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Today, the Huffington Post published 31 Reasons Philadelphia Is The Most Underrated City in America. Having spent two weeks in Philly recently, I can’t argue with most points (veggie friendly baseball park, c’mon!?).
But I can go further. Allow me to add a 32nd reason. Philadelphia’s anti-prison artists and activists.
Case in point: G-LAW. G-LAW, or OG-LAW (God’s Love Always Wins/God’s Love AT Work) is the adopted name of Michael Ta’Bon, an artist and activist who’s message is peace, love and no more prisons.
For the month of February, G-LAW lived in a self-built cell-sized space on the streets of Philly. Lori Waselchuk and I visited G-LAW on the first of the month to see how he was going with construction, buy a coffee and learn more about his project. These photos are from that day. I have not heard how the past four weeks have gone, but as with all of G-LAW’s public happenings, I am sure he’s raised a lot of eyebrows and a lot of discussions.
This isn’t the first time G-LAW has protested prison construction, poverty, inequality and hate. He has jogged 10 miles a day for seven days around Philadelphia with a 40-foot banner reading FIGHT HATE WITH LOVE; he has walked with a ball-and-chain from Selma to Montgomery; and this is, in fact, the third time he’s spent the month of February on the Philly streets in his own prison cell. You can see coverage of the the first occasion in 2011 here and here. One year, he mounted the event in Atlanta.
“JAIL IS 4 SUCKAZ!” is one of G-LAW’s many tags lines. He means everyone. He means you. Taxpayers are suckers for stumping the bill to maintain abusive and broken prison systems. One side of his cell is emblazoned with the phrase.
The project as a whole is called The Un-Prison Cell. It’s “the only prison in America designed to keep you out,” laughed G-LAW. It sounds like progress on construction slowed in the days after I visited, due to vicious weather and troubles getting materials.
G-LAW was also away from the site on February 12th as he joined the monumental People’s Budget Hearing protest at the Pennsylvania capital building in Harrisburg (video, audio, photos). The People’s Hearing was organised by DecarceratePA, one of the most effective and inspiring anti-prison activist groups in the nation. Don’t believe me? Listen to DecarceratePA member Sarah Morris debate PA Prisons Secretary John Wetzel and call him out on the misinformation peddled by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to the state legislature justify proposed prison expansion.
It was through DecarceratePA that I learnt about G-LAW’s art — you can listen to him on their radio show.
Maintaining momentum against massive forces for grassroots movements is a constant effort. A large part of that is being relevant to people outside the choir, having press strategy and adopting visual strategy too. DecarceratePA’s 100-day #InsteadOfPrisons Instagram campaign was the first and only interesting anti-prison campaign use of Instagram I’ve seen. (I adopted the hashtag myself later to spread the words of PA prisoners who’s work was in Prison Obscura.) Also, look how incredible this visual statement is.
Philadelphia should be proud of its grassroots activism. Bravo. More.
Thanks to Lori for some images.
The kind folks at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College wanted to make a video to accompany Prison Obscura. So, we sat down with camera and I talked for an hour. It’s a blessed relief for you all that they managed to distill it down to 3 minutes. Much more bite-size than the essay.
Photo Exhibit Offers Look Into the Lives of Prisoners (Philadelphia Inquirer)
Prison Obscura: A Look Into the Cell of Self (Bi-College News)
Prison Obscura at Haverford’s Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery (The Art Blog)
Shedding Light on a Dim Situation in Prison Systems (The Temple News)
5 Intriguing Things: Thursday, 1/23 (The Atlantic)
‘Lives Lived Behind Bars are Too Often Invisible’ (In These Times)
Prison Obscura, Curated by Pete Brook (aCurator)
Exhibition: Prison Obscura (No Caption Needed)
There’s a beguiling animated feature up on the website of Australia’s Global Mail. Illustrated by Sam Wallman, the piece tells the story of a former worker at an immigrant detention facility and how he — along with those locked up — slowly lost his mind. The detention center (we should all just call it a prison) was, and is, a incubator for illogic and for cruelty. An atmosphere that only rewards dehumanisation persists.
