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“Tex Johnson, 60″ by Ron Levine, courtesy of the artist.
Later this week, I’ll be attending the inaugural prison arts and activism conference, Marking Time.
Hosted by the Institute for Research on Women at Rutgers, and across multiple venues, the event brings together an incredibly committed and skilled cohort of practitioners throughout many disciplines — from dance to yoga, from occupational health to sculpture, and from film making to social work.
I’ll be moderating a panel discussion Imagery and Prisons: Engaging and Persuading Audiences, with Gregory Sale, Lorenzo Steele, Jr., and Mark Strandquist on Wednesday afternoon. In addition, a version of Prison Obscura will be on show at the Alfa Art Gallery in downtown New Brunswick.
To emphasise the breadth and depth of expertise I’ve copied out the schedule below. I have made bold and linked the names of artists, activists and academics’ names with whose work I am already familiar … and admire.
I pepper the post with artworks made by photographic artists attending Marking Time.
Marking Time runs 8th-10th Oct. Registration for the conferecne is free.
See you in New Brunswick this Wednesday?!?!
“Allen and Tanasha, 1998.” Family album. Courtesy of the Fleetwood family.
WEDNESDAY 8TH OCT.
Session 1: 9: 30 – 10:45 am
PANEL: Creative Arts and Occupational Health (ZLD)
Susan Connor and Susanne Pitak Davis (Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare) “Finding Meaning Thru Art”
Karen Anne Melendez (Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare) “The Concert Performance with Adult Females in Correctional Health Care”
Moderator: Michael Rockland (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
WORKSHOP: Steps Taken: Footprints in the Cell (NBL)
Rachel Hoppenstein (Temple University)
Ann Marie Mantey (Temple University)
Session 2: 11:00 – 12:15 pm
PANEL: Law, News, and Art (ZLD)
Regina Austin (Penn Law School)
Ann Schwartzman (Pennsylvania Prison Society)
Tom Isler (Journalist/Filmaker)
Moderator: Tehama Lopez
WORKSHOP: Utilizing Dance as a Social Tool: Dance Making with Women in Prison (NBL)
Meredith-Lyn Avey (Avodah Dance)
Julie Gayer Kris (Avodah Dance)
LUNCH: 12:15 – 1:15 pm
Session 3: 1:15 – 2:30 pm
PANEL: Imagery and Prisons: Engaging and Persuading Audiences (ZLD)
Gregory Sale (Artist)
Lorenzo Steele, Jr. (Founder, Behind these Prison Walls)
Mark Strandquist (Artist)
Moderator: Pete Brook (Freelance Writer/Curator)
PRESENTATION: The Political and Educational Possibilities of Exhibitions (NBL)
Session 4 2:45 – 4:00 pm
PANEL: About Time (ZLD)
Damon Locks (Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project)
Erica R. Meiners (Northeastern Illinois University/Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project)
Sarah Ross (School of the Art Institute of Chicago/ Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project)
Fereshteh Toosi (Columbia College Chicago)
Moderator: Donna Gustafson (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
PANEL: Best Practices: Arts, Prisons and Community Engagement (NBL)
Robyn Buseman (City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program)
Shani Jamila (Artist, Cultural Worker, Human Rights Advocate)
Kyes Stevens (Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project)
4:00 – 5:00 pm Artist Talk: Jesse Krimes (ZLD)
5:00– 5:45 pm Welcome Reception (ZL)
7:30 – 9:00 pm Opening Keynote: Reginald Dwayne Betts (KC)
Welcome Remarks: IRW Director Nicole Fleetwood
Introduction of Keynote: Dean Shadd Maruna, School of Criminal Justice – Rutgers, Newark
“Exercise Cages, New Mexico” by Dana Greene, courtesy of the artist.
“That Renown New Mexico Light” by Dana Greene, courtesy of the artist.
