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UPDATE: WEDS., 25TH FEB, 2:50PM. I JUST HEARD FROM PARSONS THAT THE WORKSHOP IS FULL. THAT IS GOOD NEWS FOR MARK AND THE PARTICIPANTS. LESS GOOD FOR THOSE WHO MAY HAVE GOT THEIR HOPES UP BECAUSE OF THIS POST.

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SPACES ARE STILL AVAILABLE FOR MARK STRANDQUIST’S TALK These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice AT THE SJDC ON FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 27TH AT 6PM.

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Description from prisoner at Richmond County Jail, Virginia, from a workshop by Mark Strandquist.

WINDOWS FROM PRISON

Mark Strandquist will be coordinating a participatory workshop this Saturday, February 28, in New York City. Over the course of the day, artists, activists, lawyers, students, journalists, photographers, corrections officers, formerly incarcerated individuals and others will work together through dialogue to create photographs requested by prisoners in New York state.

Mark and his collaborators who include the Correctional Association of New York, the Young New Yorkers, Exalt Youth and the New York Writers Coalition have already sourced written responses from prisoners to the question:

“If you had a window in your cell, what place from your past would it look out to?”

The workshop is at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, at the Parsons School of Design. Those who gather at SJDC on Saturday will travel in groups to the various locations to make images, which will be sent back to the prisoners.

The workshop is part of the programming for Prison Obscura, a show of prison photography I have curated. Prison Obscura includes Strandquist’s series Some Other Places We Have Missed which was the earliest iteration of his workshops conducted in Richmond Jail, Virginia. Since then, Strandquist has partnered with local reform groups and stakeholders in the prison issue to custom-designed workshops in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia.

The ongoing program of workshops Windows from Prison is designed to open up conversation about the impacts of mass incarceration by using the medium of photography.

Images made during the workshop will be exhibited in the atrium space of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center adjacent to the Prison Obscura exhibit.

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Prison Obscura is made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

 

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Fight Hate With Love, a documentary film about Philadelphia-based artists and activist Michael Tabon (a.k.a. G-Law a.k.a. OG-Law) has been shortlisted for the Tim Hetherington Trust‘s inaugural Visionary Award.

The film made by Andrew Michael Ellis, director of photography at Mediastorm is about “one man’s journey to change the world and still be the guide his family needs him to be.”

The film looks inspiring, but as with any narrative arc, the protagonist faces challenges. It seems the stresses of Tabon’s art and activism upon his family is the emotive hook, Ellis is molding.

I met Tabon and his wife Gwen this time last year as he was embarking on his third self-imposed lock up in a self-built cell on the cold February streets of Philly. They did not display the tension as they do in Ellis’ trailer. Tabon was putting his un-prison cell together and Gwen was helping with supplies, PR, food & drink, and vocal support. It was clear they rely on one another to make work and to meet the silent, unending need for Tabon’s love-filled message.

Tabon’s manipulation of visual tropes is cunning and effective. He has reclaimed the cell, the orange jumpsuit and the shackles. 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.

“Tabon has been caught in the revolving door of the prison system since he was sixteen years old. Incarceration became a way of life, seen as an inherited destiny for America’s young Black poor, until he had a revelation – that he could break the cycle of the womb-to-prison pipeline gripping marginalized communities across the country,” says Mediastorm.

It’s wonderful to see Tabon on the Mediastorm platform and Hetherington Trust’s radar. His unorthodox but unmissable approach to social change needs to go national.

Youtube trailer here. Follow Tabon on Twitter and on the web.

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http://cargocollective.com/growingupthroughpictures/About

Image source: Growing Up Through Pictures (an unrelated program to Anathema Arts)

Prison arts organisation Anathema Arts is petitioning for a photo day program in the state of Illinois. Anathema Arts will provide the supplies necessary — the printer, photo paper, and digital camera. Anathema is at pains to state the program will not cost the taxpayers of Illinois.

“A photo can heal, promote positive thinking, maintain bonds, and enhance memories,” say Anathema Arts. “Photos of loved ones have long been used in psychology to reduce grief and pain, but just as they can provide comfort, the lack of current photos can cause negative consequences for both the incarcerated and their loved ones.”

As the majority of prisoners will be released back in to society it is in all of our interests to enact simple steps that maintain self-esteem among the incarcerated class. More importantly, the one factor that determines most a prisoner’s successful reentry into society is close family relationships during imprisonment. Photographs play their part in aiding those bonds.

