The installation is dedicated to prisoners engaged in writing. The work is organized around a collection of hundreds of books and other texts from across the world written under conditions of enforced incarceration. The collection includes the work of writers who have been sent to prison for the contents of their writing, for their political involvement, as well as of prisoners convicted of other crimes who have used the time and seclusion of their incarceration to become writers. Through the collection of texts an archipelago of prison cells emerges. The cells are thus revealed as sites of intellectual production, marking the limit condition of writing. The collection is assembled in recognition that spatial confinement and isolation may induce a process of creative, imaginative, sometimes spiritual, cultural production.
The individual’s impulse to survive through texts, through reclaiming her own voice against the imposition of others, creates an autarkic realm in which practices of dissidence, political and personal, could be reinstated. Commissioned and designed by and for the state, prison cells acquire a potential subversive content, becoming critical spatial apparatuses. Paradoxically, imprisonment emerges as an active practice of citizenship a mechanism of political opposition that call for a confrontation or intolerance with certain forms of government.
The design of the cell is outlined by two walls and a line drawn on floor. A bookshelf is embedded into the walls at eye level, holding a collection of books and articles that have been written in prison. The various books have been collected from second hand bookshops, mostly in their original language and mostly with traces of their readers. The books presented in the context of the installation are only a seed for a larger project that will continuously grow and be available as a library to both prisoners (the library will travel between several prisons) and the free public (the permanent home of the installation will be with the London based writers’ organization, English-PEN which will as well manage, extend and make publicly available the library).
The collection of books is framed by the criteria that the work must have been written in prison or other forms of confinement such as work and concentration camps. The texts are ordered not according to traditional fields of designated knowledge but according to the number of days a writer spent (is spending) in prison. Texts whose subject matters and periods are radically different are thus placed next to each other, undoing systems of designated knowledge. Catalogue entries (time in prison, place of prison, the charge and the verdict) are chalk-written on the blackboard painted wall, allowing the collection to be transformed and the catalogue expanded.
A desk placed in the middle of our ‘cell’ offers place to read and work. On it, a computer gives access to a website where a continuously updated catalogue of our expanded library is available online. The website, publicly available beyond the exhibition, allows for a variety of search categories and taxonomies, allowing multiple connections between the books on content, geographical and period parallels. The website includes as well references to books that could not be found yet, as well as some further texts by prisoners and links to critical essays and protest letters concerning prison conditions.
Projected outside of the walls of our ‘cell’, alternating with the website, is a recently completed video project by the Greek/German filmmaker Angela Melitopolous. The video is a series of interviews with the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri in and about his prison years. In the film Negri recalls the early years of his incarceration, when together with some two-hundred co-inmates he formed what he called ‘the prison university’. Negri described, how during his second period in prison, when he was alone as a political prisoner, the cell became a reflection of his subjectivity – a retreat, a university and an office for one. Operated like an office, or a monk’s cell, with a bed, a small library, desk, chair, from which he worked, he was (at best) left alone with books and newspapers. Negri points as well to the unfulfilled potential of the prison as a place of education and thought, and critically comments on the ‘theft of time’ by the prison authorities engaged in wasteful rituals of security, leaving little time for rest and silence.
The dissident’s second university
For many prisoners, the prison could offer a period of reflection, scholarship and education as well as a resonating chamber for political dissent. Regis Debray described the Prison as “the dissident’s second university”. Antonio Gramsci was forced to write in code to bypass the constraints of the prison and its censorship. Ezra Pound learns from the Chinese Encyclopedia which he smuggled into his Pisan cage. For Antonio Negri it was the routines of the prison that represented the principal form of punishment in a capitalist society. Auguste Blanqui formulated in the middle of the 19th century, a detailed guide for the armed uprising of the revolutionary multitudes which included sketches and street maps with exact details of barricades. Many writers are fascinated with insects and animals coming into their prison cells. Some writers use animal metaphors in their writing and record that they protected these creatures with love and envy.
The limits of writing
The ‘book shelf’ in the exhibition represents a selection of books and writings that belong to the realm of ‘possible writing’. A large part of the texts presented have been smuggled out of prison or have otherwise survived the prison time of the author. Needless to say, this collection stands in the foreground of a much larger number of writings that could not have been smuggled out of prisons, could not have been reproduced, or have been deliberately destroyed by prison guards and personnel, or of writings that could not be written at all as pen and paper have been denied.
The Burmese comedian, poet and opposition activist Maung [Zargana] Thura, was held in solitary confinement. In 1988, during his first period in prison, Zargana scratched his poems on the floor of his cell using a piece of pottery before committing them to memory. They were reproduced from memory following his release. Amnesty reports that in 1995, Burma’s most famous journalist, U Win, imprisoned now for 19 years, was held in a cell designed for military dogs. When denied writing materials, U Win Tin made his own ink out of brick powder from the walls of his cell and fashioned a pen from a piece of bamboo mat. The few messages and desperate calls for help, such as his, only occasionally leak through horrific prisons like these in Burma. Displaying the notes from people – many of them prisoners of conscience – who have to endure violence and mental torment should also recall the fact that the collection of prison writings is also a call for freedom.
The library’s incompleteness is as well an acknowledgment of those many who suffered and still suffer in prisons, work, concentration and extermination camps, gulags, detention centres and secret prisons for their political struggles, or for real crimes, without being able to leave their mark behind. The gaps and omissions in this library speak about what has been excluded by ignorance, forgetfulness, language barriers, misreading and censorship, but also about what, tragically, no doubt, will, be added to it – all the books that will still be written under conditions of confinement.
Ines & Eyal Weizman
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