In black-and-white surveillance videos projected on the wall, you see 42 prisoners at once, each in his own 8-by-10-foot cell. It's a grid that's like a hive. Some prisoners lie still on the bed or slump motionless against their cage; others scream or clamor noiselessly at the camera, then go quiet. You're the security guard, the watcher, but you can only do a harried kind of watching. When movement twitches in one of the boxes, you turn to it, but another flash will draw your eye another way, and it is impossible to focus either on a single prisoner or on the whole hive. If real-life security guards seem on edge or angry, maybe this helpless feeling—that you see nothing by trying to see everything—is part of why.
Are the men acting? You're seeing them in an art gallery, as an artwork called Oubliette, a lovely French word for an unlovely place: a dungeon with a trapdoor at the top. The root of the word means "to forget," and so this is a place for men to be forgotten.
Oubliette, which will be shown at the October 9 edition of the City Arts Art Walk Awards, first appeared in September at Gallery4Culture, where it was part of a larger exhibition of videos and photographs related to the 1950 homoerotic prison film Un Chant d'Amour. Seattle artist Steven Miller was inspired by the overheated, silent picture about two male lovers in adjacent cells tortured by a watchful male guard. It was directed by queer icon Jean Genet and was banned; it's now easily clickable on YouTube. Miller created large, romantic photo prints that look like posters for the movie, restaging legendary moments in the film, like when the lovers smoke back and forth through the wall using a slender straw through a hole. Posing with his partner, Miller began the series as almost autobiographical—as a statement that "Desire, in the end, is stronger than the need to control desire," as he wrote in the wall label. But Oubliette was the final piece he made, and by then he was thinking about prison more broadly.
In Oubliette, there are no dried flowers and there is no intimacy. There is distance, and there are questions: What's the setup here? How long were they in there? Were their actions scripted or not?
"I was making up stories about how the stains got there," said Reilly Sinanan, one of the 42. He explained that Miller asked each volunteer to spend an hour locked up, and when Sinanan did, he was unable to satisfy Miller's request that he cry. Instead, he barely moved, except in his mind, which wandered wildly. "I thought about how I would break out. I thought about hiding so that when he came back, I wasn't there."
Alan Sutherland spent the first part of his durational performance in anxious dread. Last year, he was part of a punishing local ritual production by a company called, coincidentally, Saint Genet, and being locked up at first triggered his body's memory of barely surviving that earlier experience. He could hear his heart rate go up. But soon a different anxiety arose. He thought of real prisoners, and how he only had to be confined for an hour.
"When I watched the footage afterward, I thought, 'Geez, there must have been something more I could have done to express what this is like,'" Sutherland said.
Staging jail is an obnoxious farce. But it does address the central problem of making visual art about prison life: Prisons are the great unseen landscapes of America. More than two million people live in prisons and jails in this country, which has the highest incarceration rate on the planet. Inside, surveillance is the constant condition, but it only goes one way. Inmates and visitors are forbidden to take pictures except in locations prescribed by the state. The relationship between visual art and prison is itself caged.
It's a problem Pete Brook tackles on his blog Prison Photography, which has a wide following. He started it in 2008. "I have a suspicion toward documentary work," he said. "For me, there are just other far more interesting bodies of work and types of images to be looking at."
He features artists like Olympia's Steve Davis, who let teenage prisoners take their own pictures for a series seen at Seattle's James Harris Gallery in 2007. Brook included Davis in a group exhibition called Prison Obscura, "a highly intriguing record of an unusual art-making tradition," the Los Angeles Times recently wrote. (There's also a Prison Obscura book available.) Brook chooses artists who amplify individual experiences or who tune in to the anonymous system through, say, evidential photographs from court cases or portraits of the landscape murals painted inside prisons—tropical beaches, snowcapped mountaintops—for sanctioned photo ops.
"My background is in art history, so I wanted to test this theory that art could actually change anything, and to figure out what use imagery was in all of its forms," San Francisco–based Brook said, reached by phone.
He rattled off related artworks that form a lineage for Oubliette, a lineage that's growing. There's Tehching Hsieh's classic durational performance—he built himself a cell in his studio in New York and stayed in it for a year, beginning in September 1978. Harun Farocki's Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (2000) is surveillance footage from a California prison that depicts wardens setting up fights between inmates of rival gangs and betting on them. An inmate is killed in the footage. His body lies motionless and alone for nine minutes in the yard before anyone comes.
And at Jonathan Borofsky's web site, for free, you can watch Prisoners. Borofsky is the artist who created Hammering Man, which towers over the doors to Seattle Art Museum. Prisoners is a 55-minute movie Borofsky made in the 1980s from interviews he shot at San Quentin and in a women's prison, interlaced with statistics, music, and dreams.
In Seattle, Miller rented a small studio and built the jail cell inside. He gave each volunteer "an intention," from "make the bed over and over again" to "put on ladies' underpants and slowly disrobe over the hour." But even Miller does not know what really went on in there, especially in the moments when the acting broke and the cell and camera did their simple, punishing work.