PRINT September 2020



Michael Moses El, Self-Portrait with Desi, 1985, gelatin silver print, 9 1⁄2 × 14". © PhotoChange LLC and Michael Moses El.

WE CAN ALL AGREE NOW that American prisons are a malignant feature of contemporary life, broadening inequalities, destroying families, worsening racial disparities, and facilitating widespread state-sanctioned premature death, to name just a few of the most obvious iniquities. But inside these prisons, people do find imaginative ways to survive. The institutional culture of incarceration has spawned individual and communal acts of inspired genius—acts credited entirely to people, and not to the prisons where they are forced to live—modalities of making and ways of surviving that involve types of creativity unique to communities held captive. To do time in prison is to become an expert at doing time in prison, to develop specific skills and levels of knowledge that can only be acquired heuristically rather than gleaned, learned, read about. Experientially, prison alters sensory life: sight—drab and reduced colors and textures; sound—loud and invasive; human touch—not part of the ideological plan for “rehabilitation”; taste—very little aside from salt; smell—at least here in California, the smell of prisons up and down the state derives from a single overpowering cleaning solution used in every facility of the entire massive system and called, I kid you not, Cell Block 64. If, as Karl Marx maintained, “the forming of the five senses is a labor of the entire history of the world down to the present,” the forming of the five senses in prison is a history of humanity in captivity, and of conditions that profoundly shape the art that is made there.

In her groundbreaking and expansive book Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2020), Nicole R. Fleetwood has created something of a foundational index of prison art, an incisive guide to the multitudinous practices, aesthetics, styles, and conditions of art made by those in captivity. Fleetwood makes evident simultaneously the unique conditions of prison and the unique features of the art that is made there. Critically, Fleetwood’s book frees this art, and these artists, from prison as a delimited and marginalizing niche. Prison art is art, and it’s not up to the prison artist to get up to speed with the terms of the contemporary art world—to, for instance, go to gallery shows, or to read this magazine. It is the responsibility of the contemporary art world to learn the terms and typologies of what is made in prison, with what tools and materials and skills, what modalities of mind, and under what conditions; to learn to establish value, and assign meaning, from values and meanings that already exist in a world inside this one—the world of prison, which is profoundly different from free life, even as it has become a fixed and appalling feature of it.

As a counterpart to her perceptive study, the exhibition “Marking Time” was slated to open at MoMA PS 1 in New York this past spring but has been delayed by the pandemic. With the show on hold, I spoke to Fleetwood this summer about her book, her research, and her own experiences as someone who grew up visiting family members in prison. The morning we spoke, I had read in local California news that at Lompoc Federal Prison (incidentally, where Chuck Berry once served time, bringing a guitar along to entertain with during the months he was there), virtually 100 percent of prisoners had tested positive for Covid-19.

Rachel Kushner


Jesse Krimes, Apokaluptein 16389067, 2010–13, newsprint transfers, gouache, colored pencil, and graphite on prison bedsheets, 15 × 40'.

RK: Your book is quite obviously the outcome of many years of research, discourse, and thought. It incorporates various types of work—personal, sociological, political—but I want to start with what it’s doing as art history. I see it as an ambitious and thorough attempt to lay out the terms, categories, and contexts for what you call carceral aesthetics. Were you looking at other models for forcing the categories of art history to expand? I’m thinking of Lynne Cooke’s recent show “Outliers and the American Vanguard Art” [2018] and its attempt to de-hierarchize nearly a century’s worth of modern art and put the forms of genius originating in folk art on par with works by trained and historically recognized artists. I’m also thinking of the way that Alan Lomax documented the American blues. There are marked differences to your approach from these, first and foremost in that you build from a quite personal connection to carceral aesthetics, as someone with family members who have served or are serving long prison sentences. But I’m interested in whether you saw your own project as a form of cultural mapping along the lines of those examples.

Nicole R. Fleetwood: I was very interested in cultural mapping, literally and symbolically—in putting artists who might be in punitive isolation in community with others. Often in “sympathetic” writing about prison art, these practices are called untutored or self-trained and are marginalized in a category outside of established institutions. Although prison art is often called outsider art, in fact the opposite is true: This art is all about institutional relations. When one considers the outsize impact carcerality has on society, it becomes apparent that artists who are or have been locked up are absolutely at the core of cultural production. I wanted to write these artists into the center of contemporary art.