THURSDAY OCTOBER 9TH
Session 1: 9: 30 – 10:45 am
PANEL: Theater in Prisons (ZLD)
Wende Ballew (Reforming Arts Incorporated, Georgia) “Theatre of the Oppressed in Women’s Prisons: Highly Beneficial, Yet Hated”
Lisa Biggs (Michigan State University) “Demeter’s Daughters: Reconsidering the Role of the Performing Arts in Incarcerated Women’s Rehabilitation”
Karen Davis (Texas A&M) “Rituals that Rehabilitate: Learning Community from Shakespeare Behind Bars”
Bruce Levitt and Nicholas Fesette (Cornell University) “Where the Walls Contain Everything: The Birth and Growth of a Prison Theatre Group”
Moderator: Elin Diamond (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
PANEL: Prison Architecture, Space and Place (NBL)
Svetlana Djuric (Activist) and Nevena Dutina (Independent Scholar) “Living Prison”
Maria Gaspar (Artist) “The 96 Acres Project”
Vanessa Massaro, (Bucknell) “It’s a revolving door”: Rethinking the Borders of Carceral Spaces”
Moderator: Matthew B. Ferguson (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
Session 2 11:00 – 12:15 pm
PRESENTATION: Sustaining Engagement through Art: The US and Mexico (ZLD)
Phyllis Kornfeld (Independent Art Teacher, Author, Activist, Curator) “Thirty Years Teaching Art in Prison: Into the Unknown and Why We Need to Go There”
Marisa Belausteguigoitia (UNAM) “Mural Painting in Mexican Carceral Institutions”
WORKSHOP: The Arts: Essential Tools for Working with Women and Families impacted by Incarceration (NBL)
Kathy Borteck-Gersten (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
Judy Dworin (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
Joseph Lea (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
Kathy Wyatt (The Judy Dworin Performance Project)
LUNCH: 12:15 pm – 1:15 pm
Session 3 1:15 – 2:30 pm
PRESENTATION: Visualizing Bodies/Space: A Performative Picture of Justice System-Involved Girls & Women in Miami, FL (ZLD)
Nereida Garcia Ferraz (Artist/Women on the Rise!)
Jillian Hernandez (University of California-San Diego/Women on the Rise!)
Anya Wallace (Penn State University/Women on the Rise!)
Moderator: Ferris Olin (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
PANEL: 25 Years of the Creative Prison Arts Project: Connecting Incarcerated Artists with the University of Michigan Community (NBL)
Reuben Kenyatta (Independent Artist)
Ashley Lucas (University of Michigan)
Janie Paul (University of Michigan)
PRESENTATION: The Art of Surviving in Solitary Confinement (RAL)
Bonnie Kerness (American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch Program)
Ojore Lutalo (American Friends Service Committee Prison Watch Program)
“Theda Rice, 77″ by Ron Levine, courtesy of the artist.
Session 4 2:45 – 4:00 pm
PANEL: Restorative Arts and Aging in Prison (ZLD)
Aileen Hongo (Educator/Activist)
Anne Katz (University of Southern California)
Ron Levine (Artist)
WORKSHOP: The SwallowTale Project: Creative Writing for Incarcerated Women (NBL)
Angel Clark (Photographer/Filmmaker)
Bianca Spriggs (Artist/Poet)
Session 5 4:15 – 5:30 pm
PANEL: Resisting Guantanamo through Art and Law (ZLD)
Aliya Hana Hussain (Center for Constitutional Rights)
Matthew Daloisio (Witness against Torture)
Aaron Hughes (Independent Artist)
Moderator: Joshua Colangelo-Bryan (Dorsey & Whitney LLP)
WORKSHOP: Bar None: The Possibilities and Limitations of Theater Arts in Prison (NBL)
Max Forman-Mullin (Bar None Theater Company)
Julia Taylor (Bar None Theater Company)
5:45 – 6:45 pm Reception (NBL)
7:00 – 9:00 pm: Artist Talks: Russell Craig, Deborah Luster, Dean Gillispie, Jared Owen (AAG)
“Self Portrait” by Russell Craig, acrylic on cloth, 2014, courtesy of the artist.
“LCIW, St. Gabriel, Louisiana, Zelphea Adams” from One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, by Deborah Luster, courtesy of the artist.
