The Roots of Die Jim Crow

30 Jun
Pulled from the Introduction to Die Jim Crow EP Book, available at diejimcrow.com and Amazon.com.
by Fury Young

It’s been three years since a notebook jot-down outlining the idea for what would become the concept album project Die Jim Crow. I was on the B train to Kingsborough Community College where I was studying history. There was a book in my hand and I was about halfway through it. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.

I was twenty-three years old and I wasn’t sure what my truest pas- sion was. Music? Filmmaking? History? Activism? I’m halfway through the book, about two stops from the end of the line and I write down:

“A concept album* called The New Jim Crow (*a la Amused to Death).”

Yes, my title—not too original. We’ll call it an homage. Amused to Death? A concept album by Roger Waters about humans amusing them- selves to death with TV. The album came out pre-internet. Worth listening to. It’s use of repeating musical themes, intense builds between tracks, and dark sociopolitical commentary appealed to me. Later on Pink Floyd’s The Wall (which Waters also wrote) would become a greater inspiration.

I’m a Jew from the Lower East Side of New York City who has not been to prison. Why did I care? To start with, the book in my hand. I was reading about this very current and domestic human rights crisis, so well researched in Alexander’s book, beautifully articulated—but I was lacking the personal stories. I wanted to hear it from the folks who were living the “New Jim Crow.”

I got off at the last stop and waited for the bus. “If I take on this project, I am going to meet people who I will know for the rest of my life. People who will change my life forever.” The bus arrives.

Growing up in L.E.S, I saw a lot—drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes, parolees, you name it. In my late teens I met a man who was all of the above at one point or another. He became a close friend. Alexander Pridgen. You can find a movie I made about him on the internet.

I knew others who’d done time as well. A few of them I considered friends. But I had no idea, prior to reading The New Jim Crow, of the scope of the issue: so many affected, so historically rooted, so nationwide, so many things.

I could elaborate on other reasons for becoming obsessed with this project, but I’ll keep it simple and turn these reasons into a question, one I’m still asking today. What is freedom?

Three years and hundreds of prison letters later, here I am — but much more importantly — here WE are. Die Jim Crow has gone from a notebook scribble to a realized project involving artists formerly and currently incarcerated from all over the country. Recordings have been done with formerly incarcerated artists in Wichita, KS; New Orleans, LA; Philly, PA; and Brooklyn, NY. At Warren Correctional Institution, a close-security state prison in Ohio, myself and DJC co-producer/ engineer dr. Israel have worked closely with solo artists on their music, in addition to the prison’s 22-member choir UMOJA (“unity” in Swahili).

From this body of work, we are thrilled to present to you the Die Jim Crow EP — the first sample of what the Die Jim Crow full length album will sound like.

Because digital is how most people consume music these days, we’ve decided to release an accompanying book that honors the many artists and stories on this album. Die Jim Crow is a massive project in scope, and all the energy that went into this EP simply could not be contained in a short digital booklet. And that’s just the six song sample.

The Die Jim Crow LP, a full length double album of 20+ original tracks, will also have a book accompaniment, and hopefully much more. Although the project is still in its early stages (it takes years to lay the groundwork for a project like this, so far three and counting), it feels like a natural and necessary progression for this music to be toured across America, especially in areas hit the hardest by mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. But why stop there? In order to catapult great change, the music should also reach those of other backgrounds and political leanings—so wide promotion and international touring is also part of the plan.

The LP tells a three act story: pre-prison, prison, reentry. Similar to the LP, the Die Jim Crow EP follows this three act trajectory — albeit in a looser way. The first two songs take place outside the penitentiary walls (with “My Name Be Jim Crow” in some sort of strange farcical history land and “Tired and Weary” in a jail and a courtroom), the next two strictly in prison, and the final tracks back on the streets: wandering, exhausted, in a nightmare, broke, homeless, lost, beat — but not broken.

Also reminiscent of the soon-to-be LP, this album features artists from across the country — often within the same song — both in prison and formerly incarcerated. For example, “Headed to the Streets” was written by B.L. Shirelle during her incarceration, sent to Mark Springer and Anthony McKinney at Warren Correctional Institution for composition, discussed for months between myself, Mark, and Ant over the phone and in letters, then recorded at WCI with a full band and Ant on the first hook and verse. Once B.L. was released from Muncy State Correctional Institution in December 2015, dr. Israel and I drove down to Philly and recorded her vocal there. This unique method of song-making —— a combination of production inside and outside prison walls—is what I’ll call the “Die Jim Crow model.”

