In the annals of the Arkansas Lunatic Asylum, the very first patient arrives several days before the facility—a multi-storied, Victorian brick edifice—officially opens in March 1883. The state’s first and only public zoo is built next to the asylum in 1926, and at first it houses exactly two animals: an abandoned timber wolf and a circus-trained bear, whose calls carry into the asylum at night.
The bear and the wolf. We’re suckers for things coming in twos, for not forging ahead alone.1 But every mental facility has its first patient: an Adam, an Eve, or an Adameve, stepping or pushed singular into the void of a space still unmarked—without vibration, without community.2 There were instances in which there was no singular first; in nineteenth-century Canada, inmates from one mental institution were borrowed to provide the necessary labor required to build another. Once the building had been completed, these same patients were secured in a structure of their own making but not their own design.
What does it mean to make an institution? To toil unpaid within a mechanism that is not your own? The inmates of one North American ward crushed excess grapes for a wine they could not drink. Despite the fact that the asylum operated without currency, this communally-built site—replete with hallucination and its own harvest—did not equal a hippie paradise. From a distance, this place could be perceived as inherently progressive, but its patients and staff shared an internal narrative, one that ideologically frames a form without horizons. For the patients, this institution appeared to have no limits. To exit institutionalization seems impossible if one cannot configure from within it how one lives without it.
What is repressed in artists’ exploration/flirtation with both undoing and rethinking institutions? Here, I have placed the mental institution at center, but if the mental institution is an impossible material when it comes to the labor of artists that harness the sociological imagination to tread against and away from bureaucracy’s material organization of power, what is revealed by the unsuitability of the mental asylum as artists’ supply?
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