postcard #34. Pop-Up

Koestler Trust Pop-Up Art Sale
Wormwood Scrubs, London, UK
July 2016

Last Saturday, I visited the Koestler Trust Pop-Up art sale at their offices at Wormwood Scrubs. The art on sale covered 4 floors of the small building located just inside the front gates of the prison (but outside the main entrance to the prison grounds). Artworks ranged from £10 to £300 and there were numerous NFS items on show as well.


As well as images displayed on the walls, there were crafts on shelves and it was also possible to rummage through poster racks. This was quite different to the polished displays of the Koestler’s annual awards exhibition held at Southbank and the general feel was that of a local craft fair or even a school fête or parents evening. This sense was enhanced by the friendly but incredibly middle-class staff and volunteers welcoming us to the sale and manning the refreshments stall in the small garden area. The other visitors I encountered seemed to work in the arts making me wonder who else spends their Saturday lunchtime at a pop-up art sale at Wormwood Scrubs and why. I picked up a leaflet which contained an invitation to ‘name’ an award and this made me think about whether having an award named after oneself amounted to anything other than condescending narcissism. In the toilet there was a series of tiles which included statements from inmates and detainees about the impact art had had on them while in detention/prison. I expected to feel a certain amount of voyeuristic guilt especially when faced with a lot of mediocre art only some of which could have been cynically enjoyed as kitsch but was not prepared for just how infantilising it all was.


Further down the road and part of the prison architecture is the Wormwood Scrubs Visitor Centre. I wondered how many people who use the centre also visited the Koestler Trust, how many family members and friends of inmates are aware of its existence and aims and how many people travelled down or up from elsewhere especially to see and buy artwork by those they know in prison.

postcard #5. Toys

The Prison-Toy-Industry
April 2014


Roland Barthes offered the following critique of the toy industry back in the late 1950s:

‘Invented forms are very rare: a few sets of blocks, which appeal to the spirit of do-it-yourself, are the only ones which offer dynamic forms. As for the others, French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine (miniature instrument-cases, operating theaters for dolls), School, Hair-Styling (driers for permanent-waving), the Air Force (Parachutists), Transport (trains, Citroens, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian toys).

The fact that French toys literally prefigure the world of adult functions obviously cannot but prepare the child to accept them all, by constituting for him, even before he can think about it, the alibi of a Nature which has at all times created soldiers, postmen and Vespas. Toys here reveal the list of all the things the adult does not find unusual: war, bureaucracy, ugliness, Martians, etc. It is not so much, in fact, the imitation which is the sign of an abdication, as its literalness: French toys are like a Jivaro head, in which one recognizes, shrunken to the size of an apple, the wrinkles and hair of an adult. There exist, for instance, dolls which urinate; they have an oesophagus, one gives them a bottle, they wet their nappies; soon, no doubt, milk will turn to water in their stomachs. This is meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of house-keeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as mother. However, faced with this world of faithful and complicated objects, the child can only identify himself as owner, as user, never as creator; he does not invent the world, he uses it: there are, prepared for him, actions without adventure, without wonder, without joy.’

Taken from Mythologies by Roland Barthes, translated by Annette Lavers, Hill and Wang, New York, 1984.

Sigh, even the simple building blocks Barthes associated with creativity have been co-opted to mindless imitation of adult consumerism. Yet, the video-game-imitating-lego-imitating-art-escaping-life of Harry Potter and Batman Lego games for wii and playstation might, one could feasibly argue, endow children with a more acute awareness of the complex layers of representation structuring their late capitalist, post-human world, including rather than alienating them in the process.

