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Answer by Torsten Schumann, from Germany

 

How do you describe your culture, your nation? Would you describe it differently to someone overseas? Would you describe it differently to someone in prison overseas? What if that prisoner overseas asked you not to use words but to use images in your response? These are not hypothetical questions, at least not for the men at Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) in Portland, Oregon. Nor for their collaborators scattered across the globe who are involved with Answers Without Words.

Answers Without Words is a collaborative photography project by artists Anke Schüttler, Roshani Thakore and the Free Mind Collective (a group of currently and formerly incarcerated artists) based at CRCI that engages photographers and prisoners in a visual exchange.

Men in the Free Mind Collective have devised questionnaires for photographers in specific countries (see examples below). Participating photographers are requested to answered with images instead of text: Answers without words.

 

Questions for the former Yugoslavia and Switzerland.

Answer by Torsten Schumann, from Germany

 

You are invited to join in! Answers Without Words is currently looking for artists and photographers in Germany, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Poland, Israel and North Korea particularly, but are interested in collaborators anywhere in the world. (See details below.)

Answers Without Words functions, in some ways, as a protracted, connected non-digital version of Google searching.

“The internet is a research tool we usually take for granted in our daily lives,” explain Schüttler and Thakore. “That access is lost in incarceration; prisoners are restricted in terms of what they can learn online. On the other side, not many people on the outside have access to direct information or a good understanding about what happens behind prison walls. Answers Without Words seeks to re-establish an analogue and personalized version of internet image research.”

“Answers Without Words creates a personal experience directly tailored for me, that enables my mind to take a trip abroad,” explains Tom Price, a participant in CRCI.

 

Questions by Tom Price.

The Answers Without Words team assesses collaborators “answers”, CRCI, Portland Oregon

 

The questions and photographs will culminate in two exhibitions, one inside the prison and one publicly accessible in Portland, Oregon in Fall 2018. A public lecture will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition as well as a publication about the project that will be available publicly.

“In collaboration with overseas artists, this project supports marginalized artists, consisting of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, building ties between them, their communities, the world and art,” says J Zimmerli, a prisoner at CRCI.

In return for your images, you can then ask questions of your own about the men’s lives inside. A photography workshop in prison will create a counter round of answers without words from the prison back into the world.

“People always want to know what it is like in prison, we can share this information with them,” asserts Musonda Mwango, a participant from CRCI.

 

The Answers Without Words team workshopping image “answers” of their own, CRCI, Portland Oregon

 

“We want to create awareness for the issue of mass incarceration all the while focusing on one person at a time to make people feel human again. With our exchange we challenge our expectations of a foreign country and our expectations of prison and create artistic opportunity for both artists at CRCI and the photographers abroad,” say Schüttler and Thakore.

 

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If you’d like to collaborate, email answerswithoutwords@gmail.com with the following information:

– your name.

– the country you are currently located at and from which you’d participate.

– examples of your photographic work (a website URL or 5-10 images).

The prisoners in the Free Mind Collective will send 5 to 10 questions.

Time is ticking though! You have 4 weeks. All materials must be sent to Answers Without Words by March 31st.

 

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Answers Without Words is a project done in conjunction with the Portland State University MFA in Art + Social Practice and funded by the Precipice Fund, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Calligram Foundation.

 

 

 

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PRISON ART LIBRARY IN THE MAKING

If you’re in or near Portland, Oregon and if you’ve art books you no longer want on your shelves, please consider donating the to the Columbia River Correctional Institution (CRCI) Art Book Drive.

This Wednesday, December 13th, from 12-7pm, the CRCI Artist In Residence Program is holding a Book Drive at the 9th Annual Publication Fair held at the Ace Hotel Cleaners space.

The book drive seeks titles related to: conceptual art, social practice, collaboration, critical theory, film, painting, sculpture, art technique, artist monographs, art history, performance art, and curating.

Go on. Donate your books!

