Art on the Outside

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #4 in February 2007]

AREA Dialogue: Art on the Outside: Chicago Artists and Prisons

On Thursday January 11 2007, Daniel Tucker (DT) and Dan S. Wang (DSW) sat down with Laurie Jo Reynolds (LJR) and Marc Fischer (MF) to talk about their backgrounds and recent work doing art in collaboration with prisoners and on the topic of prison more broadly. Marc Fischer is a member of the groups Temporary Services and Mess Hall in the Rogers Park neighborhood. He started corresponding with prisoners when he was a high school student in Philadelphia and self-published a zine that was distributed to prisoners freely for many years. One of his longest lasting letter writing relationships with a man named Angelo resulted in a collaboration with the group Temporary Services for a an exhibition and book titled Prisoners’ Inventions (Whitewalls 2003). Most recently in February 2007 he curated the exhibition Captive Audience at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400. The show features “artwork, cultural products and industrial design created by, for about, or in collaboration with people who are imprisoned.”

Laurie Jo Reynolds is one of the artists featured in the exhibition. She has been involved in numerous prisoner support and activist efforts, including the Tamms Committee (a group that advocates for the men housed in Tamms Supermax prison) where she coordinates a letter-writing campaign to send each man in Tamms C-Max a piece of mail each month. She is also a member of the art/activist/research network Chicago County Fair, and the S.O. Work Group, a committee which is developing several projects to promote informed and productive dialogue with and about sex offenders. These projects include a publication for S.O.s and their families and a series of workshops about the cultural and political phenomenon of the sex offender. Both groups have pieces in the Captive Audience show.

DSW As cultural producers and artists who are schooled and experienced in ways of representing a wide variety of things and ideas, I am curious about what you think changes when the subject of your representation is prison, prison populations, experiences of incarceration, etc. Prisoners are people who suffer a kind of erasure in our society, that we know. But in addition to their invisibility, they also lose their political representation, both in the sense that the concerns of prisoners are rarely addressed in the political sphere, and that their concrete rights, ranging variously from their freedoms of movement or assembly to having the vote, are stripped. When looking at work like Prisoners Inventions, which I have encountered in several different contexts, one of the first things that strikes me is that it represents a whole experience and social history that is completely buried and marginalized, a fact which immediately magnifies the project’s importance. But it also seems to make it more complicated in terms of problems we already think about as artists—audience reception, presentation, exhibition context, etc. How does knowing the stakes at hand impact your decisions when doing your work?

MF For a prisoner on the inside to participate in culture on the outside they will often need a liaison that will work on their behalf or make a case for their inclusion. Prisoners can advocate for themselves to a certain extent through the mail and some phone calls, but once you start getting into art institutions—even supportive ones that are happy to include prisoners, it gets more complicated. It can get much richer when they collaborate with people outside, who can assist in say, building something enormous that they would be completely unable to do inside from where they are. The artist on the outside can become a go-between for someone inside and the people who can make their work more visible. In the case of Angelo (who we collaborated with on the Prisoners’ Inventions project), drawings are classified as documents where he is so he can mail them out pretty freely. If he made the same thing on a canvas, he couldn’t send it out to me without being involved in a hobby program which he is not always eligible for. If he had a large sculptural idea, or wanted to digitally enlarge something for an exhibit, he would need the collaboration of someone on the outside to realize it. Even to make a book, he was able to send out the material that eventually became a book, but he can’t even get a copy of his own finished book because things are scrutinized more closely coming in than they are going out. When the finished book was mailed to him it was rejected by the mailroom; it shows how to make contraband. So someone has to work with a publisher who can help represent his concerns because Angelo wouldn’t be able to get a proof even though he generated the materials.

LJR Yeah—my experience with S.O. Bulletin is a variation on what Marc is talking about because communicating with sex offenders, inside or outside, is very difficult. How do you responsibly initiate contact with sex offenders in an atmosphere that is so fraught and paranoid, especially using the registry? That’s why I decided to go through therapists, parole offices and other treatment providers to talk to people and of course they, too, were suspicious of why people would want to talk to sex offenders. But they served as a safe gatekeeper for access, on both sides, and they are also going to be in that role in order to distribute the publication. Beyond that, they have had a lot of insight and suggestions that have been crucial to the project.

DSW Even though I’ve known that there are many good reasons to engage with these broader issues, I have avoided making art on the subject of prisons. I think this is because I don’t know what would happen to the complex ideas once they are treated as Art. Since you are doing this exhibition, I know that this is something you are thinking about a lot when you have to put things on display and still might not want the ideas to be seen only or primarily as art.