It was important for me to write the book with incarcerated people and their loved ones as my primary audience. Through the Art for Justice Fund, Harvard University Press was able to produce a paperback version of the book to send to incarcerated people gratis. This special edition was released and sent out before the hardcover was available to general audiences. It is deeply meaningful for me to have the people who appear in Marking Time as my first readers, and for them to see their connections to the other artists in the book. When Mark Loughney—whose series “Pyrrhic Defeat” is featured on the book’s cover—received his copy, he wrote me this, which I have been given permission to share: “I feel like my prison experience of artmaking in prison, and the hurdles that come with it—my fears and hopes and goals . . . all of me—finally I’m not alone in it and can see that there are so many others like me. It feels like a huge weight has been lifted, like I don’t have to keep trying to convince people what this whole experience is.”

Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration (detail), 2014–, graphite on paper, approx. 600 drawings, each 12 × 9".

RK: You talk about what you call practices of recognition, which I found quite resonant with what all of us in the prison-abolition movement are engaged in. But I also see Marking Time as a call to the world of contemporary art to learn the terms of carceral aesthetics, to know what they are looking at and learn how to admire it, rather than expect incarcerated and formerly incarcerated artists to make work that fits within the already-determined hierarchies of the art market. Was this an explicit intent? I just want to say that the book is a watershed in this regard. As someone familiar with the worlds both of contemporary art and of prison, I’ve had people contact me over the years and ask if I could connect them to a gallery, people who make incredible work that is of a style they learned on the streets or in county jail, or in prison, and I’d think, sadly, The art world doesn’t yet know how to recognize this. But you’ve forced them to begin to do exactly that.

NRF: Yes, this was crucial—to challenge the aesthetic boundaries of museums and other established art institutions. I think those boundaries are often based on lazy thinking and a lack of curiosity and engagement beyond what cultural gatekeepers already think they know or whom they know. I didn’t necessarily want to disparage categories like “folk art” or “outsider art,” but instead hoped to expose the systems of value and valuation that shape how we understand both museums and prisons, artists and prisoners.

I’ve been really influenced by a book by the late scholar Lindon Barrett called Blackness and Value: Seeing Double [1999]. And I’ve also been very influenced by what formerly incarcerated artists have to say about the relationship between artmaking and being relegated to the status of disposable and captive subjects. Out of the state’s designation of them as social failures, these artists assemble from the wreckage and violence. I wanted to linger on the risks involved and the relations that emerge in these aesthetic practices—for example, how painter Jared Owens’s decision to acquire a wooden plank in order to stretch a canvas could have landed him in the hole, and how Dean Gillispie’s detailed miniatures were made through the friendships he cultivated across prison populations.

Jared Owens, Ellapsium: master & Helm, 2016, mixed media on wood. Three panels, each 48 × 31".

RK: His miniatures—especially that Airstream!—are truly incredible and remind me of how stunningly resourceful incarcerated people can be. Carceral aesthetics are shaped and determined by limited access to art supplies and freedom of movement and so forth. Those limits can become creative “strengths,” scarcity engendering innovation—what people in prison sometimes call the workaround. You write about incarcerated artists making dyes from “hair products, print media, tea, coffee, candy, shoe polish, and kool aid.” But you are also careful to make the reader understand that even if limits can be generative, they are still, nevertheless, “carceral terms.” Can you talk about what this means?

Dean Gillispie, Spiz’s Dinette, 1998, tablet backs, stick pins, popsicle sticks, cigarette foil, 8 × 16 × 5".

NRF: I’ve had academic and activist friends ask me, Why not call these works and practices abolitionist aesthetics? While I see this book as contributing to the work of abolition, I use “carceral” because all of these works are shaped by their relationship to prison, punishment, and criminalization. If we are able to demolish prisons, what do we do with the debris? So many incredible artists and activists are responding to this question. My book focuses on how people held in punitive captivity are experimenting with the conditions of prison—material constraint, spatial immobility, and doing time as punishment—to envision something other than their unfreedom.