The CRCI Art Book Library began in April 2017 as a way to expand access to art books, art writing and documentation. The art library is one component of the Artist in Residence Program, which is open to prisoners at the Columbia River Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison within the Portland city limits, run by the Oregon Department of Corrections. The residency is facilitated by a rotating faculty of artists and students from the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University.

PUBLICATION FAIR

After you’ve donated your books, go check out the booths full of paper goods from these lovelies:

4341 Press

Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books

Anthology Booksellers

Antiquated Future

Book Arts Editions

Container Corps

Couch Press

Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery

Floating World Comics

Forest Avenue Press

Future Tense Books: A Micro-Press

Gobshite Quarterly

Impossible Wings

Independent Publishing Resource Center

Microcosm Publishing

Mixed Needs

Monograph Bookwerks

Octopus Books

Passages Bookshop

Perfect Day Publishing

Personal Libraries Library

Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Quotidian Press

Sunday Painter Press

Sidebrow

Tavern Books

Tin House

Two Plum Press

University of Hell Press

URe:AD Press

Volumes Volumes

YesYes Books

 

 

 

Everybody in Portland knows about the recent closure of Newspace Center for Photography. Those beyond the city might not, but they can imagine the damage to the photo community when one of the last accessible darkrooms for film shuttered almost overnight. A hole was left.

I was very fond of Newspace. I’m not a photographer so never used its darkroom facilities but its active lecture series and artist-in-residence program brought many great practitioners to town. It was also the final venue for Prison Obscura in Spring 2016. (Installation shots). I’ve fond memories of the staff, support, volunteers, openings and exhibitions at Newspace. A hole was left.

There’s a larger backstory to the saga, some raw emotions and accusations that better board planning could’ve averted the disaster. But instead of focusing on ‘What if’ or ‘What might have been’ a core group of photo-geeks sunk their efforts, cash and hope into creating a replacement. They showed up at Newspace’s fire-sale of equipment, snagged as much as they could and loaded it onto a flotilla of trucks. They’ve built out a brand spanking new darkroom and are ready for business. Introducing The Portland Darkroom.

 

The Portland Darkroom wants to keep film photography alive and accessible. Rose City needs this resource. They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the first year of operations and get them off to a running start.

I can’t wait to get in the space and meet the photo-peeps who’ve made this happen. Who knows, maybe I’ll resurrect the Eye On PDX series I did with Blake Andrews 2012-2014 to celebrate, and ask questions of, our local image-makers?

Head over to The Portland Darkroom website and sign up for updates. Place some money in the pot. Go on! In return for your support, there’s prints, workshops, stickers, postcards and oodles of thanks from the founders. Head over to The Portland Darkroom Kickstarter page and check out the perks.

 

 

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Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins, from the series Supplication

Bit of housekeeping folks! I need to let you know three things about Prison Obscura:

  1. Prison Obscura is going to Washington State.
  2. Prison Obscura is going to Oregon.
  3. Prison Obscura will be retired in June, 2016.

WASHINGTON

The exhibition opens at Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington this Thursday, January 16th, from 4pm-6pm. I’ll be there giving a curator’s talk.

Evergreen is hosting Prison Obscura as part of Kept Out/Kept In, a series of talks, shows and presentations examining carceral culture.

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Prison Obscura Installation in progress, Evergreen State College.

The show is up January 14 – March 2 at Evergreen Gallery, Library 2204, Evergreen State College, 98505 (Google Map)

OREGON

Between April 1 – May 28, Prison Obscura is on show at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon.

Mark your calendars waaaaaaay in advance for the opening reception 6-9pm on Friday, April 1st (no joke). I’ll be in Portland all weekend, giving a curator’s talk at the opening and then convening with others for events and panels.

1632 SE 10th Ave., Portland, OR 97214. (Google Map)

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Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.

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Supplication #4, Landscape. From the series ’Supplication.’ “The Pryor Mountains. It is so special to me because I am from Pryor and I miss home. Castlerock at sunset.” Photo: Kristen S. Wilkins.

RETIRING ‘PRISON OBSCURA’

To say that the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford had never travelled a show before, they–namely Matthew Callinan–have done a magnificent and utterly-indispensible job in administering Prison Obscura over what will be seven venues.