The one song on the Die Jim Crow EP that does not feature vocals and/or instrumentation from Warren Correctional Institution is “Plastic Bag,” which was written, co-performed, and lived by Carl Dukes. Dukes spent 31 years in New York State prisons only to return to the streets homeless, even though his parole officer had promised him housing. The powerful outro is the voice of Apostle Heloise, who served four years also in the NYS system.

I hope this project creates constructive dialogue and action. Confronting and dismantling the broken American incarceration machine will take a mountain of work, of which Die Jim Crow is an exciting part. I hope the music makes you feel something real, something deep, something both disempowering and empowering, and puts you in the shoes of the artists who created it.

We look forward to continuing the journey.

 

Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise

Fury Young and DJC artist Apostle Heloise

DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young

DJC poster art, collage by Fury Young

DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.

DJC artist Leon Benson at Pendleton Correctional Facility. Benson has served 17 years thus far for a murder he did not commit.

 

Follow Die Jim Crow at diejimcrow.com

facebook/twitter/instagram: /diejimcrow

youtube channel

 

 

From the Audience and Classroom at Oregon State Penitentiary

25 Jan

About the guest blogger: Michael Zinkowski has taught college-credit writing classes at Oregon State Penitentiary as well as youth correctional facilities in Oregon.

Yesterday I was an audience member for a play-in-progress entirely written and performed by inmates at Oregon State Penitentiary. For the last year, I’ve taught college-credit Writing courses there and one of my students invited me, looking for my feedback on the script he’d largely written. As both inmates and members of the “general public” entered and took their seats in the Chapel room, two guitarists and a keyboardist, all inmates, jammed together. It was a soaring prog-rock instrumental that carried us into the headspace we’d need to be for the play.

I took my seat towards the back right and saw my student (we’ll call him David) perched atop the radiator in the opposite corner of the room, behind the musicians. He sat there, shoulder-length dreads and thick-framed glasses, his hand covering his mouth like The Thinker. With his own office and a thousand responsibilities on the education floor, I’m not sure I’d ever seen him so still or unmoving. In his late 30s, over 20 of which have been spent inside prison walls, he’s possibly the most positively-driven and focused person I’ve ever met, using every waking moment to spread love and compassion, to atone. As I took my journal out to take notes, he looked out through the barred window.

What I didn’t know, is that the play had essentially already begun. After a lanky, older guy wearing a transparent latex glove passed out chocolate chip cookies and cups of water to the crowd of about 30, David stood up, continued to glare at the world out the window, out over the walls of the prison, and began a boisterous, gripping monologue. It felt like a sermon.

His imagery wove everything in the cosmos together, including the “invisible population in the middle of a city.” He functioned as the spoken-word narrator of the play, speaking from the all-knowing perspective of a bird who’d flown into the hospice care room here at OSP. The play featured many vignettes and characters, including the personified voice of Cancer, surrounding the story of a dying inmate, Michael Popper, Sr. David’s wisdom-inflicted bird interjected to help tie the narrative together.

To underscore just how invisible a man becomes dying in hospice care inside a maximum security prison, no one performed the role of Michael Sr. Instead, family members, prison guards, a doctor and nurse all spoke to a voiceless piano bench. Michael Sr.’s silence and invisibility was powerful because it turned our attention to the interconnectivity of all these other characters, each one essentially speaking to themselves but about related struggles. We can put someone inside the walls of a prison but we cannot, the play suggested, no matter how hard we might try, sever the connections they have with the world.

After a “talk-back,” in which members of the audience offered praise and critique, I got up and congratulated David on his performance, on the script, on his ability to make it all work somehow. The audience clapped and cheered as loud as they could without calling too much attention to itself. We were inside a prison after all. However, by no means was this the first time I’d been impressed with him or any of the other student-inmates I’ve had. In fact, my sheer delight and excitement I felt reminded me, unfortunately, that I sometimes reinforce commonly held beliefs about the abilities, talents, and intelligence of the human beings who live inside the prison’s walls.

Without being too scientific about it, it’s probably safe to say that American culture assumes the worst about prisoners. I don’t simply mean of their ethical choices or their “criminal nature” but of their potential and their capacities. And though the last year has taught me nothing but how smart, focused, artistic, grateful, and compassionate my student-inmates can be, I’m sometimes left asking myself: why should I be so surprised over and over?