“Friends and families of incarcerated people often do not have current pictures, and do not get to see how their son, daughter, friend, brother, or sister looks as their sentence passes over the years,” says Anathema Arts. “For those family members that can visit … portraits provide a positive focus during visits, and remind loved ones and prisoners of happier times.”

As I see it, the biggest potential problem with Anathema Arts’ proposition is how it is perceived. Might prison administrations be reluctant to accommodate the (sensible) suggestions of an arts organisation with stated sympathies for incarcerated peoples? Maybe, I’m problematising? Or maybe, I am not? After all, many members of the citizenry consider anything beyond punishment as being unwarranted or not needed in our prisons. Short version: prisons don’t want to appear soft and a photo portraiture program may be seen as fluffy and coddling.

But, surely, there can be no harm in allowing prisoners and families ready access to a recent photo portrait?!

A knee-jerk reaction would be to reject the FAMILY PHOTO -> BOND STRENGTHENED -> REDUCED ALIENATION -> SAFER SOCIETY theory of causation. I understand why some might think it a stretch but, let’s be honest, photography is often wrapped up in unexamined theory. So, why would we dismiss this well-meaning program specifically? Instead, let us consider the fact that prisoners are probably the demographic in America with least access to self-representation — they do not have the standing, nor the tools to create, share and replace images at will.

I’ve signed the petition because I think it’s not only a useful pilot program (that could be repeated in other prisons and other states) it is also a test to see what the Illinois Department of Corrections can accommodate. Is it flexible enough to host a volunteer-run photo program? It absolutely must be, for if it is not then what else can it not — will not — provide for those in its custody?

Go on. Sign up if you dare to imagine the possibilities.

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THE VISUAL CULTURE OF PRISON RESISTANCE

Liz Pelly‘s conversation with Josh MacPhee in The Media is a wonderful read. It coincided with MacPhee and his cohort’s incredible exhibition of prisoner made protest materials going all the way back to the early seventies.

MacPhee urges us to dismantle the idea that prisons are separate from outside society. Crucially, he’s not making, in the first instance, a moral point about how we’re all the same, prisoners and all. MacPhee makes an observation of the structural characteristics of the prison system.

“It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society,” says MacPhee. “When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.”

Of course, once the structural facts of the system are revealed, the moral point that we are all one-and-the-same, prisoners and all, is indisputable.

I contacted Pelly and asked if I could republish the conversation. It originally appeared as Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show in Issue #44 of The Media (October 10, 2014). It is a privilege to feature Pelly and MacPhee’s interview in full here on the blog.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

Between September 11th and November 16, 2014, Interference Archive exhibited, Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society a look back at the visual and material culture of prisoner-led political movements.

Organized by Molly Fair, Josh MacPhee, Anika Paris, Laura Whitehorn, and Ryan Wong, Self-Determination Inside/Out includes sections on the work of incarcerated AIDS educators, the experiences of women and queer prisoners, prison and control unit prisons. The exhibition features prison newsletters, pamphlets, video and audio interviews, prints, photography (!!!) and magazine covers — starting with materials created during the 1971 Attica Rebellion, a massive prisoner uprising in upstate New York, and concluding with work made by current political prisoners, the show highlights moments of self-organization within the prison industrial complex.

You can buy a booklet and a poster for the exhibition.

Interference Archive is a volunteer-run archive in Gowanus, Brooklyn, dedicated to preserving cultural ephemera related to social movements.

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Inside/Out: On Prison Justice, Art of the Incarcerated, and Interference Archive’s New Show

Liz Pelly (LP): What initially inspired the creation of Interference Archive, which mostly houses ephemeral material like posters, t-shirts, and newsletters?

Josh MacPhee (JM): For the different people involved, there are different answers of course. For me, I grew up making this stuff through DIY music, cultural stuff, politics. Through the act of doing, I started collecting it. Flyers, t-shirts, buttons, the ephemera that gets produced by people who are organizing. It was a combination of wanting to understand the history of what I was doing and then at the same time, I was getting really interested in this idea of how people make art and culture in the context of trying to their lives. It’s distinct from art that’s produced purely in the realm of self expression, and the art that tends circulate within the contemporary art world.

