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Freedom & Captivity

What does abolition look like, sound like, feel like? Freedom & Captivity is curating an online exhibition from work submitted to our national open call for artworks responding to this prompt.

SPACE is embarking in fall of 2021 as a coalition partner on the initiative Freedom & Captivity. As part of this multi-institution project, there is an online open call for art, performance, sound/music, and other artworks addressing abolition, mass incarceration, and ideas of freedom to be featured on the project website with an extended deadline of July 15th, and a publication forthcoming in 2022. We hope that you’ll help us share this final push for the open call, with submissions due at 11:59pm on Thursday, July 15th. 

Each coalition partner, in addition to other community members, are hosting individually organized exhibitions, events, screenings, readings, and other arts and humanities programming. SPACE is inviting a series of activist curators and artists to share a multitude of historical, current, and futurist perspectives of abolition this fall.

As we begin to launch this project publicly, there are so many important recent exhibitions and projects within art institutions that are worth highlighting, and we hope you’ll join us in engaging with the (inter)national projects below. However, many of these exhibitions and program series have specifically focused on the realities of mass incarceration and center themselves in the carceral state. That work is foundational, but we hope Freedom & Captivity can present a new lens on these issues with a perspective rooted in hope, dignity, and restorative practices as we prioritize explorations of freedom as well. 

The platform for creative expression on abolition that we are building prioritizes ideas that highlight dismantling oppression, rebuilding roads to security for all people, reimagining futures, and celebrating freedom in all of its forms. As the coalition has stated: “We understand abolition to include both the dismantlement of oppressive and racist systems of policing, incarceration, captivity, and surveillance; and the commitment to community-led systems of care, strategies to reduce harm, and life-nurturing futures.” 

The ten projects below (shared in no particular order) can shed some light onto the ongoing art, design, and musical movement for abolition advocacy within different mediums. Please check them out and help us share the Freedom and Captivity open call

1- Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration

This major exhibition explores the work of artists within US prisons and the centrality of incarceration to contemporary art and culture. Featuring art made by people in prisons and work by nonincarcerated artists concerned with state repression, erasure, and imprisonment, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration highlights more than 35 artists, including American Artist, Tameca Cole, Russell Craig, James “Yaya” Hough, Jesse Krimes, Mark Loughney, Gilberto Rivera, and Sable Elyse Smith. The exhibition has been updated to reflect the growing COVID-19 crisis in US prisons, featuring new works by exhibition artists made in response to this ongoing emergency. Marking Time features works that bear witness to artists’ reimagining of the fundamentals of living—time, space, and physical matter—pushing the possibilities of these basic features of daily experience to create new aesthetic visions achieved through material and formal invention. The resulting work is often laborious, time-consuming, and immersive, as incarcerated artists manage penal time through their work and experiment with the material constraints that shape art making in prison. Marking Time was organized by guest curator Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, Professor of American Studies and Art History at Rutgers University, was originally exhibitied at MoMA P.S.1 and reflects Fleetwood’s decade-long commitment to the research, analysis, and archiving of the visual art and creative practices of incarcerated artists and art that responds to mass incarceration. The exhibition follows the release of Fleetwood’s latest book, by the same name.

2- Subversion & The Art of Slavery Abolition – on view now at the New York Public Library

This exhibition at the New York Public Library highlights several of the ways that abolitionists engaged with the arts to agitate for enslaved people’s liberty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Though the major focus is on American (U.S.) and British efforts, abolitionism was transnational, dynamic, and controversial. Anti-slavery advocates immersed themselves in letter, pamphlet, and speech writing campaigns and founded newspapers, despite known and unknown dangers. Visual artists created illustrations, paintings, and photographs that featured the mundane yet absolutely reprehensible aspects of slavery to alert everyday citizens to the institution’s many horrors. Novels, slave narratives, poetry, and music were also significant and often encoded with insurgent messages that inspired the establishment of anti-slavery societies and the formation of one of the movement’s most subversive projects: The Underground Railroad. All of these strategies were profoundly necessary as activists rallied the public to agitate for the cause and urged governmental officials to abolish slavery. Abolitionist arts appealed to the public’s moral, religious, and political convictions, eventually yielding a robust stream of anti-slavery propaganda and radical acts that could not easily be ignored. Curated by Dr. Michelle Commander, Associate Director and Curator of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery

3- Forensic Architecture

Forensic Architecture is a multidisciplinary research group based at Goldsmiths, University of London that uses architectural techniques and technologies to investigate cases of state violence and violations of human rights around the world. The group is led by architect Eyal Weizman. Forensic Architecture develops new techniques for research and evidence presentation, while undertaking advanced architectural and media research with and on behalf of communities affected by state violence. The group routinely works in partnership with international prosecutors, human rights organisations and political and environmental justice groups. Some of their most powerful and important work has been architecturally and virtually recreating international “black site” detention centers, calling for tranparency in facilities and human rights needs when bodies are detained in, across, and between borders as part of migration, wartime conflict, or international disagreement. For example, in collaboration with Amnesty International, Forensic Architecture created a 3D model of Saydnaya, a top secret Syrian torture prison, using architectural and acoustic modeling. The project, commissioned in 2016, reconstructs the architecture of the secret detention center from the memory of several survivors, who are now refugees in Turkey.  Since the beginnings of the Syrian crisis in 2011, tens of thousands of Syrians have been taken into a secret network of prisons and detention centers run by the Assad government for a variety of alleged crimes opposing the regime. After passing through a series of interrogations and centers, many prisoners are taken to Saydnaya, a notoriously brutal “final destination,” where torture is used not to obtain information, but often results in the state-sanctioned murder of detainees held without trial.

4- Eastern State Penitentiary’s Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration and interpretive programs overseen by Sean Kelly –

The nation’s first exhibition devoted to the topic of mass incarceration, Prisons Today, has received wide national attention since its opening in May of 2016 and is notable because it was installed at a historic prison. Combining facts, data visualization, their contemporary art program, and advocacy, Eastern State with curator Sean Kelley invoked an unusual strategy for a museum—admitting it is not entirely neutral. The opening panel, for instance, compares crime rates and incarceration rates over time, and simply states, “MASS INCARCERATION ISN’T WORKING.” The exhibit is also noteworthy because it is regularly staffed by tour guides who have themselves been incarcerated, as part of Eastern State’s commitment to workin within the community of those formerly incarcerated. The exhibition was intended to elicit personal connections to recent historic changes in the U.S. criminal justice system, encourages reflection, supports community dialogue, and suggest steps that visitors can take to help shape the evolution of the American criminal justice system moving forward. Prisons Today was the next step in Eastern State’s continued focus on issues of contemporary corrections. It acts as a companion to the large-scale sculptural installation The Big Graph, as well as The Searchlight Series, a monthly discussion series about crime, justice, and the American prison system.

5- States of Incarceration: A National Dialogue on Local Histories

States of Incarceration has currently been created by over 800 people in 18 states, and growing. The project is the first national traveling exhibition and coordinated public dialogue to explore the history and future of mass incarceration in the United States, exploring the regional idiosyncrasies, human rights violations, policies, and futurisms. This ongoing project explores the roots of mass incarceration in our own communities—to open national dialogue on what should happen next. The project was first conceived of and initiated at The Humanities Action Lab at The New School, with a coalition of 500 university students and formerly incarcerated individuals from twenty cities. The exhibition and project, first launched in New York City in 2016, is the culmination of two years of planning and discussion between the communities, is a national public reckoning with one of the most pressing issues facing our country. Using many tools of truth and reconciliation processes, the 20 communities explored the deep historical roots of incarceration, shared personal stories related to the issue, and strategized ways of enacting policy change. In each location, the traveling exhibition and public programs will focus on an issue of incarceration that is unique to that community.

6- Angela Davis — Seize the Time, on view currently at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University

In 1969, Angela Davis, a twenty-six-year-old black activist, was fired from her teaching position at UCLA, accused of involvement in a shootout that resulted in the deaths of four men, put on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and spent several months as a fugitive. In October, she was arrested in New York and returned to California to stand trial. Her image became the focus and the tool of an unprecedented international effort to free an incarcerated black woman. Her trial and acquittal, in 1972, made her a lightning rod for fears and hopes on the right and left about revolutionary change and she has remained an active agent of change in the years since.This new exhibition focuses on Davis and her image. It provides a compelling and layered narrative of Davis’s journey through the junctures of race, gender, and economic and political policy. The exhibition is inspired by an archive in Oakland, California, collected and curated by Lisbet Tellefsen. This archive of materials includes materials produced by an international community that assembled to protect Davis in a campaign to “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners.” Archival materials document her activist work in defense of the Soledad Brothers, her teaching, and her philosophical and activist writings on issues related to freedom, oppression, feminisms, and prison abolition. Beyond the archive, the exhibition positions Angela Davis as a continuing touchstone for contemporary artists who reference her history as a political icon and her texts on revolution, feminisms, and mass incarceration. It includes work by contemporary artists Sadie Barnette, Bethany Collins, Yevgeniy Fiks, Coco Fusco, Renée Green, Juan Sanchez, and Carrie Schneider, among others, who assert Davis’s significance as a black feminism intellectual and engage with her as a historical participant, contemporary thinker, and activist in a larger abolitionist narrative that extends into the present.

