The Artists Taking on Mass Incarceration

The path between creation and liberation is seldom so straight. America’s incarceration is a hodgepodge of institutions, including federal and state prisons, local prisons, federal holding cells for immigrants, and more. Some kind of deprivation unites them, but they are not the same. Earlier this year, the Prison Policy Initiative announced that what we call the criminal justice system includes “1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local prisons, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and It consists of about 2 million people held in prisons in 82 Indian countries. as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and US territorial prisons. Moreover, it is estimated that over 113 million Americans have a relative who has been to prison or jail. Racial disparities are particularly pronounced among black Americans, who make up less than 15% of the total US population but make up 38% of the country’s incarcerated population. The vast majority of Americans support reform, but progress toward real change has stagnated in recent years.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, politicians seemed more open than ever to the idea of ​​legislative reform. Artists and advocates in the department felt vulnerable, evasive. I arrived at that position. So long as they can cling to a myth of innocence comforted through stories of wrongfully accused people, or a fuzzy rhetoric of analysis detached from uncomfortable human details, at least in principle, to large-scale reform. You can keep committing.

Fleetwood, an art historian and curator, said, “I believe that to really understand the aesthetic and cultural impact of mass detention, we need to bring together the works of people who are in different positions depending on the state of detention.” increase. “We cannot understand the impact of confinement by simply looking at the work of conceptual and socially engaged artists working in museums and commercial galleries. We really have to think broadly about

Among those thinking big is Ashley Hunt, 52, a multimedia artist and faculty member of the Photography and Media Program at the California Institute of the Arts in the Santa Clarita Valley. Years ago, when he visited the prison, he found many facilities hidden in the landscape. This was no coincidence, he thought, but a calculated strategy to make a large system of warehoused humans invisible. Out of this came the photographic project Degrees of Visibility (2010-Present), which has since grown to cover correctional facilities in all 50 states and national territories. Some images are stunningly beautiful. No other explanation. Hunt explains, “You might see a landscape that you might perceive as idyllic, but you realize you don’t see 4,372 men there.” Hunt sees an “opportunity to make distancing an issue” in his own work. At the heart of Degrees of Visibility is fighting the system. It’s a battle against the way something grows beyond human scale and becomes unfathomable. How do you express what you can’t see? Focusing on the big picture helps soften the “bad apple” claim, the idea that abuse is limited to only one specific instance. “That’s how the system gets away with itself. ‘That was a bad cop’ or ‘That was a bad prison. We’re going to fix that. We have to look at the whole structure.’ There is,” he says Hunt.

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