You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Activist Art’ category.
Cunliffe Street, Chorley
THE DARK FIGURE
The abuse might be going on in your town. Victims may be under coercion in your neighbourhood. Slaves and masters may be on your street. If that sounds far-fetched take a look at Amy Romer‘s project The Dark Figure* and you’ll learn that modern day slavery is diffuse throughout Britain. In recent years, cases of contemporary slavery, forced work and forced prostitution have been detected and prosecuted in villages, towns and cities in every region of the UK.
While modern day slavery is more prevalent in developing nations, it persists in (what we in the West prefer to call) advanced democratic nations. In December 2015, the UK Home Office estimated that there were 13,000 victims of slavery in Britain. The government referred to the 13,000 as “the dark figure” from which Romer’s documentary project derives its name.
Romer has travelled the UK photographing the streets that her research has uncovered as sites of slavery. I encourage you to learn more about the cases the project covers here:The Dark Figure*.
Romer wants “people to be reminded of somewhere they have lived or visited; somewhere they feel safe.” Do these places look familiar? For me these places look very familiar. I spent my formative years drinking at a pub at the bottom of Cunliffe Street, Chorley (pictured above). In recent weeks, I’ve travelled through Burnley, Batley and Blackburn. During the project, Romer discovered that two traffickers facing prosecution in Plymouth lived one street over from her.
The Dark Figure* is not an easy project to face. It is insistent on revealing the nastiness in our midst. It holds considerable visual dissonance for British audiences particularly. The act of documenting is, for Romer, a form of witness. I wonder to what degree this work propels us to learn more about the hidden issue? I wonder if any victims of contemporary slavery would ever see it? There’s a lot to unpack here, so I was happy Romer was willing to answer a few of my questions. Scroll on for our Q&A.
Ash Road, Horfield, Bristol
Q & A
I expect there are so many sites of imprisonment, slavery and abuse. How do you choose which to photograph?
Sadly, where I photograph is largely determined by and limited to which stories make the headlines. The 2015 Modern Slavery Act has made prosecutions of modern slavery and human trafficking easier to conduct and so we are starting to see an increase in cases and subsequent media attention. However, due to the sensitivity of the such cases, police give very limited information to press for the protection of both victims and suspects. So I’m having to initially search for the stories through the press and then do some digging of my own via the police, The White Pages and Google.
The problem is that many cases will never be known to the press, to me or to the public generally. First of all, it’s a hidden crime so uncovering it in the first place is a significant challenge, which takes a huge amount of police resources and social care. Secondly, victims are often scared of authority and have absolutely no trust to give. They’ve been mentally and/or physically controlled and threatened and are entirely dependent upon their ”employer” or “gang-master”, so even when victims are recovered it is likely they will run away from police or from care, and in a lot of cases, will return to their gang-master or get picked up by another. And we’ll never hear about it.
Putting aside the disturbing limitations, I knew early on that the project would only become effective once I was able to present an abundance of cases, becoming a kind of bleak directory of U.K. modern slavery cases. So as long as I’ve been able to piece together solid and reliable facts and have been able to get to the locations, I haven’t been too fussy about which stories I pick. It’s been more important that I capture the diversity of the problems that exist in the U.K., and to try to communicate that sense of abundance.
SOAS, Russell Square, London
Batley Field Hill, Batley, Kirklees
Bamfurlong Lane, Staverton, Cheltenham
What are the strengths and shortcomings of the image (as a medium) in the face of this issue?
The image of modern slavery is in most cases a troubling one. It’s hidden nature makes its reality very difficult to photograph. Instead, we tend to find images made to represent slavery, using actors or “symbols” of slavery such as hands tied with rope or a person trapped behind bars, which are not only inaccurate but are damaging to the understanding of the issue.
We may be exposed to photo stories of sex trafficking or labour exploitation in other countries, but we need to show people its right here in the UK with real pictures of real stories.
How do you describe the photographs?
There is nothing notable I can say about these images on their own. Perhaps that they are deliberately quiet. It is only when coupled with their stories that the pictures become something sinister, at which point the viewer can reconsider the world they thought was safe and familiar to them.
My ultimate goal is to spur a realisation in the audience that such crimes are likely to be happening much closer to home than they imagine.
Ringwood Road, Bournemouth
You explained in the Multimedia Week podcast that when you first approached people you had the idea, the will, but not something tangible to show; no images to share. Then you went out and just started making photographs to demonstrate your commitment and skill. Can you explain how and why that order of events helped or hindered the project.
There’s no right or wrong order of doing anything. But in my case, it had to happen in that order for me to understand the reality of the work I was proposing, and to then move forward with alternative ideas. But you never know with these things until you try. All it takes is speaking to the right person and you don’t know who that person is. (I still don’t!).
I was very lucky at the beginning and experienced a great deal of openness from Devon and Cornwall Police, which possibly led me to believe others would be just as forthcoming, but I came to realise this wouldn’t be the case, which I think is fair enough. Why trust me? The problem is, I’m still battling with the access I want – but this is all part of the job.
What I will say though, is that when I started making photographs I felt a huge sense of relief. Even for someone who relishes in research, I very much reached a point where I just needed to pick up a camera and go shoot.
This style of photography was very different than what I’m used to so it was a very interesting process for me and one which allowed me to continue research from a more positive perspective, as I started shaping my ideas and understanding of the subject through pictures.
