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Site Unseen: Incarceration flyer. Featuring the work of Jack L. Morris, a California prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for almost 25 years.

Do artworks made on opposite sides of prison walls work together in a gallery space?

Yesterday, at the Los Angeles Valley College, in Valley Glen, CA the exhibition Site Unseen: Incarceration came down form the walls. It was an exhibition bringing together prisoner-made art with artworks made by outside artists about prisons. (Catalogue in PDF, here)

Some artists I knew — Alyse Emdur, Anthony Friedkin, Los Angeles Poverty Department, Sheila Pinkel, Richard Ross, Mark Strandquist, and Margaret Stratton. Others are new to me — Robert V. Montenegro, Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes, Robert Stockton and David Earl Williams.

Shamefully, all those names with which I am unfamiliar I quickly learnt are prisoners. Why shame? Well, it’s all about consistency. I value activism that is built upon close alliance with, and information, from prisoners. There are no better experts on the system than those subject to it. At the very least, I should know and support the leading Prison Artists.

However, when it comes to painting and illustration, I have adopted lazy double standards. Without examination, I have demoted prisoner made art — commonly referred to by the catch all “Prison Art” — to an inferior status. I have prejudged most Prison Art. For my own comfort, I have bracketed Prison Art as naive and limited. I’ve conveniently focused on scarcity of supplies inside prison of prison to cursorily explain the lo-fi aesthetic of Prison Art.

My “logic” blinded me to the invention, resourcefulness and resistance inherent to almost all prison art. Hell, we’ve got prisoners making work out of M&Ms.

Site Unseen: Incarceration, therefore, is a nice kick back in the right direction. If we don’t have prisoners’ own artwork upon which to meditate then we lose site of the issues fast. As much as I have championed the work of Emdur, Ross, Strandquist and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, I want to now celebrate the works of Jack L. Morris, Brendan Murdock, Gabriel Ramirez, Gabriel Reyes and David Earl Williams.

I wish also to applaud Sheila Pinkel for bringing together inside and outside, and for committing the oppressed and their allies to one another upon gallery walls.

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Sheila Pinkel. Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (2014). 7’ x 14’ Archival ink jet prints. Pinkel remarks, “Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration includes the major laws that have resulted in the expansion of the prison system, the Sentencing Reform Act (1984), Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Law (1986) and Three Strikes Law (1994). It is important to note that in the 1960s, during the civil rights era, rate of incarceration was declining as people adopted the ‘rehabilitation not incarceration’ attitude. However, after the Rockefeller Drug Laws took hold, incarceration in the United States began to grow exponentially. Also included is demographic information about the high rate of incarceration of non-white people and women, the great number of people being held in solitary confinement and the massive amounts of money being made by investors in the prison industrial complex. The backdrop for the graph is a set of images from U.S. history taken in the 19th and 20th centuries that reflect the treatment of minorities and prisoners. The poor, non-white and uneducated make up the majority of incarcerated today.

Origins of the Show

In 2004, Pinkel exhibited for the first time her mammoth work Site Unseen: U.S. Incarceration (above). While the shared title between this catalyst work and the exhibition confuses matters a little, it demonstrates the degree to which Pinkel is bound to prison reform. Passion + politics is usually a good recipe for art.

Pinkel’s motivations for mounting the show are many — concerns for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case; an awareness of slavery (past and present); the doctrines of ownership and manifest destiny; sensitivity to the quiet traditions of aboriginal people; a raised consciousness toward the unparalleled use of torturous solitary confinement; and the profit making industries of the prison industrial complex; and more besides.

The urgent issues within the reform and abolitionist movements are so great that often they can drown each other out, or obscure one another. Perhaps, that is where silent 2D artworks come to play their part. Perhaps, a gallery space in which viewers can mediate their own responses is a hushed but vital contribution to the reform debate?

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David Earl Williams. Parrots (1996). 22” x 28” Ball point pen.

It is helpful for me to interrogate the idea that gallery shows and art have an effect upon political realities. I make a conscious effort to justify my workand others’ and to continually ask if analysing images and creative output from prisons changes the daily experience of the United States’ 2.3 million prisoners.

I conclude, often, that conscientious and intellectually honest analysis of images from prisons plays its role in the wider discussion needed to drag us out of this prison crisis.

