Artist Ashley Hunt: Prison Industrial Complex

Ashley Hunt is a multi-disciplinary artist living in Los Angeles. I was just made aware of his work recently. He "works with video, installation, and mapping to explore modes of learning and to generate public discourse. His interests include the constructs of power and powerlessness, political possibility, violence, and the production of wealth. His work of the past six years has dealt with the growth and commercialization of the US prison system, and now includes the field of contemporary globalization."

You can link here to a preview of a film he did on the the prison industrial complex called "Corrections." He is also a writer. After the jump, you can find an interview he did about his works dealing with the the prison system and representation.

He will be speaking on a panel of artists at CalArts about the "
The Efficacy of Political Art upon Political Change". Fancy title, but should be an interesting conversation.

REPRESENTATIONS OF THE ERASED (interview with Ashley Hunt and Natascha Sadr Haghighian)

NATASCHA SADR HAGHIGHIAN | Foucault says that visibility is a scheme that defines what can be seen. Avery F. Gordon describes in her book Ghostly Matters how visibility is a complex system of permissions and prohibitions punctuated alternately by apparitions and hysterical blindness.

How do we confront the scheme or system when talking from an invisible position like the one of the undocumented or the imprisoned?

ASHLEY HUNT | Both of these descriptions of visibility refer to a social optics, which of course does not correspond to what can be seen by the physical eye but to what can be “seen” by a subject, or recognized by discourses such as history or politics. Foucault in this sense theorizes a prescriptive system that regulates the visible — what can be visible and how, conditioning the subject to see or not see, to recognize and misrecognize — classifying objects as legible or illegible to the institutions and discourses. Similarly, Gordon’s framework theorizes sociological manifestations, subjectivities and imaginations that emerge from such a schematic, and its manifestation as a blindness which is ultimately haunted by what it disavows, or what appears too discrete or small to be touched by power.

When we talk about positions like the undocumented or imprisoned and theorize how one should act or speak, I find it necessary to make it clear that I am not personally speaking from such a position, and think it important to not collapse the precarious positions of artists and cultural workers in with “the invisible,” as much as they may be in solidarity.

That said, included in your question is the assumption that it is important to “have a voice” (where “voice” is a metaphor and mode of inclusion/exclusion similar to “visibility”), and some people mistrust this goal, thinking it better to remain invisible: to find power in the undetectable, flying below the radar, refusing to engage the language or visual scheme used by a given regime to structure our spaces and interactions. From this perspective I would say that one shouldn’t worry about such schemes — you’re not invisible to yourself, to your family or community, and you can strengthen these spheres, organize and live your life, all without waiting for other people who “don’t see you” to give you permission.

But if confronted with violence and abuse or driving toward a collective goal of empowerment, what can one do to confront such a scheme or system? First, it should be understood that this scheme is not an end in itself, but is a mode of exclusion, domination or exploitation; and it is dynamic, always adjusting and disguising itself. As important is as it is for all people to be visualized on their own terms and heard in their own words, it is equally important that what is produced in response be dynamic as well. This struggle should not be an end in itself, but should be a tactic. We have to produce our own images, ones that do not fit into the scheme the current regime has prepared for us, but should also distinguish between the images we create for ourselves and those we transmit to others: one is nurturing and social, producing the collective identity required for mutuality and cooperation; the other is responsive and political. Both are important.

Ultimately we’re talking about representations, though, and we are not theorizing a pure or truthful representation as opposed to a false one (this would misunderstand the nature of representations); we are countering one set of representations claiming truth with another claim to truth (inevitably, equally a representation). And is this a struggle for visibility? Or is it a struggle for power — in which case, visibility is a strategy that can serve or betray you, regardless of intentions and ownership.

NATASCHA | There is a desire to create a vision that counts on the autonomy of the image towards the gaze. An autonomous migration, for example, would have a different representation than one that is evoked by the gaze onto migration. What does this vision look like?

I am referring to the lecture “And They Leave the Image” held by Brigitta Kuster and Vassilis Tsianos at the “Beyond Belonging” conference this year. They look at the representation of Europe’s borders in documentary film. Specifically they are looking for strategies of image and narration that visualize what is seen as “border,” “migration,” and at the same time sketch out a different approach to reflect the gaze and its object. A search for an optics that expects the autonomy of migration in respect to how it is perceived and doesn’t subordinate it under the regime of a gaze that determines and defines what and who its object is. They show excerpts of films that in their eyes try to develop a language of image and narration beyond reproducing the gaze.