FRIDAY OCTOBER 10TH
Session 1: 9: 30 – 10:45 am
PANEL: Prison Lit (ZLD)
Helen Lee (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) “Eldridge Cleaver’s SOUL ON ICE: A Rhetoric of Confrontation in Prison Writing”
Suzanne Uzzilia (CUNY Graduate Center) “Lolita’s Legacy: The Mutual Imprisonment of Lolita Lebrón and Irene Vilar”
Carolina Villalba (University of Miami) “Radical Motherhood: Redressing the Imprisoned Body in Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography”
Moderator: Monica Ríos (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
PANEL: Photographic Education Program at Penitentiary Centers in Venezuela: From the Lleca to the Cohue (ZMM)
Helena Acosta (Independent Curator)
Violette Bule (Photographer)
Moderator: Katie Mccollough (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
PANEL: Narrating Injustice: Youth and Mass Incarceration (BSF)
Sean Saifa M. Wall (Independent Artist) “Letters to an Unborn Son”
Richard Mora and Mary Christianakis (Occidental College) “(Re)writing Identities: Past, Present, and Future Narratives of Young People in Juvenile Detention Facilities”
Beth Ohlsson (Independent Educator) “Reaching through the Cracks: Connecting Incarcerated Parents with their Children through Story”
Moderator: Annie Fukushima (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
Session 2 11:00 – 12:15 pm
PANEL: Gender, Sexuality, and Systemic Injustices (ZLD)
Michelle Handelman (Filmmaker, Fashion Institute of Technology) “Beware the Lily Law: Tales of Transgender Inmates”
Tracy Huling (Prison Public Memory Project) “‘She was incorrigible…’ Building Public Memory About A Girl’s Prison”
Carol Jacobsen (University of Michigan) “For Dear Life: Visual and Political Strategies for Freedom and Human Rights of Incarcerated Women”
Moderator: Simone A. James Alexander (Seton Hall University)
“Beware the Lily Law” by Michelle Handelman, high-definition video, sound, Installation at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia. Photo credit: Laure Leber, 2014.
PANEL: Life Sentences: Memoir-Writing as Arts and Activism in a Maximum Security Women’s Prison (ZMM)
Courtney Polidori (Rowan University)
Michele Lise Tarter (The College of New Jersey)
Samantha Zimbler (Oxford University Press)
Moderator: Fakhri Haghani (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
PANEL: The Politics of Imprisonment (BSF)
Dana Greene (New Mexico State University) “Carceral Frontier: The Borderlands of New Mexico’s Prisons”
Marge Parsons (Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund) “Free the Spirit from Its Cell”
Jackie Sumell (Independent Artist) “The House That Herman Built”
Treacy Ziegler (Independent Artist) “Light and Shadow in a Prison Cell”
Moderator: Angus Gillespie (Rutgers-New Brunswick)
LUNCH: 12:15 pm – 1:15 pm
Session 3 1:15 – 2:30 pm
PRESENTATION: Shakespeare in Prison (ZLD)
Tom Magill (Educational Shakespeare Company Ltd)
Curt Tofteland (Shakespeare Behind Bars)
PANEL: Building Effective Prison Arts Programs (ZMM)
Laurie Brooks (William James Association) “California Prison Arts: A Quantitative Evaluation”
Jeff Greene (Prison Arts Program at Community Partners in Action) “Beyond Stereotype: Building & Supporting Extraordinary Arts Programs in Prison”
Becky Mer (California Appellate Project/Prison Arts Coalition) “National Prison Arts Networking in the US: Lessons from the Prison Arts Coalition”
Moderator: Lee Bernstein
PANEL: Genre and Aesthetics in Prisons (BSF)
T.J. Desch Obi (Baruch College, CUNY) “Honor and the Aesthetics of Agon in Jailhouse Rock”
Anoop Mirpuri (Portland State University) “Genre and the Aesthetics of Prison Abolition”
Jon-Christian Suggs (John Jay College, CUNY) “Behind the Red Door: Real and Fictional Communism in Prison”
Ronak K. Kapadia (University of Illinois at Chicago) “US Military Imprisonment and the Sensorial Life of Empire”
Moderator: Jed Murr
Session 4 2:45 – 4:00 pm
PANEL: Twenty Years of Teaching Visual and Literary Arts in a Maximum-Security Prison (ZLD)
Rachel M. Simon (Marymount Manhattan College in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility)
Duston Spear (Marymount Manhattan College in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility)
WORKSHOP: Alternatives to Violence Workshops in Prison: Liminal Performances of Community and/as Activism (ZMM)
Chad Dell (Monmouth University)
Johanna Foster (Monmouth University)
Eleanor Novek (Monmouth University)
Deanna Shoemaker (Monmouth University)
WORKSHOP: More Than a Rap Sheet: The Real Stories of Incarcerated Women (BSF)
Amanda Edgar (Family Crisis Services)
Jen LaChance Sibley (Family Crisis Services)
Jenny Stasio (Family Crisis Services)
CLOSING REMARKS (ZLD): 4:00 – 4:30 pm
OPENING RECEPTION FOR PRISON OBSCURA (AAG):4:30 – 6:30 pm
EVENING EVENTS: 7:00 – 9:30 pm (SH)
Tales from the Cell, Mountainview Program
The Peculiar Patriot, Liza Jessie Peterson
Women on Our Own, acapella group of formerly incarcerated musicians
Films to be shown all day on October 9 & 10 at the Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building, 162 Ryders Lane (Douglass Campus), schedule to be determined.
