What documents constrain, narrate, or liberate subjecthood?

Black and white photo of Nicole Fleetwood
Nicole R. Fleetwood is a writer, curator, and professor of American Studies and Art History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her books are Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (2020), On Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination (2015), and Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (2011). She is co-editor of Aperture magazine’s “Prison Nation,” a special issue focusing on photography’s role in documenting mass incarceration, and co-curator of Aperture’s touring exhibition of the same title. Fleetwood has co/curated exhibitions on art and mass incarceration at Andrew Freedman Home, Aperture Foundation, Cleveland Public Library, MoMA PS1, the Zimmerli Art Museum, and the Urban Justice Center. Her work has been supported by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, NYPL’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, ACLS, Whiting Foundation, Denniston Hill Residency, Schomburg Center for Scholars-in-Residence, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the NEH.
In my recent book and exhibition, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, I’ve examined how documents are used to tether people held in punitive captivity to carceral systems and structures; to frame and incapacitate them as carceral subjects. Documents are integral to the production of categories of the criminal; and administrative procedure and the circulation of such paperwork demonstrate how documents are weaponized against targeted populations as forms of state violence. I describe “carceral indexes” as the documents, biometric data, and photographic images that render subjects as “criminals,” “offenders,” “inmates,” as state property. They accumulate over the period of a person’s imprisonment. They have an enormous amount of power and authority to determine the conditions under which the imprisoned will live in punitive captivity and how they will continue to be monitored after their release. They continue to shape the life outcomes of the imprisoned person long after they have been released; these documents maintain an enormous amount of power even after the person has died.

In my research, I am especially interested in how imprisoned people make use of these documents to experiment aesthetically and to produce art. Artists use their sentencing documents, disciplinary records, mug shots, commissary orders, review forms, and more as “penal matter” to explore as aesthetic forms and source material for artistic production. By penal matter, I mean the material limitations placed upon imprisoned and detained people, as well as how racial and extractive capitalism shape the material constraints under which people create.

I was struck by how much the questions posed in Bugs & Beasts before the Law speak to the concerns of many of the incarcerated, and formerly imprisoned, artists I’ve been in conversation with over the past several years. Artists in prison often describe their experience as being herded, warehoused, and slaughtered. But they often stake their claims for humanity and rights through a comparison with being treated like an animal. Scholars like Sharon Holland, Colin Dayan, and Joshua Bennett have theorized the relationship between animality and anti/blackness. Imprisoned black artists are engaged in similar explorations through a meditation of their status as unfree, through the limited access they have to mobility and material access, and how their bodily functions are controlled by the state.

They are also deeply engaged with a resignification of the documents that mark them as captives of the state. Portrait artist Russell Craig began exploring his official biography as documented by the carceral state across a series of self portraits he began while in prison and have continued in various iterations now as a college student at Bard College. In Self Portrait (2016), Craig uses his carceral biography as the backdrop for his self representation. Tracing a carceral footprint through court documents and sentencing forms. Craig, who was on parole at the time, went to sites that held his legal and criminal records.

He ran into obstacles along the way; the halfway house where he had been ordered to stay for the first six months after release from Graterford was no longer there. His journey to accumulate the forms took him to crumbling facades and the depleted infrastructure of the ever-changing carceral system that morphs and expands, keeping him bound to prison legacies. The portrait’s backdrop amounts to a hefty legal file of rectangular shapes. Individual documents show fissures and inconsistencies. On one sentencing form, his name is reversed: Russell Craig becomes Craig Russell. On another, a letter “l” is missing from his first name, rendering him “Russel.” Other details are illegible. They can be inferred. He is one of many thousands of young black men moving through the prison system in the Philadelphia area.

Across the axis of his legal canvas is a large pastel portrait of Craig in soft browns, golds, and blacks. Here he is serene and unsmiling, self-arranged and composed across the mass of legislative discourse and actions that have framed him. His rendering of self emphasizes history and state power, as well as light and futurity where he leaves areas free of markings. The printed texts create texture and density in his face. His prison ID photograph appears as a mole on his lower cheek and again under his eye. The panel’s binding creates a deep crease through his forehead and down through his neck. For Craig, there is not a time that he recalls when he hasn’t been tethered to the penal state, having moved through foster care and group homes, then juvenile detention centers, county jails, and state prisons. As he grew, so did his legal archive, dispersed across the state.”

