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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.

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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.”

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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.

Follow The Prison In Twelve Landscapes on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow Brett Story on Vimeo and Twitter.

* 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.

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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)

 

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Prison Map, part of the exhibition ‘Prison Obscura’ at Haverford College, PA

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Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at the University of Michigan, MI

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Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at Parsons New School, NY

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Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison Obscura’ at Scripps College, CA

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Prison Map, part of the exhibitionPrison 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.

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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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‘Chasing the Dragon’ © Robert Saltzman / Juan Archuleta. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”

I’ve heard from a couple of folk that when I started Prison Photography, they laughed at its folly. Not only had a bleeding-heart liberal thug-hugger come along to explain a world no-one cared about to no-one in particular, but silly-little-leftie-me would run out of projects and photographs in no time. Not only had I picked a subject nobody cared for, I’d neglected to do the proper amount of research and maths.

Well, more than eight years later, and I’m still stumbling upon scintillating projects that challenge my ever-evolving timeline of prison-based visual arts. Case in point La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, a collaboration between Robert Saltzman and the prisoners of New Mexico State Penitentiary, in Santa Fe, NM.

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© Robert Saltzman / Keith Baker. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”

Saltzman first visited the prison in 1982 to visit a friend and thereafter was fascinated by the lives behind the walls. Despite a massive riot less than two years prior, Saltzman convinced the warden to allow him in with his 35mm SLR, three lenses and camera-mounted flash. Saltzman gave assurances he was there as an artist and not as a reporter.

Over 9 months, Saltzman made 500 images on Kodachrome64 film. He picked the 35 strongest portraits but still wasn’t happy. They failed to tell a fraction of the stories or reflect even a small slice of the range of emotions he encountered. So he printed the 35 out and mounted them on white illustration board. He sent them back in, a few at a time, with a request.

“Please use the white space however you want,” Saltzman told Popular Photography in 1985.

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© Robert Saltzman / Jonathan S. Shaw. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)

Some photographers would be happy to get in and out with some portraits and call it a day. Plaudits to Saltzman that he distanced himself enough to make a hard call about the nature of his pictures. And with it adding more time and uncertainty to the project.

28 total works came back. In the first exhibition of La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe, 11 were shown. Later, 14 were exhibited.

“The drawings and writings, coupled with Saltzman’s portraits, communicate a poignant and often tension-filled commentary on the prison experience,” writes James Hugunin, art historian, expert on prison imagery and curator of a 1996 show Discipline and Photograph which included Saltzman’s work.

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© Robert Saltzman / Ralph K Millam. From the series “La Pinta: Doing Time in Santa Fe”. Screengrab from Google Books scan of an issue of Popular Photography (Vol. 92, No. 3, March 1985, pages 66-69 + 141, ISSN 1542-0337)

This work excites me because it avoids easy categorisation. This type of collaborative work is standard-fare these days with a new generation of practitioners inspired by the social justice priorities of photographers like Wendy Ewald, Anthony Luvera, Eric Gottesman and many more. In the early eighties however, when Saltzman et al. made these, collaboration was considered a bit amateurish. God forbid you allow scrawls upon photographs! Pencil was meant only for contact sheets, editing and for marking crops for the darkroom. Note that among famous photographers Robert Frank made some good scrawls on his stuff in the 70s for himself and for ad campaigns in the 80s and we all know Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor (1977-78) was before its time and the high-profile example of a photographer handing over prints for subjects to write upon.

With the exception of Danny Lyon, all the photographers I know that preceded Robert Saltzman in photographing inside US prisons–Steven Malinowski, Gary Walrath, Joshua Freiwald, Sean Kernan, Cornell Capa, Ruth Morgan, Douglas Kent Hall, Taro Yamasaki–were invested in keeping the camera, and thus the message and interpretation, in their own hands. Given the times and the preciousness of access, it makes sense that photographers would internalise society’s general attitude toward them as special messengers. (I should flag here, as I always do, that Ethan Hoffman’s work and book Concrete Mama was exemplary of this time in terms of giving over great space for his imprisoned subjects recount their stories.)

I wouldn’t say that photographing prison guards hadn’t happened by the early eighties, but it was unusual. So for Saltzman to get the written reflections of guard Ralph K. Millam (above) is significant too. Most photography projects within prison focus on the prisoners and very few focus on both the kept and the keepers.

