Don’t be fooled—this isn’t your typical garden show. Just in time for Spring and Earth Day, the Gladstone Hotel presents Grow Op, a four-day landscape art + design exhibition from April 21-24. More than 30 artists will transform the hotel’s second floor with immersive installations that take on urbanism, landscape design, the environment and contemporary art. Think Come Up to My Room meets Allan Gardens.
Take Little Pharm by artist Kara Stone. The installation consists of different herbs and flowers planted into the artists old anti-depressant bottles collected over three years. It’s an experiment to see which plants sprout and grow, which plants die, and which never even surface. The piece reflects the uncertainty surrounding neurotargeting drugs yet the possibility of prevailing. We interviewed the artist to find out more about her thought-provoking installation.
Did you know you would repurpose the prescription bottles some day?
I don’t know why I kept them. I’m sure I threw out some and lost some, but most of the time when I finished a bottle I would stuff it in the drawer by my bed. There was emotion attached to them. It’s very hard to take medication. It’s hard to first admit to another human being, even a doctor, that you’re in pain, you’re scared, and you need help. Then it’s hard to make the decision to go on medication. There are so many beliefs and prejudices about those who take medication for mental illness, many internalized. It is often seen as a sign of weakness to take medication, whereas not “needing” to take medication is a strength. There’s fear of over-prescribing or over-medicating, of losing your personality or creativity. The decision to take medication isn’t just made that one time with a doctor or therapist, it’s every day, every morning, opening the bottle and looking at the little white pill. This is mirrored in the creation of Little Pharm, where I have to attend to the plants and take care of them. It’s hard to remember to take it. It’s hard to deal with the side effects. And it’s very hard to talk to other people about it. I struggled, and still struggle, with being open about my mental health. Keeping the bottles made me remember that it’s a huge part of my life and not going to go away, I have to learn how to carry it with me everywhere.
Little Pharm takes on big ticket items like health, the pharmaceutical industry and confronting natural vs. unnatural. Tell us more about this powerful message.
There is so much conflicting rhetoric about mental illness and its “naturalness.” There’s the stereotype of the artist who needs their pain to be able to know and express deep shit, or that those with mental illness are more tapped into the natural world or spirituality. Then there is the bio-medicalization of mental health that categorizes an array of feelings and locates them solely in the brain, rather than the assemblage of the body, interpersonal relationships, or cultural context. The different understandings of mental illness translate into different beliefs on the best way to heal, manage, or “cure.” Theoretically, being on medication was really hard for me. I’m super into natural healing, anti-capitalism, DIY culture, yoga, spirituality. I’m scared of the pharmaceutical industry and what is actually in the drugs we take. I’m against framing mental illness within the individual and not a collective political issue. But when I first went on medication, it felt like I had two choices: take medication or die. And that’s the reality for so many people. There are so few options available and accessible. It’s easier to get medication than it is to get a therapist. Little Pharm became an expression of my own confused stance, of how I felt pulled in two opposing directions with judgment from both sides. I also made a video game about this living this dichotomy called Medication Meditation that shows how these differing approaches work uneasily together, from taking medication at the right time to meditating and paying attention to physical experiences.
Having CAMH down the street, discussions around mental health have more visibility. Does the neighbourhood’s history lend anything to your work?
I’m from Toronto and have seen CAMH transform from something people were scared of to something that people are proud of. The stigma against those with mental illness is lessening and that’s great to see, even if we have a long way to go. More people are realizing that we’re not dangerous or a threat to other people – we’re so much more likely to hurt ourselves and it’s a serious crisis. I’ve found that the more open I am about my feelings and experiences, the more open people are with me. I have friends who work at CAMH, friends who have spent time there, visited friends and family there. I’ve done work with TIFF’s Reel Comfort, an outreach group that brings the arts and entertainment to Toronto hospital psychiatric units. Mental health should be in the public sphere rather than something to be hidden away, both on a personal level for me and on a social political one.
What have you learned about yourself through the process of repurposing the bottles in a new way?
I’ve learned that I can be overly attached to material objects. I’ve also learned that I’m not very good at taking care of plants. The lesson I’ve really took from creating Little Pharm is to not be overly attached to results. Let go of the fear of uncertainty and just try it out. I was scared to go on medication then I was scared to go off because I didn’t know what would happen. I often feel like a really scared, fearful person, so approaching things with curiosity and an element of experimentation has become a valuable directive. I can’t wholly control how well the plants grow and what the final result will look like, but instead of being worried, I try to be curious to see what happens.
What can guests expect to feel, think and experience when they see your work?
I have no idea! I’m excited to hear what people feel about it/from it. Part of what will influence that is how the plants grow. If they all have sprouted and are green and lush, I think it’ll seem like a really positive take on mental illness, or a completely anti-Big Pharm, pro-natural healing piece. If many are dead, it might seem more cynical than it is. It’s one of my favourite things about making any art piece though, not knowing exactly how it will turn out. I’ve just recently planted the bottles for the Grow Op show so I look forward to watching which plants grow and which don’t.
Kara Stone is an art-maker creating videogames, interactive art and traditional crafts. She achieved an MA in Communication and Culture at a joint program at York and Ryerson University, focusing on mental health, affect, feminism, and videogames. Her work has been featured in Vice, Wired, The Atlantic, and NPR. It consists of feminist art with a focus on gendered perspectives of affect – but it’s much more fun than it sounds. Visit Kara Stone’s website, Twitter and Instagram.
Be sure to see Little Pharm and over 30 other compelling art installations from April 21-24. RSVP here!
Photography by Michael Morris