Key for venue codes:
AAG: ALFA ART GALLERY
BSF: BLOUSTEIN SCHOOL FORUM
KC: KIRKPATRICK CHAPEL
NBL: NEW BRUNSWICK PUBLIC LIBRARY COMMUNITY ROOM
RAL: RUTGERS ART LIBRARY
SH: SCOTT HALL
ZL: ZIMMERLI MUSEUM LOBBY
ZLD: ZIMMERLI MUSEUM LOWER DODGE GALLERY
ZMM: ZIMMERLI MUSEUM MULTIMAX ROOM
Of the two dozen photographers in the show, only three had actual objects (Sye Williams’ darkroom prints, Jane Lindsay’s bottle caps and Deborah Luster’s tintypes). Given the cost and hassle of shipping, it was decided that the re-used Noorderlicht exhibition prints would not be returned.
I was given instructions to destroy all prints.
It occurs to me that a lot of people don’t talk about this aspect of contemporary exhibition-making. It’s not really sad to see them go, because they never belonged to anyone. They only belonged to the show. And besides, knowing they were to be destroyed, I put most of them up with double sided sticky tape, so there was no preserving them after that ultra-adhesive abuse anyway. Super-strong magnets are hardly kind to bare prints either!
We do plan to travel Cruel and Unusual (make Hester, Noorderlicht and I an offer!) and as such we’ll see shiny versions printed again.
Until then, think on these images of photogaeddon, wanton destruction and image massacre.
There’s a new photo festival on the scene. It’s called Photoville and it is in New York. Specifically, it is in Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photographs will be displayed in 30 shipping containers. Public submissions will hang on a big fence.
We’ll have two containers to fill. Cruel and Unusual showcases 11 photographers work in the main part of the exhibition. I shall be installing a wall with the images of 20+ more photographers that I met during Prison Photography on the Road.
Yesterday, Photoville announced its schedule of talks and events.
Included is a panel discussion that I’ll be moderating titled “Cruel and Unusual: The Prisons, the Photography or Both?” Panelists include the hyper-talented Deborah Luster, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Lori Waselchuk and Yana Payusova.
Photoville literature describes a talk by me “about documentary, institutional, vernacular and legal photography and the political uses of images by media, activists and families” but this is in fact going to be a very brief introduction by way of explaining my interests. The majority of the time will be exploring the stories behind the Luster, Kenneally, Waselchuk and Payusova’s images (sampled below).
The panel discussion “Cruel and Unusual: The Prisons, the Photography or Both?” is from 3:30pm – 4:30pm, on Saturday, 23rd June. It would be great to see you there.
Stick around for Michael Shaw/BagNewsNotes‘ discussion about “The State of the News Photo” immediately after. I’m looking forward to that.
This welcome opportunity for the photographers, Hester and I at Photoville comes at a worrying time. Well-documented is the threat of Noorderlicht’s closure (here, here, here, here and here) after being refused 500,000 Euros of funding from the Dutch government for the years 2013-2016.
Ironically, the Dutch Advisory Board to the Cultural Council thinks that Noorderlicht doesn’t engage enough with other global organisations. This is false. Cruel and Unusual at Photoville is a typical example of Noorderlicht – a pioneering institution of international scope and influence – collaborating with an equally pioneering organisation.
