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Captive Audience

Tuesday, January 16, 2007–Sunday, February 04, 2007

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Captive Audience is an exhibition of artwork, cultural products, and industrial design created by, for, about, or in collaboration with people who are imprisoned. From music and spoken word records, drawings, video projects, photographs, posters, written correspondence, movies, and stills; to mass produced toothbrushes, jumpsuits, sneakers, and mattresses designed for prisoners; Captive Audience allows visitors to the exhibition to experience the material conditions of prisoners ’ lives and review artwork made in, for, or about prison life. It included materials or participation from Angelo, Chicago County Fair, David F., Stephanie Diamond, Friends Beyond the Wall, Lucky Pierre, Mary Patten, phonograph records recorded by inmates and/or in prisons, Prison Blues®, prison products designed for inmate use, LJ Reynolds, Risk-Takers Ltd., S.O. Work Group, Stop Prisoner Rape, and Robert Stroud (“The Birdman of Alcatraz”).

The exhibition is accompanied by numerous events, including screenings of John Frankenheimer ’s Birdman of Alcatraz, Scared Straight! and Scared Straight! Twenty Years Later by Arnold Shapiro, and The Captivity Show, a series of films curated by Ben Russell. Additionally, the gallery is hosting Where Did They Come From? Where Are They Going?, an introductory workshop that provides facts, analysis, and testimony about sex offenders in the U.S.; a public discussion of artists working with prisoners with curator Marc Fischer and artists Mary Patten, LJ Reynolds, and Sarah Ross; and a gallery talk with Fischer and artist Lucky Pierre.

A staged reading of Jacob Juntunen ’s epic ensemble play Under America, directed by Joanie Schulz, will also be performed in the gallery. The play takes place in Chicago and follows Sam, a lesbian journalist who wants out of the closet but fears her family ’s disapproval, and Michael, a black 16-year old living in public housing who is arrested and wants out of his cell. Eventually, the lives of these two become intractably intertwined, bringing even their families and loved ones together.

Related:

EXHIBITION CHECKLIST (EXPANDED)

Angelo

Selected drawings, 1996–06
Ink and pencil on paper

Angelo, who prefers to go by this single name, has been incarcerated continuously in several California prisons for the past eighteen years. He is the author of the book Prisoners ’ Inventions (published 2003, WhiteWalls) in collaboration with the group Temporary Services (Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin, Marc Fischer). Exhibitions of Prisoners ’ Inventions, some including a full size model of Angelo ’s prison cell built from his meticulous measurements, have been presented throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Angelo ’s primary creative endeavor has been to make drawings of narrative situations in ballpoint pen and sometimes colored pencil on paper. Many of these drawings are suggestive of the prison experience in metaphoric, historical, and psychological ways through images of captivity or deprivation. Scenes of power, domination, a lack of privacy, and suppressed or restricted desires are commonly displaced to other times and cultures. In many of these drawings, people prey on each other in front of crowds, face public scorn and humiliation, or are forced to perform slave labor or otherwise compromise their humanity and individuality.

Chicago County Fair

Coming Home: Brooklyn, 2006
Three C-prints

This Chicago-based art/activist/research network connects groups and individuals for innovative action and dialogue. Among their ongoing projects is a letter-writing effort that includes every inmate at Tamms Supermax Prison in Tamms, Illinois. About the first installment in their new photo series Coming Home, CCF writes: “These photographs offer a glimpse into an alternate universe where sex offenders who have taken full responsibility for their actions are given a welcome back party upon their return from prison and are supported in building a new life.” Additional installments of these documentary-style tableaux are planned for other cities. The photos have the banal quality of stock photography catalogues, as if, alongside anonymous images of businessmen shaking hands, there could exist a category called “Coming Home From Prison.” The images lend serenity to a major life event that, in real life, if made public at all, might be a fraught and hysterical situation.

David F.

