the sun never knew how great it was until it struck the side of a building is an ongoing, large-scale research and documentary project that began as a way to understand how infrastructures of youth incarceration shift the ways we feel and experience light. As structures that interfere with the natural environment, youth incarceration facilities not only alter how its residents and staff experience the world around them, but it alters the landscapes of the communities they are situated within.
Emerging as a photographic project that considered light across built environments, the scope of the larger project moves beyond the materiality of singular images and instead reveals itself over a network of entangled deployments. Intersectional in concept and delivery, the broader project includes an ongoing unfolding experimental documentary film, photographic works, performances, and sculptural projects built from engaged workshops, interviews, and research interventions with young people and community stakeholders invested in the work of abolition.
For Deliberate Acts, Paz uses a series of publicly engaged community workshops to drive a research portion of the work where participants help develop a singular, searchable resource that maps various youth incarceration facilities across the US. Within these workshops, Paz is careful to shape experiences for the public through care as they uncover the labyrinthine dynamics of hidden information that should otherwise be public knowledge. And though much of what is collected is already available through individual sites, there is not a single entity (journalistic or otherwise) that has published a searchable map containing the level of detail and context that this work seeks to reveal.
So as not to take on the immense emotional weight from this labor, Paz’s workshops distribute the work of searching, locating, and compiling missing, absent, or otherwise misleading data around these public/private facilities as a way to establish layered forms of empathy and understanding to a broader public. While made up of students, community members, families with ties to youth incarceration, and the general public the research portion of this larger project – led through these workshops – disrupts the intentional and deliberate acts of obfuscating multiple youth incarceration facilities from public knowledge. Further, in the effort to document, map, and understand the infrastructural presence of these built environments, Paz’s work reveals the extent to which different forms of physical and emotional burdens are placed on us without the immediacy of its recognition. For while many may not necessarily have any experience with youth incarceration facilities directly, the decisions around their structure, placement, and staffing are becoming part of a larger consciousness around resource allocation and the investments of US officials made possible through taxation.
Sherrill Roland’s Jumpsuit Project is a broad, ongoing performative work that allows for the public to engage in conversations around the impact of mass incarceration. Enacted as a series of social engagements, Roland’s performances draw on his experience as a formerly incarcerated person wrongfully convicted. Though he was eventually exonerated of all charges and granted with a bill of innocence, his work speaks to the ways mass incarceration shapes the trajectories of a person, their communities, and the relationships that they are able to have.
For this exhibition, Roland has shared a series of screenshots from a Yahoo News article that featured his work following the completion of his graduate degree. While the article offers context for his case and an interview with him discussing the genesis of the project while he completed his graduate work, Roland was interested in considering how public discourses around his work and practice are inflicted by the already existing conceptions the public might have of people impacted by mass incarceration. Of critical importance and context for this work was the notion that the public comments attached to the end of the article were done so anonymously, where posters were able to use their anonymity strategically to either troll the content of the article or troll each other.
What unfolds throughout the comments is not only a dissolution of civil public discourse (I mean, we knew *that* already), but it further reveals the ways these forums occasionally assume what is public knowledge. Interestingly, media outlets such as Yahoo have since removed the ability to offer comments as a way to protect the journalistic integrity of their content. Taken from their website, the editors publish this notice following the article: “Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting.” That aside, Roland’s comment section further reminds us of the immediacy of the interface, where discourses are allowed (and encouraged) to occur in real-time even if they collapse into unproductive ranting and insulting.
For this installation, Roland reminds us of the published behaviors of an anonymous public that haunted the comments section, but also offers the public the ability to engage with him from afar in a durational performance that mimics the ways outsiders are able to engage with prisoners on the inside. While his engagement with the public differs from the comments section in that he is directly interfacing with those who post, this ongoing performance of socially and physically distant engagement encapsulates the lived tensions of our contemporary moment while in isolation. At this point, it is almost as nothing is ever immediate other than the 24-hour news cycle. Slowness is as much a part of our reality and time dissolves into a string of experiences that we may or may not be able to keep track of. Similarly, though obviously distinct and in no ways the same, is the experience of communicating with others within the prison. As he has discussed over phone calls and texts, the discourse that is allowed becomes one contingent on the design of its infrastructure. Limits to communicative access are imposed by design, with deliberation, and as an immediate consequence of the larger forces that enable the continuation of incarceration.
Within the larger framework of this exhibition, Lorenzo Triburgo’s project Policing Gender is considered both an index and proposition of the ideas that shape this exhibition. Drawn for a series of interviews with queer, trans, and non-binary (QTNB) people incarcerated across several institutions in the Pacific Northwest, Triburgo pairs two parallel photographic series with a sound work developed from substantial research. While the work presented establishes the idea of refusal as an intentional device to outline the ethical and conceptual demands of developing images of QTNB prisoners, the work also establishes the conditions of power that are integral in understanding the impact that mass incarceration has on LGBTQI+ folks specifically.
Noting the non-visibility of trans and non-binary experience across public discourses historically, not withstanding the negation of trans and non-binary experience throughout incarcerative systems so as to allow them into gender afirming spaces within the prison, Triburgo’s work centers QTNB concerns, feelings, and experiences as a way to critique these built environments. Gesturing to the complete lack of privacy that prisons impose on its residents, the photographic works strategically move the camera away from the subjects of investigation, either focusing on the landscapes just outside of the prisons, or on a series of elaborately draped curtains that allowing the sitters to communicate their stories without the need to be seen.
Working from above and afar, Triburgo’s photographs and sound work resonate with the ongoing realities of surveillance that impact how QTNB are able to express themselves in the real world. With images taken from a blimp above that formally mimic air-born surveillance mechanisms, the photographs of the exteriorities of the prisons reveal the extent to which prisons are strategically built away and apart from immediately recognizable sightlines. Further emphasized in portions of the sound work, the quality of the recording evokes military transmissions from above, allowing for a sonic referent to the embodiment of the incarcerative state. Rendered as black and white images, their impact offers a context for the hidden infrastructures that this exhibition continues to return to.
Distinct from those images are the parallel series of photographs in luscious full color featuring drapings that were informed by instructions provided by incarcerated people involved in the project. Gesturing to the formal and historical use of fabric within portraiture, Triburgo’s collaborative images establish an anecdote to the otherwise harmful workings of refusal and removal that is apparent in the parallel series. In devising the series of photos without the presence of a subject, they trace the “thorny ethical ground” from which the histories of portraiture have been built. Deliberately employing methods of visual refusal across the work thus becomes a generous offering to help viewers isolate the necessity of sight in understanding larger conditions of power.