postcard #37. All too human

We are all human. Koestler Awards
Spirit Level, Southbank, October 2016

This was the fourth year running I had visited the Koestler awards exhibition at Southbank and it was the ninth exhibition hosted by the Southbank. Because of both the scope of the entries submitted and the limits placed on the artists, the possibilities for heavy curation and framing are usually curtailed. Nevertheless Benjamin Zephaniah had managed to use the space at Spirit Level to nicely reimagine some of the common themes and formats of offender art. This was all the more important given the increasing presence of self-validation by the awards. There is a tension between the space for commentary by the artists on the prison service and the society that has locked them up and the sense that such commentary is contained rather than promoted and disseminated by the awards.

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Within the overall theme ‘We are all human’ Zephaniah has foregrounded concepts of ‘time’ and ‘nature’. On entering the exhibition you are immediately confronted with a collection of grandfather and carriage clocks painstakingly constructed from matchsticks or similar. Alongside these are various other artworks which take time as their subject. Bothmatchstick art and representations of time might be considered clichés of offender art and previously matchstick work has been found at the back of the exhibition space grudgingly acknowledged as part of the canon in terms of technical excellence, traditional materials etc rather given a central role in the exhibition’s narrative. Yet the materiality of the clocks when presented as the exhibition’s starting point encourages us to think more about the materiality of prison as well as the different temporalities it constructs for prisoners. These jar against the images of nature subsequently privileged and for me start to posit wider questions about the built-environment and the suffering it engenders for all humans but also all species as well as the sustainability of prison architecture and infrastructure within a wider context of global climate change.

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Despite the focus on time and nature, it is nevertheless the human portrait that features most prominently throughout the exhibition. As in previous exhibitions, there were a number of portraits of dead celebrities as well as political figures including Malcolm X, Rosa Parks as well as David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse. Often famous portraits were juxtaposed with more personal portraits of self and friends emphasizing, I think, the different forms of identification and self-identification which play out in portrait art within a carceral context.

However, the extent to which the artwork presented is offered up as an insight into the personal, lived experiences of those incarcerated, detained or in secure units often avoids general questions about incarceration and its legitimacy by affirming the creativity it has produced in certain individuals. There is a disclaimer in the brochure that not everyone whose work is featured has committed a crime. This is a loaded statement which merits full citation:

‘Not all the exhibited artists have committed crimes. As well as those on remand or in secure children’s homes, around 20% of entrants to the Koestler Awards are patients in medium or high security mental health units, where the arts can be therapeutic or educational. The Koestler Awards are also open to people detained in immigration removal centres, where art is usually run as a leisure activity.’

The disclaimer seems to preempt potential hostility towards offender art from visitors hence the emphasis on those in secure units and children’s homes. The final sentence quite intentionally avoids defining those detained in immigration removal centres as belonging to either category of ‘criminal’ or ‘not criminal’ but as a result is also unable to define the role of art within such centres beyond its function as a ‘leisure activity’. So while the main merit of the Awards is that they lay some groundwork required to recognise the deep inhumanity of all forms of locking people up and the potential of art to produce different forms of response to this inhumanity, more needs to be done to unpack the different types of confinement going on here as well as the way in which the public judges the artwork being produced in different contexts according to preformed prejudices.

Moreover, the intrinsic value of art programmes is often overstated rather than thought about critically. The increased demand to produce evidence of ‘impact’ which is now causing a mass exercise of bad faith within academic research is echoed by the narratives presented by the Koestler on the role of the programme as if to justify Arts Council and similar funding. The feedback forms and visitor book also attest to this need for public endorsement and this year anonymous quotations from artists and participants in the programme were posted on the walls beneath and next to artworks.

‘What you say to the artists really matters. Words of hope, joy, and love are the most powerful too we have to help one another. Letting the artists know you have seen and enjoyed their work means the world. So, please tell them.’

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‘Please enjoy all the work on display at this show and appreciate that often for the inmate, acquiring materials and creative headspace can often be very difficult – so each piece of work created is an expression against adversity in itself.’

This produced a level of self-referentiality not previously seen in the exhibition but also demonstrated a sharp move to shut down any potential criticism via appeals made by those involved in art programmes. Looking through the visitor book there was nothing but praise with no suggestions or criticisms made by anyone. The ultimate example of the self-referentiality embodied in the exhibition came in the form of an artwork – a calligram of sorts in which an inmate in a cell is composed of feedback from the exhibition.

While this seems like a straightforward, neatly executed endorsement of the awards we might also read it in terms of the stifling demands made to produce art that is painfully self-reflexive and which depends on one’s status as confined, criminal or dangerous other to gain meaning and recognition by the public and the art world. This calls into question the role of offender art as either therapeutic or emancipating since the inmate or detainee is obliged to reproduce his or her experience of confinement and even when he or she eludes or avoids doing this, his or her art is judged within this framework. The award winners are defined as inmates and detainees who are artists rather than artists who also happen to be locked up. The Koestler awards risk becoming the end point of inside art rather than a platform for creative, artistic and even political expression within prison and secure units.

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Property of her Majesty the Queen (Comfort Blanket) – Peter, HMP Dovegate

The Awards tend to affirm a reformist agenda which prioritizes art and other educational programmes within a prison-cultural-industrial-complex that taps into the fetishisation and commodification of transgression, abjection and otherness. This means they can never really create a discursive space in which to imagine life without prison and other forms of detention. Yet, within the exhibition there seemed to be tiny pockets in which questions of decarceration and prison closure were posited in different ways. For example, ‘The Closure of Holloway’ by Niki (HMP and Young Offender’s Institution Holloway – Women’s Establishment) and ‘High Force’ (HMP Fort Sutton) – both below.

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