- Temperature Check, Vol. Seven: The Literary Issue feat. Dr. Nicole Fleetwood, George Wilkerson, & More
Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration: A Dialogue with Nicole R. Fleetwood
Between the thick hardcover of Nicole R. Fleetwood’s astonishing new book, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, compelling images leap off the pages. Among them are Jesse Krimes’s 39 prison-bed-sheets-turned-gigantic-canvas, painted with newsprint image transfers via hair gel and spoon—of course, you’d never guess when viewing the breathtaking work)—and Russell Craig’s use of his neighbor’s hair in portraiture, gathered up from local barbershop floors as textural art material in pieces that comment on the criminalization of Black style.
At once an archive of an accidental artistic movement born out of the shared condition of confinement; an investigation into the methods of creativity behind the walls—and celebration of the discoveries; a treatise on the possibilities of expression in liberation work; and an indictment of a racist, classist system—Fleetwood’s scholarly text transcends academia by way of expert storytelling interwoven with the author’s personal narrative. Ultimately, though Fleetwood’s impressive project reveals how ordinary objects in prison are leveraged to create extraordinary visuals of the imagination, the book accomplishes so much more.
As both an artist and a cultural worker who supports the mainstreaming of incarcerated artist’s work into the public lexicon, I was bowled over by the clarity of the storytelling, scope of the subject matter, and sheer heart written into the book. Based on rigorous research—both interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated artists, and self-excavation of her own experience with incarcerated family members—Fleetwood’s work is imbued with a respect and honor born from close personal investment. As a result, the text is undeniably profoundly intellectual, but never at the expense of accessibility. Fleetwood is more than an excellent thinker; she is also a talented writer, making Marking Time a deeply engrossing and enlightening read.
For our literary issue of Temperature Check, which focuses on criminal justice books impacted by the pandemic, it was a true gift to engage in a written dialogue with Nicole about her most recent release—an innovative book that I suspect will stake its claim among titles such as The New Jim Crow as a go-to in the field for years to come.
CAITS MEISSNER: I saw a strong echo in our program’s work in your many descriptions of the difficulty of working with incarcerated artists due to institutional barriers, as well as the levels of censorship and risk an incarcerated artist assumes in order to engage creative expression. Can you share a bit about what it actually takes for an artist to create and share work in prison?
NICOLE FLEETWOOD: Such a big question, and thanks for asking it. There’s no one way of approaching it. If anything, what I learned from talking to over 70 currently and imprisoned artists is how arbitrary and brutal the rules of living in punitive captivity are. I tried to document a range of what incarcerated artists do to create and survive, whether working in established arts programs, bartering and trading with other imprisoned people, creating art to connect with loved ones on the outside, making works based on commission from prison staff, or using art to document their solitary lives in punitive isolation.
The project felt so massive, given the horrific reach of the penal system that I had to find ways of shaping the book. I chose to focus on common conditions under which art is made in prison: penal space, penal time, and penal captivity. I define penal space as both the architectural environment of prisons and the social life enforced by carceral structures. Penal time is the measurement of time as punishment for captive people. Penal matter stretches across every chapter of the book. It is the materiality and processes of racial and extractive capitalism and the material constraints under which people create art.
MEISSNER: The introduction cites the mass media manipulation we are all familiar with that reinforces brutal stereotypes of criminality, most often in relationship (but not limited) to Black and Brown young men. In your opinion, could the art made directly by incarcerated people be considered a form of antidote to mass media?
FLEETWOOD: I don’t know how to answer this question straight on. I remember a conversation with a relative that haunted me. He showed up to court when his teenage son was being overcriminalized and oversentenced. The father said to me, “They talked about him like he was a violent animal.” The state’s record of him that they projected loudly in the courtroom was more assaultive than anything he was charged for and so traumatizing for his father that he could do nothing but sit there in silence, shaking.
While he felt alone, I knew he was not alone in that experience of how the carceral state presents your beloved as a monster and makes you look pathological for loving them despite what the state says. So I was interested in documenting other narratives of carcerality, what it means to make and create while being punished by the state. And there’s not one answer or takeaway, but I do think incarcerated artists provide another visual arena for examining the impact of punitive governance on every aspect of society.
MEISSNER: In follow-up to the former question, I am also considering the struggle of presenting the work of an incarcerated person without inadvertently stoking a curiosity about the creator’s crime. If art has the possibility to transform, where are its limits in relationship to public imagination? Should—or perhaps, is it possible or even desirable for—an incarcerated creator to ever be presented as an artist without the context of prison?
FLEETWOOD: I recommend that your audiences read Michelle Brown’s work on penal spectatorship. It’s a brilliant study that reveals how we are all involved in the criminal legal system that we take as common sense. It is a system based on shaming, isolation, and dehumanization.
Having seen how the system operates in the lives of people I love and value, I deliberately do not invest in it. Instead, I work with allies and communities that are invested in developing other systems of healing, transformative justice, and reparations.
In the book, I only talk about crime when an interviewee narrates their relationship to the criminal legal system as important to understanding their artistic practice and visions of belonging.
MEISSNER: I found the juxtaposition of prisons and museums to be fascinating, and one I’d never considered—both structures founded during the enlightenment, both bound to concepts of racist subjugation. As many argue it is impossible to reform the institution of prison to become more humane institutions, after writing this book, do you think museums can be transformed into new spaces of possibility for arts and culture, or do we need to reimagine new spaces entirely?
FLEETWOOD: What a wonderful and exhilarating question. Thank you for asking. What I know is that the histories of museums have been trajectories that are harmful and dehumanizing to all I love and value. The 20th and 21st centuries have radically transformed these institutions by force, but institutions are, by their very nature, conservative.
I do think the crisis of corona can provide an opportunity to reconsider all we take for granted, who we consider a museum audience, and what we value in these sites.
MEISSNER: We see throughout the book repeated examples of how self-reclamation through art—both “pedestrian” and “cultured”—is continuously dampened by institutional stranglehold. Much of the success in communicating this tension is owed to your proximity to the subject, which opens multiple avenues for readers to connect beyond the intellectual realm through your own emotional life. Can you share the impact, as a writer and creator, of working on an academic and artistic contribution that also centers so much of your own joys, pain, and intimate questions?
FLEETWOOD: A wonderful and complex question that has no one direction. I wanted to honor the beloved relations that I have with people who are rendered “bad, criminal subjects,” initially. What do you do when the state describes your family as violent felons who should be removed from civic life?
I also wanted to challenge the limitations and snobbery of scholarly pursuits. What happens when I put my family and community at the center of all that matters to me? Academics often write about prisons and imprisoned people without a rich exchange with those directly impacted. I wanted to be mindful of my methodology.
I wanted to learn and to connect with others. The most significant part of this study has been learning from formerly and currently incarcerated artists, and their loved ones and allies. What I have learned from them would take up many books.
Caits Meissner is an artist and writer, and the Prison and Justice Writing Program Director at PEN America.
Nicole R. Fleetwood is Professor of American Studies and Art History at Rutgers University. Her work on art and mass incarceration has been featured at the Aperture Foundation, the Zimmerli Museum of Art, the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, and the Cleveland Public Library, and her exhibitions have been praised by The Nation, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Village Voice. She is the author of On Racial Icons and Troubling Vision, which won the Lora Romero Prize from the American Studies Association.