Prison Sketches in the Absence of Prison Photos

Undoubtedly, in the past few years, solitary confinement has emerged as one of the main, digestible and terrifying issues behind which reformers could win arguments, gain traction and mindshare. The public now know that 80,000 people on any given day are subject to psychological torture within our prisons.

Many of the photographs of Supermax and solitary units — and there are not many — have come about because of court ordered entry to facilities. With the exception of Social Practice make-believe, artists and photographers have, for the most part, failed to image these dark, hidden spaces for the public. I’m apportioning no blame here, just pointing out fact. With that understanding, then, it is significant that the majority of prison artists in Site Unseen are either in solitary or on death row.

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Brendan Murdock. Tower (2012). 9” x 12” Linoleum cut print.

One of the artists in Site Unseen is Jack L. Morris, a creative spirit with whom Pinkel has had a lasting personal and professional relationship. In 2011, Pinkel began corresponding with Morris. At that point, he’d been incarcerated for 31 years. In 1978, aged 18, Morris was sentenced to a 15 years to life for being an accomplice to a murder. When the California Department of Corrections (CDCr) opened Pelican Bay Sate Prison (the first state-run Supermax in the nation) in 1989, Morris was transferred. He’s been in solitary confinement since.

“During this time he has not seen sunlight or touched another person,” says Pinkel.

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Jack L. Morris. Turtle (2012). Dimensions: 12” x 12” Medium: pen, pencil, peanut butter oil, pastel color.

Pinkel points out that the decision-making power to place someone in solitary is solely in the hands of the correctional officers. Checks and balances against abuse in this ‘Us vs. Them’ equation are largely absent. Pinkel believes that Morris, like many prisoners in the SHU, is subject to a Kafkaesque situation in which solitary is inescapable. While policies are shifting after attention from Sacramento politicians, it remains incredibly difficult to get out of the SHU if CDCr has classed you as a gang member.

“Jack has not been involved in gang activity and has had no ability to be involved in it since he has been in solitary. However, he is repeatedly denied release from solitary and has had his designation increased to active gang affiliation,” says Pinkel. “At the moment, there is no legal way for him to get out and, to my mind, there is no good being served by his continued incarceration, either in solitary or in prison at all.”

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Alyse Emdur. Anonymous backdrop painted in New York State Correctional Facility Woodburn (2012). Dimensions:42” x 52” Inkjet print.

Clearly, Pinkel has an affiliation. Put that aside though and consider Morris for his work and you can’t help but be impressed. In order to prevent himself “losing his mind”, Morris created poems, drawing and letters. Pinkel published them in the book The World of Jack L. Morris: From the SHU.

“Together,” says Pinkel, “they form a complex picture of a talented person who believed most of his life that he was not intelligent.”

And so we arrive here. At Morris’ and other art from inside. To be mesmerised by the intricacy of the work is understandable, but more-so we should be quietly and slowly scrutinising the work and using it as a gateway to a psychology we must surely hope we, or any of our loved ones, ever come to know.

Prison illustrations work very similarly to photographs in some ways, in that tropes recur and we find ourselves glossing over them. We presume that the system gives rise to them same type of images of flora, fauna, cars, tattoo-inspired designs, versions of women, motorcycles, sad clowns, tears and blood. These things are prevalent, but individual touches exist in the gaps and it is there we may identify the individual artist.

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Gabriel Ramirez. De Profundis … Dreams (Before 2007). 11.5” x 15” Medium: Pencil on manilla envelope.

The worst thing prison art and photography, alike, can be is misunderstood as aesthetic cliche and used as excuse to bypass the social conditions from which they arise. Prisoner art from solitary is the most reliable source of imagery on which we can rely to learn about extreme confinement. We just need to give it space to percolate. A gallery can do that.

There’s a perverse clash of time appreciation at work in order for prison art to have an effect. The artist labors for days and weeks on a single piece and goes to great lengths to deliver it outside the institution. On the outside, we’re spoilt for images and it’s almost luck or strange happenstance for us to spend more than a few seconds with an image. But, it is possible and a gallery can do that.

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Mark Strandquist. Windows From Prison (2014). Banners 5’ x 11’. Digital prints on vinyl.