Free booklet and wall text

David F. was a New York-based inmate that curator Marc Fischer corresponded with between 1993–94. He is represented in Captive Audience through excerpts from his letters that are printed in a free booklet and a wall text. David ’s highly articulate and darkly humorous writings cover a wide-ranging array of topics including suicide, Western attitudes toward death, drug use, methods of scamming money from women through the mail, his encounters with infamous prisoners like David Berkowitz (“The Son of Sam”), and his pessimistic views on the reform potential for both himself and those incarcerated with him. David died in prison in 1999. The cause of his death is unknown. However, in his letters, David spoke of his determination to commit suicide before the turn of the millennium in order to avoid becoming physically or mentally infirm while serving out a life sentence.

Stephanie Diamond

It Would Look Like…, 2007
C-prints

New York-based artist Stephanie Diamond has created a new version of an ongoing project called It Would Look Like… in which she distributes specific statements to participants and asks them to continue the statements with their own words. Diamond uses the responses as a guide to select images from her extensive archive of around 100,000 of her own photographs. The selected images are hung in a grid format on the gallery wall and are accompanied by the statements used to select the images. For Captive Audience, Diamond asked friends, family, strangers, artists, and friends of friends to respond to the statement, “If I were to go to prison, and I could only bring one photograph with me, it would look like…” Diamond received over 100 responses. Diamond first initiated this project, with a different question, to Rikers Island inmates. When access to prisoners and prison bureaucracy created insurmountable hurdles, Diamond’s project became what it is today.
www.stephaniediamond.com

Friends Beyond the Wall

Composite photographs

“Are you tired of seeing you and your family in dozens of photos taken in the Visiting Room over the years … all with the same old boring Visiting Room backdrops?” asks Friends Beyond the Wall, a business that provides an affordable service to prison inmates and their families. The organization allows inmates ’ families to send in visitation room photos of prisoners with their loved ones. The service then creates a composite photo by extracting the people from the visiting room and placing them into a more desirable location of the customers ’ choice. Alternate locations include extravagant houses, a gazebo in an outdoor setting, a resort, or the option of standing together behind a luxury sports car. Friends Beyond the Wall gives inmates and their families the opportunity to imagine life before, after, or instead of prison.
www.friendsbeyondthewall.com/pbtw/photos.html

Lucky Pierre (Jeffrey Kowalkowski, Tyler Myers, Michael Thomas, and Mary Zerkel)

Final Meals, 2003–
Three video DVDs of 48 meals, requested between May 22, 1992 and December 6, 1994

In its ten-year history, Lucky Pierre has created numerous events, videos, installations, gallery shows, performances, and copious writings in the U.S. and Europe. Current members of the group are Jeffery Kowalkowski, Tyler Myers, Michael Thomas, and Mary Zerkel. Their project in Captive Audience, Final Meals, is a video installation of volunteers eating meals requested by Texas death row inmates. The piece is based on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website, listing the last meal requested by each prisoner executed by the state since December 1982. Lucky Pierre prepares each meal according to its description and then videotapes a volunteer eating the meal. The piece has been in progress since 2003; to date 145 of the 378 presently listed meals have been prepared and videotaped. Each 25 minute video begins with the date of the inmate’s execution, and ends with the meal’s contents as listed on the website. The volunteer is shot from above in black and white, with ambient sound retained. Instructions given to the volunteers are minimal: please be quiet and respectful; eat as much or as little as you want; don ’t look up at the camera; don ’t make loud noises or jiggle the table; if you are done before the time is up, just sit and wait, someone will come get you after 25 minutes. The project starts with meal number one: T-bone steak, french fries, catsup, Worcestershire sauce, rolls, peach cobbler, and iced tea.
www.luckypierre.org

Mary Patten

Contraband, 2007
Letters, Polaroids, and ephemera

Through video, photography, and writing, Chicago-based artist and activist Mary Patten has long explored the personal and political spaces shared between people in prison and their lovers and supporters on the outside. She describes her 2007 work Contraband as: “A grid of Polaroids, drawing, ephemera, hand-written and ‘found ’ text, all bearing traces of prison visits and correspondence between 1985 and the present. Lists of what is considered ‘contraband, ’ and therefore disallowed from visits, personal packages, and mail—from the predictable (weapons, pornography) to the implausible and absurd (body hair)—combine with more elliptical notions of what is prohibited, or considered dangerous. Unspoken words, self-censored gestures, and withheld touch all work in semi-conscious and unacknowledged ways as the dispersed, peripheral agents of repression.”
www.uturn.org/Prisissue/patten.htm