I didn’t know exactly what was involved in traveling a show such as this and I’m so so grateful that Callinan had the support of his peers at Haverford College to produce an exhibition that could stretch beyond Philadelphia where it all began. We learnt together.

It’s been a great run. After Olympia and Portland though, it’s time to say goodbye. I celebrate Prison Obscura‘s unexpected and gratifying success, but I know that after 2-and-a-half years, it’s time to move energies on to other things. I need to step back and to think about what next, if anything, is appropriate for a prison-based exhibition.

There are massive amounts of vital work and organizing being done around prison activism, policing, power and community-empowerment. I’d like to learn more; take the time to hear and see. Observe and act more; perhaps talk and type less–for a while, at least.

No doubt, I’ll have more to say when Prison Obscura wraps up in Portland, the final show, toward the end of May. For now, I hope that if you are in the Pacific Northwest you’ll be able to check out the show and engage with the ideas its artists propose. Thanks to Alyse EmdurRobert GumpertSteve Davis, Mark Strandquist, Kristen S. Wilkins,  Josh Begley and Paul Rucker and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the men of the Restorative Justice Project at Graterford Prison.

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David Wells, Thumb Correctional Facility, Lapeer, Michigan. From the series ‘Prison Landscapes (2005-2011).’ Photo: Anonymous, courtesy of Alyse Emdur.

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If you live in Portland, Oregon and you’re planning to get wed over Memorial Day weekend, why not let a Magnum Photos photographer come by and make some shots? Via.

ARRESTING POWER

Portland’s a pretty small town. When I lived their I was a fellow panelist with Julie Perini. Jodi Darby once beat me, by mere seconds, to a killer secondhand sweater in a donation pile on the street. I’ve never met Erin Yanke. The three producers have recently completed Arresting Power, a documentary about resistance to police violence in Portland, Oregon.

I supported the Kickstarter to get the film over the finishing line, so I am happy to see it out in the world. On Friday, May 8th, Arresting Power will screen at the Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, CA.

Arresting Power – Resisting Police Violence in Portland, Oregon provides a historical and political analysis of the role of the police in contemporary society and the history of policing in the United States. It provides a framework for understanding the systems of social control in Portland with its history of exclusion laws, racial profiling, gentrification practices and policing along lines of race and class. It serves to uncover Portland’s unique history of police relations and community response.

Arresting Power features interviews with the families of people who were killed by Portland police, victims of police misconduct, local historians and community organizers. Utilizing archival newsreel from the Oregon Historical Society’s moving image archive, the film explores the history of police reform and abolition movements that have been active throughout the past 50 years.

Watch the trailer here.

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Friday, May 8, 7pm

Kala Art Institute
2990 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, CA
Sliding scale $5 – $15
Refreshments will be served
Screening followed by Q&A with the filmmakers

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Happy Halloween, folks. Here’s a fun series. Photographer Neil DaCosta went to Oregon’s kookiest Halloween attractions during daylight closing hours. However, the scenes he discovered and shot on color film ended up looking as sinister as they appear when shrouded in darkness and staged for the frightened masses.

Week to week, DaCosta works long hours as a commercial and editorial photographer. But that doesn’t stop him throwing his camera gear in the car and heading out on his free weekends to shoot personal projects. Shooting stuff to scratch his creative itch is what has kept him sane. At least that was the case until last weekend when his excursions to into haunted houses, forests and corn mazes may have just driven him over the edge.

The ghastly result is a series called With The Lights On.

It all started harmlessly enough. DaCosta stumbled across a haunted trail walking his dog and reasoned that photographing halloween attractions during daylight hours would make for interesting pictures.

“When I was younger, I use to volunteer at a similar haunted trail and remembered how spooky it was even during the day,” he says.

Despite his ghoulish memories of younger experience, DaCosta thought a throughly mature and deliberate diurnal examination of the sites would reveal them for the low-budget, facade dependent constructions they are. DaCosta thought his images would draw back the curtain.