Strange Brew

As might evident, I am largely in support of Site Unseen. However, looking over the catalogue, I am a bit skeptical toward the mix of works. Does Mark Strandquist’s work (above) that relies heavily on public education and engagement work when he cannot transform the gallery into a workshop space or collaborate with local reform groups? Are we getting to the point that a prison show cannot exist without the work of Richard Ross!? (I’m friends with Richard and had breakfast with him this morning; he won’t mind the snark). It just seems Ross might be an easy option.

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Is Site Unseen a prison art show supported by outside sympathisers, some of whom happen to be artists? Or is it a genuine attempt to level the field and present artists inside and outside as equivalents? The latter is a tough proposition. I have seen it done though. The Cell and the Sanctuary (Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History) managed to knit insider and outsider artists works together, but they managed it effectively because they were all either students or faculty in the William James Association’s Arts In Corrections program at San Quentin. A visual thread ran through The Cell and the Sanctuary that is not as immediately apparent in Site Unseen.

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Margaret Stratton. Ship’s Passenger Log, December 1916, Ellis Island, New York City, June 29, 1999, 10:35 a.m. (1999). 16” x 20”. Archival digital print.

The main culprit, for me, is the work of Margaret Stratton (above). I’ve constantly wondered what use have images of decaying/ abandoned prisons for connecting us to pressing contemporary prison issues. I can find value in most other works in Site Unseen as they’ve a clear umbilical cord to the tumorous, pulsing Prison Industrial Complex. We can sense the toxic bile of the system in the majority of the works. We can wonder at the ability to stay sane and creative from within such a system. I get none of that awe from Stratton’s work.

I understand Stratton’s B&W images employ a different route to the issue and I don’t want to suggest there’s any inherent flaw in the work or its tactics. The fault, if any, lies with the decision to include this type of work that I identify as an outlier within the collected works.

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Four Convicts, Folsom Prison, CA (1991). Dimensions: 11” x 14” Black and white gelatin silver print.

Another , but slightly less obvious, outlier is Anthony Friedkin’s photo of four Folsom prisoners in the early 90s. It is a captivating portrait for sure (one that I featured very early on Prison Photography) but it is hardly representative — of either recent photographs from prisons, or the U.S. prison population as a whole. Friedkin is best known for his illuminating access into, and photographs of, gay culture in San Francisco and Los Angeles. His respectful treatment of these derided communities was light years ahead of mainstream political consciousness. Friedkin lived among the LGBQT community and the intimacy and support shows through in his work.

I cannot think that Friedkin had a mere fraction of that sort of access to the prison population. I suspect he made his image above on a single visit to Folsom Prison. I have not seen any other photographs from prison by Friedkin. And so, this image, is neither representative of Friedkin’s work. It is ham, distant and reliant on the tropes of prison cliche. Not only is it out of place, it is out of time.

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Gabriel Reyes. Like a Hook (Before 2007). 8.5” x 11”, Ball point pen on paper.

As far as I am concerned, any and all mentions of Alyse Emdur’s Prison Landscapes and the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s performances (below) are absolutely essential and cannot be reiterated enough. Each are powerful statements on the nature of power and the over-reach of state control.

LAPD’s dramatisations are informed by the experiences of people who have been incarcerated and Emdur’s collected portraits and large format photos of prison visiting room backdrops originate from a keen engagements with the visual logic of carceral systems.

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Robert Stockton. Fight (Before 2007): 8.5” x 11”. Pen, additional color.

Prisons and criminal justice reform are gaining attention in the news and public consciousness (a good thing), but just because the conversation is being had and the appetite for a show like Site Unseen might be more ready, the challenging logistics of putting together a curated show of this kind remain unchanged. Kudos to Pinkel for bringing togther artists from inside and outside prison invested in the same goal of making the U.S. a less dangerous, punitive and misunderstood place.

At first glance, the mix of ‘prison art’ on one hand and ‘art made about prisons’ on the other might appear incongruous, but that attitude is exposed as flawed very quickly. As the majority of works in Site Unseen emerge as responses to this country’s brutal, class-dividing prison system, I must conclude that they can do nothing but work together. And so must we if we’re to scale back on decades of fear, bad law and failed policy. If you need resolve and fire-in-your-belly for the task then merely look to the work of those who are subject to confinement. You’ll find it, quietly roaring, there.