Realistically, yes, I’m allowed the smile across my face whenever a student here reads a moving, original poem or performs a gripping monologue from the perspective of a talking bird or shows me a hugely improved draft of a 20-page research essay. And, of course, I do. I’m allowed the instinct I have to say “that was amazing,” “great job,” or “I can’t wait to hear the next draft!” and so I do.

Sometimes, though, I struggle with the origins of my excitement. If I’m surprised, is it because I, too, carry with me this idea that these guys shouldn’t be as smart as they consistently prove they are? If I’m moved, is it because the level of work is higher quality than I expected? Did I have low expectations in the first place? And did I have these expectations because I, too, hold the belief that being a prisoner necessarily means one has intellectual or artistic limits?

Probably. It’s something I continually work to deconstruct. It’s probably also true, though, that the quality of their work often surpasses that of my students at “regular” community colleges and that the odds are often very stacked against them and have been before they even got here. Can I not feel, then, that the high quality of work they produce, creatively or academically, is indeed a triumph?

My student-inmates know the world thinks the least of them. Sometimes their families do. Sometimes they, themselves, are burdened by these expectations. Is it in spite of those attitudes that these men excel, or because of them?

Right now I don’t have a solid answer. I’m sure haven’t even asked all the right questions or listed all the variables at play. So I don’t think I need a solid answer yet, but I’d like to use this blog to explore some of the questions I’ve already asked and share stories to complicate our ideas about prisoners, about their potential, and how when we talk about “their” potential we really mean our potential.

 

Meeting the Woman, Not the Crime

24 Jan
by Peggy Lamb
About the guest blogger: Peggy Lamb organizes Truth Be Told’s Exploring Creativity program. Truth Be Told is an Austin, TX based non-profit organization that provides transformational programs for women who are or have been incarcerated. Exploring Creativity classes use expressive arts to enlarge the women’s sense of themselves, release pain and express despair and without harming oneself or others. Leaders vary from storytellers to singers to visual artists to dancers – to quilters and yoga teachers and writers.

Twenty-eight women in dingy white uniforms file into the chapel at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville. Most of them know me and gift me with big smiles. I feel a flood of joy circulate through my body and my heart opens wide.

These women are all in the Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP), an intense 18 month cognitive therapy program. They live together in a special dorm in which community is emphasized. Each of these 28 women has committed a crime which will brand them for life as sex offenders.

Most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around the concept of female sex offenders. I certainly did. A Google search brought me to a research paper entitled Female Sex Offenders: Severe Victims and Victimizers. It was hard to read about women sexually molesting children, even harder to grasp that some of the women of SOTP had committed similar crimes. Women don’t do such things, men do, right? Wrong. Both genders are capable of unspeakable and horrifying crimes.

I do not know the specifics of these women’s crimes. I could find out via the TDCJ web site but I’ve made a conscious choice to remain in the dark. I meet them, woman to woman, outside ideas of right and wrong. I, or the artist I bring, share tools of discovery and encourage the creativity of these deeply wounded women, who themselves are victims of sex abuse, to take root and blossom. I passionately believe in the power of creativity to heal and re-define oneself. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am Large, I contain Multitudes”. I want these women to know in their bones that they are more than just sex offenders; they are more than their crimes. They are writers, poets, dancers, singers, actresses and visual artists with gifts to share.

When I learned that the Hilltop unit had a SOTP program, I was deeply drawn to teach there. I do not know why but I have learned to follow my soul urges. It’s been almost four years that I’ve been going up there once a month – it is work that deeply feeds my soul.

Today I’m teaching a movement and writing class I call “Elements”. Chairs are moved out of the way and we circle up for warm-up exercises. The sound of African drumming fills the room breaking down barriers and inhibitions like a magic wand. Hips sway, shoulders shimmy, toes tap and heads bob. We boogie and rock out. Movement is generated from the core – pelvis and torso. In the Soul Train section, I encourage the women to get down and shake it out. Shake out anger, despair, loneliness, frustration and resentment. It is deeply satisfying!

My first writing prompt is five minutes of free-flow writing on “I am Earth” Then I ask the women to create an earth gesture – a movement that symbolizes groundedness, stability, nature, etc. Each woman shares her gesture and the rest of us repeat it. I play just the right earthy music (usually another cut of African drumming) and we go around the circle dancing each women’s gesture. We’ve just choreographed our first dance! 

