Tina La Porta | Interviewed by Sarah Schmerler

SS: Tell us about the work you were making before being diagnosed schizophrenia. In particular, can you start with "Documenting Choice"?

TL: Documenting Choice started when I was an undergrad taking photography classes. I went to Washington DC for a march to preserve Roe v. Wade and photographed it. When I returned I stayed in touch with the organizers and they told me about the demonstrations in front of Planned Parenthood so I started to go and photograph them. Then I started to go to the Anti-Choice rallies and became interested in photographing the protesters as a kind of phenomenon of our time.

SS: There was also a series of Polaroids called "Total Screen" you did that documented the wearing of veils -- burkhas, hajibs and the like -- worn by both men and women?

TL: That was the work I was creating right before I got sick. It was post 9/11 and I was glued to the TV and kept noticing that all this reporting about the veil was streaming into my consciousness. So I started taking polaroids off of the television screen focusing on both men and women veiled. I created an installation of a wall covered with hundreds of Polaroids. Then I scanned in the polaroids and printed the images on semi-transparent fabric and made an installation whereby which the viewer could walk into and through the veiled pieces.

SS: When did you start what is essentially a found-object sort of practice, working with non-fine-art materials?

TL: I found a box of belt buckles thrown out by guy who died in 9–11; I also found architectural remnants left outside by a firm that was moving. I was in a temporary housing situation in the East Village and I was experiencing schizophrenia but yet to be diagnosed. That was when my found object practice started -- I combined all those elements into what I call assemblages. Later, I voluntarily ended up at the psychiatric unit at New York University Hospital -- a very progressive Unit -- where they started me on medication, not specifically for schizophrenia; that said, the medications they prescribed did have a positive affect: the voices got more and more quiet as the medications took hold. It's literally like the sound went down in volume, like someone turned a knob.

I stayed in the hospital for three months. I had a computer and I could go off the unit to the cafeteria, and every day they had art therapy. I was like the shining star of art therapy; the therapist would take my work to her daily meetings and say 'look at this!.' I loved art therapy. I was ripping paper, calling the series 'wounds' and 'torn'. After I was discharged I got right back into my work, only this time I was able to address my illness as I perceived it to be at that time. I felt totally focused and, wanted to make a body of work that expressed what's going on inside.

SS: Let's go back and talk about your first experience with the schizophrenia.

TL: I now have come to learn that you start to show symptoms when you are in your 20's, and it's true. I used to get these flashes of paranoia early on when I was in art school in my 20's. It went untreated because I didn't know what it was, but in retrospect, I realize now what it was.

Later, when I was living in Williamsburg, I experienced huge stressors, and the stressors were a trigger for the illness to spiral. Then, when I was in a temporary housing situation trying to find permanent housing, all of a sudden I started to hear voices and started to have paranoid delusions.

It seemed like the voices were coming from the other side of the wall. I thought I was hearing my neighbor next door or in the hallway or in the apartment above me. I started to think the fire alarm was a surveillance camera. The voices were external to me; I didn't think they were in my head. And they were telling me what to do. That was around 2008, and it took a really long time for me to get a proper diagnosis because I thought the voices were real, not imagined.

SS: You were put through the ringer in terms of misdiagnoses. What was that like?

TL: First, when I was mis-diagnosed as having dysthymic depression, I went through many different trials of medications (as well as dosage amounts) and then I was given medications to promote wakefulness (pilots take them, it's Provigil). Then I was diagnosed as having major depression and that came along with many different medications. Then I was diagnosed as having fibromyalgia (I now know I have a lot of nerve pain that's related to schizophrenia) and I went through a ton of pain medications which never helped. I was even treated by a neurologist for a long time. Then I was diagnosed with major depression with psychotic features... I really fought that for a long time. Then I was diagnosed as bi-polar so I was on a ton of mood stabilizers. All along I was given almost every kind of sleeping pill for insomnia. Then I built up a resistance and they no longer work for me. Then in the hospital they gave me Prazosin for nightmares which is what they give Vets for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

When I relocated to Florida I finally got an accurate diagnosis, and I could tell you more about how I was put on almost every anti-psychotic medication, and wen't through a very long trial period until I found one I could tolerate and still struggle with the side effects. While I was in the hospital a pain management specialist told me to try Elavil, and that has calmed down my nerve pain which my psychiatrist says isn't real! And I still suffer with insomnia one night and over sleeping the next day. This is why I refer to my illness as being a moving target.

SS: Today the pills, themselves, are a big part of your material practice.

TL: I relocated to Florida in part because it was important to me not to be isolated from the art world. I had to be where there is a contemporary art scene. While I was unpacking I came across a duffle bag filled with pill bottles because of not being diagnosed accurately. I started to glue and make arrangements of pills, at times while really sedated. I was working with the pills 'themselves' and people started to get interested in the work.

SS: So you're more stabilized now…

TL: Yes. Definitely.

SS: Still, it must be difficult to look at yourself, your illness. How does it feel to use pills -- many of them ones you know the effects of firsthand? And, now that you're stabilized, all of the over-the-counter meds you're purchasing?

TL: Pills are art supplies for me. I also see them as signifiers. I work with so many pills, and yet I'm also disgusted with them. There are these huge, beautiful yet disgusting, ruby-red diet pills called "Hydroxycut Max For Women" for instance; and at the CVS I found "Sudden Sleep" sleeping pills which are pink because they're "formulated for women." As for the consumption of my own medications, I don't even want to handle them any more. Three times a day, it's this repetitive action: I put them in the dosage tray and then from the tray to my mouth I don't want to touch them. I don't take vitamins any more. I don't want to take cold medicine or anything else. I think making this artwork has informed my own psychology of how I am thinking and feeling about what I am doing.

SS: How do you think the public will think and feel about what you are doing?

TL: Mental illness has invisible wounds; it's the disability that is invisible. I'm coming to the realization that people are ready for this work because mental illness is there -- it's everywhere in society -- and people aren't talking about it. People are approaching me, having made this work, to tell me they have a story of a parent or family member with a mental illness. And more people are supporting the work because they can relate to it personally and they are suffering themselves. One woman told me her mother had Schizophrenia. I wondered to myself,what would it be like to have a mother with Schizophrenia? Hearing voices is so terrifying. I don't ever want that to happen again. I know I will take these medications because I don't want to hear voices again.

SS: Do you think you're the only artist to hear voices at one point in your life?

TL: I was thinking the other day of how van Gogh cut off his ear; maybe he was hearing voices and couldn't stand it? The artworld is a little more tolerant of people having an illness than the mainstream world. There's Yayoi Kusama, who lives in a hospital, you know? And Virginia Wolfe heard voices. There is already a connection that's been made between "madness" and creativity.