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Temporary Services & Angelo
Prisoners’ Inventions
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Gallery I Space
December 9, 2005 - January 28, 2006

According to the US Department of Justice, there were close to seven million people (that’s one in thirty-one) either on probation, parole or in jail or prison in 2004. That number represented a cumulative 3.4% annual increase from 1995. That seems like a huge number of people to consider criminal in any given society. Especially a society, like ours, that places such value on efficiency, productivity and competitiveness. Of course, who said prisoners couldn’t be useful to capital? Since as far back as 1817, business has been given access to prison labor, in what came to be known as the “Convict Lease System” following the Civil War. The weakening of laws that banned prison labor and the expansion of private interests have created a situation where over 30 states now accept contracts with companies like Eddie Bauer, Honda and AT&T.
And though people serving time may also serve the same economy as those of us on the “outside,” they certainly aren’t participating in its consumption. You probably won’t find many iPods or IKEA designer pillows in San Quentin’s cell blocks. But, that doesn’t mean that all inmates resign themselves to only working for “the man.” As an ongoing project by the Chicago-based Temporary Services collective illustrates, prisoners have needs and desires that require the production of objects. The project, titled “Prisoners’ Inventions,” takes an intimate look at the way inmates create a sense of normalcy through inventive objects.
“Prisoners’ Inventions” is not strictly speaking the work of Temporary Services, the collective name for artists Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin and Marc Fischer, but rather it represents their correspondence with an imprisoned artist known as “Angelo.” Since 1991 Temporary Services, through Marc Fischer, has been in contact with Angelo, discussing via mail his drawings and observations of creativity in prison life. The relationship resulted in the first exhibition of the project in 2000 and a book (published by White Walls) in 2002.
For the exhibition at I Space, numerous examples of drawings and writing by Angelo document the invention of various mundane and everyday devices by himself and his fellow inmates. Water heaters constructed from just about anything that is conductive; tattoo guns from ball-point pens, needles and an audio cassette player motor; cups from plastered toilet paper; sex toys from water-filled plastic bags. Such objects speak to a desire for normalcy in extreme situations. Accompanying Angelo’s diagrammatic drawings of these inventions are his first hand accounts of how they work and where he discovered them. Presented in hand written text, there is an immediacy formed between the study of the objects and the intimately narrated experience of them.
Another major component for the I Space installation is a scale reproduction of Angelo’s cell. First fabricated for the 2003 “Fantastic” exhibition at MASS MoCA, it is based on Angelo’s drawings and measurements, apparently so convincing that one prison guard, upon seeing a photograph of the reproduction in Angelo’s possession questioned how he obtained such an image of his own cell. Just looking into the room, entirely devoid of contrast - everything is a similar shade of gray, from the concrete walls to the steel furniture - the conditions of confinement become pretty clear. It’s a tight fit for a single person, let alone the two “cellies” that would normally occupy it.
While there is much to be amazed at in “Prisoners’ Inventions” - the spectacle of such ingenuity with impoverished means is impressive - the most striking moments of the show exist between the objects and narratives, where the human creativity on display is recognized within the inhumane frame of our judicial system. The show doesn’t aim for the expectations of prison abolitionists, however, and doesn’t seem designed to. Neither Temporary Services nor Angelo call for the destruction of prisons or for the amnesty of those serving time. They do provide a “reading room” to study up on the prison-industrial complex, with many materials certainly taking a critical view. But, in the end, it’s not an intellectual argument that Angelo and Temporary Services are making, but one that is more basic in its politics. The question is whether such a humanist appeal can challenge the ideological desires that require us to be convinced of a person’s humanness in the first place.