ARRESTING POWER

Portland’s a pretty small town. When I lived their I was a fellow panelist with Julie Perini. Jodi Darby once beat me, by mere seconds, to a killer secondhand sweater in a donation pile on the street. I’ve never met Erin Yanke. The three producers have recently completed Arresting Power, a documentary about resistance to police violence in Portland, Oregon.

I supported the Kickstarter to get the film over the finishing line, so I am happy to see it out in the world. On Friday, May 8th, Arresting Power will screen at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, CA.

Arresting Power – Resisting Police Violence in Portland, Oregon provides a historical and political analysis of the role of the police in contemporary society and the history of policing in the United States. It provides a framework for understanding the systems of social control in Portland with its history of exclusion laws, racial profiling, gentrification practices and policing along lines of race and class. It serves to uncover Portland’s unique history of police relations and community response.

Arresting Power features interviews with the families of people who were killed by Portland police, victims of police misconduct, local historians and community organizers. Utilizing archival newsreel from the Oregon Historical Society’s moving image archive, the film explores the history of police reform and abolition movements that have been active throughout the past 50 years.

Watch the trailer here.

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Friday, May 8, 7pm

Kala Art Institute
2990 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA
Sliding scale $5 – $15
Refreshments will be served
Screening followed by Q&A with the filmmakers

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HERE’S LOOKIN’ AT YOU

On March 1st, I was a panelist for the BagNewsNotes Salon The Lens in the Mirror: How Surveillance is Pictured in the Media and Public Culture.

In coordination with the Open Society Watching You, Watching Me exhibition, this online panel wanted to reflect not only upon surveillance in our society but how it is pictured and if those depictions meet the realities of networked viewing that are at constant play behind our walls,, systems, nodes and screens.

I felt like an amateur in the room with other esteemed panelists lining up thus – Simone Browne, Assistant Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, UT Austin; Cara Finnegan (moderator) writer, photography historian, Associate Professor of Communication, University of Illinois; Rachel Hall, Associate Professor, Communication Studies at Louisiana State University; Marvin Heiferman, writer and curator; Hamid Khan, co-ordinator, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition; and Simon Menner, artist, and member of OSF surveillance exhibition.

Over two hours discussion, we discuss 10 images in turn. They flash up as we deconstruct their meanings, but it might be helpful to consult the gallery first, too.

Over the coming weeks, BagNews will be adding highlight clips for easier to digest morsels that get to the meat of our conversation.

“Surveillance technology permeates the social landscape,” says BagNews. “Tiny cameras monitor traffic, parking lots, cash registers and every corner of federal buildings. Through personal devices and social media, citizens also monitor one other.” In the highlight clip (above), moderator Cara Finnegan and panelists Simon Menner, Simone Browne, Hamid Khan, Rachel Hall and Pete Brook discuss generic imagery and the use of stock photography to represent this reality of daily life

SALON

The BagNewsSalon is an on-line, real-time discussion between photojournalists, visual academics and other visual or subject experts. Each salon examines a set of images relevant to the visual stories of the day often focusing on how the media and social media has framed the event. The photo edit is the key element and driver of each Salon discussion and great care is taken to create a group of photos that captures the depth and breadth of media representation.

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First Meal: Everything bagel with veggie cream cheese and a medium coffee from Dunkin Donuts. “I was craving a really good bagel,” said Keri Blakinger, 30, who served 21 months in female correctional facilities in NY. Blakinger, a vegetarian, subsisted mostly on canned vegetables and granola bars, which she received in packages from her parents. Since getting out, her diet has not changed much because she grew accustomed to not having to cook for herself. © Julius Motal.

There’s no shortage of projects about meals in the small corner of photographic practice concerned with prisons and human rights. Specifically, the final meals of condemned prisoners have stoked the macabre and outraged intrigue of artists.

Julius Motal‘s photographs of “first meals” are therefore something of a departure and a welcome addition to the visual narratives trying to convey the transitions out of prison and into society. Instead of an end point, Motal suggests a starting point (although the quality of help for reentry is up for question in many jurisdictions). Still, this work is simple and hopeful. Returning citizens cannot make it on their own. They’ll need to carry resolve and hope and see that reflected back from society. Perhaps Motal’s series with its extended captions can help humanise former prisoners.

