Postcard #2. Debunking

THE STRENGTH AND VULNERABILITY BUNKER, Koestler Trust Exhibition
Spirit Level, Southbank, November 2013

Framing Incarceration

There is a need for a more sustained, radical critique of the way different myths are produced about incarceration which preclude the possibility of challenging imprisonment as the dominant form of regulation and control of criminality in today’s society. The rehabilitation myth is becoming increasingly aligned with the notion of the cultural or creative industry. Prisoner artwork has its own, very specific form of cultural capital which, we might argue, actually precludes the very myth of rehabilitation since the art itself is interesting because of where it was produced.

Bunker1
Get me Out of Here. HMP Inverness

There is a need for a more sustained, radical critique of the way different myths are produced about incarceration which preclude the possibility of challenging imprisonment as the dominant form of regulation and control of criminality in today’s society. The rehabilitation myth is becoming increasingly aligned with the notion of the cultural or creative industry. Prisoner artwork has its own, very specific form of cultural capital which, we might argue, actually precludes the very myth of rehabilitation since the art itself is interesting because of where it was produced.

One of the foyer spaces in the Royal Festival Hall has been given over to an exhibition of artwork produced by those in incarceration, detention or secure units. Foyer Space as what Marc Augé might call a non-place turned into interior/exterior/other space. This is part of the Koestler Trust’s Offender Artwork awards. The decision to show artwork by all those in some form of detention is not unproblematic and perhaps requires further debate. However, it is also perhaps a well-intended (if not deeply condescending) attempt to remove the different types of judgment and stigma associated with the different reasons for locking people up and the value of their artwork as related to these reasons. Art as therapy, art as rehabilitation, art as resistance etc.

The exhibition was curated by Speech Debelle for no apparent reason other than that she is a cool, edgy rapper – as the video of her selection process demonstrated, the logic and choices as to how to set out the exhibition were arbitrary at best. As it also turns out, those who produced the artwork did so prior to the Koestler Trust’s decision as to the theme of the awards which was ‘forgiveness’. There seems something deeply infantalising about entering artwork into a competition without giving artists any indication as to what the stakes of the competition are. I also wonder whether all the artists entered were even asked if they wanted to take part.

The exhibition also provided inmates with the opportunity to act as guides and attendants. It is unclear whether they were paid for this or if this signifies further extension of the culture industry into the space of the prison via the unpaid internship involving little interesting or valuable experience.

The exhibition also included a comments book. This was largely taken up with platitudes about how ‘inspiring’ the work was along with praise for the Royal Festival Hall for putting on free stuff like this. One comment grabbed my attention as being starkly at odds with the others. The comment was made anonymously by someone who had taught in prisons for 10 years. I quote it here as it seems that the person who made it was hoping for more debate and discussion than the exhibition itself seemed to encourage (a series of events was organised around it which no doubt did produce more critical discussion despite being largely aimed at further celebrating prison writing and artwork):

‘I think it is an insult to the prisoners and other entrants to the Koestler that they had no idea of the theme of the exhibition. What about all the excellent work with nothing to do with the cliche of strength and vulnerability that is not given a chance to be exhibited? Where is all the pottery, the soft furnishings, the woodwork, matchstick work that prisoners spend so long doing?

Does the exhibition work for the public, for the prisoners or for who? What is the point of the bunker? Why do you need a ‘celebrity’ to choose and curate it? How are the visitor numbers compared to other years?’

Bunker2
A Shadow Over the City, Neil, HMP Whatton

The most interesting artwork in the exhibition had less to do with forgiveness and other sentimentalising and more to do with the possibilities of a self-representation which reproduced the alienation of incarceration itself, setting oneself at a distance whether this be fantasy, humour, material and so on. If such work reproduced certain cliches – this is not a failing but a statement in itself as to the power of certain images and aesthetics of incarceration and the impossibility not to engage and identify with these. Alienation as belonging.

Bunker3
Sorrow, Andrew, HMP Blantyre House

 

One thought on “Postcard #2. Debunking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s