This kind of material gets lost. It’s often not clearly authored. Institutions that deal with art don’t quite know what to do with it. Since it’s so political, places like history museums don’t know what to do with it either. It sort of falls through the cracks. But we can see during times like Occupy, or Tahrir Square in Egypt, or with the Maidan in the Ukraine, that this is the stuff of life, [created] when transformation starts to happen. When people have their arms shoulder deep into the constructions of representations of a new world, and the way they want things to be articulated.

For me, doing an archive was a way to say, “just because these moments come and go, and movements have ebbs and flows, doesn’t mean that once the peak has been reached that this material isn’t still valuable to us, to where we’ve come from and therefore where we are going.”

LP: That said, how do you think this sort of exhibit in particular shines light on the experiences of prisoners?

JM: There were five of us who organized this exhibition, and most of us have been engaged with issues around prisons in different ways, whether having been formerly incarcerated, or working with prison activism programs. As far as I know, nothing like this has ever been done before.

We live in a moment where over two million people are in prison. It’s getting harder and harder to hold up the pretense that prison is somehow distinct from the rest of society. When there’s this many people going in and out all of the time, there’s no way that our lives out here don’t leak into there, and that their lives in there don’t leak out into the rest of society. The idea that these are completely separate realms needs to be dismantled.

We thought it was important to marshal primary source material to show that people aren’t just objects of repression or study or someone else’s activism. But they have done immense amounts of organizing inside themselves. Often times that organizing takes place at the same time, or sometimes even ahead of, what people were doing on the outside. Some of the focus we have on organizing around AIDS and AIDS education in prison was really fascinating and important because it shows how people that had the least access to medical care were doing in some cases the most organizing in order to try to deal with a problem that at the time the government was not even acknowledging existed.

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LP: Can you tell me more about your own experiences with prison reform activism?

JM: I first learned about how the prison system functions in the early 1990s. It just sort of blew my mind that there was a whole world of people who largely because of race and class were basically being warehoused. And that, at the time, it was completely absent from the radar of public In the 90s, the only thing discussed in relationship to prisons and criminal justice was this sort of “tough on crime” thing. There was no acknowledgment that a massive increase of the prison population going on, and that it wasn’t actually working. And that the system that decided who went in and out was so manifestly unjust, random often.

That sent me on a path of doing organizing around prison issues. I started in Ohio, and then did some work in Colorado, and then in Chicago. A lot of the organizing I did was around Control Unit Prisons, basically trying to stop solitary confinement. [Organizing around] these men and women who were spending twenty-three-and-a-half or twenty-four hours a day alone in their cells, and the psychological damage that causes and how it basically goes against international conventions of torture, yet it’s completely commonplace in this country.

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LP: Over the past year, there has been lot of in the news about the racist criminal justice system. It’s an apt time for Self-Determination Inside/Out: Prison Movements Reshaping Society. But obviously there is a lot of history of racism in the criminal justice system that this brings to light. Were you inspired to put this together because of recent events, or has this exhibit been in the works longer?

JM: We worked on the exhibition for 6 months. As a space, as an institution, one of our goals is to take this material that’s perceived as marginal and present it in ways that will allow it to be in its own context, but also to actually show that it’s not marginal. Our primary audience is not people who already necessarily agree with everything that would be in this exhibition. We are conscious of, and trying to take advantage of, a moment.

The question becomes, how do we push [the discussion] farther? If we say mass incarceration is not okay, at what point is incarceration okay? If 2 million people in cages is not acceptable, is 1.9 million people in acceptable? Or 1.8? Once you start asking those questions it opens up the space to say, “this whole system is just absolutely corrupt.”

Mass incarceration accomplishes a number of things, none of which are its stated goals. It accomplishes deeply suppressing working class communities of color. That’s never been articulated as what the prison system is supposed to do. It’s just clear that that’s what it does. It clearly is completely ineffectual at actually dealing with crime.

LP: What are some underreported sides to the prison industrial complex that you hope this exhibit brings to light?

JM: The fastest growing portion of the prison population for years now has been women.

Increasingly there is a real gendered aspect of being able to look at how the criminal justice system works. Increasingly it’s used to enforce gender binaries. It’s a brutal system for queer and trans people that get sucked up into it. People are doing a lot of organizing around it now, but until recently, it was assumed if you were gender non-conforming, they have to choose where to put you, and then once they chose a men or a women’s prison, then almost immediately you’d get sent to solitary confinement. You’d do your sentence out in solitary confinement, in complete isolation, because the system is not prepared to deal with gender non-conformity. You are being punished because your very existence challenges the bureaucratic way the system works.

