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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.
I’ll be at Newspace for the opening next Friday night, April 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.
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.
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.
Build Your Own Pinhole Camera: June 5, 12:00-4:00pm | Instructor: Pete Gomena.
INFO + HOURS
Newspace Center for Photography, 1632 SE 10th Ave, Portland, OR 97214
Mon–Thurs 10am-9:30pm; Fri–Sun 10am-6pm
For press inquiries, contact Newspace Curator Yaelle S. Amir at email@example.com or 503.963.1935.
There are many stories of prisoners’ resourcefulness and creative spirit. There’s lots of tales of redemption through art, or something akin to it. The grandly titled Prison Da Vinci is one of the better produced tellings of this type of story arc.
Filmmaker Zach Sebastian relies heavily on the subject Chris Wilson’s words and phrasing. The viewer is quickly told why a British guy was locked up in San Quentin so that we’re accelerated to the important details of how and why he made paintings made of candy.
I was surprised–but happily relieved–that Wilson was able to exist in San Quentin outside of the gang culture. He encounters philosophy for the first time and met a lot of good people, he says. And he made art.
(The Prison Da Vinci film recalls to mind the work of Donny Johnson, a man convicted of second degree murder who paints postcards with colours leached from M&Ms in his Pelican Bay State Prison solitary confinement cell for the past decade-or-more. In 2006, Johnson had a show in Mexico.)
Whilst Wilson–the artist–prevails, his existences is not far from hell. What’s missing from Prison Da Vinci is a fuller picture of the depravity Wilson experienced inside the California prison system … but that’s too big for a 4-minute short and would take us off the topic of art. We know from his book Horse Latitudes that Wilson had a torrid time of it.
Spread from Horse Latitudes (Sorika) by Chris Wilson.
Here’s the lowdown on Horse Latitudes on Self Publish Be Happy.
What’s fascinating to me about the book is that it uses descriptions of “photographs” to anchor several scenes. Wilson describes regularly things he witnessed to put us in the picture–both when he was out on the streets living life as a junkie and later when he’s inside the nick. For example:
Foreground, a young man shirtless, tattooed, faces a mirror with his teeth bared, metal wires are entwined through his teeth to clamp his jaws together, in his right hand, which is raised to his mouth, he holds a red-handled pair of wire-cutters.
It’s dark, foreboding and inescapbaly bleak. Wilson has been called ‘The Nietzsche of Narcotics‘.
I was left to wonder how Wilson has even survived. Horse Latitudes is a short, violent and unapologetic read. Get it if you can.
The book differs massively in tone from Prison Da Vinci and that’s okay. Wilson has established himself as a successful artist and is not cagey about his tortured past. We know people change and we know identity isn’t fixed. We know people are more than their worst behaviours. Prison Da Vinci does its bit to celebrate Wilson’s post-prison and drug-free life. It’s one story of his storied life. Wilson got beyond incarceration’s grip. Art played its part. But painting with Skittles wasn’t even the half of it.
THIS ART MEGA-GRANT IS A SIGN OF THE TIMES
There’s a host of indicators that prison reform is firmly established near the top of the national agenda. In politics, journalism, art and culture the urgent voices and battles that constitute the discussion and solution-finding around mass incarceration are getting an airing they’ve not enjoyed during the past four decades of unfettered prison growth.
The battles brought by anti-prison activists and families (alongside the soul-searching among the rest of us) may define this moment. There’s a long, long way to go to reverse 40 years of failed policy, but it can only be done … incrementally, faithfully and with a long-view.
The Artist As Activist Fellowship program recently announced by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (RFF) could be part of a continued movement toward justice and toward national healing. Specifically, the RRF wants to support projects that “address racial justice through the lens of mass incarceration.”
There are more-and-more funding opportunities for artists looking at prisons, abolition and racial discrimination. I don’t have time to flag them all, but for this one I had to take pause. The size of this grant is quite remarkable. There’s been a couple of $15K and $25K offerings recently, but the RRF just upped the ante.
You have until December 7th to argue your case for 100,000 USD in support.
Of the 2.2 million people currently in American prisons or jails, 1 million are African American. This rate of incarceration is a 500% increase over the past 30 years, and if current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. Nationwide, African Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons.
