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Photo: Paul Rucker
When Obama went to Marc Maron’s garage to record a WTF episode, he was in a sober frame of mind. He was frank about our situation right now with gun control. After Sandy Hook, he said, his administration tried everything they could to change laws but the legislation was fought by the usual NRA suspects. The legislation was watered down and achieved little.
Astutely, Obama didn’t pin the blame solely on the NRA and the kowtowing politicians but also on us. Yes, us, we, you and me. Sweeping political changes will follow sweeping social pressure. But in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, in Obama’s estimation, there was lots of talk but ultimately not enough public will to ring in the massive changes we need.
This is a teachable moment of sorts. Here, POTUS is telling us that organising works; he is saying that politicians listen if the swell of opinion is unavoidable and undeniable. The wave of gun opposition wasn’t sustained or powerful enough it seems. Well, yes and no. Yes, in that political change didn’t result. But, no, in that the passions and intelligence of the gun law reformers shouldn’t be dismissed, or pegged as total failure. It is my belief that in gun reform, in prison reform, in education reform — in any movement that demands wide-scale change — the efforts of the activists must compensate for the inertia and fear of the politicians they wish to influence.
Even when it makes moral, social and economic sense to enact positive change, we have seen that politicians find it hard to filter out the sound of the waft of of checkbooks and the loud and persistent lobbyist’s din.
We have to work harder to see gun laws change. We have to work harder to reduce hate and homegrown terror acts.
Paul Rucker is one of the hardest working artists I know. He’s always stationed politics at the center of his practice but in recent years he has ventured fearlessly into America’s racial histories, current psyche and shortcomings. I curated Paul’s work in Prison Obscura. This morning, Paul sent out the following message to those on his email list. I think it is eloquent. It is from a point of knowledge. And I hope Paul doesn’t mind me sharing it.
I’ve been in South Carolina this week visiting my mother. The flags are at half staff at the library. The deeply ambivalent feelings I have for home are more real than ever. Growing up, I remember seeing Confederate flags on cars and bumper stickers stating “I should have picked my own damn cotton!” These were just part of the culture. An even deeper and unacknowledged part of the culture are the souls that built this state and this country. In 1860, there were more slaves living in South Carolina than free citizens. Cotton sales were worth $200 million then, the equivalent of $5 billion today. As we argue/discuss the flag, we must also add to our conversation the true and complete history of the South and America. Cotton was shipped all over the country and the world. The role of slave labor in the economic success of our country must be acknowledged, along with the cost of that success in millions of lives not deemed human. If we remove the flag, let us replace it with knowledge, and so honor the souls that brought us here to the prosperous land that we have today.
My condolences to the families of the nine people murdered a week ago. My heart goes out to them and their loved ones.
With a heavy heart,
Also well said.
In the conventional definition of the word, there are not many funny things about prison. In spite of that, those oppressed by the system are still leveraging humour in order to process and overcome America’s dehumanising and oppressive prison industrial complex.
The Poetic Justice Project (PJP) is a case in point.
“Poetic Justice Project is California’s only theatre company comprised of formerly incarcerated actors appearing in plays that examine crime, punishment and redemption,” explains PJP whose latest production is INSIDE/OUT: A Comedic Look At Prison and Re-Entry
Bay Area audiences will witness a unique marriage in June: the happy union of a 500-year-old art form with cutting edge social justice theatre. Poetic Justice Project will present its Commedia Dell’Arte play, INSIDE/OUT, at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland and on Alcatraz Island.
Commedia Dell’Arte is a style of masked, improvisational slapstick comedy that dates back to 16th Century Italy. INSIDE/OUT follows character Damian from prosecution to prison to parole as he wears whatever mask he needs to survive. Damian is saved by the love of a good woman, and by his determination to never return to prison.
The play is directed by Gale McNeeley, a graduate of the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City, the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre and Scuola Internazionale Dell’Attore Comico in Italy. INSIDE/OUT was co-created by McNeeley and actors Leonard Flippen, Jorge Manly Gil, Janet Guess, Nick Homick and Caroline Taylor-Hitch. The actors have all been incarcerated—in prison, jail or juvenile facilities. Most have no previous theatre experience when they come to Poetic Justice Project.