MF In terms of how the complexity is built into the work, a lot of it has to do with the fact that most of the work is either collaborative or involves participants. In a fundamental way, once someone works with another person the complexity is increased. The viewer has to ask, since it wasn’t just one person—how did this thing get made? If you include someone in prison then there are more questions. How did you meet them? How did you communicate with them? How did you work together entirely through the mail and never meet? Or, what if you tried to work with someone in prison and failed, which was the case for one of the Captive Audience artists, Stephanie Diamond who tried to work with prisoners from Rikers Island and it became impossible because of the prison administration. All of those questions happen before you even get into what the individual project or artworks are specifically about. The group Lucky Pierre invited people to eat the last meal requests of people on Death Row who were executed in Texas. A side story about this project is that there was one person that requested to eat the last meal of someone that they knew. It was someone they had come in contact with through correspondence and then became very attached to. She volunteered to eat her friend’s last meal. That is a whole other narrative within a larger project. You can also put things in conversation together in an exhibition structure by including things that are not art but have an enormous amount of creativity. I included the social service organization Friends Beyond the Wall that sets up pen pals for people in prison and people outside, but also has a service where they make composite fantasy photos. People send their Polaroid pictures in from the prison visiting room and Friends Beyond the Wall edits the photos so it looks to be in a different setting. Sometimes people will get set on vacation, or at an extravagant restaurant—so there is a fantasy of being outside with the one you’re close to, but also a class fantasy at work. This is a really fascinating project that is not conceived of as art at all. From an organizing perspective I am eager to see these openings where people use creativity to cope.

LJR One of the things we have in the Captive Audience show is the first installment of our documentary realism style photo series called “Coming Home” that is being produced in different cities. Each set of photos will depict a sex offender coming home from prison being welcomed back into the community, with different scenarios like a bouquet of flowers being presented, or a welcome home party, or neighbors introducing themselves and shaking their hands and helping them start a new life. This project relates to Dan’s initial question about the absence of political or visual representations of prisoners. What we are trying to do is imagine what it would look like if we lived in a world where people were welcomed back into society, to provoke thought about the possibilities that can come from healthy social connections, versus the possibilities that come from the current practice of misunderstanding, ostracism and banishment.

DSW So that is not an event that is taking place in reality, but a use of the visual, a way to extend our imaginations and picture what such an event would look like?

LJR Right. No such “Welcome Home” event actually takes place to our knowledge in the United States. Although of course there are communities—Northern Uganda comes to mind—where people who have committed unthinkable atrocities return to their villages and are forgiven in symbolic ceremonies designed to create healing and future good will. Or of course certain Native American tribes that have alternative models of community justice, or tribes where the whole community takes responsibility for violence. But here in the U.S., we are bombarded with images of sex offenders and sexual predators as icons of evil and vileness. Yet, most of these people do not re-offend, and there is nothing available that shows how their reintegration and forgiveness might happen.

MF The subject of people being released from prison in general is such an abstract and non-represented event. When I volunteered at a maximum security prison in Pittsburgh there was a bus stop in front of the prison. One day when I was getting done with work, there was an old guy sitting there in this ill-fitting clothing he had been given with a box of stuff in his lap just waiting for the bus. He had just been paroled. He was taking the bus to the Greyhound station and then was taking that bus to wherever he needed to meet people. He barely had enough money to make that trip. Given the prison where I was volunteering, it’s quite possible that he was just getting out after a very long sentence. There are many people inside who outlive their family members or who have been in so long that their friends have grown tired of staying in touch with them. What the release of these people looks like is an event that is never re-presented—nobody on the outside knows what that looks like.

DT Much of the rest of the work presented in this issue of Area operates in such a way where the labor that is expended by the activist or teacher is expected to have quantifiable results. This is especially true for people who are doing policy work and even those who do certain kinds prisoner support and even education work. It may not be the best way to look at or evaluate those efforts, but they are often subject to scrutiny and expectations of that kind. The areas in which you operate are quite different, despite dealing with similar content and issues. In presenting this work, what kinds of expectations do you have from the viewers of the work? Do you expect the content to produce some kind of tangible reaction?

MF It is a little awkward talking about this exhibition in terms of art because there are many things included that are not identified as art. One thing that is included is a collection of electronic products designed for the prison population. They have clear plastic casings—a response to the ways in which prisoners will manipulate these objects and use them as a hiding place for contraband. Visitors can handle these objects and try them out. The exhibit also includes free toothbrushes that people can take. It is the same kind available in supermax prisons. The toothbrushes are very tiny—only about 3 inches long. It is impossible to make it into a shank and the plastic is translucent so you can hold it up to light to see if anything is hidden in it. People will be able to take that home, use it and have an experience that you would never be able to have unless you were in one of those places.

There will also be an opportunity to try on the same model of black hood that is used at Guantanamo Bay. It is used to totally block out light, transport people from one place to another and can induce psychological impact on someone. I find the hood almost immediately panic inducing to wear.

