Artists facing mass incarceration


The path between creation and liberation is rarely as straight as this. The US prison state is a patchwork of facilities that includes federal and state prisons, local jails, federal immigration holding cells, and more. Although certain conditions of deprivation unite them, they are not the same. Earlier this year, the Prison Policy Initiative reported that what we call the criminal justice system includes “nearly two million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 correctional facilities juveniles, 186 immigration detention centers and 82 Indian country prisons. , as well as in military prisons, civilian engagement centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in U.S. territories. In total, the American criminal justice system controls 5.7 million people, if parole and probation are taken into account. On top of that, it’s estimated that over 113 million Americans have an immediate family member who has been in jail or jail. Racial disparities are stark, especially for black Americans, who make up less than 15% of the total US population but 38% of the nation’s prison population. Although the overwhelming majority of Americans support reform, recent years have shown only tentative progress toward substantial change.

IMMEDIATELY after the 2020 protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, politicians seemed more open than ever to the idea of ​​legislative reform. Yet even in these seemingly hopeful moments, some artists and advocates felt a vulnerability, an escape. Too many of those who suddenly seemed to support change had come to this position without confronting and examining their own core beliefs and biases. As long as they could cling either to the soothing myth of innocence through stories of wrongfully accused, or to the fuzzy rhetoric of analysis, cut off from uncomfortable human particularities, they could remain committed to comprehensive reform. , at least in principle.

“I think for us to truly understand the aesthetic and cultural impact of mass incarceration, we need to have works of people who are differently positioned by the prison state in conversation with each other,” says Fleetwood, art historian and curator. “We cannot understand the mere impact of the prison state by simply looking at the work of conceptual and socially engaged artists who work in art institutes or commercial galleries, nor can we simply look at the work made by people held in captivity.. We actually have to think deeply about the cultural creation at that time.

Among those thinking deeply is Ashley Hunt, 52, a multimedia artist and faculty member of California Institute of the Arts’ photography and media program in the Santa Clarita Valley. Several years ago he noticed on prison visits how many facilities were disguised in the landscape, hidden in plain sight. It was no coincidence, he thought, but a calculated strategy to make the massive human storage system invisible. What emerged was “Degrees of Visibility” (2010-present), a photography project that has since grown to encompass correctional facilities in all 50 states and territories of the country. Some of the images are surprisingly beautiful; others are indescribable. We might see, says Hunt, “a landscape that we think we recognize as bucolic, and then we realize there are 4,372 men as far as the eye can see there.” In his work, Hunt detects “a chance to disturb this distance”. At the center of “Degrees of Visibility” is a struggle with the systemic, with how something can grow so beyond the human scale that it becomes unfathomable. How do you describe something you can’t see? Focusing on the big picture mitigates against the “bad apple” allegation – the idea that abuse is isolated to only specific cases. “That’s how the system absolves itself of guilt: ‘It was the bad cop’ or ‘It’s the bad prison.’ We will fix it. We have to look at the overall structure,” says Hunt.


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