Confronting America’s Shameful Mass Incarceration with Art

December 9, 2015 • Antwaun Sargent

On October 25th, marking the anniversary of the opening of America’s first penitentiary, in 1829, a blue van drove to the Manhattan Detention Complex, in Lower Manhattan. The thirty-three-year-old performance artist Lech Szporer was in the back of the van, inside of a steel cage, handcuffed, and wearing an orange jumpsuit. “When it comes to mass criminalization, mass incarceration, and the neglect of people, it’s an issue of urgency, so I want to do something that’s confrontational and that’s kind of in your face,” Szporer said. The van stopped, and three other men quickly hauled the caged artist out of the van and left him in the intersection of Centre and White streets. Yellow cabs maneuvered around him. Pedestrians stopped on the sidewalk to record the scene with their cell phones. Szporer adjusted into a comfortable stance inside the cell, facing the city jail known as the Tombs.

Ten years ago, police officers stopped and searched Szporer after he left a train station through the emergency-exit door. The police officers found a box cutter that Szporer used for work. He says they assumed he used the knife as a weapon to commit robberies, and they arrested him. During his two nights in jail, he thought up the idea of using art as an intervention for social change. “I was sitting there counting the tiles, bored as hell, and I was thinking about how I wanted to get arrested on my terms and do it in a way that would be thought provoking and affect the minds of the police officers and courts,” Szporer recently told me.

Szporer stood stoically inside the cage, and it didn’t take long for police officers to approach. Maintaining his silence, he gave them a handwritten note that, in part, read, “This is an art performance. Nothing against you but the system needs to change.” The police officers backed off momentarily to figure out what laws, if any, Szporer had broken.

Eventually, three officers dragged Szporer and the two-hundred-pound cage out of the street and roped blue caution tape around the area where he was confined. One officer sawed the artist out of the cage. The performance had lasted an hour. He tried handing the officers the keys to his handcuffs. “We have that key,” one officer joked. Szporer was charged with two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct. The free moments between the officers taking Szporer into custody and releasing him were remarkably symbolic. They provided a dramatic glimpse into what it might mean if, like he is advocating for, the millions of incarcerated Americans are freed. The success of “The Cage Project,” Szporer claims, lies strictly outside of the art world, in social policy. One, then, wonders: Why even use art?

In 2010, Szporer gathered a team of lawyers, activists, public scholars, and community organizers to develop the creative think tank Tactical Aesthetics. The group’s aim, at least, is straightforward: to make art to help end mass incarceration. In addition to “The Cage Project,” T.A. has supported efforts like #cut50, an alliance of advocates, celebrities, and lawmakers that seeks to reduce the country’s prison population by half over the next fifteen years. Later this month, Szporer plans to use his upcoming exhibition, “Burial for the Rebellion: Studies in Post-Criminality,” at Y Gallery, “as an organizing tool” for activists and artists to join Tactical Aesthetics. The show will exhibit ephemera—photographs, the cage Szporer crafted for the performance, the handcuffs that shackled him, and the jumpsuit—related to the October performance. It will also include more street performances and a panel discussion focussed on the notion of post-criminality.

Decades earlier, stars of the art world like Yoko Ono performed, almost exclusively, it seemed, to break museum traditions and elevate everyday actions, like watching the sunrise, to art. In “Cut Piece,” from 1964, Ono invited members of the audience to cut away her clothing. The act is largely remembered as a feminist statement and a successful performance, but only within art-world circles. Like abstract paintings, a typical lay response to the conceptual goals of Ono, Chris Burden, and, later, Marina Abramović was a shoulder shrug and an “I don’t get it.”

Ono and Burden are known for their fixation on challenging the relationship between the art and the audience. Szporer does this, too. But, unlike the hard-to-define nature of its performance-art antecedents, “The Cage Project” and its kin clearly express their purpose, and the performances are accompanied by actions that the larger public can more easily recognize as real. Szporer’s works are less open to interpretation than Ono’s and Burden’s: you know what he’s trying to say and do. “I am dedicating my life to see how art can be used to accelerate social change,” Szporer told me. The phrase “tactical aesthetics” might also serve to describe a burgeoning ethos in the art world.

The painter Titus Kaphar shares Szporer’s goal of abolishing mass incarceration. “The more conversations I have about this, the more I feel like the abolition of prisons, the way we do it in this country has to be a part of the dialogue,” Kaphar told me. “In terms of policy, that’s what I am thinking about, and I recognize that is not a popular position. But when you look at the groups of people who are in prison, and the sort of problems folks are coming with from the beginning, it seems like the prison becomes the place where we send people when we didn’t do what we were supposed to do in our communities in the first place.”

Since he received his M.F.A. from Yale, nearly a decade ago, Kaphar’s practice has sought to reimagine historical events to include what he sees as forgotten stories. For example, in “Behind the Myth of Benevolence,” he painted a portrait of President Thomas Jefferson on a curtain, which hangs loosely on a canvas that shows a second portrait: a nude black female figure. The painting draws attention to Jefferson’s affairs with the women he owned as slaves, and it also seems to question what else has history left out.

Over the last four years, Kaphar has become more popular for his series of paintings called “The Jerome Project.” The series started when, after twenty years of estrangement, he spoke to his father, who’d spent time in prison and whose first name is Jerome. “I saw that his narrative wasn’t this island of experience but an experience that had happened in the context of the rise of mass incarceration,” he told me. “After having this experience with my father, I did that thing that we do—I Googled him.” Along with his father’s mug shot, Kaphar found mug shots of ninety-nine other men with his father’s first and last name.

To deal with the shock, Kaphar started painting the mug shots of each of these men in the Byzantine style of Saint Jerome. He covered the tar-accented paintings with gold leaf to represent how much time each Jerome had spent in prison. The longer the sentence, the less of the man’s face you could see. “The project has never been about guilt or innocence but more of an analysis of our system as a whole—where the flaws are and how it can be repaired,” Kaphar told me. In the large-scale work “The Jerome Project (My Loss),” displayed in a solo show earlier this year at the Jack Shainman Gallery, Kaphar painted an entire wooden panel gold and covered nearly the entire thing in tar. It was his way of showing that nearly six hundred thousand black men are in prison, many of whom, like his father, for nonviolent offenses.

Over the summer, Kaphar, along with the curator Sarah Fritchey and Leland Moore*, an attorney from Connecticut, put together “Arresting Patterns: Race and the Criminal Justice System,” at Artspace in New Haven, Connecticut. Kaphar showed his Jerome paintings and worked with high-school students whose lives have been impacted by the criminal-justice system to explore issues of criminality through art. Over the course of the workshop, the students and Kaphar visited a prison, made artwork, and produced a two-day conference at the Yale University Art Gallery, where the students performed. The conference also hosted panel discussions with artists, policymakers, and activists. “I always wanted this project to do more than just sit in the white cube,” Kaphar said. “I think we in the art world often struggle to figure out what efficacy the works actually have beyond just the pleasure of our experience—what can the work actually do?”

That question’s been around for about as long as art has been. But perhaps an answer is secondary: what we really learn from Szporer and Kaphar is that an expanded imagination should come first.

*Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Leland Moore’s occupation.