How Visual Culture Is Implicated in Mass Incarceration

How Visual Culture Is Implicated in Mass Incarceration

How Visual Culture Is Implicated in Mass Incarceration

Art historian Nicole R. Fleetwood’s Marking Time explores the creative practices and cultural institutions shaped by the prison industrial complex.


According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s (PPI) 2020 report, there are close to 2.3 million people currently incarcerated by the United States justice system. This includes individuals who are in state and federal prisons, municipal jails, and immigration detention facilities, as well as juvenile detention facilities, military prisons, Indian Country jails, state psychiatric wards, and prisons in US territories. This number represents the highest incarceration rate in the world, an alarming statistic by any account, but it is vital to remember that these people can never be reduced to mere abstractions. They are mothers. They are fathers. They are male identified, female identified, and genderqueer. They are often poor, often black, often brown. They are students and migrants and children. They are writers and poets. They are artists.

It is this last group to whom Rutgers professor and art historian Nicole R. Fleetwood devotes her new book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration. Fleetwood began her research in a personal manner, in part as a way for her to negotiate her relationship to the carceral state as a family member of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. It was the 2012 invitation of a former student to deliver a presentation about what Fleetwood terms “the visual records” of her relatives’ incarceration and that archive’s emotional impact that gave her the idea of working on a deeper inquiry. “I had been mulling over doing a project on visuality and prisons,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “but was afraid that it would be too emotionally challenging for my family and me. But after that first presentation, something unexpected happened—something that would continue to happen over the years of lecturing and doing research on prison art.” As Fleetwood went on to share her story and the visual ephemera that represented her connection to carcerality—drawings, family photographs, cards, and paintings—others began to share their stories with her. Marking Time originates from these encounters and in doing so offers a broader assessment of the visual culture of mass incarceration in the United States.

Fleetwood’s investigation responds to two central questions: How has the colossal reach of the prison industrial complex shaped contemporary art institutions and art making? Secondly, how does visual art help to reveal the depths and devastation of our nation’s penal system? These are questions that concern the terms and conditions of freedom and bondage (or what Fleetwood calls “un/freedom”). These are also the questions she employs to reveal how mass incarceration has become interwoven with cultural production. In this way, Marking Time is itself an urgently political text whose author does not mask her investment in an abolitionist framework that might lead to a world without prisons. Truthfully, any assessment of the prison industrial complex in the United States is always urgent. Because Covid-19 poses a dire threat to and exposes the extreme vulnerabilities of incarcerated populations, Marking Time’s release is especially timely, as an awareness of the impacts of mass incarceration seeps deeper and more insistently into everyday language. Fleetwood reminds her readers that the stakes are high, not just for those who are incarcerated and their loved ones, but for all of us who also believe ourselves to struggle against the carceral state.

Carceral aesthetics” is the term Fleetwood uses to define the creative practices that result from conditions of mass incarceration. For her, carceral aesthetics encompasses the “ways of envisioning and crafting art and culture that reflect the conditions of imprisonment,” and it becomes the key tool with which she navigates the landscape of prison art—which includes art made by both incarcerated and non-incarcerated artists—in order to better understand how such work envisions an end to systems of incarceration that have expanded significantly in the United States since the 1970s.

If carceral aesthetics names the relationship between visual culture and the prison industrial complex, then the concepts of “penal space” “penal time” and “penal matter” become central to our understanding of how such an aesthetic proposition takes shape in the first place. These terms refer to the “immobility, invisibility, stigmatization, lack of access, and premature death [that] govern the lives of the imprisoned and their expressive capacities,” as Fleetwood writes. “Such deprivation becomes raw material and subject matter for prison art.” To talk about prisons, those who are inside them, and what their art signifies requires an intentional vocabulary, one that Fleetwood carefully offers. Choosing to begin Marking Time with this exposition is necessary for understanding the meeting point of Fleetwood’s critical analysis of art made by both incarcerated and non-incarcerated artists and what this work tells us about how the prison system in this country touches so much of everyday life.

Kenneth Reams’s collage Capitalization, for example, is made from the wrappers of several different snack and candy items, such as Oreo cookies, Skittles, beef jerky, and canned tuna, all products acquired by Reams while incarcerated and therefore categorized by Fleetwood as forms of penal matter. These food products are supplied to many prisons by Union Supply Group of California, one of the country’s main commercial prison package vendors. In his appropriation of these materials for his art—a tactic key to Fleetwood’s larger thesis—Reams indicts Union Supply Group as exploitative as it profiteers from the selling of overpriced and poor quality food items. These items are consistently bought as commissary goods for incarcerated people by their family and community members, who in turn are already the least likely to earn livable wages or have access to nutrient-rich food options.

