For the month of October, the artwork of inmates from Graterford State prison will hang beside items contributed by the general public along a chain-link fence installation set up in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall. The work, created by Los Angeles–based artist Sam Durant, forms part of an exhibition organized by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Blum and Poe Gallery and Sadie Coles HQ, titled “Open Source: Engaging Audiences in Public Space.” Titled Labyrinth, it takes the form of a human–scaled maze, and aims to confront the public with America’s mass-incarceration crisis.
Durant’s practice often experiments with the role of the artist in society, but he said in a telephone interview that, working as both an artist and a teacher, he is acutely aware of separating his practice and pedagogy. “There’s always a fine line with art in terms of it being overly explanatory or didactic, while still allowing for that mystery and poetry, the exploration,” he said. “So, I’m always trying to work along that line.” In the conversation below, which has been lightly edited and condensed, Durant talks about that line, his new work, and mass incarceration in the United States.
ARTnews: Tell me a bit about how Labyrinth came about?
Sam Durant: The Mural Arts Guild Program had initially invited me to work on a project dealing with mass incarceration. There were two phases to the piece. The first was the conception, which came through working for a year with prisoners at Graterford State Prison, nearby Philadelphia. We went to the prison several times and met with the guys and I told them, ‘We have this opportunity to do something about mass incarceration and have this site right across from City Hall.’ Through the discussion, one of the guys said, ‘You know getting arrested and put into the criminal justice system is like going into a maze you never get out of.’ That was how we came up with the idea for the maze, which I also thought was very interesting, seeing as it would be located in Philadelphia, the birthplace of [American] democracy. The idea of the labyrinth is also from Greek mythology, arguably where the first conceptions of democracy as a form of government came from, so there’s this nice kind of interaction. And then, following that, the prisoners also wanted to do something that was, for them, a way to be visible, because they are literally invisible to society, as most of them are lifers. Their faces and bodies cannot be shown outside of prison, so they wanted to also contribute work to hang on the fence.
What sort of artwork did the inmates contribute?
They did one large collective piece altogether. There’s a big voter registration drive going on right now in Pennsylvania, so they addressed this in a piece which asked the question: ‘If I could vote what would I like to change?’ It highlights the fact that if you’re convicted of a felony you can no longer vote in Pennsylvania. A lot of [the inmates’] ideas are around changing the way the justice system works. They’re all artists in their own right and will contribute different individual pieces as well.
How do you think the public will perceive Labyrinth?
We’re hoping the site will be a place for people to express themselves, to share with each other, and through that, share expression dealing with this emergency situation [of mass incarceration]. Then of course there’s the whole tourist population who comes to Philadelphia. For many of them, this will be new information, because again the prison system is so mystified in the media and people are so terrified of it and haven’t had any actual direct experience. So you don’t ever learn anything about it and you’re basically just afraid of it and the people that are in it. So [Labyrinth] is trying to create a space and opportunity for people to think through that.
A lot of your previous work, such as Scaffold, deals with the idea of using history as a mirror for engaging in a socially conscious dialogue. What is it about history that you see as being an effective means for achieving such ends?
It’s really basic. Every thinker and theorist since Aristotle made it clear that to understand the situation of the present you’ve got to know the historical conditions out of which the present moment has arisen. In terms of artwork, there’s still quite a bit of debate, and I’m sure there always will be, about the limits of artwork, and how it works within the social realm—which is great, it should be a debate. I don’t think it’s a fixed idea, but I think for me, using history as a way of dealing indirectly with the present, allows space for the audience’s discovery.
Labyrinth seems like a bit of a departure from that, though, in dealing quite directly with a contemporary issue. Is that right?
Yes, and I’m curious to see how it will go. Usually, when I address things through the lens of history—which I’ve found makes people a little more open and able to see how it relates [to the present]—there’s a kind of space there for a potential transformation. When I say ‘transformation’ here, I’m talking really about the small seeds of ideas. In a way, it’s what we look to art for, to have this experience of beauty or escape, or new take, on reality. I guess I’m a bit of a Kantian, in that sense.
That idea of transformation, art and the role they play together, relates pretty directly to the Transforma project you were involved with in post-Katrina New Orleans, which supported various rebuilding and cultural efforts. By directly linking art to transformation, you’re challenging the context in which it should exist, in the instance of Transforma, by making it something available to everyone, regardless of their social condition, which also ties into your work with the inmates.
That’s great, I like that. Yes, it’s a revolutionary idea that beauty should be available to all, which gets right to the heart of it. If you go to any ghetto in the world, what’s missing?Beauty. It reminds me of the idea of Bread and Roses, the original labour movement, led mainly by women workers in the 19th century. They said, ‘You’ve got to have both sustenance and beauty in your life and everyone deserves that, not just the rich.” Personally, I’m not very optimistic about our future—I guess I believe that these kinds of larger global transformations some of us hope for will take a long time. So these [projects] are incremental things. But then one could argue what’s better: a giant revolution or little steps along the way? I certainly don’t know the answer to that myself.
By creating little forms of subversion that challenge the status quo, though, particularly as it pertains to art and the marketplace you exist within, you do navigate that boundary of those two areas. On the one hand, yes, it is your career and livelihood, but also it’s something you are trying to interrogate and challenge through the work you’re creating. It’s like, you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, but at the same time, you want to change the way that it feeds.
Haha, yeah, that’s a great metaphor. That’s exactly right.
As an artist then, unaffected personally by incarceration, how have you located your own identity within Labyrinth?
I don’t want to speak for people affected by [mass incarceration]. It’s important for any artists dealing with injustice, oppression or trauma, that they’re aware of that. The voices [in Labyrinth] are the people that have had, and are having that experience. My presence is really there as the facilitator, in creating that space and time. I am skeptical of this Habermasian vision of having a public dialogue space, where everyone can be equal and have an equal voice. But, it’s something that we have to strive for, even though we know it’s not going to really happen and I hope the piece engages with that. It’s a striving for something that’s not likely to happen, but one still tries.
What specific social issues are you trying to address through Labyrinth?
For one, the Republicans attack on voting rights and full-scale assault on trying to reduce the electorate. I think it’s starting to come more into mass consciousness and I think the prisoners are way ahead. This is the other thing of working with people who’ve been in prison—they don’t need anything explained to them, they already know far better than anyone else on the outside. I’m not trying to say that these guys in prison are innocent, or have experienced injustice. All these guys are murderers and they admit to it, which is another kind of profound thing. They’re rehabilitating themselves, they want to live and contribute, they’re desperate, in a sense, to be part of the world and that struggle is incredibly poignant and difficult and raises all the issues around punishment versus rehabilitation, forgiveness versus retribution.