DSW So elements like the hood and the toothbrushes are there to give experiential access to a gallery viewer, using cultural production to educate people through a tiny little exposure to a condition of life that is completely divorced from life on the outside.

MF One of the things we can do in art spaces is make things that are interactive. We can have a little theater. If we can go to museum and try on garments by an artist like Lygia Clark from Brazil, then we can also have this thing called the Humane Restraint that is this huge Velcro band with a handle in the middle and is used to bind someone’s arms to their sides and basically pick them up and move them while they are incapacitated. We can use the gallery to create those kinds of interactive possibilities too.

DT The subjective position of being actually incarcerated and the subjectivity of someone experiencing a simulation on the outside are very different. While you cannot anticipate the range of possible reactions to something, what kinds of things do you think might happen to someone who experiences a material connection or simulation through the use of a hood or a toothbrush? The reason why I made the comparison earlier to other forms of prison activism is because they operate on levels that are much more quantifiable and it’s interesting to consider what is or is not able to be achieved in this cultural sphere, and why certain things cannot be known about what it will produce in terms of audience reaction and what they will do with that experience afterwards.

MF There is a lot of work that allows people to imagine themselves in the position of the incarcerated. It’s an intense feeling to try on a bright orange jumpsuit, or read intimate correspondence from people who are incarcerated, or think about what you might eat for your last meal, or what you would want to bring a photo of if you were sent to prison. There are a lot of opportunities to reflect on the position of people in prison and are own position as people on the outside.

DSW One question the Chicago County Fair (CCF) project is asking is, what would our whole society look like if this is what happened when people came home from serving time? That is asking for a more far-reaching extension of one’s imagination than looking at the day-to-day mundane experience of incarcerated life. dt It is just a different position to imagine oneself as an incarcerated individual versus imagining yourself as a member of an alternative version of society at large. By looking at the ccf work, we don’t have to become someone else or be in the shoes of another, we can stay ourselves and imagine what life would be like if sex offenders were treated differently.

LJR Exactly. But, because this is the first installment, it is still unclear how people will imagine themselves in relationship to this photo series and I think the reaction will be varied. Certainly people might be upset at the thought of welcoming home a sex offender, such as victims or survivors of sexual crimes. And obviously there are people who feel like they can’t extend any sympathy for this group of people no matter what. Yet, the images themselves don’t ask the viewer to do anything but witness a scene enacting hope and faith in another human being and their potential redemption, so maybe people won’t have a problem with it. We’ll see. In general, the process of doing this—and all the projects on sex offenders—has been surprising. We have had to engage people in this issue who don’t feel particularly compelled by it, like the actor who played the sex offender and the people who played neighbors. That photo shoot was interesting because we all ended up having this bodily experience of what this welcome back scenario might be like. And it was actually the actor, Gerard, who played the S.O. who came up with the idea for the best shot in the series where he is walking up the sidewalk to his home not knowing what to expect. He came up with it at the very end of the shoot and we shot it last. Another actor. David, whose role ended up getting cut out of this series had great suggestions too. In fact, we all worked together on how to choreograph the photos and what activities to stage, which were, in essence, also ideas about how you would welcome a S.O. back to the neighborhood.

MF There is a huge amount of moral weight and there are tons of ethical issues as well. I was emailing the S.O. Work Group about possibly enlarging some of their correspondence for the show, but they had an agreement that they could not include the handwriting of the letter writer. That is a really particular kind of ethical issue that I had never thought about before. Normally I might assume you couldn’t include the person’s name or photo but sex offenders are so ostracized that even having their handwriting possibly give them away is too vulnerable of a position to allow.

LJR Yes, the entries sent to us for inclusion in the S.O. Bulletin are anonymous. In fact, the whole idea behind the S.O. Work Group is that people can get involved and contribute their insights and ideas, but not everyone needs to be public in speaking out or identifying themselves—only the ones who feel like they can afford to. This issue is difficult for everyone to speak out on, but especially S.O.s and their loved ones. The last thing in the world we want to do is make this harder on any family. Even people who treat S.O.s have a reason to be paranoid in this climate. Also, the S.O. Work Group is focusing on promoting dialogue. In that sense, people who participate don’t feel like they have to sign a position paper on sex offenders. The perspectives range a lot. But everyone feels that there is some important misunderstanding about sex offenders that needs to addressed and that there are unwanted effects from the current system of sex offender classification and restriction.

DSW It seems to me that of all the irrational and punitive treatments of people that need help in our society, the pattern that has been established in the last decade or so around sex offenders is the most blatantly hypocritical for our society at large. On one hand you have an almost permanent punishment in the form of prison and social ostracization, with many people rendered persona non grata with no hope for reentry. Then, on the other hand, the visual culture and media environment surrounding us has become unbelievably sexualized.

LJR Especially eroticizing youthfulness.

DSW Exactly. So as a cultural producer and artist, do you think you can address this subject at these different levels—the punitive/legal and the cultural?