Craig’s most recent portraits experiment with organic matter and the remains of animals held captive, brutalized, and tortured by agribusiness. With the remains of cattle, he constructs images of himself and other criminalized and imprisoned subjects. For example in his large-scale Self Portrait II (2020), he renders a smiling self on a backdrop of dissembled leather bags, made by an artisan in prison and canvas; he uses cow blood as one of the elements to paint the work. Craig explains, “the leather represents hide, like skin from a cow… We are treated like animals, like less than human… That also ties into blood, like beef blood. I made a point not to get pork blood, because beef is symbolic for black people. Like “beef” meaning problems with the police… Also I don’t eat pork.”

“I got the blood from a slaughterhouse, and how we are slaughtered in the streets. You can get slaughtered in the courts. You can be murdered in the prisons.”

Craig explains his process as akin to a crime scene: “The blood was very disturbing to people. Others didn’t like the smell of the blood.” The blood didn’t bother him. He said when working on the portrait, it was like a murder scene—blood everywhere. “The blood would move. The blood was like alive…. To see the blood like move and make patterns.”

During his 22 years in solitary confinement in a prison in New Jersey, Black Liberation Army member Ojore Lutalo made collages—hundreds of them. They were constructed with minimal materials—white legal paper, Elmer’s glue, newsprint— and with the use of a copying machine to which Lutalo had restricted access, one of his rights to allow him to reproduce legal documents. Influenced by the art of Emory Douglas, the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party who created many of the organization’s most iconic posters, Lutalo calls his collages “visual propaganda”; more than simply works of art, they are tools to spread political messages. Lutalo’s collages became his primary mode of communicating with allies, advocates, and a broader nonincarcerated public. As the Prison Watch Program spread word of his lockdown in MCU and of the widespread use of solitary confinement in general, his contact with activists and allies grew. He began to correspond through letters with people regionally, nationally, and internationally.

Lutalo eventually sent them collages to represent his condition—that is, when the collages were not confiscated or destroyed by prison staff. He used collage to record his experiences of isolation, deprivation, and disorientation. He states that when people asked what his cell looked like, “I got tired of rewriting the same thing over and over again. So I started doing the collages. At the time I just considered them political propaganda, because I was using them to educate people at large. See, the visual is more effective than the verbal.” Lutalo meant for his collages—built with the tools available to him in administrative segregation, including repurposing news media—to contribute to a pedagogy of liberation. He encouraged others to copy and distribute them.

Most of the collages are black and white, with occasional use of color via paper or pen. They document his treatment, the plight of other political prisoners, the technologies of isolation units, and forms of “no-touch torture” employed as methods of state violence, Lutalo incorporated his carceral biography into his collages as a way of projecting his presence outside MCU and refuting the closed security of the unit. In Breaking Men’s Minds (undated), he incorporates his prison ID photo, a significant feature in his work as a practice of self-referentiality and relationality. The photo is often accompanied by his name and prison mailing address in an aesthetics that has more to do with using art to connect to others than it does allegiance to a particular form or genre.

Another key feature of his work is the indeterminacy of time, as seen in the collage It’s Time for an Intervention (undated), whose date of completion is unknown. Although he often incorporates dates from headlines and from his prison documents into his collages, Lutalo returns to some of his pieces years later. He has continued to build on his early work since his release from prison in 2009. Time in isolation cannot adequately be marked by dated documents or headlines. Time in isolation is an absence of external markers to register penal temporality as experienced in closed, minimal, and locked quarters of solitary confinement. It is nonlinear, as seen in Being Persecuted for Political Thoughts (undated). The collage incorporates a “Notice of Classification Decision, Routine Review,” in which Lutalo comments that he is being persecuted for his political beliefs and documents his movement from the general population to isolation, alongside the response from the review committee, which reads, “Your radical views and ability to influence others poses a threat to the orderly operations of the Institution.” Across the top of the collage, a heading reads, “22 Years in Isolation,” which poses a question: what is the duration of twenty-two years alone in a box?”

Craig and Lutalo are engaged in carceral aesthetics, the production of art under the condition of unfreedom. Their resignification of carceral documents as aesthetic and political interventions reveal the links between art and incarceration as systems of (de)valuation and subjecthood in the U.S.