INSIDE/OUT shows Friday, June 19 at 6 p.m. at St. Mary’s Center, 925 Brockhurst St., Oakland. Tickets are $15 and available from Brown Paper Tickets, 800-838-3006, and at the door. On Saturday, June 20 at 2 p.m., there is a free performance on Alcatraz Island.
Based in Santa Maria, the project was founded by Artistic Director Deborah Tobola in 2009. Tobola and Poetic Justice Project recently received the the Santa Barbara County Action Network’s “Looking Forward” Award for Leadership and Vision.
Poetic Justice Project It is a program of the award-winning William James Association, which provides arts instruction to prisoners, people on parole and probation, and youth at risk of incarceration.
QUESTIONS? MEDIA CONTACT
Deborah Tobola, Artistic Director
tel: (805) 264-5463
P.O. Box 7196
In a necessarily generic statement about the project, San Francisco’s teen photography program First Exposures says its online exhibition Communication “explores how the photograph communicates meaning and the different ways in which that meaning can be interpreted based on context.” That’s a broad way of saying that their activities are rooted in developing visual literacy AND photography skills. The teenage image-makers have use antique processes, and made exquisite corpses, biographical images and studies of work and family.
In a city that is currently quite-very hard to love, I think it is absolutely essential to find things in San Francisco that are pure and you can admire. As a writer, I think it is important — everywhere and always — to recognise voices that emerge not out of market needs but out of community needs. These are the two reasons at the top of a long list as to why I am applauding both the First Exposures program and the products of its young participants.
Everything that the pros are doing these kids are doing.
– If you like A Piece Of Cake, First Exposures has its Exquisite Corpse.
– If you like Anna Atkins and Lochman & Ciurej, First Exposures has it’s own Cyanotypes.
– If you like the self exposition and exchange in work by Jeremy Deller or, say, Bayete Ross Smith and Hank Willis Thomas in Question Bridge, First Exposures has Letters To A Stranger.
– If you like Arnold Newman, you’ll dig First Exposures’ response to his work Zoomed In.
– If you like LaToya Ruby Frazier‘s depictions of family and Paul Graham‘s depictions of labour, then First Exposures has Work/Family for you.
– If you are into the collaborative portraiture of Anthony Luvera, Wendy Ewald or Eric Gottesman, you’ll love First Exposures’ Portrait/Self-Portrait.
The kids stay in the picture!
Recognition, too, to the unnamed staff and volunteers who facilitate these youth photography program. In San Francisco and elsewhere.
Literacy and personal development through photography is a familiar notion. Programs for youth include The In-Sight Photography Project, Vermont; Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE), Nova Scotia; Street Level Media, Chicago; Picture Me at the MoCP, Chicago; Youth in Focus, Seattle: Focus on Youth, Portland; Critical Exposure, Washington DC; Eye on the Third Ward, Houston; and AS220 Youth in Providence, Rhode Island.
Incredibly, Young New Yorkers (YNY) actually uses photography (as well as video, illustration and design) as intervention in the cogs of the youth justice system.
“The criminal court gives eligible defendants the option to participate in Young New Yorkers rather than do jail time, community service and have a lifelong criminal record. The curriculum is uniquely tailored to develop the emotional and behavioral skills of the young participants while facilitating responsible and creative self-expression,” says YNY.
Also in New York, is JustArts Photography Program (formerly the Red Hook Photo Project). The exhibition Perspectives featured the photographs of teens from Red Hook, Brooklyn. The JustArts Photography Program (more here and here) is run through the Red Hook Community Justice Center (RHCJC).
I encourage you to find programs in your local area and contribute.
Please feel free to name other programs in the comments that I’ve not included here.
