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Angelo on his cell bunk

Marc and Brett of Temporary Services shared a tribute to Angelo this week. They collaborated together on Prisoners’ Inventions, and although I never knew (very few people did) Angelo (not his real name, his artist name), I wanted to mark his passing here on the blog.

Prisoners’ Inventions started as a collection of more than one hundred annotated illustrations of inventions that Angelo made, saw, or heard about while incarcerated. From homemade sex dolls, salt & pepper shakers to chess sets, from privacy curtains and radios to condoms and water heaters–all “attempts to fill needs that the restrictive environment of the prison tries to suppress,” writes Temporary Services.

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Battery Cigarette Lighter

It seems so long since Prisoners’ Inventions landed on my radar and even then, I was years late to the project. Someone showed me a copy of the book in 2011. But the first edition of the book was published in 2003, and new editions followed. In 2003 and 2004, Prisoners’ Inventions was presented as an exhibition at MassMOCA, complete with a full replica of Angelo’s cell, and later travelled to numerous venues. Around that time, international press blew up around the originality and the cheekiness of it all. This American Life did a bit.

Prisoners’ Inventions set a standard in many ways for artists and incarcerated individuals working in tandem–the way Angelo insisted on anonymity; the way Temporary Services held the space; the way together they let the illustrations do the work; the manner in which they (despite the barriers and censorship) communicated transparently and studiously; the way they fired public imagination with recognitions of human spirit, ingenuity and agency among a prison population so frequently vilified; the way Angelo and Temporary Services resisted any over-politicization of the project; I could go on and on.

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Coat Hanger

Too often we think of art as being things not doings, as objects not relationships or as things that can exist on a shelf instead of in our hearts and minds. While Angelo and Temporary Services made objects based upon the drawings, objects were never the goal. Prisoners’ Inventions existed to demonstrate the innate creativity we all hold and also the potential in even simple written (and drawn) correspondence. It was about meaningful relation and understanding of people in very different circumstances. Temporary Services call Angelo their greatest ever collaborator, which is a huge statement from an art collective known for it communal underpinnings.

“Angelo’s writings and drawings about the creativity he observed in prison collapsed the distinctions between art and everyday survival,” said Temporary Services. “He transformed our thinking in ways that have influenced everything we’ve done since.”

In truth, Prisoners’ Inventions has influenced many an artist’s thinking and methodology since.

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Steamer Cooker

A common problem with artwork that deals (even tangentially) with the issue of mass incarceration, or with prisoners directly as art makers, is that the art can often fail to break down the inherent power imbalance; that the prisoner is packaged by the outsider for outside public consumption. Furthermore, some art and language can’t help but fall into patronizing stereotypes about how the artist is helping the prisoner … and that the prisoner is helpless. Prisoners’ Inventions never trivialised, infantilized or boxed Angelo’s work. Nor did Temporary Services and Angelo ever try to argue it was something it was not which I think is a reflection of their trust, equity and confidence.

“People seem willing to accept the inventions of prisoners as creative objects that merit our attention and thought without us having to force them into goofy critical constructs like *Outsider Art*,” said Temporary Services in the book Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues (PDF). “These objects don’t need critical help to become interesting. New terminology does not need to be invented to create a niche market or new genre for a stick of melted-together toothbrushes and bits of metal that can be used to make apple strudel in a prison cell.”

If you can take the time to read Prisoners’ Inventions: Three Dialogues, please do. It lays out the origins, conversations, adaptations and logistics of the multi-year project. It elaborates on subtle concepts. It shows that good art rests on a solid idea and no-bullshit presentation of the idea. The way Prisoners’ Inventions moved through cultural space, both IRL (galleries, vitrines, fabricators’ hands) and virtual (image, video, online featurettes, audience mind and assumption) and through real economic systems is fascinating. The way Temporary Services discuss the negotiation of these things in relation to their promises and shared goals with Angelo is grounding and, I think, instructive.

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Stinger (Immersion Heater)

Marc and Brett explain that since Angelo’s release in 2014 he lived quietly in Los Angeles, keeping to himself, catching up on TV and films he missed while locked up for 20 years. They also mention that Angelo had to wait until release before he could see and hold a book of his drawings; the prison administration banned any copies entering the prison because (and you can’t help but laugh) the drawings would show Angelo how to jury-rig objects and homebrew solutions!

The threat was imagined and the logic flawed, of course, but this brings me to a final point. Prisoners’ Inventions did not advocate for Angelo. Never did he and Temporary Services get involved in discussions about his case or legal matters. Not once did the work threaten prison security or reveal anything unknown to nearly every prisoner locked up in America. Opportunities for meaningful, collaborative and non-combative artwork within the prison industrial complex are few and far between. I think it is vital that we recognize art and activity that amplifies the existence of some without ignoring that of others; that we seek projects that lift us all. Mass incarceration is a depressing thing, but there are moments of humor, surprise quirk and enlightenment. Be ready for them! Prisoners’ Inventions succeeded in closing the gap between us and them without forcefully or uncomfortably insisting on the defining terms of us and them. Prisoners’ Inventions occupied a rarified space and we do well to learn from it.

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I’ll close with a story about when, during a cell search, guards found photos of the full replica of Angelo’s cell.

“Stunned and angered that an inmate had somehow acquired photos of his own cell, the guard demanded information on how he got the pictures. When Angelo pointed out the fabricators’ subtle discrepancies in the cell recreation and explained a little about the exhibition, the guard’s anger quickly turned to wonder and amusement.”

Angelo, you mined your memory, you humbly shared your knowledge, you made drawings that confounded expectations and shifted minds. You never wanted fame or fortune. You made a thing that will last. RIP.

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