Beyond the walls: A social practice project goes global

Answers Without Words, a photography project, fosters creative dialogue between incarcerated artists in Oregon and photographers from around the world

I am watching a group of men set a scene to be photographed. Ben Turanski, one of the prisoners at Columbia River Correctional Institution, indicates I am witnessing “prison innovation” in the works. He and some others are turning one corner of a classroom space at CRCI into a faux hospice. He twists a long piece of plastic wrapper into a cord, like an IV, attaching it to the wrist of Joshua Wright, who is lying on a makeshift hospital bed. Now done setting the scene, Turanski sits beside Wright and takes his hand.

From several feet away, Ben Hall takes a photo with a digital camera. When I ask him about what is happening, he indicates that the scenario he is photographing is inspired by his time working hospice in prison.

“What changed you in prison and are you happy about that?” question by Sara Lamens from Belgium, answer by Ben Hall in collaboration with Ben Turanski and Joshua Wright, photographed by Ben Hall

Anke Schüttler stands outside the frame, making suggestions about photographic composition. Schüttler—a photographer by trade and an MFA candidate at Portland State University’s School of Art and Social Practice—is one of the facilitators of this art class at CRCI, a minimum security prison housing 595 *mostly* male prisoners in Northeast Portland, Oregon. (I add the caveat because, in my few hours visiting the facility, I was made aware of at least one female-identifying prisoner.)

Schüttler let me know that many of the incarcerated individuals participating in this PSU art class said they would prefer to be called prisoners, hence my use of the word here. Under the umbrella of PSU art class, these prisoners are also working artists-in-residence at CRCI.

For Wright, the patient in the hospice scenario, the title artist-in-residence felt generative. “You were in prison, yes, but you were also in residence,” he reflected. “You’re an artist. You took this time to pursue your craft. That’s a rare and brilliant idea, and to be able to utilize that in this space has been incredibly beneficial,” he continued, noting that the residency has helped keep him on track creatively while in prison, in addition to benefiting him upon his release. Wright is a published essayist and poet, living incarcerated with a terminal diagnosis of cystic fibrosis.

*****

“[If] someone is asking you a question, like, ‘What’s your favorite place?’, you just go there and take a photo of that place. But what happens if you cannot access that place?” asked Schüttler during the class lecture at CRCI that I attended. Before returning to Germany, her home country, Schüttler will be wrapping up her MFA thesis on a project she initiated at CRCI called “Answers Without Words,” developed in collaboration Roshani Thakore, another PSU Art and Social Practice student, along with the prisoners.

The name of the project is “pretty logical,” says Schüttler.

For the past several months, and with support from the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund, Schüttler has facilitated an exchange of written questions and photographic responses between incarcerated artists-in-residence at CRCI and photographers from around the world.

*****

Schüttler originally started visiting CRCI out of intrigue when she and her colleagues were invited by Harrell Fletcher, founder of the PSU Art and Social Practice MFA concentration. “Often times, when Harrell gets an opportunity here in Portland, he invites his students in,” said Schüttler. Harrell, who had done creative work with a prison in the past, was curious about CRCI and had been extended an invitation to visit an ongoing arts-based class there.

“We went, and had such a deep experience,” Schüttler recalled. “I mean, you’ve seen it.”

I have seen it. In spite of so many constraints, the four walls of the classroom contained an environment remarkable to enter into and be present within—at least, to my sensibilities.

“There’s something about these people…They have so much wisdom, and so much talent,” Schüttler continued. “Something that really stood out for me was also this vulnerability. When does that ever happen? A big group of men being vulnerable with each other? And it’s like, the last place you would expect that to happen is a prison.”

Compelled by her first visit to the prison, she and several other PSU students eventually set up an art class at CRCI in April 2017, structuring it similarly to their Art and Social Practice program class at PSU. During the nearly three-hour class, Schüttler explains, “We meet up. We have a quick check-in.” She adds, “Oftentimes, one of the prisoners signs up and has an hour where they can do whatever they want…Sometimes they share a project idea, and we discuss it. Sometimes they create a workshop for everybody. It’s been working really well.”

The PSU art class at CRCI evolved into a platform for various projects by students and prisoners alike. On one visit to CRCI, a prisoner asked Schüttler about her time living in France, mentioning that he was curious because he had a familial connection the region. In reply, she offered to answer any questions he had about France, if he would only write them down for her.

“Once I had this questionnaire in my hands, I was like, whoa. Somehow, it felt like a very strange and interesting thing to me,” recalls Schüttler. “Then my photographer brain started working, and I was like: What if someone, instead of writing something, took photos to answer these questions?”

This moment was the inception of Answers Without Words—quickly followed by a barrage of barriers to actualizing the idea. “There was all this administrative stuff,” she said. “We really didn’t have any clue of what is allowed, what is not allowed.”