Brougham Street, Burnley
Wentloog Avenue, Peterstone, South Wales
Farrier Road, Perivale, Ealing
Have you spoken to survivors of modern slavery?
I have. I had one guy reach out to me via Facebook having seen my project. We’re in conversation about working together long distance.
Previous to this, I had been trying to reaching out to NGOs for access to survivors, but had found that even after I had received a “yes” from a number of them, and months worth of email and phone communication, access would eventually be denied for the protection of the survivor(s). Of course, this is understandable and I would refuse to knowingly harm or prolong the process of recovery for any survivor, but I’m not always convinced the refusal has been a decision that has involved the survivor. I think NGOs sometimes struggle to appreciate the impact of a story told first-hand, compared with stories told by actors or through written case studies, which is what readers will usually experience. I’m not sure it’s enough to really reach people.
How do you assess public opinion in Britain on the issue of modern slavery?
“Modern slavery? What’s that!?”
The problem doesn’t just end with the lack of public awareness of modern slavery itself, but deepens with dangerous misunderstandings about the differences between terms such as “sex exploitation” and “sex work”, or “human trafficking” and “smuggling”, for example. These misunderstandings are only intensified when Europe finds itself at the centre of a migrant crisis, tangled with terms such as these that are freely distributed across the mass media.
Hathway Walk, Easton, Bristol
North Street, Bedminster, Bristol
Peckford Place, Brixton, London
Are the police doing good work?
There is a lack of consistency throughout the country. I have been largely based in Devon and Cornwall, where their Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer, is the UK policing lead for modern slavery, making the South-West surprisingly ahead of the game … for a game that is very far behind.
The 2015 Modern Slavery Act has certainly helped raise public consciousness and agencies are beginning to make good use of the Act. More victims are being identified than ever before. In 2015, 3,266 potential victims were identified and referred for support, a 40% increase on the previous year. There have been an increased number of proactive and reactive police investigations with an increased number of prosecutions and convictions.
But despite stand-out examples of good practice, there is still a lack of consistency in how law enforcement and criminal justice agencies deal with modern slavery. Training for police officers, investigators and prosecutors is patchy and sometimes completely absent. There is also an insufficient amount of intelligence about the nature and scale of modern slavery at regional, national and international level, which hampers the operational response and ability to build knowledge and learn from mistakes.
Union Street, Plymouth
Which organisations are doing work to advocate and illuminate the issue?
There are many organisations both big and small. It’s difficult to pick on individuals as I’ve become biased towards or against my own experiences, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the organisation as a whole.
I find it hard to truly know how impactful NGOS are. They seem to all be chasing money from the same pot and in some cases are actively working against each other for their own benefit.
But, to shine a positive light on something I know for sure: several NGOs act as “first responders” under the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), the government framework which grants 45-days of “reflection and recovery” for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. In this inexcusably short period of time, victims are expected to give evidence of the horrors they have experienced to feared authorities so that “trained decision makers” can announce whether they are to be considered victims of trafficking. During this period, first responders provide housing and support for victims; so if by some miracle a victim feels compelled to recount their experiences to the police, it is surely all thanks to the outreach specialists supporting them.
On a less positive note: this 45-day period given by the government’s NRM, reflects the lack of understanding surrounding the issue. Even if an organisation has been made fully aware what their client has been through, if they do not wish to testify within 45-days, they are not considered victims and their support cannot continue. What will happen to the victim after 45-days? If they are not deported back to the country they were likely escaping from, they will probably end up back within the trafficking system. This is very challenging for support workers and NGOs and I salute all their efforts.
Spa Road, Bolton
Ford Park Road, Mutley, Plymouth
You’ve already made a newspaper. What else lies in store?
I think something I’ve had to learn the hard way is that it’s all very well making things for a project, but unless anyone sees it, what’s the point?
The reason I made the newspaper is because it would be cheaper to produce and easy to share with the community. People sometimes tell me it would look great in a book. Fine, but who is actually going to buy it other than photographers? In fact, who is going to fund it should be my first question, but it is not my first concern.
My focus for now and for the near future (at least) is to raise awareness. The work needs to be published, and the newspaper needs funding to be printed and shared in the community. It’s a slow game but I’m working on it.
How long do you intend to work on The Dark Figure*?
I’ve slowed the project for the moment as I’m currently in a state of transition, having recently moved to Vancouver, Canada with my partner for his work in science.
Saying that, I’ve had a few fresh ideas for The Dark Figure* since being over here, which I plan to follow up remotely. But naturally, I want to focus my attention towards Canada specific projects whilst I’m here for a few years.
There’s so much more work to be done and that’s partly why I felt comfortable placing The Dark Figure* to one side, as I have no doubt I’ll be exploring new avenues for it in the future.
Longworth Street, Preston
Portugal Street, Holborn, London
Wheelers Lane, Linton, Maidstone, Kent
What has been the reaction to The Dark Figure* so far?
From the people I’ve reached out to, the reaction has been very good. There have been flurries of people contacting me to buy the zine or the newspaper, mostly from the UK but also Europe, which is great.
There has been some valid criticism from news based editors explaining why they would find it difficult to publish, which I’m working on overcoming. My writing needs to be fact-checked in order to be publishable.
Also, outlets need to know I haven’t trespassed. I have never trespassed–there is no need. The Dark Figure* captures the surrounding neighbourhoods, not the actual property in question, and I’m always on the street.
