different story. Do you want me to tell you why I paint? Because I have always painted. Perhaps there is a sort of hidden connection to why I became interested in psychiatry.