Saturday, January 19, 2013

At the Asylum: an Account of a None Too Sane Patient

Artisan's Asylum
Some of you might be wondering where I've been over the last couple of days, either concerned or outraged over my lack of regular posts. Well, if you must know I have been up for the past 48 hours, watching a certain Interview on Oprah again and again, then endlessly analysing it with my internet friends on cycling forums ("Did you see his left eyebrow twitch when he said 'absolutely not' for the 8th time?"). 

No, I jest. But speaking of analysing facial expressions, readers might recall that I am a psychologist by training and former profession. And you know us psychologists, we love to experiment (that's professional jargon for "mess with people"). Well, last week my PsyPhone - which had grown dusty from lack of use - suddenly rang again, and I was asked to participate in One Last Assignment. "Come on boys," I groaned, wiping bicycle grease off my hands to the sound of jazz in background, "You know that I'm out of that racket." But they wouldn't have it. They needed me. Reluctantly I agreed. 

The assignment was in the tradition of the Rosenhan experiment. A team of us would infiltrate asylums throughout the country to observe and document their practices - from methods of diagnosis to treatment of inmates. I was assigned to the relatively new Artisan's Asylum in Somerville, Massachusetts. 

Artisan's Asylum
Armed with notebook and camera, I approached the drab concrete exterior. The need for caution was immediately apparent, given this institution's stealth tactics. Tucked away on a side street lined with warehouses, the enormous building was hidden in plain sight in my very own neighbourhood. Thus it had managed to evade my attention despite being operational for an entire year.

Franken-Motobecane
I examined the street conditions to gauge inmate demographics. Bicycles of all types were locked up to every available post. It was clear that I too would require a bicycle, so a to appear a convincing inmate candidate. Luckily, I already had one with me. 

Artisan's Asylum
At the front desk, several staff members were in place to scrutinise visitors. According to plan, I walked in presenting with vague symptoms of artisanry. Among these I listed: painting, knitting, sewing, persistent compulsions toward bicycle design, and a one time incident of framebuilding. I did not elaborate, I did not exhibit flamboyantly artisanal behaviours, and my hands and clothing were relatively clean. Yet the staff member required no further evidence to admit me. On a notepad I saw them quickly scribble what looked like psychosis framebuildis, poss. acute. Then another staff member came to escort me.

Paul Carson, Artisan's Asylum
The inmates call him Dr. Carson, but we never see his face. He, as the other senior staff members, wear welding masks at all times. He appears to be legitimate, even if his interaction tactics unconventional.

SCUL's Lair
Another specialist is called Dr. Skunk. He interacts with inmates exclusively from behind a curtain. He too is purportedly legitimate, and even runs his own clinic on the side.  

Artisan's Asylum
Inmates appear well-kempt and not in apparent distress. Possibly they are medicated. Those who have been in the facility long term, enjoy a good degree of freedom. Some rely on two-wheeled devices to assist with mobility around the floor space. 

Polka Dot Mutant Bike, SCUL
However, new inmates are required to wear green polka dotted metal "gowns," so that they are easily identified by members of staff. This contraption severely limited my speed and range of movements, making note taking and photography challenging.

Bikes, Artisan's Asylum
The interior of the Asylum is vast and labyrinthine. Endless hallways connect shared spaces designated for inmate activities such as woodworking and metal working. 

Artisan's Asylum
Private spaces are only partially walled off, allowing staff members to observe inmates.

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
Primary colours are commonly used.

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
Evidence of traditional (some might say outdated) treatment models, such as brazing activities, abounds.  

Artisan's Asylum
Nutrition available on the premises seems limited to beer and coffee, which the inmates are required to brew themselves.

Artisan's Asylum
They must also make the tools and dispensers necessary for its production and serving.

Mutant Bike Thermos, SCUL
Each inmate receives a thermos in which to store hot liquid meals.

Artisan's Asylum
Yet I also noted sculptural renditions of used dishes piled up in several communal areas,

Artisan's Asylum
which could explain why the premises exhibit signs of insect, rodent, and possibly dragon infestations, in metal and paper form.

SCUL's Lair
A variety of instructional signs guide inmate behaviour. Voluntary compliance rates are considerably higher than I've seen in other institutions.

Bound Barbie, SCUL
While I have not noticed any overt force or violence used on the inmates, some visual displays seemed designed as intimidation tactics to keep them under control. 

Bikes, Artisan's Asylum
After my tour of the premises, I noted the staff members administering a subtle series of tests to confirm my diagnosis. First, I was exposed to a disassembled vintage Bianchi bicycle in the traditional "celeste" colour scheme while a hidden video camera measured my pupil response. 

Tubing, Artisan's Asylum
This procedure was then repeated with tubing, then lugs, then finally some unpainted brazed joints used as stimuli. At the end, Dr. Carson shook his head and jotted down some notes, which I saw to be a confirmation of the initial diagnosis. As far as I can tell, no other steps were taken to probe into my history or consider the appropriateness of my presence at the Asylum. 

SCUL's Lair
Following a brief consultation among staff members, my fate was decided. My condition was serious. I was to stay at the Asylum and undergo intensive treatment. 

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
Devises to be used in this course of treatment were shown to me.

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
Noticing I appeared to have familiarity with them, only confirmed to the staff members the correctness of their diagnosis.

Framebuilding Space, Artisan's Asylum
"Much of this is our own technology, made inhouse," Dr. Carson said soothingly. "I believe it will be effective in addressing your needs."

Paul Carson, Artisan's Asylum
He then showed me other inmates undergoing similar treatment. How happy they were, how engaged, how productive.