Walker Street, Rawmarsh, Rotherham
Do you ever get overwhelmed? Depressed? Are you hopeful? Talk us through your self-care strategies.
I am cynical and can be full of doubt, all the time. But for me, these stories are about human survival, and despite being totally fascinated by it all, it’s what gives me hope and drives my work forward.
Tragedies exist everywhere, and I don’t think that’s a difficult idea to grasp. But what is difficult, is to believe that such tragedies are happening right in front of us. And I don’t just mean modern slavery. Domestic abuse, addiction, mental health issues and so on, are all issues that can largely exist behind closed doors. By attempting to shine a light onto a truth that otherwise may not be acknowledged, I am doing something useful and positive. It’s a self-care strategy in itself.
Saying that, the news can sometimes overwhelm me when I’m thinking specifically about this work. The migrant crisis. Immigration. I wonder whether the government’s efforts to “face up to modern day slavery” is just another way of deporting the unwanted. Europe is becoming more and more tangled with problems and I wonder what effect it will have on human trafficking, for example. 10,000 refugee children are missing. Where have they gone? Something tells my cynical mind, like all hidden tragedies, we won’t find out the easy way.
A sombre note on which to end. Thank you for sharing your work and thoughts, Amy.
Thank you, Pete.
Smart Street, Longsight, Manchester
Later today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces the nominations for the 2017 Oscars. Ava DuVernay’s doc 13th is on the longlist and tipped to make the shortlist for Best Documentary*. 13th has, deservedly, got a lot of praise since its release in October, but there’s another documentary about the Prison Industrial Complex that came out in 2016 that I’d like to champion here.
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes, directed by Brett Story, is a film that, in many ways, retools the documentary format. It is a film about prison without ever going inside one (although the film closes with a monumental, slow-motion approach to the car-park of the citadel-like Attica Prison). It’s not up for a gong, which is a shame because everyone can benefit from its radical politics and creative verve.
Forcefully, The Prison In Twelve Landscapes rejects the common format of prison documentaries. You know, meet a character; set the broader context of incarceration; chart the character’s life; establish a moment in which fortunes changed for the worst; define the injustice; imagine a different future for the main character and possibly thousands or millions of others locked up for whom she/he serves as representative.
“I’ve watched a lot of prison films, documentaries and non-doc’s, and they kind of all take the same shape,” Story told Guernica recently. “You go inside a prison, you point the camera at a black man in a cell and the narrative, especially if it is a progressive or liberal film, will expose what’s going on. You expose the violence, you expose the injustice of this person’s incarceration, or you tell a redemption story, or transformation or an innocence story. It seemed to me that these narratives have their place, but there are limitations to them.”
In her deliberate refusal of orthodoxy, Story comes up with a structure that leaps across geographies, communities and themes: an unnamed female prisoner talks about fighting fire in Marin County with the California Department of Corrections (she is proud of the work but knows she won’t be a fire-fighter after release because of her conviction); a resident of a post-coal Kentucky town thankful for “recession proof” prison jobs; poor Missouri residents kept down by over-policing and rampant ticketing; an overly eager spokesperson for Quicken Loans who has drunk the corporate-Koolaid and extols the virtues of wholesale regeneration, rising rents and private security firms in downtown Detroit; an entrepreneur who negotiates the byzantine NYDOC mailroom rules so prisoners’ loved ones don’t have to.
The twelve vignettes are tied together by a looming music score and studies of smoke, steam and clouds. We’re all under the same sky, we all breathe the same air. Huge credit to Director of Photography Maya Bankovic and Editor Avrïl Jacobson too.
This film manifests the visuals for abolition activism. Prisons are all around us. They emerge from capitalist logic and conform to economic and geographic structures that are both produced by, and the producer of, racism, classicism, social immobility and chauvinism. Prisons are not about solving crime; they are a punishment of people outside white hetero-normativity. Prisons brutalise marginalized communities by further excluding them from opportunity and thereby delegitimizing them; prisons allow for existent power to confirm its prejudices and further its abuses.
Again from Story’s interview with Guernica (which I can’t recommend highly enough) she explains how a narrative knitted through seemingly disparate, seemingly ordinary places reflects the pervasiveness of the problem and also the near invisibility of its (most obvious) infrastructure, the prison building itself.
“I was very cognizant of how difficult it is at this moment to get inside prisons. There are more prisons than ever before, but they are further away and more locked down than ever before. So, I was really interested in the psychic distance created by that geographic distance, and the way in which prisons are spaces of disappearance but also spaces of massive infrastructures, as buildings that hold lots of people, but they’re also disappeared in the landscape.”
Furthermore, on the limits of criminal justice reform conversations, and how those conversations cannot be separate from critiques of economic inequality and labour rights, Story says:
“So long as we are confined to thinking about [prison reform talk] just as a problem of imprisoning the wrong people or punishing people too much, then we don’t actually get at the fundamental relationships that have created the prison build up in the first place. In terms of people on the right and the neoliberal democrats as well, who are all about championing prison reform like the Koch brothers, well they are the biggest union busters in this country.”
“We can’t think about prisons and the problem of mass incarceration outside of the problem of labor. There’s a direct correlation between the stagnation of workers, wages, structural unemployment, especially for African Americans, and union busting. This sort of neoliberalism from the 1970’s onwards maps intimately alongside the rise of the carceral state. In some ways, I want to say who cares if the Koch brothers want to say we’ve locked up too many people and we want to put some money into prison reform. But, let’s not get too excited about that because at the same time they are still undermining worker power and undermining good jobs and good wages at every turn. There’s too close of a relationship between workers and the problem of unemployment, the problem of poverty and mass incarceration in this country.”
