Visualizing Absence

Interview by Hillary Rexe

Visualizing Absence: Memorializing the histories of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital grounds is an arts-based response to both the historical records and the undocumented stories of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, now Humber College’s Lakeshore campus, and the people who lived and worked there. The project was Anne Zbitnew’s Masters thesis in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, and it was featured as an exhibition at the L Space gallery at the Lakeshore campusIt was then remounted at Tangled Art Gallerythe first art gallery in Canada devoted to Disability Arts.

HLR: What was the genesis for the show, and how did you go about putting it together? 

In the first year of my Masters degree in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, I found this poster in my files. It’s strange but I don’t remember seeing the poster before or even collecting and saving it. It fluttered to the ground from a folder full of my dated papers, assignments and notes in a way that animated the image, moving past stillness into life. This accidental movement was one of my inspirations to make an animated film for my Cultural Production Workshop: Performance course at York University in the fall of 2013.   

...I wanted to honour the memory of the person by untelling the story on the poster. —A.Z.

This ‘asylum’-themed Halloween party featured ghost-haunting tales as told by bar staff wearing white lab coats serving blood-red alcoholic beverages in glass test tubes. Attendees were forcibly tied to a chair, replicating the restraint experience of a straightjacket. Costumed actors wandered aimlessly around the venue and some hid in dark places, jumping out to scare others in their role as psychiatric patients. Guided tours of the underground tunnels mentioned made-up folktales about a mysterious presence, the ghost of a nurse who committed suicide and now walks the halls, leaving the scent of lavender perfume in her wake, as well as other accounts of paranormal activity.  

This poster was designed by a Humber College student who used a historical photograph of a patient from a website that details the histories of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital (, without permission or consent from the author of the website and/or the person in the photograph. The sensationalized ghost stories and folktales told at the event served to perpetuate stereotypes of former patients.  

I wondered about the other, untold stories? What about the fact that this is Aboriginal land? That the patients who dug the tunnels, built the buildings, worked on the farms, gardened the grounds and did the laundry were exploited and worked for free as part of their ‘moral therapy treatment’, and that there are 1,511 mostly unmarked graves in the nearby Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital cemetery? 

HLR: How did you come to show the work at Humber’s Lakeshore campus? 

I wanted to bring the artwork home. Visualizing Absence portrays Humber College as an enlightened educational institution that has the opportunity to educate the public and become an advocate around the issues reflected in the history of the grounds.  Humber College was not responsible for what happened on the land or in its current buildings, but as an educational institution it is responsible for how administration, faculty, students, the community and the public learn about the history of the patients, buildings and land. It can advocate for continued changes in the social structures and attitudes toward mental health. Visualizing Absence hopes to contribute to the ongoing conversation about how mental health is dealt with (or not) in the broader society and to self-advocacy by people with mental health challenges. 

There were very few existing archives from the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital but what we found inspired the artwork. In selecting from one archive to create another kind of archive, an artist moves to what Hal Foster describes as ‘an archival impulse.’ An archival artist seeks to make physically present historical information that has been lost or displaced. This impulse moves the archive away from the passive and static to a site of negotiation, exchange and collaboration. Archival art creates a new public archive, placing the information within a new context to be interpreted by the viewer. Each viewer interprets the artwork in a different way and memories of the distant past are newly exposed, interpreted and remembered. 

HLR: Your project follows Dr. Geoffrey Reaume and other Mad historians, activists, and artists who tell historical stories from a patient perspective. What’s the impetus to tell a story this way?  

Historically, psychiatric history has been told from the point of view of the doctors, policymakers and others from the medical profession. In his book, Remembrance of Patients Past: Life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1870-1940, Dr. Geoffrey Reaume researched historical patient files from the Toronto Asylum (now CAMH-Queen St. Mental Health Centre). His book is based on stories rather than on statistics. In his introduction, Dr. Reaume explains that his motive for writing the book was to personalize a history, to give a voice to the patients in a history that was theirs to begin with. By presenting institutionalized patients as individuals, free from labels, diagnoses and medical terminologies, he reminds us that these patients were people who had things to say, who suffered loss, who had relationships and whose unpaid labour was exploited.  

A community without a recognized history is easier to forget, to silence, to discriminate against and to dismiss.  By privileging their perspectives, Dr. Reaume gives a voice to the experiences of psychiatric patients and survivors and challenges the dominant, narrative that values accounts by doctors, nurses and the medical profession.  

HLR: One of the instincts here is to create memories where there is no record of them. How did the pieces in the exhibit reflect this? 

When I was researching the patient records at the Archives of Ontario, I discovered that over 70 years of records were missing. There was no explanation.  But it was suggested to me that there would be no interest in researching the people who were institutionalized so they were probably destroyed. There was very little to work with. We did have the names of all the people buried in unmarked graves at the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery. We had a few letters written by patients.  I connected with the great-niece of a former patient and she gave me a copy of her great-aunt’s records. Grace Jefferys was institutionalized when she was 19 years old.  She was told she could go home and wrote a letter to her mother, telling her to come and pick her up. The letter was never mailed and Grace never went home.  Grace was experimented on with Insulin Shock Therapy. She died when she was 79 years old and is buried in an unmarked grave.  

We decided to use ephemeral, translucent and biodegradable materials in the making of the artwork. There is silence and empty space and the stories are told visually, with vibration, touch and sound.   

I have been working on this project since 2013 and I keep coming back to these questions: How do you remember someone you don’t know? How can we remember someone we have never met?  In what ways can the memories and histories of the land, patients and buildings of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital grounds be recovered for arts-based public education about mental health? 

We do it by collaborating and we do it with art, keeping in mind that the knowing is always partial but that in the process we learn about others, and ourselves in a deep and meaningful way. As we look to the past, we can see how community was defined and see who did not/does not belong. As forgotten, untold, hidden and lost events are brought forward, it is a reminder of the past and a warning about intolerance in the future. Visualizing Absence creates a space for remembrance and reconciliation and an ongoing dialogue about the history of the Aboriginal land and about the stigma and stereotype of mental-health. We choose not to hide, misrepresent or glamorize the past, but to use it create a broader community consciousness.      

Anne Zbitnew is an arts-based researcher who looks to art as a way to tell stories. She has been teaching time-based media in the School of Media Studies and Information Technology at Humber College for 25 years and is collaborating with Hillary Rexe on developing curriculum for Media Studies students at Humber in accessibility and inclusive design.