Excavating the Psyche
Historical-anthropological exhibition with archival photographs and original multimedia installation simulating a psychiatric consultation from the Communist era. Red House Center for Debate and Culture, Sofia, Bulgaria. 24 September 2015 ‐ 9 October.
“Excavating the Psyche” puts forth new perspectives on the social histories of psychiatry and mental illness during the Communist period. With original scholarship, archival photographs and a multimedia art installation it poses a question that is both anthropological and historical: How did Bulgarians experience psychological crisis in a social, cultural and political environment dominated by materialist ideologies of the body and self? The installation simulates the physical and psychological space of a standard psychiatric consultation during the communist period. Merging scholarly and creative sensitivities, the installation features concepts and animation by Julian Chehirian, with the collaboration of American composer Dylan Burchett.
In 1950 a decree emerged from the USSR that declared Pavlov’s work on physiology and nerve systems as the only scientific approach to the study of psychology and the treatment of mental illnesses. In Bulgaria the imposition of a Soviet psychiatric model came only decades after we made significant leaps in applying diverse and modern approaches to understanding and treating mental illnesses (in the period 1890-1943). The Soviet model examined the biological and physiological dimensions of mental illness while discouraging analysis of nonempirical, psychological phenomena. Private practice was outlawed. Alternative approaches to psychotherapy were suppressed. This resulted in a widespread medicalization of psychological crisis and a practice of indefinitely institutionalizing abnormal individuals. The ‘psyche’ was rejected and in its place the body would became a dominant locus for analysis and treatment. Rather than present a static condemnation of psychiatry in the PRB, the idea behind this exhibition is to provoke examination of the social and scientific experience of mental illness during the Communist period. It will propose the question: what are human and cultural consequences of a government’s standardization or suppression of particular approaches to mental healthcare?
Julian Chehirian is an interdisciplinary researcher on the social history of psychotherapy and psychopathology in Bulgaria. He makes use of oral history, archival and ethnographic approaches. During the 2014-15 academic year he is a Fulbright scholar at the New Bulgarian University. He is interested in how trauma and psychological crisis is made sense of in a cultural environment dominated by materialist philosophy, social and political ideology.
Dylan Burchett is an American composer from Florida working as Skittish Arm. Dylan contributes to “Excavating the Psyche” a sonic interpretation of interiority, trauma and the medicalization of personal crisis.