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  • Writer's pictureJennora Blair

Marking Time: Imagining New Futures

On Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration at Brown University's Bell Gallery

Installation view featuring works by James “Yaya” Hough, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Bell Gallery, Brown Arts Institute, Brown University, September 16 – December 18, 2022. Photo by Mike Cohea.

Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration is a traveling exhibition organized by Dr. Nicole R. Fleetwood, initially opening at the MoMA PS1 in September 2020, following the release of her book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. It features contemporary art from previously and currently incarcerated artists, as well as nonincarcerated artists who interrogate the U.S. prison system. Dr. Fleetwood interviewed over 70 people to create this exhibition, collecting work from more than 50 artists, with various pieces ranging from photo collections to fabric design and films. These works question established notions of justice, challenging us to rethink the legal system.

Marking Time shows that art is a powerful tool for self-actualization and education. Artists reclaim their freedom, channel their emotions and express themselves in ways that oppose the rigidity and violent dynamics of the prison system. Through their art, audiences emotionally understand the negative impact of the carceral system, humanizing incarcerated artists.

Art becomes a site of questioning and challenging, rethinking our current system, and showcasing the nationwide harm that prisons inflict on communities. This begins a conversation on abolition, the action of tearing down violent systems and institutions. If we consider abolishing the U.S. prison system, what will we do next? How can we push for accountability and reconcile conflict within communities without cruel punishment? How can we implement new systems that transform our current reality – centering care?

I see abolitionists as builders, working towards a world without harm; radical imagining is their tool. Radical imagination is the ability to imagine the world outside of what already exists. We can’t continuously reform a system like the U.S. prison system because it is inherently built with the intention to harm communities. It is lethal. Art has the power to create a space where we can imagine new worlds, creating our way out of carceral structures. Marking Time models this process of activating radical imagining through creativity.

I spoke with Dr. Lisa Biggs, a performance scholar from the Southside of Chicago who worked with Dr. Fleetwood to bring the exhibition to Brown University. She envisions the Marking Time collection as a means of communication, an outlet for a potent critique of the prison system. The artwork calls for us to transform the way we think about conflict and manage human relationships, advocating for a more humane response to interpersonal harm. She conceptualizes art as a site for healing and conversation, inviting people to reflect and challenge their beliefs – radically imagining an alternative to incarceration.


Q&A with Dr. Lisa Biggs

Installation view of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Bell Gallery, Brown Arts Institute, Brown University, September 16 – December 18, 2022. Photo by Mike Cohea.

Why did you want to help bring this exhibition to Brown?

I think mass incarceration is the preeminent human rights crisis going on in our country, in our time. Incarcerated artists have a lot to teach us about how policing works, about punishment, about what we think of as justice, about human harm and conflict, and about healing. But unfortunately, because they're locked away, and then once they get out, they're shamed and ostracized, and largely alienated – strongly discouraged from talking about their experiences – there's a lot of information that we never get. The visual artwork is one way that folks can communicate their ideas, their experiences, their visions, their critiques. They don't call out individuals in it, they call out systems. They identify human limitations or failures, missed opportunities. They portray an alternative vision of who's behind bars and why they're there. I love the ways that the visual artwork tells that story. Again, and again, and again and again, in different mediums, different artists.

Part of the problem with our justice system is that there's this singular solution for human conflict, which is to lock people away and punish them. And for most people who are survivors or victims of harm and crime, that solution doesn't work for them. It does, perhaps, appease a desire for revenge. But as time goes on, revenge is not healing. Healing is a process of self-repair. If you can act revenge on somebody, you might get a sense of vindication, but the root causes of the conflict don't get changed and addressed – they don't get transformed. The visual artwork teaches people that lesson and then asks people to think about where we have underestimated our own capabilities and the capabilities of others, and how we might reimagine an alternative.