The startling thing for me is the similarity in the types of food choices made by people about to face execution and people making a more inhibited choice once they’re outside of prison — almost without exception they go for fast food. (The photo featured above is the exception).

Do returning citizens opt for fast food because they’re poor, have for the most part been poor, and eaten the cheapest and most accessible food? Or is it more simply a case of reaching out for easy comfort (supposing fast food equates to comfort) in times of relief and choosing?

There’s a reflection of class in Motal’s work, which is a good thing. It’s a healthy reminder how the prison industrial complex functions and brutalises communities of lower economic standing. Very few prisoners are like the middle class, liberal arts college educated Piper Kerman — or the TV show equivalent Piper Chapman — from Orange Is The New Black. Most people going to and leaving prison are poorer than the average American.

Currently, Motal’s series First Meals: This is What Freedom Tastes Like is only six images deep. I hope he’ll extend the survey and continue to ask ex-prisoners about their relationships to food. There’s many different directions in which this work could go not only in terms of interaction with subjects but in terms of public education to tie in with reentry services, food deserts, mother and child nutrition programs, and so on and so forth.

It’s significant that more than one caption refers to the overwhelming choice within — and paralysing nature of — grocery stores for former prisoners who were unaccustomed to variety and decision making power for extended periods. One caption reads:

For Stacy Burnett, the choices at the Burger King in Montrose, PA were overwhelming, so much so that she couldn’t make a decision. “I could feel the energy shift behind me,” Burnett, 39, said of the growing restlessness behind her. She finally told the cashier that she’ll have what the woman ahead of her ordered, which was a whopper, fries, a shake and a soda. For the first six months after her release, going to the supermarket was tremendously difficult. There were simply too many choices, and if she didn’t get anything in the first 10 minutes, she would leave without getting anything.

Last meals are a captivating topic but direct us only to the plight of 3,500ish people on death row in the country. Motals’ work about “first meals” directs us to the tough realities of the millions of people leaving jails and prison every year in America.

 

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Image source: Insouciant Writing

THE WRITING ON THE WALL

If you’re in NYC between now and May 22nd go see The Writing on the Wall, an installation by Hank Willis Thomas and Baz Dreisinger. It opened yesterday at the President’s Gallery at John Jay College.

The Writing on the Wall debuted in September 2014, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit (MoCAD) where it was part of the Peoples’ Biennial.

There’s an opening reception tomorrow night, Weds, April 22nd, from 5:30 to 7:30pm.

THE BLURB

The installation is made from essays, poems, letters, stories, diagrams and notes written by individuals in prison around the world, from America and Australia to Brazil, Norway and Uganda. The hand-written and typed pieces were accrued by Dr. Dreisinger during her years teaching in US and international prisons, in the context of both the Prison-to-College Pipeline program she founded at John Jay and her forthcoming book Incarceration Nations: Journeying to Justice in Prisons Around the World.

On a basic and literal level, The Writing on the Wall is about giving voice to the voiceless and humanizing a deeply de-humanized population. It represents a kind of modern-day hieroglyphics, projecting a hidden world into a very public space and allowing a people too often spoken of and for—by politicians and a punishment-hungry public—to speak for themselves, in the most intimate of ways. It is a tribute to the power of the pen, a deliberate verbal intrusion and an assertion that some words need very much to be seen in order to be heard. Indeed the writing is not just on the wall but on the floor, on every inch of the installation space, such that the viewer, unable to look away, is compelled to confront a crisis: global mass incarceration. The piece thus fittingly references the Biblical story in which the writing on the wall, as interpreted by the prophet Daniel, foreshadowed imminent doom and destruction.

Just as mass incarceration is a living, growing global phenomenon, The Writing on the Wall is an ever-evolving installation. With every iteration, it grows and assumes a new shape, because the documents comprising it—material written by those living behind bars—continue to land in Dr. Dreisinger’s hands and mailbox.

