Notes MJ Notes to Gregory 7/27/14 at 10 pm: _I made all the images of the audience and the perf in black and white. Only the film is in color.
_I know that on page 9, the dude who first originally got up was the young man. However, the one I used for to match that text I thought was stronger. FYI, the reader hasn’t already met the young man, so you don’t need to retain fidelity to what happened in the actual performance.
_This seems like it should go somewhere but not sure where yet. Can you write to her and ask her for a dustjacket quote or smthg for the back?
Angela Davis quote: “The very future of democracy depends on the ability to posit radical alternatives to the prison industrial complex. “
_Pantone 137C. .. It looks like the RGB on that is 255, 163, Ø)
This is a little not-so-bright, FYI. Using it means that I have to darken the boxes behind it. A brighter (darker) orange in previous versions required the boxes to be less opaque.
_I used the image of the audience and “faded out” the screen for one of the images. Could do that again if we needed to — it was a great suggestion you offered to remind the audience that they are ‘watching’ the film.
_This quote below hasn’t been used yet — you mentioned you liked it but I personally think it’s already addressed. And we already have Frantz with a diff strong quote.
One of thing that is often overlooked in reentry work is a need to address questions like – “How can I be a productive member of society? What could my role be?” It’s a series of questions about individual purpose and validation. When a probationer or a parole ask “What makes me excited to get up out of bed in the morning?” He embraces the range of options available to him and moves beyond the limitations of his situation. If he can start focusing has life around his passions, it will add quality to his life to know himself better and will hopefully be validated in some way. I’m not saying that is going to keep him outside of prison. I just think it that is an incredible foundation to build on.
—Frantz Beasley, Founder and President, AZ Common Ground; formerly incarcerated
_I looked through your alternate images that you provided and kept or selected for the ones that offered the best composition…
Section 1 In 2011, the Arizona State University Art Museum worked with artist Gregory Sale to develop an on-site project that began with a collaboration with fourteen inmates enrolled in a re-entry/rehabilitation program offered by the local Sheriff, Joe Arapaio. This project took place over the course of three months with 52 related events, 37 institutional and community partners, and 20,000 visitors. The museum served as a site for civic dialogue in a place where there is virtually none. On one evening in 2012, the Phoenix Art Museum hosted an event called “It’s not just black and white: a film screening and performance” that showcased and built upon the work produced a year prior. This book is an account of the events and dialogues that occurred during those two events. They are a representative segment of a longer on-going project by Gregory Sale that focuses on the problematic culture of incarceration, the challenges faced by the formerly incarcerated, and the ways in which art can serve to engender civility and discourse around social problems without easy answers. After the guests settled into their seats, the room darkens.
The screen lights up with a shot of hands painting a white wall horizontally with black stripes.
The painters take care to stay within the lightly caulked lines. Eyes are fixed and hands are used to steady the body. Staying within the lines takes a lot of concentration.
Background sounds intermittently punctuate the mostly silent film: keys jingle; a chain clinks, a chalk line snaps against the wall.
The film’s frame widens to reveal a room of inmates in stripes.
They are painting the walls of a museum in their own likeness.
As they paint, the prisoners talk about their aspirations, fears, daily lives.
“I’m not just black and white. I’m just your normal Joe who made a couple bad decisions.”
“Yep, I’ve had a couple of visits since I’ve been in here but it’s hard on [the visitors] too...”
“This is not my first time in jail, because I kept messing up with my probation. I didn’t go to probation when I first got sentenced. I wasn’t ready to quit the drugs yet...”
[new page] - these quotes can go elsewhere.
“Last time I was in jail, before I got out, I wasn’t really prepared for the discouragement. I knew there was a reality out there, but I really didn’t appreciate – like oh – things are going to happen, and you’re not going to get everything you need. It’s going to be different. I kind of went, “Yeah, yeah, yeah I get it.” But in actuality, it turned out, that I didn’t really understand what they were saying at all.”
“Well I’m going back out to try to get something that I once had. And I remember it. And that was a sense that I could do anything.”
