Tag Archives: incarcerated populations

Inequity, Distance Learning, Disrupted Learning Communities & Social Eruptions

The lack of master narrative before the virus was aparent. President Trump, grasping for authority as a true authoritarian playbook, argued the situation demands force, as his removed son-in-law, the dauphin Jared Kushner, spun 60,000 deaths from COVID-19 as a “great success story,” as if to challenge the nation’s personal narratives with a monolithic storyline of a disconnect from communities which were ravaged by hospitalizations. In claiming his father-in-law created a “pathway to safely open up this great country,” Kushner radiated overconfidence as he painted a rosy future even when the figures didn’t add up. He not only used a spilt infinitive, but evoked a split reality: claims Trump was doing “things right” with coronavirus testing plummeting to 30% percent, over twenty-five million unemployed and further furloughs coming, and one million infected by the coronavirus and 60,000 dead in a month, hardly fit narratives that suggest “great success.” As Vice President Pence followed identical talking points, in a few months, assuring folks “we slowed the spread, we flattened the curve, we saved lives,” we sensed a mismatch not only to any map in news media, but to the actuality on the ground, encouraging cognitive dissonance to a widespread crisis of public health by assuring Americans rather than “a much better place.” The sense that Donald Trump hadn’t been reading the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB, as early as January, of an infection that had spread to over a thousand people in China, before an outbreak of a novel coronavirus was reported to the World Health Organization on January 3, or before China sequenced a draft genome of the virus a month after the first outbreak, on January 11, calm was radiated through June.

Most of the nation was unable to process where the nation was in relation to the epidemic’s spread, but the absence of congruency confirmed only a long-lasting narrative of social abandonment. There was indeed something like a national war of narratives continued in maps, as maps told different stories–and radically different histories–of a nation and its state of health, as the narrative of social abandonment and a public health crises was denied, massaged, and reorganized from the White House, as it attempted to manage the political narrative of the virus, and the increased social abandonment that was the result of decaying and undermined public health system was apparent–and, increasingly, the abandonment of the nation was somewhat emblematized in the closures of schools, and absence of funding not only for a public health response but for schools. Although kids were less likely to be a vector of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 than they would be in influenza, the persistence of modeling viruses as “the flu” led to a precocity of school closures, disrupting many family lives, and curtailing options of educational retention or progress, as few knew after a few months why the schools were shuttered–or what option other than shuttering schools were. Many have already scheduled reopening by mixed virtual and in-person operations, but suspension and evacuation seemed–akin to an actual war–the default reaction, perhaps in imitation of Chinese shuttering of state-run institutions in Wuhan.

The national war of narratives continued in maps, as maps told different stories–and radically different histories–of a nation and its state of health, extending to the labelling of the anti-policing protests to domestic terrorism, in ways that seemed set to expend force on a domestic theater, but not for education or health care. Yet while the infection was in need of curtailing, children are only able to account for 2% of COVID-19 cases, and seem to transmit the disease far less than others–and are rarely hospitalized, as they are far younger; the continuation of schools in Australia and New Zealand suggest that children rarely pass on the infection to other kids or teachers, and the mechanics of transmission was perhaps poorly understood as the reaction to earlier fears of pandemics–from the age of SARS or H1N1, or H1N5, were rolled out, without attending to how SARS-CoV-2 was contracted or had spread. Most importantly, perhaps, keeping schools open was a basis for monitoring kids, and focussing their attention, as well as engaging their minds, in ways that the schools were struggling, in part as government had done little to encourage.

A need for orientation was the increasingly pressing story of COVID-19, which point-based maps perhaps poorly showed. For the sense of an absence of leadership was more apparent for some time: intense social distancing practices adopted as an efficient top-down if radical means to curtail transmission of the novel coronavirus in China, where sevenfold decreasing of social contacts successfully contained the coronavirus, had been rarely adopted in the United States. Distancing was a public health strategy successfully adopted in Italy, where Chinese experts had arrived, but stubborn refusal to adopt World Health Organization protocols or potential foreign help mapped onto a home-brewed failure to enact social distancing in the highly mobile population that had enabled infections to spread beyond the actual CDC tally in the United States; we moved through months with no sense of when testing would occur, or become widely available in areas of need: as health services are viewed as a good regulated by markets and providers, there was not even a clear sense of testing protocols or practices, as states were left to fend for their own private contractors, often residing out of state, and no clear abilities of a turnaround in tests or test kits were provided.

The lack of a national health care system, eroded in the previous thirty years, was betrayed in the lack of any ground game. President Trump revealed the hope of testing to the nation as if game show prizes in a Reality TV show, rather than a public health disaster–addressing the nation from a lectern with a detachment from governance of the situation on the ground, as if seeking to foment dissensus. The practices of testing widely that was suggested met disinterest from the President, lest “when you do more testing, you find more cases, and then they report our cases are through the roof,” as if it was disadvantageous–suggesting a lack of interest in creating consensus that has yet to be understood, revealing a strikingly limited attention span to anything but registers of perception, even in public health.