And, so, DaCosta trudged with his 4×5 camera to the West Linn Haunted Trail, the Fear Asylum, and The Haunted Maize — tourist spots all within half-an-hour of his hometown, Portland.

“I captured them empty, during off hours, with the lights on,” explains DaCosta. “But the dark humor I was envisioning, ended up being just more dark than humorous. Goes to show that some of our fears don’t rely on the dark to manifest.”

Photographing on site was eerie. Dead dummies swung and tarps billowed in the dank air. DaCosta got the jitters which were not helped by joggers in the forests who crept up while he was under the dark cloth of his medium format camera.

Those that operated the attractions were welcoming. “Everyone was in to it. Owners put a lot of work into these haunts and they are only seasonal. They are excited someone wants to photograph their hard work,” says DaCosta.

Like all good Halloween antics, DaCosta’s unsettling images jangle the nerves and provide relief and laughter.

Being a procrastinator, DaCosta has yet to decide on his costume for tonight, but he’ll be channelling photographer Joel Peter Witkin, who is his favorite macabre showman.

Happy Halloween folks! Enjoy these pics and then get out there, Trick ‘o’ Treat, and spook some people!

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Pursuant to my recent conversation with Beth Nakamura, I feel it necessary to focus on particular aspect of Oregon’s prison system on which she and Bryan Denson reported. The Blue Room.

Inside the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) at Oregon’s Snake River Correctional Institution, Nakamura photographed the Blue Room, a space in which prisoners watch videos of nature. Nakamura’s photographs and Denson’s words is the first news reporting on this fringe behavioural management method.

Firstly, why does the Blue Room exist? Prisoners in solitary are completely deprived of nature. In the IMU at Snake River, they are locked in their cell for 23 hours and 20 minutes every day. Prisoners’ only time outside of their windowless cell is 40 minutes in a concrete pen with high walls and a metal grate between they and the sky. IMU, the hole, SHU, the cooler, the box, solitary, call it what you like, extreme isolation makes men mad. Solitary is psychological torture. Neuroscience proves as much. Solitary is deprivation made physical.

The working hypothesis of the Blue Room is that exposure to video recorded scenes of nature will calm prisoners. It began operation in April 2013.

Let’s just pause right there and consider what  is happening here. Let’s consider the carceral logic and policies from which the Blue Room has emerged. The state has decided to isolate prisoners in bare cells, with only artificial light, in a state of near total sensory deprivation, for 23 in every 24 hours. Let’s not speculate why prisoners are isolated; I’m less interested in what behaviours land a prisoner in the harshest custody conditions, and more interested in if and how those custody conditions improve or exacerbate existing problems and/or create new problems.

There are many employees of the state — such as Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU at Snake River — who acknowledge that solitary destroys one’s sense of self. In his article, Denson quotes Gilbertson:

“I’ve seen over the years how an inmate will come into the facility, and they’ll almost appear to be completely normal,” Gilbertson said. “After a phase of isolation, those guys – especially those guys with mental health issues – tend to decompensate. They break down and go a different route. And it brings out a whole different person in them.”

Nearly two-thirds of the 200+ men in Snake River’s IMU suffer moderate to severe mental illness. Solitary makes them more prone to violence.

In the past 25 years, states across the U.S. have built, staffed and populated Supermax prisons that specialise in abuse. Once in operation, even well-meaning employees and mental health care-givers can’t change the structure therein; their primary function is to limit the damage of the rigid, brutalising environment.

If we really wanted to provide prisoners with some nature, we could open a gate and let them go sit out in the yard for the afternoon! Put a window in their cell?! Give them exercise options beyond the standard “dog-pen.” But no. From within a carceral logic that says controlled bodies stay within the walls, ludicrous makeshift responses such as the Blue Room emerge.

When I first learned of the Blue Room’s existence, I immediately thought to the scene from the film A Clockwork Orange in which the character Alex has his eyes pinned open and is forced to view “scenes of ultra-violence.” The notion that psychological ills can be rectified by the sights and sounds of projected montages, for me, is the domain of fiction. What would Stanley Kubrick make of this private screening room? Or Anthony Burgess, for that matter? Would they conclude that Snake River prison is as dystopic as the near-future-Britain they created in novel and cinema?