“At this point in my life I’ve learned that I don’t have much more time. I need to be for myself the best person I can be.”
Five minutes into the film, a thin young man in jeans and a t-shirt rises from his seat. He makes his way towards the aisle, then down to the front of the auditorium.
He takes a seat in a row chairs “Reserved for Honored Guests.”
As the film fades to black and slowly transitions to white, another audience member rises and follows suit.
In total forty individuals join in – men and women, old and young, black and white, Latino and Native American. They step past and over their fellow audience members. Several walk to the back of the auditorium and over a small platform in front of the projector, casting their shadows onto the screen. Eventually all make their way down to reserved seats. As the disruptions in the auditorium settle down, the film depicts inmates, students, correction officers, and museum staff sitting down to lunch.
Going to the neutral site of the art museum, all these times, and participating as an equal in dialogues, has been phenomenal. Imagine an event where you have a former convict and leader in the reentry community, a victim’s mother, a restorative justice advocate, a Public Defender, the County Attorney, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and myself as the Chief Probation Officer, all at the same table in a wonderful space talking about the impact of visual culture and incarceration.
—Barbara Broderick, Chief Probation Officer, Maricopa County
[image of audience in a darken auditorium watching the film ]
In the final scenes of the film, corrections officers march the inmates back to the loading dock. Moments of actual sound break the silence – orders are given, chains rattle.
A man is locked back into handcuffs. With that metallic click, all sense of exuberance and accomplishment drain from his face.
Inmates are ushered into caged compartments within the van.
The harsh sound of one van door slams shut. The other punches through the silence.
The film fades to black.
As the credits begin, the honored guests in the two front rows stand up. Many move onto the stage. They grab chairs that are scattered about, then sit looking directly out at the audience as the auditorium lights come up.
Here now in civilian clothes they resemble the other audience members.
A dialogue ensues between the audience and the honored guests.
Byron Frank: I got an invitation from Gregory to come tonight. I made it a point to come back here, just to see myself. I didn’t want to see myself in that position, but it is a good wake up call to see myself. I hitchhiked from the rez (the Navajo Reservation)to Flagstaff and then caught the bus. I just did everything I needed to do to get here, see the film and participate.
Well, it’s been hard. You get out and try to get yourself back into society and everything. I know when you watch this movie, it shows a lot, but at the same time there is a lot more that happened behind it. William Eric Paskell: I am the old grey haired man in the film. Honestly, the day we went to the museum was the best day we ever had inside. In my interview on video that day, I really stressed the importance of not putting a person in a cage because they may have a problem. If they are not committing actual hard crimes to support their habit, they be should be treated and not incarcerated. There needs to be more intervention before incarceration.
—William Eric Paskell
Gregory Sale: There are a huge number of people in the reentry community. In this state alone the estimates are that 20,000 people get released each year from state prison. Estimates are that the average stay inside is three to four years, and that 90% come out after that time. There are challenges and struggles for these individuals and their families. Could someone speak to that a bit?
Frantz Beasley: I was a real criminal. I committed real crimes but I never had a drug or an alcohol problem in my life. From the age of 11 to 19 I was a burglar, that’s what I did. I started using a gun about the age of 12.
When I was first released from prison in 1998, I saw my parole officer the next day. I received 10 job leads, offered by employers who were ready to hire individuals with backgrounds like my own. And I had armed robberies and kidnappings on my sheet. Still, it was all very difficult to survive on the outside. I went back in a year later. When I was released the second time, I received ZERO job leads. And it wasn’t just because I was a repeat offender. The fact of the matter is that we’re in a very hard economy.
Life after being incarcerated is really difficult. To wake up from a slumber, I guess you can say, and want to live again but things have changed. Your past decisions have now dictated the rest of your future especially in regards to employment. A felony puts a permanent mark on your life. I think you have to look at the challenge that’s in front of you for what it is. I had to learn to navigate my life with that felony. I don’t accept that something is impossible – I hear NO so much that I never take NO for an answer.
