“Does the Earth have willful amnesia?”: Anna Schuleit’s archeology of mental institutions


Visual artist Anna Schuleit set her site-specific installations BLOOM and Habeas Corpus on public sites soon to be modern ruins. Both considered the social history and architectural decay of disappearing mental institutions.

Addressing the persistent absence of flowers in psychiatric hospital settings, BLOOM featured 28,000 flowers and 5,600 square feet of live sod placed throughout four floors of the historic Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston (November 14-17, 2003). The old public announcement system was used to play recorded sounds of the building from the days leading up to its shut-down.

The sound installation Habeas Corpus punctuated the closing of Northampton State Hospital (noon, November 18, 2000); the hallways and rooms of the abandoned structure were transformed into the "insides of an instrument". The public was invited in to witness a single performance of J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat”, a choral piece in 12 movements.

We're honored to feature this interview with the artist.

How did you find yourself working with mental hospitals that were closing, and why were they closing? Could you speak to how the two projects are based on your previous research?

AS: When I was in high school I discovered Northampton State Hospital through a friend: it had recently closed, after a decade-long phase-out, and lay in ruin atop a vast hilltop, waiting for demolition. I remember extracting its history from my friend and her friends, from neighbors and former employees, from state officials and local activists, trying to find out, piece by piece, what had happened to this institution, why it had opened and why it had closed, where all its people had come from and where they had gone. It was my first act of self-directed fieldwork, a kind of postmodern archeology.

An urban theorist Norman Klein gives tours of sites where buildings no longer stand. This moment you describe sounds like that space before disappearance, which many "pass by" before the absence prompts a pause.

AS: Your mention of Norman Klein's tours reminds me of a question that I've had in my mind for years: Does the Earth have willful amnesia? Is she inherently indifferent toward sites of trauma? Does memory diminish, grow over? To an attentive visitor, sites of past trauma carry the imprints of their past. On battlegrounds we walk especially carefully because we expect, half-consciously, to stumble over forgotten artifacts. In his book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama made a reference to the buttons of soldiers’ coats on the ground. Or even, and more gruesomely, bones. Most often we find nothing, but the expectation alone, if we know something about the place, is great enough to sensitize our minds to the uneven terrain and emotional weather of the past.

As late visitors we crave specific visual clues to experience a more specific memory. At the old ruins of Pompeii, viewers are drawn to the casts of dying bodies, exhibited in a small museum on-site, because those casts are the most stark and dramatic visual reminders of the trauma and death that took place there. Many tourists proceed directly and hungrily to those casts before seeing any other aspect of the ruins. While Pompeii is the site of a natural catastrophe, and battlegrounds are sites of man-made injury, murder, and death, psychiatric institutions are something slightly different: they are sites of chronic illness and slow confinement, their functions spanned decades. The artifacts of psychiatric architecture are less object-bound, more atmospheric. Their architecture is disheartening, has a raw, imperious physicality. In these old buildings we see the functions of a flawed health-care system laid bare in its architectural details and structural dimensions, its own trenches.

Could you tell me more about your postmodern archeology?

AS: I came to my work as a pedestrian, with the wish to somehow capture the enormous psychiatric institution through small drawings from across the overgrown lawn. Crouching in the weeds I moved my artist’s workplace into the immediate proximity of the building. I was caught by security, and chased away, again and again. It turned out that I had to keep moving, to appear like a jogger or dog walker, and all was fine. For years I petitioned to get access to the inside of the building, and when I finally got it, I started recording my walks through the various units and floors on paper, using them as a hand-drawn record of my interaction with the site. Based on my interest in map-reading and mapmaking, they became a form of remembered orientation in space. I collected paint samples in each room I passed through, creating a library of greens and blues and other colors used in institutions.

In my early meetings with state officials, back in the late 1990s, I was told that I would not get the permissions necessary for my projects, since I was an "artist". I thought of my drawn walks and gathered color samples and realized that I might change the terminology in my favor: I started using "document" instead of "explore" to justify my request for entry. I invoked the authority of the profession of archeologists as a cover for my work. But state officials trust archeologists and historians, while they're deeply suspicious of artists and journalists, the latter being ungovernable and prone to make unpleasant discoveries. Archeology is a science that hints at a treasure. Archeologists are paid to do their work when treasures are assumed. Of course, in this case, the institutions, there is no treasure at all, just specificity. To regard this specificity as a treasure became my goal.