We repeat that process with three more writing and movement prompts: “I am Air”, “I am Fire” and “I am Water”. By the end of the class we’ve created four dances and the women have four pieces of creative writing they can be proud of.

The chapel is filled with the divine energy of creativity and community. One woman comments “I didn’t know I was creative!” Another says, “This is the deepest sense of community this dorm has ever had.” One that touches my heart so deeply is “In the twenty years I’ve been locked up, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

I am filled with awe at their willingness to step outside their comfort zones. I LOVE this work – my soul is filled with joy and gratitude.

 

 

 

 

Seeking input on building a national prison arts association

5 Jan

Dear friends of The Prison Arts Coalition:

Building upon a new level of cultural awareness regarding the benefits of arts in corrections programs, we would like to know if an expanded national organization would be a valuable asset to you and the work you do.

In these early stages, we feel the association could offer the following to its members:

  • Raise awareness of programmatic efficacy
  • Host national or regional conferences
  • Share best practices
  • Foster community
  • Support, collect and disseminate relevant research
  • Offer professional development opportunities
  • What else can you imagine?

The following 5-minute survey is designed to help better understand the need for a national prison arts association and how it can best serve potential members like you.  Your input is incredibly valuable during this early stage.

National Prison Arts Survey

We are hoping to collect all responses by January 29th.

Thank you for your time!

This survey has been developed with input by an ad hoc steering committee of prison arts advocates and practitioners, including:

Cynthia Gutierrez – Barrios Unidos Prison Project

Ella Turenne – Artist, Activist, EducatorOccidental College

Freddy Gutierrez – Community Worker, Performing Artist

Illya Kowalchuk – Pop Culture Classroom

Jonathan Blanco – Oregon State Penitentiary Hobby Shop

Laurie Brooks – William James Association

Lesley Currier – Marin Shakespeare Company

Nate Henry-Silva – Imagine Bus Project

Nathalie Costa Thill – Adirondack Center for Writing

Treacy Ziegler – An Open Window

Victoria Sammartino – Voices UnBroken

Wendy Jason – Prison Arts Coalition

Alma Robinson – California Lawyers for the Arts

Weston Dombroski – California Lawyers for the Arts

An Excavation of Seeing

3 Oct

About the guest blogger: Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  Before studying art,  Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this voluntary project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 3,500 prisoners throughout the United States.

I am in the housing unit of a men’s maximum-security prison looking at drawings of a prisoner the others call Columbia.

Most of Columbia’s drawings are cartoons – typical of drawings I see in prison. Among his assortments, I see Sponge Bob, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs, but then I see a drawing of a deer.  It is still in the cartoon style but there is something about the drawing making it different and giving it more resonance.

In this mental health unit where individual prison cells line one side of the large room, I go to Columbia’s cell asking about the deer drawing.

Columbia describes how he was a deer hunter and while hunting came upon a deer in the woods; not particularly unusual for deer hunting.  But while he placed his scope upon the deer, he was struck by the deer’s returning gaze upon him and in this look, Columbia said, I could see all the perspectives of the deer at once. It was the impact of the deer looking back at him that Columbia attempted to convey in the drawing.

While some may dismiss the magic of deer’s return look as crazy talk – after all, we are in this prison mental health unit – I think otherwise.  Instead I think of a statement made by the nineteenth century French painter Cezanne on drawing landscape.  Cezanne said, the landscape speaks to me.

As a visual dialogue with landscape, Cezanne does not see a thing-with-facts, but rather experiences a relationship. Cezanne knows not to impose his intention on this dialogue; neither his preconceptions nor what he thinks he should draw into the creative process.

In the flash of the deer’s gaze, Columbia had a Cezanne-moment where preconceived knowledge is abandoned enabling him to draw the deer in all its perspectives and making photographic or geometric logic irrelevant.

In another prison in another state, Nathan draws in the designated corner. I don’t know how long he has been in this prison or for how long he will be here. His is a crime that, I’ve concluded in my years of going to prisons, everyone is capable of committing in the perfect storm of any life.

Mostly, I leave Nathan to his drawings and constructions. Although Nathan draws what he sees from life, he quickly turns his focus upon the drawing paper.  While some may suggest that he works from imagination, this doesn’t really describe the process.  Nathan is still in conversation but it is now with the marks on his paper pulling him into the world; thus preventing him from falling into the solipsism and visual redundancy that often happens when the artist feels imagination and self-oriented intention reign. Marks and materials have voices of their own and listening to them leads Nathan to new territories in this corner of the prison.

