When asked how the histories she investigates relate to the present, Jenna Bliss admits she can’t address that topic yet, at least not before discussing it further with today’s activists. This answer, however candid, suggests an attempted distancing that’s disjointed from the topic of her performance Into This Recovery Centre: a story of how Young Lords and Black Panther Party members joined forces with community health workers, doctors and addicts to occupy the Lincoln Hospital in South Bronx and start their own, methadone-free detox programme. Established in 1970, when the suburb was approaching apocalyptic stages and heroin addiction was common place, Lincoln Detox was a medical institution born out of political action and so became a target of whitewashing. Some years later, a new mayor sterilised the premises by kicking out anyone with an activist streak from the centre, sending activism into myth territory.
Into This Recovery Centre essentially presents Lincoln Detox as a dire piece of the past, a mummified evidence of institutional neglect and negligence aimed to a large degree at American citizens of colour. We’re told heroin was produced by Bayer to treat morphine addiction and added to cough syrups before becoming illegal; methadone came to treat heroin addiction, zombifying its recipients in the process. Big pharma was leeching profits off addiction; meanwhile, Bliss asserts (like many before her) that the CIA was aiding the import of heroin into the country and making sure it got into the hands of activist groups – including those associated with Lincoln Detox.
Bliss delivers this story in pitch dark, as her audience lies on the floor, with their eyes closed. The use of past tense is overwhelming; the present only creeps in when the artist considers the nature of drugs, pondering the general notions of legality and distribution, the freedom that comes with having nothing to lose, the mechanisms – institutional and otherwise – of addiction. History is delivered as fact, but an almost complete lack of visible scrutiny makes it sound like a pamphlet: Biss professes community and activist groups helped addicts detox and sign up to welfare, but also recruited the vulnerable to their ranks – yet doesn’t stop to fully engage with the ethical questions arising. Back in 2015 the substitution treatments continue to exist despite widespread criticism and government agencies continue to meddle with the world, but Into This Recovery Centre stays clear of offering opinions on the current state of affairs.
The resonance of Lincoln Detox comes in the form of its medical legacy through a demonstration and presentation on NADA protocol, the acupuncture technique pioneered in the Bronx and widely used today in addiction-treatment. This drug-free, cheap and easy to teach method is a symbol of the approach Lincoln Detox championed, but in the aftermath of Into This Recovery Centre, it also becomes a testament to the approach Bliss opted for, focused on excavating and presenting a significant episode from the past. Wedged in between the NADA-focused introduction and Bliss’ narration is a short documentary, which features activists who took part in the occupation and a significant amount of reminiscing. It’s enlightening and feisty, but much like the entirety of Into This Recovery Centre it remains firmly positioned in history; a curious museum exhibit that engages with the past, carefully avoiding today’s atrocities.