This constitutes an epidemic. Particularly so given mass incarceration’s intersection with wealth inequality and economic justice, voting rights, immigration rights, access to affordable housing, and inequitable educational policies. It is exhausting to unravel the complexity of this issue, let alone to design ways to dismantle the social and economic structures that produced mass incarceration as a phenomenon. Yet that is the task before all of us, one that requires an army of creative thinkers.
The 2016 Artist as Activist Fellowship provides the opportunity for creative professionals who are committed to making meaningful progress towards ending mass incarceration to seek a robust set of resources to advance their work. RRF believes that, at their best, art and artists are disruptive. The very nature of being a compelling artist is to generate new thinking and inspire new ways of being, whether through fostering empathy or by proposing radical alternatives to our current systems. If a new world is possible, it is the minds of artists, designers, culture bearers, and other creative professionals who will call it forth.
The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation fosters the legacy of the artist’s life, work, and philosophy that art can change the world. The foundation supports initiatives at the intersection of arts and issues that embody the fearlessness, innovation, and multidisciplinary approach that Robert Rauschenberg exemplified in both his art and philanthropic endeavors.
212 228 5283
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
381 Lafayette Street
Robert Rauschenberg, Poster for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), 1965 (detail). Silkscreen print with varnish overlay, 35 7/8 x 23 7/8 inches.
A few months ago, you may recall, I mounted a show in a brewery in Seattle. It was a prison art fundraiser organised by University Beyond Bars and an appended exhibition of prison photography from Washington State – including the work of Bettina Hansen, Tim Matsui, Steve Davis, Cheryl Hanna-Truscott and Erika Schultz.
During the opening, there was a couple of filmmakers snagging folk for interviews and trying to make sense of what college education can do for a prisoners’ community and why an art auction and photography show can bring those ideas to the public.
Well, the resulting video has just been published. It’s not the slickest media production you’ll find but it is earnest and the film recognises the work of the many individuals and volunteers who quietly work to make prisons more humane and hopeful.
I wanted to share some PPOTR snapshots with you. Angola Prison (Louisiana State Penitentiary) is the state’s maximum security prison. An 18,000 acre former slave plantation, Angola is the size of Manhattan. At the time of my visit, Angola was “home” to 5,400 men, over 4,500 of whom will die within its razor wire.
Angola is a strange place. Burl Cain, warden since 1994, has blurred the lines between church and state by implementing a regime of “moral rehabilitation”. Of the six interfaith chapels on prison grounds, four have been constructed under his watch.
As well as providing God, Cain also provides as many programmes as possible to keep the prisoners active. From harvesting tonnes of crops (“We never open a can of food in our kitchens,” said prison spokesperson Gary Young), to refurbing wheelchairs for charitable use; from the twice annual rodeo season to the dog-training facility; from the horse breeding programme to the prison hospice; and from the prison newspaper – The Angolite – to the prison’s own TV station, prisoners who tow the line are kept busy.
Of course, on my media tour, I wondered what I didn’t see: the death row, the solitary confinement cells, the staff quarters.
I did see worklines in the fields guarded by armed correctional officers on horseback. I was also provided a meal of beans, rice and fried chicken at the Warden’s Ranch House. I visited shortly after Thanksgiving so the Christmas decorations were going up.
All in all, on that sunny late autumn day, I was driven through what outwardly appeared to be a pastoral idyll. I focused my lens at the signage, the murals, the markings of the regime. I present this little snapshot not in an ironic way, but that it may confound some viewers and we might wonder what lies behind these very surface-level illustrations.
I’d like to feature here two very separate projects. If you’ll allow me, I want to overview Matej Kren’s Book Cell and think of the book literally as a sculptural physical constraint. At the same time, I’d like to introduce Herman Spector’s program of bibliotherapy at San Quentin Prison and frame the book as a pedagogical tool for control.
The Book Cell Project repeats the recurring procedure, in the work of this artist, of piling up thousands of books, creating an architectonic structure where we are invited to step inside.