Nathan Riggs, charcoal drawing, triptych, courtesy of the artist

Nathan Riggs, charcoal drawing, triptych, courtesy of the artist

That prison is a closed system makes for reshuffling materials; tattoo becomes drawings, magazines are copies and rarely is the immediate surrounding world – the one that is necessary for dialogue – used as a source for creating art.  The world is seen through a mirror darkly and then profusely copied.

Rarely do I see drawings where the prisoner-artist is looking directly at the world without the filters of another’s eyes through photographs. Prison drawings departing from copying photographs are often misunderstood and dismissed by other prisoners and prison staff in the demand for rendering photo-realism.

Perhaps, equating good art with the ability to copy a photograph may not be peculiar to prison. Public opinion as reflected on Instagram suggests the general population also regards ability to copy a photograph as great art.

When the prisoner Daniel in another prison shows me a portfolio of drawings that looks like any other sheet of tattoo drawing, I ask the class, how does a tattoo get authority as art?  Daniel suggests skill, someone else suggests ink, and another says design.

None of the above, I say, the tattoo gets authority from the body – from the arm, leg, neck, or whatever body part upon which it exists.  Take the tattoo off the body and it becomes a sorry deflated balloon.

Somewhat miffed that I didn’t praise his tattoo drawings, Daniel agrees saying, I’ve been sitting in my cell for 11 years wondering why I couldn’t get the same affect as an actual tattoo.

The artist cannot demand that a medium do what he or she wants the medium to do. As I tell the prisoner-artists, If you ever been in a flood, you know that water does what water wants, and the water in a watercolor is no different; falling and spreading upon the paper as it will.  Some of the students have been in floods and all have known falling.

If the artist is but one voice in a larger choir consisting of materials, mediums, color physics, so on, and whose voices are as important as the artist’s, what happens to self-expression?

When I ask my class if there is self-expression, because, after all, each one of them is the sum total of everyone they ever met, quoting some post-modern philosopher I forgotten, Samuel retorts, if I am the sum total of everyone I ever met, then why ain’t that sum total in here with me?!  A good question.

However, the question is not whether there is a self, but whether there is individual expression?

If I were intent on expressing myself it is likely my delivery would be more propaganda than expression, more thinking than experience, more hope than feelings; consisting of a visual running commentary of expectations from both myself and others. In other words, it is hard to discern what is truly my individual expression. This becomes particularly true in prison where individual expression may make or break a parole hearing.

Instead of self-expression, drawing becomes an act of listening in which there is no imposed agenda upon what is seen and thus allowing the visual dialogue to emerge. Translating this to the class, I ask them to forget meaning, forget expressing themselves and embark on a descriptive exploration of the world.

The prisoner Kaey takes issue with this. He believes that in order for his art to be significant, he must create meaning in it.

I hear both prisoner and non-prisoner artists say; I want to make something meaningful in my art – not realizing that meaning cannot be created or manufactured; that the construction of meaning leads to something contrived like an insincere Hallmark card.

Meaning is a funny thing.   If we are lucky meaning shows itself; meaning that is always there, meaning that is always already, meaning that is always everywhere; meaning that is larger than we, and meaning that we can never reach because meaning continuously extends.

But how is meaning revealed?  This was my question when I created the project Dear Self/Dear Other for the prisoners in the through-the-mail art curriculum.

It is my belief that meaning is revealed in the everyday images that make up our lives; personal images not created, not copied but excavated. And when the artist relinquishes control over meaning, these forgotten or ignored images surfaces – not necessarily to be understood but to be experienced.

In my own art, there is a primitive house on stilts that emerges in various forms throughout my paintings, sculpture and monoprints. I accepted its presence without knowing why until a viewer asked about its meaning at an exhibition.

Looking at the painting, I suddenly realized it was an image from when I was six years. This was a time when my family of five lived over a brothel in Little Havana, Miami after my father lost our Philadelphia upper-middle class house in a series of poker games, my baby sister was born dead, and my mom went temporarily crazy.

But on a fun family daytrip to Key West beating the heat of Miami, I discovered a house on stilts that appears seemingly planted over the water.  And while the ocean rushed beneath the house creating a sense of magic, I imagined us living in that house above the surf where my mother would be happy. Looking back to the viewer’s face at the exhibition, I realized; oops too much information.