Phonograph records recorded by inmates and/or in prisons

American prisons have been the site of numerous compelling musical bands, recordings, and concerts. In the 1940s, Alan and John Lomax made extraordinary field recordings in Mississippi of “Negro prison work songs” that document a lost tradition of singing while doing brutal physical labor. In the 1960s, Bruce Jackson made similar prison work song recordings at several institutions in Texas.
In addition to these documentary records, there have been a number of albums made by prisoners working with record labels and producers on the outside who, in cases like the soul group The Escorts, recorded their voices at the prison and then added instrumentation using studio musicians on the outside. In the case of a band like Graterford Prison ’s The Power of Attorney, inmates were allowed to leave the facility and taken to outside studios where they recorded records under the watch of an armed guard. The late James Brown, who learned to sing in reform school, was instrumental in helping The Power of Attorney release a 1974 record on Polydor, Brown ’s own label at the time. In more extreme cases, inmates have recorded vocals over the telephone during calls made to collaborators on the outside.
Another type of record is the prison concert album. Here, an artist from outside comes into the prison to play for the inmates; the most famous examples of this are the two albums Johnny Cash released of concerts at Folsom and San Quentin prisons. Glen Sherley, an inmate at Folsom, sent Johnny Cash a cassette of his song “Greystone Chapel” previous to Cash ’s visit. To Sherley ’s great surprise, Cash performed his song when he played and recorded a concert at Folsom. Prison concert albums are often riveting. The performers commonly select songs with relevant lyrics that will be moving to the audience; the prisoners ’ cheers, shouting, or boos activate these albums in poignant ways. The concerts are sometimes disrupted by official announcements from the prison administrators. These albums become a way through which prison populations of particular places and times enter our homes, if only through their recorded voices in the crowd.
This exhibition includes records from a variety of genres including blues, soul, country, rock, gospel, work songs, classical, rap, funk, and comedy. You can hear examples from many of these records at three listening stations, each with a different selection of tracks.

Prison Blues®

As the Prison Blues website states, “The Prison Blues® brand was established by Inside Oregon Enterprises, a division of the Oregon Department of Corrections. It was started with a federal government grant funded by drug money seizures, and as a plan to defray incarceration costs in the state of Oregon. The state conducted a thorough study determining that Oregon manufacturers would not suffer from a Prison Garment Industry.
The Prison Blues® factory was created in 1989 to manufacture jeans, yard coats, and work shirts made by and for Oregon inmates. Marketing began to fuel interest in Prison Blues® products that translated into more work opportunities for more inmates to work in the factory making our authentic, prison-made blue jean brand.
Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution is a medium-security state prison located in Pendleton, Oregon, housing about 1,500 inmates. Our workers view the Prison Blues® Garment Factory as a departure from everyday prison life. They work in a modern, spacious facility. They are not forced to work in the factory. Most have waited on long waiting lists for an opportunity to get the coveted jobs.”
In addition to the clothing worn by inmates throughout Oregon, Prison Blues® manufactures a commercial product line of jeans, jackets, work shirts, sweatshirts, T-shirts, and hats available to the public. For Captive Audience, Prison Blues® has contributed sample garments and promotional literature. Prison Blues® products are sold throughout the U.S., Japan, and Europe.
www.prisonblues.com

Prison products designed for inmate use

A broad array of products has been designed in response to institutional safety concerns and the desire to control inmate behavior in prisons. Toothbrushes with exceptionally short, flexible handles, or designs with no handle at all that fit over an inmate ’s fingertip, have been created to prevent inmates from turning the handle into a knife. Electronics with clear plastic casings are used to prevent inmates from hiding contraband inside their radios or the bases of their hot pots. Personal mirrors are created in a variety of designs that are either indestructible or impossible to use as a weapon when broken.
Companies like ATD-American Co., Bob Barker (no relation to the TV game show host), Jack L. Marcus, and PX Direct manufacture and distribute products for institutions (and sometimes people who want to play prison on the outside). Many manufacturers such as the sneaker maker Vans create product lines designed for prison issue, such as shoes with Velcro straps for inmates on suicide watch or in prisons that do not allow shoelaces. Captive Audience includes a variety of products made for American prisons, as well as a selection of restraint devices that are currently employed in the U.S. A collection of British prison phone cards from Her Majesty ’s Prison Service has also been included; they are a form of currency that enables inmates to use phones where coins and cash do not circulate.
Most of the objects on display can be worn or handled by visitors. Please ask the gallery attendant for assistance.
www.atdamerican.com