LJR Well, our culture is socially isolating and this media environment produces dissatisfaction, self-hatred and loneliness. All of these are risk factors for re-offenses of sexual crimes, and every other kind of crime, besides the fact that things are being eroticized that people might not want to have eroticized. I agree, these connections go unaddressed in general, and also by the projects I work on! I normally pick a very particular way of addressing an issue and hope that the project itself will give you the grounding and desire to make other connections.

DSW Yes. The critique is there and is implicit. As opposed to people who are in the professionalized activist world who have focused all of their energy and education on doing legal work or doing something in realms that are almost entirely juridical or legal or policy-oriented, you as cultural producers making media are providing counternarratives about incarceration and sex offenders.

LJR I agree. My undergrad degree is in public policy, but it was evident to me that the public policy debate was not as useful or urgent as the media or cultural studies debate. Public policy is contingent on media representations.

DSW I was interested in politics before I was serious about art. Something that occurred to me as I became more interested in art was that one of the reasons that all these well intentioned activists would run into such limits of their good work was because their work often had no sense for aesthetic and visual representation or communicating symbolically—all these things that could be learned from cultural work. For me it is a constant source of frustration to see activists that don’t really get that.

MF It’s also frustrating that art rarely gets to ex-ist in any proximity to social or activist organiz-ations. There is so little cross communication. I think it’s healthy for these things to co-exist in a space where people can contemplate many varieties of thinking. You can have all this straight-forward work with an activist agenda—for example posters by a group like Stop Prisoner Rape, complicated by extremely messy personal and emotional art. Some of these things can shoot other agendas in the foot through their presence but it gives things a balance that I think is more honest than you sometimes get with some activist work. Let’s be honest—some people in prison are doing constructive things but others are unabashed fuck-ups who have no interest in reform! And not everyone on the outside has perfect judgment either. And I think it’s good to show a little of that. All of this is intensely complicated.

LJR Of course, it is also different because activists often define their audience as the city council or a state legislator or a judge or a governor, and they feel like they have to highlight the best and proper example of their group and their goals. They have strict boundaries about what they can represent and which members of the group they can put forward, like finding the “Rosa Parks” of their issue, or focusing on the innocent people on death row. Yet some people are guilty, and complicated, and the best art is messy and unresolved and allows for that fact. But, the most politically expedient way of representing the issues is not always the most interesting or truest representation. As an activist, I cannot go to my alderman and say, “When I think about my brother in prison, I feel like he is in outer space,” even though I find that metaphor is exactly appropriate for communicating my feeling on the subject. So the issue isn’t just a lack of aesthetic savvy but it also has to do with how activists conceive of their goals, and the audience for their activism. dsw That is why words about the work you are doing should be included in this issue of Area, alongside so many other examples of people working on political, service, educational, and activist levels. Some of this cultural work is better without a strong ideological frame. For all of my interest in reform and even abolition, I have worked with juvenile offenders and know that people who commit crimes are often highly damaged individuals, and that some people can make serious, permanent trouble. By presenting the complexity of the whole, and, as Marc says, the messy range of experiences from the very personal and emotional to the impersonal and bureaucratic—out of that we can hopefully see a wider range of positions. This is often not possible when adhering to a strict ideological line. ljr Although, prison doesn’t protect us from dangerous people, and it is usually not a good place for people to learn how to function or be effective parents or a number of other end goals we might have as a society. As for activists, of course we or they are not all one coherent group. But I do think the strategies that are often used to define problems in particular ways, racialize certain issues, represent people as victims or as innocent—all in order to achieve goals politically—are very stifling for all of us, because these claims are more complicated. It’s not the activists’ fault, the whole society is stifling in that way. The way we decide who can speak on behalf of whom, or about which issues. Or, the fact that we can’t say—“this person murdered someone, and in addition to the fact that this was completely eternally anguishing for the victim’s family, this event was also fracturing for the murderer and his family as well.” We don’t ever really address those kinds of things as part of activism and rarely as part of art. Our society just doesn’t negotiate the constant level of horror and violence going on—like the 250 men in Tamms tortured by extreme sensory deprivation and isolation, and juveniles held in equally brutal conditions, and human trafficking in Chicago, and Animal Control killing thousands of dogs, and the human costs of cheap consumer goods or food. Except for fixating on a few issues, we suppress and reify the most cruel and violent aspects of our society and perpetuate them. Only the realms of art and literature and philosophy have shown the capacity to acknowledge and explain this. The question is how to make those insights as available and widespread as the cultural narratives that dominate the war over representation in politics and activism.

Research & action Links

—Temporary Services

—Gallery 400

—Stephanie Diamond

—Lucky Pierre

—Friends Beyond the Wall

—Lygia Clark

—Stop Prisoner Rape

—S.O. Work Group email


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