Indeed, Fleetwood’s training as an art historian is evident, as her analysis follows a narrative arc that moves across artistic mediums and within the physical architecture of prison itself. This includes assessments of art made by prison collectives, the role of portraiture in the work of incarcerated artists, collaborative projects between incarcerated artists and non-incarcerated artists, and work made by artists in solitary confinement. Marking Time, however, never becomes too wrapped up in its own theory to forget that the prison industrial complex is a system of people, many of whom are the most vulnerable among us. This is not a task of sentimentality. From the extensive interviews that are central to her research methodology, we learn where artists grew up, whether or not they are parents, and how long they have been incarcerated, but we never learn what led to their incarceration. This decision feels particularly weighted in the context of abolition, where advocates argue that it is necessary to move beyond categories of offense.

Portraiture, Fleetwood argues, serves as a counternarrative to the ways in which those who are incarcerated are visually indexed. Take for example the work of painter Ronnie Goodman, whose portraits of his fellow prisoners “elevate [them] from the austerity and constraint of their environment.” These portraits refuse the sole representation of “criminal” or “offender” that are represented by the circulation of the mug shot or prison identification cards. Portraiture (including self-portraiture) allows these artists and their sitters to affirm subjectivity.

Unlike Goodman, whose status within the general population while incarcerated afforded him (limited) access to supplies via commissaries, art classes, and even dedicated art spaces within the prison, there are artists who create while held in solitary confinement and must navigate significant material constraints. It was the acquisition of a contraband camcorder that allowed Omar Broadway and Buddy Randolph to covertly film their time in the isolation unit of Northern State Prison in Newark, N.J. The goal was to illuminate the many abuses that they, and other individuals held in this wing away from the general population, suffer at the hands of correction officers. The footage, which is incorporated into the 2008 documentary An Omar Broadway Film, depicts the physical harm the officers did to the prisoners. Fleetwood points to one instance in particular in which a friend of Broadway has allowed the filmmaker to film his bruises and other injuries, which to her is a deliberate use of penal matter “to document the violence and horror of management-control units.”

The creative practices of incarcerated artists function as important assertions of their humanity. Their art is often a testimony to ongoing physical and psychological harm and marks the passage of time as friends, family, and other loved ones continue to visit, support, advocate for, and wait for the release of the prisoners in their lives (assuming release is even a possibility). Still, Fleetwood does not ignore the artistic, financial, and at times political relationships that have formed between incarcerated and non-incarcerated artists, often mediated and underscored by a vast network of nonprofits that has ballooned just as the prison population itself has. She appropriately names these relationships “fraught imaginaries” in order to underscore what is, in fact, a nebulous connection of individuals who occupy different places within the carceral geographies: different sites of freedom and un/freedom.

Fleetwood outlines a matrix of philanthropic funders—including the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s “Artist as Activist” program and the Ford Foundation’s Art for Justice Fund—that are prepared to funnel resources into an ever-expanding art infrastructure. This philanthropy acts as a container for prison arts programs and the web of penal administrators who control the very access needed for programs to exist. In describing this system, her spotlight is always on those artists who are incarcerated, working to create a new terrain of freedom for themselves.

In this context, we are introduced to artists such as Lisette Oblitas, whose multi-media work Phyllis Porter Place Setting, was created as part of the larger installation Shared Dining, a collaboration between artists at York Women’s Prison, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, Three Guineas Foundation, and the photographer (and non-incarcerated artist) Susan Meiselas. The project allowed the women of York to honor other women who have inspired them. Oblitas’s installation commemorated the life of Phyllis Porter, the woman who was fatally struck in a car accident Oblitas was involved in. During her time at York, Oblitas was able to communicate, via letters, with Porter’s family, learning more about Porter as a mother and person. The installation, as a result, becomes a site for reckoning and reconciliation. “For one,” Oblitas tells Fleetwood, “I could feel that I was forgiven and that I was loved, and I loved her back.”

Marking Time moves fluidly between this art historical survey and a sharp attention to the social apparatuses that have enabled the very foundation of the prison state. For this, Fleetwood consistently turns to scholars like Fred Moten, Michel Foucault, and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a seminal voice in the prison abolitionist movement, to provide further scaffolding for understanding the radical gestures of incarcerated artists. Gilmore, in particular, offers an ever present reminder that it is possible to organize ourselves, resources, and society in a manner that refuses the logic of the violence of prisons and, instead, points toward healing.

Marking Time then can also be viewed as a study in intimacy: how it is cultivated, protected, and nurtured in an environment that only perpetuates harm. To this end, the photograph is a medium key to Fleetwood’s writing and analysis. Photography enables a type of connectivity central to friends, relatives, loved ones, and artists mining the architectures—emotional and physical—of the prisons. “They are something to hold onto between prison visits, or during the long wait for the family member to return home, if that ever happens.” As the book concludes, Fleetwood shares more of her personal story, and we see photographs of the author, her mother, and her aunts, as well as her two male relatives who have been incarcerated. It is a gesture that reminds readers that this study is an effort that transcends the purely academic. That so many of us are, directly or indirectly, implicated in a relationship to the carceral state.

To look closely at the relationship between mass incarceration and contemporary art is not just a scholarly pursuit. It is one that is personal. It is one that should point us toward wrestling with the failings of a society that can so easily lock away, dispose of, and forget large swaths of its citizenry. More than this, it is one that should encourage us to ask and attempt to answer another central question: Where can the body rest and be free?

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