Photoville director, Sam Barzilay, used to work with the New York Photo Festival (NYPH). He doesn’t any more. If it is a schism, or a parting of ways, a clash of ideologies or just new opportunities being seized I don’t know.
I do know NYPH had come under some criticism for poor prints, a certain lack of organisation and even elitism. I should say I have never attended NYPH; these are things I’ve read or heard. I have not heard how this years NYPH (last month) went either.
Given that Photoville runs over nine days with six days of viewing, given that it is free, given that they’re involved the public’s photographs, given that there’s a beer garden and a dog park and it is in a park, I suspect Photoville with be quite different in character to many photo festivals, NYPH included. I’m imagining something quite free and easy, welcoming and fun, underpinned by serious photography. It wouldn’t surprise me if I end up juggling a hacky-sack while discussing the merits of the documentary tradition!?
On the talks and events schedule alone there is Ed Kashi, Janelle Lynch, Ben Lowy, Michael Itkoff, Taj Forer, ICP, Adriana Teresa, Wyatt Gallery, Elinor Carucci, Lori Grinker, Glenn Ruga, Lomography, Mediastorm, ASMP, En Foco, Michael Foley, Ariel Shanberg, CFAP, Jennifer Schwatrz and Camera Club of New York.
I’m intrigued by the ‘Activism & Photography’ panel, but the panelists are yet to be announced. It’s the mystery card, so to speak. There’s a stack of socially engaged photographers I’d like to hear speak. We’ll have to wait and see.
The exhibition containers will showcase an impressive line up of which you should just read through.
© Deborah Luster
© Yana Payusova
© Brenda Ann Kenneally
© Lori Waslechuk
MORE ON PHOTOVILLE
Running from June 22nd – July 1st, 2012, Photoville is a new Brooklyn-based photo destination; “a veritable village of 30 freight containers transformed into temporary exhibition spaces.”
Occupying more than 60,000 sq. feet in the heart of Brooklyn Bridge Park, Photoville includes exhibitions, lectures, hands-on workshops, nighttime projections, a photo dog run, a camera greenhouse, and a summer beer-garden with food trucks to “create a photography destination like no other.”
Photoville will be located on the uplands of Pier 3, along the Brooklyn Waterfront between DUMBO and Atlantic Avenue.
It is a project by United Photo Industries.
In operation since 1980, Noorderlicht is a many-faceted and international platform, originally only for documentary photography, but now for any photographer who has a good story to tell. It has a sharp eye for new developments, but averse to trends and hype.
Noorderlicht organizes an annual photography festival, mounts exhibitions in its photo gallery, organizes photographic commissions and arranges discussions, lectures and masterclasses. Noorderlicht publishes exceptional catalogues and photo books.
With its distinctive, cutting-edge programming and outstanding publications, Noorderlicht has built up an international reputation as an institution that is able to couple engagement with visual beauty. Noorderlicht productions are imaginative and compelling, enthusiastic and critical, personal and socially committed.
Noorderlicht is headquartered in Gronignen, The Netherlands.
CRUEL AND UNUSUAL
The title of the exhibition refers to the English Bill of Rights from 1689 and the Eighth Amendment to the America constitution, which stipulates that citizens must not be subject to ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ But when is punishment cruel and unusual? To assist in the public discussion of this issue, photography helps by providing insight into the various facets play a role in the question.
Cruel and Unusual looks at how the prison system is presented in images, and how these images are created, distributed and consumed. How do citizens – tax payers and empathetic humans – come to an understanding of life in prisons on the basis of the information – politicized or not – which they receive?
Photographers Alyse Emdur, Amy Elkins, Araminta de Clermont, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Christiane Feser, Jane Lindsay, Natalie Mohadjer, Deborah Luster, Lizzie Sadin, Yana Payusova and Lori Waselchuk, each use their own strategies, materials and techniques. Given the extent of access to prisons, they work with amateur photography, alternative processes, texts, painted images, digital manipulation or traditional black and white documentary photography.
Cruel and Unusual takes a startling and sometimes disconcerting look behind prison walls around the world. It asks: how do current practices of mass incarceration reflect our changing sense of decency and justice?
