It's the ultimate captive audience for your artwork. That wasn't the original intention for this Swiss prison mural project called "4661m²" but it is one of the outcomes -- and one of its myriad ironies.
Initiated by Aarau-based graffiti/street/fine artist Malik in May of 2012, the project eventually corralled 17 street artists, all but one from Switzerland, to enter the confines of the new high security Lenzburg Prison to paint murals on exterior walls, courtyards, hallways, and common areas.
"I was looking for a new challenge and a new and exciting project where I could show my art," says Malik and while the 18 month project originated with his vision of getting a nice wall for himself, quickly the project grew far beyond his expectations to become an educational, sociological meditation on the penal system, the appropriate role of art within it, and our collective humanity.
With help from partner artist Claude "Note" Luethi and funding from the Lenzburg Prison Christmas Fund, the successful mural program has also led to a short documentary this spring and the brand new release of a handsome tome by the two documenting a cross section of the images and the human experience as told by artists, prisoners, prison employees and even the director.
"The exterior wall is always also an interior wall. How we view it depends on our relative position," says author and cultural scientist Johannes Binotto, in the forward to "4661m² - Art in Prison." The number is both the name of the project and the the quantity of concrete that the paintings eventually covered. In his examination of crime and punishment and our relationship to it, Binotto brilliantly uses the wall as metaphor from multiple perspectives by way of illuminating the ramifications of being inside or outside of any given wall throughout one's life.
For graffiti writers and street artists, the wall has been destination, a vessel of communication, but the historical examples Binotto examines fairly mutate the wall as obstruction, unifier, protector, divider. The theme continues throughout the well-photographed and documented book with artists and organizers reflecting on, reacting to, their experience and their art practice. One every present irony is that many of these street artists undoubtedly risked arrest for painting on various city walls in their earlier days.
Opening the many doors of the prison to an unsolicited offer by Malik, the Director of the prison, Marcel Ruf, says his knowledge of street art and artists was admittedly limited, but he knew the place needed some color. "The corridors and work spaces were judged rather negatively by the majority of the over 7,000 visitors that came to the prison open day in May," he says in an interview, "with most finding the premises dreary and colorless."
The book gives ample space to opinions and experiences of the artists in stunning before/after shots of spaces and pieces that you can only see now if are a prisoner or employee. Even here the experiences express a range of perspectives. Most found the atmosphere constricted, oppressive, depressing. Each artist say that they felt a certain responsibility to the audience that they wouldn't normally have and adjusted their work accordingly because these pieces will be looked upon, in some cases, for years, or the remainder of life.
Artist Daniel Zeltner says, "I thought long and hard about the mark I would like to leave on a prison, and about who would see it, how they would react and interpret it, how they would feel. It is difficult, because the painting would not only be seen by the prison guards, but also by the prisoners -- I also wanted to create something I could be proud of. Therefore, it was important to me that I paint something that's open and leaves room for interpretation."
Ranging from abstract, figurative, and representational, to collage, illustration, and photo-realistic, the entire collection has something for many tastes, but we learn that the most critical audience was the staff of 180 who not only live with the art but the manage the daily affairs of the people who live in the facility. We learn that staff opinions on certain works are not unanimous but in general the replacement of monotonous grey is regarded as an improvement for the employees -- and the new works provide visual signposts for navigating in a sometimes confusing maze of concrete.
One two page spread features the quotes from prisoners who have answered a survey about the project, the art, and the artists. Responses range from dismissive and critical, to suspicious, grateful, and laudatory.
The act of even considering the opinion of convicted criminals is offensive to the more penalizing among us, and this resistance to an art program of any sort is present throughout topics addressed and perhaps those avoided in the contributions here. These prisoners are likely serious offenders given their 23 hour restriction to their cells and opinions about their living conditions are surely contested.
Artist Benjamin Solt talks about briefly getting to know some of the prisoners and then questioning the wisdom of that decision. "I often chatted with them and we discussed the paintings. One of them was very open and approachable, and at some point I asked him why he was there. Just a few moments later I regretted asking."
The austere modern brutalism of the new prison is heightened by its minimalist technological details of sensors, cameras, phone signal blocking, and iris scanning. Often participants reference disembodied voices within the compound comingling with bird songs and cow bells just outside the perimeter of the compound.
With varying degrees of discomfort and a respect for a sense of mission, the artists describe their art and their emotional and psychological responses to working in the compound. Daniel Zeltner, who worked with David Lucco on a collaborative mural in an exercise yard, describes redoing his piece nearly entirely because he was unsatisfied with the somewhat chaotic energy that he had infused it with.
Onur contemplates his expected audience of primarily seniors when creating his mountain range and remarks that he felt troubled by the continuous surveillance, "I often felt watched. The knowledge that there were cameras everywhere was always at the back of my mind and as I usually work by myself in the studio this situation was quite confusing."
Chromeo was reminded of his own previous stint in jail for doing illegal graffiti. "I found being locked in extremely difficult. Even though I wasn't locked in this time, I struggled with the same oppressive feelings."
For one recreation room, Malik and Note combined their painting efforts to create one continuous visual story that ignored the four planes and gives a view from the rooftops of an imaginary city at night that flows into day and subsequently spans a vast valley and stream. But bucolic scenes and sensibilities notwithstanding, their painting experience met one common description; "Intense."
"We were surrounded by four solid concrete walls and were working in extreme heat, with continuous yakking and jeering from the inmates locked in the cells above us and all of that for four weeks, eight hours a day locked in the same room," say the pair.
Among the descriptions of the exigencies of the prison and project, there are occasional sparks of institutional levity. Bruno Graber, Chief Director, shares his observations of the project and working with the artists and he inadvertently stumbles on a truism. "Seeing the artists at work was exciting. They seem to be night owls, early mornings were not really their thing."
Ultimately this is a group show new works by 17 artists, but you will not be free to see them, even though you are free. The many ironies are summed up in one of Binotto's recollections. "The knowledge that the locked spaces within the prison are blocked from our collective gaze challenges our typical differentiation between captivity and freedom. This is like the joke where the mathematician solves the task of fencing in a herd of sheep not by herding the animals together but rather by putting up the small fence around himself and then declaring 'I define myself to be on the outside.'"
In fact 4661m² plays with the definitions of internal and external space so well that it throws both into question. You may reassess the role of artists, particularly street artists, in the dialogue they bring to public space as we rush from from one task to another, sometimes just keeping our heads above water.
"I always took a deep breath as I exited through the revolving door," says Note, "I was free again - at least until what felt like five seconds later, when my iPhone began informing me of all the obligations I'd failed to meet."
The project 4661m² - Art in Prison was curated by Malik and Claude "Note" Luethi, and involved artists including: Malik, Note, Onur, Chromeo, Shark, Ata Bozaci, Robert Proch, Nevercrew, Mizzo, Daniel Zeltner, David Monllor, Benjamin Solt, Lain, Ti, and Sarah Parsons.
© 2016 Niggli, imprint of bnb media gmbh, Zurich
This article is also posted on Brooklyn Street Art.
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