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ABOG

I wanted to congratulate three artists who were recently named as 2015 Fellows at A Blade Of Grass.

Sol Aramendi, Nigel Poor and Dread Scott are three of eight fellows who’ve received $20,000 each to pursue ongoing art projects that better the social, economic and cultural capital of the people with whom they collaborate. I have spoken to the three of them at different points in the past and applaud ABOG on its selection.

This is also a good moment to get A Blade Of Grass on your radar. ABOG has emerged as a thoughtfully-networked, well-advised, organisation with intent to put large amounts of money into the hands of responsible artists who work directly with communities, for dialogue and for change. The fellowships come with fewer strings attached than other funds, thus entrusting artists with the scope and freedom needed for socially engaged projects.

WORKS

Sol Aramendi will use the fellowship to develop Apps for Power  — a smartphone-based app to help workers fight wage theft and restore power to the worker by allowing him or her to safely share worksite experiences, report wage-theft and flag abusive employers. The idea for the app emerged from Aramendi’s discussions with immigrant day laborers. Aramendi has brought in artists, organizers, developers, and lawyers to realise the app which makes transparent a previously exploitative and alienating system.

I interviewed Sol recently: Tapping NYC Migrants’ Creative Energies Through Street & Studio Photography

ABOG Profile

Nigel Poor‘s ongoing San Quentin Prison Report Radio Project will benefit greatly from committed funds. Poor started her work in California’s most famous prison, co-teaching a photo history class inside, with Sacramento State University colleague Doug Dertinger. Later, Poor conducted workshops in which she asked prisoners to annotate San Quentin Prison’s own archive of photos.

Working with incarcerated students changed Poor; she wanted others outside the prison walls to meet these articulate, curious and intelligent man. With a longtime interest in audio, Poor reasoned that radio was the best option. Existing broadcast equipment existed in San Quentin and a local public radio was keen to broadcast Poor’s collaborative efforts. She works with Brian Acey, Greg Eskridge, Jun Hamamoto, David Jassy, Jason Jones, Adnan Khan, Harold Meeks, Tommy Shakur Ross, Louis A. Scott, Shadeed Wallace Stepter and Earlonne Woods. Participants are trained in all aspects of audio and radio production to make stories that are complex and challenge reductive stereotypes, while also providing meaningful work for men who are serving life sentences.

I interviewed Nigel and Doug Dertinger in 2011. (Later this week, I’ll be publishing the full edited text.)

Nigel’s ABOG Profile

Dread Scott is making Slave Rebellion Reenactment (SRR), a reenactment of the largest rebellion of enslaved people in American history. SRR will re-stage and reinterpret Louisiana’s German Coast Uprising of 1811, involving hundreds of re-enactors on the outskirts of New Orleans, in the same locations where the 1811 rebellion occurred.

In the past, I’ve featured Dread’s Lockdown and Stop, about Stop & Frisk in NYC and Liverpool, England. And, by chance, I stumbled upon his well-received, one-time-only performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide under the Manhattan Bridge in October 2014. Me and hundreds of school-kids and scores of bemused office workers on lunch-break.

Dread’s ABOG profile

BIOGRAPHIES

Sol Aramendi is an artist and educator. A vocal agent for social change, she founded Project Luz, a nomadic physical and conceptual space for immigrant communities to learn, create, and communicate, allowing for the greatest agency and collaborative opportunity for all of the participants. Photography is the main tool of engagement. She holds an MFA in Social Practice from Queens College, an Arte Util Residency at Immigrant Movement International, a fellowship from the Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies and has just completed a CORO Immigrant Civic Leadership program from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Nigel Poor is a San Francisco-based artist and photographer and member of the San Quentin Prison Report collective. She is a Professor of Photography at California State University, Sacramento.

Dread Scott makes revolutionary art to propel history forward, working in a range of media including performance, photography, screen-printing, video, installation and painting. He has exhibited and performed at numerous institutions, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, the Walker Art Center and BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) and has been written about in numerous publications including The New York Times, Art In America, ArtNews, ArtForum, Art21 Magazine, The Guardian, and Time.

A Blade Of Grass provides resources to artists who demonstrate artistic excellence and serve as innovative conduits for social change. ABOG evaluates the quality of work in this evolving field by fostering an inclusive, practical discourse about the aesthetics, function, ethics and meaning of socially engaged art that resonates within and outside the contemporary art dialogue.