While we are before a new disease, which we do not grasp in its pathways of infection fully, or its vectors of transmission, and mitigating factors, and lack the vaccine we will probably need to contain, we may feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, in “ground zero of empiricism,” and all in the seventeenth century, vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, without adequate explanatory categories or diagnostic tools. But the disorientation of facing the disease disrupted the nation, and the current news that Gilead Sciences hope to charge hospitals $3,120 per patient with insurance to be treated with six vials of the drug suggests that Trump encouraged the inequity of any treatment or response to COVID-19,– triggering fears of a spate of unaffordable drugs in a pandemic will be driven by a profit motive in Trump’s America.

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Filed under COVID-19, education policies, epidemiology, mapping school closures, remote learning

1.2 Million Lego Pieces Map Resistance to Imprisonment

The Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei was clearly attracted to the prospect of creating site-specific sculptures for the cavernous nineteenth-century prison structures on Alcatraz island, a long unused federal penitentiary which concretized state power in the mind of many Americans over the last century, as a site to reflect on conditions of imprisonment world-wide.  For the now abandoned structures of the hulking prison island still seem inhabited by ghosts of the past, and high on atmospherics, even as its space has been reclaimed by Ai’s site-specific remapping of the spirits of the imprisoned.

 

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For Ai’s art seems to have relaxed into the monumental fortress like buildings of detention in a defiant forms and brilliantly colored works of art; even if he never visited the site, the former setting of forced imprisonment gives resonance to fitting the pavement with portraits that map ongoing global detention of free speech.  The empty monumental structures of the labor hall, individual cells, sites of solitary confinement and prison corridors  reflect on those detained across the globe and the daily difficulty of wrestling with their conditions of continued confinement by different states, from China to the US.  Indeed, the widespread use of solitary confinement in Alcatraz–a pitch black cell for torturing many of its prisoners that was developed by the prison’s former Chief Warden Edwin James and  E.B. Tiller in rooms whose impermeable layers of steel masked the entrance of light or sound in Alcatraz’ Cellblock D from 1940, long a corridor of solitary isolation cells including a room of bare concrete save a hole in the floor, without clothes–

 

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–with limited interest in the rights or lives of the incarcerated who were allowed to live in an without light or sound and only a metal frame bed, sink, and toilet, and one pair of shorts for up to nineteen continuous days to enforce prison discipline.  Alcatraz was not the first site of isolation by any means, but a site for its preservation where prisoners were forced to Personally, I find it is crucial to use moments of isolation as ways to develop self-control in order as in “control[ling] our inner self, we have won our first battle for freedom,” and the preservation of internal freedoms during imprisonment is celebrated  in Ai Wei Wei’s installation.  And at the same time as the use of solitary confinement has expanded, and unlawful detainees remain in the Guantanamo Bay complex of detention is not able to be closed while it holds five detainees, despite urging to congressional leaders for its closure, it is more than incumbent to remember the need to resist the civil rights violations of such inhumane units of segregation, and to draw sustainable to continue to do so–and to not forget the injustices daily faced by incarcerated populations.

 

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The cell becomes the only space to “create right” by exercise, meditation, refleciton.  Isolation of prisoners, extended periods of forced solitude, and sensory deprivation is inhumane but continues to be used by many state prison authorities and in the authorities that run and operate units of incarceration the country, where 23-or 24-hour isolation is common and such intentional violations of prisoners’ rights not only in supermax prisons and have exponentially increased as a means to illustrate total control over imprisoned.  If such incarcerated populations are compelled to treat the isolation cell as a laboratory in response to the harsh conditions of dark, unmitigated electric lighting, or cold:  the bright re-imaging the faces of the imprisoned creates the Cell Blocks of Alcatraz as a new sort of performance space to map imprisonment far beyond its walls from the unique perspective Alcatraz offers on solitary isolation,  in contrast to the hard stares of those imprisoned–

 

 

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We’re actually a part of the reality, and if we don’t realize that, we are totally irresponsible,” the dissident artist Ai Wei Wei has said about his work, and in being “part of the reality [of incarceration] means that we need to produce another reality”–and to map one.  By replacing the colorless pavement of several of the Cell Blocks in Alcatraz with an alternate reality of vibrant colors not only of Lego portraits, but of the colored paper of huge dragons of the imagination, the austere burdens of the grey floors and pale green walls of Alcatraz are in a sense re-inhabited.  Ai’s placement of a set of day-glo images of the imprisoned and detained within a former site of confinement famed as a site of solitary isolation, built in a former fortress in San Francisco Bay to be removed from contact with the outside world, provides a point of reflection on the reality of imprisonment worldwide.

