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Set photo, from the filming of Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility. © ERNEST

In the northern reaches of Portland Oregon, in the quieter quarters of the St. John’s neighbourhood, sleeps a beast. Wapato Jail was built for $58 million but never opened. It has sat vacant since 2004. It has been used as a film set. They tried to sell it. At one point, the City of Portland put out an open call for alternative uses proposals. Some suggested it could be used as a garden and rehabilitation center. Others suggested it could be used to house Bush, Cheney and other war criminals.

Wapato has costs the tax payer $300,000 per year (a conservative estimate) to just keep the thing offline. One long expensive joke. Systems normal but never operational.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

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Screengrab of a Google Maps angled, aerial view of Wapato Jail, looking northwest.

ERNEST and DEMOS

When the arts organisation c3:initiative moved into St. John’s in 2014 it didn’t take them long to turn its focus to the empty jail. c3:initiative sponsored artist collective ERNEST as artists-in-residence. ERNEST have produced a multi-medium art installation, film, a book and public programs.

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility probes the many concerns that the vacant jail suggests: breakdowns in democracy, prevailing power structures,” reads the exhibition statement.

During ERNEST’s early research they discovered that coyotes had dug under many fences. Video footage shows that they will scale fences too to cross and inhabit the lush ground within the jail perimeter. These wily mammals, that have roamed the area far longer than the jail has stood, have found a way to ignore the unwelcome interruption of a hard and fast boondoggle. Coyotes continue their evolved routine and instead of fighting the jail just orient themselves around it. Ultimately, they operate to ignore the jail’s presence and minimise it’s impact on their rhythms.

Is the coyote a good metaphor? Might we find new solutions to old problems if we approach prisons, jails and social ills with a similar low-key pragmatism. Prisons might be the problem but so to might our strategies of opposition?

“Acting as a conjuror of sorts, the character of Coyote leads the video component of Demos, transforming the specific architecture, history and politics of Wapato Jail into a platform for conversation and collaboration,” says the press release.

While ERNEST are allied to prison reform and abolition arguments, their work doesn’t necessary look like the typically political and didactic protest-imagery. Bringing the subtlety of fine art to a brutish topic such as the abusive prison industrial complex is intriguing. I don’t know what to expect truthfully, which is why I am in Portland right now for tomorrow’s opening.

OPENING RECEPTION

Friday, September 18, 6:30-9:30pm
At c3:initiative, 7326 N. Chicago Avenue, Portland 97203.

Visitors are invited to join c3:initiative and the artists from ERNEST in marking the opening of Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility. Complimentary drinks and light refreshments will be served.

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A graphic by ERNEST from an early conceptualisation stages of the project Demos.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

THAT TITLE?

The project’s title takes its meaning from various interpretations of the word “demos”. The Greek word “demos” (pronounced “day-moss”), refers to the “village” or “people.” In English, “demo”, is used as a shorthand for “demonstration”, as reference to the “demo mix-tape”, or as the vernacular for “demolition”. ERNEST thus uses “demos” to refer to its interest in keeping their methods experimental and provisional, while creating opportunities for local participatory engagement.

PUBLICATION

The book, published by Container Corps, includes a collection of essays, artworks, research and primary documents. I have an essay in there about sketches made in solitary by a man named Ernest Jerome DeFrance.

The book’s contents are both specific to Wapato Correctional Facility, and related to general issues of incarceration, participatory citizenship, and the role of art in social justice and storytelling.

BIG SATURDAY EVENT

I’ll also be in the room for an open roundtable conversation — a broadened investigation of themes relating to the empty jail facility, both locally and nationally.

Saturday, September 19, 2015, 11am-1pm. Followed by a 12-1pm community meal and conversation.

I look forward to hearing from panelists:

Emanuel Price is the Founder and current Executive Director of Second Chances Are For Everyone in Portland, OR. S.C.A.F.E. works to reduce the rate of recidivism by providing support services to promote employment, empowerment, and community engagement for men in transition because Second Chances are for Everyone. Price is currently leading the organization in developing key programs and resources that will help reduce criminals going back into destructive lifestyles after being released from jail or prison. More information about Price is available here.

Melissa Salazar is a May 2015 graduate of Pacific Northwest College of Art, where she studied Communication Design. Melissa has recently become involved in activist work focusing primarily on incarceration of black and brown individuals. She has been influenced by events in her own life and seeks to bring awareness to an invisible society behind bars.

Yaelle Amir is a curator, writer and researcher who currently holds the position of Curator at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, OR. Her writing and curatorial projects focus primarily on artists whose practices supplement the initiatives of existing social movements, rendering themes within those struggles in ways that both interrogate and promote these issues to a wider audience. She has curated exhibitions at Artists Space, CUE Art Foundation, Center for Book Arts, ISE Cultural Foundation, The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Marginal Utility, and the Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University, among others. Her writing has appeared in numerous art publications includingArt in America, ArtLies, ArtSlant, ArtUS, Beautiful/Decay, and Sculpture Magazine. She has also worked at major art institutions, such as the International Center of Photography, the Museum of Modern Art, and NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts.

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Members of ERNEST tour the gymnasium in the empty Wapato Jail, Portland, OR.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

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Photo taken in Wapato Jail, Portland, OR as part of ERNEST’s early research.

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Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility, video still, 2015. © ERNEST

DETAILS

Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility
A project by ERNEST
September 18–November 22, 2015
Gallery Hours: Fri–Sun, noon–5pm at c3:initiative, 7326 N. Chicago Avenue, Portland 97203.

OTHER EVENTS

Reading Group: The New Jim Crow – Wednesdays, October 7, 14, 21, 7:00-8:30pm
Stories in Movement – Saturday, November 7, 5:00pm
No Thank You Democracy, The politics of non-participation, by Ariana Jacob – Sunday, November 22, 4:30pm.

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