Today, I make sure to keep my nose extremely clean so that I can one day restore my voting rights. I have learned to present myself professionally. I have learned everything that I had to, to survive, because it’s is my life, my livelihood. I have found my voice, and I use it.
Sue Ellen Allen: I served seven years at Perryville for a securities fraud crime, and this is my family. These are my sisters. These are my brothers. When I had breast cancer in Sheriff Joe’s jail the drug addicts, the prostitutes, and the thieves looked after me. I will never forget.
We’ve all worn those black and white stripes. When we heard that noise in the film, the clinking and clanging of chains, I jumped. I think we all jumped when we heard it again today.
Did you see in the film that when they started putting those shackles back on the men at the end of the day? And how the men’s faces changed? And they became ashamed and lost face?
I found my passion in prison. And now I run a non-profit agency called Gina’s Team named after my roommate, who died in there of leukemia when she couldn’t get treatment. We run educational programs in prisons and juvenile facilities. We have a Welcome Home program to meet the women when they get out and mentor them and help them.
All of us have come back. We’re not faceless and not voiceless.
Audience: The film was so slow and silent, was that what it was like that inside?
Gabriel Mesa: When you are inside, when you are in there, the time goes by very slowly. Out here, we are free and open. Time flies by. You can’t even imagine. It’s not really silent because there are a lot of people in there, depending on where you are at. But somehow inside yourself it often feels silent. It kills you inside. Just thinking about your family, your loved ones and you just want to get out and do yourself better. Colleen Johnson: My parents and I came up from Tucson today. I got an email, and I was on it. Giving back is a big deal for me. I was in for a DUI at Perryville Women’s Prison for two years. Not only did that save my life, but it probably saved someone else’s life as well. I fortunately had a great support network. Inside it was so sad to see the people who did not have support. So, we became their support system, whether it was through helping them get into ‘smart recovery’ or AA group meetings or being a student teacher on the yard. Whatever one could do, it was important to do stuff like that.
And now on the outside, I’ve almost been out for two years now, it is important for me to give back in some way everyday. I didn’t have my driver’s license until two months ago. After four years, I got it back. So many people gave me rides. Now, if anybody needs a ride they can call me. Because I give back, I have to give back. Audience: I teach yoga to young women who are incarcerated, and I often wonder what it means to bring awareness practices out into our everyday lives. So here’s my question: You guys were wearing strips, and you were painting stripes. That gesture seems to question the lines we follow and the systems we participate in. For those of you on stage, do you feel your potential is limited to a linear direction or do you see it as something that has unending opportunities? What kind of impact do you feel this project has had on your time in prison and you as a person when you got out?
Nick Fletcher: First off, I want to say thanks for being a part of the overall art project and the film. Watching that day again is seeing myself honestly, at seventeen, at eighteen, as the immature kid that I was in that situation. And now knowing who I’ve become, I can see that I’ve gone through a whole lot of positive changes since then. It is important to me to be able to say that and to know that I helped make these things and to tell folks that that was me in the film. I have never been a part of anything like this before. Debra Keough: I was in Perryville for four and half years. I went in there very angry at myself, humiliated and ashamed. Terrified. I thought these women were going to be axe murderers and beat me up in my sleep and steal my shoes. I met women inside that I now care about and love. I learned patience and tolerance. I got my associates degree and now study at ASU. I was not 17 years old. It is not Yale or Harvard. But the diploma I got? That sucker is framed and on the wall in my room.
Audience: The film was beautiful and quite stylized. The camera really seems to love the prisoners in stripes. But this type of work raises questions and has to navigate a lot of pitfalls. Did that concern you?
Joseph Sentrock Perez: I’m a local artist, and I’m about to start school in Chicago. This subject was very personal to me because pretty much my entire life my father has been in and out of prison. He’s in right now. He’s doing a 10-year sentence. Trust me, with my dad’s amount of time inside, having a prison mentality is real... It doesn’t shut off [when he comes out]. Gregory told me about this project when he began. I was kinda like “mmmm I don’t know dude. I can’t tell if you’re exploiting this subject or not.” So, to be honest, I was super cautious and stayed away at first.
