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08 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Asylum: Inside the Haunting World of 19th-Century Mental Hospitals

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What straitjackets have to do with Eames chairs and the mutations of policy ideals.

One of the 19th-century’s most notorious socioarchitectural phenomena were the “insane asylums” that housed the era’s mentally ill — enormous and stunning buildings whose architecture stood in stark contrast with the ominous athmosphere of their inner workings. Fascinated by this phenomenon and its ghosts, photographer Christopher Payne set out to document the afterlife of those baleful buildings in Asylum: Inside The Closed World Of State Mental Hospitals — a compendium of images that peel away at a lost world and, in the process, offer a provocative portrait of the history of our (mis)treatment of the mentally ill. A foreword by iconic neuroscientist Oliver Sacks (remember him?) frame the photographs in a sociocultural context of how these institutions evolved and what role they came to play, both in their time and in our reflections on history.

Autopsy theater, St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, DC

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Patient dresses, Clarinda State Hospital, IA

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Mead building lobby, Yankton State Hospital, SD

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Straitjacket, Logansboard State Hospital, IN

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

What’s most peculiar about those asylums is that they, like much of policy dysmorphia that begins with an idealistic vision and ends in a social malady, began with the idea of “moral treatment” wherein the ill would be removed from the city and placed in these Utopian environments, many of which were fully self-sufficient and even generated their own electricity, and put to meaningful work.

Asylums offered a life with its own special protections and limitations, a simplified and narrowed life perhaps, but within this protective structure, the freedom to be as mad as one liked and, for some patients at least, to live through their psychoses and emerge from their depths as saner and stabler people.

In general, though, patients remained in asylums for the long term. There was little preparation for return to life outside, and perhaps after years cloistered in an asylum, residents became ‘institutionalized’ to some extent, and no longer desired, or could no longer face, the outside world.” ~ Oliver Sacks

Beauty salon, Trenton State Hospital, NJ

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Patient suitcases, Bolivar State Hospital, TN

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Buffalo State Hospital, NY

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Unclaimed cremation urns, Oregon State Hospital, OR

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Hiding in Payne’s photographs are peculiar objects that survived almost untouched amidst the general decay of their surroundings — a colorful armchair here, some toothbrushes there, slippers, even some Eames chairs.

Patient toothbrushes, Hudson River State Hospital, NY

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Typical ward, Buffalo State Hospital, NY

Image courtesy of Christopher Payne via NPR

Asylum is part Library of Dust, part Urban Atrophy, part its own room in humanity’s haunted house of collective memory.

via NPR

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07 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Made in Russia: Vintage Curiosities of Soviet Design

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What the 1980 Olympics have to do with IKEA and medieval helmets for modern role-playing games.

During the Cold War, the world on the other side of the Iron Curtain certainly yielded its fare share of design curiosities, from its eerie monuments to its various propaganda to its haunting photography to its prison tattoo subculture. But nowhere does that world’s peculiar design culture shine more dazzlingly than in Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design — a fascinating and irreverent compendium of 50 masterpieces of agitprop graphic and industrial design, collected by editor Michael Idov, from cross-cultural icons like the LOMO camera and the Sputnik to mundane yet bizarre items like carbonated tap water dispensers, fishnet grocery bags and a color-coding system for caviar that endures to this day. Essays by notable Russian artists and writers Boris Kachka, Vitaly Komar, Gary Shteyngart and Lara Vapnyar contextualize and frame the odd artifacts, many of which I remember creeping into my own childhood in Eastern Europe — and some of which you might recognize, appropriately appropriated, on IKEA shelves.

The Russian bear Misha, mascot for the 1980 Olympics in Moscow

During the games themselves, Misha appeared as a giant balloon that was released during the closing ceremonies as a cartoon version of him shed tears on a screen and a choir of children sang ‘Good-bye, our sweet Misha.’ There was not a dry eye in the stadium. One can only imagine the tears that the mascot’s further fate would elicit: The balloon was recovered on the outskirts hours later, and put in storage where it was abandoned to be devoured by rats.”

The vertushka, a dialless phone made to receive important calls, but unable to make any

The monthly news and music magazine Krugozor ran from 1964 to 1993, each issue featuring sixteen 'pages' of vinyl covers for records combined with stories, interviews and psychedelic artwork

Collapsible communal drinking cup

The thirsty Soviet may have had his choice of beverages — soda water from a machine, kvass from a barrel — but rarely, if ever, did these things come with a paper cup, let alone a plastic one. Like communism itself, disposable dishware existed only in theory. In practice, what was available to the masses was the highly suspect communal drinking glass. The collapsible cup was thus a telescopic beacon of hope in an icky world of strangers’ germs, and a modest triumph of individuality to boot.”

Covers from the design magazine Technical Aesthetics (Tekhnicheskaya Estetika), published between 1973 and 1991

The Saturnas vacuum cleaners weren't merely indestructible space-age home appliances, their top hemispheres were also persevered as prized props for post-Soviet geeks, who used them as medieval helmets in role-playing games

Banki, homeopatic glass suction cups

A pair of tweezers wrapped in cotton are soaked in vodka or rubbing alcohol and set on fire. The flaming pincers are then stuck inside the glass jar, which sucks out the air so that the edges of the ‘cup’ will form perfect suction with the skin. In one swift motion, the flaming pincers are removed from the now oxygen-less glass jar, and, with the sound of a horrible kiss, the cup is then stuck to the invalid’s back, supposedly to pull the mucous away from the lungs, but in reality to scare the toddler into thinking his parents are raving pyromaniacs with serious intent to hurt…. Even today I loathe to replace a burned-out light bulb because a banka so resembles a hollowed-out version of the same.”

The zany ghost of a bygone zeitgeist, Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design is as much an offbeat design ethnography as it is a precious and peculiar slice of the space-time continuum.

via The Atlantic; images via Foreign Policy

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07 SEPTEMBER, 2011

World Science Festival: Scents and Sensibilities, or How Smell Works

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From pheromones to disease detection via smell, or what your nose has to do with the neurochemistry of nostalgia.

Smell is often considered the most primal and most evocative of our senses. But how does it really work, and what exactly is its secret language? That’s exactly what Scents and Sensibilities explores — a fascinating 90-minute program from the World Science Festival, covering everything from pheromones to the smell of fear to how scent influences behavior to the incredible sentimental value of smells. The full program is now available online in its entirety, an absolute treat of fascination and self-knowledge.

Smell is the only human sense that brings floating molecules from our environment into direct contact with our neurons.”

Particularly intriguing is this segment by neuroscientist and olfactory researcher Leslie Vosshall on how smell actually works and the complex chemical interplay of scents:

Once you go beyond three [olfactory] components, people are completely stumped because the 400 receptors start interacting. It will be like A + B = Z, so a completely different precept emerges, which is why perfumery ends up being so empirical and so artistic. You can predict what you’ll get when you mix two colors, you actually can’t predict what will happen when you mix two smells.” ~ Leslie Vosshall

For more on this infinitely fascinating subject, see Avery Gilbert’s excellent What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life.

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