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Video Art and Mass Incarceration

Curated by Video Data Bank

The Video Art and Mass Incarceration compilation includes works from the Video Data Bank collection that focus on the rapid expansion of prisons during the end of the 20th Century in the United States. Since the time of slavery, the criminal justice system has been a continual source of racially-biased injustice and oppression, and the rise of mass incarceration serves as an expansion of those existing policies. The compilation showcases the ways that video artists in the 1990s used the medium as a means to understand the reality of prisons, and create a more equitable and collaborative dialogue between themselves and incarcerated people. Featuring the work of Lawrence Andrews, Harun Farocki, Annie Goldson & Chris Bratton, and Laurie Jo Reynolds, Video Art and Mass Incarceration connects touchstones of experimental video to the politics of the movement to defund policing and defend Black life.

The included works are further contextualized in the essay Video Art and Mass Incarceration by programmer Zach Vanes.

# Title Artists Run Time Year Country
1 The Deathrow Notebooks Annie Goldson, Chris Bratton 00:13:11 1992 United States
2 I Thought I was Seeing Convicts Harun Farocki 00:25:00 2000 Germany
3 Space Ghost Laurie Jo Reynolds 00:25:35 2007 United States

The Deathrow Notebooks

Annie Goldson, Chris Bratton
1992 | 00:13:11 | United States | English | Color | Mono | 4:3 | Video


Deathrow Notebooks is structured around an interview with Mumia Abu-Jamal, a political prisoner who is on death row in Pennsylvania. Former president of the Association of Black Journalists, Abu-Jamal is a writer and creator of widely-broadcast radio programs who continues to write from prison. He was accused of killing a police officer, and in 1982 was convicted in a trial that contained many irregularities. To date, all of his appeals have failed. Abu-Jamal has been placed in highly punitive conditions; he is denied reading material and visitors because, for religious reasons, he refuses to cut his hair. Abu-Jamal describes his early history in Philadelphia, his work as an information officer with the Black Panthers, his interest and later affiliation with MOVE, and his arrest and imprisonment.

I Thought I was Seeing Convicts

Harun Farocki
2000 | 00:25:00 | Germany | English | Color | Stereo | 4:3 |


“Images from the maximum-security prison in Corcoran, California. A surveillance camera shows a pie-shaped segment of the concrete yard where the prisoners, dressed in shorts and mostly shirtless, are allowed to spend half-an-hour a day. When one convict attacks another, those not involved lay flat on the ground, arms over their heads. They know that when a fight breaks out, the guard calls out a warning and then fires rubber bullets. If the fight continues, the guard shoots real bullets. The pictures are silent, the trail of gun smoke drifts across the picture. The camera and the gun are right next to each other.”

— Human Rights Projects (Bard College, 2001)

Space Ghost

Laurie Jo Reynolds
2007 | 00:25:35 | United States | English | B&W and Color | Stereo | 4:3 | Video


Space Ghost compares the experiences of astronauts and prisoners, using popular depictions of space travel to illustrate the physical and existential aspects of incarceration: sensory deprivation, the perception of time as chaotic and indistinguishable, the displacement of losing face-to-face contact, and the sense of existing in a different but parallel universe with family and loved ones.

Physical comparisons such as the close living quarters, the intensity of the immediate environment, and sensory deprivation, soon give way to psychological ones: the isolation, the changing sense of time, and the experience of earth as distant, inaccessible, and desirable. The analogy extends to media representations that hold astronauts and prisoners in an inverse relationship: the super citizen vs. the super-predator. Astronauts, ceaselessly publicized, are frozen in time and memory whereas prisoners, anonymous and ignored, age without being remembered.

The end of the video introduces the notion of the "phantom zone" taken from Superman to describe incarceration as an in-between space, a no-man's land, or a warehouse. A letter from an inmate explains how the space/time continuum can become reconfigured in prison:  "The time really goes by fast here. You can do years in prison and it seems like no time at all. That's because you don’t remember any of the time you did. And that's because there’s nothing to remember. "Space Ghost is an experimental video constructed with juxtapositions and non-linear narrative. It is about isolation, mediation, separation; being de-linked from the world of touch, and time, and dailiness, and human contact. It's about the attempts in face of that disconnection to read mystical connection into any links you can find. It's about the craziness of isolation, about not being able, literally, to move; about living in virtual not real space, and about disappearing there. It's about a sister and a brother communicating only by telephone; it's about not having pancakes, but seeing pictures of pancakes."

— Laurie Palmer "Report Back", AREA Chicago