When you see this film, you see an artist at work, and you see all you guys also creating art. That goes beyond all the surface stuff. Tonight I really appreciated watching the film in this way with those of you who have been released participating. But it was super hard to watch as some of you guys on the film were working alongside people on the outside, and then getting locked back up at the end of the day and going back inside. It touched me deeply...like dang, my dad’s still locked up. We need to talk about recidivism. That happens all the time. We have to treat people and not criminalize people. Not criminalize certain issues but deal with them.
Joshua Adams: I remember going from the jail into the ASU Art museum, and the one thing that they did was in their interaction with us was just... that they had no expectations of us. They loved on us. And we were coming from our jail cells, this confined life. And they were, like, buying us Starbucks and buying us pizza. We had only been eating like beans and slop. It really had an impact on all of us. We were a part of this whole situation, this art, so I think that’s the key here. Just to accept someone without expectations -- without thinking first whether they have felonies or whether they have no felonies or whatever the situation is -- but to love them and to care for them.
The project comes to a close when five free men who had completed their sentence returned in civilian clothes to help paint out the black and white lines, a process which took place over the course of several days. Neither Gregory Sale nor the museum staff knew this at the time, but the participants’ desire to experience a sense of closure to the project was so strong that these men came despite the fact that they were risking a parole violation as convicted felons.
When I came on as a participant and sometimes collaborator in these projects, I was a graduate student in photography in the School of Art at ASU. I started photography about ten years ago to make my brain stop screaming after my daughter was abducted on her way to school. A man took her behind dumpsters and raped her and tried to cut her throat. We went through a lot with the case that as ‘victims’ was not helpful. The rape crisis center that was really involved in the trail never offered to help my daughter. The official victim’s advocate was very interested in talking about it on the news but never met us in person. Over time a friend became our victims’ advocate, and her husband, a local constable, helped us prepare for trial.
Before that all happen I had worked as a counselor in the public defenders office so I had a kind of foundation. For many years now, I have been doing human rights work and prison reform work. I do that is because it keeps me in the element of forgiveness. So I have forgiven the man who raped my daughter and so has she. And we live pretty happy lives.
—Jane Lindsay, victim’s mother, artist, activist
Our culture values justice. We’ve developed potent systems of punishment. But we are not organized to help people seek and grant forgiveness. Even in the most painful of circumstances, some extraordinary people choose to forgive. I am not sure I could do it myself. I realized that some people are simply unwilling to accept for themselves, or their family, a life yoked to a horrific incident in the past. Those people committed themselves to more fully understanding the people incarcerated in our jails, and to rehumanizing those who have committed sometimes dehumanizing crimes.
Every major faith tradition encourages believers to be merciful. And we’ve all needed to be forgiven at some point in our lives. So the seeds of forgiveness are widely sown in our society, but they haven’t been nourished enough to really grow. Forgiveness can be a survival strategy, a way of acknowledging that evil exists but releasing ourselves from its grip. It makes the future possible again.
—Vincent Waldron, professor of communication, School of Social and Behavioral Science, ASU
Just to be involved in projects with artists, and professors and policy makers at the university art museum and then at the Phoenix Art Museum had a real impact on the inmates and the formerly incarcerated who participated. Most of these men and women never even considered going inside those buildings before. They thought that those institutions were not for them. But now to be in the film or up on stage, and asked about their life experiences makes it evident that their participation mattered and that their lives matter.
— Frantz Beasley, Founder and President, AZ Common Ground; formerly incarcerated
(I need to double check my info here, Gregory) The modern museum and the prison as we know them today in fact formed as post-Enlightenment initiatives predicated on the idea that through culture and the right kind of conditioning we can shape the human spirit. Describing the ideology behind both civic institutions as active agents of subject formation, Michel Foucault writes… “XXX.” In other words, both museum and prison were intended to reform and improve citizens. We find this parallel in the mission statements of each. [here stick in the mission statement of a prison versus a museum and make the comparison.] The logistics involved in transposing participants from prison to museum — high security vans, armed guards, handcuffs, a complicated paper trail of waivers — tell this self-same story as a material history of apparatus, methods, and bureaucracy.