At the back-end of 2011, I paid a visit to Nigel Poor and Doug Dertinger at the Design and Photography Department at Sacramento State University where they both teach. We talked about a history of photography course that Nigel and Doug co-taught at San Quentin Prison as part of the Prison University Project. At the time, there was no other college-level photo-history course other class like this in the United States. I have no reason to believe that that has changed (although I’d happily be proved wrong — get in touch!) We cover curriculum, student engagement, logistics, and the rewards of teaching in a prison environment.
Toward the end of the conversation we move on to discuss an essay by incarcerated student Michael Nelson. It was a comparative analysis between a Misrach photo and a Sugimoto photo. The highly respected TBW Books recently released Assignment No.2 which is a reissue of Michael’s essay. Packaged in a standard folder and printed on lined yellow office paper, Assignment #2 caught the photobook world a little off guard. Reviewers that dared to take it on admitted to being flummoxed a little. And then won over.
Back in 2011, TBW’s interest hadn’t yet been registered and Poor was still in production of the audio of Michael reading the work for public presentation. TBW Books publisher Paul Schiek has talked about the production of Assignment No.2, but Nigel Poor less so. This is the back-story to one of the most unique photo books of recent years — a book that combines fine art and fine design with an earnest recognition of a social justice need.
Scroll down for the Q&A.
Q & A
PP: How did you come to teach at San Quentin?
Nigel Poor (NP): I was always interested in teaching in a prison, and I just really never had the time to do it. While I was on a sabbatical [in 2011] I got an email from the Prison University Project saying they were looking for someone to teach art appreciation. I thought it would be a perfect time to teach there and form a class around the history of photography. I really wanted to do something with Doug so we got together to write this class.
PP: What do you look at?
NP: The history of contemporary photography — focusing on the 1970’s to the present. The course is 15 weeks like a regular semester. We met once a week for three hours. We started with early photographers — August Sander, Walker Evans and Robert Frank just to put some context and talk about how these photographers are often quoted and we move forward and show people like Sally Mann, Nan Goldin, Nick Nixon, Wendy Ewald.
Doug Dertinger (DD): Nigel tended to teach about the photographs that dealt with people, portraits, and social issues. My photographs tended to be the ones that dealt with land use and then also media. We struck a nice balance.
DD: The first two classes were strictly on aesthetic language, form, how to experience images, how to talk about them. The first assignment asked them to describe a photograph that doesn’t exist, that they wished they had that would describe a significant moment in their life. In that way they would create a little story for us and we would get to know something about them but they’d also have to use all the language about how you talk about a photograph. It was a really wonderful way to get them to think about making themselves part of the story of the photograph. Even if a photograph isn’t about you, you can bring your experience to it. It’s not solipsism; it is a way of entering photography. The exercise allowed them to take emotional chances with photographs.
In later classes, in 2012, Poor printed out famous photographs on card stock and asked her students to annotate directly upon the images. Click the William Eggleston analysed by Marvin B (top) to see a larger version of it. Kevin Tindall analysed Lee Friedlanders’ Canton, Ohio 1980 (middle), and Ruben Ramirez looked at David Hilliard’s tripychs (bottom).
PP: Were there any issues with your syllabus? Did you have to adapt it? Omit anything? Compared say to here at Sacramento State?
NP: I always tell my students, wherever we are, that it is an NC-17 rating. I naively thought I could just show the same images in San Quentin [as at Sac State] but when we started going through the process we were told that we couldn’t show any images that had to do with drugs, violence, sex, nudity, and children. Which is about 95% of photography!
At that point, I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to work but Jody Lewen [Director of the Prison University Project] is an incredible advocate and she didn’t want to presume censorship — Jody wanted the burden of explaation as to why we couldn’t show a particular image to be on the officials of the California Department of Corrections. She set up a meeting with the with Scott Kernan, the [then] Under-Secretary of the California Department of Corrections, and the [then] warden of San Quentin Prison, Michael Martell.
Kernan and Martell wanted me to show all the images that I was using for the class. I basically give them a mini-course in photography from 1970 to the present. We talked for close to two hours. I ended up getting permission to show everything except for four images.
PP: Not the worst case of censorship then?