It’s really clear that women who refuse to be abused, who fight back against abusers, almost always get pulled into the criminal justice system. So we have things like Trayvon Martin being shot, and Zimmerman getting off. But any woman that stops an attack from an abuser is inevitably going to do time because that’s just absolutely taboo.

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LP: What were the biggest challenges to getting this exhibit together?

JM: Each exhibition has unique challenges and obstacles, and then there are ones that are sort of similar across the board. For this exhibition, was just that cultural material produced by incarcerated people is hard to access. A lot of it is made in prison and then just never leaves prison.

In general, one of the challenges for all of the exhibitions, is that unless we do something that’s very focused, inevitably there’s so much stuff it’s hard to know when to say “okay we’ve got enough” or to know when to draw the lines. It’s hard to know when to accept that you’re never going to have all of the stuff that you wish you could, that you’re never going to be able to tell the whole story, that maybe even the idea that you’re going to tell some sort of master narrative is questionable in its own right.

When you’re representing things that are so deeply underrepresented, people get attached to wanting their part of the story told, because it’s been marginal or silenced for so long. It makes it really hard to make those choices, because you don’t want anyone else to continue to feel [that way].

We are collecting material from movements that are marginal. Even though they often have extremely deep impacts, rarely is that impact known or visible when they’re most active. It’s kind of like an extra kick in the face when your ideas become commonplace 10 or 20 years later and you’re still written out of the history even though you’re the ones who came up with the ideas.

LP: What do you hope, in general, visitors learn from Self-Determination: Inside/Out?

JM: On the one hand, I hope this contributes to a shift [towards] the idea that prisons are maybe not the answer to the problems that they claim to be. And that locking people in cages is not actually accomplishing what we’re being told it is.

On another level, that incarcerated people are not just objects. They’re loved ones and family members and neighbors and community members. The thing that primarily defines someone as a human being is not whether or not they’re in prison. That people that happen to find themselves in prison, many for reasons that are and then also at the same time many for doing reprehensible things, doesn’t make them not human. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the same desires, life goals, and relationships that everyone else has. And as such, the way that they conceive themselves and their world is part of, needs to be part of, any movement for social transformation.

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THE PEOPLE

The Interference Archive is a collection of posters, flyers, publications, photographs, books, t-shirts, buttons, moving images, audio recordings, and other materials, made by participants of social movements throughout past decades. It is an archive “from below” — collectively run space, powered by people, and with open stacks accessible to all. The Interference Archive explores the relationship between cultural production and social movements. It provides public exhibitions, a study and social center, talks, screenings, publications, workshops, and an online presence, with an aim to preserve and honor histories and material culture that are often marginalized in mainstream institutions. It is at 131 8th Street, #4
, Brooklyn, NY 11215
 (2 blocks from F/G/R trains at 4th Ave/9th Street).

Josh MacPhee is an artist, curator and activist living in Brooklyn, NY. MacPhee is one of the founder of the Just Seeds Artists’ Cooperative, which organizes, creates and distributes radical art. MacPhee is the author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Study of the Street Stencil, which is dedicated to stencil street art. He co-edited Realizing the Impossible: Art Against AuthorityReproduce and Revolt and the upcoming Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today. In 2001 he co-organized the Department of Space and Land Reclamation in Chicago with Emily Forman and Nato Thompson. In 2008 he co-curated the exhibition Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960’s to Now with Dara Greenwald.

Liz Pelly is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. I lives and works at the all-ages collectively-run art space The Silent Barn, where she books (and sometimes plays) shows. She and her friends run the ad-free bi-weekly online newspaper The Media.

The Media is a webpaper covering alternative arts, culture, music, news, and grassroots activism. With contributors often embedded in the communities they cover, The Media aims to bridge the gap between underground presses and mainstream media. Crucially, it is AD-FREE and simply designed. “At a moment marked by short attention spans, decentralized click-bait articles, and newspapers in flux, rethinking the aesthetics of our news websites feels just as crucial as re-imagining their content,” says The Media. “We want our content to resonate on its own merit, free of frivolity and flash, and grounded by a homepage that’s striking in its radical simplicity.”

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After stints at Haverford College, PA; Scripps, CA; and Rutgers, NJ, my first solo-curated effort Prison Obscura is all grown up and headed to New York.