And yet what happens when artworks like this ongoing one by Gregory Sale cause us to pause and reconsider foundational questions? Or resensitize us to “knowns” whose histories and facture we’d forgotten?
(This next paragraph does not have to be there, esp if this section isn’t written in my voice; I am quite uncertain about it altogether)
Seeing the documentation of what transpired during the creation of these works — I was not there — I find myself revisiting inchoate memories that I tend to forget about myself, or at least tend not to disclose. The immigrant household in which I grew up took topsy turvy rides between an upper middle class neighborhood and an informal hand-to-mouth economy. Now, my parents — now past retirement —find themselves in successive temporary housing situations, borrowing to make the rent when their income dips below the poverty line. As a teen, I acceled at school and found myself a school leader — yet somehow had very low expectations for myself with homelessness never far away. Drugs were a normal part of my adolescence; crime was somehow normalized within my group of friends. I took on what others might think of as unseemly jobs to get a glimpse of how bad things could really get and to willfully shock myself — a self-induced wake-up call that I seemed to crave when things got out of control. I never quite understood how this all happened. Things just informally unfolded one thing after another without a plan. As I read through Gregory’s work, blurry-eyed with tears, I identify with the inmates — the precarity of their lives, their honesty in not being prepared for what would come, the remarkable capacity to forgive themselves, the suspension of judgement. I could have been one of them, I think to myself as I learn about this work. And I am reminded of those graces we call mercy and dignity.
We are quite comfortable saying that law enforcement is harsh; and that ‘they don’t care about the population as a whole.’ We are also comfortable saying that inmates are not like us; and that ‘we will never be like them.’ In keeping those separations distinct, there’s a false sense of safety.
—MaryEllen Sheppard, Deputy Chief, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (at time of statement); currently Assistant County Manager, Maricopa County, Arizona
Besides isolating powerful images and creating a porous space where individual experiences distend outwards, Gregory’s work is its power to operate on a political level. ‘Re-Entry: An Evening Beyond Black and White’ invites the reader to revisit what they know about the politics of incarceration in America.
(this paragraph, Gregory, I expect to be a bit beefed up but need to get up to speed with material and reading). On one side of the so-called prison industrial complex we have corporations and public institutions who profit from the tax-payer funded creation and staffing of prisons. “…”, writes XYZ.
On the other side are those who argue that the pathways leading to and from prison are extremely limited and what’s needed are alternatives to incarceration. As XXX writes, “….(this quote should be about the need for alternatives).”
I think one of the things that struck me the most about these projects is it is only the second time I have participated in something where the criminal justice system made a real effort to actually go out into the community. Something profound happened. To take the criminal justice system, to take ourselves, inmates, and even some of our working meetings out into the public and specifically into a museum, we meet those folks where they are and live in public, instead of expecting them to come to us where we are so safe and secure in our positions.
—Amy Rex, Manager, Criminal Justice Projects, Maricopa County Manager’s Office (at time of statement); currently Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Commander, Inmate Programs and Services
The most salient testimonials to the power of this artwork are the diverse voices of those for whom the work provokes profound reflection and invites the capacity for things anew.
A man who painted stripes on the gallery wall as an inmate, returned to the museum as a free man and brought in his girlfriend to the gallery space. He stood in front of the yellow graffiti wall that he was first to mark on and then knelt down on one knee and proposed. Now I don’t know what the future will bring for Eric and Lisa, but at that moment, I felt change, and a positive outcome. Success cannot be measured through numbers alone, it has to be understood by the depth and resonance of the experiences that occurred.