ASHLEY | My first response is that this is a very naïve idea. As we know, there is no image that can be inherently autonomous and mean the same thing to everyone in every context. But perhaps this is not what is meant in the question. I do see an autonomy as a possibility if we take it as a principle, an axiom that guides cultural production and organization. And then we have to be precise about what we mean by “the gaze.” Whose gaze is it and how does it distort images (of migration and immigrants for example), and what can an image do to a “gaze” that by all accounts exists — at least in part — outside the image? A gaze is an abstraction of a phenomenon that does not exist in some unified metaphysical form outside of the multiple particular instances of its performance and enactment. If we accept a gaze as an asymmetrical (in terms of power) field of visual transaction that demands a certain overdetermination of what appears before us, then we don’t just want to contradict its expectation or desire; it is prepared to cope with that already. What we must aim for is the disruption of what confirms that gaze, the subjectivity it assumes and sustains, the symbolic asymmetry which it counts on recognizing. In other words, to try to be autonomous in this sense would be to exceed or step outside the dyads and binaries that hold appearances hostage and constitute the current visual regime altogether, rendering that gaze conspicuous and superfluous. It does not mean “being seen” physically, but overcoming a systematic erasure in a way the system does not anticipate. (And here is the importance of dynamism and autonomy being an axiom rather than a goal: how long until the system adjusts and erases or vilifies a new appearance? How long before that strategic appearance becomes orthodoxy and conservative in itself?)

The massive immigrants’ rights protests that took place in the U.S. this past spring of 2006, for example, were extremely effective, and temporarily inspired a discourse around migration that was somewhat autonomous from what the nationalist and racial gaze of the state and media had previously achieved through its images and categories of knowledge. This was not because the protests revealed the opposite of how immigrants had been stereotyped, merely putting “a human face” onto the cold statistics and dehumanizing political rhetoric, for example, and swapping a good image for a bad one. Rather, I believe their effect was to collapse such categories altogether and render them inert. The images that had existed of Latino immigration were inherently homogenous, claiming an “immigrant” and “immigration experience” that were singular (“the immigrants!”). Yet the rallies were extremely heterogeneous in their composition, and as such they were completely heterogeneous to the dyad of representation (good immigrant/bad immigrant; citizen = good, immigrant = bad) that held the center of the political debate. It was as if it scrambled a circuit of power which no longer had a category to put them all in, for on the one hand there was this massive unification of all these millions of people in the streets, with a political intelligence and extremely smart organization; while on the other, there were millions of unique, singular individuals with particular histories who were, in their diversity, irreducible to any neat, totalizing categorization or stereotype. It totally screwed up the politicians, the logic of their arguments and their constituency calculations, wreaking havoc on the visual terrain of their hegemonic strivings.

A way that this would contribute to a different “vision,” as your question began, is by shifting the power relations of the field of visibility in the first place, which necessarily alters “the gaze.” The success of these protests didn’t take place so much by taking power, although flexing the muscle of constituency was definitely a part of it. It existed more in the demonstrators taking millions of pictures of themselves and posting them to websites and emailing them and making t-shirts, which in turn inspired even more family and friends to come out for the next protest, while also producing a social continuity between these events and personal histories and Latino history generally in the U.S., on the level of historical social movement. They were joyful and indignant and it didn’t matter that there were a bunch of fucking idiots on TV calling them terrorists who want to overthrow the U.S., it just didn’t matter. (I should say that this fight is far from over and there are a lot of lunatics here patrolling and building fences — (mostly old white men with authority complexes who miss the good old days) — and there’s a lot of struggling against them to do; but the goal of making this extreme point of view political common sense has yet to happen — yet.)

NATASCHA | My questions concern the contradiction of illegality and visibility, on the one hand, and on the other hand, strategies of visualization as putting something on the map. How do we put our demands and needs on the map and/or on the agenda?

One strategy that is often used is victimization. It seems a powerful strategy that often comes with strong imagery, either visually or rhetorically. Which map are we addressing with this strategy, meaning which map will we appear on, which map are we invoking ?