NP: No. It was kind of a triumph. And, it must be said, without their help — especially Scott Kernan — I don’t think we would have gotten the class in.
PP: Can you describe the philosophy for the course?
NP: The central idea is to expose students to photography but really ask them to think about it quickly in an accessible and emotional way. Nor Doug or I teach from a theoretical or academic point of view. We argue that the images exist and they come to life because of the conversations we have around them. Students learn basic things about framing, form, content, but I really want them to explore all the areas of the photograph.
At the beginning, I describe the photograph as something akin to a crime scene; we are detectives trying to piece all the visual clues together to uncover subtext — perhaps, even secrets of the images that maybe the photographer isn’t even aware of.
In 2012, Poor was shown an archive of 4×5 negatives of photographs made by the prison administration in the 70s and 80s. The amount of information attached to the images is minimal. Poor broke the archive into 12 loose categories. One from the ‘Violence & Investigations’ category (top) and one from the ‘Ineffable’ category (bottom).
PP: Let’s come back to that. Because I want to bring Doug in here. Doug, what did you think when Nigel asked you to co-teach this program inside San Quentin Prison?
DD: I thought great. My parents are doctors and spent the last five years of their careers teaching at Federal Prison System. I taught in prison back in 1993 — one summer just general education stuff. So, when Nigel said that she was going to do this, well, I knew I wanted to partner with Nigel and thought it would be fun, in a way, to see what the what’s going on inside San Quentin.
PP: How do these students fair compared to your students in *free* society?
NP: They really understand the power of education and the importance of being present. I never had a student fall asleep at San Quentin or look at me with that blank expression! They were so hungry, open to conversation. It makes you worry about finding that same intensity outside of the prison setting.
DD: The men they already knew what they were about in a sense and so they came to the class with questions about photography and they understood that photography could reveal the world to them in ways that they were hungry for. A lot of students that I’ve had outside are still trying to figure out what they’re about and they haven’t yet come to their own necessity.
And, some of the men [in San Quentin] somehow understood that learning to talk about images, learning to see the world in a more complex way, could actually change them. I wish there was a way that didn’t sound trite to explain it but I could see transformations in them from the conversations that we had. Every Sunday when I left teaching there I would drive home in silence just contemplating the conversations that we had and how I felt I was becoming a better person for spending time with them. I would like to humbly think that they were too. It was a real back and forth.
Was it Wordsworth that said the imagination is the untraveled traveler? It seemed like when we went to class we all went on these journeys that were very significant for all of us. They were ready to travel.
In Nigel’s final class, she asked her students to annotate on print outs of photos from the newly discovered prison archive, in a manner similar to that they had with famous photographs from the art historical canon. Above are two examples.
PP: Earlier you mentioned Sally Mann. I presume a photographer that the authorities think is controversial, a photographer that wider society considers controversial and divides opinion. How did the discussion about Sally Mann’s work pan out?
NP: Some of them definitely had questions about the intent: Why would the mother want to photograph her three children romping around naked on their beautiful farm? But what I wanted to talk about how those images are highly staged and stylized. They’re not documentary images of how her children grew up. They are images about maybe desire about childhood, maybe the photographer inserting herself very clearly into these images. What is Sally Mann saying about the complexities of childhood or how children do have sexual feelings and act out in various ways? The images are about creating a tableau in a sense. It isn’t just about this mother who may have made images that made her children uncomfortable; it’s about creating stages to talk about emotional states of being.
PP: Well, I would think that many of the students are interested in notions of fact, truth, whether you can trust an image. Apart from the body, ones word is pretty much all you have when you’re incarcerated.
NP: We had a discussion very early on about the image always being a fabrication. It’s one person’s opinion putting a frame around the world and we always have to keep that in mind whether it’s documentary work or artist’s work. A lot of them got upset about that because I think they wanted to trust that something was reliable and truthful.