The facility is operated by the Serco Group, a British-based multinational corporation with interests and operations in logistics, security, government contracts across the world . It seems detention facilities are a boom sector for a company like Serco which operates all of Australia’s detention facilities. Serco hit the headlines late last year in Britain when it faced allegations of covering up extensive sexual predation and abuse at Yarl’s Wood, the UK’s largest immigration detention center for women.
As I’ve noted before, Australian’s are worried about Serco’s practices.
Not photography, but in this case, more powerful than a photograph. Maybe it’s the human touch within a pen stroke?
Thanks to Gemma Rose-Turnbull (an Australian) for the tip.
My friend Graham MacIndoe made this photograph a couple of years ago in the Gowanus/Cobble Hill area of Brooklyn, NY. “The bit that lies between the projects and the ever expanding gentrification,” explains MacIndoe who just came across the negative again this week.
A second time round, it was one of those not unusual moments of revelation that photographers have. MacIndoe saw story in this old image he’d forgotten since the first go around.
“There were two or three kids about 9 or 10 years old,” recollects MacIndoe of the day he made the shot. “If I recall there were no adults around. The kids had just finished a game and were starting another. One kid was teasing the other about going to jail.”
This photograph, this reality, floors me.
Directly, the image’s visual elements spell-out the school-to-prison-pipeline? It’d be too obvious if it weren’t for the fact, there’s no political statement being made here. This is play. This is play?
Pavement chalk, used by children for generations to invent new games is the type of material that any kid has access to, right? Right. But some kids have access only to chalk and probably not more expensive toys or educational games. The chips are beer bottle tops (Heineken I can identify; the others Bud Light? Maybe Sam Adams?) Is this what happens without XBox? Do children draw themselves acutely closer to reality than adults dare? Does childhood imagination work the other way too? Do we lose brave imagination in adulthood in order to inoculate ourselves against our terrifying, divided reality?
The game the kids have pathed out has depressingly few number of options; in fact it seems to be that you survive outside of prison only until you don’t — it is a case of when, not if.
This is an imagination particular only to poor kids. How horrified would we be if every American child’s imagination turned to these dark concepts? How broken our country would be, huh? Well, as long as we’ve communities so broken that kids dabble in make-believe about jail as easily as Santa then our country IS broken. No child should occupy such a dour imaginative landscape?
Photography has recently focused on, and relied upon to some degree, untrained scrawls to tell stories. From Hetherington’s War Graffiti and Broomberg & Chanarin’s Red House to idiots like me pointing my iPhone at scribbles on walls. It is easy for us to lean on the narrative and evocations of anonymous or near anonymous humans. In prisons, cell walls are etched full with writings coming from a point of deprivation. Photographs reflect that. I’m saying this because, often the motif of photographing writing is dismissed (such is our level of expectation, at this point, is there anything more boring than a not-funny-protest-sign?) And, I’m saying this because I don’t think MacIndoe’s picture deserves to be overlooked.
This picture is literally what is happening on the ground. We’re told about it from the mouths — and minds — of babes.
These kids have created a game for their own world experience. They’ve created a thing not meant for anyone’s consumption but their own. But it is a public thing. In the absence of political awareness rises the most powerful political statement. It is fierce and it is scary. We want to fight back. But we cannot. We cannot doubt these children or discredit the uncomfortable truth they’ve presented. Instead, we are forced to justify this world they’re in. This world is ours and hopefully ours to improve for younger generations.
PICTURE OF THE YEAR
This is the most thought provoking image I have seen all year. I’ve not allowed myself time on a single image like this for a while.
And, yet, I know next to nothing about it. Please help me understand. Are games like this common in that area of Brooklyn? In NYC? In other American cities? These games might be commonplace and it might be merely my inexperience that explains my astonishment. But, of course, knowing the rampant inequality in this country and the exceptionally harsh treatment it reserves for the poor, I should not be surprised.