In short, due to both its subject matter and approach, Saltzman’s La Pinta is landmark. Prisons weren’t photographed much in the early eighties and certainly not for as long as a year, the time it took Saltzman to complete the work. Its collaborative methodology allows for heightened emotional impact and positions it ahead of other works that later used similar formulas and embodied likeminded sympathies.

See more here.

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Photo: Daniel Stier, from Ways of Knowing, 2015.

A couple of my fav photo-peeps are hosting a live online chat today about photography and science in the modern era. You can be involved. Michael Shaw of Reading the Pictures and independent curator Marvin Heiferman are putting on a salon conversation to analyze a group of ten news photos of “science” of one guise or another.

Panelists include Rebecca Adelman UMBC Professor of Media & Communication Studies; Ben de la Cruz, Multimedia Editor, Science Desk, NPR; Corey Keller, Curator, SFMOMA; Kurt Mutchler, Senior Editor, Science, Photography Department, National Geographic; and Max Mutchler, Space Telescope Science Institute, Hubble Heritage Project manager. Nate Stormer, University of Maine professor will moderate.

The ten photos were selected from thousands of media images.

“If photography was invented,” writes Shaw, “so that the sciences could communicate with each other, now it’s as much about making that investigation relevant to consumers, investors and alternately curious, fearful or enthralled citizens. This discussion is interested in science as a social agenda and a media phenomenon. It’s about the popularization of science, the attitude and approach on the part of science toward its own activities and what the general public sees of it.”

It will be fascinating. The salon is free but registration is required. Register here. Kicks of today December 1st, at 7 pm EST and will go for 2 hours on Google HangOut with live audio, video and with involvement from the public via live chat.

The discussion, jointly produced with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is a featured component of SEEING SCIENCE, a year-long project that explores the role photography plays in shaping, representing, and furthering the sciences.

Sign up here.

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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.

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For its seventh and final stop, Prison Obscura will be on show at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon from April 1 to May 28.

(Check out official Prison Obscura website and the PP “Prison Obscura” tag for the background and journeying of the exhibition.)

I’ll be at Newspace for the opening next Friday nightApril 1, 6–8pm. I’ll be installing Wednesday and Thursday so stop by and say hello.

Also, on the Saturday afternoon I’m moderating a panel titled Can Images Counter Mass Incarceration? with some of my favourite artists and thinkers. Here’s the Facebook event page and see bolded events’ details below.

THE BLURB (AGAIN)

No country incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than the United States. More than 2.2 million people are currently locked up in the U.S.—a number that has more than quadrupled since 1980. But sadly, the lives lived behind bars are all too often invisible to those on the outside. Prison Obscura sheds light on such experiences and the prison-industrial complex as a whole by showcasing rarely seen surveillance, evidentiary, and prisoner-made photographs. The exhibition encourages visitors to ask why tax-paying, prison-funding citizens rarely get the chance to see such images, and what roles such pictures play for those within the system.

 

Alyse Emdur’s prison visiting room portraits from across the nation and Robert Gumpert’s recorded audio stories from within the San Francisco jail system provide an opportunity to see, read, and listen to subjects in the contexts of their incarceration. Juvenile and adult prisoners in different workshops led by Steve Davis, Mark Strandquist, and Kristen S. Wilkins perform for the camera, reflect on their past, describe their memories, and self-represent through photographs. The exhibition moves between these intimate portrayals of life within the prison system to more expansive views of legal and spatial surveillance in Josh Begley’s manipulation of Google Maps’ API code and Paul Rucker’s animated video. Prison Obscura builds the case that Americans must come face-to-face with these images to grasp the proliferation of the U.S. prison system and to connect with those it confines.

Prison Obscura is made possible with the support of the John B. Hurford ‘60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College, Haverford, PA.

PUBLIC PROGRAMS

In conjunction with the exhibition, Newspace is hosting a series of events related to the prison industrial complex and the role images play in exposing the structures of the U.S. criminal justice system.

OFFSITE Panel discussion: Can Images Counter Mass Incarceration? Saturday April 2, 2-4pm: Panelists Lorenzo Triburgo, Sarah-Jasmine Calvetti and Barry Sanders. Moderated by me. OFFSITE Location: Native American Student and Community Center, Portland State University (710 SW Jackson St). Sponsored by Portland State University Camera Arts Society.

Discussion: Re-Envisioning Justice: What Is Between Reform and Abolition of the Criminal Justice System?: Sunday, April 24, 4-6pm. At Newspace (1632 SE 10th Ave.)