In any case, far more disturbing than the ubiquity of Lego per se is the surprising number of toys taking some form of incarceration or another as their theme. Lego and Playmobil seem to be the biggest culprits (sic) here as a few examples demonstrate:

LEGO Juniors Police – The Big Escape

The set includes:

  • 3 minifigures with assorted accessories: 2 policemen and a crook; Features a police station, prison, police car and police motorbike
  • Police station features an opening jail door, raising barrier, ramp, surveillance camera, telephone and a ladder; Also includes police dog with a bone
  • Accessories include 2 money bills, trashcan, key, walkie talkie, crowbar and a pair of handcuffs

The blurb on amazon reads as follows:

There’s been a breakout down at the town prison. One of the crooks has been able to escape and now he’s on the run! Give chase with the motorbike and police car then return him to the police station and back behind bars where he belongs! The fantastic Police – The Big Escape set is a great way to introduce your young builder to LEGO brick building. It makes a great gift set, too.


Lego City Police Station – note the focus on escaping criminals once more


Lego Prisoner Transporter – Incarceration on the move


Lego Mobile Police Unity with holding cell at the back

Not to be outdone by Lego, Playmobil have their own series of cell-related sets:

with both manufacturers integrating incarceration into their historical and fantasy themed sets:

Lego Kingdom Prisoner Tower Rescue
Sheriff’s Lock Up

and my personal favourite:

Playmobil’s Soldier’s Fort with Dungeon

If, as Barthes lamented, a plastic doll that can piss and shit is intended to ensure a small girl’s unquestioning complicity with motherhood and established gender roles, what of these toys which celebrate the carceral space? Are we to conclude that we are forced to choose from an early age whether to lock up or be locked up?


postcard #22. Reformed

RE:FORM Exhibition, Koestler Trust Offender Arts Awards
Southbank Centre, London, November 2015


This was the 8th Annual awards exhibition put on by Southbank and the Koestler Trust and it was possible to see marked changes in the exhibition since I first visited in 2013. Despite the increasingly ‘corporate’ feel of the exhibition which now includes a Pop-Up stall selling postcards and a clearer indication of the commercial value of the individual artworks, the overall narrative of the exhibition seems far less depressing than in 2014. I wonder if this is a result of the artworks selected for display, their framing and positioning or a shift in the type of art being made and put forward. There seemed to be more space for self-representation and critique of the carceral space itself and fewer (but this might be purely personal perception) statements about the wider socio-political landscape (cuts, austerity etc) and identification with celebrity figures.

This is not to say that political critique or celebrity culture did not feature but where it did, it seemed to offer a necessary riposte to the idea of the ‘pop-up shop’ as the apotheosis of a London maimed by hipster consumerism and the social exclusions perpetuated by gentrification.



The visitor’s book has been replaced by feedback forms which are forwarded on to the individual artists. This seems like a good thing in encouraging a dialogue between artist and viewer especially where this emphasizes the effect artwork can have on those outside prison as well as the giving voice to those inside. But is this sort of feedback also collated and processed to produce some sort of quantitative data about the positive impact of art programmes? Again this would not be necessarily bad except in the way it endorses the perpetual production of data via surveys and questionnaires thus reducing a very personal form of creative engagement into something that can be categorised and measured. In this respect art becomes part of the disciplinary techniques intrinsic to the functioning of the prison rather than a release from these. What conclusions can and are being drawn from such feedback forms? How are these used to affirm the role of prison art programmes and charities like Koestler without doing more to challenge the spaces which house such programmes? 

At the same time, the Koestler Trust website tells us that over 150 ‘professionals’ helped judge the awards. This is clearly intended to suggest both specialist knowledge and a democratic approach to the awards rather than limiting such judgment to a small panel of trustees. Still, this term ‘professional’ worries me slightly in its similarity to the term ‘expert’ Foucault talks about in Discipline and Punish in relation to modern forms of justice. It seems to limit and contain offender art within wider processes of discipline and normalisation which is both infantilising and reduces artistic value to technical skill and therapeutic self-reflection/representation. What are the genuine possibilities for creativity or radical artistic critique here? What about an awards which was judged by inmates and detainees? An awards which was about how those inside communicated their experiences amongst themselves rather than simply to an outside world looking to consume the transgressive and subversive rendered anodyne and inoffensive. After all there is nothing less offensive, it seems to me, than the offender art being displayed by the Koestler Trust. And this is clearly the point.

