At Zwartzusterstraat in Leuven, on the brick wall of one of the ancient university buildings close to the university’s Medical Centre, someone has written in large, white lettering: ‘Bevrijd de Waanzin’, Liberate the madness. This was the motto of the anti-psychiatry movement in Belgium, which was part of the larger critique of social structures that swept across Europe in the 1960s and 70s. Though exposure to sun and rain has faded the paint, the text’s message has persisted until today.
Liberate the Madness involved the proposal to erect a permanent stage on the pavement in front of the written statement. It was realized as a temporary public intervention. The stage could be seen as a pedestal for the text, elevating it to an epitaph commemorating a significant moment in the history of the city. But it also invested everyday life in the street with a moment of theatricality: whether they realized it or not, any passer-by momentarily became an actor on this stage, whose actions would temporarily be cast in the light of a call for behavior which is normally denounced or self-censored to be unleashed.
Context: The anti-psychiatry movement strove to redefine our understanding of madness and normality. It rejected the medical model of mental illness, which located the cause for madness in the sick or degenerate brains of mad individuals, and sought to manage madness through institutionalization and medication. Instead, the movement shifted attention to the role of society. The deviant behavior that gets labeled insane – one of the leaders of the movement, R.D. Laing, suggested – does not have a biological origin but is a perfectly sensible strategy individuals develop in order to live in unlivable situations. For those who care to listen, it is even a meaningful response to reality. Leuven was home to the key figure in the Belgian anti-psychiatry movement, the beloved and controversial psychologist and criminologist Steven de Batselier, who spent his life pleading for the rights of different groups of social outsiders.
Batselier and Laing observed that society immediately represses those who refuse to play the limited roles it allows by forcing them into another role: the marginal role of a delinquent or madman, who is censored from public life and submitted to enforced adjustment. Labeling someone as ‘mad’ is thus not a biological but a social fact, and this social fact is a political event – an act of moral judgment that serves to maintain a certain social order. The motto ‘Liberate the madness’ therefore calls not so much for a different view on madness but for a different society. The illicit action of writing on walls can also be seen as a response to the laws and norms that govern public space and public behavior. Perhaps there is even a correlation between the restrictions to what can find political representation or open expression within a society and the density of comments, tags, and graffiti that erupts in its streets.
Liberate the Madness
Temporary wooden platform on the sidewalk, existing graffiti
Size: 3 x 1.20m.
Produced for: ‘Resonances; or How one reality can be understood through another’.
Curated by: Astrid Wege
Location: STUK, Leuven, BE