Community Discussion: The Ethics of Photography: Thursday, May 12, 6:30-8pm, organized in collaboration with the Oregon Jewish Museum. At Newspace (1632 SE 10th Ave.)

All public programs are free, open to the public. Please note event location.

CLASSES

Expanding Photography: Discovering the Stories Behind Your Work: May 9 – May 23, 6:30 -9:30 pm | Instructor: Gregory Parra.

Education Lecture Series: The Screen Politics of Public Projections: May 17, 7:00 – 8:30pm | Instructor: Dr. Abigail Susik.

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Newspace Center for Photography, 1632 SE 10th Ave, Portland, OR 97214

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©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

In modernizing institutions, new laws to permit intimate partner visits for prisoners were established. Cosmin Bumbuţ visited every penitentiary in Romania and photographed the boudoirs.

We’re obsessed with sex as much as we’re shy to talk about it open and honestly. We’re fascinated by prisons, particularly fictionalized accounts of prisons (Oz, Animal Factory, Shawshank, Orange Is The New Black, The Green Mile, the list goes on-and-on) but often our fascination doesn’t extend far enough to talk openly about what our prisons actually are and how they’re a symptom of a divided, racist, unforgiving social order. We’ve still a lot to unpack around prisons. Around sex too, we’re picky about what and where we unpack. I say this to acknowledge the fact that this is an article about sex, and prisons, and sex in prisons and those are fiery catalysts to the imagination. Be honest, you’re here because of the headline and you’re wondering whether to read these 1,300 words or just scroll through the pictures.

Fortunately, for us, these pictures, made by Romanian photographer Cosmin Bumbuţ (who is also one half of Teleleu.eu), sate our outsider curiosity without dragging us into a debased voyeuristic quagmire.

The series, titled Camera Intima, is expertly shot with phenomenal manipulation of space and lenses to secure these angles. Despite some of these rooms being converted basement store-rooms, the photos are well-lit and flooding with joyous color and pattern. Perhaps you enter this photo essay — and these rooms — expecting cheap gags, but you exit with a rounded and informed perspective on a type of room designed to meet 21st century policy, to ensure dignity and to bolster family relationships.

“In 2007, Romania joined the European Union,” explains Bumbuţ. “The whole prison system went through major revamp and the biggest reform was to introduce the right to private visits.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Simply put, the price for entry into Europe’s *modern* club was to allow previously-forgotten and despised convicts to get it on with their loved ones. Married prisoners and those in long term relationships have the right to one 2-hour private visit, every three months.

“Plus, if a prisoner gets married in detention he or she can spend 48 hours with the spouse in the special room and is allowed visits once a month in the first year of marriage,” explains Bumbuţ.

It’s obvious to say that these conjugal visit rooms are for sex. But it’s worth noting they are intended only for sex. In the United States, by comparison, conjugal visit trailers and designated rooms are set aside for the whole family. In these Romanian rooms, the only visitors are intimate partners but in the United States the purpose of family visits is broadened beyond just sex. Prisoners spend time with their children, siblings and parents; trailer visits are meant to strengthen family bonds throughout the entire clan. As such, US trailers have kitchens, dining and common areas.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

In Bumbuţ’s photos we see mostly, just the beds. For all their undeniably functional design for the carnal, these rooms are rather underwhelming. At its root, this photo essay could be of cheap motel rooms; they share the same essential elements — TV, mini-fridge, the occasional soft furnishing, nasty carpet and a sign or two reminding occupants of rules. The picture that these are prison rooms is Bumbuţ’s image of the cover page of the ‘Intimate Room’ handbook.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Between 2013 and 2014, Bumbuţ photographed the “private rooms” in all 40 Romanian penitentiaries. “I think I can boast of being the only civilian who entered all the Romanian prisons,” he says.

It wasn’t a project that came out of the blue. Back in 2009, he facilitated a photo workshop for women prisoners in Târgșor Penitentiary (more about that here). Soon after that he embarked on a multiyear project documenting life in the notorious Aiud Penitentiary. He witnessed a creaking and unsanitary lock-up trying to clean up and drag itself into the 21st century.