My choice of twelve female photographers – Jenn Ackerman, Araminta de Clermont, Alyse Emdur, Christiane Feser, Cheryl Hanna-Truscott, Deborah Luster, Britney Anne Majure, Nathalie Mohadjer, Yana Payusova, Julia Rendleman, Marilyn Suriani, and Kristen S. Wilkins – are a eclectic mix of artists with different approaches to photography in sites of incarceration. Among their works you’ll find fine art documentary, found photography, alternative process, painted photographs, collaborative portraiture, dreamy landscape, photojournalist dispatches and social activism.
Some ladies’ work I’ve featured before on Prison Photography; some are relatively new discoveries; others I met during Prison Photography on the Road; and a few are included in the ongoing Cruel and Unusual show at Noorderlicht.
Thanks to WIPNYC co-founders Amy and Cara Phillips for providing an avenue with which to disseminate photography that counters stereotypes and informs audiences of lives behind bars. Thanks also to Megan Charland for formatting the exhibition.
From my curatorial statement
In the past 40 years, America’s prison population has more than quadrupled from under 500,000 to over 2.3 million. This program of mass incarceration is unprecedented in human history. Women have born the brunt of this disastrous growth. Within that fourfold increase, the female prison population has increased eightfold. You heard right: women are incarcerated today at eight times the number they were in the early 1970s. Are women really eight times more dangerous as they were two generations ago?
Please, browse the gallery, bios and linked portfolios.
The next day he emailed me to say that one of Luster’s sitters from Transylvania, Louisiana in May of 2001, he had photographed in San Francisco County Jail in February of 2009. Bob interviewed the man yesterday and posted the audio.
This is the first instance I’ve come across in which two independent photographers have photographed the same prisoner. I don’t know if it is significant or not?…
As a follow up to yesterday’s post on Deborah Luster’s work One Big Self, I encourage you to listen to her speak about the project with The Kitchen Sisters. The interview, part of The Hidden World of Girls series focuses on Luster’s self rehabilitation through photography, the relationships she developed with female prisoners and the direct benefits the portraits brought to the incarcerated women.
ONE BIG SELF
I have told many people in person that Deborah Luster’s One Big Self is the most impressive prison photography endeavour to date. I have been slow to state as such on this forum because the scope, details and inspiration of the project are so overwhelming.
Every portrait deserves an essay, but that obviously is not possible. Rather than delay any further, my aim here is to present many of Luster’s portraits, describe the bare facts, and provide some further resources to understand the work.
Completed between 1998 and 2003.
Portraits taken in many different prisons – mens and womens facilities; minimum to maximum security throughout Louisiana; and with different levels of supervision.
Tens of thousands of portraits taken.
Luster estimates she gave away 25,000 portraits to prisoners over the course of the project.
Luster worked fast – 10 to 15 portraits per hour. At a point working in sheer volume became the only reasonable way to respond to the size of the prison population with which she was engaged.
Luster got involved in this longitudinal study through a chance request. Luster’s emotional standing at the time of beginning was – is – atypical and unexpected.
Luster’s mother was murdered in 1988; “Although I was interested in photography prior to that time, I didn’t study or practice it. I began photographing in response to her murder.”
Luster did not deliberately go in search of the subject. In 1998, she was driving near Lake Providence, Louisiana when she came upon East Carroll State Prison Farm. She literally knocked on the front gate. There and then Warden Dixon gave her sanction to begin the endeavour.
VIDEO & AUDIO
SFMoMA has done us a great service in recording and publishing the following video shorts.
Deborah Luster is represented by Catherine Edelman Gallery, who present the best online selection of her portraits.
In 2000, One Big Self was exhibited at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke, providing an overview and gallery of the project.
The best in-print interview with Luster is included in recent publication, PRISON/CULTURE (City Lights), which I reviewed two months ago.
THE BOOK: ONE BIG SELF
The book is at a premium now and you’ll struggle to find it for under a $100. It is published by Twin Palm Press.
Luster collaborated with writer/poet C.D. Wright. Luster’s images and Wright’s poetry are a great complement to one another. Listen to Wright read her poetry from the project.
A PROJECT ONGOING
Despite the passage of seven years since the projects official closure, Luster’s career continues to be defined by her ground-breaking, genre-defining project. Her lectures are vital in that she describes the many facets of the project – from security arrangements, to gear (she generally worked with digital), to processing (she made use of tintype imitation technique printing onto small metal sheets), to the specifics of exhibition.