The name of the exhibition, RE:FORM is perhaps particularly apt aligning the work of the Koestler Trust with a reformist rather than abolitionist agenda. Prison is taken for granted here even when there are individual artworks which accurately and incisively document alienation and brutality of life in detention. 

Here, the specific material nature of different artworks invites a more critical engagement than previously. The exhibition makes the point about the different levels of resources and types of materials available at different IMG_2083institutions – this is both an affirmation of the ingenuity of inmates and, I imagine, a call for better access to artist materials.

While sculptures are found at different points, the exhibition tends to privilege canvas art with other crafts presented towards the back of the exhibition space. Obviously this is linked to wall space and the amount of artwork which can be displayed within the Southbank’s Spirit Level space. However, this time there were two notable sculptures which seemed to articulate both the theme of re:form and a wider critical perspective on prison as space of reformation/space in need of reformation.

Soap Carving

I wonder about the extent to which despite the careful selection and sanitisation process there will always be something present which offers the potential for a different level of critique, one which might easily be missed or dismissed but that is there nevertheless. One that might evoke the idea of ‘repaired citizenship’ proposed by Ariella Azoulay. But here rather than photographed subject-photographer-viewer we have artist-curator-viewer – adding another layer of framing in the form of the curator as the categories of artist and artwork are collapsed into the object of offender art. Clearly there is more work to be done here to explore the possibilities of transposing Azoulay’s very specific theory and its context to another space and set of social relations. The tensions and paradoxes I’ve tried to raise in relation to Koestler and similar initiatives perhaps also go some way into demonstrating the need to think beyond Azoulay’s triangular relation to think about other relations and ethical responsibilities emerging from the framing, display, distribution and circulation of damaged forms of citizenship rendered as artistic object.

Lump of Fortitude by Sean, HMP Dovegate

The alienation of prison life which renders the body into a lump of flesh marked by the time served is described by the artist as follows:

‘This piece is not about sympathy. It is very stark in what it represents, yet there would not be so many tally marks if I had not transgressed. All things pass and there is always hope…At some points when it was in the kiln I thought it best if it did not survive the firing process. There was an incongruous recognition of not liking what it represents.’

Journey at a Snail’s Pace, HMP Whatton – here time is marked differently via the painstaking detail of the wood carving. Unlike the abject, alienating abstract form of Lump of Fortitude, the snail invites praise and a desire to touch its smooth contours. As such, it seems to present an image of prison as monastic-like space of reflective endeavour. Yet the tiny cell enclosed inside perhaps suggests a different reading, a questioning of what cannot be seen in the display of an artwork produced under conditions of incarceration, the small, pettiness of prison life overwhelmed by the larger space of the prison and the time of the sentence.

postcard #31. Debt

York Castle Museum, York, UK
June 2016

York - 1 of 23

Having now sought out prison museums, exhibitions, attractions and repurposed prison architecture in a number of cities around the world, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that it’s possible to find some monument, museum or ruin dedicated to a former prison, camp or dungeon in most places – although some require looking a bit harder, obviously.

Cities boasting a ‘rich’ medieval heritage and earlier and/or a legacy of 18th-20th century colonial power and nation-state building possess multiple sites and memorials dedicated to the prison or dungeon. Sometimes the narratives presented are at odds with one another depending on whether locking people up in that specific space was part of continuous history of a regime now rejected, remembered or denied/glossed over as a moment of ‘terror’ to be bracketed out from the economic and social development of the population.

IMG_2897The aim of my blog has always been less about reproducing the different narratives presented in such spaces than about mapping the prison as cultural artefact, entertainment and ideology onto the landscape – the prisonscape as something that extends beyond the exceptional spaces of functioning and defunct prisons. York is an important case in point. It is possible to see imprisonment woven into the different layers of history presented by the city today as part of an intense tourist-focused infrastructure which incorporates narratives from the Romans and Vikings to the Plantagenets and onto the 19th century. I had flagged up 4 sites to look at during my visit in June 2016:

  1. Monk Bar Gate – The Richard III Experience
  2. Clifford’s Tower
  3. York Castle Museum
  4. York Dungeon

Time limits (not unimportant in thinking about the spatio-temporal demands of the prison museum) meant I only visited the museum and dungeon.

