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From Issue #44 June 5, 2014

Captive Audience

The first penitentiary, now a museum, provokes a discourse about prisons.

By Theresa Everline

It began quietly, with just some tapping. Then the sound grew. It became noise, a frenetic cacophony. And then the banging started traveling toward whatever poor soul was standing at the end of the long, dank, crumbling corridor.

“Everyone would always panic,” says Sean Kelley with a sly smile. “It made you think of a prison riot, with everything throbbing around you.”

The alarming ruckus was a 2005 sound installation titled “Pandemonium,” by artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, and it evoked a prison riot for one basic reason: it was located in cellblock seven of Eastern State Penitentiary, where Kelley serves as senior vice president and director of public programming. The prison in which solitary confinement was born is now a historic site. Eastern State’s towering, Gothic, castle-like structure occupies several square blocks in the middle of a downtown Philadelphia residential neighborhood.

With “Pandemonium,” Cardiff and Miller devised a way to “play” the cellblock as if it were an instrument, using the fixtures, bars, and pipes found in the cells.

“Everyone who came to Philadelphia, I took them to experience that,” says Ingrid Schaffner, senior curator at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art. “To have this historic prison space, which itself is so spectacular, turned into an instrument! And like a haunted instrument as well. … It was just so powerful.”

An interior room at the museum

Site your sources

“Pandemonium” is just one of the works in Eastern State’s innovative program to commission and present works of art inside its buildings. The world’s first true “penitentiary,” meant to instill penitence and initiate reform, Eastern State opened in 1829. Its inmates remained isolated from each other and performed labor, learned trades, and were provided with Bibles as their sole reading material. Its cellblocks radiated out from a central point like the spokes of a wheel, with each cell lit by a narrow skylight — a design later copied by hundreds of prisons worldwide.

The penitentiary closed in 1971 due to its state of disrepair, and then opened as an attraction in 1994. Since 1995, it’s also been home to site-specific artworks. A committee chooses two or three pieces to be installed out of the 100 to 200 artists’ proposals received each year. A few works remain held over from previous years, so there are always about a dozen scattered throughout the 10.5-acre site.

Importantly, and intriguingly, the artworks must address issues thematically connected to prisons and incarceration, thereby adding to a visitor’s experience rather than distracting from it. “The art always has to support one of the threads” dealing with the prison’s past or with corrections, Kelley explains. “We don’t want proposals that say, ‘I want to exhibit my work in this beautiful space because the light is so nice.’” The proposal guidelines even state, “Do not suggest Eastern State solely as an architectural backdrop.”

Susan Hagen, an artist who displayed a series of all-white dioramas in 10 Eastern State cells and who has served on the art selection committee, has observed a regular problem with the authors of many proposals: “They’re too in love with the site.”

The works that have been chosen have been wildly different. Past pieces include James Mills’s “On Tour” (2010–2011), which consisted of signs pointing to tourism sites where people had suffered, thus inherently critiquing Eastern State as an “attraction.” If “On Tour” were installed today, one imagines there’d be a sign pointing to the new 9/11 Memorial Museum. “Release,” a 2010 collaboration between filmmaker Bill Morrison and composer Vijay Iyer, manipulated footage of the eager, curious crowd awaiting the 1930 release of Al Capone, who was briefly held at Eastern State. Still on view is a video project installed in 2011, Michelle Handelman’s “Beware the Lily Law,” in which actors recite sometimes-graphic monologues that relate the experiences of gay and transgender prisoners.

In 2006, William Cromar re-created a cell from Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray inside an Eastern State cell for a piece titled “GTMO”: “Every year we think we’re going to take it out because we think that it’s going to be irrelevant because Guantanamo won’t be open anymore,” Kelley says. It’s still there.

Cindy Stockton Moore’s “Other Absences”

The prisoners’ dilemma

Private homes and famous structures that have become museum-ized obviously tell us about the past. Their main goal is preservation — a worthy impulse, to be sure, but keeping things under glass can become a sterile affair. “I think that we tell a complex historical narrative really well here,” Kelley says. But Eastern State’s mission also includes addressing current issues of corrections, justice, and punishment. Visitors’ central experience consists of walking through the grand arched cellblocks and stepping into the small cells, putting themselves in the place of guards and prisoners. The space — majestic, deteriorating, and unsettling — spurs contemplation, and the artworks create tangents to those ruminations. “This art program has made connections to contemporary issues and the way corrections touches people’s lives far better than we’ve ever been able to,” Kelley says.

Which isn’t to say that using art to make a point can’t be tricky. And in some cases, it’s too subtle. “Pandemonium” overwhelmed an entire cellblock, but these days, the art selection committee avoids choosing works that have a big visual presence in the hallways. As a result, some pieces simply get missed, and others, like the cryptic directional signs that made up “On Tour,” don’t always register. “Some visitors look at it and don’t even know it’s art,” Kelley says of certain works. “To a degree, that’s fine.”

“The Big Graph”

Bars chart

The other week, Eastern State held an open house for this year’s two new artist installations. Hundreds of people took advantage of the free admission to roam the grounds, sipping drinks poured at the open bar and eating snacks provided by nearby restaurants.

In one cell, Cindy Stockton Moore’s new installation takes as its subject an aspect of Eastern State’s past that is generally overlooked by artists: the victims of its inmates. Hanging from the cell’s ceiling are portraits of 50 murder victims — the only ones that she could find images of in old newspapers. Most of the portraits are of police officers, attractive women, and wealthy businessmen, and few are of black people, thus making a commentary (that generally holds true today as well) about whom the media deems worthy of attention.

In a different cellblock, Hannah Bertram has created decorative, carpet-like floors out of particles of dust from the three cells in which the pieces are installed. Like sand mandalas, Bertram’s work, as it slowly disappears over a few weeks, evokes the transitory nature of things. Its relationship to issues of crime and justice, however, seems tenuous, despite the stated connection to “the fundamental belief in rehabilitation and rebirth advocated by Eastern State’s founders.”

The open house served as the debut of a third installation as well, one not part of the art program but created under Kelley’s direction. “It’s not art, specifically, but it’s interesting,” is how Kelley described it to me in an email: a 16-foot-tall, 3,500-pound plate steel sculpture of the United States’ rates of incarceration in each decade from 1900 to 2010. A three-dimensional bar graph, with explanatory text that discusses the boom in prison construction, illustrates the racial breakdown of the prison population and offers as comparison the (much lower) incarceration rates of other countries. The piece undoubtedly does what Kelley describes the artworks as doing: “addressing what’s happening in prisons now.”

Kelley’s been working at Eastern State for almost two decades, and he began designing the piece a few years ago, after concluding that “Visitors really did want to talk about statistics. I didn’t think so. I was wrong.”

As Kelley showed me the piece, he pointed out that the bars representing incarceration rates for 1990, 2000, and 2010 tower over the ones for the previous decades, and how this required careful construction. “All the weight and all the engineering are in the last three bars,” he explained. “That’s where we had to use the heavy equipment.” He paused, then added, “It’s a pretty good metaphor for the investment in the prison system.”

Photos: Interior shot by the author. Courtesy Eastern State Penitentiary: exterior by Tom Bernard, “Other Absences” by Cindy Stockton Moore, and “The Big Graph” by Rob Hashem.

Theresa Everline is a Philadelphia freelance writer interested in arts, culture, and urban affairs. A former editor-in-chief of Philadelphia City Paper, she has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post's travel section, Next City, Preservation Online, and SmartPlanet.com. Her essay about living in Cairo was selected as a "notable essay" for The Best American Travel Writing 2005.

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