ASHLEY |
It seems to me the map you’re referring to here (the “map” we would supposedly want to put our claims onto) is that of accepted, legitimized political concerns or issues; the “road map,” you might say, for what political energies, attention and capital will be directed towards. This relates to your questions around visibility in the sense that something which falls or is kept “off the map” is, in essence, not seen. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t a real issue or claim that needs addressing, but it means that it is treated as such, by politicians and media alike: it won’t even qualify as “news,” and it allows politicians to not even have to take a position one way or the other — it’s been left out of the question at hand altogether so it doesn’t have to be addressed. This, I would say, is a different field of the visual in terms of depth and qualities than the type we’ve been discussing so far, which is more deeply cultural and psychological in scope. Although it’s a similar operation, to equate the two would suppose that representative politics as we know it is the only possible avenue for political change, and would also suppose that the field of vision produced by the state and pseudo-state apparatuses (such as the media) is the total social field of vision of a society at a moment in history. This is what people in positions of power would like us to think, but it can never be true. In activism, visibility on the agenda of parliament or the front page of a newspaper should not be confused with the ultimate measure of success, but it is dangerous to assume that this means it is a useless or illegitimate arena to engage or within which to struggle; it is also an important and powerful site for seeking change and demanding visibility and voice, and if neglected, a site of domination.

What does it take to get onto this map? The first thing it takes is to be considered a valuable constituency for government or media (from big business to campaign donors to an influential block of voters for the former; in terms of reader- and viewership, the “customers” of the news for the latter). Aside from this we should realize that this map we’re talking about exists on the order of the spectacle, so what it requires to gain access is the same as what it requires to capture the attention of the spectacle. Lots of activists are getting wise to this and deploy clever or spectacular strategies, and of course, a “demonstration” is by definition one such tactic, though I think it is less a tactic of demonstrating disagreement than a theatrics of revolt by taking over the streets (which is easier said than done). And of course, to return to your question, a habitual way to accomplish this is by displaying images that are common to the vocabulary of the spectacle, such as starving and victimized poor people and people of color in far away places. But while this is presumed to humanize people, I disagree. I think such imagery in its ubiquitous form tends to victimize people more, still denying them what Avery Gordon has referred to as “complex personhood.” Sympathy may be effective and sometimes necessary, but it is not empathy, and it is terribly close to pity.

NATASCHA | I think that your documentary “Corrections”1 very acutely negotiates the power relations that are produced by the visual and narrative representation of slavery and its successor, the prison-industrial complex. I don’t know if you agree, but in my view the maps are another approach to representing such a complex field of representations between what is talked about, by whom, and whom it talks to. All of these things combined create an image somehow.

Are the Prison Maps2/World Maps3 visualizations of hidden information or rather an attempt at emancipation from the system of visibility? How do they work?


ASHLEY | As visualizations, they are attempts to theorize interrelationships and dynamics between states and individuals, ideas, laws, organizations, histories, forces and processes, one in the context of what we call the “prison-industrial complex” and the other in the field we call globalization. The Prison Maps theorize (one in historical terms, the other in terms of the cast of characters that compose the prison-industrial complex) how desire for a growing prison system is produced and continues to multiply. The globalization map, (“A World Map: In Which We See…”) theorizes how prisoners in a domestic context, and refugees in an “extra-national” context, compose a growing body of stateless persons, upon whose erasure and subjugation global affluence and neoliberal capitalism are built. I understand these maps as diagrams that might make discourse and action possible. Gilles Deleuze had a really fabulous formulation of the relationship between theory and practice, which I would like to pretend is my own:

From the moment a theory moves into its proper domain, it begins to encounter obstacles, walls, and blockages which require its relay by another type of discourse (it is through this other discourse that it eventually passes to a different domain). Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.4

Moving from that, understanding practice not as a mere application of theory but as a relay moving it past blockages, and theory as a relay which moves practice past its own limits, both of these maps began by identifying fields of knowledge and action within activism that I saw as limited in their specificity. I understand great historical movements as moments when multiple isolated and discrete practices are unified and mobilized beyond what each could have imagined by some unifying analysis or historical event which collectivizes a set of claims or common identity across them. Similarly, maps enable practice and the unifying of discrete practices and spaces, so I thought they’d be interesting to try.

In the anti-prison movement here in the U.S., many groups work on isolated issues and have little time to spend investigating the larger contexts of which these isolated issues are each but one symptom. The Prison Maps were an attempt to visualize this larger analysis. Similarly with the World Map, I noticed that while the anti-prison movement in the U.S. operates on principles that are shared with anti-globalization work, at the same time the anti-prison movement — which is a nationally localized discourse — is effectively segregated from movements that are global in scope. The closest bridge I could identify between the two was the Third World liberation discourse of the 60s and 70s, and while it is still relevant, I felt this needed to be re-theorized. The World Map became an attempt to bridge this nationally limited discourse with a global one by way of a discourse on citizenship, a theoretical model trying to act as a “relay” between two spheres of practice, which could perhaps engender another sphere of practice altogether.