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Artist’s impression of projected cellphone imagery.

ART

Stop, a video installation will put faces to the numbers – hundreds of thousands – of people who are unjustly detained by police.

Stop is proposed by New York based Dread Scott and by Joann Kushner, an artist working in Liverpool, UK. As described by Dread Scott:

Stop will be a projection of portraits of several youth from East New York, Brooklyn and Liverpool, UK. Brooklyn will be on one wall and Liverpool will face them on the other. The life-sized projections will stand and face each other, the audience will be in the middle. Over time, each of the young adults will reveal how many times they have each been stopped by the police during their lifetime. The youth will be having a virtual “conversation” across an ocean with each other as well as with the audience.”

PHOTO

Yesterday, I posted a long conversation with Nina Berman about Stop & Frisk. Berman had not found any other fellow photographers working on the issue of Stop & Frisk. I found one other photographer (who’s work is ongoing and wishes not to publicize it yet) and one artist – Dread Scott.

Dread’s a lovely guy; I’ve written about his work on the prison industrial complex before and I interviewed him last year during PPOTR. Here’s what he says about this Stop & Frisk and this project:

“Last year, New York police stopped almost 700,000 people as part of their “Stop and Frisk” policy. The overwhelming majority, about 90%, were doing nothing wrong at the time and were completely innocent. Most were young and Black or Latino. A similar policy exists in Liverpool and developed after NY police chief William Bratton was invited to be a consultant in another UK city, Hartlepool, in 1996.”

It should be added that UK Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to appoint Bratton as Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police Service following the London Riots of August 2011. Cameron was later overruled by Home Secretary Theresa May, who insisted that only a British citizen should be able to run the Service.

Dread has led photography and art workshops with young adults from East NY Brooklyn (a neighborhood with one of the city’s highest police Stop and Frisk rates) and Joann has been working with similar youth in Liverpool. Using cell phones, students have made a powerful series of photographs about their neighborhoods and lives.

Stop will be exhibited in Rush Arts Gallery, NYC from September 13th, 2012.

START KICKING

Kickstarter has definitely reached its saturation point; The Onion’s take made me laugh hardest.

But you don’t even need to feel guilty about this one; Dread’s already reached his target (sure, he’d like a little extra: who doesn’t?)

What’s more important is the message of his work. Until now, I’ve never seen connections made between the US and the UK – between New York and Liverpool – over the Stop & Frisk issue. The issue is rarely framed within the context of youth; we don’t think of the victims as kids … but in many cases they are.

Stop & Frisk is a canary issue. How the controversy resolves itself will be an indication of whether we have progressed; if we are interested and involved in the welfare of others, or if we remain indifferent. It’s driven by Homeland Security dollars and it messes with peoples’ lives. It’s born out of a divided society, just as prisons were. Now the heavy-handed response is on peoples’ doorsteps.

Untitled (from Lockdown)

Dread Scott‘s 2004 Lockdown pairs portraits with audio statements from the prisoners. The stories intend to represent the two million-plus inmates in American prisons. Dread’s belief is that America is defined by its criminal justice system and its incarcerated masses. This is not a position I would query.

Ostensibly, Lockdown is a less confrontational work than his renowned What is the Proper Way to Display the U.S. Flag? (1988) but the strength of the polemic, from which it stems, is no less.

Dread has drawn strong support as well as well-publicised contempt for his art and politics. Even the most respected progressive voices in politics, theory and photography have paused to question the coherence of his work. Dread, I trust, would expect no less than strong reaction to his work.

Among other identifiers, Dread is an avowed Maoist. He has stated, “This is a world where a tiny handful controls the great wealth and knowledge humanity as a whole has created.” In America more than any other ‘developed’ nation this statement applies. Dread’s political statement must be taken as delivered and used as the departure point for this work.

For our interview, I wanted to focus on Dread’s efforts and successes in accessing prisons, drawing testimony and mounting the piece. And to find out why these efforts were necessary.

Q & A

PP: How many prisons/jails did you visit while making Lockdown?
DS: I visited one prison and I went to another where I was turned away at the last minute.  I also worked with some youth who had been in the system, but were not locked up at the time I photographed and interviewed them.  This is also true of one adult ex-con I worked with.

PP: How many portraits are in the series?
DS: There are eleven that I show.  Obviously I took more, but there are eleven that are good. I also would like to expand the project but I have no plans to do this at the moment.