“In 2005, Aiud looked like a prison from the Communist era. Rooms were dirty and the walls unpainted, the cells were very small and crowded,” says Bumbuţ. “In 2008, it was renovated and the cells were expanded, the prisoners didn’t wear uniforms and were referred to as ‘Persons deprived of liberty’! Romanian prisons started to look like the ones from the American movies, with white walls and new metal shiny doors.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Even though prisoners are still handcuffed, Bumbut has, since 2008, been prohibited from photographing cuffed prisoners. Now it’s about image as much as it is about policy. When Bumbuţ first made his request to the National Prison Administration to photograph the conjugal visit rooms, he received quick approval and thanks for his dedication and help to the prison administration programs. Bumbuţ became well practiced at working in prisons. He reduced his equipment to a camera, a lens, a spare SD card and a spare battery to get through security checks as quick as was possible (often not quick at all).

The photographer’s good-standing all changed upon the release of his book Bumbata, an anthology of his best photographs from four years of shooting in Aiud Penitentiary. (Bumbuţ and I had an extended conversation about Bumbata in 2013).

The book was considered to gritty and perhaps, even, too sympathetic to the prisoners. Either way, it was seen as a damaging depiction. From there-on out, Bumbuţ was light on his feet and diplomatic. His access was never withdrawn.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

The pregnant pause within these rooms is what gives Camera Intima strength as an body of work. We look at the photographs and they ignite our imaginations about what goes on inside. When the door is open — and we and the photographer peer in — there’s nothing to see. What goes on behind closed doors will never be photographed. This tension is characteristic of good photographic series that insert themselves into the relationships of public/private space and personal/institutional power.

“Prisoners are allowed officially to have sex inside an institution, but they have to follow all the bureaucratic steps,” explains Bumbuţ, “to write a request, to wait for the approval, to obey the rules.”

Guards and the administration hold the promise of access to the rooms as a carrot to motivate prisoners toward good behavior.

“Only prisoners who behave in prison are allowed to have private visits,” says Bumbuţ. “Prisoners are more obedient when they have access to the intimate rooms.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Similarly, in the U.S., conjugal visits are seen as a very effective way to maintain prisoners’ complicity, even docility. Not all U.S. prisoners enjoy regular time with their family or intimate partners. All conjugal visits are banned within the Federal system and while states are left to rule on their own prison policies, only four — California, Connecticut, New York and Washington — currently allow trailer visits. In 2014, both Mississippi and New Mexico summarily ended their conjugal visit programs.

Sometimes these decisions will be couched in language about security but more often than not the decision rests upon public opinion (outrage), the moral judgements of the administration in power and probably the bottom line. It’s cheaper to keep men and women locked in boxes than it is to provide programming.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

Back in Romania, it doesn’t matter what system or prison you’re in, your right to have conjugal visits is protected by law. And Bumbuţ was in many prisons when these visits took place. For a while he toyed with the idea of making portraits of prisoners and visitors.

“I even shot a couple before and after their private visit,” says Bumbuţ. “But when I looked at the portrait, I realised that it became too much about the couple and not about the intimate room.”

Bumbuţ wanted to spark our curiosity. He wanted to focus on the space and all the emotions, release, frustrations, love and contained freedom they embody.

Even though these rooms allow two humans to come together, they’re not places about individuals or individuality. They’re function spaces for the continuance of criminal justice policy. We know that given the choice, no-one would want to opt for these converted cells, cramped quarters or side-thought accommodations for their sexy time. No, Bumbuţ’s photographs are all about the denial of comfort and personal circumstance. These are compromise spaces. They’re about making do as much as they are about making out and they reveal carceral logic itself.

“So I decided to shoot the empty rooms.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved. www.bumbutz.ro

If you’re still with my these 1,300 words later, I’m glad you stayed the course and I hope I’ve convinced you that these images are more than visual one-liners. That, in fact, by photographing in every Romanian prison — 40 in total — Bumbuţ has created a unique, complete and priceless sociological survey. These four walls are the fulcrum between Romanian rule-of-law and the European Union compact; they’re the pivot of negotiation between prison and prisoner; and, of course, they’re containers for sexual expression between prisoners and loved ones. Ultimately, the rooms are the physical manifestation of contradiction.

“These are spaces for intimacy,” concludes Bumbuţ. “But, at the same time, the prison itself denies almost all desperately needed intimacy.”


In recent years, Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu have traveled through Romania in an RV telling stories about today Romania, marginal communities and extraordinary people. They are Teleleu.eu. Follow Bumbuț and Stancu at the Teleleu.eu website and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

 

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