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.
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.”
“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.
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.
April 26, 2010 · Print This Article
I visited Claire Pentecost‘s installation at threewalls over the weekend, and now all I want to do is listen to Johnny Cash. What the hell does one have to do with the other, you ask? In this, the latest example of what I have come to think of as art reviews that are not in any way, shape or form truly art reviews, or acts of criticism, or any other label you might want to put on ‘em, I shall elaborate. On view through May 22nd, Pentecost’s exhibition is titled VictoryLand: you, I shall answer your letter. It revolves, and evolves, around the following question:
What is the best way to remain human? For that matter, is there any virtue or advantage in clinging to an idea of humanity that has not been automated or enhanced by the awesome mechanics of prosperity and progress? In VictoryLand…you, I shall answer your letter it gets harder and harder to tell the difference between the good life and the killing machine.
The exhibition itself was segmented in a manner that seemed to correspond, in my mind anyway, to a split between experiential modes of thinking and analysis vs. feelings and empathy. The geography of the installation at once replicates this divide and implicitly encourages viewers to reconcile the two sides for themselves, because they ultimately offer a false dichotomy. You walk in, and there’s a kind of waiting room setting with two chairs placed on either side of a small wooden table of the sort you might see in a therapist’s waiting room or a lawyer’s office. I think there was a bowl of chocolate candies on it, but my memory’s fuzzy on that part. On the table were several exhibition pamphlets with writings by Pentecost and others. It also contained interweaving narratives (via pages placed out-of-order) that described drone military planes alongside various individuals’ attempts to describe what ‘compassion’ means to them (the latter were all excerpted from material shown in a video in the next room). Next to these was a large notebook containing pages and pages filled with the artist’s research, but someone else was perusing it while I was there and I never got a chance to look through it. In the next room were two flat-screen monitors positioned on opposite walls. Each played a video consisting of a series of interviews with several well-known artists/intellectuals on the subject of (on one monitor) Compassion and (on the other monitor) Awe. I was fascinated by this portion of the exhibition, and watched each video all the way through.
In the middle of the room was a large wooden structure around which were many drawings of unmanned military aircraft used by various nations, each drawing labeled by country of origin on the back of the panel (and visible only through the slats of wooden structure). When you peered into the structure you saw a pile of wood and the reddish-brown, bushy tale of a creature that appeared to be lodged in between the pieces of wood as if it were burrowing into them, or, more likely, was in the process of being crushed by them. Radiating from the tops of the wooden structure toward the outer corners of the room were several lines of bunting with flags consisting of black and white headshots of good-looking–I would even call them glamorous or charismatic–people, each one groomed in a manner suggesting the picture was taken decades ago. Each image was sealed in some kind of yellowish plastic that was often slightly brown at the edges. Some appeared to have been partially burned.
In contrast to these faces, I found myself drawn to the much more ordinary faces of the people on the videos. Here were real, lived-in human (as opposed to televisually charismatic) faces talking about what compassion and awe meant to them. Each person appeared to be answering their interlocutor in as honest and open a manner as they were capable in that moment. I found one aspect of the interviews to be lacking, however. I wanted these people to step away from the more abstract discussion of “compassion” and “awe” with which they seemed fairly comfortable, and instead attempt to relate those words to lived experience. I wanted them to take a stab at answering these questions: “When have you personally witnessed compassion?” “When have you personally felt awe?” I wanted to connect the dots between verbal articulations of what compassion and awe are with how those concepts might be experienced on an everyday level. This seemed especially important given the utter absence of compassion that drone weapons not only signify but enable. Drones give us permission to absent ourselves from our own humanity, to abstract ourselves from what it means to be human. And the drone’s dehumanizing purview, Pentecost’s research make chillingly evident, will only expand in the coming years.
As I was thinking about all this while driving home, I started fiddling with the preset buttons on my car radio in search of something to listen to. One of those oldies/classic rock type stations had just started playing Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, the live version from the album At Folsom, the one Cash recorded at the prison in 1968. Compassion and awe: here I found both, crystallized within a single song. Cash’s music sprung from his compassion for men who had degraded others and had experienced degradation in turn. Cash identified so strongly with those men that he saw himself as one of them. Isn’t that what compassion is? It seems like there should be a better, tougher word for it, somehow. And as for awe: that’s what I imagine the men at Folsom experienced when Cash got up on stage and sung for them. Sung songs about them. In one case, sung a song written by one of them, a man named Glen Shirley.
Yeah yeah yeah, I know that At Folsom is also a construction, and to some degree a self-conscious act of self-mythification on Cash’s part, but — and I know this point is also debatable — I don’t think it negates the fact that Cash’s performance was radically compassionate in nature. What I do wonder about though is what my current fixation on Cash’s Folsom performance means vis-a-vis my visit to Pentecost’s exhibition. Am I trying to avoid my own complicity in my country’s use of robotic military weapons by listening to Johnny Cash instead? Is it a failure on my part as a viewer (or as a citizen) that, instead of delving deeper into Pentecost’s research, I thought through her questions by listening to At Folsom all weekend? Or did the exhibition foster my sense of paralysis in its failure to articulate the radical possibilities of human compassion? Is that why Folsom Prison Blues felt more like an answer to me than a mere chance encounter?
I’m still not sure, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
It’s that time of the week again. I don’t know about you, but the last three weeks I’ve been sweating bullets. Show last weekend, show this weekend, performing at Art Chicago. Jesus, does it never end? But really, for all my bitching, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love Chicago and all its bat-ass crazy art-ness. And now, for my picks for the weekend…
1. Vers10n Festival at Co-Prosperity Sphere (and the surrounding Bridgeport art community)
You can’t not love the Co-Pro Sphere for this shit! Ten years running, and the insanity continues.
Vers10n Festival in located (primary) in Bridgeport at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, The Benton House, Zhou B, and many, many more places. Opening party Friday at Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan St. from 8pm-2am.
2. The Black Panthers: Making Sense of History at DuSable Museum of African American History
Get a helping of history during your gallery crawl. Photographs by Stephen Shames.
The DuSable Museum of African American History is located at 740 E. 56th Pl. Show begins April 23rd and ends August 8th.
3. VictoryLand (you, I shall answer your letter) at Threewalls
Chicago bad-ass and revolutionary Claire Pentecost struts her stuff at Threewalls. An event not to be missed.
Threewalls is located at 119 N. Peoria St., #2A. Opening reception Friday at 6pm. Artist talk May 6th at 6pm. Show runs ’till May 22nd.
4. OPENING at The Part Time Gallery
A new space, who knows what you’ll find. Remember, new experiences are good for you!
The Part Time Gallery is located at 5219 N. Clark St. Reception is Saturday from 7-10pm.
5. Transitions and Translations at Concertina Gallery
Theory, anyone? Work by Amanda Brinkman, Maureen A. Burns, Joel Kuennen, Susan Morelock, Jorge Mujica, Benjamin Pearson, and Brian Wallace.
Concertina Gallery – 2351 N. Milwaukee Ave., 2nd fl. Reception is Saturday from 7-10pm.