On Visiting Eastern State
23 July 2005

The main impetus for the day trip to Philadelphia was visiting the installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at Eastern State Penitentiary. Eastern State was built as a panopticon prison with a central space and wings of one-person cells. “Opened in 1829 as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through ‘confinement in solitude with labor,’ Eastern State Penitentiary quickly became one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States. It is estimated that more than 300 prisons worldwide are based on the Penitentiary’s wagon-wheel, or ‘radial’ floor plan.” (from the timeline on http://www.easternstate.org) It ceased operations as a prison in the early 1970s and has been open for touristic visits for more than a decade after being saved from demolition in the mid 1970s and commercial development in the 1980s. During the period it was closed, there was a colony of cats that were fed three times a week by Dan McCloud, the last city caretaker. These cats were the inspiration for another installation this summer.

I have been to several Cardiff/Miller installations before. The first was a walk in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art during the 1997 Annual Conference of the American Library Association, thanks to the recommendation of Dawn Henney of the UCLA Arts Library. That walk took you through the building, including a staff stairwell, as the artist described what happened in the spaces you were traveling through. In the stairwell, a person approaches from behind and passes you. All of this is in audio splendor as the sounds take over your entire senses. While you are aware of the surroundings, they are remote. Those of you on the walk are spaced far enough apart that you are not in spatial conflict.

There was also a Cardiff/Miller installation at P.S. 1 in Queens which was similar though in a building I had visited more than SFMOMA. This time, I visited the installation with a friend, Sonny Torres. More about that later. In addition to a walk around the building, a former high school, there was a room with a circle of speakers each singing a different part of a soundpiece and several smaller pieces. One of the smaller pieces was a video of a singer. You were in the balcony with the singing coming through the earphones. As you sit there, the nearby audience begins to whisper things like “Did I remember to turn off the stove?”

Luhring Augustine Gallery has had a couple installations of Cardiff/Miller in the years since I visited the SFMOMA installation in 1997. One of them was similar to the singer but far less effective.

Last summer, there was a wonderful and serene walk by Cardiff/Miller in Central Park that was splendidly cognizant of the space and its inhabitants. In this audio piece, the congruence of the foot fall and the markers such as hot dog stands and pathway details was mind-boggling for its regularity and predictability at the same time you were transformed by having the artist talking to you as you walked. The walk ended by the edge of the pond near the Rambles, in silence.

Each of these pieces reflected its setting but at the same time could have been recreated in other buildings or parks. “Pandemonium” at Eastern State was of its place in a different way. You were not removed from the world by being hidden behind earphones as you experienced the audiowork.

Eastern State is a forboding gray stone building. If you walk to it from Thirtieth Street Station, as I did, it begins to be visible from some blocks away as you walk up 22nd Street. It closes off the street view at Fairmount with 30-foot exterior walls. The website has considerable information about the construction and philosophy of incarceration in isolation which was inspired by Quaker principles. I find it interesting that most of the prisons that copied this plan were actually built in other countries rather than the U.S. The complex of buildings is now about half open to the public, that is, you can walk through three or four of the wings and on about half of the grounds.

The Cardiff/Miller “Pandemonium” is in a two-story wing with large skylights now covered in plastic. The sound piece is not visited in the isolation of earphones but rather fills the space of the wing and can occasionally be heard out on the grounds. The plastic of the skylights occasionally rippled and added to the sound effects. Cardiff and Miller set up percussion hammers to hit beds, bedstands, lightshades, and other detritus left in the prison wing. The sounds come from the cells and vary considerably in volume. They move around you. They chase up and down the wing. You can go up the stairs at the central end of the wing and across the bridge between the balconies. You can peer into the cells and see the hammers and detritus but some were so dark that the mystery was complete. I did not visit the “Pandemonium” wing until I had walked through a couple other wings so I had already walked into several cells and contemplated the isolation. While I have several times partaken of Quaker meetings, the idea of being in the cell for days, weeks, months is overwhelming. The cells were set up such that the prisoner could mostly not hear any of the others or see the prison staff. Another installation at P.S. 1, another time, was a white isolation box. The artist challenged you to stay in the box for a certain length of time and the gallery guard (interesting choice of word) fetched you when the time was “up.” When the guard came to get me, he said that was the longest anyone had stayed on his watch. The box was filled with white noise, a fan or some such.

“Pandemonium” is not a recreation of the prison’s silence and isolation, or contemplative. Rather it is the cacophony that one imagines in a contemporary prison. That imagination may be based mostly on movies or television. Indeed, Alexa Hoyer played on that vision in her installation entitled “I always wanted to go to Paris, France.” The first video monitor you encounter was clips from movies and TV, mostly noisy and confrontational. Another video showed scenes in the shower: a weird mix of fantasy and horror. Yet another video was clips of prisoners including a drag queen who said the title line. So much of this trip to Eastern State was evocative of other things. The Paris line brought the work of Jean Sirius to mind. She has done some small photobooks including “My feet go to Europe” which includes a view of her feet and oily water entitled “Rue de Rivoli, Paris.”

The sounds of “Pandemonium” are mostly clanging and drumming but they vary in volume and the specific source of any sound is not obvious unless you peer into the cell. Last Saturday was bright so the space was well-lit though some of the cells were pitch black. To be in a place of recreation, voluntarily, and think of incarceration was almost overwhelming. The sounds repeated and chased each other, the way that prisoners use sound as signals. Yet more evocation: my office space has become cacophonous and someone described some of the sound behavior in the office -- mimicking and signaling -- as jail-like.

My friend Sonny Torres who visited the P.S. 1 installation with me has spent some years in prison. He was in prison for a while during 2000-2001 and I visited him several times at different locations (The Tombs, Riker’s Island, Napanoch, Gouverneur). Just being in the reception area and visiting room gave me some idea of what it must be like behind those walls, but without the torment, competition, and threats. The sound level in the reception area was incredible, not at all like Quaker meeting. The guards spoke in loud voices, the visitors responded in kind. In the visiting room, the noise level is a sort of protection from overhearing anyone beyond a short distance.

While my interactions with Sonny were mostly detrimental, they did provide me with more knowledge of how difficult prison life must be. Visiting the prisons was also educational, perhaps more education than I needed but reading about it is not the same. The serenity of Eastern State as a historic site is conducive of contemplation; the reality of even visiting a prison is not. Evocative but not contemplative. Sonny was not especially trained in viewing art but he also found the Cardiff/Miller installation at P.S. 1 compelling and mentioned it several times when I’d say I was going gallery hopping.

There were also some other installations at Eastern State this summer. The stray cats were recreated by Linda Brenner as “Ghost cats” with “plaster” casts dispersed around the buildings and grounds. Dayton Castleman put “The end of the tunnel” at the end of one of the wings and elsewhere on the grounds. The red pipes in Castleman’s work climb about the grounds as escape routes and up over the outside wall. Tricia Struth and Ted Shelton used mirrors to give you a corridor view from a cell and a cell view from the corridor.

The audio tours at Eastern State were good, and included the voices of former staff and inmates, the artists, and current tour guides and historians. Former Cardiff/Miller visits have had earphones for art in a place; this was earphones for place. The installation is scheduled to be open until April 2006 and is well worth the visit. If you like the solace of isolation, I recommend getting there earlier in the day. After I left Eastern State, I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the galleries there were very quiet. I guess everyone had pretty much gone to the shore.

More information: Eastern State = http://www.easternstate.org (including history of the site and information about the installations)
Jean Sirius = http://www.jeansirius.com


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