To state the obvious, prisons have duly enforced rules: rules about what can come in and out, and rules of engagement once inside. One-on-one time between volunteers or visitors and prisoners is not allowed. Schuletter was faced with the challenge of creating an environment for continuous group engagement that could accommodate the transient, ebb-and-flow nature of the prison itself, where people are incarcerated and released regularly.

When she finally did land on a structure for the project that conformed to these constraints,  Schüttler pitched her idea to the prisoners, who, in turn, jumped on board.

*****

Given that she comes from Germany, Schüttler began making trips to CRCI with limited knowledge of the growing crisis of mass incarceration in the United States, how it has been corporatized, and how it has perpetuated discrimination and oppression, most heinously against black Americans, who are incarcerated at over five times the rate of white people. Literature such as The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness became her starting point for learning about these issues.

The numbers alone speak volumes. While 78 people per 100,000 of the population are incarcerated in Schüttler’s home country of Germany, 655 people per 100,000 are incarcerated in the United States—the largest percentage globally, and yet so often obscured in mainstream depictions of everyday life in this country.

“They all talk about how toxic and traumatizing it is,” says Schüttler, speaking to what she hears and overhears about life in prison during her visits to CRCI.

It is one thing to take in media and literature related to prison experience, but it’s quite another to witness what it is like to be locked up. “You get no privacy. You get this weird community torture, and then afterwards you’re like, where’s my f*cking community?” she continued, speaking to her understanding of the artists’ experiences at CRCI. “This is not how society works, so why would you think that something that’s totally not replicating society is helpful for people?”

Even as this new information began to filter into her awareness, Schüttler underscored that her work at CRCI is not coming from a highly politicized place. “This project might seem like a very political project, and I’m happy, also, that it has this side effect, but it’s not the main reason for me to do this,” she says.

*****

While Answers Without Words, as practice and pedagogy, does not presume to propose any analysis of mass incarceration in the US, its relevance seems to spring from its undertone of personal intimacy—the application of a personal lens on the constantly surveilled and, therefore, deeply depersonalizing experience of life incarcerated.

Once the project finally launched, the artists-in-residence participating in Answers Without Words were invited to select countries of personal interest. Their choice of countries was initially limited to Europe, but the project grew to include countries from all over the world. Schüttler would then search for working photographers in those countries, and the CRCI artists would develop a series of simple questions to send, via Schüttler, to this global population of photographers.

The caveat—all of their responses must be in photographic form.

Adding reciprocity to the exchange, Schüttler and the artists-in-residence eventually folded another layer into the project: their growing network of photographers was also invited to send questionnaires back to the prisoners at CRCI. In addition to being featured in exhibitions at both Paragon Gallery and CRCI—which opened September 4 and 5 respectively—the completed photographic exchange is folded into a publication to be distributed to CRCI artists-in-residence and made for sale to the general public.

“Why Singapore?” question by Kay Chin Tay from Singapore, answer by Mario Perez, featuring Xi Jie Ng (PSU Art and Social Practice Candidate), photographed by J Barclay

“My favorite question is, ‘What kind of floor do you wake up and put your feet on in the morning?’” said artist-in-residence Michael Brown.

To help CRCI artists create their own answers without words, Schüttler began offering workshops in photography, bringing in two digital cameras. Her lectures touched on such subjects as composition and lighting, and technical nuances like depth of field and shutter speed.

The whole experience stretched her capacity as a facilitator. “You know, having 15 people, but only two cameras…how do you make [photography] a group experience?”

“One of the most exciting things for me was getting photographs that were specially tailored to me—the questions that I asked,” reflected J. Zimmerli. “The challenge, on the other hand, was taking photographs in this constrictive space.”

“What is your typical breakfast?” question by Monika Sala from Poland, answer by Tom Price in collaboration with Ben Turanski, photographed by Tom Price

The PSU Art class at CRCI took place in a stark classroom, with limited materials to use for photographic composition. During my visit to CRCI, the artists were working with a roll of paper, magazines, markers, pencils, and three pairs of scissors to create their responses to questionnaires they had received.

“Are there any plants growing in the prison?” question by Alice Meyers from Scotland, answer by Joey Lucero, photographed by Mario Perez

When a group of artists-in-residence wanted to respond to a question about whether or not plants existed in the prison, they needed special permission to take a picture of the potted tree in the hallway, just outside the classroom.

“It’s an interesting space and dynamic to think about power structures and what’s possible in such limitations of space,” said Thakore.

Consideration of space and dynamics aside, the question “what is possible?” also depends on the imaginations of those toying with the possibilities. In the case of CRCI, many artists seemed to possess a spirit of ingenuity that could make new worlds appear within the confines of their own. Striking moments—death, life outside the prison, glimpses into internal worlds, or even poeticized day-to-day moments—were propelled to the surface through their work.