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes has already won a raft of accolades including a nomination for Best Feature Length Documentary at the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. Paste had it as one of their best documentaries of 2016. In a glowing review, The New York Times said soberly, “What we see is no less than the draining of hope from one group of citizens to benefit another.” Cinema Politica had it as one of their best political documentaries of the year. It is a film that is impeccably crafted and one that credits its audience with intelligence. It treats the complex issue of mass incarceration in a complex way.
Some of the most infuriating scenes are those from Ferguson, Missouri. Story went there one year after police officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown. Story met citizens like Sherie (above) who faced either a $175 fine or jail. What for? For not securing a trash-can lid. Derrick (below) talks of continual harassment, arrest and fines.
“These communities are over-policed,” explains Story, “because the revenue model is generated based primarily on police fining people of color, mostly poor people for incidental violations like traffic violations. So there is already an existing infrastructure that floods these communities with police, and this is part of the story that gave rise to this murder.”
DuVernay’s 13th, and Story’s The Prison In Twelve Landscapes are two quite different films, yet they complement one another and support the arguments of the other. (I wonder what the effect of 12 Landscapes would’ve been had it had the worldwide Netflix distribution that 13th enjoyed?)
13th walks the viewer through a literal historical narrative by means of stats, facts and talking heads. DuVernay illuminates the racist underpinnings to criminal justice and execution of law, drawing the line from slavery, to abolition, to the 13th Amendment, to convict leasing, to Jim Crow, to modern day prisons. DuVernay wants to confront us with the blatant injustice of it all; Story wants to shock us with our complicity in it all.
The two films can be understood as the feedback of one other. DuVernay shows us the injustices of the past, but Story shows us how difficult they are to untangle from the present. We’re caught in a destructive loop. Without a significant reordering of society we are destined to continue the abuse and wastage inherent to mass imprisonment.
The Prison In Twelve Landscapes is a landmark achievement in documentary making. “It’s rare that a film this outraged is also this calm,” said Village Voice. It is a film that is true and true to its form. It is creepy, troubling and near; it is a prism on our society that should deeply unsettle us. It is the best film of 2016 not to win an Oscar.
This is great –> Story’s Five Book Plan: Carceral Geography.
Peep my 2013 article The 20 Best American Prison Documentaries.
Story’s Guernica interview on the whys, whats and hows of her work.
* If 13th is shortlisted, I hope it wins as that could only benefit the ongoing awareness about the racist, classist and abusive functioning of prisons and sentencing. Honestly though, I don’t think 13th will win. It uses a formula template of chronological narrative. 13th is a very important film but it doesn’t experiment enough with the documentary form itself. I think Cameraperson will win.
** Update: 14:00 GMT. Cameraperson wasn’t shortlisted, so my prediction withers. Fire At Sea (Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo); I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck); Life, Animated (Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman); O.J.: Made In America (Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow); and 13th (Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish) were shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature.
Over a period of six months, between the summer of 2014 and the winter of 2015, Amber Sowards shot 20 rolls of film in the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The series of portraits she made is called Captured.
“The series hopes to expose the general community to what life is like for incarcerated youth in Dane County,” writes Sowards. “While at the same time creating a visual narrative that documents and puts a face to what racial disparity looks like in present day Dane County.”
The population changed over the months. Many young people left the facility during the project’s run. Others arrived. Some weeks, Sowards saw three teens. Other weeks she worked with 25.
Sowards’ directions to the youth were minimal.
“I asked if I could photograph the youth and then I picked the location of the shot,” she says. “Then we just had a conversation and photographed naturally. Most of the teens really liked having their photo taken; it made them feel valued.”
The conversations were so striking that it soon became evident that teens’ voices were central to portraying their life as those “in an unnatural environment”. The voices in aggregate challenge the audience to imagine alternatives to incarceration, something more natural.
They were collaged into a 5-minute track which you can listen to here.
“We did not intend to pair the photographs with audio [at first],” says Sowards. “That decision came later.”
As with most other portrait series of incarcerated youth, anonymity is a prerequisite. The genre of portraiture becomes a hell of a lot harder when you don’t have facial expression and eye contact to work with. The thing that strikes me about Sowards’ work (and it might just be the softer edge of analogue photography) is that the children seem to adhere to the palette of the place. The images are diffuse with the blues, beiges, grey and white light of the facility. The chess board and the green ball are sharp punctuations of color.
There’s an noticeable degree of civility in the environment too. While the interiors and hardware are unmistakably institutional there’s clearly an array of activities at the teens disposal. The viewer is left in no doubt that these prisoners are children and therefore, I hope, viewers carry with that an expectation and optimism that this is a space that will help the teens in the long term. If this seems a modest hope then consider that in many photographs of (adult) prisons a complete lack of care, protection and nurturing is most evident, and is the norm.
Sowards says some staff at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center were fine with her presence and that of her camera. Other staff members were uncomfortable. This too suggests that the juvie depicted here might be for some therapeutic. In facilities where cameras are not welcome, where they are a considered a threat, one assumes that not all is right. Fortunately, for these teens, not the case here. Captured is a pleasant, modest look inside a previously unknown microcosm of Madison, Wisconsin.