NP: And that may reflect a little bit on what happens to them, as people give evidence, or they want to assert their innocence, or not necessarily their innocence but how something unfolded in their life — this idea that everything is flexible and fluid was a little bit unnerving at times. They couldn’t look at the picture and think that’s exactly what the photographer meant and a few of them got prickly about it. It would come up off-and-on, you know. Can we use the word truth in reality when we’re talking about images and then by extension can you use those words when you’re talking about your own experience?
DD: That was a continuing topic throughout the whole semester. It was interesting too that they I don’t know how to describe it but they knew when they looked at a picture that there were all these elements in there. They explained it to us once: They get one picture from home once every 6 months, they pour over every detail of it and the desire is to create a narrative that they can fully believe and fully immerse themselves in. It was hard for them to understand that at first, at least, that there could be five different opinions about what a photograph was and each one kind of had equal weight.
Detail of Assignment No.2. Courtesy TBW Books.
NP: We don’t have a truth to give [the prisoners]. We’re going to give them our experience and talk about how we see the pictures but we’re going to learn something from them by the way they interpret images. I would see a photograph in a different light, often, after I heard what they had to say about it. I was the teacher in the classroom but it was very much about the power of group conversation. You have to outline what you want to discuss but you never quite know where the conversation’s going to go and I think that gave them a sense of power.
DD: I wonder if it was us not being, in a sense, “guards of meaning” that allowed them to say, ‘Oh, Nigel and Doug can be trusted to be privy to what we think, and they’re going to let us say things, and they’re going to correct themselves in relation to what we’re saying. We can participate, we have equal voice.’
PP: What do your students have to contribute to society?
NP: Before you have an experience in prison as a teacher or someone who’s going in as a civilian volunteer, prisoners are a group of invisible people. Even though I think I’m a thoughtful person, I had assumptions from what I read in the paper, in movies, in news.
PP: What you saw in photographs?
NP: Yeah! That these are going to be scary men, that if you turn your back are going to hurt you, that they’re animals they need to be separated from us and that they’re one-dimensional.
PP: Not so?
NP: When you go in there and you start talking and you see that these are complex, fascinating, thoughtful people; they’re citizens. They are part of our society. Yes, some of them have done terrible things but we have to think about reform and education, and the huge issues of, yes, redemption and forgiveness. How do we deal with those things? I think the only way you can thoughtfully talk about rehabilitation and forgiveness and make change is if you have a personal experience in there — you’re going to change your mind.
Details of Assignment No.2. Courtesy TBW Books.
NP: We need to find ways to use what’s in there to contribute to our society — to tap their experiences and thoughts. I became a better person by going in there and spending time. I learnt what it means to be human.
PP: That is similar to the feedback that I’ve got from other educators who’ve worked in prisons. Do you feel you are a conduit to the outside world. Do you have an added responsibility to share these stories, to share these men and their experiences with the wider public?
NP: I’m a pretty shy person and sometimes it’s difficult for me to talk at parties or whatever. But, now, I call myself the San Quentin bore. All I want to do is talk to people about this amazing experience, what these men are like. I feel very strongly about it, it’s not about me; it’s about this world that’s veiled and it’s about these men that are made invisible.
PP: You are not only a teacher, you are now an advocate. I hear you’re about to give a student the opportunity to “present” his work to the public?
NP: One of the assignments we had for the students was to give them two images from by two different artists and to ask them to analyse them. The only things the student knew about the works were the artists’ names, the dates, and the titles.
Richard Misrach. Drive-In Theatre, Las Vegas (1987), from the series American History Lessons.
Hiroshi Sugimoto. La Paloma, Encinitas (1993), from the series Theaters.
NP: While Michael was doing the assignment he was put in the hole, isolation, segregation for four weeks. He wrote an amazing paper talking about those two images. So beautiful that I wanted to get it to Richard Misrach which I was able to do and Richard was blown away by the piece.
Richard had been invited to be part of an event in San Francisco called Pop-Up Magazine which invites 20 to 30 different artists, once a year, to tell six minute stories. Richard’s idea was to read the paper that Michael wrote which was incredible. BUT! Then we started talking about it more, the organizer of Pop-Up decided he wanted Michael to read the paper. So, I went into San Quentin and recorded him reading his beautiful paper.