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THE BIOGRAPHIES

Hank Willis Thomas is a photo conceptual artist working with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture. He received his BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and his MFA in photography, along with an MA in visual criticism, from California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Thomas has acted as a visiting professor at CCA and in the MFA programs at Maryland Institute College of Art and ICP/Bard and has lectured at Yale University, Princeton University, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. His work has been featured in several publications including 25 under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers (CDS, 2003) and 30 Americans (RFC, 2008), as well as his monograph Pitch Blackness (Aperture, 2008). He received a new media fellowship through the Tribeca Film Institute and was an artist in residence at John Hopkins University as well as a 2011 fellow at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University. He has exhibited in galleries and museums throughout the U.S. and abroad. Thomas’s work is in numerous public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. His collaborative projects have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival and installed publicly at the Oakland International Airport, the Oakland Museum of California, and the University of California, San Francisco. He is an Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media, Columbia College Chicago Spring 2012 Fellow.

Baz Dreisinger is an Associate Professor in the English Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. She is the founder and Academic Director of the college’s Prison-to-College Pipeline Program (P2CP), which offers credit-bearing college courses and reentry planning to incarcerated men at Otisville Correctional Facility. She is also a reporter on popular culture, the Caribbean, world music, and race-related issues for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, among other outlets; she produces on-air segments for NPR and is the co-producer and co-writer of the documentaries Black & Blue: Legends of the Hip-Hop Cop, which investigates the New York Police Department’s monitoring of the hip-hop industry, and Rhyme & Punishment, about hip-hop and the prison industrial complex. The author of Near Black: White to Black Passing in American Culture (2008) and the forthcoming Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World (2015), Dreisinger earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University and has been a Whiting Fellow and a postdoctoral fellow in African-American studies at UCLA.

THE DETAILS

President’s Gallery, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
 899 10th Avenue, Haaren Hall, 6th Floor
, NY 10019.

Hours: 9am-5pm, Mon-Fri.

Contact: gallery@jjay.cuny.edu or 212.237.1439.

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GRAVE ISSUE AND A GRAVE VIDEO APPEAL

Prisons are hostile, and potentially lethal, environments for transgender individuals. The acute need for understanding, medical care, and protection from predatory abuse is made visible for us through the remarkable efforts of Ashley diamond, a woman incarcerated in the mens’ Georgia State Prison.

Hearing her case and the evidence put forth by her advocates, The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it is a wonder Ms. Diamond is still alive. She has suffered no fewer than seven serious sexual assaults in the three years of her term.

Georgia’s prison system is notoriously dysfunctional and brutal. The prison in which Ms. Diamond is incarcerated is Georgia State. It had more sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014 than all but one other state prison. Ms. Diamond’s access to safety is merely one of her request in the recent lawsuit. Mainly, Ms. Diamond asks that her medically diagnosed condition of Gender identity disorder (GID) or gender dysphoria is recognised by the Georgia Department of Corrections and that they provide her the hormones that she was taking for 17 years prior to imprisonment.

Ms. Diamond describes her incarceration to this point as nothing short of torture. Her gender identity is held in contempt by the authorities and her vulnerable situation is in no way accommodated. Bravo to her for forcing a lawsuit against the state in order to secure recognition, medical hormones treatments. This is a fight that will not only elevate the visibility of the severe issues facing LGBQT in prison but may secure human rights hitherto ignored or trampled.

Ms. Diamond and transgender prisoners like her are in a perilous position.

In reporting on the case and the subsequent Federal level support for it, The New York Times says, “Many face rejection by their families, harassment at school and discrimination in the workplace. Black transgender people have inordinately high rates of extreme poverty, homelessness, suicide attempts and imprisonment; nearly half those surveyed for the National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been imprisoned, compared with 16 percent of the study’s 6,450 participants. Transgender women in male prisons are 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than is the general population, with 59 percent reporting sexual assaults, according to a frequently cited California study.”

When budgets for non-profit advocacy groups are so scarce and the resources and intractability of the state opposition is so large, media outreach and messaging has to be perfect. Bravo to SPLC for delivering a message in which Ms. Diamond is front and center. From a contraband cellphone, Diamond makes a direct plea to the public. The illicit nature of the act adds a sense of urgency to the appeal. It is as if all other avenues have been cut off and desperate times require desperate measures.