It’ll be showing at Parsons The New School of Design February 5th – April 17th:

Specifically, it’s at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, located at 2 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011.

On Thursday, February 5th at 5:45 p.m, I’ll be doing a curator’s talk. The opening reception follows 6:30–8:30 p.m. It’d be great to see you there.

Here’s the Parsons blurb:

The works in Prison Obscura vary from aerial views of prison complexes to intimate portraits of incarcerated individuals. Artist Josh Begley and musician Paul Rucker use imaging technology to depict the sheer size of the prison industrial complex, which houses 2.3 million Americans in more than 6000 prisons, jails and detention facilities at a cost of $70 billion per year; Steve Davis led workshops for incarcerated juvenile in Washington State to reveal their daily lives; Kristen S. Wilkins collaborates with female prisoners on portraits with the aim to compete against the mugshots used for both news and entertainment in mainstream media; Robert Gumpert presents a nine-year project pairing portraits and audio recordings of prisoners from San Francisco jails; Mark Strandquist uses imagery to provide a window into the histories, realities and desires of some incarcerated Americans; and Alyse Emdur illuminates moments of self-representations with collected portraits of prisoners and their families taken in prison visiting rooms as well as her own photographs of murals in situ on visiting room walls, and a mural by members of the Restorative Justice and Mural Arts Programs at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, PA. Also, included are images presented as evidence during the landmark Brown v. Plata case, a class action lawsuit that which went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where it was ruled that every prisoner in the California State prison system was suffering cruel and unusual punishment due to overcrowded facilities and the failure by the state to provide adequate physical and mental healthcare.

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Parsons has scheduled a grip of programming while the show is on the walls:

Mid-day discussion with curator Pete Brook and Tim Raphael, Director, The Center for Migration and the Global City, Rutgers University-Newark.
Wednesday, February 4, 12:00–1:30 p.m.
Co-hosted with the Humanities Action Lab.

These Images Won’t Tell You What You Want: Collaborative Photography and Social Justice.
Friday, February 27, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Mark Strandquist.

Windows from Prison
Saturday, February 28
A workshop led by Mark Strandquist. More information about participation will be available on the website.

Visualizing Carceral Space
Thursday, March 12, 6:00 p.m.
A talk by Josh Begley.

Please spread the word. Here’s a bunch of images for your use.

PARTNERS

At The New School, Prison Obscura connects to Humanities Action Lab (HAL) Global Dialogues on Incarceration, an interdisciplinary hub that brings together a range of university-wide, national, and global partnerships to foster public engagement on America’s prison system.

Prison Obscura is a traveling exhibition made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

SJDC Prison Obscura invite

Gumpert

Photographer, friend and fellow San Franciscoer Robert Gumpert will be exhibiting at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California from January 25th to March 15th.

On show will be photographs from two projects — Gumpert’s ongoing Take A Picture, Tell A Story, and images from “I Need Some Deodorant. My Skin Is Getting Restless” which were made between 1996 and 2002 at the Alameda County’s Psychiatric Emergency Services at John George, Oakland. In both bodies of work, Gumpert uses oral history (audio and text interviews) to add description, depth and context to the experiences of his subjects.

If you’re in the Bay Area, I strongly recommend a trip through the Caldecott Tunnel out to Moraga.I’ve long been an admirer of Gumpert’s work, specifically Take A Picture, Tell A Story which is part of my curated effort Prison Obscura.

Prior to the public reception on January 25th, will be an hour long panel discussion with Gumpert; architect/activist Raphael Sperry; and psychologist/authority on solitary confinement Terry Kupers.

Click on the flier below to see it larger and glean all the critical information.

Robert Gumpert

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Tameika Smith, San Francisco, CA. SF CJ2. 9 July 2012.

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Chris Goshen, San Bruno, CA. San Francisco. CJ5. 27 June 2009.

Take A Picture

Deborah Lee Worledge, San Francisco, CA. CJ1 Men’s jail. 4 April 2008.

Take A Picture

Michael Johnson, San Bruno, CA. CJ5.

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In the final two days of fundraising, Echoes Of Incarceration is a long term project that helps children of incarcerated parents to make documentary films about the effects of America’s prison industrial complex — on society, on us, on families, on communities, and mostly on children without one or both parents behind bars.