—John Spiak, Curator, ASU Art Museum (at time of statement); currently Director and Chief Curator, Grand Central Art Center, California State University, Fullerton
Book Jacket & Stuff on the Cover
Gregory Sale’s artwork sketches formulas for dialogues that can lead to understanding and, in some cases, events and direct action. It’s not just black and white opens up a novel context – a space shaped by the artists and museums – for recognizing the complexity of a contemporary very social and political problem and a way of redefining it – or seeing it anew thereby progressing toward a solution.
Section 4: written in Gregory’s voice …
Today in the United States, 2.4 million people are serving time. Held in state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities and local jails, nearly all, 97 percent of those people will be released. Each year 680,000 people are released from prison, and almost 12 million people cycle through local jails. If we add up all offenders who are formally under some form of correctional supervision—i.e., have been placed in jail or prison, or on probation or parole—the total comes to one in every 31 adults.
A breakdown of statistics reveals that incarceration is not an equal opportunity punishment: people of color and those living below the poverty line are disproportionately incarcerated, at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts—one in every 11 African-American adults, one in every 27 Latino/a adults, and one in every 45 white adults.
In Arizona, 20,000 people get released from state prison annually; that figure does not include individuals completing sentences in jail or others forms of judicial oversight. In Maricopa County alone there are 54,000 people under the supervision of adult probation at any given time.
These numbers are staggering and have followed a trend of exponential expansion since the United States began the War on Drugs in the 1970. Skyrocketing incarceration rates since the 1980s and 1990s today designate the United States as the world leader in incarceration.
In Arizona, where these projects unfolded, ideals of the Old West seem to set the tone for a harsh and punitive culture of incarceration. The state itself is often a political flash point for gun rights, incarceration and immigration issues. Some Arizonans argue that mass incarceration has grown out of hand and is too expensive. They advocate for solutions that are cheaper, preventative, less disruptive to families and communities, and just as safe. Many other Arizonans strongly disagree, stating that however expensive and distasteful, incarceration is necessary and cannot be reduced. Everyone cares; we just have different ideas that we hold passionately about how specific challenges should be addressed. Responses in the news media and the political realm are often extreme and polarized. They indicate a loss of an ability to listen to one another or a willingness to engage in conversation.
In Maricopa County and, virtually, for all Arizonans, the subject of incarceration has been overwhelmingly determined by visual images and media events regularly staged by the County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio. The most prominent symbol is the black and white striped uniforms worn by the men and women in the county jail. Harkening back to cinematic and iconic associations with outlaws, this particular style of uniform heightens the inmates’ otherness. The symbolic resonance is augmented by other well-known local phenomenon including pink underwear for male inmates, chain gangs for men, women and juveniles, a Tent City jail and mug-shot competitions.
Our country’s extraordinary rate of mass incarceration is so high that it affects not only individual offenders, but society as a whole, whether measured by cost, public safety, failure of rehabilitation, or impact on children and families.
With 97% of those who are incarcerated eventually returning home, the perception that we can “send away” offenders and thus remove them permanently from society is simply not true. The average stay in prison is about three years.
The majority of ex-offenders return to communities that are often impoverished and disenfranchised. These communities have few resources and services to support the individuals transitioning from incarceration to freedom. Some in the re-entry population have difficulties reconnecting with their families; for others, their return triggers complex emotions and realties for those closest to them.
Individuals in this process face steep barriers to finding employment, a place to live, treatment, and something as simple as getting a driver’s license. Substance addiction, mental illness, and health problems are commonplace. For many youth who have experienced juvenile detention, adult jails or prison, or foster care, they too risk being caught up in the system of criminal punishment as adults. The challenges these people face are considerable and often invisible to the public at large and muted in public discourse.
Approximately, two-thirds of those who return to society will be rearrested within three years. This cyclical structure creates profound collateral consequences for public safety, state and federal budgets, health risks, and weakened ties among families and communities.