It’s a bold move and possibly not without its consequences. I would not be surprised if the GDOC was to retroactively punish Ms. Diamond for possession and use of a cellphone. Given the daily threat to which Ms. Diamond is subject, it hardly seems sanction for possessing a cellphone would be high on her list concerns. Whatever the extent of “risk” is involved in publishing this cellphone video it is another significant lens through which we can see this case, this story and this political action.

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Video still from Ashley Diamond’s prison cell video.

ALLIES

It is also crucial that other prisoners are present in the video. It is empowering to see anonymous prisoners feature as allies and supporters. It balances the narrative of prisoners only being predators. Prisoner-led self-organisation is the most quickly silenced but the most effective of resistance against the state and prison industrial complex. I wonder if videos such as this could potentially add further to future struggles?

A FEW QUICK THOUGHTS ON PRISON VIDS

I’ve been promising myself for years to in some way put together an analysis of contraband cellphone photo and video footage. The only definitive thing I can say is that I’ve not seen the vast majority of it and never will.

99.99% of prisoner made recordings are shared between devices, between loved ones and never uploaded to the internet for public viewing. If they do make it to social media they are on the internet behind passworded social media accounts.

Often when prisoner made cellphone videos emerge it is to villianise the prisoner further. News stories peddle in public consternation — we abhor prisoners who might be seen to be thumbing their noses at authority. We also like to frame the stupid or “foolish criminal” and mock them when their video gets them caught. But the truth is, prisoners are very, very sensible with their videos and digital distributions. Why do you think we see so few prison videos?

Prisoners have an interest in protecting their assets — this applies to cellphones that are expensive to acquire and very, very useful. Prisoners have zero incentive for making it publicly known they have or had have had a cellphone. Most prisoners use cellphones to contact families as a cheaper alternative to a price-gouged market. And, let’s remember that phones — like any contraband — get into prisons through the hands of staff as much as they do because of family visitors or civilians.

If the cellphone becomes an issue for the prison administration then their complete lack of understanding of the complaint is exposed — it’d prove the point being made by Diamond and SPLC that the Georgia DOC has demoted human rights to the point of endangering lives.

SPLC’s strategic use of Diamond’s video testimony is deliberate, timely and well-advised. It accelerated and humanised the issue. I, for one, hope it might be a method repeated in the future to benefit the crucial legal battles of prisoners. If so, it could also change our appreciation of prisoner-led political actions.

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If you’re in NYC, get yourself to lower Manhattan tomorrow evening.

Josh Begley is a data artist and web developer, well known for creating an iPhone app to track every reported U.S. drone strike.

In his artist talk ‘Visualizing Carceral Space’, Begley will discuss his projects Prison Map and Dronestream (a.k.a MetaData).

Begley will speak from 6:00 to 7:30 pm, on Thursday March 12th, at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, 2 W13th Street in the ground-floor Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery.

The talk is offered as part of the programming for Prison Obscura showing at Parsons which features an expanded, custom-made version of Prison Map.

Josh Begley‘s work has appeared in WiredThe New York TimesNPRThe AtlanticNew York Magazine, and at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. He currently works at The Intercept doing incredible things like this.

Follow Josh on Twitter at @joshbegley and on @dronestream.

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The Big Graph (2014). Photo: Courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site Guidelines for Art Proposals, 2016

Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia has announced some big grants for artists working to illuminate issues surrounding American mass incarceration.

READ! FULL INFO HERE

ESP is offering grants of $7,500 for a “Standard Project” and a grant of $15,000 for specialized “Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration Project.” In each case the chosen installations shall be in situ for one full tour season — typically May 1 – November 30 (2016).

DEADLINE: JUNE 17TH

THE NEED

ESP has, in my opinion, the best programming of any historic prison site when it comes to addressing current prison issues. Last year, they installed The Big Graph (above) so that the monumental incarceration rates could tower over visitors. Now, ESP wants to explore the emotional aspects of those same huge figures.

Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration will serve as a counterpoint to The Big Graph,” says ESP. “Where The Big Graph addresses statistics and changing priorities over time, Prison in the Age will encourage reflection on the impact of recent changes to the American criminal justice system, and create a place for visitors to reflect on their personal experiences and share their thoughts with others.”

ESP says that art has “brought perspectives and approaches that would not have been possible in traditional historic site programming.” Hence, these big grant announcements And hence these big questions.

