A Project Around Criminal Justice Featuring Poetry, Magical Realism, and Direct Change

Can art made around the criminal justice system contain both poetics and activism? Melanie Crean, Shaun Leonardo and Sable Elyse Smith’s Creative Capital Project, Mirror/Echo/Tilt uses visual art and poetry, as well as workshops, curriculum, and diversion processes working with court-involved youth to inform the work that will be on view at the New Museum in New York, June 18 – October 6. The exhibition and residency centers around a multi-channel video filmed in decommissioned prisons and courthouses, exploring how criminality and incarceration are imposed on the body. Throughout their residency, the artists have planned programming focused on undoing language around culturally embedded conceptions of criminality, and imagining a future without prisons.

We spoke to Melanie Crean, Shaun Leonardo and Sable Elyse Smith about their work, and their upcoming exhibition.

Alex Teplitzky—Can you tell me about the different aspects of your project, Mirror/Echo/Tilt?

Sable Elyse Smith—The project is twofold: There’s a pedagogical arm, and then there’s an artistic or art project arm. Those things are separate, on purpose, but they also exist simultaneously, and they’re interwoven. Having each of these aspects or tangent points of the project be able to break off and multiply and become something else in the world is important for us. That’s been a main goal, and we always try to frame it as not about our individual identities as artists. There’s so much invisible labor, and invisible aspects and structures of the project that might not become visible, and those are important things to maintain and hold in the same breath.

With that being said, for the exhibition, cultural production and visual output is obviously at the forefront of what we all do. We understand it’s germane to being able to communicate and unpack complicated and complex ideas. In the exhibition there’s a focus around the multi-channel video installation that begins to add images and a type of poetic that I believe hasn’t been seen in relationship to objects, conversations, or exhibitions around mass incarceration and the criminal justice system.

Shaun Leonardo—The visuals, which will be experienced in the multi-channel installation, were generated through a workshop process that we started four years ago. This workshop process—which has evolved since that time—has operated within different communities of individuals impacted and vulnerable to the justice system, namely formerly incarcerated individuals and young people that were enrolled in alternative sentencing programs. It was through dialogue with our participants that we understood early on that to delve into difficult memories, experiences, and narratives of incarceration and arrest, language needed to be removed for much of the process.

How does one reembody a memory? The possibility is resisted when moving directly into words. We discovered that the removal of language allowed us to more clearly see how incarceration is imposed on the body.

It was during this workshop process that we started to extract narratives to be filmed in decommissioned institutions—short vignettes that would all be tied together later on.

“Incarceration’s ‘success’ is predicated on its invisibility. One way to destabilize a system is to give it visual form.”

But by year two we also realized that there was a power in the workshop process in and of itself. So we moved the work into the “diversion” space. Assembly, as the program is named with the non-profit Recess, is an arrangement with the Downtown Brooklyn criminal court. Our partner within the courts, Brooklyn Justice Initiatives, assesses each case along with the District Attorney, for 16- to 24-year olds with misdemeanor charges.

Rather than having their cases pursued in court, these young individuals join Assembly and are led through this process of translating rather traumatic experiences of arrests and incarceration into performative gestures that do not include words so that collectively we might better analyze and clearly see the powers and decisions that may have led to that moment. After a four week cycle their cases can be closed and their records sealed, so that they avoid an adult record.

Sable—When we first started the workshop process without the opportunity of being situated more concretely in the criminal justice sphere with this direct impact, we were doing these workshops that were valuable on their own, and having these conversations as a trajectory of participating in this film project. It was necessary for us all to participate and do something together—for all the participants to help in the workshops, and unpack these conversations, but to also have agency, commitment, accountability, showing up, and producing something together.

It became a different type of bond and conversation where we didn’t have to talk about prison, death, mass incarceration. We could talk about, what does it feel like for me to put my hand on your shoulder? Are you hungry? Let’s get a bottle of water. Let’s have what might feel like an insignificant or interstitial conversation, but those things are equally important in the project as all the other aspects of it.

So, yes, it resulted in a film, but it didn’t have to. In the same way, even with Recess, they’re not working to the end goal of making a film, but everyone is engaged in some kind of creative output driven by their own desires and conversations that happen in between getting off the train, or walking to Recess, in between breaks, or with Shaun, or the teaching artists they work with. That’s incredibly important to my specific (but also all of our) philosophical ideas of what teaching, education, or pedagogy is.

Melanie Crean—It’s a project-based effort, so we’re all working together to make something. The level of intensity can get pretty high when people are sharing stories in the workshops, but it’s important that we’re also making a film, and sharing agency to create something positive. In the end, people can get a new take on their past experience not only by seeing the reenactments done by the group they’re working with, they can also see it through the film itself. It’s a way to process the past, but also a point of pride in creating something new, something that other people will want to see.

This project started for us in August 2014, when Mike Brown had just been killed, and I was reading Don Quixote at the same time. The parallels between that book written 400 years ago, and the way this tragedy was being reported in the news resonated in so many ways—to see how this person who was a victim of murder was depicted in press. How his identity was criminalized, so much of this was also going on in Don Quixote. I was communicating with Sable at the time, wondering, “how can we possibly address this?” Sable said she knew another artist working with identity through performance, that being Shaun, so the three of us started talking.

The workshops address not only how the mental and physical process of incarceration is read onto bodies, but how the cultural conception of criminality is read onto those bodies. We got access to film this work in decommissioned institutions—a former prison and courthouse. We wanted to see how actions might be perceived if they took place in a kind of neutral a space, like a black-box theater, and how those same stories might appear when reproduced in the decommissioned locations. To start to process if and how these different institutions read context onto people to how we might convey that through imagery.

We started with basic visual theater exercises that were later developed to be more directly related to the group of people we were working with. Part of this process was to figure out which prompts, kind of initial seed words, would inspire people to tell stories. We found two prompts that resonated with a lot of people were the ideas of isolation and escape. We asked people to think about an event in their life that one of these words might call to mind. They didn’t have to disclose their story to the group, but they would explain it to a partner, and then the partner, if given consent, would create gestures that they felt translated some key, core aspect of the story. We started talking about the idea of the core experience of a story, and how that could be translated through singular gestures. Even if other people might not relate to the details of the story, they could often relate to the emotional core. So, we started to form this methodology between us that we continued to build.

We did a series of workshops with people affected by cyclical incarceration, involved in reentry programming. There started to be threads that connected the different groups. Some of the ideas that were originally brought up in the first series carried over, so some of the first group filmed with the second. The filmed vignettes could function separately, but there was also a flow, with a number of themes that developed over time.

Shaun—What’s essential about the methodology is the way in which we are asking each other to relate to one another. When we move into different spaces, contexts, and populations, there are no tight parameters around any particular set of objectives—it’s a process of connection.

So, how do you begin to relate to the circumstances or details of someone’s narrative of incarceration or arrest? Or, to extend that even further, how do you begin to see yourself within the image of Michael Brown lying on the street for four hours? What we understood about our process of gathering and being with one another is that quite often we had to decenter the narrative itself and start with a single, more general word. The framework of Don Quixote often provided those words. We would, therefore, move into experiences connected to prompts such as isolation, anxiety, desperation, loneliness, or loyalty and aspiration. It is in these emotive spaces that we see the humanity present in a narrative. Then, in distilling these larger stories into very simple, minimal gestures, we start to really dial into the ways we all connect to a particular kind of experience.

This is where the visuals in the exhibition come into play: as viewers we may not know what it means to be visited in jail, in your mind, body and psyche, but we all know what it means to have a hand be placed over yours. We all know what it feels to be distant from someone else, isolated. We can move closer to one another if we take the time to understand what those gestures look and feel like in our own experience. In locating the humanity in these gestures, we move closer to one another.

“The prompt wasn’t to come recite a poem about mass incarceration and its ills, and how it affects society. It was come and present words that are about life—existing, breathing, and living. And some of that happens to be what we think prison is about.”

Alex—The excerpts of footage I’ve seen of this work are really surprising, because you expect art that is about incarceration to be more about the state of incarceration. Instead, you see these really eerie moments; the footage, I don’t believe, has sound. You don’t expect to see film like that dealing with criminality. So, what is the challenge to connect the public—who has their own biases and ideas about what it means to be incarcerated—to the people on the other side who do know what it means?

Sable—In terms of the film project, I actually don’t think there’s a challenge at all. The thing that is a driving force in my assemblage of the images and footage we shot, it’s important for me to consider all the ways criminality or mass incarceration has been spoken about and is continuously debated. There are types of languages, statistics, academic language or theory, or memoir-esque personal narratives, but I never see in the same breath as those conversations a poetic language. That seems like a real deficit and foreclosure of possibility. For me personally, but also in specific to this project, we demand and force a poetic language to be the thing that is speaking and speaking unapologetically, unresolved, or unreconciled, as a part of the project, and all of these other ways that the project operates.

You will walk into the exhibition space and you will consider these images and the first thing that comes to mind won’t necessarily be prison. Prison shouldn’t be the first word printed on every vinyl, or the introduction to every panel that happens.

In relationship to the exhibition, especially as New Museum’s Art and Social Justice residency, we are required to do programming. I suggested to do three artist-led gallery talks or tours, but in tandem to that, a reading by somebody, usually a poet. These aren’t “prison” poets, or poets that write about crime or prison solely, or at all. The prompt wasn’t to come recite a poem about mass incarceration and its ills, and how it affects society. It was come and present words that are about life—existing, breathing, and living. And some of that happens to be what we think prison is about.

Shaun—And that’s primarily where this project can situate itself and be most disruptive within the discourse on criminal justice. When you see the possibility of love and intimacy, you connect regardless of what the space is around that individual. When you center humanity first, it destabilizes the way people consider ideas of reform.

Early on in our process, we understood that, as an aesthetic, we would introduce magical realism. If we acknowledge those biases that you mentioned—these notions of criminality embedded in each of our understanding of the prison system—what is required is something fantastical to talk about the real world. The masks provide a disguise that allows someone, even for a single moment, to read something alien onto what they’re viewing. It’s then that the gestures and movement can do the work of connecting to our everyday existence.

MelanieThe idea of centering humanity first is critical. We had to think about that in the way we were photographing these spaces because so often prisons are fetishized. The spaces we worked in were abandoned in different ways, but not empty. The prison in particular was in this weird space of in-between, because it had just been decommissioned. It was just being turned over to a nonprofit to be reconstructed as a community center. We filmed over two different time periods: not long after it had closed when a lot of the initial signage and fixtures were still there, and then again after it was under demolition, when it was barely, but still somehow recognizable. It was this space that was in-between functions, but a space where there were also possibilities. It’s neither one thing or the other; it was in the process of being reinvented.

In terms of how we photographed it, there was so much that was read on to those spaces, particularly the prison, that the place almost functions as a character with its own scars and story, and that’s not necessarily the way that prisons are depicted in films or television shows. The walls were sagging, there was pretty toxic looking spillage, all of these things that, to me, made the space read like a body in transition. There was a similarity between seeing that space as a character with its past read onto it, in a state of change, that connects to how we were working with the idea of stories read onto the body, using silent gesture to reframe them.

Alex—Now that you are focused on this big premiere moment at the New Museum, what’s next for you and this project?

ShaunWe are focused on the possibilities of what we’ve developed during Mirror/Echo/Tilt and how it’s now moved into the justice field. One thing I am dedicated to is the “curriculum”—utilizing it to train individuals that might extend the work further. In other words, at Recess, many of the young people that have passed through the court mandate and continue to have a relationship with the program, will be trained to share the work and extend it into their own communities and schools. In that “training” process we hope to enable a ripple effect where the work continues to evolve and grow, through those closest to the negative effects of the criminal justice system.

We also would like to see, as the landscape of justice changes in New York City, where the curriculum might continue to insert itself and leverage its power of storytelling agency.

MelanieOne of the public programs connected to the exhibition is going to take place during a two-day convening of educators. It’s going to be a workshop for people to imagine what a future New York City might be like without prisons. We’re at a point where the city government has pledged to close down Riker’s Island in ten years, and while this is happening, there’s meant to be an associated decarceration to cut the number of people detained in the city by half. But it’s still not guaranteed that the jail will close.

A lot of people cannot imagine a future without prisons. They can’t imagine a form of justice that would be more restorative rather than punitive, while still maintaining accountability. So, doing workshops like this, we position imagination as a political force. If we imagine a future where this cultural shift has already taken place, what might it look like? We’re compiling these types of methods that we’ve been using in our workshops, and the overall curriculum, into an online archive, so the curriculum can continue to evolve. So, other people can use and iterate it as they need.

Sable—Maybe this is speaking to that future, one thing that I’ll say is that I actually believe in art. But, maybe the landscape of art institutions, as organized or formal art space, is not necessarily always democratic in its practicality, or in the imagination of all.

One thing we have actively been doing is leveraging our proximity and power in participating with these institutions to actually make space and bring other people in, but also force the institutions to create structure and build bureaucracy around inviting lots of types of bodies that they might not always let in for more than a brief period of time. That’s not about a diversion curriculum, it’s just about people taking up space and being able to imagine and have access to images and language that we also think is valuable and shapes us.

That’s important and a part of how this project moves through other types of art spaces. So, when there’s another institution that asks to show the video, then all these other types of parameters, demands, and structures also have to be satisfied to project a thing on the wall.

Shaun—And that makes them accountable to the work.

Where we see ourselves and this project philosophically is the way in which it can move into different contexts and different audiences. Incarceration’s “success” is predicated on its invisibility. One way to destabilize a system is to give it visual form. While we insert ourselves into this system through a poetics and a curriculum that we think will affect change within the individual—dispeling and undoing these internalized messages of criminality, it also needs to move into those populations that feel they have no proximity to the problems of incarceration, and therefore no stake in reenvisioning justice.

Alex—As I’ve learned about this project, I’ve sort of seen your own, individual work, success, and careers grow. Each of you has different kinds of practices—video, performance, and visual—so, how do you bring it all together in this project?

Shaun—What’s interesting is that we’ve had somewhat defined roles, so that we’ve understood where our efforts would go. But, in the work, it gets much messier and slippery. I think that not having particular outcomes in mind has allowed us to collaborate more holistically. We let the guiding force be our understanding of what seems most powerful in our working process. So, it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that it has reached the promise of this final installation, but has also extended itself into programming, education and activism. Ultimately, what’s most important to us is the way that it is sensed in the participant’s body.

Sable—One of the biggest things is we all speak a different language. We knew that from the beginning and it was important. There’s this huge task, or goal to participate in this thing that is complicated and doesn’t have one answer or one way to address. Understanding the language that we speak, and what our strength and capacity is became effortless to see what language needs to be spoken, for instance, on a Tuesday in regard to handling some issue. As we progressed, it became shorthand as our vernacular, and we were able to relinquish certain things to each other.

The end goal has never been to make an exhibition, it was just to participate, show up, and be present. I stumbled upon other people who had a different type of language that I felt like I could participate in with.

Melanie—We also have certain shared values that I am grateful for. Not a lot of people can hold more than one mental model in their head at the same time, like knowing that it’s possible to create work that can, at the same time, be poetic and educational and work towards creating change. We knew we wanted to create some kind of educational “deliverable,” which we designed in the form of the curriculum. And with the Assembly program, Shaun is using those methods to keep many young people out of the system. But to create cultural shift, you need to change the way you tell stories, and this has to happen on the level of poetics. This is the work that will be presented in exhibition.  The ability to do all of these in the same project, to create different forms of output for different ends under the same umbrella, is thankfully part of what we all do.

Alex—How has Creative Capital been helpful to this whole collaborative project?

Melanie—There’s no way it would have happened in this form without Creative Capital. We got together not knowing what would come out of this. We had a little bit of money to create a pilot, we had an initial partner, and we were planning on doing workshops that would lead to some kind of filming, but there’s no way we would have been able to sustain and develop this, especially over this period of time. Having the time to develop relationships and let the project unfold was really critical.

Shaun—Just last year, we decided that it was necessary for us to film again. So, four years into the timeline of this project, and we were still generating material. We understood that there were narratives that needed to be connected, that needed to grow, be given another moment in a different context to see how it would be psychically charged in a different space. The work continued to move. That is the unique relationship that Creative Capital enables: to allow those core questions, interests, and concerns to continue to evolve.

We are now entering into this chapter of “premiere,” and given the model of the New Museum residency, we are dedicating ourselves to the programming. So, to have that additional support from Creative Capital allows us to feel like we can give ourselves to this moment. It wasn’t like, “Project’s done. Thank you. See you later.” They’re riding it out with us.

Sable—Creative Capital cut the check, and that’s important!

But also, everyone here has understood the model of Creative Capital of this holistic interfering in everyone’s lives—that’s true. Though it supported this project, I’ve also seen it support me as an individual in very specific, formal, and informal ways. The employees of Creative Capital are always around, watching, and suggesting, and seeing something, or sending a reference, just being there. There are some times when an institution just cuts a check and will not be there. Sometimes you want that, or it could feel hands-off.

Creative Capital has always been specific about reminding us that they are there, and their hands can be in it, in any ways that we, the artists, can imagine.

The exhibition Mirror/Echo/Tilt opens at the New Museum June 18 through October 6, 2019.