NP: It will be edited together. Richard will introduce it, show the two photographs and then play the recording of the student reading. It’s thrilling that this man who’s been in prison for more than half of his life is going to have the chance to be heard by 2,500 people.
PP: Nigel, Doug, Thanks so much.
NP/DD: Thank you.
ASSIGNMENT NO.2 (2014)
In an edition run of 1000, Assignment No. 2 will give many more people the opportunity to experience Michael’s words.
By Michael Nelson, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Richard Misrach.
12 x 9.5″ closed / 12 x 30″ open.
2 full color plates.
All proceeds go to the Prison University Project.
I was interviewed by ACLU recently: Prisons Are Man-Made … They Can Be Unmade.
The Q&A focuses around the exhibition Prison Obscura and you’ll notice a return to many of my favourite talking points. Still, the work never ends, and I know that ACLU will push out — to an expanded audience — my argument that we should all be more active and conscientious consumers of prison imagery. My thanks to Matthew Harwood for the questions.
There are very few organizations like AS220 Youth.
Sure, there’s lots of teen-focused arts organizations across the country but few have achieved the long-lasting and diverse roster of programming and results that AS220 boasts. AS220, similarly to many orgs use arts to connect and empower youth. Very few organizations, however, go into juvenile prisons to deliver photography education. AS220 does.
Very few organisations go into juvenile lock-ups to begin programming in order that they may continue it upon release of the teen with whom they work . AS220 does.
Such continuum is practical AND hopeful. It says ‘We are with you, wherever you are. We share your goal to live free once more.’
AS220 Youth, based in Providence, Rhode Island, gave me the warmest welcome a few years ago. They opened the door so that I could do a workshop with their incarcerated students. I gave a public lecture on my developing ideas about prison imagery. I interviewed the staff and helped students with portfolio reviews. My eyes were open to what a community can be.
Not only did the people stay in my thoughts, the work did too. In late 2013, I included light-paintings made by youth incarcerated at the Rhode Island Training School in Seen But Not Heard (Belgrade, Serbia) a photography exhibition about U.S. juvenile detention. If AS220 Youth did not exist we wouldn’t see these views of the world created by kids who are locked up.
I’ve written about AS220’s youth programs before. I have noted how rare it is that photo programs are inside juvenile detention facilities. AS220 is doing things no-one else can do, or have the imagination to do. You’ve no reason not to help them out.
For the first time in AS220 Youth’s 15-year history, it is conducting a individual giving campaign. They’ve turned to IndieGoGo to push alternative revenue streams having seen public money dry up. AS220 Youth has about half the staff this time last year, and yet it is serving more students than this time last year.
“Since I have been working at AS220 Youth,” says Youth Photography Coordinator, Scott Lapham, “five of my students have been accepted and have gone to or are going to RISD, one to Hampshire, one to the School of Visual Arts, one to Savannah College of Art and Design and one to Mass Art. All of these students are from poor/poverty backgrounds and all but one are students of color. While I couldn’t be prouder of those stats an equally ambitious and important accomplishment is working with students from what we have termed Post Risk backgrounds to achieve emotional and economic stability as adults.”
Bravo to Lapham, his colleagues and the AS220 students.
MONEY, MOVIES, PHOTOS
Help them continue their valuable work: visit the AS220 Youth Futureworlds IndieGoGo page.
Above is a video about a public art project AS220 Youth made. Throughout this post are images made by youth incarcerated at the Rhode Island Training School.
Some art and artists abide. Works crop up time and time again. Sometimes it’s as if society has demanded a need for the message; it strikes a chord. Sometimes hype and PR operates to elevate average work above the average median (that’s just how it goes). Sometimes, controversy gets something seen. Sometimes a particular artwork is afforded more attention because of an artist’s prior successes. And sometimes, very occasionally, a piece of art is relevant down through the ages, to all ages, and warrants repeated visits. I saw a Joshua Reynolds at the Legion Of Honor last week. I was captivated. It deserves to be hanging on a wall and still demanding attention 250 years after its paint dried.
