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The visitor’s book has been replaced by feedback forms which are forwarded on to the individual artists.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 institutions – 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.
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.
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.