There are an estimated 2.7 million children in America with one or both parents in prison or jail. Mass incarceration has created fundamental weaknesses in society. Mass incarceration as easily impacts individuals as it does vulnerable groups (the poor, the under-educated, the discriminated against) and often we perceive the effects as lasting only years, or being contained within the experience of one identified moment, lifetime or geographical space. We neglect to recognise that mass incarceration is piling pressures on top of problems on top of expectations on top of America’s young, developing citizens.

We live in a society in which vast numbers of youth must negotiate formative years without parental support. The prison industrial complex has burdened our youth with an almost inconceivable set of problems that they did not ask for, and they do not deserve.

Echoes Of Incarceration brings much needed scrutiny to the issue of mass incarceration and crucially it does it through the lens of the innocent people who have inherited a broken, brutalising system we made. Their latest productions deal specifically with the Bill of Rights of Children with Incarcerated Parents.

Please, fund this important project.

Below is a 2009 production made by Echoes Of Incarceration

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Untitled by Derrick Quintero and Ann Catherine Carter. From the “Surrogate Project”

WHAT

This week, apexart announced the three winners of its Unsolicited Proposal Program. One of the selected projects was Life After Death and Elsewhere, organized by Tom Williams and Robin Paris.

WHO

Artist and educators, Paris and Williams coordinate the best prison arts program I’ve never written about.

They work in tandem with prisoners on death row in Tennessee. The Riverbend Maximum Security Institution imprisons 79 people on death row. Eleven prisoners — Abu Ali Abdur’Rahman, G’dongalay Berry, Tyrone Chalmers, Gary Cone, John Freeland, Kennath Artez Henderson, Nikolaus Johnson, Donald Middlebrooks, Harold Wayne Nichols, and Derrick Quintero among them — have worked with Paris and Williams on a few projects. I have admired their practice for a long time.

I’d be embarrassed about bringing their work to you when they are already so far down their creative paths if I didn’t think they still had long and beautiful journeys planned out.

You can see a lot of their work, stretching back 18-months, on the R.E.A.C.H. Coalition blog.

WHERE

Earlier this year, in Nashville TN, in collaboration with artists from Watkins College of Art they produced the exhibition Unit 2 (part 1) from which several of the images included herein originated. Recently, they completed Unit 2 (part 3). In both cases they partnered with small local galleries to put on the events.

PHOTOGRAPHY’S USE

Photos feature heavily in the collaborations between the condemned men and outside artists. For the series “Add-Ons” an outside artist would provide a prompt in the form of a drawing or piece of writing but often an image. The prisoner would then add to it by either drawing or writing directly on the print, or riffing off of it in words and sketches to create a second companion piece.

For the series “Surrogate” a prisoner would make a request for someone on the outside to do something for them by proxy — to enjoy a library full of books, to eat a hearty breakfast prepared to precise specifications, or to make a family portrait. In many cases the evidence and *shared experience* was documentation usually in the form of a photo.

AN ADVOCATE’S MESSAGE

While the process in producing these works is necessarily personal and intimate, the sharing of the artwork and the political urgency needn’t be. Paris, Williams et al. want to use exhibitions as moments for discussion and public education. Namely, they want to contribute to the anti-death penalty movement. As Paris told Hyperallergic, “The system of legal defense for capital cases is shoddy and poorly funded at best; there are no rich people, to my knowledge, on death row. We incarcerate more of our population than any other country. I could go on and on. It’s shameful. It’s not who we think we are as a country.”

PROPOSAL

This isn’t prison fetishism. The men on death row alongside the artists and students corralled by Paris and Williams are collaborators in the fullest sense. I think it is significant that the winning proposal was written by the prisoners; I think it may have been a deciding factor for the judges on the quality, intent and pedagogy of the art.

The prisoner-artists’ proposal reads:

During the past year, the state of Tennessee has staged a nearly unprecedented offensive against those individuals it has sentenced to die. A state that has executed only six people since 1960 has recently scheduled ten executions. As prisoners on death row, and imminent victims of that state-sponsored violence, we represent the “bare life” described so powerfully by historians and philosophers. During the past two years, however, through an unusual partnership with artists, writers, and educators in Nashville, we have endeavored to make our circumstances visible to those beyond the walls of prison. Through published writings and art exhibitions, we have addressed a public that knows as little of our lives as they do of the indignities of belly chains or the menacing shimmer of razor wire.