Prison-related art is not in the same demand as portraits of rich patrons. Now or in the 17th century. Maybe, then, I am more impressed when a prison-related art project keeps going and going. One such example is Julie Green’s plates painted with the meals of the executed. This is good art and I’d like to share why.
There’s no fixed number of plates and Green plans to continue painting them in memoriam until the U.S. outlaws the death penalty. It goes without saying that every show, just in terms of numbers, is a new show. Also, some venues haven’t enough wall-space for the sheer scope of the project. Green’s The Last Supper: 600 Plates illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates is currently on show at the Block Museum at Northwestern University until August 2015.
“In fifteen years of the project, this show is unprecedented in terms of planning, installing, engagement, and press,” said Green in an email.
She’s not kidding. In the past few weeks, it has done the rounds at Huffington Post, WBEZ Radio, Chicago Tribune, WGN Radio, Chicago Business, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune- Evanston and the KU Alumni.
The Last Supper is a project increasing in stature and reputation. Not without discomfort, it does so as more and more people are killed by the state. Needless to say, Green is not a malicious observer of murder. She has rooted The Last Supper in a core activist position; which is to say that she wants to paint herself into obsolescence; she wants to have nothing to push back against. Green wants the injustice of the death penalty gone.
But as the reputation of a piece of art such as The Last Supper grows, so too does the responsibility to deliver perfectly-pitched programming/discussion around each exhibit. When I have curated in the past I have not always succeeded in achieving this — mostly due to scarce time and resources. Great programming often relies on multiple partners and even then it is a mammoth task. For me, fear of not delivering grows proportionately with the responsibility toward, regional and reflexive exhibition programming. Green has named many individuals key to the Block Museum show — she, like most of us, has managed more when assisted by, and in the assistance of, others.
This post isn’t really a reflection on The Last Supper as it is a reflection on what it means when an abolitionist work, or a work with stated political goals, or a anti-prison artwork assumes a momentum that is rapid and big — a momentum characteristic more of the art world than that of the political-activist world.
How an artist responds to such momentum will differ dependent on experience, advise and, yup, the partner(s). Some makers are better at maintaining strong authorial control over their projects. Others are newer to the grooves along which art and art promotion move, and they might be persuaded toward changed elements of the work.
Working with others will almost always increase the audience and the amplification of the message but it’s something that must be exercised consciously. What mouthpieces are in use? Who’s ears are listening? The last thing I want to suggest is that artists with political message should shy away from partnership. Merely, that partnership brings different institutional biographies and political legacies to the fray. Art and politics cannot exist in separate silos and so when art emerges from a political need it must stay true to that need and struggle.
There are structural forces at work in the art world. Makers need to carry out due diligence to ensure that the politics of their patrons and sponsors are in line with their own. Audiences need to know that occasionally work rears up because of partners’ involvement or championing and not because of an inherent message in the work or of the artist.
Again this is no comment on Green’s work. In fact the amount of travelling The Last Supper has done is daunting and I cannot imagine how Green has managed the “office” tasks and emails alone — let alone the press, the shipping, the installation details, the admin etc. The Last Supper repeatedly appears at US cultural institutions across the nation because it is good art (here’s what I think of bad art). The Last Supper is good because Green’s act of making is devotional; the simplicity of the concept makes the scope of the project not daunting but, paradoxically, familiar; the artist is passionate in talking about the work. The project is living.
It is living and it is growing.
The Last Supper is only going to get bigger. Big can be beautiful. And it is powerful. As it ships, relocates and appears in different venues, we audiences need to handle its political message as conscientiously as the installers do the porcelain plates. There can be no lack of concentration or complacency. This is life and death.
I wanted to congratulate three artists who were recently named as 2015 Fellows at A Blade Of Grass.