Clifford’s Tower, York

Located in the grounds of the original York Castle and overlooked by Clifford’s Tower, York Castle Museum is located in the former Debtor’s Prison (1705) and adjoining Women’s Prison (1780). The buildings form 3-sides of a square together with the Courthouse (1777) which still operates as York Crown Court today and contains its own cells. A third prison was built in 1835 next to Clifford’s Tower but no longer exists. Here we now find a carpark and merry go round. The castle became a military prison in 1900. Two points about the reuse of the space as miniature themepark and part of the war machine of the early 20th century that bear further consideration.

The multiple histories of imprisonment as well as the different exhibitions both temporary and permanent now housed in the debtor’s and women’s prison buildings whilst the courthouse retains a closer relationship with its original function attests to a complex intertwining of carceral and other histories. After all, (cf. Foucault) a history of prison is the history of the present.

York’s prisonscape

Throughout the museum the architecture functioned as a reminder of the building’s original function regardless of the specific exhibition. As such the prison is validated through the continued utility of its space.

A toy museum is presented alongside reconstructed living spaces from different eras. It is interesting to juxtapose the history of toys and play with that of punishment, prison and torture as two seemingly opposite poles of attraction often framing museums focused on social history. It is important to think more about the way in which children are engaged within the museum space and the assumptions being made about how such engagement can and should be achieved and the different forms of ideological complexity demanded here. Groups of school children were funnelled through the museum at an impressive pace almost like a production line reactivating the mass production and disciplinary techniques whose histories are commemorated by the museum.

Like the Conciergerie in Paris, the gift shop (and here also the cafe) are located at the intersection of the two buildings, meaning that it is necessary to walk through the shop on the way to the debtor’s prison which now houses the prison museum alongside temporary exhibitions on the Sixties and the First World War. Such a layout is perhaps the most pragmatic use of the space but also seems to disrupt the continuity between the two spaces, inserting the opportunity to purchase souvenirs (and a lot of sweets) before one has even seen half of the museum and its exhibits let alone reflect on these. The chaos of the space which results from its open plan layout and function as the access route goes further in blurring the lines between present day consumerism with the historical consumer-culture on display (the reconstructed Victorian street, shops and displays of toys) not least in the extensive range of artisanal, ye olde fudge and other sugar-related paraphenalia. There is a certain irony here in a 21st century culture of credit card debt, online gambling and student loans that a former debtor’s prison is now dedicated to a history of consumerism marketed directly to children with very little discussion or debate around the relationship between crime, poverty and wider social structures and class hierarchies.

Tinker, tailor, candle-stick maker

1,000 Years of Justice

This is the tagline for the prison museum which takes up the lower floor of the former debtor’s prison. It is a fairly limited space given the overall size of York Castle Museum which combines both the Women’s and Debtor’s prisons.


So why not 1,000 Years of Imprisonment as a tagline? Would this not be more accurate? Obviously the ‘1,000 Years’ bit is the selling point emphasizing the role of the space which since William the Conqueror has included some form of prison. But ‘Justice’? This seems particularly suspect and reductive given the prison housed children and families due to debt not simply ‘criminal’ activity. It also reproduces the Victorian alignment of morality and financial well-being since it is essentially poverty that is being punished here.

It is also a tagline which seems at odds with other aspects of the museum’s curation. On entering an empty cell a projection of an actor or actress playing a former inmate is activated on the cell wall – this is a technique often used in prison museums (Cf. Old Melbourne Gaol) since it allows a form of ‘ghostly’ storytelling and plays into notions of the prison as ‘haunted’ space.

