An archipelago of U.S. prisons stretches from Guantánamo Bay to California’s “Golden Gulag,” and this summer those facilities are in a heightened state of crisis. The hunger strike at the detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, now enters its sixth month. Meanwhile, California Governor Jerry Brown is fighting federal court orders to reduce the state’s prison population. And this week, inmates in California state prisons resumed hunger strikes initiated in 2011 by detainees in indefinite solitary confinement — some for over three decades.
In this context, the works presented here — paintings by Sandow Birk, photographs by Alyse Emdur and Richard Ross, and first-person narratives from the Guantánamo Public Memory Project — take on new urgency.
Sandow Birk redeploys iconic 19th-century American and European landscapes to depict a new Manifest Destiny. Each work is a portrait of a single California state prison, from Pelican Bay at the Oregon border to Centinela State Prison at the Mexico border. Inspired by Albert Bierstadt’s Western fantasia and Henry Cheever Pratt’s speculative gaze, Prisonation (2000-2001) wryly comments on California’s role in national imaginations of utopian pasts and dystopic futures. The open spaces, desert plains and mountainous backdrops of Birk’s paintings collide with mundane details of contemporary life — roadside signs, lawn sprinklers, airplane exhaust juxtaposed with a bird’s flight — before revealing, in the distance, the fences, towers and distinctive configurations of the prison compound. The paintings underscore how U.S. prisons operate at the edge of visual consciousness, outside the purview of the urban-suburban middle class, at the crossroads of industrial agriculture and rural poverty. They are interspersed with recent aerial views of the same sites by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation alongside details of the facilities’ construction and operation.
Alyse Emdur’s installation Prison Landscapes highlights the little-known phenomenon of prisoners posing in front of painted mural backdrops in visiting rooms, representing themselves for (and sometimes with) family and friends. In Emdur’s hands, this routine ritual — the prison-industrial “portrait studio” — opens onto affective cartographies of escape, ambivalence, reunion and agency, and becomes a collective portrait of the nation’s incarcerated. Her work breaks the fourth wall by calling out its framing devices. Large-format photographs of visiting rooms show the murals in their context of institutional architecture, security cameras and barred windows. Displayed alongside prisoners’ letters and photographs sent to the artist over the years, these works encourage viewers to critique the genres of portraiture, testimony and documentary. Prison Landscapes asks audiences to reconsider the divide between the observer and the observed. Emdur began the project after discovering a Polaroid of her 5-year-old self next to her incarcerated brother, and she pans back as much as she zooms in, questioning notions of “inside” and “outside.” Her work ultimately yields a call for connection across the bars.
Photographer Richard Ross was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007 to explore built forms of incarceration. His series Architecture of Authority presents beautiful photographs of intolerable places, revealing the spatial logic used to exert power over prisoners, the symmetry of subjection. There are no soft edges in Ross’s work. His compositions evoke the rectangular forms of cages even when they are not literally depicted. The rooms, hallways and exterior spaces are emptied of people but represented at a scale that forces viewers to renegotiate their relationship to the scene. His deep-focus narrowing of detention room walls suggests a human gaze; here the painterly technology of perspective is pulled to an ideological vanishing point. From heavily mediated spaces, like Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, to relatively invisible spaces, like a booking room in downtown Los Angeles, the cages, chairs and shackles have a kind of sameness that collapses difference and connects disparate forms of coercion and capture. Ross’s hyper-aestheticized vision is a dare to keep looking, but neither as a documentary indulgence nor as a philosophical mandate to stare into the face of the other. Rather, he queries us about why we look and why we look away.
The Guantánamo Public Memory Project combines historical and contemporary photography, film and first-person audio interviews in a website and traveling exhibit that examines the naval base’s long historical arc, from its establishment after the 1898 Spanish-American War, through its use as a holding center for Haitian and Cuban refugees in the 1990s, to its current function as a prison for “enemy combatants.” These new perspectives on Guantánamo’s history as a legal black hole provoke discussions about the limits of democracy and the meaning of mass incarceration.
Together, these works address emotional terrains, carceral landscapes and geopolitical formations that connect the growth of the prison industrial complex to patterns of empire. Recognizable artistic traditions — landscape, portrait, architectural photograph, documentary — are here politicized.
On his second day in office, President Barack Obama signed an executive order to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center within the year, despite Congressional opposition from both parties. Now, four years later, and 11 years since the first detainees were brought to the U.S. naval base, Gitmo is still open. By classifying the prisoners as “enemy combatants” rather than prisoners of war, the George W. Bush Administration aimed to evade the federal War Crimes Act and the Geneva Conventions. A 2008 Supreme Court ruling granted detainees the constitutional right to challenge their indefinite detention in federal court; but the vast majority have never been charged. Of 799 prisoners, 625 were returned to the countries where they were arrested, and 8 died in prison, 6 by suicide; 166 remain, of whom 86 have been cleared for release. A few face trials before military commissions, and others are subject to active investigations and could be tried in either civil or military courts. Congress, however, has refused either to fund civil trials or to house detainees in stateside prisons.
The Guantánamo hunger strike that began in February 2013 now includes some 100 prisoners, including more than 40 who are being force-fed, a practice condemned by human rights organizations and the American Medical Association. At a recent press conference, President Obama reiterated his stance that Guantánamo must be closed. His conviction, however, rang less true than his inadvertently desperate question: “Why are we doing this?”
California in Crisis
A similar question might be asked of the U.S. prison system. The United States has the largest prison population in the world — 2.3 million, of whom 70 percent are people of color. In 2010, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that overcrowding in California state prisons prevents minimally humane medical and mental health care and that these conditions amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” The suicide rate among state prisoners is nearly twice the national average, and one inmate dies every eight days from inadequate medical care. As yet, the state has not fulfilled federal mandates to reduce overcrowding, and Governor Brown has stated that he will appeal the Circuit Court ruling to the Supreme Court.
United Nations reports have cited U.S. violations of the Geneva Conventions in the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib in Iraq. They similarly decry the widespread use of solitary confinement, extreme temperatures and physical and emotional abuse in U.S. prisons and immigrant detention centers. Activists, the incarcerated and artists are working to abolish this system and grapple creatively with this ongoing crisis.