SCUL's Lair
Having witnessed everything I came to witness at the Artisan's Asylum, at this stage I attempted to explain myself and depart. But denial is such a common symptom of the condition I was diagnosed with, that this proved to be challenging. I tried to present evidence contradicting my diagnosis. But the staff members only nodded gently. "The pupil test does not lie," said Dr. Carson. From behind his curtain, Dr. Skunk tapped out in Morse code: "you. must. remain." 

At length I managed to get to a phone and contacted the project leader of my assignment. He listened to my report. A long silence on the other end then followed. "But Dr. [Redacted]..." he finally said, "You have not worked with us for some time. We have no record of such a project as you describe." 

Gathering, Frame 0.5
What can I say, dear readers. Sometimes life takes us to strange places. Places that exist in pocket universes right under our noses. Places that have brazing and welding facilities (and beginners' workshops, for anyone local interested). I still think the diagnosis is inaccurate, and I am still not sure how I got here. But maybe I will stay a while after all. 

37 comments:

  1. Yikes. They need to tidy up after playing! Neat but not neat, y'know? -Matthew

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  2. Bruce Gordon tried to save you. He tried to warn you. But did you listen?

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    1. No no, I am still 100% in BG compliance. Honest.

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    2. I am almost certain he would not agree.

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    3. Nah, I've talked to him about it. BG's view is that there is a huge difference between making frames as a hobby, and making a living as a framebuilder, and that the latter, business-wise, is next to impossible. He warned me against believing that I can go that route. And I agree. I do not intend to sell any of the bicycle frames I make. This is purely a personal project.

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    4. Hm. I had a diff ref point.

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  3. I knew it, I knew it you had a PsyPhone!

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  4. Funny post. I had no idea there are frame building classes in Somerville! Did you know when you decided to study with ANT? Anyone taken the class who can provide some feedback or a review?

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    1. I knew vaguely, having heard it was more of a communal workshop. I wanted to learn from Mike Flanigan, because I was looking for one-on-one intensive training, and I wanted to learn some specific things that he has decades of experience with. But the ANT course and the Asylum workshop are like apples and oranges: different pace, different class size, different degrees of intensity, different levels of instructor experience, difference in opportunities for use of facilities outside class.

      I am going to look in on the current class at the Asylum and report back re what it is like. And FYI I think you can still sign up for the class currently in progress, despite the sold out status. Next one will probably be in Spring.

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  5. crazy, good post :))

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  6. Time to see how far down the rabbit hole goes.

    I think you are in for a wild, awesome ride.

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  7. I know I need some of this treatment as well, but alas, I am doomed to self treatment using the local folk methods. I will probably never be cured...

    Spindizzy

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  8. There's an element of truth in all humor ... aren't we "bikies" all a little crazy?

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  9. Good to see that they are still around! I had heard about them some time ago and wondered if it would take off.
    Someday, I plan to take a brazing or frame building course from them. I only endeavor to be a hobby builder for myself (and maybe a friend or two).
    Mark

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    1. It appears to be a fully developed space at this point. Great shared facilities, full class & workshop schedule, individual and institutional memberships. We'll see where they are several years down the road, but at this stage it looks good. I think their location is beneficial as well.

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  10. Reading this post was disturbing on many levels. I was under the impression that all of the "Asylums" had been closed down during the Reagan years and that their former residents were left to fend for themselves on the streets. In fact, a somewhat deranged gentleman walked up to me on the street today inquiring about my bike's moustache handlebars and its "proper bike bell."
    The profusion of sharp objects and flammable materials certainly added an element of danger to your visit.
    It's amazing what some people will do in the name of science.

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    1. Huge need for asylums in Boston; development can hardly keep up with the influx of inmates. Hence the South Boston facility.

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    2. It's unreal how many of these collectives are springing up all over the country. I hope they are here to stay, but a big part of me is skeptical. Will there be enough funding and interest in 5 years time or even two years time? And are you recording the failures or only the success stories?

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    3. It would be interesting to have a record of successes and failures over the years, but my attention to this stuff is not nearly systematic enough for that.

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  11. So many wonderful tools. Not surprised you got lost in there.

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  12. I see new lugs! Watchamaking?

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    1. Single speed straight step through. Only the bottom bracket will be lugged; the rest of it fillet brazed.

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    2. That sounds great! Is your other frame done? Are you thinking Circle A paint?

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    3. I love Circle A paint, but gosh not for these frames. This next one I might brush paint with enamel or something. The first frame is waiting for powdercoat at ANT.

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  13. Like banjo players, folks who love bicycles are a different breed :)

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  14. It looks like things are getting serious my friend! I would love to know more about the rationale for this and the previous frame. It feels like lots is happening behind the scenes, yes? My prediction... By this time next year you will be making that mixte prototype you keep teasing us with yourself!

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    1. By this time next year, mixtes will be over. Over!

      The rationale behind the bike I made with Mike was to learn how to make the kind of bikes I am interested in, with all the complexities that involves (dimpling stays for wide tire clearance, raking fork for low trail, et.). I figured from that I can always scale back and practice brazing together simpler frames on my own. But I guess I am having a hard time keeping it too simple.

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    2. Not all. That bike twists too much

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    3. Possibly. I am interested in the twisting. Would ideally like to make a few versions varying one feature at a time, but don't want to get ahead of myself.

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  15. Glad you made it out long enough to write this post. You might need to go back in for treatments of vintage bicycles, coffee and beer.

    Looks like a great space on the real though!

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  16. Morse code? As in, Samuel F. B., painter, b. Charlestown?

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