PP: Did you choose the sitters or did they choose you?
DS: In most cases the prison chose them and told them that a photographer wanted to do a project involving prisoners.  Then once I met with them I discussed more about the project and most of them wanted to be part of it.

PP: Were there prisoners who were simply not eligible for participation in Lockdown? If so, for what reasons?
DS: I wanted to get a somewhat broad sampling of the prison population. In many respects this was achieved, but because I was unable to work on the project as extensively as I would have liked, some types of prisoners aren’t in the project.  For example, I didn’t get to any women’s facilities, any jails and I was not to visit any prisoners on Death Row.

PP: Did you ever photograph a prisoner having had no prior contact or discussion?
DS: Generally this is how the project was done – I would be introduced to them and photograph them in the same day.

PP: Who controlled the length of time you had to introduce your project to, and work with, each of the sitters?
DS: Ultimately, it was the prison that controlled the hours of the visit and how many I would be allowed.  But once that was set, I could spend as much or as little time with any one prisoner.

Untitled (from Lockdown)

PP: How did you organize yourself and your subjects during the projects as a whole? What forms did the communication take before, during and after the sitting for the photograph?
DS: With rare exception, I wasn’t able to communicate with the prisoners before the photography/interview session. The sessions were very intensive.  I generally wasn’t able to spend more than an hour with each prisoner.  Often I only had about 40 minutes so the work was done quickly.  I would start by discussing what I was trying to do with the project and let them know that I wasn’t working with the prison and in fact that I was a revolutionary and I felt that the whole system was worthless.  Which is not what the project was about but I wanted them to know where I was coming from.  If after knowing more about me and the project they wanted to participate, we would move forward.

Generally, I would then photograph them and then I would interview them, which in many ways was just a conversation. As a preface to the interview I would say something like “It’s clear that the main requirement to get into jail today is that you be poor and Black or Latino. Who is in jail? I need to learn your story and want to tell it. Many people don’t know. And those that do know, people like you and your family aren’t talking about it enough. I need the truth. What happened? How did you end up here? I want to put faces on the slaves of these prisons, which are like modern day slave ships that don’t float.” Then we did the interview. As for more communication after the session, unfortunately the prison that I was working with made this impossible. I sent photographs of all the prisoners to them and I wrote again thanking them for participating. I never heard back from anyone. What I later learned when I met one of the prisoners when he was on the outside, he said that neither he nor anyone else ever got any photo or letter from me.

PP: How do you deal with impartiality?
DS: I am not impartial. I think that this is an unjust society and has exploitation woven into it’s very fabric – a society where a tiny handful control the wealth and knowledge that humanity as a whole has created. The imprisonment of two million+ people shines a lot of light on the society as a whole. I wanted to bring to light the people that are latterly hidden from society broadly and make a work that presented portraits of these hidden people and brought of out the insights they have about the society that imprisons them. Because these people and there ideas are written out of the popular discourse in society, I think that this project can reveal a lot about the society as a whole. The prisoners express their individual views and don’t necessarily share all of mine, but through the work as a whole, an audience has the opportunity to grapple with a lot about the foundations of this society and see and meet people who have a lot to say about it.

PP: What reasons did each of the inmates have for taking part? Were their reasons opinions that you also held or had previously held?
DS: Many of the prisoners initially met me because it was a break from their daily routine. Some were intrigued by the change and chance to work with some sort of photographer. Most didn’t know much about the project prior to meeting me. But once they met me they mostly decided to participate because they wanted to have both their individual story put out in the world, but also they saw this as a chance to be part of a broader conversation about a country that imprisons over two million people. There was also a small minority who were looking for some angle to shorten their time or hoped I was a vehicle to communicate with people outside.

PP: Did you take many pictures of the same sitter? Did the inmates of each portrait have a say in which print you chose for exhibition?
DS: Yes, I generally took about 20 pictures of each person. Sometimes a few more and occasionally less. Because the prison prevented me from communicating with them, they weren’t able to have any input into the portrait that I used.

Installation

PP: James Clifford has said, “Represented voices can be powerful indices of a living people – more so even than photographs, which, however realistic and contemporary, always evoke a certain irreducible past tense.” How important to this piece are the audio tracks; the ‘represented voices’ of the inmates?
The audio is essential. It is as much part of the project as the photographs and I will not exhibit the work without the audio.  One thing that I wanted to do with Lockdown is bring the faces, voices and ideas of those who are hidden behind bars in the gallery and museum setting. People throughout society need to see who is imprisoned and know what insights they have in the world.  So there is an important level of the ideas. But there is also a question of voice. It is very specific and allows the audience to encounter the prisoners in a much more real and complex way.

