New art exhibit questions the consequences of institutional incarceration

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Members of the Riverside community read and examine the states of incarceration exhibits. Jaspery Goh/HIGHLANDER
Members of the Riverside community read and examine the states of incarceration exhibits. Jaspery Goh/HIGHLANDER

The California Museum of Photography at the UCR ARTSblock hosted an opening reception for their newest exhibit, “States of Incarceration: A National History of Local Dialogues” last Saturday evening. The exhibit is an interdisciplinary multimedia project that uses historical evidence, scholarly research, crime statistics, music, photographs and the internet to examine the nature of America’s prison systems — with a carefully honed eye on the racial inequalities and the ways in which the current surge in imprisoned men and women is affecting society.

The exhibit is a unique, collaborative project that 20 teams in 17 different states worked to create. Each team created different chapters of the project that tackle the national issue of mass incarceration, but also show something unique about their region.

The first piece of the exhibit sets the narrative tone for the work by documenting different historical events with tabs connected to a three-dimensional graph made of cold, grey metal. The display can be viewed from two different angles: first as a story unfolding as you walk down a line from tab to tab, and then as you take a step back and face forward to see it in its entirety, the graph becomes recognizable.

Some of the events shown on the tabs are: a concentration camp for Dakota Native Americans set up in 1862 called Fort Snelling, when congress ratified the 13th amendment; the first time a person was executed by lethal gas in North Carolina and many more historically related events.

The large-scale graph relays that the astoundingly high incarceration rates of black U.S. citizens double the rate of the next leading ethnicity — Latinos. Also, the U.S. sends people to prison at higher rates than any other country. The information is presented in a way that allows the viewer to appreciate the art from different vantage points, and provides context regarding the U.S. prison system so that anyone can understand the rest of the exhibit.

After the fact-heavy introduction, the next segment of the project is a piece of blue plastic hanging from the ceiling, the size of a large floor rug, with cuts made throughout its surface to create words, which are shaped into an outline of the U.S. These words form questions based off of the information presented in the first part of the exhibit, such as, “Who is the death penalty for? How can detained immigrants and asylees fight back? How do profits shape punishment?” The viewer is meant to have these questions in mind as they continue through the exhibit.

As the night continued on, the museum became steadily more crowded, especially in the section that uses music in relation to those in prison. Songs such as “New Prisoner’s Song” by Dock Boggs and “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash encapsulate the experience of inmates. There’s even a playlist on Spotify, “Rikers Island, NY 11370,” that is dedicated to this type of music.

One portion of the exhibit uses tablets to play video recordings and interviews to further illustrate the experience of incarceration. One such section titled, “Are Prisons for Punishment or Rehabilitation?” documents when the Norfolk Prison Debating Society, an organization composed solely of inmates, defeated many top universities, like Harvard, during formal debates. Civil rights activist Malcolm X credited his time at the prison with helping develop his public speaking skills.

A gentlemen listens to an audio file as part of the states of incarceration exhibit. Jaspery Goh/HIGHLANDER
A gentlemen listens to an audio file as part of the states of incarceration exhibit. Jaspery Goh/HIGHLANDER

Another section, “What Do You Want Your Legacy to Be?” focuses on the emotional and psychological state of the prisoners. This part of the exhibit uses journal entries from inmates to reveal the inner workings of someone who is incarcerated and their desires. One of these entries, dated “09-25-15” and credited to an author named Ramon, reads, “as a sentient being, I long to leave a legacy behind where I can be remembered … one reoccurring thought I have is while being in a catastrophic situation, whether I live or die, I save one or more person’s lives … this fantasy is really just a longing for redemption.” Parts of the exhibit like this illicit a strong emotional reaction, creating empathy for a person in that position.

The exhibit is located on the second floor of the museum, which features exposed pipes on the ceiling for an industrial look, and black metal handrails to line the center walkway as the narrative unfolds. These elements create an almost eerie feeling while walking along and looking at the old black and white photographs of prison life, enlarged so that every detail is visible.

Along this walkway, different photographs are hung from the ceiling with quotes in a simple, black typeface. One quote was from a prisoner named Sammy Crystal Perkins, who was executed on October 8, 2014, “Wherever I go when they kill me, it got to be better than Central Prison.” Another from the 1971 Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons, “We are told that prisons are overpopulated. But what if it was the population that was over imprisoned?” These messages echo the questions offered at the beginning of the exhibit and also reinforce the challenges of daily prison life.

Ultimately, the goal of the exhibit is to raise awareness and to “identify national narratives important for building paths to a more restorative future.” The work that the project presents does this well, touching on the factual evidence and also shedding light on the psychological effects on prisoners and the rest of society.

The exhibit will be on display until August 6, and the ARTSblock has several other events focused on incarceration, like film screenings, planned for the coming weeks. It’s a worthwhile piece of art, and we’re lucky to have a segment of it here in Riverside.

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