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Film still, from A Clockwork Orange (1971), by Stanley Kubrick.

My first question about the Blue Room is not does it work? Rather, I have to wonder, why does it need to exist? What conditions of social order and disciplinary regime give rise to its “need” and justification?

The Blue Room is a pilot program drawing upon lesser-tested theories in eco-psychology. Denson explains that it came into being through a series of conversations.

In a 2010 TED talk, biologist Nalini Nadkarni talked generally about how nature can be used to rehabilitate and prisoners with jobs skills. At the time, I thought Nadkarni’s implementation of programs to identify moss species and raise endangered frogs as part of the Prison Sustainability Project was fantastic. I still do. Laudable initiatives. (I’ve talked about Nadkarni-started projects here and here on the blog before).

During her TED talk, Nadkarni mentioned she was thinking about installing large-scale murals of nature in the Supermax facilities of Washington. The Washington DOC was supportive but the correctional officers were opposed and the idea was shelved. Then, in late 2012, a Snake River corrections officer named Kevin Karpati watched the TED talk. Karpati emailed the link to Mark Nooth, the prison’s superintendent. Nooth, in turn, emailed the link to Capt. Randy Gilbertson, who oversees the IMU. Gilbertson contacted Nadkarni and asked if it could work.

This is where I wish to acknowledge that the people involved in instituting the Blue Room are making — from within a very restrictive law enforcement environment — efforts to improve the lot of prisoners. They have initiated the Blue Room as a response to severe deficiencies in the system. They cannot change the penal codes and administrative laws, but they can change the available practices within the walls. The Blue Room is an attempt to restore positive sensory input within a facility that routinely denies such inputs.

Nadkarni said she hoped it would work but had no evidence. All agreed that the only way to know was to test the hypothesis. An interior exercise room was converted to a screening room with projector and two chairs.

Nadkarni, along with National Gepgraphic documentary-maker Tierney Thys sourced nature videos. Many came from the NatGeo archives: Big Sur, New Zealand, Costa Rica, mountains, rivers, forest, tropical beaches, underwater reefs, roaring fires and a couple dozen other videos.

[Previously, I’ve written about bibliotherapy (the calculated use of reading lists to spur prisoners’ self-directed correction of “deviance”) in San Quentin Prison in the 1950s. The videotherapy at play in the Blue Room could be interpreted as a modern day equivalent. Words replaced by images?]

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Denson reports that early anecdotes and observations suggest that the Blue Room can have a calming effect. “Lance Schnacker, a researcher for the Oregon Youth Authority, studied the disciplinary records of Snake River’s IMU inmates in the year before, and the year after, the Blue Room opened,” writes Denson. “He calculated that those who didn’t get the unique therapy posted more referrals for disciplinary infractions, while those allowed to use the Blue Room showed a slight dip. Schnacker cautioned that these data were preliminary, but promising.”

Should we be surprised? Give prisoners any small amount of added agency and the opportunity to take-in stimulus that breaks the norm and the monotony then, I’d argue, we would observe a change in behaviour. And most likely, toward the positive. Again, I am left to wonder why prison administrations are initiating small-scale projects such as the Blue Room, instead of taking a step back and recognising that the institutional logic which returns to solitary time-and-time again is the more fundamental issue to address.

Nadkarni, Thys, Schnacker and eco-psychologist Patricia H. Hasbach are set work with Snake River staffers to observe prisoners, conduct surveys and correlate results to existing mental health files. They hope to be able to determine to what degree exactly the Blue Room calms prisoners.

However, determining whether the Blue Room does or does not reduce suicidal or violent tendencies is a red herring. The study misses the point. Whether prisoners see 20-minute long reels of guppy fish and seaweed, or not, doesn’t alter the fact that solitary confinement makes people lose their minds. Why are we interested in mitigating the effects of a barbarous facility when we should be dismantling the walls of the facility altogether?

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All images: Beth Nakamura

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