Sol Aramendi, Nigel Poor and Dread Scott are three of eight fellows who’ve received $20,000 each to pursue ongoing art projects that better the social, economic and cultural capital of the people with whom they collaborate. I have spoken to the three of them at different points in the past and applaud ABOG on its selection.
This is also a good moment to get A Blade Of Grass on your radar. ABOG has emerged as a thoughtfully-networked, well-advised, organisation with intent to put large amounts of money into the hands of responsible artists who work directly with communities, for dialogue and for change. The fellowships come with fewer strings attached than other funds, thus entrusting artists with the scope and freedom needed for socially engaged projects.
Sol Aramendi will use the fellowship to develop Apps for Power — a smartphone-based app to help workers fight wage theft and restore power to the worker by allowing him or her to safely share worksite experiences, report wage-theft and flag abusive employers. The idea for the app emerged from Aramendi’s discussions with immigrant day laborers. Aramendi has brought in artists, organizers, developers, and lawyers to realise the app which makes transparent a previously exploitative and alienating system.
I interviewed Sol recently: Tapping NYC Migrants’ Creative Energies Through Street & Studio Photography
Nigel Poor‘s ongoing San Quentin Prison Report Radio Project will benefit greatly from committed funds. Poor started her work in California’s most famous prison, co-teaching a photo history class inside, with Sacramento State University colleague Doug Dertinger. Later, Poor conducted workshops in which she asked prisoners to annotate San Quentin Prison’s own archive of photos.
Working with incarcerated students changed Poor; she wanted others outside the prison walls to meet these articulate, curious and intelligent man. With a longtime interest in audio, Poor reasoned that radio was the best option. Existing broadcast equipment existed in San Quentin and a local public radio was keen to broadcast Poor’s collaborative efforts. She works with Brian Acey, Greg Eskridge, Jun Hamamoto, David Jassy, Jason Jones, Adnan Khan, Harold Meeks, Tommy Shakur Ross, Louis A. Scott, Shadeed Wallace Stepter and Earlonne Woods. Participants are trained in all aspects of audio and radio production to make stories that are complex and challenge reductive stereotypes, while also providing meaningful work for men who are serving life sentences.
I interviewed Nigel and Doug Dertinger in 2011. (Later this week, I’ll be publishing the full edited text.)
Dread Scott is making Slave Rebellion Reenactment (SRR), a reenactment of the largest rebellion of enslaved people in American history. SRR will re-stage and reinterpret Louisiana’s German Coast Uprising of 1811, involving hundreds of re-enactors on the outskirts of New Orleans, in the same locations where the 1811 rebellion occurred.
In the past, I’ve featured Dread’s Lockdown and Stop, about Stop & Frisk in NYC and Liverpool, England. And, by chance, I stumbled upon his well-received, one-time-only performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide under the Manhattan Bridge in October 2014. Me and hundreds of school-kids and scores of bemused office workers on lunch-break.
Sol Aramendi is an artist and educator. A vocal agent for social change, she founded Project Luz, a nomadic physical and conceptual space for immigrant communities to learn, create, and communicate, allowing for the greatest agency and collaborative opportunity for all of the participants. Photography is the main tool of engagement. She holds an MFA in Social Practice from Queens College, an Arte Util Residency at Immigrant Movement International, a fellowship from the Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies and has just completed a CORO Immigrant Civic Leadership program from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Nigel Poor is a San Francisco-based artist and photographer and member of the San Quentin Prison Report collective. She is a Professor of Photography at California State University, Sacramento.
Dread Scott makes revolutionary art to propel history forward, working in a range of media including performance, photography, screen-printing, video, installation and painting. He has exhibited and performed at numerous institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, the Walker Art Center and BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) and has been written about in numerous publications including The New York Times, Art In America, ArtNews, ArtForum, Art21 Magazine, The Guardian, and Time.
A Blade Of Grass provides resources to artists who demonstrate artistic excellence and serve as innovative conduits for social change. ABOG evaluates the quality of work in this evolving field by fostering an inclusive, practical discourse about the aesthetics, function, ethics and meaning of socially engaged art that resonates within and outside the contemporary art dialogue.