Our past exhibitions have often included collaborations with artists and art students on the outside. We have created “add-on” drawings (exquisite corpses, more or less) with people beyond the prison, and we have started sketchbooks before sending them out for strangers to finish. We have composed “surrogate” assignments for outsiders to realize (photographs of the stars, for instance, which some of us haven’t seen in 25 years, or the libraries in cities that we will never visit). We have made gifts of our art works and offered them to visitors to the opening of an exhibition in exchange for their photographic portraits. In one show, we exhibited a diorama that traces the all-too-common path from poverty to prison, and in other, we exhibited our personal snapshots and family photos to offer the world a glimpse of our social lives and to show that we are more than prisoners and men condemned to death

In response to your call, we propose an exhibition that will feature designs for our own memorials alongside our representations of the lives we would pursue if we were free. We have all been condemned to death, and the state of Tennessee intends to kill us, but some of are innocent, and we all hope to demonstrate that we are more than the sum of our worst deeds—or that we might be.

The works we will submit will include drawings, paintings, photographs, models, and text-based pieces. Some of us will submit statements outlining reasons for refusing to design their own memorials.

Kudos to them and all involved. Hope to be in NYC when it shows! Robin Paris and I are currently in conversation and I hope to share that back-and-forth with you in the future, but until then, I’d like to use this recent success as an excuse to share some images of the prisoners’ work.

Images courtesy of Guardian, Hyperallergic, Solitary Watch.

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Upreyl Mitchell and Harold Wayne Nichols, “Untitled” (add-on artwork), acrylic and colored pencil on photograph, 13″ x 9″ in (photo courtesy Robin Paris)
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Mika Agari, Jessica Clay, Amy Clutter, Robert Grand, Kristi Hargrove, Robin Paris, Sharon Stewart, Tom Williams, Weng Tze Yang, and Barbara Yontz, “Surrogate Project for Harold Wayne Nichols: Breakfast for Dinner,” photograph.
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Donald Middlebrooks, ‘Silence is Compliance’ (acrylic on canvas board)
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‘The Night Sky’ by Robin Paris and Tom Williams with writing by Gary Cone, Harold Wayne Nichols, and Donald Middlebrooks. From the Surrogate Project
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Nickolus Johnson and Zack Rafuls, “Untitled” (add-on drawing), mixed media on paper, 14 x 11 in.
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Photograph and drawing, by Upreyl Mitchell and Kennath Artez Henderson. From the Surrogate Project.

ARTISTS

Robin Paris is associate professor and chair of the Department of Photography at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a graduate of The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and the Savannah College of Art and Design, and she has taught at Belmont University and The University of the South, Sewanee. Her work has appeared in exhibitions throughout the country. She has been co-facilitating the art workshop in Unit 2 (the Death Row unit) of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution since 2013. Her recent work has involved collaborations with its residents.

Tom Williams is assistant professor of art history at Watkins College of Art, Design & Film in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a graduate of Stony Brook University and the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, and he has taught at the School of Visual Arts, the Museum of Modern Art, New York University, and Vanderbilt University. His writings have appeared in Art in America, Grey Room, and other publications. He has been co-facilitating the art workshop in Unit 2 (the Death Row unit) of the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution since 2013.

APEXART

apexart is a non-profit arts organization in Lower Manhattan that was conceived to offer opportunities to independent curators and emerging and established artists, as well as to challenge ideas about art, its practice and curation. apex art is at  291 Church Street, New York, NY 10013 USA and it puts on exhibitions, Fellowship Program, publications, and public programs. It is free. Contact is 212 431 5270 or info@apexart.org. Hours are Tues – Sat 11am-6pm.

UNSOLICITED PROPOSAL PROGRAM

Anyone, from anywhere, may submit an idea-based exhibition to the Unsolicited Proposal Program. Each annum, three winning proposals are presented at apexart as part of its year-long calendar. Proposals remain anonymous and judged by an international group of 100+ artists, curators, writers and arts professionals. Each juror reads at least 50 proposals, in randomized order. Each proposal receives as many as 25 votes.

“We believe it is the most objective and fair process of evaluation that we have found,” says apexart. “Submissions are reviewed anonymously and solely on the strength of their idea. Previous curatorial experience is in no way required. Supplemental materials are not accepted to further level the playing field.”

The eventual ranking of proposals is made available online to all applicants.

EMAIL

prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

@BROOKPETE ON TWITTER

Prison Photography Archives

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