An Island, oil on panel, courtesy of author

An Island, oil on panel, courtesy of author

Had I considered the connection myself while painting it, the information would have been too much for me interfering with the process of painting.  Free of my awareness, the painting emerged with its own voice allowing it to exist independently of what it meant to me and whatever message I might have imparted to it.  Knowing the history of my haphazard child is not a vital factor in experiencing my art.

Knowing that what is seen in the past continues to impact upon the present, I asked the participants in the Dear Self project to draw what they saw at six years of age.  But the waters of childhood are dangerous and, often, there is no house on stilts.

Nicholas writes that when he began drawing what he saw at 6 years old, nightmares from the past started to torment me, so I had to stop.

Reggie sends me a drawing of a lynching apparently occurring when he was 6 years old in 1959 in Philadelphia.  I am not sure if he saw the lynching or heard about it.  In either respect, I cannot help but wonder to what extent this early image of a lynching had upon Reggie whose life subsequently became one of violence; a history including his own violence towards others and, as he reports, being raped by the guards at Eastern State Penitentiary at 17 years old when he was first incarcerated.

Reginald McFadden, courtesy of the artist

Reginald McFadden, courtesy of the artist

Another prisoner writes of beatings he endured by his mother. The many stories from prisoners of being abused and neglected as children make it understandable why copying celebrity photographs may be preferable as the form of art in prison and why Kaey wants to invent meaning rather than to discover it.

But, art is not an escape from living; it is an entry into it; art not as therapy but art as breathing – taking everything in and out, good and bad for the creative gristmill.

When I leave Columbia’s prison, it is night and I drive the mile prison driveway to the main road through the white deer sanctuary that surrounds the prison.  I don’t know why the prison is built here although I later learn that the white deer is the symbol of redemption for Native Americans.

I did ask on my initial meeting with the Deputy Superintendent what would happen if I felt compelled to walk the beautiful paths through the high surrounding scrubs. She answers, you will be shot, making me think the vocabulary of redemption does not exist in this prison and the white deer are irrelevant to their programming.

But on this evening’s drive out, the moon is full and when I see its light reflected on the white deer in the scrubs, I see them as shooting stars. And as these deer appearing like stars turn to look at me, I think of Columbia.

Later, I paint a white deer.  At the bottom of the painting, I add the following words for Columbia knowing he may never walk the beautiful paths.

At night,
when others sleep
and the officers are playing cards,
I become the white deer blinded
in the headlight of the moon,
And I am.

Treacy Ziegler

Arnot Art Museum Installation, Landscapes of Confinement. The white deer.

Arnot Art Museum Installation, Landscapes of Confinement. The white deer.

 

Dances for Solidarity

27 Sep
by Sarah Dahnke
About the guest blogger: Sarah Dahnke is a Brooklyn-based choreographer, multimedia artist, and arts educator. She creates performance experiences that often feature non-performers, highlighting and celebrating the nuances of natural, untrained human movement. She works with public school students to facilitate the creation of their own choreography and video projects, makes giant group dances to teach to the general public, and films instructional videos to disseminate dance sequences widely. Her video work has been curated nationally by Dance Films Association, DCTV, Tiny Dance Film Festival, Hyde Park Arts Center, Ruth Page Center for the Arts and Gowanus Ballroom as well as internationally across The Philippines. Her choreography has occurred on stages, in streets, on the Internet, in music videos, on roofs, in galleries and more. Some of these places include The Kitchen, CPR-Center for Performance Research, Grace Exhibition Space, Dance Theater Workshop, The New York Transit Museum, Northside Festival and Lollapalooza.

Dances for Solidarity is my newest project, and it aims to create ephemeral connections between people who are in solitary confinement and those who are not through written correspondence and dance. Myself and my collaborators have created a 10-step written movement sequence, and this is included in a letter that we mail to those in solitary (an initial list was provided by Black and Pink). From there, we engage in more individualized correspondence with those who write back.

As a choreographer, I often create work that falls under the categories of “participatory performance” or “community-based performance,” where people who are not trained dancers end up as the main performers. I’ve been interested in working with incarcerated people for a long time, but I didn’t exactly know how we could make a dance together even if I were granted access to a prison.