Captured was sponsored by GSAFE and delivered through its New Narrative Project. GSAFE increases the capacity of LGBTQ+ students, educators, and families to create schools in Wisconsin where all youth thrive. The New Narrative Project aims to foster self-determination through custom-designed workshops that help incarcerated youth access their potential and think analytically about the social justice issues they are impacted by.
In a massive 3×9-metre grid, Daniel Schwartz‘s Corrections (above) tiles a satellite view of every facility in the United States’ federal prison system. It’s a literal but effective means to describe the frightening scale of mass incarceration. If we bear in mind that the federal system houses approximately 210,000 prisoners, which is less than one tenth of the total prison population in the US only, then Corrections assumes an even more terrifying edge.
Schwartz created the images, I presume, by means of a customised script based upon the publicly available Google Map API. GPS coordinates inserted into the customised script allow for an automatically captured a satellite view and .jpg of sites (prisons in this case) when the script is run. I make this assumption because this was Josh Begley’s method in creating Prison Map, a similar project.
Corrections presents 1,218 facilities, about one fifth of the 6,000+ locked facilities in the US–including state, county, private and immigration prisons. To present all of the types of all of the United States’ prisons facilities would require a lot of wall space and a lot of double-sided sticky tape. I know this because as part of the Prison Obscura exhibition, I printed 392 images from Josh Begley’s Prison Map. and put them on walls. (See the heavily illustrated point below)
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Haverford College, PA
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at the University of Michigan, MI
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Parsons New School, NY
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Scripps College, CA
Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Newspace, Portland, Oregon
It was my intention to provide a visual backdrop to the computer/screen/console in the gallery at which people navigated Prison Map. Begley had, up to that point, never printed out the images from Prison Map (he did later make and sell large fine art prints), but physical objects were never the primary purpose of the project. Rather, Prison Map was an experiment how Google Earth could be manipulated to produce an image-set based upon a dataset; an experiment in how a corporation’s empire of images could be bent toward a social justice conversation. I’m speculating on this because I wonder if, after the point of automated capture, Schwartz intended to print out Corrections and stick it on a wall? There are arguments for doing so as valid as those for maintaining it as a virtual user experience. I should give Schwartz a phone-call.
I mention this, also, because there are other parellels between the work of Schwartz and Begley. In tackling the issue and enormity of the US/Mexico border, Begley made the film Best of Luck with the Wall and Schwartz made two accordion books. Both stitched together staellite images that tracked the entire border. One virtual, one physical.
On the topic of gun use, Begley made Officer Involved, which automatically captured Google Street View (GSV) scenes of the sites in which law enforcement officers killed a citizen, and Schwartz made Death By Gun, which maps firearm homicides in Los Angeles County carried out by citizens.
Both Schwartz and Begley are interested in tempting users to reimagine their smartphones’ purpose. Both are interested in having content “enter” the phone in real time. Once installed the Death By Gun app automatically saves the auto-generated images to the camera-roll. Begley’s MetaData+ app sends push notifications to your phone each time a confirmed US drone strike occurs.
Unsurprisingly, these two artists who are connecting the dots between non-human camera operation, emerging datasets and power as it relates to cyber-infrastructure, are both peering at surveillance too. Begley’s Profiling.Is usurps the photographs made by the NYPD during covert surveillance of Muslim owned businesses in New York City. While in Geo-fragments Schwartz uses GSV to automatically compose collages of sites a person (I presume himself) travels to over a 24 hour period based upon the GPS data *broadcast* by his smartphone.
What Now Then?
I’ve discussed the work of Begley and Schwartz at length because I feel they’re heading toward some very fruitful areas in which state and corporate power is challenged, if not subverted. We would do well to follow. Sure, putting the real estate portfolio of the Federal Bureau of Prison on a single wall makes for a stark visual argument–how can you not be effected by prisons filling your entire field of vision? Especially when each tile is only 4×6 inches and still the entirety towers over you.
Bringing the virtual into the real world can be a very canny strategy as Bernie Sanders showed recently in his commandeering of a Trump tweet and printing it out for the house floor. But visual effects work only in one place at one time. By contrast, superpowers’ surveillance and data gathering is non-stop. Consider that a citizen has the capacity to manipulate Google’s benign platforms but the US military has the power to plug in any data set of coordinates and launch a thousand drone strikes.
Beyond the information war in which art is essentially engaged against state and corporate malfeasance, art clearly has limited power. It is here that hacktivism and cyber-insurgence emerge as both tactic and necessity. Begley and Schwartz’s artworks reveal the gross concentrations of power inherent to astronautic surveillance but they do not fight it. They alter public perception of the oppression, but not the apparatus of oppression. Cyber-sabotage that downs, damages or compromises the apparatus is the front line of the fight. What does that mean for artists? Is hacktivism now the most crucial form of resistance? Is hacktivism art? Just spit-balling here.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Screengrab from the header of the PDF of Day 3 (third installment) of the Complicity Cleanse
BETTER AT SMARTPHONE
There’s a bunch of things you can do to begin 2017 as less of a slave to your screens and phones. Lots of benefits to be had. You can ignore Tangerine-in-Chief-Twitter bile and be a better person! And I can take my own advice.
It does seem like a lot of us freaking out about our Internet diet.
“On average we spend 6 hours a day on our mobile phones. That means for everyone who only spends 2 hours a day on their phone, someone else is spending 10 hours,” writes Rik Arron. “Since the invention of email and then the rapid growth and use of mobile devices and social media – stress/anxiety/depression related work days lost has increased year upon year at an alarming rate, now costing US industry $300 billion a year.”