The image below shows a steel cabinet and lamp (containing 288 silver-emulsion aluminum plates) as it was displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and other institutions. Luster wanted to create a tangible viewing experience in which the audience were required to handle the archive of human life in the same way the state of Louisiana organised and disciplined the bodies under its supervision.
In the video (below) Luster talks us through the senses and noises of the exhibit design.
Over two million individuals are behind bars in U.S. prisons, living in isolation from their families and their communities. Prison/Culture surveys the poetry, performance, painting, photography & installations that each investigate the culture of incarceration as an integral part of the American experience.
As eagerly as politicians and contractors have constructed prisons, so too activists and artists have built a resistance. Nowhere are these two forces pushing against one another as forcefully as in California. The book, Prison/Culture, compiles the documents of a two year collaboration between San Francisco State University, Intersection for the Arts (one of San Francisco’s oldest art non-profits) and prison artists & outside activists across the US.
Mark Dean Johnson’s essay summarises the visual/cultural history of incarceration; from Gericault’s institutionalized mentally ill subjects and his paintings of severed heads as protest against capital punishment, to Goya’s prison interiors of the inquisition; from Alexander Gardner’s portrait of Lincoln’s assassin Lewis Payne (1865), to Otto Hagel’s portrait of Tom Mooney (1936); and from Ben Shahn’s murals against indifference to the conditions of immigrant workers (1932) to the work of Andy Warhol and David Hammons in the modern era.
Johnson guides this lineage to the Bay Area, describing how Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison became the conversation topic of Bay Area coffeehouses and classrooms (Foucault began lecturing at UC Berkeley in 1979). The swell of interest in Foucault’s structuralism coincided with a grassroots expansion of prison art in the early 1980s.
For text, the editors of Prison/Culture made two canny and provocative choices: Angela Y. Davis and Mike Davis (no relation).
Firstly, in a 2005 interview, America’s most notorious prison abolitionist Angela Davis sets out – in her most accessible terms – how our prison industrial complex serves primarily as a tactical response to the inadequate or absent social programs following the end of slavery. Abolition was successful in that it redefined law, but it failed to truly develop alternative, democratic structures for racial equality. Powerful stuff, yet even newcomers to Davis’ argument won’t be as shocked as they may expect to be. She’s that good.
Next up, Mike Davis’ 1995 essay ‘Hell Factories in the Field’ is a bittersweet ‘I-told-you-so’-inclusion. Davis has made a specialty of dealing with – in stark academic prose – disaster scenarios, race-based antagonism and the environmental rape of recent Californian history. When Davis witnessed the mid-nineties expansion of the prison industrial complex (or as Ruth Gilmore Wilson terms it ‘The Golden Gulag’) he foresaw prisons’ economic band-aid utility for depressed towns; foresaw the mere displacement of violence; foresaw the assault on fragile family ties; foresaw the unconstitutional prison overcrowding and predicted the collective collapse of moral responsibility.
Davis’ article focused on the then new California State Prison, Calipatria – and not in a dry way. Paragraphs are devoted to recounting the installation of the world’s only birdproof, ecologically sensitive death fence following impromptu electrocutions of migrating wildfowl. The editors note, as of 2008, Calipatria’s facility design of 2,208 beds was 193% over-capacity with 4,272 inmates. Where birds saw an improvement in their lot, prisoners certainly did not, have not.
Contributors include some well-known names – RIGO, (here on PP) Sandow Birk, Deborah Luster and Richard Kamler whose works address incarceration, criminal profiling, wrongful conviction, prison labor, and the death penalty. The book also includes poetry by Amiri Baraka, Ericka Huggins, Luis Rodriguez, Sesshu Foster and others but I shall not comment on these wordsmiths (their work is beyond my purview) other than to say they are talented and politically in the right place.
Special mention must go out for Deborah Luster’s One Big Self project (more here). In my personal opinion, it is the single most important photographic survey of any US prison. It is certainly the most longitudinal. Over a five year period, Luster visited the farm-fields, woodsheds, rodeos and national holiday & Halloween events throughout Louisiana’s prisons. She became a loved and recognized figure among the prison population; she estimates she gave away 25,000 portraits to inmates. Luster’s conclusion? Even mass photography struggles to communicate the vast numbers of men and women behind bars.