In 2013, I saw a traveling photography exhibit created by Solitary Watch at Photoville, titled Photo Requests from Solitary. In this work, the project leaders wrote to people on in solitary confinement and asked what image from the outside they would like to see, then the artists crowd sourced these images and sent them back. These images then made up this exhibit. It was incredibly powerful, and it sparked the idea that one way I could create dances for and with incarcerated folks would me through written correspondence. After letting that marinate for a little while, this project manifested.

This project requires a lot of support, and I’ve been lucky to tap into a growing network. I’ve been granted space by Abrons Arts Center to hold weekly letter writing clinics. Culture Push awarded me the Fellowship for Utopian Practice, which offers logistical, moral and financial support. I have some dedicated artistic collaborators and regular letter writers. As we continue to write to those in solitary around the country, this network will also need to grow. One thing I’m working on is setting up satellite letter writing groups around the country.

The prison mail system is slow, plus not everyone who we write will necessarily respond. But responses are coming in, and so far they are really wonderful. Many people thank us for showing our support, for reaching out, for offering a lifeline to the outside world. Many people have terrible things to say about the conditions they are kept in, about how their prisons are short staffed and therefore unable to give them the one hour of recreation time they are supposed to have outside of their cell each day. But inside of these letters we are also given lovely descriptions of how this dance made people feel. So many of our pen pals felt awkward or silly doing a dance all alone, but once they gave it a try, it became fun or empowering or uplifting or transformative. One man told us a story about how he said “hell no I’m not doing this” but ended up doing it with six of his fellow inmates during their rec time.

I’m excited to see how this project continues to grow and the responses we continue to get, and I’m trying to get more people involved. If you are in the New York area, please follow us on Facebook to find out when we are holding letter writing clinics. If you are not in the New York area, you can contact me about setting up a letter writing clinic for Dances for Solidarity in your area: sarah (at) sarahdahnke.com.

Beyond our Prisons

12 Sep

“Sometimes you gotta get ‘pulled away’ from your life in order to realize that you were already ‘away’ mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”

                                                                                         -Glenn Robinson

Glenn Robinson is 33 years old. J.R. Furst is 31. Glenn Robinson is of African American descent, and J.R. is white-ish. Glenn was hustling, stealing and providing for his family by the age of 12, while J.R. was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah. Glenn is serving 40 years at Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, LA. J.R. is not serving 40 years. These two individuals started corresponding—via handwritten letter—in November of 2012. Together they founded Beyond This Prison.

THE STORY

Bold Italics = Glenn’s Voice

Standard Font = J.R.’s Voice

Most of my friends are either dead of in Angola State Pen serving life sentences. As for family, well, I only have a few that are still on this journey with me. Everyone isn’t built to withstand the struggles and sacrifices that are to be made when dealing with an incarcerated loved one.

I had totally blocked contact with family & friends, because I figured that was a perfect solution—blocking all communication from the outside world. It turns out that I was only paralyzing myself.

Imagine going in for surgery. The anesthesiologist puts the needle in your arm. You lose the ability to move or speak, but you are still aware and can still feel. They wheel you into the operating room. You’re trying trying trying to let the doctors know that you’re still awake. They’re about to SLICE INTO YOUR SKIN! Stopppp!! Stopppp!!

…All is lost though. Your efforts are futile. Everything except for your mind and heart are comatose. You simply can’t connect with the outside world. As the knife cuts into the skin, you SCREAM bloody murder, but no one can hear you.

That’s sort of what my young life felt like…

In the environment where I grew up, everyone has some kind of motive for their affiliation, so trust isn’t something you give away easily. It’s actually been in prison (where I’ve resided since I was 17) that I’ve learned that everyone isn’t out to gain off of me. Prison has taught me how to love, respect, appreciate, trust and accept people in a whole different light. In here, you’re alone! You can own your reality and grow as an individual, or you can die inside of a barricaded mind.

My ‘waking up moment’ came in the form of writing. One night, I felt so isolated and so deranged that something just popped. I’d gotten so low that I ended up coming out the other side. I was 16 years old.

I’d gotten stoned with some ‘friends’ of mine. Smoking marijuana was not pleasant to me, but I didn’t feel well anyways, so what was the difference? We drove around doing nothing. I was dealing with three different kinds of fog: the misty one descending on the city streets, the smoke of the marijuana in the car, and my foggy mind. That’s a lot of fog!