NATASCHA | How do we erase the images that create invisibilities? The TV series COPS produces a vision that renders the shown suspects representatives of a criminal counterpart and a threat to civil society. At the same time it renders the social and political and biopolitical causes of what is defined as crime invisible. It produces a gaze that supports a policy of segregation and oppression. In “Corrections,” you confront the image that a TV series like COPS evokes and affirms with the political, social and economic elements that are involved in the production of “the criminal” and “the prisoner.” How do the Prison Maps relate to this powerful image production? What strategies lead to the format of mapping?

ASHLEY | The thing I like most about this question is your phrase, “images that create invisibilities,” as this asserts invisibility as a positive thing, as a process of erasure, rather than as “nothing there.” It is similar in spirit to Foucault’s assertion that repression does not negate but is in fact productive: productive of subjectivities and discourses and institutions and built environments. In relation to imprisonment and crime, this means the production of prisoners (a position which the bodies of citizens are presented to fill); it produces prisons and camps, it produces jobs for those who work in and police these structures, it produces economy, and it produces complex discourses that naturalize crime and strip complex series of behaviors, actions and reactions of their reasons for being — as Richard Millhouse Nixon said, embracing one such strain of criminology in the 1960s, it’s time we stop talking about “root causes”; crime is about bad people who do bad things. Who are these people? What makes them fundamentally bad? Why are some children who fight “misguided” or “troubled,” and other children (usually darker-skinned and poorer) “bad,” “criminals waiting to happen”? Here we find multiple erasures, including the historical facts of racism, poverty and political disenfranchisement — which cannot in the political arena be deduced from the figure of crime — as a productive operation; and similar mechanisms operate around immigration, not to mention discourses on terrorism. I believe you’re correct in your question that this produces a gaze, or rather a viewer, a subject position, that will presume the necessity of segregation and state violence; those in power who benefit from such phenomena for any of a number of ugly reasons will of course feed into such discourse and erasure with vitriol, and COPS (a TV show created by a Texas police department as a public relations maneuver) is one such method of feeding the discourse and glossing it with entertainment value.

How do we counter such images? As I stated in the previous question, I believe this requires self-image production, but not only on the same order of COPS and political demagoguery, as these remain on the order of spectacle, where you’re stuck with the figure of “the criminal.” I am most interested in focusing on new representations of what has been effaced from discourse, while researching how the effaced had existed within discourses previously. The Prison Maps function in this way, countering such erasures, while also rejecting the images that within the spectacular already signify an overdetermined figure of crime. I was attracted to using mapping here in part by a geekish attraction to maps, but I also thought their didactic and pedagogical form might inspire new representation from others as well, rather than serving as final, ultimate representation in themselves.

NATASCHA | Do maps sometimes also cause problems for you?

ASHLEY | Yes. Maps are generally too totalizing, proposing full knowledge and discouraging more critical and creative thought. A good map, on the other hand, folds in on itself, betrays you, and reveals itself as a construction — including most of all the point of view from which it organizes and produces a visual field. Although the prison maps suggest a total explanation, they are too overwhelming to allow a total perspective, and having two of them suggests multiple ways of mapping the prison-industrial complex. The World Map on the other hand actually folds in on itself structurally, as there is no entry or exit point to the map, a number of the things mapped reappear in multiple places, and no way through the map allows the viewer to arrive at any stable point of certainty. Both maps are designed not to produce certainty but to produce the desire to talk more, to keep looking, to begin researching and acting, and ultimately get off the map.

NATASCHA | I would like to refer to a map5 by the Flüchtlingsrat Niedersachsen (Niedersachsen Council on Refugees and Exiles) that maps out the official, semi-legal, and illegal camps in and around Europe. It was produced in relation to the debate in Germany and in Europe in general about opening camps outside of Europe in order to stop people from coming to Europe. This initiative was officially justified with a humanitarian approach because so many people die each year while trying to cross the Mediterranean. A publication by the Flüchtlingsrat and an accompanying map wanted to show that these camps already exist. A strategy of counter-information. To what does the map respond and how can we respond to the map? That to me seemed a crucial question as I intensely studied the map and afterwards felt displaced and unable to locate myself or something I can relate to on the map. A map that was produced out of a practice of solidarity, taking sides, positioning and locating, I suppose, at the same time created an alienating feeling of being lost and of the finger hurting wherever you put it on the map. How can we make counter-information productive and speak from a position that tries to emancipate from hegemonic arguments and visualizations like statistics, numbers, maps, and other impersonal representations that make it impossible to propose a vision without gaze? Did you have these questions or problems while working on the Prison Maps/World Maps? It seems to me that they use counter-information in a different way and are able to create a liberating sphere of finding your own way through the thoughts and connections of thoughts.