Using a plethora of pieces of lego, ceramic blossoms, and Chinese kites of dragons, and recorded song, Ai has both celebrated the possibility of ongoing resistance in the space of forced sequestration into a message of hope for all those detained, sending, despite his own limited circumstances of travel, instructions for media to inhabit the prison and sought to raise questions of the ever-encroaching global circumscription of freedom that ask us to map and to accept responsibility for the confinement of of global champions of free speech, and indeed to try to open the survival of spirit in the halls of imprisonment.

 

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Ai has long been committed to creating a deeply “social sculpture” and to do so through an awareness of the architectural space in which each of his works is constructed and situated, as well as the sense of space it creates for its viewers or users–from the analogue architecture of his popular blog or twitterfeed to built spaces to the deep sense of cultural inter-relationships that his work communicates.  The canvas of pieces of Lego that temporarily filled the New Industries Building on Alcatraz Island presented an alternate surface of mugshots of recently confined spokespeople or human rights heroes in brilliant colored pieces of plastic–creating the sort of odd juxtaposition of form ant site, media across time, that wasn’t about imprisonment per se, echoing the pixellated images of each figure that we might see in mass media, filling the floor that lies above a basement filled with a wing made of tin teapots and solar cookers–the patience of the imprisoned?–whose confined space stands in juxtaposition with the airy room in which tourists crowded to see–and try to identify–the portraits of politically imprisoned in a mute surface made from $450,000 worth of multicolored pieces of Lego, converting one of the clunkiest of modernity’s concrete metaphors into a tool of subversive playfulness.

 

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The famously outsized scale of many of the pieces in this show recall Ai’s similarly hypertrophied assembly of 1,000 sq meters of plastic backpacks on the facade of the Haus der Kunst that remember the lives lost in the tragedy of a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, but the metaphorical wealth of the similarly bright mosaics of Lego have less overpowering impact than the five-color statement of the fragility of life–“for seven years, she lived happily on this earth,” the sewn dayglo backpacks read, bitterly–

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–but rather an image of the bitterness of the global status quo.  The flatness of the images push visitors to fathom the depths of the resources of their resistance, if only focussing on the bright surface of their spirits, but don’t expose their hand.

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The colored pavement of pixellated portraits of one hundred and seventy six recent prisoners of conscience map global imprisonment in a one-brick layer of Lego runs across the grey floor of a cavernous room of the abandoned New Industries Building in the former high-security federal prison.  The choice of a world-famous former prison such as Alcatraz, isolated on an island in San Francisco Bay, by the For Site foundation to locate these technicolor mug shots of detained champions of human rights is particularly apt site.  The temporary construction of 1.2 million Lego pieces serves as a canvas to commemorate the resistance of those charges or convicted of crimes in the complex of one hundred and seventy-six figures create an atlas of imprisonment–from familiar faces from the late Nelson Mandela (imprisoned in solitary South Africa from 1962 to 1989) to Aung San Suu Kyi (under house arrest house arrest in Myanmar for almost 15 of the 21 years from 1989 to 2010) to Liu Xian Bin to Liu Xiaobo (sentenced to eleven years of confinement in 2009) to Edward Snowden (forced to seek refuge in May, 3013 after leaking NSA documents) to the Iranian Shi’i cleric Sayed Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi (imprisoned in October, 2006 in Teheran).  Set in the floor of an abandoned structure of forced detention and prison work, the bright mosaic of faces is eloquent in its muteness and sense of survival.

The pavement of portraits  evoke colorized prison mug shots of those confined on the island.  But they depict prisoners of conscience who are located on a global scope, creating a composite microcosm of different clusters of imprisoned from China to Iran to the United States to Burma to Russia.  The new context for the assemblage of faces, included in Trace, are but one part of Ai Wei Wei’s re-use of the abandoned prison’s monumental buildings.  They offer but a way that the Chinese dissident artist re-inhabits the buildings of the former federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island in @Large.  The work that testifies as much to his ability to work in different venues while confined under house arrest, as to call attention to the spirit of many imprisoned or confined who are apt to gain less media attention than the three Nobel Peace prize winners among them, and, although now disbanded, testifies both to the brightness and the fragility of resistance:  the pieces are a composite whose delicate construction was always poised to be dismantled; rather than being laminated or glued to one another, the complex of Lego pieces was often nudged, fragmented, or jostled by the feet of visitors who sought to enter spots around the pillars the room of the abandoned New Industries Building to get a better view of the faces, and a sort of memory gallery of the global resistance of a human spirit.

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Filed under Alcatraz Prison, Art and Cartography, human rights, performance art, prisoners of conscience