“Who goes to prison? Who gets away with it? Why? Have you gotten away with something illegal? How might your appearance, background, family connections or social status have affected your interaction with the criminal justice system? What are prisons for? Do prisons “work?” What would a successful criminal justice system look like? What are the biggest challenges facing the U.S criminal justice system today? How can visitors affect change in their communities? How can they influence evolving criminal justice policies?” asks ESP.

While no proposal must address any one or all of these questions specifically they delineate the political territory in which ESP is interested.

“If our definition of this program seems broad, it’s because we’re open to approaches that we haven’t yet imagined,” says ESP. “We want our visitors to be challenged with provocative questions, and we’re prepared to face some provocative questions ourselves. In short, we seek memorable, thought-provoking additions to our public programming, combined with true excellence in artistic practice.”

“We seek installations that will make connections between the complex history of this building and today’s criminal justice system and corrections policies,” continues ESP. “We want to humanize these difficult subjects with personal stories and distinct points of view. We want to hear new voices—voices that might emphasize the political, or humorous, or bluntly personal.”

GO TO AN ORIENTATION

ESP won’t automatically exclude you, but you seriously hamper your chances if you don’t attend one of the artist orientation tours.

They occur on March 15, April 8, April 10, April 12, May 1, May 9, May 15, June 6.

Also, be keen to read very carefully the huge document detailing the grants. It explains very well what ESP is looking for including eligibility, installation specifics, conditions on site, maintenance, breakdown of funding (ESP instructs you to take a livable artist fee!), and the language and tone of your proposal.

For example, how much more clear could ESP be?!

• Avoid interpretation of your work, and simply tell us what you plan to install.
• Avoid proposing materials that will not hold up in Eastern State’s environment. Work on paper or canvas, for example, generally cannot survive the harsh environment of Eastern State.
• Be careful not to romanticize the prison’s history, make unsupported assumptions about the lives of inmates or guards, or suggest sweeping generalizations. The prison’s history is complicated and broad. Simple statements often reduce its meaning.
• A proposal to work with prisoners or victims of violent crime by an artist who has never done so before, on the other hand, will raise likely concern.
• Do not suggest Eastern State solely as an architectural backdrop. Artist installations must deepen the experience of visitors who are touring this National Historic Landmark, addressing some aspect of the building’s significance.
• Many successful proposals, including Nick Cassway’s Portraits of Inmates in the Death Row Population Sentenced as Juveniles and Ilan Sandler’s Arrest, did not focus on Eastern State’s history at all. They did, however, address subjects central to the topic we hope our visitors will be contemplating during their visit.
• If you are going to include information about Eastern State’s history, please make sure you are accurate. Artists should be sensitive to the history of the space and only include historical information in the proposal if it is relevant to the work. Our staff is available to consult on historical accuracy.
• Overt political content can be good.
• The historic site staff has been focusing explicitly on the modern American phenomenon of mass incarceration, on questions of justice and effectiveness within the American prison system today, and on the effects of race and poverty on prison population demographics. We welcome proposals that can help engage our visitors with these complex subjects.
• When possible, the committee likes to see multiple viewpoints expressed among the artists who exhibit their work at Eastern State. Every year the committee reviews dozens of proposals for work that will express empathy for the men and women who served time at Eastern State. The committee has accepted many of these proposals, generally resulting in successful installations. These include Michael Grothusen’s midway of another day, Dayton Castleman’s The End of the Tunnel, and Judith Taylor’s My Glass House. The committee rarely sees proposals, however, that explore the impact of violence on families and society in general, or the perspective of victims of crime. Exceptions have been Ilan Sandler’s Arrest (2000 to 2003) and Sharyn O’Mara’s Victim Impact Statement (2010). We hope to see more installations on those themes in the future.

PAST GRANTEES

Check out the previous successful proposals and call ESP! Its staff are available to discuss the logistics of the proposal process and the history and significance of Eastern State Penitentiary.

DEADLINE: JUNE 17TH, 2015

ALL INFORMATIONS

Additional Resources

Sample Proposals
Past Installations

For more information contact Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President and Director of Public Programming, at sk@easternstate.org or telephone on (215) 236-5111, with extension #13.

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