The ConCamo installation is now open at 807 Liberty Avenue. Image courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Jason McKoy wanted to talk about mental health.

He’s seen how difficult it is for people to discuss their emotional struggles, even though depression, anxiety and so many other mental health challenges are rampant in our society. If productive conversation about mental health was going to happen, he knew it was vital to get behavioral health research out in the open.

So, as a creativity consultant and graphic artist, he used his skills. McKoy got creative, pitching a high-tech, interactive art installation called Contextual Camouflage (ConCamo) to the WORDOUT: Community Research Dissemination Challenge sponsored by University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical + Translational Science Institute (CTSI).

This weekend (including during tonight’s Gallery Crawl in the Cultural District), visitors will have a chance to experience it. At 807 Liberty Avenue, Contextual Camouflage will be on view 24-7 through Sunday, April 29, and will continue at future pop-up events.

Visitors are invited to anonymously submit their experiences with mental health issues through the ConCamo web app, which will plot their data on a heat map in real-time. At various times throughout the exhibit, storytellers will talk about the impact of their mental health on their relationships and lives.

McKoy says he created the project to engage people with mental health disorders because “a lot of research is, frankly speaking, presented in boring 30-page documents that don’t really reach the people that they’re trying to help. There is this barrier between the layman, and research and resources.”

Merging coding with community

He first learned about the opportunity to pitch this project from Scott Wolovich, founder and director of New Sun Rising (NSR), which seeks to connect social innovators to diverse funding streams. The two most recently worked together through NSR’s Launch Hilltop Incubator program.

“When Pitt announced the WORDOUT grant, we realized it was a perfect fit for McKoy Creative,” says Wolovich.

“The impact of mental health is understated and misunderstood,” Wolovich adds. “ConCamo, like many McKoy Creative projects, brings the broader community into conversation about this important topic in a way that’s inclusive and healing.”

With funding from the CTSI, McKoy connected with Brittany Martin and Danielle Greaves — “two amazing code ninjas” — through Steel City Codefest. He says their programming skills brought his vision to life.

The exhibit — which opened on April 16 — has received positive feedback so far, particularly from those in the mental health research and treatment fields. “They see it as this tool that disrupts the environment to really activate and engage communities,” says McKoy.

The general public was a little bit more hesitant to embrace the project at first, perhaps because of ingrained attitudes that keep them from talking frankly and openly about their struggles. But McKoy hopes that as people “ping in,” they’ll make strides towards destigmatizing mental illness.

“There have been a lot of people talking about how no one believes what they’re going through is ‘real’ or that no one ‘believes’ they are sick, since it’s not a physical ailment you can see,” says McCoy. “People are actually congregating and talking about mental health even if they don’t ping in or share a story, which is cool because it’s all about breaking down those walls.”

After this weekend, ConCamo will continue popping up in various locations around the region to capture information from each unique community and create a living narrative.

McKoy sees this use of art an important element in the fight against mental health stigma, because it is “in your face and visceral.”

“You can make bold, visual statements using art that elicit responses: good, bad and in between,” he says. And in shining a spotlight on mental health, “you can give a voice to the voiceless or define that which denies definition.”

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications....