Scrolling and scrolling and scrolling, I have seen many varied comparisons of quarantine and shelter-in-place, a kind of confinement, to prison. Wow… What does this evocation mean, really? Is it a crude metaphor? Exploitative wordplay? A misunderstanding of punishment? A gesture of solidarity? An encounter with the carceral continuum on which we live? An intuition that the divide between inside and out is not hard and fast? That prison abolition does not only have to do with buildings and bars?
I know, I’m moving way too fast. Even before NYC jails became the place with the highest rate of infections of Covid-19, abolitionists taught me house arrest is arrest, parole supervision is supervision, reform is not the alternative, austerity is violence, e-carceration is yet another form of incarceration—“prison by another name,” as Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law put it. The carceral system kills people, compels people to die, and forces the living to suffer.
While brutal policies attempt to widen the scope of power, surveillance, and control, what will we, in turn, widen? What is ever widening? What is the scope of what we dedicate ourselves to?
The dedication of Nicole R. Fleetwood’s new book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, reads “For Allen, De’Andre, and Eric. For all my relations.” Every dedication is an act of care, a kind of hypothetical, implying but not guaranteeing a reply.
All her relations.
The preface refers to her family in Ohio who have been affected by incarceration whether through arrest, detention, profiled, conviction, sentencing, prison visits, using their money for bail. “There has never been a time in my life when prison didn’t hover as a real and present threat over us,” she writes.
All her relations.
Our relations are infinite… if we can feel that wide, if we can feel, if we can tend toward them, if we can tend to them. Fleetwood uses her familial relations to expand all her relations. In New York City, I have witnessed the multiplication of ifs: mutual aid, labor unions, student groups, tenant organizations, bail funds and constellations of the possible—all attempting to attend to people’s wants and needs, providing them with groceries, medication, regard, political dispositions. We have also, in our personal lives, in our own frameworks of care, seen it all the more necessary to turn deeper toward blood families, some that have forsaken us. What I mean to say is that “if” sometimes leans into a liberal sentimentalism but I’m talking about an “if” that is practiced.
When I talk about if I’m talking again about the constellation of the possible— if, a domain of practice. I was supposed to write about the exhibition of the same name as the book at MoMA PS1, curated by Fleetwood, but it never opened and so I rely on the hypothetical. If Marking Time opened, it would have included the following incarcerated and non incarcerated artists:
Carole Alden; American Artist; Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter aka Isis tha Saviour; Sara Bennett; Conor Broderick; Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick; Daniel McCarthy Clifford; Tameca Cole; Larry Cook; Russell Craig; Amber Daniel; Halim Flowers; Nereida García-Ferraz; Maria Gaspar; Dean Gillispie; GisMo (Jessica Gispert and Crystal Pearl Molinary); Ronnie Goodman; Gary Harrell; Brian Hindson; James “Yaya” Hough; Ashley Hunt; Michael Iovieno; Jesse Krimes; Susan Lee-Chun; William B. Livingston III; Mark Loughney; Ojore Lutalo; Bob McKay, Donald, Kit, Charlie, and Lopez; Cedar Mortenson; George Anthony Morton; Jesse Osmun; Jared Owens; Rowan Renee; Gilberto Rivera; Billy Sell; James Sepesi; Welmon Sharlhorne; Sable Elyse Smith; Justin Sterling; Todd (Hyung-Rae) Tarselli; Jerome Washington; and Aimee Wissman.
All her relations.
Seeing that, right now, we only have the book (of the same name as the exhibition), we still have the book. We can get a sense of the flourishing sociopoetic art (family photos, sculptures, drawings, portraits, collages, birthday cards, paintings, miniatures, installations) produced inside and around prisons across the United States. Ten years of interviews and prison visits congeal into a curatorial practice.
What I hope is that if the exhibition comes, the prismatics of abolition will persist. Fleetwood draws on the work of many prison abolitionists, including Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who recently did a talk, facilitated by Naomi Murakawa, called “COVID-19 Decarceration & Abolition.” She began by quoting M. NourbeSe Philip, relayed to her, she said, by Katherine McKittrick: “If we were truly in this together, we would not be in this together.”
That kind of conviviality—that pressure of the “we”—is a demand for the hypothetical. The “if” is also an analytical world that is already here. Fleetwood insists on “the relationality of art,” the way aesthetics emerged in tandem with a naked power undergirded by racialization, marking the “fraught imaginaries” we carry around. It’s important to remember the way prison art programs are highly capable of reproducing the very unfreedom from which they claim to provide relief.
“Abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems, rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons,” Gilmore said the other day.
There are so many places to fight. The art world is one of them, even if the struggle means retreating from its hold. Whoever and wherever and whenever we find ourselves fighting, let’s keep an ear out for Stephen Wilson’s voice. Wilson writes on Covid-19 in the first volume of the abolitionist journal In The Belly (May 2020): “Sometimes, a crisis can become an impetus, a reason to do what should have been done a long time ago.”