In the exhibit, there's a series of portraits of people, their backs are to the camera, but they are in front of murals that people have painted to be in the visitor room, facing them. And it's a place where when your visitor comes, oftentimes, people do photos, and the prison will sell you the little camera and all the stuff – you can't bring a camera in and you can't bring your phone in. But those backdrops, they're never recreations of the facility; they're these other remembered or imagined landscapes. It gets me thinking about how people use their time, and how they use art as a mirror of the system and the way they have been treated, as a place to reflect upon how human society and relationships do and do not work, and as a critique of the system. And even in the most subtle way. There's something powerful about the fact that, in those pictures, they're not looking at the camera, they're looking at the backdrop.

Larry Cook, The Visiting Room #4, 2019. Digital print. Courtesy of the artist.

How can we envision abolition and imagining outside of our current institutions?

Collectively, that's the critique that lies underneath when you put all the exhibition work together. The exhibit is a combination of currently incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated folks, and allies. And the ones who are on some kind of corrections control, they know how to be careful about what they represent because calling for abolition is a revolutionary thing. And you have to be super careful because even if you're doing super well and you're in the exhibit – being in the exhibit puts increased scrutiny upon you. I appreciate that each individual artist is very careful about what they calculated, what they represent, and how they got it out into the world, and through the compilation and positioning of the collection, they tell this larger story. I hope many people walk away from the exhibit going, is this still a good idea to be locking people away like this when all this is going on inside? When this human genius is there?

I'm a prison abolitionist, absolutely. But like a lot of people, I came to that position over time because I needed more education and study. I grew up with a lot of "copaganda," as they say – everything from PAW Patrol to Law and Order and cops, plus the everyday media, teaching us to be afraid – that there are monsters out there, and you don't know who they are and where they're coming from. So you're always in a state of heightened awareness and fear. When really, people do harm primarily, overwhelmingly, to themselves first and then to people who they know. Sexual assault, the knockdowns, it happens when we really don't do a good job of managing human relationships. Which is not to say that sexual assault or anything like that is the victim's fault, but that people have to take care of themselves in order to be in good relationship with other people. And we don't have a system that does that. Not at all. We don't have institutions that help people – look at COVID.

We have public officials, elected officials who undermine the message of what people actually need to take care of themselves, and COVID is just the latest instance of that. My hope is that people, in thinking about COVID and the exhibit, begin to unpack the really ugly onion, that is how our society imagines human flourishing and well-being. We don't. We do not want people to succeed.

So yeah, let's talk about harm between people. We know we can't have a single solution and the way the system works now, it is designed to do harm and it is successful. But we don't want to pay for that anymore.

Installation view featuring works by Jesse Krimes, Mark Loughney, Henry Frank, Susan Lee-Chun, and Dean Gillispie, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, Bell Gallery, Brown Arts Institute, Brown University, September 16 – December 18, 2022. Photo by Mike Cohea.

How does art enact itself on the world?

It depends on the art and the artists and the time, the context. But Marking Time is designed to hold up a mirror to the American criminal legal system and to our culture, to ask us to think about how we have, in the era of mass incarceration, acted to manage the poor, poor people of color, Black people and how we have used the state in order to enact racialized, gender-based violence. It's a mirror, but it's also for individual artists; it's a place to build relationships.

I have an intention behind the work that I like to make, but I know that people come with their own experiences, their own eye, and their own critical discernment. When I make theatre pieces, I'm not trying to do an indoctrination rally. I really want to understand how we got into these places, and then be in dialogue with people about how we get to whatever the better place is. I think really good art invites people to reflect upon the past; it preserves some understanding about culture and history and who people are, but it doesn't just reiterate that. It stages it with a difference and an invitation for people to think: "Are we here? Do I see myself in this?" And then ask people to think about a current or pressing issue differently. Bertolt Brecht used to say that art is not a mirror but a hammer. I think it should be some of both and more. It can be a site for healing too, it can be a ritual space. It depends on the time and the event, but it can do and does do all those things for people, depending on what they want and need.


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