www.bobbarker.com/webguest/bAboutUs.asp

www.jlmarcuscatalog.com

www.pxdirect.com

LJ Reynolds

Space Ghost, 2007
Single-channel video and photocopy transfer on resin, 26:00 min.

LJ Reynolds ’s single-channel video Space Ghost compares the experiences of prisoners and astronauts, using popular depictions of space travel to propose certain themes about incarceration: the sense of time as chaotic and indistinguishable, the displacement of losing face-to-face contact, and the sense of existing in a different but parallel universe with family and loved ones.
This over-arching metaphor offers a perspective on the border between the inside and the outside. Physical comparisons such as the close living quarters, the intensity of the immediate environment, and sensory deprivation soon give way to psychological ones: the isolation, the changing sense of time, and the experience of earth as distant, inaccessible, and desirable. The analogy also bleeds into the world of the symbolic where media representations hold astronauts and prisoners in an inverse relationship to one another: the super-citizen vs. the super-predator. Astronauts, ceaselessly publicized, are frozen in time and memory whereas prisoners, anonymous and ignored, age without being remembered.
The end of the video introduces the notion of the “phantom zone” (taken from Superman) to describe incarceration as an in-between space, a no-man ’s land, or a warehouse. A letter from an inmate explains how the space-time continuum can become reconfigured in prison: “The time really goes by fast here. You can do years in prison and it seems like no time at all. That ’s because you don ’t remember any of the time you did. And that’s because there ’s nothing to remember.”

Risk-Takers Ltd. (Terry Cross, Errol Malcolm, Lee Spencer)

Incarceration, 2000
Board game

The prison board game Incarceration was developed in the United Kingdom by three prisoners (Terry Coss, Errol Malcolm, and Lee Spencer) who met while serving brief sentences (together they served a total of three years). The men developed the game and a business plan for its production and release while they were doing time. Upon release they formed the company Risk-Takers Ltd. and Incarceration was released in 2000. The object of the game is to negotiate the various hazards and difficulties of prison life and the legal process in order to obtain release. The game is intended for children age seven and up and can be played by two to six players.

S.O. Work Group

S.O. Bulletin, 2007
Poster of prototype publication

The S.O. Work Group was formed to study and respond to the recent political and cultural phenomenon of the sex offender. They write: “Recognizing that both sex offenders and the public policy intended to control them are misunderstood, the S.O. Work Group is developing several projects to promote informed and productive dialogue about S.O.s and their classification, registration, and restriction.” Captive Audience includes two projects by the S.O. Work Group: S.O. Bulletin: this is the prototype for a publication planned to give sex offenders and their families a venue for discussing the sex offender categorization and registry, and how it impacts their treatment, rehabilitation, and reintegration. S.O. Bulletin will be compiled and distributed with the oversight of therapists. Where Did They Come From? Where Are They Going? – this introductory workshop will provide facts, analysis, and testimony about sex offenders in the U.S. The workshop takes place at Gallery 400 on February 24, 2–4 pm.