Although prison art is often called outsider art, in fact the opposite is true: This art is all about institutional relations. —Nicole R. Fleetwood

RK: This seems key: that one can envision, as you say, something other than unfreedom, but that we should never forget that this artwork was made on terms that themselves have nothing to do with “rehabilitation,” or with inner freedom, or with justice. This is how I interpret carceral terms.

I think of so many of the activities that people in prison engage in, and not just explicit artmaking, as art, or, at the very least, as highly creative enterprises. As I was reading your book, a friend of mine was organizing a memorial on a California prison yard for someone who died, and my friend and her roommates were making decorations, invitations, writing eulogies, composing music for the event, and everything they sourced had to be acquired in some incredibly creative manner. Meanwhile, the person who died, a woman who had been in the California state-prison system since 1976, was immediately scrubbed from the state’s database, with no trace. Meaning this group of women, memorializing, were going to produce the only mark of inscription, the only memories of this person and their life, in the institution. I think it could be argued that prison forces innovation for spiritual, psychological, and physical survival in a way that is unparalleled in life on the outside. Which doesn’t make it good, obviously! But it does encourage us to see people in prison as practitioners with expertise and genius.

NRF: Exactly! The type of experimentation, collectivity, innovation, and discernment that emerges from horrendous conditions motivated me to do this book, but importantly, I didn’t want to romanticize these practices. There’s so much creativity that happens in captivity, and the history of freedom struggles teaches us that. Actually, when I started this project, I told my cousin Allen that I was going to do a book about prison art. He laughed at me. “How are you going to do that?” he asked. “Everyone in here is an artist.”

RK: I was particularly intrigued by your description of an artist who said that carceral conditions led to a more “deliberate, repetitive, and sometimes even mechanical process—one that produced labor-intensive, time-laden works.” Somehow, the exactitude of this quote is quite striking to me, in the way that it gives a formalism to the praxis of prison art.

NRF: A colleague told me that my project is oddly formalist. He said that I was snatching the concept of formalism from the old, crusty domains of traditional art history. It opens up so many possibilities when we think of a type of formalism coming out of the aesthetic production of incarcerated people, and how those approaches reveal anew the power and horror of imprisonment.

I was very interested in developing aesthetic categories that treated the work and practices with integrity, rigor, and respect. From listening to various artists, I developed concepts of carceral aesthetics, penal space, penal time, and penal matter. I talk of penal space as the built environment of confinement and also the social relations that are structured by carcerality—how prison, punishment, and surveillance shape the most intimate and minuscule aspects of the lives of those captured. Penal time is a way of understanding how punishment is measured by time in captivity in our contemporary punishment system. It is also experiential and existential: For the imprisoned, living a life measured by a sentence means that every second of that time is state punishment. Penal matter, for me, was the most eye-opening in terms of how incarcerated people reappropriate the materiality of prisons in the service of artmaking: prison bedsheets, prison soap, sentencing papers and other legal documents, mug shots and prison ID cards, state-issued clothes, organic materials from the yard—leaves, dirt, the remains of animals—their bodily matter including secretion, excretion, hair, on and on.

Gilberto Rivera, An Institutional Nightmare, 2012, federal prison uniform, commissary papers, floor wax, prison reports, newspaper, and acrylic on canvas, 32 1⁄4 × 24 1⁄4".

RK: You talk about penal hues, which if not colors themselves seem to comprise an important category of color. In California, for instance, if the category is penal hues, the color is blue, and when you walk on a prison yard, it is a wild and overwhelming feeling to see hundreds or even thousands of people—distinct and differentiated individuals—all dressed in a single color: blue.

NRF: Whenever I read aloud excerpts of the book, what moved people the most was when I talked about color. Although there was originally an entire chapter about color, I chose to instead weave it throughout the book—color, color deprivation, saturation. I moved to California a few weeks after my cousin was sentenced to life. The landscape is, of course, very different from that of Ohio, where I’m from and where he was incarcerated. Then, reading Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag [2007], about prisons and California, and learning about the work of Critical Resistance in the 1990s, when I was in graduate school, helped me to understand the sensory experience of the carceral landscape of the West. Seeing the carceral blues against that arid desert of California is a really profound, surreal experience, an aesthetic encounter that is overwhelmingly beautiful and monstrous at the same time. As I write in the book, “Carceral blue is a color distinct to late-modern capitalism and the growth in prisons in the late twentieth century, where the dispossessed lands of the settler nation-state meet institutional architecture meets agribusiness meets failing economies of the urban and rural poor.” This blue feels inseparable from what Jackie Wang calls carceral capitalism, which encapsulates all the ways that people and entities in our economy benefit from punishment and detainment. This blue saturates everything.

RK: I’m thinking of a friend of mine, released from prison, who called me very upset. She was totally overwhelmed because she was used to seeing gray and concrete and dirt. People forget that the visual palette of an incarcerated person is drastically reduced.

NRF: As well as the food palate. Jesse Krimes told me that he was so used to working with material and color deprivation that when he got out of prison, he couldn’t make art for some time. He was completely intimidated by the notion of choice. I talk about this in my chapter on solitary confinement, which was the last chapter I wrote. It was very intense, and I haven’t been able to reread it. We’re thinking about touch and no touch because of the pandemic, but some people who came out of solitary said they could not be physically touched after so long a period—that it felt painful to be touched. Other people told me they lost depth perception when in solitary. I tried to convey how prisons rewire the entire sensory experience of those inside.

Jesse Krimes, Purgatory, 2009, prison-issued soap, newsprint transfer, playing cards, 3 1⁄2 × 2 1⁄2".

RK: You interviewed scores of people for this book, visited many institutions, looked at prison art studios and corresponded with people about their practices. I wonder if you could talk about the ethical issues that come up in these situations. I ask because I also dialogue quite a lot with incarcerated people, collaborate with them in various capacities, and over the years have had to make my own definitions for what the ethics are in these relationships and associations with an uneven power balance that I cannot wish away. I’m also thinking of something Mike Davis said to me, which is that advocating for people with very long sentences requires “enormous moral stamina.” It also, perhaps, requires enormous_ ethical _stamina. I was wondering if you could also talk about the complexities of being a conduit to public acknowledgment.

NRF: I paid the ethics of care a lot of attention. I think it’s one reason the project took so long for me to complete. Early in the process, when I gave one of the first presentations of my research, maybe back in 2012, a grad student in the audience at Cornell [University] pointed out how lovingly I talked about my incarcerated relatives, and he felt like there was a formal distance when I talked about artists who were not related to me. It was so insightful, and I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I should call everyone by their first name, as I do my imprisoned loved ones. But it also felt like it would be belittling them as artists not to refer to them by their last names, as most artists are referred to.

There was also lots to consider about how much context to provide about artmaking in prison. I wanted to be sure not to reveal information that could lead to punishment or retaliation for people who were willing to share. Wherever possible, I showed artists what I wrote about them, and we often went through several rounds of edits before they felt like I “got it right.” I was totally open to that process. I so wanted everyone who shared with me about their experience of suffering in prison and creating under those conditions to feel recognized, honored, and loved. I wanted to practice the level of love and care that I gave to sharing about my family.

Russell Craig, Self Portrait, 2016, pastels and paper on canvas, 120 × 96".

RK: Artforum wanted me to ask you about Covid and whether it has shaped people’s capacity to see prison as a public-health issue. A lot has happened since they asked that—namely, a broad and fierce national uprising with new calls to abolish police and prisons—but I thought I’d read you this question, which a friend serving two life sentences sent me:

We in here are watching you out there unravel under conditions that are everyday life to the incarcerated. I wonder if that correlation will be acknowledged by society?

A connection between prison and quarantine has been drawn mostly in a way that makes no sense. Being stuck at home isn’t prison. Instead, what my friend seems to be saying is: We have tools that you don’t.

NRF: This quote from your friend is just brilliant. I think part of the problem with the nonincarcerated public is our arrogance, our belief that we are entitled to certain things that imprisoned people are not. I want to quote the end of my introduction, if you don’t mind:

There are lessons here, developed by the punished and imprisoned, about how to create, to forge relations, and to embody and represent one’s life under unimaginable conditions. From these lessons, we learn about a society that relies on punitive confinement as a solution to myriad social, economic, political, ecological, and health crises. Prisons—indefinite detention, parole, concentration camps—exist inasmuch as we allow them to.

I’ve also been thinking about the artist James “Yaya” Hough, who recently came out of prison after serving twenty-seven years of life without parole, which he received at age seventeen. He said that there is more nihilism, despair, and apathy outside of prison. He said that he found more hope among people in prison. It’s the one thing that keeps imprisoned people going.

RK: Wow. This comment by Hough makes a lot of sense. People in prison are really forced by circumstance to be so resilient. Resilience is one of the few things that cannot be taken away from them. I’ve personally found many people in prison to be quite hopeful and so mind-bogglingly patient: They wait years for small signs of progress in their case, and so forth. While out here, well, there’s a nihilism that’s perhaps distinctly a “free world” nihilism? I make no value judgments, just thinking out loud about Hough’s observation.

NRF: One hundred percent. When you are enshrouded by institutions of confinement, isolation, and dehumanization, hope is a lifeline. Hope is purposeful. I think many nonincarcerated people are leading purposeless lives, and when you’ve been in prison for a long time and are released, you can see that in profound ways.

James “Yaya” Hough, I Am the Economy, 2018, watercolor on paper, 9 × 12".

RK: Right before this interview went to press, the artist Ronnie Goodman died suddenly and unexpectedly. Looking into his life, in the wake of an abundance of loving obituaries, I see that he had an impact on a variety of communities, as an artist and also a runner, and that your inclusion of him in Marking Time meant the world to him.

NRF: Ronnie’s painting San Quentin Arts in Corrections Art Studio, 2008, captures the entirety of this project. Ronnie loved to run. He actually founded the San Quentin Marathon. He described his art as being concerned with mobility and light. His portraits of other incarcerated people are so warm and textured. I’m devastated by his loss. He, like many of the artists I write about, had such an incredibly precarious life, made all the more vulnerable by criminalization, imprisonment, and poverty.

RK: Of the protest movement that bloomed after the murder of George Floyd, you wrote to me, “The people most impacted by racial capitalism and carcerality are putting their bodies on the line once again, demanding a new world.” It reminded me of something Ruthie Gilmore said to me, of why and how Black people have been, and will be, in the vanguard of any revolutionary movement in the United States:

It’s not like we have some kind of innate heroism that we can just enact on the world’s behalf. But we have experienced slavery, industrial capitalism, capitalist agriculture. Any problem a Marxist puts his head to, Black people have experienced—not uniquely, but distinctly. And that distinction should produce a kind of consciousness that would lead to interpretive and analytical and practical politics that would matter for a whole lot of people.

NRF: I love this quote by Ruthie. In this current moment of protest, Black activists have been making it clear that no one ever “gave us our freedom.” At every turn throughout our entire existence on this continent, the state and white power have tried to subjugate and exploit us largely by separating us from who and what we love. Black people’s ongoing fight for freedom and justice and recognition has completely transformed society, from Black protest music to radical, non-kinship forms of love and care rooted in Black communities as modes of survival. I really love Robin D. G. Kelley’s notion of “freedom dreams” and how Angela Y. Davis articulates freedom as a constant struggle. Both together describe broadly the experience of Black people.

If we are able to demolish prisons, what do we do with the debris? So many incredible artists and activists are responding to this question. —Nicole R. Fleetwood

RK: In your trenchant chapter on the ethical complexities of collaborations between incarcerated and nonincarcerated artists, you supply what I call provisos in regard to what we must avoid going forward, even though it’s a great thing for incarcerated artists to be working with, and exhibiting alongside, artists from outside. I’m almost tempted to tell every artist or gallerist thinking of collaborating with people in prison to read the chapter. But I also don’t want to discourage them or seem overly critical!

