In/From the Asylum

This event took place on Wednesday 16th November 2022.

Focussing on the late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century asylum, this event brings together presentations by Leslie Topp, Anna Jamieson and Simone Schmidt (performing as fictional ethnomusicologist Simone Carver) to explore the architecture and space of the confining institution, the management and spectacle of those incarcerated and socially othered, and how, through creative practice with asylum archives, their voices might be heard.

Simone Schmidt, performing as Simone Carver, Close Listen to Audible Songs from the Rockwood Asylum For the Criminally Insane. 

In 1856 the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane was established by the settler colonial administration of Upper Canada next to the Kingston Penitentiary, on land with which the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg, Haudenosauneee and Wendat people have an ongoing and deep relationship. Open first for the purpose of incarcerating those people declared “criminally insane”, the limestone edifice would go on to know many uses. 270 years later, in genuine spite of the temporality of embodiment, Simone Carver, an ethnomusicologist and graduate student in Invention, sought out songs in the primary documents kept at the Ontario Archives: case files, superintendents’ diaries, fonds and general registers. Characters and images were drawn from the margins, the stables, the wards, the great Blanks, their stories followed and fleshed out along sparse paper trails to the records of the county gaols, newspaper articles and secondary sources that describe Rockwood. Emergent from these characters was song of all kind: some eniled in Privacy, some impossible to sing, and some that wound up being recorded and transcribed into a collection called Audible Songs From Rockwood (1856-1881)

In her presentation, Carver will lead a close listen of  3 of these recordings and bring up questions about definitions of insanity, the reliability of colonial archives, and the relationship between academic, carceral, and medical authorities. 

Leslie Topp, Asylum, prison, workhouse.

In this paper, I present new research and thinking on the relationship between three seemingly very different types of confining institution: the asylum (or psychiatric hospital), the prison, and the workhouse. Revisiting Foucault and Goffman, I explore the intricate links between the various institutional islands making up the carceral archipelago, links which have been neglected or explicitly denied in subsequent scholarship, especially concerning psychiatry. I look at examples in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Britain and North America, with a focus on architectural language and especially the spatial configuration of interiors and of building complexes and their landscapes – the spatial experience afforded to the people incarcerated there. 

My argument is that the asylum as a space and a symbol cannot be understood apart from the modern, ‘reformed’ prison and workhouse – that the relationship is a tight one, at the same time as being a fraught one, constantly being negotiated as all three building types change and diversify. A constant theme is the question of the domestic: to what extent does an institution approximate the domestic, or, on the other hand, disrupt and invert domestic conventions? Class is a central factor here, with institutional architecture seen as perhaps thekey tool for managing those dependent on the state, whether as the result of a prison sentence, destitution or mental incapacity. The spaces in which people in these categories were compelled to live inverted the gendered spatial conventions of the time as well, and this paper takes me into this underexplored area for the first time. 

Anna Jamieson, “Madwomen” on Display.

By the final decades of the eighteenth century, asylums and hospitals had become mainstays of England’s philanthropic tourist circuit. Providing visitors with the opportunity to interact with the human suffering, they were uniquely placed to encourage and facilitate the display of humanity and refinement deemed socially appropriate during this period. Focusing on Bethlem Hospital, this paper fixates on one particularly potent spectacle within the asylum: the body of the incarcerated “madwoman”.

Using visual and material sources, this paper tracks the madwoman’s cultural role at Bethlem. It does so with a tight focus on her shifting function within three spaces: the threshold, the gallery and the cell. Reassessing arguments found within the “feminisation of madness” model, which characterizes the madwoman as a sentimental icon, this paper asks: how was the asylum tourist expected to look at the madwoman’s incarcerated body, and what can this tell us about broader attitudes towards female insanity in this period? Situating asylum tourism within a wider story of spectatorial sympathy, I argue that circulating cultural scripts and iconographical prompts proved instructive, even necessary, when viewing the madwoman.  

About the speakers

Simone Schmidt (they/them) is a multidisciplinary artist, writer and musician. Over the past 15 years, Schmidt has largely rejected the logic of the music industry, employing several aliases, and undertaking a research based approach to songwriting. Schmidt’s songs have been covered widely, and their recordings have 4 times been nominated for the Polaris Prize (“Forest of Tears” 2008, “Lost the Plot” 2012, “Audible Songs From Rockwood” 2017 and “Fiver with the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition” 2020). Schmidt recently contributed a chapter to forthcoming “Displacement City” (U of T Press).  They are currently based in Mi’kma’ki (Sackville, New Brunswick) where they work as Programming Coordinator at Struts’ Gallery.

Leslie Topp is Professor of Architectural History at Birkbeck, University of London. She is author of Freedom and the Cage (2017) and other books and articles on the relationship between psychiatry and architecture. In 2021-22, she had a Leverhulme International Fellowship and was affiliated with Queen’s University, Canada. Her current work revisits the carceral institution as a category, looking at the relationship between reform tendencies in the design and management of asylums, prisons and workhouses from the late eighteenth century onwards. 

Anna Jamieson is an interdisciplinary art historian and lecturer in the History of Art department at Birkbeck, University of London. In October 2022, she begins a postdoctoral fellowship at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, during which time she will work on her first monograph on asylum tourism in England. She specialises in visual and material cultures of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, with a particular interest in female insanity, the cultural history of psychiatry and patient agency. She is also an associate editor at ThePolyphony

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