Stop Prisoner Rape

Posters and postcards

Three posters and postcards are included to represent the Los Angeles-based organization Stop Prisoner Rape (SPR). In the group ’s mission they write: “A national 501(c)(3) human rights organization, SPR works to put an end to sexual violence against men, women, and youth in all forms of detention. To achieve this goal, SPR seeks to: engender policies that ensure government accountability for prisoner rape; change ill-informed and flippant public attitudes toward sexual assault behind bars; and promote access to resources for survivors of this type of violence.”
SPR ’s poster and postcard ad campaign was developed pro bono by the advertising agency McKinney and Silver. These images were posted on billboards and publications in California as well as inside the state ’s prisons, “making it clear to inmates and corrections officials alike that all people deserve to be protected against sexual violence, even when they are incarcerated.” [co-executive director Lovisa Stannow]
www.spr.org

Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz”

Books, biographies, and materials related to Birdman of Alcatraz

While in prison for murder, with additional time added for killing a guard, Robert Stroud (1890-1963) was able to have two widely-distributed books published on the subject of bird diseases and even ran a bird breeding and medication business from his cell. In 1955, Thomas Gaddis wrote a sympathetic biography on Stroud, which was adapted in 1962 for the highly popular John Frankenheimer film Birdman of Alcatraz. The film had broad international success; however, Stroud himself was never permitted to see it. Burt Lancaster ’s portrayal of Stroud endeared the inmate to many who signed petitions in theater lobbies in favor of his release or parole. The real Stroud was far more disagreeable and an enormous disappointment to those admirers who turned up in court at his parole hearing. Frankenheimer ’s film inaccurately shows Stroud breeding and caring for birds from his cell at Alcatraz. In fact, Stroud pursued these activities at United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth in Leavenworth, Kansas, and had abandoned them by the time he was transferred to Alcatraz. While at Alcatraz, Stroud wrote a history of the U.S. prison system that the Prison Bureau reviewed and prohibited from being published. At age 72, after having spent 54 years of his life in prison, Stroud died while incarcerated at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners at Springfield, Missouri.
Robert Stroud remains a figure more known in his filmic portrayal than for the actual details of his life and work. Captive Audience includes Stroud ’s books as well as two biographies and materials from Frankenheimer ’s film.

MEDIA COVERAGE

Holland, Richard, and Duncan MacKenzie. “Episode 108: Marc Fischer.” badatsports.com, Sept. 23, 2007.

Stabler, Bert. “Short Takes on Current Shows.” Chicago Reader, Jan. 26, 2007.

Tyson, Josh. “Captive Audience.” TimeOut Chicago, Feb. 2007.

EXHIBITION CHECKLIST

Angelo

Selected drawings, 1996–06
Ink and pencil on paper

Chicago County Fair

Coming Home: Brooklyn, 2006
Three C-prints

David F.

Free booklet and wall text

Stephanie Diamond

It Would Look Like…, 2007
C-prints

Friends Beyond the Wall

Composite photographs

Lucky Pierre (Jeffrey Kowalkowski, Tyler Myers, Michael Thomas, and Mary Zerkel)

Final Meals, 2003–
Three video DVDs of 48 meals, requested between May 22, 1992 and December 6, 1994

Mary Patten

Contraband, 2007
Letters, Polaroids, and ephemera

Phonograph records recorded by inmates and/or in prisons

Prison Blues®

Prison products designed for inmate use

LJ Reynolds

Space Ghost, 2007
Single-channel video and photocopy transfer on resin, 26:00 min.

Risk-Takers Ltd. (Terry Cross, Errol Malcolm, Lee Spencer)

Incarceration, 2000
Board game

S.O. Work Group
S.O. Bulletin, 2007
Poster of prototype publication

Stop Prisoner Rape

Posters and postcards

Robert Stroud, “The Birdman of Alcatraz”

Books, biographies, and materials related to Birdman of Alcatraz

INTERVIEW: DAN S. WANG, LAURIE JO REYNOLDS, MARC FISCHER, DANIEL TUCKER

Art on the Outside: Chicago Artists and Prisons

Dan S. Wang: I am generally interested in ways we can bring together our political and cultural work. 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 from freedom of movement and assembly to be able to 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?

Marc Fischer: 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” ofwhere 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 mail room; 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.

Laurie Jo Reynolds: 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 and 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.

Wang: 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.

Fischer: 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 they look 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.

Reynolds: 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.

Wang: 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?

Reynolds: 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 re-integration and forgiveness might happen.

Fischer: 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 represented—nobody on the outside knows what that looks like.

Daniel Tucker: 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 of 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?

Fischer: 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.

