The Crystal Zoo
“People come here looking to see the patient. Like in a zoo. And they are stunned when they do not identify themselves in the middle of the coworking or when the artists are not even physically here, because they establish their own schedule. They are free and autonomous people”, says Sandro Resende. Manicómio [Asylum, in English] has no walls, security staff, auxiliaries or doctors. The rigid routines of hospital institutions are shattered to give freedom and foster responsibility. The ten artists are spread all over the NOW_Beato open-space with nothing to distinguish them from the other residents. The only visible sign of the presence of the Manicómio is a neon that says “based on a true story” and the walls turned into an art gallery.
“They define the schedule and the will to work is also theirs. We don’t have a say”
Sandro Resende and José Azevedo, who have been working with the mentally ill patients of the Psychiatric Hospital Center of Lisbon, also known as Júlio de Matos, felt the need to create a space outside institution walls and the stigma they symbolize. Despite all the artistic interventions in these walls and the activities of P28, that opened the space to the casual audience, there is still an “inside” and an “outside”. “The walls are quite stigmatizing, not only for the patient, but also for the doctor, for the family member, for the technician. The presence of the white coat. I’m not saying it isn’t necessary, it’s super important, but it’s stigmatizing as well. They live next door to McDonald’s and have never tasted a hamburger from there. The patients themselves feel bad about leaving this place. I can’t go outside because I’m sick, I’m crazy. All their lives they have heard this”, says Sandro Resende.
Initially, the idea was to come up with a unique space for Manicómio itself, but Sandro and José realized that they could not fall into the mistake of creating a second Júlio de Matos, they could not isolate themselves again. Then, they crossed paths with the possibility of using the coworking space at NOW (No Office Work) in Beato, Lisbon. Here, the “normal, dignified and worthy” individual comes first. In the second place there is the artist and only then the disease. This doesn’t mean that the latter is not important, but the perspective is always to integrate behaviors and normalize the discourse. The ten artists who are part of the beginning stages of this project are all patients from outside their hospital institutions and continue to be regularly monitored in them. However, if they need a psychologist or psychiatrist out of this context – as any of us may need – Manicómio has agreements with clinics that can make that easier. During the one-year residence, they also have a grant that includes allowances (transport and food) and a monthly salary. Which leads us to another goal of Manicómio: employability, a difficult word to mention, and even more difficult to achieve, when we talk about art and people with mental illness. “The unemployment rate is extremely high among the mentally ill. No institution promotes this, but we want to do it. We are establishing contact with companies that have nothing to do with art, so that they can work there if they want to have a steady job, a normal and regular one. Our connection to these companies has already made them see that these people are as qualified as any others”, explains Sandro Resende.
Although they will be financed for a four-year period (part comes from a public tender of Turismo de Portugal, five grants are paid by Fidelidade Seguros as a cultural investment, a grant is financed by Central de Cervejas and they also have strategic partners such as Fujitsu, among others), Manicómio is regarded as a brand, because the intention is to have a project with a structure that is growing articulately and sustainably, creating mechanisms of subsistence for all those involved. In the near future, the plan is to open the Manicómio restaurant, outside NOW_Beato, to employ seven people with mental illnesses. There is also the art gallery that promotes the sale of the artists’ efforts and the edition of authored books: one has already been published (Anabela, by Stolen Books) and there are four more planned for this year. There will also be a magazine with interviews conducted by the Manicómio artists, an initiative similar to a video project in which Sandro Resende and José Azevedo gathered the patients of Júlio de Matos alongside individualities such as Pedro Cabrita Reis and Jorge Molder.
The artists in residence will also have their own workshops and 80% of the profits of these classes will revert to them. The first is on 23 April 23: How to make a monster, with Anabela Soares.
“A problem always comes with an opportunity”
In a way, the choice of these first ten names started about five years ago in the context of a project commissioned by the then Health Minister Paulo Macedo. Sandro Resende and José Azevedo mapped out the existing elements at the level of artistic work in public and private institutions associated with mental illness and found that the activities developed do not have specialized support nor proper encouragement. Nevertheless, they managed to find more than 50 artists with above average quality. For the first Manicómio residence, five from these 50 were chosen, with whom they already had a close relationship, and five other artists with whom they were less acquainted. This allowed them to create an independent work dynamic in which the “older” help the others’ integration without the constant presence of Sandro Resende and José Azevedo. “They don’t need to have a watchman. They just need someone to give their opinion about their work and Zé and I chime in when necessary”, he says. In the work of these artists, he emphasizes authenticity and commitment. The will to create, because it has to be satisfied, regardless of whether there are buyers or, one day, the possibility of reaching the wit’s end of creativity. “I learned from them that I don’t need the other to work. They often don’t give a damn about the other or any social conventions, they do this because they feel like doing it. The need to work frantically is pure honesty”.
From the ten artists involved, not all of them wanted to have their name revealed. In addition to the aforementioned Anabela Soares, those who have given their face to Manicómio (in other words, to the manifesto) are Pedro Ventura, Francisco Gromicho and Cláudia R. Sampaio. In the backseat, there also the names of Filipe Cerqueira, Jose Maria, Bráulio and Carlos.
Since they opened doors, many people with mental illnesses have come to them with the need to have a decent space to develop their artistic work and accommodating them is not an issue. “The question is always what can we do more”, says Sandro. The answer is in a near horizon and has to do with the creation of mini-Manicómios in the different spaces of the coworking “brothers” of NOW in Lisbon. Later, who knows, perhaps there will be the opportunity to expand this idea to other cities.
Although he has been working for two decades with people with mental illnesses, Sandro Resende does not see this as a life mission. “If I felt it with that weight, I would not be doing it, that’s for sure. We really enjoyed doing it. Our efforts are as authentic as theirs. Our question has always been how do we create a space that is as authentic as they are. The answer: with natural growth, letting things run their course”, he smilingly explains.
One of the major rewards of this journey, particularly since the creation of this project, is the messages of people inspired by the stripped-down speech about the condition of having a mental illness. People who also have a diagnosed mental illness and who have never admitted it to anyone.
Manicómio has its doors open and everyone is welcome.