Marcus Gilroy-Ware says we use our smartphones for ONLY three hours day, but that doesn’t get us off the hook, because …
“From worrying reports of smartphone addiction,” writes Gilroy-Ware, “to the identification of smartphone faux-pas such as “phubbing”, [snubbing someone in a social setting by looking at your phone instead of paying attention] to the news that seven in 10 Americans have used a smartphone behind the wheel and one in 10 people check their phone during sex, the belief that smartphones are harmless is increasingly untenable.
During sex?! What the the is wrong with people?
Do social media messagings, in aggregate, create your worldview? Does your smartphone function as an extension of your body? What are your happiness levels?
Seems to me we’ve got some choices.
- We can all throw our devices off the roof and go farmstead. (Not going to happen).
- We can accept our cyborg selves and just try to be the best digital slaves we can. Embrace being numb. (More likely to happen for some).
- We can carefully administer our relationship to technology. (Probably the most realistic, and at least there’s an ongoing conversation).
Option 3 also provides the hope that we can leverage technology to our own advantage instead of just handing over our social graph for Silicon Valley to make money on … and the governments to snoop on … and the corporations to purchase … and the hackers to compromise.
Option 3 allows us the possibility to actively shape our diet of screen-fed-info. May I recommend therefore, at the start of 2017, The Complicity Cleanse.
Between now and the Jan 21st Women’s March on Washington, the Complicity Cleanse delivers daily bites of strategies, words, podcasts and exercises to reminder us of our own power. These are things you consider on your own in quiet, or activities you sit down for with one or five of your closest mates.
It’s a toolkit to being present with our world and it challenges. Some might scoff at the idea that we can fight police brutality and prisons by thinking and talking. But what else leads to consciousness? What else precedes the fight? What other process arrives at the best strategies?
Put together by a collective of social justice folks, The Complicity Cleanse can help you divest from the structures of oppression. High quality, recent resources in the realms of environmental protection, feminism, anti-corruption, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, community empowerment, anti-Islamophobia, the opposite to sexism, homophobia and transphobia. Sometimes it is profound information disguised as digestible affirmation. It’s a collection of 101 syllabi that posh college students pat tens of thousands for. It’s delivered right to your inbox.
One more thing, it’s for everyone! A lot of people get scared because they think lefties and radicals are militant. Some are, which is okay. Most are passionate, which is power. All are loving, which is important if social justice is to spread among peoples’ hearts. If the system is broken, show that it is broken. If we’re all worse off, then demonstrate that. If you’re argument is closer to truth then it’s merely a case of lovingly and consistently letting others in. Lots of political speak, unfortunately, gets heated and shouty. I like the humour and self-positioning of the Complicity Cleanse folks. I republish their call for involvement below.
WHO IS THE COMPLICITY CLEANSE FOR?
Anyone surprised by the election outcome. Really this was made for you. If you were surprised, or didn’t think that it was possible that a celebrity bully, openly endorsed by the KKK, with zero political experience, who grabs pussy whenever he feels entitled to it, could be elected by the people (Electoral College Scam) of the United States, forgive yourselves and in the space of forgiveness make room to learn a little more, change a little more, do a lot more.
You voted for this guy. No shame. We know you are just “fiscally conservative”. If you voted for this guy but somewhere in your heart there is a soft space for groups maligned by his campaign–this is for you… and the future of your tax returns, congrats.
People who know who this is. If you are already involved in social justice movements, but you were caught off-guard by this election victory–this cleanse is for you.
Answer: Audre Lorde, if you didn’t know that–this Cleanse is for you.
People Of Color. First thank you for everything you and your ancestors have contributed to this country in spite of every violent hurdle thrown at, against, towards, and literally through you. The Complicity Cleanse is also for you. There is so much we need to share with each other– and this cleanse was written by a diverse group of human doings who believe that to be the case- we tried to be as inclusive as possible, if we fucked up– its an oversight, let us know. We all need to do better.
Uhm, yep definitely for you.
Neoliberals/Millenials/Academics, you are in all the other boxes, but we know you like to be acknowledged individually–look if you have a lot of overly academic language around racism, and heterosexism there’s probably a little emotion that could be tapped into–and possibly a little more grasping of classism, so sign up, tweet, post, share, IG, IM, FB, IDK, LOL.
Modern Day Yogis. Yep, you. You’re doin’ good, and you look good too– now do more. The ancient Rishis didn’t risk their lives to develop this practice just so you look better with a shirt off– this practice was designed to make you feel better, so you do more. Why build such a beautiful big ship if its just gonna be docked all day in breathable pants, take that thing into the turbulent seas. You know how to be productively uncomfortable, now channel that training to the betterment of others. Namaste.
Basically we all could benefit from time spent with each other, time spent learning with and about each other–simply less time spent thinking about ourselves. This cleanse is most effective when done in groups or unexpected partnerships so we become more accountable to each other–all of us together, even the non humans. So we remember that ultimately we belong to each other, so we remember we are most effective together.
It’s not even December, but I’m getting my pick for photobook of the year pick out the way early. My choice for 2016 is the ‘Apple Cabin 2016 Calendar‘ by Sean Tejaratchi.
Advertising is super-weird, but our eyes and minds quickly become accustomed to its garish agenda. We are exposed to 5,000 ads daily. We ambulate through three dimensions constructed from image-planes urging us to buy buy buy.