PP: Did each inmate prepare a statement or do you edit audio in post-production from single unrehearsed dialogues?
DS: The audio is carefully edited from much longer interviews. The interviews typically were about 30-40 minutes. And the audio in the work uses about 3-6 minute excerpts.

PP: How do you describe the relationship between the collected raw data (first-hand spoken testimony; photographic documentation; a unique name/identity) and the cultural frame you set it in (gallery, public space, political statement)?
DS: The portraits and interviews form the basis for the work but the art, once it is exhibited is just that – art. The art would be inconceivable without the photos and interviews, but they have been selected & edited and assembled to be a coherent work of art.

PP: Does your artistic voice compete with the oral testimonies/voices of the men you photograph?
DS: While the testimonies of the individuals are important as an individual expressions, Lockdown is the opinionated view of its author. I am not mischaracterizing any of the individual stories, but I have put them within the overall meditation on a society that imprisons over two million people that is Lockdown. So my voice dominates on a certain level.  The work is really the collective voices and photograph, not the individual stories. It is made up of individuals, but I think that the whole adds up to more than the sum of the parts.  It is because of this, the way the work is structured overall, that it is not a “documentary” where one person’s story is next to their photograph and it is about all of the individuals. It is about what they, through the work as a whole, address as a group.

PP: About your work, you have said, “the continuum of history is a recurring theme in many of my works” and therefore inviting comparisons between past and present events. Do you use artistic devices, photographic or otherwise, to assist the viewers with these comparisons?
DS: Yes, but I don’t see the continuum of history as being so foregrounded in this work. Some of my projects will have a lynching paired with police brutality or an electric chair. This isn’t so much the case with this work. Though I did decide to make the portraits black and white which roots somewhat in the past and situates the theme of the work as being tied to a longer history as well as roots the project in a certain photographic tradition.

PP: Are you following a photographic tradition? If so, which elements of past photographic works inform Lockdown. If not, where then should people find their visual cues for reading the photographs?
DS: In making this work, I really appreciated Danny Lyons’ Conversations with the Dead.  My project is different but it is on this continuum. Also, Avedon’s In the American West. Again, I’m doing something different. I think Avedon is exoticizing his subjects a bit, but they are really great portraits and he does reveal things about the people he shoots that many outside of the culture don’t know about.  Meat packers and guys on oil rigs aren’t often part of Chelsea conversations.  Also, Roy DeCarava’s influenced this work. Particularly how he respected many of the people he photographed.  As the project is not just a photo project, I drew on other artistic traditions. Actually the text and image work from the 80s has informed me on works like this. I just use audio text rather than written. What I am doing is new, but it wouldn’t exist without these influences.

_______________________________________________________________

Dread Scott works in a range of media including installation, photography, screen printing, video and performance. Dread first received national attention as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1989, President Bush Sr. declared his installation What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? “disgraceful,” and the entire US Senate denounced the work when they passed legislation to “protect the flag.” As part of the popular effort opposing compulsory patriotism, he, along with three other protesters, burned flags on the steps of the US Capitol. This resulted in a Supreme Court case and a landmark decision.

In 1992, Dread was a fellow at the Whitney Independent Study Program. In 1995, he was awarded a Mid Atlantic\National Endowment for the Arts Regional Fellowship in Photography. In 2000, he participated in the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue directed by Anna Deavere Smith at Harvard University. He has been awarded a Mid Atlantic/NEA Regional Fellowship in Photography, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Sculpture (2001) and Fellowship in Performance Art/Multi-disciplinary Art (2005), and a Creative Capital Foundation grant. In 2000 he participated in the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue directed by Anna Deavere Smith at Harvard University. That year he also worked on a Special Edition Fellowship at the Lower East Side Printshop.

His work has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Robert Miller Gallery in New York, Brooklyn Museum, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and the DeBeyerd Center for Contemporary Art in the Netherlands. His public sculptures have been installed at Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens, New York and Franconia Sculpture Park in Minnesota.

In 2008, the Museum of Contemporary African Disporan Art in Brooklyn, NY hosted Dread Scott: Welcome to America.

This interview provides more extensive coverage of Dread Scott’s oeuvre and politics.

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