NRF: The chapter you are referring to is called “Fraught Imaginaries.” I was working against my impulse to critique and instead tried to come up with a more generative framework for thinking about collaborating across disparate statuses: free/unfree, mobile/immobile, recognized/devalued, collector/collected. I was thinking about the aesthetic risks and potentials when working across the carceral archipelago. It’s an easy thing to criticize organizations and artists for reinforcing inequalities and troubling power dynamics. I didn’t want to do that. I also had to think about how this work has benefited me professionally. “Fraught Imaginaries” was a way to approach the tensions and messiness of collaboration, especially when one’s collaborators are legally unfree and stigmatized as punished. How to collaborate with people who cannot consent because they are held in punitive captivity? It was the most difficult chapter for me to write. I wanted to get the tone right. I wanted to be clear and insightful, but I also didn’t want to harm people working in these programs and organizations. Most importantly, I didn’t want to put people in prison in more compromised or vulnerable situations than they are in already. How can collaboration put into practice an abolitionist vision of ending punitive governance?

RK: Your book cites Ruthie Gilmore’s work, which demonstrates quite clearly how prisons are not motivated by profit but result from more complex pressures in capitalist societies. Prison, Gilmore argues convincingly, is not a version of modern slavery, since it doesn’t function on a profit motive, and since many prisoners barely work and don’t produce much profit, if any. And yet the aesthetics of certain notorious prisons—most notably Parchman and Angola [respectively, the Missisippi and Louisiana state penitentiaries]—do look like those of plantations. And I think this disturbing feature of those two iconic, if exceptional, prisons—i.e., having the look and feel of antebellum slavery—might have a place in your compendium of carceral aesthetics. Would you agree?

NRF: Prisons and punitive governance operate on the logic that state punishment is an effective means of social control. We live in a punishment society; that is what I mean by “punitive governance.” Law and social order are maintained through the threat of punishment. Our punishment society generates new ways of enforcing suffering, cruelty, immobilization, near-death status, and death for many millions of people. And while prisons may not always be profitable, there is an enormous labyrinth of entities that benefit from and profit from punishment, detainment, criminalization, and surveillance. The nonprofit organization Worth Rises does an incredible job of monitoring corporations that invest in punishment industries.

The legendary activist Reverend James Lawson called the US economy “plantation capitalism” at the funeral service for Representative John Lewis in a room full of former presidents and members of the US Congress. That was an incredibly powerful moment for me.

Places like Angola and Parchman are edifices of state violence, racial capitalism, and the aestheticization of punishment. There is a reason why imprisoned people at Angola still pick cotton in the year 2020. They are punished by having to perform the forced labor that enslaved people did on the same land two centuries earlier. Angola is an eighteen-thousand-acre monument to white supremacy, racial capitalism, and unimaginable violence and suffering. It has always operated as a place of forced labor and violence. Angola, past and present, thrives on what theorist Saidiya Hartman calls the fungibility of the captive Black body. Many thousands of people have been tortured there and their bodies buried on-site. It’s a horrifying, horrifying place.

Deana Lawson, Mohawk Correctional Facility (detail), 2013, forty-six ink-jet prints, each 11 × 8 1⁄2".

RK: The last chapter of the book is also the most personal, in terms of your experience posing with your cousins Allen and De’Andre. You discuss the genre of the painted visiting-room backdrop, which, as you mention, is very thoughtfully examined in Alyse Emdur’s book Prison Landscapes [2012]. In thinking of Emdur’s book, and of your ruminations, and of my own hours in prison visiting rooms, I started to reconsider these backdrops: an ocean scene, a tropical forest, what have you. I became convinced these painted murals stand for this Other Country, a groundless place that nonetheless exists: the territory where incarcerated people share a world with the so-called free. And that reminded me of all that incarcerated people cannot share. The parts of their lives that remain unintelligible to those not living with them in these enclosures.

NRF: You said Other Country, but your insight makes me think of these material objects as a rupture in time for the incarcerated people and those waiting for them. During all my visits with Allen, the only time when we were moving in the same direction was when we were moving toward that painted backdrop. That was the only time when we could journey together as loved ones and family. As he stood there, the relationship between temporality and punishment shifted for Allen. And so, in this last chapter, I wanted to capture the frenetic love that walking toward these backdrops allows. How do I write about that existential experience—about how, in that moment, we’re uncontainable? Can we escape to somewhere together?