Some ads are ingenious, most are not, and most follow formulas. Tejaratchi tweaks the grocery-store insert formula with nasty little words and plucky phrases. He shows advertising to be the creepy thing it is. In the Apple Cabin calendar he takes a pop at foodstuffs that are luminous, canned, mysterious. As food-desertification checkers its way across the United States, we’re reminded that many Americans eat stuff closer to Soylent Green than fresh farm greens.
Tejaratchi undermines the footings to advertising generally. The ‘Apple Cabin 2016 Calendar’ is the anti-ad; the anti-Times Square; it’s the opposite of political pantomime; it’s a gross mirror to the fact an orange man-baby tantrumed his way to the White House by means of simplistic and fear-based messaging.
In a rather humorless year, thank god for Tejaratchi.
Louisiana State Penitentiary, known commonly as Angola, is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. Of its 6,300 prisoners, over 85 percent are serving life. This shocking fact is due to Louisiana’s harsh sentencing laws. Activists and reformers who fight against Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentencing refer to life sentences as “death by incarceration”. If we focus on the fact of death–as opposed to focusing on the crime, transgression, legal proceedings, or behaviour of the men during their incarceration at Angola–then we see with stark clarity the brutality of the system.
The catastrophic results of LWOP are many, but perhaps one that isn’t so obvious is an emotional turmoil surrounding the death of prisoner’s loved ones during incarceration. What do prisoners think about, do about and cope with when they hear of death beyond the prison walls? What are their responses to sudden death in free society when they’re condemned to a slow, slow death inside the prison industrial complex?
These questions were the starting point for Stories from Prison/Honoring Ancestors, a collaborative project led by Benjamin D. Weber in collaboration with Angola prisoners, their friends and family and students at the University of New Orleans (UNO).
“Due of the length of their sentences, most of Angola’s prisoners have experienced the loss of a loved one while they have been locked away,” says Weber. “Prisoners are quick to remind you, many are doing life for non-violent offenses and many others for first offenses that would not carry such a sentence in just about any other state.”
Weber decided to create a collaboration in which a group of allies could commemorate prisoners’ loved ones who had passed. The commemorations would be directed by prisoners.
Weber distributed forms at Angola on which prisoners could tell a story about a loved one who had died, and request for them to be commemorated in specific places that were meaningful to them. The prisoners chose whether they wanted their story to be shared publicly or not.
All of the commemorations, photographs and supporting documents are presented in interactive map form at the Stories from Prison/Honoring Ancestors website.
Groups of UNO graduate and undergraduate students and Weber performed the commemorations. They then mailed letters and photographs to the prisoners.
“Prisoners requested all sorts of different actions to be performed,” says Weber. “We released balloons inscribed with special messages, visited grave sites to recite poems, placed flowers and a bingo chip atop a waterfall, and even improvised a dance with relatives.”
In the process, Weber and the UNO students discovered that the photographs fell secondary to the performances and commemorations. The photographs are important documents, but creating the photographs was not the primary focus during the commemorations. When it came time to commune and be present with one another, making photographs didn’t always seem important, mindful or, frankly, appropriate.
“Many [photos] were snapped on students phones as we sought to document what we were doing without interrupting it too much,” says Weber.
Such adjustments to behaviours and goals were typical of Stories from Prison/Honoring Ancestors and, indeed, are common to similar socially engaged projects.
Weber was kind enough to speak about the motives, the involvement of the community, the students’ learning and the outcomes of the project. Here, we publish a Q+A and photographs fulfilling the requests of Gerald Davis, Derrick Allen, David Wilson and starting (below) with Elmo Duronselet
Q + A
Prison Photography (PP): Your PhD covers the eighty years between the Civil War to the end of WWII. You have many intersecting interests in prisons, policing, society. How do you summarize the origins and growth of the prison industrial complex in the United States?
Benjamin Weber (BW): There are a number of reasons why the dissertation covers that particular time period. The first is the massive expansion of racialized incarceration that took place after the Civil War, triggered in part by the “convict clause” of the 13th Amendment which allowed for the perpetuation of slavery and involuntary servitude as “punishment for a crime.”
I see the origins of this expansion of the prison system as being bound up with war-making and imperial expansion, first across the continental U.S. and then, especially after 1898, overseas. That’s why the dissertation focuses on practices of confinement and forced labor in places like the Pacific Northwest, the Panama Canal Zone, and the Philippines. I believe that if we can understand these things as part of a history of racial domination in U.S. empire, we might be able to think more clearly and critically about how to fight against them in the present. Or to put it slightly differently, if we can better understand the origins of the problem, as you point out, we might better understand the range of possible solutions.
PP: Where does your interest in incarceration stem from?
BW: I believe the problem of mass incarceration to be the defining social justice issue of our generation.
My academic interest comes from a place of trying to understand how various forms of injustice have operated and how people have struggled to combat them in the past, and the present. My personal commitment comes from experiences visiting friends and former students in jails back in California and witnessing first hand the way that young people, particularly people of color, are treated by the police and prison systems.
Working alongside others who have friends and family members who are locked up provides example after example of how terribly broken and institutionally racist the system is.
PP: You’re at Harvard. This project was at the University of New Orleans. Was this first project for which you’ve travelled and worked with students elsewhere? I ask this because I wonder if it could function as a pilot; with elements that are all replicable by you, or others?
