The first version of The Encampment was entitled Confinement of the Intellect and was commissioned by curator Clara Hargittay for the inaugural Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. The curatorial theme was the history of mental health on Queen Street West. We decided to focus on a period of time between1870 and 1940, just before the introduction of chemical treatment.
From its Provincial Lunatic Asylum days when the facility opened its doors in 1850, this institution, which was also the tallest building in Toronto at the time, has had a dark and enduring impact on the area and its residents. Confinement of the Intellect was an experimental installation focused on some of the complex issues surrounding mental health from a historical as well as contemporary perspective.
To deal with these issues, we were very fortunate to have discovered In Remembrance of Patients Past by historian Geoffrey Reaume which provided the stories we needed. The book chronicles seventy years of daily life at the institution known as 999, the Toronto Hospital for the Insane at 999 Queen Street West. His narrative stretches from 1870 to 1940 and examines such aspects as diagnosis and admission, daily routine and relationships, leisure, patients’ labor, family and community responses, and discharge and death. Mental patients were at times abused, and they led lives of tedious monotony that could tend to ‘flatten’ personality, yet many of these women and men worked hard at institutional jobs for years and decades on end, created their own entertainment, and formed meaningful relationships with other patients and staff.
One such story was of Winston O., an inmate at the Toronto asylum, who actually sought to build wings to fly away from his confinement. After crafting violins and building from scratch an automobile that he was allowed to drive on the hospital grounds, Winston focused on the construction of an ‘aeroplane’.
We conceived a public participatory artwork that would express and engage the public in the history of mental health through an unearthing of forgotten stories and then a process of transposing them into experiential memories. Over 60 public participants, exclusive of Nuit Blanche staff and volunteers, were involved and over 7000 people experienced the work on-site during its 12 hour presentation.
In response to Bill 68 or Brian’s Law; the controversial provincial bill changing the rights and responsibilities of individuals living with mental health issues, this version of The Encampment incorporated sixty-eight 19th century expeditionary tents erected in a geometric grid that illuminated the gully from sunset at 6:58pm until sunrise.