ASHLEY | I had an interesting conversation with Ruthie Gilmore in 2000, where we discussed the implications of the number of prisoners in the U.S. having exceeded two million (now it is close to 2.2 million and still growing). One question was whether we thought two million prisoners sounded like a lot to the public. Some were arguing that “well, people don’t have the perspective to know how many two million really is —if they only knew how many that really is they’d be outraged!” To this notion, Ruthie replied (and I’m paraphrasing): I think people know exactly how many two million really is, but they’re not outraged because they know it’s 75% people of color, and that’s what people expect to happen to people of color. In other words, if a public is already predisposed to see black people as criminal, then they’re not going to be shocked when seeing them treated like criminals, whether that’s presented to them through booming prison statistics or images of poor people manhandled on COPS- it’s completely normal to see that. Unfortunately, what I think the Flüchtlingsrat map does not account for is the fact of this predisposition, its existence, its structure, the ways it is reproduced and what it conditions in terms of visibility and vision.

Inasmuch as misinformation is used to manipulate publics into doing and thinking nasty things, the Flüchtlingsrat map — as counter-information — is an important type of production; it is important to contradict misinformation and to be skillful and strategic about it, since politicians aren’t merely ignorant of the damage they do, they just don’t care until they are forced to pretend to care, and we have to know how to force them into that position. On this level, this map may have been very important.

But on a broader level (which is perhaps unfair to the Flüchtlingsrat map), as we discussed before, getting such counter-information “onto the map” means speaking on the order of the spectacle, and this is a different order of the visual than the one we’ve been concentrating on. The order of the spectacle is also where we find the metaphor of the light bulb (if only people really knew the truth, then they would agree, see the light and do the right thing). But this is a serious error! The over-simplicity of the light bulb strategy, I think, leads to a lot of ineffective activism, self-congratulations and missed opportunities.

What this does not account for is indeed the gaze that the spectacle proliferates and induces. But liberating counter-information from any “gaze” is precisely the wrong direction in my opinion. So long as we are talking about human beings we cannot eliminate the problem of the gaze, but we do need to dig into its construction and the character of its desire. We need to strategize control of the gaze, reconfigure its point of view, consider the subjectivity we want to inspire and the action it would seek. Counter-information by itself is meaningless, it’s just more information, after all; it is meaningful in relation to a point of view, a perspective that can recognize it and do something with it.

So when I look at the Flüchtlingsrat map, I ask: what does this map request of me? Where does it place me? Where does it allow me to travel and how does it tell me I can or cannot move? I also ask: What is it hiding from me, and how does it limit my vision? If this is a map, then like all maps, it assumes a point of view, a “you are here” through which you see and assume its perspective. As I stated above, in its form and address, this map assumes the perspective of the state, and (if that isn’t alienating enough) I would say that this perspective is inherently one of war. That is, the prerogatives of the state as visualized in a map are the prerogatives of war: to protect the integrity of territory, to plot out assets and liabilities, strengths and weaknesses, to identify and counter invasion and insurgency, and to strategize. (Maps are one of the theorizing tools that enable the practice of war.) Perhaps the disorientation and immobilization you felt came from trying to use this map to “see,” when from the perspective it offered you could see only groupings of dehumanized bodies in the abstract form of numbers and statistics, as the state would see them, as it would calculate them among acceptable or unacceptable costs in a war. I think that it is from this position, this vantage point for the user of the map, that such an emancipation, as you put it, of this information might be possible — only I do not think of it as an emancipation so much as a re-inscription, re-inscribing it into other regimes of the visible that we create.

A friend of mine reminded me yesterday of an account of the visible by Alain Badiou, wherein he claims it’s not a matter of being able to see or things being visible, but a matter of how we can see them. It’s like a theory of an obedience of images, where everything can be seen, but we are conditioned in how we are capable of or allowed to see, of course, but what I found interesting in his model was that when something insists upon appearing differently than we have been prepared to see it, it appears as violence. One of the curators who included the World Map in an exhibition in Baltimore remarked to me many times that it would make people really mad, and when I asked who, she would say, “capitalists!” It seemed funny that a mapping could make people mad, especially people in power! But she seemed to think that it meant the map was on the right track, not so harmless, I guess. In this way, perhaps what Badiou means is an epistemological violence, a violence against those stable positions and categories that order our vision and support the hierarchies of the day. I think this is a good strategy.

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