The Asylum and Beyond


Wellcome Collection

Image by Erica Scourtie

Discussion around mental health has been this year’s recurring hot topic. Reasons behind such strong reclaiming of this sphere, usually silenced in our culture are many: perhaps it is the growing number of us living with mental health illness, or maybe a peak has simply been reached where silence is no longer possible. In light of its current weight, the Wellcome Collection, that specialises in the dissection of science and human creativity, will look at the representation of the ‘asylum’ and how it has affected our perception of supporting bodies for mental health sufferers.

As the discussion and treatment for mental illness prevails, our culture teems with therapeutic possibilities: from prescription medications and clinical treatment to complementary medicines, online support, and spiritual and creative practices. Against this background, ‘The Asylum and Beyond’ looks at the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care (before it morphed into its skewed approach to mental illness treatment). The exhibition raises questions on how we can return to such ‘safe space’, a word predominantly used in online platforms that have today become an enormous support system for those suffering from mental health.

What does the online safe space produce that we can learn from IRL? How can the safety of anonymity and the distance created by a room, screen, keyboard, connection to infinite community be translated to safety of human-to-human interaction?

Produced as part of the exhibition and with these very questions in mind is artist Erica Scourtie’s ‘Empathy Deck’ Twitter bot. Inspired by the language of divination card systems like tarot, the bot uses five years’ worth of the Scourtie’s personal diaries intercut with texts from a range of therapeutic and self-help literatures. The texts are accompanied by symbols drawn from the artist’s photo archive, in an echo of the contemporary pictographic language of emoticons.It raises questions about the automation of intangible human qualities like empathy, friendship and care, in a world in which online interactions are increasingly replacing mental health and care services.