The memory and knowledge accumulated in the books gathered, closed and inaccessible, diverse and precious will be potentially recovered in the end, when all of the books can return to their function of being read, but meanwhile they will have been worked on as sculpting matter and as the spirit of the place where the artist intends to hold us: an hexagonal enclosure with a passage defined by mirrors that assure the vertigo of a fall, the ad infinitum fragmentation, the panic of spatial disorientation characteristic of a virtual infinity.
The fact that these structures are made from the library/archive of the hosting institution makes me shudder. CAMJAP claims a pride in this making the structures site specific.
Prague is a great literary city and the absurdity of being confined by books would be appreciated by Kafka, and yet Krens offers us a way out that Kafka never would. He intends that books return to use and are reborn into cultural thought.
Kren’s literal use of bound knowledge in the fortification of space calls to mind other powerful (if less poetic) uses of books in controlling inmate populations. I’m thinking specifically of Herman Spector’s program of Bibliotherapy at San Quentin State Prison
From 1947 until 1968, Herman Spector was employed as senior librarian at San Quentin. He put in place a meticulous, long-term program offering 7-days-a-week library access and a choice from over 33,000 titles. By the end of his tenure he stated (not estimated, for he knew every book checked out) that 3,096,377 books had circulated through his system. His project drove up prisoner literacy and had inmates reading 98 books/year.
The project sounds nothing but positive and indeed it brought about much self improvement. But, remember this was a grand experiment with a captive audience and Spector had total control over the reading lists – and latterly, the outward correspondence and writing by San Quentin inmates. Spector employed censorship as readily as he conducted reading groups and assigned classic texts.
Five years ago I was fortunate to meet Eric Cummins, whose book The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement details Spector’s manipulations at San Quentin (Chapter Two: Bibliotherapy & Civil Death). It is the most thorough examination of that great experiment. Cummins writes:
‘Books, for Spector, were the “deathless weapons of progress” by which prisoners could be “paroled into the custody of their better selves … by feeding on hallowed thoughts.” And, “The hermitage of a small, dank cell,” Spector wrote, “if provided with books, can yield a rich harvest of sheer delight and practical values.“‘ (Page 26)
‘Though the prison’s official censor was the associate warden for care and treatment, the actual work fell to Spector. Except for mail, which was read in the cell blocks or the mail room, the senior librarian censored all writings by inmates that left the prison and decided what publications would be purchased for the library.‘ (Page 24)
‘Spector stated his own censorship policy as follows: “Those which emphasise morbid or antisocial attitudes, behaviour, or disrespect for religion or government or other undesirable materials are not purchased.” Like most other librarians of the treatment era, Spector gave little thought to the danger of political, class or cultural bias implicit in his prison censorship policies, and he wasted no time worrying that denying prisoners law books might be unfair or even unconstitutional. Books that gave inmates access to the law were to be confiscated at the gates. Books that criticised church or state were seditious.‘ (Pages 25/26)
It wasn’t only reading that was controlled and owned; writing too:
‘The reduced civil status of prisoners was reaffirmed in 1941 in a section of the penal code titled “Civil Death,” penal code 2600-2601. As a consequence of the Civil Death statute, the California Department of Corrections regarded all writing produced by state prisoners as state property, just as a chair or table made in the prison industries belonged to the state.‘ (Page 25)
Almost constantly throughout his tenure, Spector was at odds with the prison administration who were either unable to grasp, or unwilling to endorse, his aggressive methods of control. When Spector left his post over 25 years of meticulous notes and records were destroyed.
Bibliotherapy and censorship, as Cummin’s concludes, ‘separated prisoners from the power of their own words. Even so, the underlying assumptions of bibliotherapy would soon have a tremendous influence on the lives of certain of the brightest of San Quentin’s inmates, for they would take the notion of reform through reading and writin, the foundation of Herman Spector’s faith, as their own first principle … turning the notion of civil death on its head, reconnecting themsleves to the power of words previously denied them.‘ (Pages 31/32)
Spector’s project founded,at San Quentin, a tradition of literacy that would engender the works of Caryl Chessman, Eldridge Cleaver and the expanded political prison writing movement of the 1970’s. In some ways, the approaches of autodidactism and self determination of the Black Panthers began with the obsessive endeavours of the eccentric biblio-evangelist Herman Spector.