REST IN PEACE, PETE
Musician, folklorist and champion of the vernacular Pete Seeger died Monday. His legacy is formidable. The New York Times wrote:
His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.
Part of Seeger’s widespread collection of folk songs took him, in March 1966, to the Ellis Unit of Huntsville Prison in Texas.
He traveled south with his wife and constant ally Toshi and their son Daniel. Bruce Jackson also joined them.
Afro-American Work Songs In a Texas Prison (30 mins.) documents the music African American prisoners used to survive the grueling work demanded of them. The prison work songs derive directly from those used by slaves and plantations and those directly from West African agricultural models.
Bruce Jackson wrote in his notes about the film:
“Black slaves used work songs in the plantations exactly as they had used them before they had been taken prisoner and sold to the white men. The difference was this: in Africa the songs were used to time body movements and to give poetic voice to things of interest because people wanted to do their work that way; in the plantations there was added a component of survival. If a man were singled out as working too slowly, he would often be brutally punished. The songs kept everyone together, so no one could be singled out as working more slowly than everyone else.”
Mechanization and integration of farming and forestry methods would soon lead to the disappearance of the work songs. There was an urgency to record them.
I spoke with Jackson in late 2011, when he said, ”It is, to my knowledge, the only treatment (of that genre and era) that had ever been done. It was Pete’s idea and Pete paid for it.”
Seeger understood the contradiction. A significant type of folk music — a music that reflected the very survival of an oppressed group — was soon to be consigned to the history books, and yet that loss signified an improvement in their circumstances. As the film’s narration notes:
“The songs are still there but sometimes something is missing. The urgency is eased. Gone is that tension born of the original pain and irony of the situation that a man who could not sing and keep rhythm might die. The prison is the only place left in the country where the work songs survives. And it’s days are numbered. Another generation or two and its only source will be the archives. But given the conditions that produced the songs and maintained them for so long one can hardly regret their passing.”
Seeger understood people’s stories are wrapped up in their art. And with it their dignity. His curiosity was a rare and beautiful thing.
A NOTE ON JACKSON
Bruce Jackson is a prolific prison photographer. Most of his work was made in the sixties and seventies in the South, from his Widelux images at Cummins Prison, his collected mugshots from Arkansas, his 1977 book Killing Time: Life in the Arkansas Penitentiary (Cornell) and his very recent 2013 book Inside The Wire (University of Texas Press) about Texas and Southern prison farms. Bruce Jackson’s book Wake Up Dead Man (University of Georgia Press) is a highly recommended study of work songs in Texas prisons.
If you’re in NYC make like a bandit down to the Queens Museum which is hosting the first ever East Coast performance of State of Incarceration (2010-ongoing) by the activist collective Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD).
I’ve been thinking a lot about how gallery spaces can work to induct audiences into a topic as fraught as prisons. Partly because talking about prisons is a two-part process. First, one must explain clearly what problems exist, how deep they run and from where they originated. Second — and usually because the first part is so overwhelming — you need to provide audiences an immediate stimulus to care. (I don’t worry about action at this early stage; if you succeed in getting someone to care, then action will follow later if it is to at all).
Normally, for the second part, a description of deplorable conditions will offend audiences and have them ready to care. But, for me, that’s not enough. It presumes the answer might be the eradication of bad conditions. I don’t want better prisons. I want fewer prisons.
State of Incarceration does an excellent job in jolting people because it describes the tortuous power relations and the dire psychological conditions within prisons. Shouting, noise and continual face-offs between characters amp up the negative energy. There’s no escape and audiences are put literally inside and on top of it all from among the “prison” bunks, and confronted by the illogic of the prison system in the form of maddening cacophony and maneuver.
I’m not usually one for understanding theatre but this direct performance makes sense. It’s made in California, which runs a prison system that makes less sense.