BW: This project came together the way it did largely because my partner and I moved to New Orleans so she could do residency in her hometown and I could finish writing the dissertation and start in on the book manuscript down here. The timing worked well because UNO Professor Molly Mitchell was interested to have the Midlo Center participate in the States Of Incarceration national public history project. So, I agreed to come help run the Louisiana piece of that project.
The Midlo Center has a visiting scholars program that could be replicated by other universities. In terms of replicable elements, I think the workshop or toolkit model tends to be more common when it comes to traveling to work with students from other universities. It worked really well, for instance, to have Mark Strandquist come and do a workshop with my students and I’ve talked with him and many others about how to share materials, strategies, and best practices about teaching issues of racism and mass incarceration. There’s already some really great stuff out there as well; The Knotted Line, as one example, has some pretty creative and inspiring examples of educator resources and curriculum guides for teaching about the prison industrial complex.
PP: The methodology of the project was inspired by Mark Strandquist’s Windows From Prison, but there’s a key difference between the methodology of Strandquist’s project and yours: You are convening a group at a specific place for an action and memorial. Place and gathering is important, for example, in Photo Requests From Solitary by Tamms Year Ten, I was always thrilled by Rachel Herman’s photograph of Bald Knob Cross for Willie Sterling because Mr Sterling understood he could use the general offer to make a photograph to bring/force people together in a physical space, beyond the prison walls.
How important was it for you to convene a group? Was that the core of the project? What does that convening do?
BW: The Tamms Is Torture project is an amazing example, and reminds me in some ways of the role of art-activists like Jackie Summell and Brandan “BMike” Odums in the campaign to free the Angola 3 down here in Louisiana. The comparison with Rachel Herman’s photo is really apt, because we definitely saw ways that prisoners improved upon our project design in precisely this same way.
There were cases where they would write in a person’s name in the line that asked where they wanted us to perform the commemoration. They explained that we could best honor their deceased loved ones by talking, singing, and even dancing with their living relatives. These were some of the most moving experiences for everyone involved.
PP: How did your discussions with students differ or remain the same throughout this project as compared with lectures/seminars in the classroom about incarceration?
BW: In his workshop, Mark Strandquist encouraged us to do the commemorations in groups and spoke about the importance of embodied learning. This type of convening allowed for conversations that could never happen inside a classroom. It was also profoundly moving to see how people of different faiths and spiritual traditions talked and went about honoring ancestors, as it were.
PP: What were the responses of family and friends of the prisoners with whom you contacted and held memorials?
BW: There was definitely a range of responses, from the cautiously apprehensive to the overwhelmingly appreciative. Some relatives who weren’t especially religious were suspicious at first that we belonged to a church group, while others who were more religious promised that God reserves a special place in heaven for people who take time to do this kind of work on behalf of their friends and family locked away in the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Some were somber in their recollections about deceased loved ones, while others laughed and joked as they told stories about the person a given prisoner had asked us to commemorate. When we went to find Elmo’s aunt Tamika and do a dance, as he requested, at first she laughingly begged us not to, but we all felt like we needed to honor his request down to the letter so ended up doing a little dance right there on her front doorstep.
Occasionally, interactions turned into more sustained collaborations. Liz, whose fiancé is at Angola, not only performed the commemoration along with us but has stayed involved with the project and will be coming with us to the States of Incarceration exhibit launch in New York City.
PP: Have you received feedback from Gerald, Derrick, Elmo, David or other prisoners about the photo/results of the project?
BW: We received thank-you letters from several of them, and some have carried on extended letter-writing exchanges with my students and I.
Derrick wrote to us that receiving the letter and pictures from the commemoration “kind of felt like the service itself to me,” and signed off with this quote: “there are things we don’t want to happen, but have to accept, things we don’t want to know but have to learn, and people we can’t live without but have to let go.”
Sean told us that “when my days get gloomy, now I have the memories of what you all have done for my mother and for me.”
Gerald and Hannah have now written upwards of ten letters back and forth. And the forms of communication flow in other ways as well. Liz’ fiancé called her during an event we were having at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, for example, and we were able to put him on the microphone to speak to the audience.
Gavin spoke to one of his family members on the phone and had her email me for him to clarify some things about the commemoration we were planning for his father who had recently passed away.
PP: Shortly after you made this work with prisoners of Angola, the longstanding warden Burl Cain resigned amid still-as-yet unclear accusations of shady business dealings. What was your experience working with Cain? Did the prisoners have anything to say about his regime? What lies in store for Angola in the wake of Cain’s departure?
BW: I worked primarily with the staff at Angola’s prison museum, but did have to get approval for the pilot project from Warden Cain’s chief of security and the public relations manager there. There is always a period of transition where people are worried about how things were shift around and shake out when an entrenched figure like Burl Cain leaves a prison like Angola.
The prisoners we worked with didn’t say anything specifically about Warden Cain. Some mentioned being optimistic that the new Louisiana Governor, Democrat John Bell Edwards, will have a better stance on pardons and clemency than Bobby Jindal, the outgoing Republican Governor. As one of them put it in a recent letter to me: “The new governor is supposed to open up doors for some offenders a little early…”
I’m honestly not sure what lies in store for Angola in the wake of Cain’s departure, but I do know that we all need to continue doing absolutely everything we can to address the shamefully high rates of racial disparity in incarceration in Louisiana and around the country, and stop putting so many people in cages period.
Because we know that prisons don’t work.