What's it like to go from the initial composition and preparation of each piece and/or/then fall-into-the-abyss nature of the sudden interactive/inhabitation of the spaces you create?

AS: The initial conception of the work is solitary, then it goes out and gets shared in meetings where it grows (or atrophies), and then it's a long time, sometimes years, before it gets realized, becoming real and solitary again in the end. All of my large site-specific works, including the most recent one at UMass Amherst, Just a Rumor, were too large to be tested in advance, so that I didn't know how they would look and feel in the space until they were in place. Which is a rather raw process with great potential for surprises . . . not for the faint of heart. But if the work has buoyancy in that process, if it has its own voice in the end, then the transition from mind-state to actual state is stirring and humbling, each time. In Habeas Corpus, that transition was when we had finished installing the sound system and began the 'tuning' of the building, wing by wing. In BLOOM it was when the flowers arrived on the trucks, needing to be watered and placed. In Landlines it was when we opened the telephone lines to the trees, making an entire forest resound with different ringtones in the dark. In Just a Rumor, it was when I climbed down from the boom lift to look for the face that appeared in the water, from across the pond.

Is Northampton completely demolished now, or was it preserved after your project?

AS: Northampton is demolished now, yes. After Habeas Corpus took place in 2000, there was some renewed wishing to preserve the building, a group of citizens formed, and I was asked to join. But during the four years of preparing the project I had always made one identical promise to the people I asked for support from, be it financial or logistical or political: that I would never come back for another favor. That if they helped me with this project now, this one time, I would never ever be back with additional requests or pleas. The response was usually a sigh of relief: "Ok, great. If you don't ever show up at my desk again, then I'll help you this one time!" And I've honored my promise. I didn't join the preservation efforts, nor did I believe that the building should be preserved at that point, so late in the game. The main building, a historic "Kirkbride" structure, had been shut down in the 1980s, as the gradual phasing out was underway. When I saw it and started planning Habeas Corpus, it was already a complete ruin: no heat for many seasons, nature had begun to reclaim it. The water damage was tremendous.To first stabilize and then preserve the building would have cost many millions of dollars, money that was direly needed for services. So I didn't (and still don't) support the rehabilitation of these buildings unless it happens right away, in conjunction with their closure.

Of your new work, you write: "The paintings I’m interested in have nothing to do with the world of ideas. I want them to remain rich in stuff, in shapes, in textures, but doggedly story-less." Could you tell me about this? Do you feel these paintings are a departure from earlier work?

AS: The paintings have always been there for me like that. I need them on a daily basis, as a constant, untethered from language and narrative, because then I can be, too. Paintings require the viewer to step into an engagement with them, voluntarily. Paintings, unlike movies, dance, music, storytelling . . . aren't time-based or sequential, which is a gift. I have been painting longer than I have done site-specific installations. For the large projects I have to borrow resources that I don't have, while the paintings manage to sustain themselves, and me, through long stretches. They are my truest form of thinking out loud.

Did the recordings of memories penned by visitors at BLOOM and Habeas Corpus reflect the distinct nature of each exhibition, or were they similar?

AS: The memories of institutions often resemble each other, seem to be hewn from the same archetypal tree somehow: they are stories of serious illness, at the most basic level, but filled with brilliant, individual anecdotes—mixing the general pain and isolation, shared by so many, with the specific, and deeply personal, workings of survival. These stories are similar to each other by way of setting, the locale of institutionalization, the built environment that is often interchangeable, the century-long backdrop to psychiatry. In that way, these stories are like war stories, forever changing and affecting the lives of those who were there.

We end with one of those memories, selected by Anna Schuleit:

"My mother told me, 36 years ago, ‘Hang on. They'll find a cure.’ I was suffering alone until I came to MMHC. And today... oh so grateful... beyond any words, so grateful. Lives and sufferings have been redeemed here, and today we celebrate and honor, all of us, in this place, for better or for worse. Today, we flourish. The list of what we cannot do grows shorter and shorter. We become comfortable in a world of three dimensions; we gladly surrender the fourth, fifth, and sixth."


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