State of Incarceration is a performance space filled wall-to-wall with 60 triple-bunked beds, performers and audience share overcrowded conditions akin to a California state prison. One-third of the state’s parolees settle in the 55 square blocks of Los Angeles known as Skid Row, and State of Incarceration—developed collaboratively by LAPD’s Skid Row artists and in dialogue with organizers and recent parolees—powerfully examines the consequences of California’s penal system on individuals, families and communities. Outlining a ritual of incarceration from entry to release and re-integration, State of Incarceration constructs a complex challenge to the societal perceptions and fear-based policies of a nation with the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
It’s FREE with no reservations necessary!
Friday, January 31st, 7:30pm
Saturday, February 1, 7:30pm
Sunday, February 2, 5pm
Curator and artists’ gallery talk:
Sunday, February 2, 3pm
A free shuttlebus will be making loops between under the 7train CitiField/Willets Point stop and the museum from 2-8pm.
State of Incarceration is staged as part of Do You Want the Cosmetic Version or the Real Deal?: Los Angeles Poverty Department, 1985 – 2014, an exhibition on view at the Queens Museum through May 11.
I’m not the only one putting up a show (Prison Obscura) of imagery made in and about prisons. The Laband Gallery at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles opens its Voices Of Incarceration exhibition on Saturday 25th January.
It’s an interesting line up of artists that includes artists who are imprisoned and individuals on the outside who are making art about prisons. Laband says:
“Both groups bring to light the emotional costs and injustices of the Prison Industrial Complex. Voices of Incarceration also explores the rehabilitative arts programs in California prisons and the expression of the imprisoned artists’ strength and individuality through the creative process.”
KPCC, the Los Angeles NPR-affiliate has done a couple of programs recently about the small but important attempts to reintroudce arts education into California prisons:
If you’re in L.A., go check it out. It’s open until the 16th March. One last note — it’s great to see in the mix Prison Photography favourites Alyse Emdur, Richard Ross, Michal Chelbin and Sheila Pinkel.
Screengrab from the San Mateo County Sheriff’s webcam of jail construction.
I always say that I’m open to looking at all types of prison imagery, so I guess I’m obliged to mention the 24-hour coverage of a prison that does not yet exist. (It’s a first for Prison Photography.)
The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department in California has set up a webcam to track construction of the county’s new jail. Why? Maybe the Sheriff was buoyed by the popularity of Panda Cam at the San Diego Zoo, Condor Cam in California, or Portland’s Osprey Cam?
The live feed is “an innovative and exciting way to involve the public,” said Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Rebecca Rosenblatt said.
Slated for a 2015 opening, tax payers can watch the construction of Maple Street Correctional Center in Redwood City. I suppose if you’re forking out $165 million for a jail, you want to see your money being spent?
The truth is this webcam is pitiful reminder of California’s budget woes and political battles over prison management and spending.
There’s an argument that a new jail is necessary due to California’s ongoing “Realignment” — a court-mandated program whereby state prisoners are being transferred to county jails in order to comply with federal orders to reduce the state prison system by approximately 32,000 prisoners.
That decision came about after a decade long legal battle — that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States — ruled that the overcrowding in the California state prison system led to inadequate physical and mental health care and an estimated one preventable death every 10 days. As a result the prison system was deemed “cruel and unusual” in its punishment and is in violation of every single California prisoner’s constitutional rights.
Unfortunately, Governor Brown refused to look at strategic release programs for non-violent offenders, at compassionate release for elderly and terminally ill prisoners or at drug treatment programs to ease overcrowding. Instead, Brown raided the state’s budget surplus — to the tune of $315 million — and will start paying private prison corporations to warehouse prisoners.
Money pouring into new jail construction. The indubitable Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) report:
“In addition to AB109 realignment money, Sacramento has offered two funding streams that encourage county jail expansion and has refused to offer incentives for thoughtful decarceration. AB 900 authorized $1.2 billion in lease revenue bonds for the construction or expansion of jails, and SB 1022 authorized $500 million for jail expansion. If realignment is to be successful, the state must support counties to reduce their jail populations, rather than making plans to grow them.”
In time, the San Mateo Sheriff’s Office plans to release a time-lapse video of the creation of the 280,000-square-foot jail grow from start to finish.
via the usually useless SF Examiner