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Disruptive Narratives: An Unconventional Odyssey with Dolly Sen

Welcome to an engaging conversation with Dolly Sen a working-class brown queer artist based in Norwich, UK. With a brain she humorously describes as having an "ill-repute," Dolly disrupts societal systems not through conventional means, but with a unique blend of My Little Ponies on acid and a touch of sadness. Boasting over 10 published books and a global presence in films, performances, and art, Dolly's work is subversive, humorous, and radical. From 'sectioning' government departments to confronting misogyny in a clitoris hat, Dolly Sen's artistic journey is a testament to her unconventional approach to challenging norms and sparking debates on madness, sanity, and acceptable behaviours.

13 November 2023

Joana Alarcão

To begin, can you delve a bit into your artistic background and practice?

In short, I re-sculpt the world to make it a place of fairness, truth and beauty. The longer answer is: I am a writer, filmmaker, artist and activist. I am a working class, Brown, Queer person who is interested in the disability and madness given to us by the world. I want to disrupt systems that produce that programming called oppression, not through trojan horse viruses but with my little ponies on acid with a little sadness in their hearts. I do this by using creativity, love, and rage. My recent work includes sectioning the DWP and confronting misogynistic medicine dressed as a wandering womb with a clitoris hat. I don’t limit myself to one medium. I use any medium that fits the idea best.

As a working-class, Queer artist interested in disability and societal madness, how does your personal identity shape the perspective you bring to your creations?

I think if I were middle class, white and straight, I wouldn’t have felt the need to create the work I do because I would not have been squeezed by the walls that close in on people who stand on the outside. I think all my work is about is truth-telling of the alienated experience and the lies in the world that harm most people. What a lot of people don’t understand is that a lot of us are fighting for survival and not to drown in the unfair waters of systemic injustice heaps on us. The only time society gets behind disabled or working-class people is with a dildo. The sanitised normal world is humiliating. Our world is made ugly, my identity wants it to be beautiful.

Human rights by Dolly Sen. Image courtesy of Dolly Sen.

Your artistic practice crosses writing, performance, film, and visual art. What role do you think these various forms of expression play in conveying your overall artistic message?

It is simply seeing which medium better suits the idea. They all have different ways of connecting with people. For example, I ‘sectioned’ the DWP, a government department. Writing about it would not have as much power as seeing it actually unfold, to see what happened. If it was merely performative, it is only available to the people at the site. Film was the best medium for that. On the other hand, when I want to express deeply personal things, I find writing has the most power. 

Your work is known for being subversive, humorous, and radical. What attracted you to these concepts?

This kind of art is art as truth-telling, art as evidence, art as courage-teaching, art as a catalyst for change. Subverting something is reversing or transmuting the power of something. You can subvert anything. Take a damaging term, action, process, item, etc, and expose its bullshit or violence, reclaim some power, and tell its real truth and your right to justice. For example, the slow and hidden violence of bureaucracy is hard to unveil for the person on the street to understand. Take one of the emblems of officialdom – the form – it is not a neutral thing. A patient risk assessment form in British psychiatry will demean and distort and dehumanise that person and proclaim the system as an infallible guardian. If you turn the form on its head, a mirror is held up to its hypocrisy.

Dignity by Dolly Sen. Image courtesy of Dolly Sen.

Your statement mentions an interest in exploring themes of madness, sanity, the other, and acceptable behaviors from an unusual and unconventional position of power. Could you elaborate on how you approach these concepts through your art and why they resonate with you? 

Art is a creative act, there are very few rules to it so if you want to reverse a dynamic, show a hidden truth, or experiment with power, art’s possibilities are endless. Madness has a bad press; it is a dumping ground for what humanity doesn’t like about itself. It has become medicalised in recent history but religion and politics also uses it to diminish, control and punish people. We live in crazy-making times, and people are becoming more and more distressed because of it. Psychiatry would like to say it has to do with a broken brain. I say it’s to do with a broken heart. This society breaks our hearts again and again. Khrisnamuti said ‘It is no measure of sanity to be well-adjusted to a sick society. To me, sanity is full of ridiculous acceptable behaviour and strange double standards, such as seeing street art as vandalism but the proliferation of demeaning advertising selling pointless things as acceptable. That being loud and aggressive whilst drunk is seen as someone being one of the boys – but if someone is shouting due to being troubled by voices, it is more reason to be scared, even though you are more likely to be injured or killed by the former. The world is sanitised, not sane. I use art to show this hypocrisy, contradiction and prejudice. 

They resonate with me because I have been labelled mad but I think my work shows perfect sense. Art is a great way to share this discussion with the rest of the world.

Normality uninstalled by Dolly Sen. Image courtesy of Dolly Sen.

You mention challenging inequality and the systems of the 'normal' world. How do you use your art to shed light on these issues and disrupt prevailing narratives? 

To maintain ‘normality’ for a small percentage of the world’s population, the majority have to suffer. People in the UK or other European countries maintain a standard of living on the backs of those living in poverty or horrific situations. The West carries the weight of most environmental damage to the planet, but it will be the poorer nations who will suffer the consequences. So when a TV ad says a car represents freedom and is a symbol of prestige, sometimes it takes an outsider to see that is rubbish. Normal people don’t care that dangerous and poorly paid sweatshops created their trainers, as long as they look good in them and other people will be jealous of them. Of course, not all mad people are like this, but some will point to the emperor’s new clothes and they will be invalidated or maddened by the collective denial because of it. 

There are those who want to help people who work in psychiatry, but they are unaware or don’t want to know how psychiatry is used as a mechanism for oppression. One way is to cruelly disrupt their narratives. It is easy to disregard someone’s narrative if they are designated mad, especially if horrific injustice has caused the mind to unravel. More and more research is showing trauma to be the cause of the majority of serious mental distress, such as being a refugee, victim of war, or gender-based violence. Giving someone a psychiatric label is one way of stealing a person’s right to truth and justice; they are no longer deemed the expert of their own experience. Rape victims are marked as unreliable witnesses because they have been deemed mad because they are suffering mentally and emotionally. 

Normality thinks it has the moral high ground, but I have shown in this text a few instances where that is not authentic.

What I do in my work is to show the truth about institutions and mechanisms of oppression. One obvious way was the short documentary I made on the Department of Work and Pensions, which has starved and bullied disabled people into suicide, so people can see through the communication department spin and lies it puts out. In other ways, I subvert things. Subversion (from the Latin word subvertere, ‘overthrow’) refers to a process in which the values, principles and norms of an established social order are contradicted or reversed, in an attempt at transformation. My work turns what’s hurting people against itself. I subvert the forms of the mental health system and the social care system to show where the power and the violence lie.

Bad form by Dolly Sen. Image courtesy of Dolly Sen.

I use humour too, like Trip Advisoring a stay at the Maudsley Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in London. Humour is a connecting force in that people will ‘get’ things easier that way, or it is a disrupting force in that the power is reclaimed in some way. 

The relationship between mental health and society's perception of madness is a central theme in your work. Can you provide more details on how you incorporate the intricate interconnection into your artistic works? 

It is basically showing up sanism to not be as together or enlightened as it thinks it is and that society is in huge denial about itself and the world. 

Normal people think they have the right to throw stones at mad people, without noticing the rubble of the world they have created. A recent work that critiques the normal world is SUBURBAN DENIAL. 

It is a photo collage responding to living in a normal world. I am surrounded by people with 3 or cars a house, who use chemicals, electricity, petrol, pesticides to have a pristine lawn, who drive a car to a shop 5 minutes away to buy the Sun or Daily Mail newspaper to get their 'news', who curtain twitch while the world is burning and crying. They must have tidy exteriors while they rot underneath in their immaculate denial. And they’ve got the bloody cheek to say I have no insight. 

Help the Normals by Dolly Sen. Image courtesy of Dolly Sen

Can you elaborate on how your art engages with the political aspects of mental health?

It offers the possibility that madness is not to do with a broken brain but a broken heart or a broken world by showing where this is the case. I point out things I see that are bullshit about the normal or sanatised world, or things you can’t love within it. For instance, war means the torturers are salaried and the tortured expendable and rejected. You can’t love that world. Madness is seen as a malfunctioning in the programming and not an appropriate response to the world it finds itself in. Institutions are very clever at putting self-hatred and inequality in the programming and then selling it to you as something you have to buy, at inflated prices. I hope to show madness sometimes makes perfect sense and sanity just has better PR. My art is not therapy for myself; it shows its therapy for the world. Normal has to change to save us all and face its many flaws, such as denial, collusion, inequity, and contributing to climate collapse. 

In your perspective, what role does art play in the movement to bring awareness to social and political issues?

 Art is a connector, an emotional hook, it is something you can’t look away from, and that’s why it’s so powerful. 

Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers? 

We need to make the world beautiful enough to save everyone’s souls.

Know more about the artist here.

Cover image:

Image courtesy of Dolly Sen.

Dolly Sen is a disabled, working-class brown queer who has a brain of ill-repute that wants to disrupt systems that hurt people, not through trojan horse viruses but with my little ponies on acid with a little sadness in their hearts.   She has over 10 books published, and her films, performances and art have been shown all over the world. More recently, she has ‘sectioned’ a government department and has confronted misogyny wearing a clitoris hat.

Her work is seen as subversive, humorous and radical. She is interested in debate and social experiment around themes of madness, sanity, the other, and acceptable behaviours, from an unusual and unconventional position of power. I am interested in this because I have been labelled mad, although I think my challenging of inequality and vicious systems of the ‘normal’ world makes perfect sense.

Dolly currently resides in Norwich, UK.

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