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6. Mental Squalor


“Incessantly cast in this empty role of unknown visitor, and challenged in everything that can be known about him, drawn to the surface of himself by a social personality silently imposed by observation, by form and mask, the madman is obliged to objectify himself in the eyes of reason as the perfect stranger… The proximity instituted by the asylum, an intimacy neither chains nor bars would ever violate again, does not allow reciprocity: only the nearness of observation that watches, that spies, that comes closer in order to see better, but moves ever farther away, since it accepts and acknowledges only the values of the Stranger.”

                                          -– Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization

What do we mean by "Mental Squalor"? The term seeks to connect the forgotten mentally ill of the past to the present-day trend of "Ruin Porn." Therefore, it can be read as equally representative of the pain and suffering of the mental trauma subjects and the terrible conditions in which many were treated, and how those terrible conditions have become unconsciously reflected in our fascination with abandoned structures -- specifically abandoned mental health facilities. Our fascination with the “beauty” of abandoned structures creates an aesthetic division, a necessary separation between the observer and the observed, the patients and the caregivers. When ascribing value to a place, we often focus on the “traditionally” beautiful places: national parks, beautiful buildings, beaches, etc. Even the Genesee Valley (especially in Geneseo) is known for its beautiful sunsets; any ugliness that may come with our valley is shoved to the outside. Ugliness is a fascinating concept when it comes to aesthetics. We think of ugliness as being in direct conflict with beauty, but the idea of ruin porn and abandonment photography destroys that dichotomy. Why are our eyes drawn to such sites of dilapidation? Is it perhaps the unconscious guilt that we have for their misuse in the past?

The Genesee Valley is not bereft of abandoned care facilities. Six locations emerge when looking at an overview of Mental Squalor in the Genesee Valley. These buildings or facilities vary in level of activity, whether official activity or activity by urban explorers. Some of them--Jackson Sanatorium in Dansville, and Rochester State Hospital--are very popular among local explorers, prominently known to many. Others (Rolling Hills Asylum and Groveland Penitentiary) have been repurposed, their original purposes effaced and covered over. Still others (Iola Tuberculosis Sanatorium and Craig Epileptic Colony) are no more, either demolished or built over.

For examination, we can take RSH’s Terrence Tower, the basement of which was explored by the authors. Within walking distance from its front entrance is the modern-day Rochester Psychiatric Center, but the façade is dominated by the massive, 15-story monstrosity, standing totally empty and squalid. Consistently, our attention and fascination is drawn away from the people in need, and towards the buildings themselves, now fallen into as much squalor as they contained during their heydays. Patients were mistreated, often abused, and even in the best-run facilities, the full extent of their illness was either unknown or ignored. Now, the physical squalor has grown to match the mental squalor of these spaces.

At the edges of our vision live not just forgotten people, but forgotten places. Mental illness (and illness as a whole) is not something oft spoken of; for a long time, society has quarantined the mentally ill into structures and systems that marginalize them, effectively driving them “underground”. Sanatoriums and asylums were oft the structures of choice for these souls to be sequestered. The walls of these care facilities are boundaries both physical and metaphorical. These boundaries quarantine not just the patients, but the general public, preventing us from bridging the gap by essentializing the “Us v.s. Them” separation. This quarantine is the ultimate connection between the squalor of the mental health patients – cordoned off “for their own good” in these facilities that were not the most pleasant places in the world – and the squalor of the abandoned buildings – now cordoned off by legality and security systems, allowing them to rot away until they are demolished and built over.

The disconnect between the building’s use and it’s now dilapidated state reflects our own disconnect between our present moment and our history. We don’t want to recognize our past, instead seeking to glorify it by pointing out only its “beauty,” however little of that there may be. But ultimately, we are deceiving ourselves. The squalor goes beyond just the physically run-down buildings; it bleeds into the histories of these forgotten souls, reflecting and memorializing their struggles and marginalization.

A selection of historical documents and photographs or linotypes from the various facilities. They are echoes of the forgotten histories. It is our responsibility to listen.

A selection of photographs of the modern abandoned facilities. The authors hope that these images both spark interest in the facilities and reassert in your minds the importance that we see beyond the mere aesthetic of these spaces-turned-places.