“What do you dream about?” question by Gemma-Rose Turnbull from Australia, answer by Michael Brown, photographed by Mario Perez

*****

“What items can you buy from the prison canteen there?” Turanski read one of the questions sent from Alice Meyers from Scotland, who had sourced her queries from a group of prisoners in Scotland. He left for a moment and returned with the list of items available for prisoners to buy, snapping a quick photo of the items for sale.

Some questions, like these by Elsa Leydier from France, pried less overtly into prison experience: How are you today? What makes you happy?

The answers to such questions, however, often pointed back to experiences of incarceration.

*****

For Hall, the PSU art class stands out among the other artistic opportunities he has participated in over the course of his 20 years incarcerated. “It’s a huge risk that they wouldn’t take in the penitentiary where I came from. Like, you would never be allowed this kind of open environment where you’re taking pictures,” he said. “I want to pinch myself, because, I think, any minute they’re going to run in here and say ‘you guys can’t do this’.”

In Hall’s experience at CRCI, he has found that the framework of Art and Social Practice “really makes you feel like you’re part of and connected to a community out there…” Hall, whose writing was recently published in the anthology Men Still in Exile, has also started his own photo project, documenting prison art inside CRCI.

Wright shared similar sentiments. “It gives an outlet to be creative and it allows us a place to almost be playful and comfortable, and, in this environment, there’s not a lot of places to do that and just kind of be yourself.” When I asked if he thought Schüttler was edging the class in a particular direction, he responded, “I think it’s more guided toward the humanization on both ends: of us, how we view normal people, and normal people, how they view prisoners.”

Wright’s use of the term “normal people” gave me pause—a reminder that incarceration has, quite phenomenally, remained so stigmatized in this country in spite of its exponential growth, especially in relation to the rest of the world.

Watching the class unfold at CRCI, I could not help turning certain questions over in my head about the ethics and power dynamics surrounding the project. Deep down, I wondered, how do these artists feel about answering so many questions about their incarceration? What are the implications of framing this type of collaboration as Social Practice or conceptual art, or, for that matter, the fact that Schüttler is undertaking it as her MFA thesis? What are the repercussions when this level of institutional and academic privilege, in the case of PSU, meets such an invisibilized and marginalized reality at CRCI? Does the disparity in access and agency between these parties stand in the way of a fruitful collaboration—and, most importantly, are the artist-in-residence at CRCI being truly heard and supported?

*****

I did not get answers for all my questions, at least, not direct ones. Perhaps some came without words as I watched artists-in-residence finding their own ways within the classroom, picking and choosing their engagement with the options available in class. I voiced some of my thoughts to Schüttler, comparing notes with the concerns and considerations she was turning over in her own mind as well. “There are so many moments where I’m like, ‘Please, say no if you don’t want this’,” she said of her experience facilitating.

During our conversation, she took a moment to emphasize that, upon receiving a grant, her focus was on paying CRCI participants—all of whom chose to participate and could disengage whenever they wished—for their time from money from the Precipice Fund. “All the prisoners get an artist fee, and Roshani and I get the same artist fee,” she said. The international photographers participating in the project, on the other hand, all volunteered their creative labor.

The bureaucratic hoops alone might be enough to deter many a well-meaning community artist from engaging with incarcerated populations. Yet, even within the sometimes murky waters and often hefty administrative workload that is to be expected when working in a prison, the participants I spoke to shared many positive reflections on their time with PSU Art and Social Practice colleagues. “I’ve been at Columbia River Correctional Institution for 41 months now…and this space has been like a refuge, like a home, and it’s a community, especially with the outside volunteers,” said Wright. “And I’m just really glad that I was able to meet these people.”

Joey Lucero, another artist-in-residence with a wide range of creative practices, said that projects like Answers Without Words, for him, are a way “to be able to realize that you do have something that is worthwhile in your life that you can do.”

In my interactions with Lucero—as well as Hall, Wright, and other artists—I was struck by their long-term commitment to creative work, presumably established well before the advent of Social Practice at CRCI. The PSU student-led class appeared, in this light, to be another outlet for knowledge and experience that has been percolating over these artists’ lifetimes.

“I’m not going to allow the prison to take this time away from me and make it a bad thing,” said Lucero. “You could make this whole being locked up a really bad thing, or you could make it a positive thing. I’m not going to let them rob me of this time. So I’m going to stay creative and make as many positive things as I can.”

NOTE 

Answers Without Words is on view at the Paragon Gallery through September 18th.

Related public programs:

September 13th, 6pm: A public conversation at Paragon Gallery, “Thinking Outside the FenceInnovation In and Around the Prison System,” organized in collaboration with Roshani Thakore. Guests include: Elizabeth LaCarney, Program Manager at CRCI; Cory Lira and Kate Stubblefield; members of Critical Resistance, and one of the formerly incarcerated collaborating artists (tba).

September 15th, 11am to 2pm: A photography workshop at Paragon Gallery, in which participants will answer questions by CRCI artists while dealing with similar constraints the CRCI artists were faced with.

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