Later, after having been released from my duties as a ‘friend’, I was in my room feeling demonic. Feeling sick. Feeling ill. Feeling like a monster. I turned on the television to distract myself, and I also turned on a Bob Dylan record. I needed all the white noise I could get.

Bob Dylan was loud. The television was louder. I wasn’t touching the volume dials of either, but it felt like the levels were rising. My ears felt like they were going to bleed. It was too much!!!!!! I lost my sh*t. I flipped. I reached a boiling point. I wanted to scream, but I’d lost my voice a long time ago—if I ever even had it. Because I had no voice, my body screamed for me. It heaved itself, and it awkwardly fell into the chair at my desk. Without full control of my motor skills, my hands flopped onto the keyboard like dead fish…

That’s when it happened. The chair was like an electrical outlet, and my tailbone was like a plug. Once the circuit was connected, my spine straightened, my shoulders pulled back, and my eyes focused. I regained the motor skills in my hands…and BLAST OFF. My fingers moved like gigantic spiders across the keyboard. My body was literally shaking. As fast as my fingers were moving, I would’ve liked for them to move faster! The energy surge was that strong.

I thought to myself, THIS IS FREEDOM!!!! I FEEL FREEEEE!!

Well, I’ve chased that feeling ever since. Everything I do in my life is an attempt (consciously, subconsciously, or unconsciously) to be in touch with my core truth, and to express and nurture it in a courageous way.

Through chasing this feeling of freedom, I came across Glenn Robinson. I needed an ally. I needed to create a resonance chamber. Unconsciously, my Yang was looking for a Yin—and the cosmos obliged.

I checked out www.writeaprisoner.com, and I scanned through hundreds of profiles. Out of all those individuals, I just happened to find Glenn. Right from the first letter, I got this sense from him like, “It’s about time, J.R., I’ve been waiting for you!” We hit the ground running.

I’d gotten on www.writeaprisoner.com to meet new people and to try and establish healthy relationships with some down to earth, unbiased individuals. II was basically just throwing rocks in a big pond trying to create ripple that stood out from the others.

I was self-conscious of how J.R. might be viewing me. I’m a young black man that’s doing time for a capital offense, and I came from a rough upbringing. He, on the other hand, is a well-bred white guy from the other side of the tracks. Usually my type is looked down upon by his type—or so I thought.

After a few correspondences, though, I learned that he’s a genuine brother with a beautiful outlook on life, and that he and I are 2 soljas fighting the same war—just from separate sets of circumstances. It’s a war of bringing people out of their mental & spiritual prisons.

I’d spent my life dealing with internal incarceration and he’d spent his life dealing with external incarceration. His world looked like what my world sort of felt like, and vica-versa. Both of us sought freedom. In fact, as I did more and more research, I found that most humans are looking for freedom on some level. Whether it be that nice sense of freedom that comes from finally clocking out of work at 5:00, or the freedom to marry whomever we choose, or the freedom to be out of debt, or the freedom from anxiety, anger, fear and stress. Most of us seem to want to feel free.

Large swaths of society (consciously, or unconsciously) see color, status and background as an important factor when getting acquainted. That’s an ugly disease that doesn’t exist between myself and J.R. He’s become a brother to me. He’s a vanguard and a second spirit. When you’re going through hardships in life, it’s isn’t about who started that journey with you; it’s about who helps you cross the finish line. It’s about the ones you can count on to help you make it through. That’s J.R.! He’s a right-hand man…sort of like a 1st grade homie.

It’s as if we’ve been through life 2gether. We’re the best of both worlds! “The Gangsta & The Gentleman”! Through viewing our friendship, hopefully the world can see that true friends aren’t built off of color or upbringing. We are BEYOND This Prison!

As part of our co-founded organization, I edit chunks of Glenn’s letters, have them illustrated, and then post them on www.beyondthisprison.com. I host Youth Programs where we connect youngsters with their own incarcerated pen-pals, and they create art based off of the correspondences. I also facilitate all inclusive workshops called UNSHACKLINGS where we run highly participatory activities using prison not only in the literal sense, but in the metaphorical sense as well.

Over the past 3 years, Glenn and I have composed hundreds of handwritten letters, written dozens and dozens of emails, and have a phone conversation on at least a weekly basis. In December, I took an epic 54 hour Greyhound bus ride to Louisiana to meet him for the the first time.

The journey’s just beginning…

JRWeez

J.R. can be contacted at beyondthisprison@gmail.com.