7- Barring FreedomSan Jose Museum of Art with an outdoor installation and public programs “Visualizing Abolition” at the University of California Santa Cruz

Barring Freedom was a contemporary at exhibition engaging issues of prisons, policing, and justice at the San José Museum of Art which closed in spring of 2021. It was accompanied by Solitary Garden, a public art project about mass incarceration and solitary confinement, at UC Santa Cruz as well as a community programming series “Visualizing Abolition” run by USSC alumni who are abolition activists or formerly incarcerated citizens. Barring Freedom featured works by important U.S. based artists which challenge the dominant ways people see and understand the complex nexus of policing, surveillance, detention, and imprisonment that makes up the nation’s prison industrial complex. With more than two million incarcerated people, a majority of them black or brown, virtually all of them from poor communities, the prison industrial complex reveals a troubled vision at the heart of the nation. The exhibition and accompanying programs considered the strategies artists use to reveal this unjust and racist worldview as well as the social problems that it serves to obscure. Featuring work by: “American Artist”; Sadie Barnette; Sanford Biggers; Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick; Sonya Clark; Sharon Daniel; Maria Gaspar, Ashley Hunt; Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman; Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts; Deana Lawson; Sherrill Roland; Dread Scott; jackie sumell; Hank Willis Thomas; Patrice Renee Washington; Prison Renaissance; and Levester Williams.

8- Prison Architect, experimental documentary by Cao Fei, as part of a larger immersive installation project by the same name

Commissioned by Tai Kwun Contemporary. In the film, an architect and a prisoner living in parallel realities in the present time and an ambiguous distanced past conjure up imaginations and experiences of imprisonment. A dialogue across space and time on the relations between humans, the world, and freedom. The large-scale installation iteration of this project cut across the various spaces in the three floors of the art centre at Tai Kwun Contemporary. Fei’s imagination about imprisonment can also be grasped from the exhibition design. The setting as shot by the film reappears and overlaps in the exhibition. This project explores existentialism as a means of self-redemption, questioning at once the relationship of the self to itself, and that of humans to the space around them.

9- Edge of Daybreak – Eyes of Love, Numero Group 061

“Incarcerated funk has no right to feel this free.” Musical artists who were incarcerated from across the VA commonwealth made up The Edge Of Daybreak’s membership wrote and recorded Eyes Of Love while serving out sentences of six to sixty years. Set to tape inside Powhatan Correctional Center on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, the eight original compositions that comprise 1979’s Eyes Of Love were patched together behind bars and recorded by engineers in lockup—an unshackled portrait of soul music in its most raw and honest form. Edge Of Daybreak’s artists put their checkered pasts in the slammer for a moment, in pursuit of a joyous musical redemption set free. Assembled from distant love ballads and fanciful odes to freedom, Eyes Of Love is a prison letter composed by committee, recorded hastily, and circulated regionally, only to be rediscovered and released with a renewed celebration of their R&B and freedom funk by Numero Group.

10- Poetry magazine – “The Practice of Freedom”, February 2021, guest edited by  Tara Betts, Joshua Bennett, and Sarah Ross

This year’s February issue of Poetry magazine from the Poetry Foundation was meant as a statement. The special issue of the magazine is filled by poems and artwork by incarcerated people, former prisoners, and the relatives of prisoners. These are people whose work isn’t typically seen in literary journals, and Joshua Bennett, one of the issue’s three guest editors, is upfront about his aims in publishing the work of incarcerated writers: The issue is dedicated, Bennett writes in his introduction, “to the abolition of interlocking systems of capture and control which seek to limit their life chances.” Within days of publishing, the issue was embroiled in public controversy and outcry, as readers researched the crimes committed by some poets published. However it remains one of the most engaging explorations through the poetic form of first hand experience in the contemporary prison system in America.

SPACE Reader