In 2003, artist Jackie Sumell collaborated with Herman Joshua Wallace (one of the Angola 3) on the design of his “Dream House”. The project The House That Herman Built is heartbreaking and bittersweet.
Alex Donis employs cunning and cutting humour for his series WAR. He sketches criminal “types” with figures of authority (policemen, prison guards) mid-dance, often bumping and grinding. He even conjures a kiss between Crips and Bloods gang members.
Also unexpected is the visual testimony of condemned mens’ last requested meals. For The Last Supper, Julie Green painstakingly painted porcelain plates with the last meals of nearly 400 executed men. Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize a few years ago, in large part due to his vases of abuse, bigotry and social ills. This clever use of regent materials has also been adopted by Penny Byrne for her Guantanamo Bay Souvenirs which sets up interesting parallels and a new turn for discourse between US homeland prisons and those used for the “Global War About Terror” (GWAT).
Relating to GWAT, Aaron Sandnes established a sound sculpture in which gallery visitors were subjected to the same pop songs used in Psych-ops by police and military interrogators.
Dread Scott‘s use of audio is intentionally to give silenced men a voice. (Scott has talked about the primacy of audio in his exhibition of prison portraits previously at Prison Photography).
Mabel Negrete collaborated with her brother incarcerated in Corcoran State Prison. She mapped out the floorplan of his cell as compared to her apartment bathroom. She then developed a dramatic dialogue in which she played both herself and her brother. (No images unfortunately.)
Traced – but essentially fictional – lines of structure are fitting for San Francisco, the city in which world-famous architect/installation artists Diller & Scofidio got their start with the architectural memories of the Capp Street Project. Negrete’s CV is extensive, she was instrumental in organising Wear Orange Day, a prisoner awareness action. Also check out her Sensible Housing Unit.
Cross-prison-wall collaborations are vital to the project as a whole; so much so, that without input from prisoners, the entire enterprise would fall short. Primarily, it is the men of the Arts in Corrections: San Quentin run by the William James Association who deliver acrylics and oils of optimistic colour and profound introspection. More here.
Collaboration as delivered in a multimedia and digital format comes by way of Sharon Daniel’s Public Secrets. Public Secrets “reconfigures the physical, psychological, and ideological spaces of the prison, allowing us to learn about life inside the prison along several thematic pathways and from multiple points of view.”
In closing, it is worth noting that San Quentin prison (only 12 miles north of San Francisco) has one of the few remaining prison arts programs in the state following 20 years of cut backs. The works in Prison/Culture challenge – as Deborah Cullinan & Kurt Daw, in their foreword, suggest – “traditional boundaries between inside and outside, between professional and amateur, between institutions and people” and, “by juxtaposing work by professional artists with artists who are working inside a prison, this book challenges us to rethink notions of community and culture.”
Prison/Culture is simultaneously a consolidation of achievement, a fortification of resources and celebration of resistance. This may be a book with a Californian focus, but it has national and international relevance. Succinct, well researched, egalitarian and lively. For me, Prison/Culture is the best collection of works by any US prison reform art community up until this point in history.
The resource list of over 80 organisations at the back of the book (page 92) is ESSENTIAL reference material for anyone looking to commit energies into prison art programs. All told, this book is a must read for those interested in the artistic landscape of our prison nation. It powerfully exposes the vast gulf between criminal justice and social justice in US society.
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Prison/Culture is published by City Lights, edited by Sharon E. Bliss, Kevin B. Chen, Steve Dickison, Mark Dean Johnson and Rebeka Rodriguez.
City Lights Celebrates the Release of Prison/Culture
On Thursday, May 6 at 7:00 pm, join Steve Dickison, Jack Hirschman, Ericka Huggins, and Rigo 23 for a reading and book release celebration at City Lights Books. Tune in to KQED Forum at 9:00 am PDT the morning of the event for an interview with the book’s editors and contributor Angela Davis.
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Images (from top): PRISON/CULTURE book front; Sandow Birk; Deborah Luster; Exhibition views of The House That Herman Built; Alex Donis; Alex Donis; Julie Green; Julie Green; Ronnie Goodman, San Quentin inmate, displays his work; and ‘Public Secrets’ screenshot.