An Exploration in Three Parts: Prisons Past and Present at the Sullivan Galleries

November 13, 2012 · Print This Article

Flávio Rodrigues, “I Am a Memory,” proposed memorial project, 2012.

It is difficult then to delve into the past and exhume whole passages of injustice, especially when those passages operate inside of a system one believes to be good. In doing so, one must discuss the significance of trauma, peel back old wounds and attempt in some way to make peace. Or perhaps it isn’t about making peace at all. Perhaps it is instead about admitting and honoring discomfort, frustration and unhappiness, for while it is horrific to admit that there are cracks in the systems we employ, it is worse to gloss over or deny them. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project (CTJM) addresses these issues directly, engaging a local history of police brutality to create a platform for public monuments and discourse.

Rebecca Keller, “Soft Prod,” Fabric sculpture, 2012.

Rather than cover up those horrific moments, CTJM seeks to uncover and air out the darker edges of our past and present, pulling them into focus with the help of survivors, artists, activists, community organizers and lawyers. Together, they invited proposals “for speculative ways to memorialize the torture cases,” in an attempt “to honor the individuals, families, and communities affected by torture, as well as address the obstruction of justice that has occurred in the aftermath.” That call was issued in 2011 and asked for anything from “from architecture to haiku, website to mural, community organization to performance, bronze plaque to large-scale memorial.”

The electrical device used for torture during interrogations by former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge.

“Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture” is features 70 of those proposed monuments at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries. The exhibit is  named after a particular torture device (the “black box”) that was used by Officer John Burge to coerce confessions from 1972-1991. Burge is responsible for as many as 200 incidents of torture, many of which involved electrical charges that shocked prisoners. Although legal routes had granted some success, many of the case advocates (lawyers, victims and activists alike) felt that the law was unable to offer adequate retribution. They turned to art. “Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture” is one aspect of that process. It is open until December 21st.

William DeShazer, Chicago Tribune. April 4, 2012.

Complementing the theme of that exhibit, the Sullivan Galleries are hosting two additional shows: Laurie Jo Reynold’s Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office,where Reynold’s has effectively installed a working office from which to advocate for the closing of Tamms: a “supermax” prison on the southern tip of Illinois. It opened in 2008, intended as a site for “super shock” treatment that would not extend beyond a year. Now, something like 1/3 of Tamm’s prisoners have been there, non-stop for a decade.”[Inmates] live in long-term isolation—no phone calls, no communal activity, no contact visits. They are fed through a slot in the door. Prisoners at Tamms only leave their cell to shower or exercise which they are allowed to do, depending on their behavioral level, from zero to 7 times per week. Exercise is solitary, in a concrete pen.” Reynolds and her collaborators (including former inmates and inmate family members) also work to connect inmates to the outside world in some way — including, for instance, taking photographs of certain objects at the prisoners’ request. Requests include “the Masonic temple in DC”, “what’s left where the Robert Taylor Homes used to be”, ”a heartsick clown with a feather pen”, “my mom in front of a mansion with money and a Hummer”, “Michelle Obama planting vegetables in White House garden”, “any Muslim Mosque or Moorish Science Temple in Chicago or Mecca or Africa”, and “fallen autumn leaves (which we do not have access to in the “concrete box” which is deemed a yard here)”. During their residency at the Sullivan Galleries, Tamms Year Ten continues their regime of activism while planning additional public programs.

Tirtza Even’s Preview: An Assembly from Natural Life (work-in-progress), which  describes itself as “a feature-length documentary produced by SAIC faculty Tirtza Even alongside the legal efforts of the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle. The work challenges the inequities in the juvenile justice system by telling the stories of several individuals sentenced to die in prison since youth. The project’s goal is to depict the experiences of these youths who receive the most severe sentences available for convicted adults—a sentence of ‘natural life’ or life without parole—against the contexts of social bias, neglect, apprehension, and alienation.”

It’s a tremendous line up with much to think about and discover and there are a few additional events on the horizon well worth checking out.

Saturday November 17 Claire Pentecost will facilitate a conversation around Photo Requests from Solitary. Men housed at Tamms supermax prison were able to request a photograph of anything in the world, real or imagined, and members of the public realized the pictures. Men formerly housed in Tamms, the family members of current inmates, and other special guests will be on hand to view the photos and respond to the project.

Thursday November 29 Kevin Coval, Darby Tillis, Achy Obejas, Gary Younge, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Krista Franklin and others present I AM A MEMORY: Chicago Writers Against Torture. This evening of readings and performances is dedicated to the survivors, their families, and their communities who endured unspeakable acts of torture at the hands of the Chicago Police.

Saturday December 15 brings the final program. A Film Festival Against Torture presents a daylong screening of three powerful films about torture, featuring discussions with the filmmakers: Peter Kuttner, Cyndi Moran, and Eric Scholl; Jackie Rivet-River and John Lyons; Ines Somer and Kathy Berger.

Jim Duignan, “Salve,” Repurposed cabinetry, soil, succulents, Chicago Police Department service coat button.
2012

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