As I continue to expand my work with individuals in the re-entry community, I witness how severely our culture has stigmatized criminality. Not only do the challenges of incarceration not end once one’s time is served, it is almost impossible to get beyond a having a history with the justice system. Some argue that corrections and criminal justice practice in the United States is creating a second class of citizens – a prison class of formerly incarcerated individuals who have lost the right to vote, who struggle to pay court fees and restitution, and who are ineligible to receive public support in any form, be it for food stamps for their children or health or education services.
That summer evening at the Phoenix Art Museum began with the cinematic presentation of inmates in characteristically striped prison uniforms painting black and white stripes on a gallery wall. The film screening, performance and subsequent discussion brought together a range of museum patrons, ex-offenders, their families, probation officers, criminal justice workers and others. This spectrum of those in attendance included individuals with access to social and political power and others with limited or almost no discernable social standing.
The ‘othering’ that one might anticipate among this unusual gathering of individuals and museum patrons seemed to collapse. For a brief period of time, the boundaries that so often separate us seemed to soften, opening a space for individuals in the re-entry community to be genuinely seen and heard. Several of the honored guests reported that being in the film and speaking on stage granted them a newfound voice in a sanctioned forum from which they had previously felt excluded and which they now feel values their contribution.
The powerful culture of punishment, both locally and nationally, and the persistence of structural injustices (specifically racism, poverty, and privilege) support a belief that the large-scale challenges of mass incarceration and re-integration are insurmountable. The experience of the audience of the breakdown of barriers and identification with formerly incarcerated and their family members and vice versa suggest that these challenges are approachable — even if for only one evening.
If we can create this level of social human exchange for a moment in time, what are the potentials if a similar level of exchange is extended over a several months?
Too often representatives for disenfranchised and imprisoned populations are not included in the conversation around criminal justice reform, and when they are, persistent power structures push these voices to the margins. These voices need to be heard when community comes together to consider reforming the current systems.
The challenges of securing participant commitments and instilling confidence in my capacity to manifest a ‘safe zone’ feels to me like a tightrope act. And at times I slip. My work with the re-entry community has demonstrated to me the profound need to create relationships built on trust. (I explore — and crave — this same sentiment in other projects that involve collaborations with individuals such as incarcerated mothers and their daughters; young adults who have aged out of foster care and juvenile detention; and men sentenced to life-without-parole in Pennsylvania or death in Tennessee.)
Within the first few months of research for a project that involved individual representing a wide range of viewpoints, perceptive and values, I started an informal study of peace talks and remediation methods - two prominent participants were Joe Arpaio (America’s self-proclaimed toughest sheriff) and activist Angela Davis. As that project unfolded, I regularly reminded myself to stay present, to trust that I could maintain my own integrity and ask others to do the same. I would ask myself, “What does this community partner value or have concerns about? Where can we invite ourselves to see something differently?”
I think back to honesty and trust and the heightened awareness of the importance of them as we developed this project — of having to have those discussions about exploitation and building trust with individuals who may not have been trusted their entire life. And on another level we had to assure some of our partners that this was a worthy inquiry and that we would work diligently to avoid anything erupting and becoming a problem for them, even though there was potential for that.
In each project, I devote many hours to considering the ethical implications of the work I am undertaking and how to bring together art world demands and the desire to reform social systems. It’s in honoring both that the work is successful.
This arena of social and aesthetic exploration is fraught with risks —be it exploitation, a false sense of accomplishment or any number of other hurdles. I feel such a sense of urgency. Not because I have been incarcerated myself, or that someone in my family has, but because the more I become aware of how profoundly incarceration in the United States is fallen short of its promise in our society, I am simply unwilling to not try.
A felon recently described how he’d felt emotionally stripped bare in prison. He covered it up to survive. Now out, he confronts it daily. A meeting with victim advocates was differently haunting. I am working with incarcerated men and women and their families, as well as victims’ families, parolees, criminal justice workers, faith-based service providers, politicians, journalists and scholars; the stakes are high. It’s surprising who is hungry to be involved, to share knowledge that is not available, to listen, to be vulnerable and to be in conflict together.