Wang: 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 little exposure to an experience that is completely divorced from life on the outside.

Fischer: 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 a 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.

Tucker: 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.

Fischer: 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 our own position as people on the outside.

Wang: The Chicago County Fair project is asking, what would our whole society look like if this is what happened when people came home from incarceration? 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.

Tucker: 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.

Reynolds: 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.

Fischer: 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.

Reynolds: 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 be addressed and that there are unwanted effects from the current system of sex offender classification and restriction.

Wang: 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 re-entry. Then, on the other hand, the visual culture and media environment has become unbelievably sexualized.

Reynolds: Especially eroticizing youthfulness.

Wang: 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?

Reynolds: 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.

Wang: 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 into being a lawyer or doing something in these realms that are almost entirely juridical or legal or policy-oriented, you as cultural producers making media are providing counter-narratives about incarceration and sex offenders.

Reynolds: 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.

Wang: I was much more 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.

Fischer: It ’s also frustrating that art rarely gets to exist in any proximity to social or activist organizations. 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 straightforward 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.

Reynolds: 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 savvyness, but it also has to do with how activists conceive of their goals, and the audience for their activism.

Wang: That ’s the interesting thing about what you’re doing and why we should include it in this issue of AREA that includes so many other examples of people working on policy and activist levels. Some of this cultural work is better without a strong ideological stance. I myself am not even necessarily anti-prison, or think we should tear down all the prisons as an answer. 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.

Reynolds: 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.

***

Marc Fischer is a member of the group 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 freely distributed to prisoners 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 CMAX 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, including 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.

Fischer, Mark and Laurie Jo Reynolds, Daniel Tucker, Dan S. Wang. “Art on the Outside: Chicago Artists and Prisons.” January 11, 2007.

EXHIBITION SUPPORT

Captive Audience is supported by the College of Architecture and the Arts, University of Illinois at Chicago, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.

PRINT COLLATERAL

Poster: Captive Audience

PRESS RELEASE

Marc Fischer
Captive Audience

Gallery 400
Chicago, IL
January 16–February 24, 2007

Opening reception: January 17, 2007, 5–8 pm

Captive Audience presents the material conditions of prisoners ’ lives through art and industrial design by, for, about, or in collaboration with people who are imprisoned. The work includes original music, spoken-word recordings, drawings, videos, movies, photographs, posters and written correspondence, as well as mass-produced toothbrushes, jumpsuits, sneakers, and mattresses designed for prisoners.

The 13 artists and designers include Robert Stroud, known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz;” Stephanie Diamond, photographer and adjunct professor, Parsons School of Design; the human-rights organization Stop Prisoner Rape; Friends Beyond the Wall, a group that seeks pen pals for prisoners; and Prison Blues, a prison-based manufacturer of blue jeans.

Events will be scheduled as follows:

January 24, 7 pm
Birdman of Alcatraz, a film by John Frankenheimer (two hours, 17 minutes; DVD, 1962).

January 27, 2–4 pm
Gallery talk by Marc Fischer and artist Lucky Pierre.

February 3, 2–4 pm
“Artists Working with Prisoners,” a discussion with Marc Fischer and artists Mary Patten, Laurie Jo Reynolds, and Sarah Ross.

February 7, 7 pm
“The Captivity Show,” a film and video program curated by Ben Russell.

February 10, 1–5 pm
“Abu Ghraib: The Pornography of Warfare,” a symposium with WJT Mitchell, Stephen Eisenman, Gregg Bordowitz, and Shawn Michelle Smith on the practice of torture, its imagery, and its implications, organized by Hannah Higgins.

February 21, 7 pm
Scared Straight! and Scared Straight! Twenty Years Later, documentaries by Arnold Shapiro (1.5 hours, 16mm and DVD, 1978 and 1999).

February 24, 2–4 pm
“Where Did They Come From? Where Are They Going?” A workshop with art cooperative The S.O. Work Group and local therapists to present facts and analysis about sex offenders in the U.S.

Gallery 400 is supported by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the UIC College of Architecture and the Arts, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency. The Daryl Gerber Stokols and Jeff Stokols Voices Series fund provides general support to Gallery 400 programs.