The inmate recounts his or her own story – the intention being, I assume, to humanize the space and encourage better understanding of the harsh conditions of the Victorian prison. The projections work like apparitions, ghosts conjured up, unable to find rest or peace in this space of neglect and brutality. As such they seem to violently contest the statement ‘1,000 Years of Justice’.

There are, of course, variations here – Dick Turpin, the legendary highwayman who laments the injustices of being tried outside of Essex emphasizing, more than anything, the postcode lottery of law and order…

You never know where he’s lurkin’

Yet, the fetish of criminal celebrity aside, it is actually quite difficult to focus on the projected narratives when the museum is busy. The relatively open structure of the cells means that each projected story must compete with those being activated in other cells along with the noise of school children and other visitors moving in and out of the cells. Because it is hard to concentrate, visitors tend to give up (I did) creating more movement, noise and disruption. Ironically, this probably creates the best impression of what a debtor’s prison was like – not the monastic, disciplined space of reflcetion and remorse associated with penal theories and architectures of the period but a cacophonous chaotic space where individuals and families compete for resources and attention.


Charity at gunpoint

Of all the spaces, I’ve visited so far, it is this affective experience (more than being shut in a cell with the lights turned off, for example) that seems to come closest to that of a live, working prison yet DSC_5752again, not without irony, it is precisely this set of competing voices that precludes sustained concentration and reflection on the personal experiences of individual inmates. The space of the museum drowns out and effectively silences the voices of those held within it no less that it did as a prison. And this brings me back, once again, to the bigger question as to how far the prison museum, exhibition or tour can show us anything meaningful about prison life and the social function of incarceration. Unless, of course, we limit our understanding of meaningful to an unquestioning acceptance of prison in one form or another within contemporary society.

Genealogies of the Prison

The route visitors are obliged to follow starts at the women’s prison which begins with a timeline of the site’s history within a more general history of punishment.

Inside the prison museum itself, visitors are invited, compelled even, to research their family’s criminal history via a database of those imprisoned and tried within York’s justice system.


Here, criminality is fetishised as belonging to a dark, transgressive family past, one which visitors are required to discover as part of a commitment to ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’ – another tagline featured throughout the museum as well as on its souvenir pencils.


Again, this vision of crime as dangerous and exciting and thus meriting of imprisonment and other forms of punishment is no doubt at odds with the majority of the names in the database – people who spent time in prison for debt or who were deported for petty theft. It is also uncomfortably close to the searchable sex offenders registers and databases found in the U.S. as part of prison museums and tours which encourage a witch-hunt mentality and blanket condemnation regardless of the specific offence. However, here the invitation to search for criminality is turned back onto the visitor, implying that every family has a dark past but one which cannot be ignored or denied but actively sought out. It is this politics of fear, guilt and shame which continues to legitimise the prison, perpetually pitting those outside it against those held within it via the constant implication or threat of ending up there oneself. The 21st century online database with user-friendly interface is an updated version of the classifying techniques associated with 18th and 19th century discipline and punishment and the categorisation of deviant, criminal and docile bodies along a sliding scale of innocence and guilt.


postcard #8. POW

Wollaton Hall, Nottingham
October 2014

Having visited Wollaton again today, I thought it was time I reposted this blogette on their mini-WW2 exhibition. I also recently came across Kevin Walby and Justin Piché’s research on Canadian prison museums . Their typology for thinking about different ways in which a building or site is reused is v.useful as is their point about moving research on penal tourism beyond world-famous sites like Alcatraz and Robben Island. Wollaton Hall is an interesting example of how a site became a temporary prison during wartime and reminds us of the continuum between war and incarceration and the way in which the military-industrial-complex and prison-industrial-complex legitimise one another.



A miniature exhibition amongst the taxidermy at Wollaton Hall commemorates the role of the Hall during WW2 in housing thousands of US troops. A couple of sentences also identify it as a Prisoner of War camp along with a couple of trinkets seized:

A Certificate Signed by Hitler


A German Photo Album

The framing of these objects is interesting as is the lack of information about the POW camp. Like other ghosts of war, the prison exists here as an almost imperceptible trace.