Monthly Archives: June 2011

Youth: Surveyed and Unafraid!

As stated in my previous post, Art Under Surveillance, I recently ended an intensive project at Doncaster prison working with incarcerated men.  Earlier in the term, I also completed a Forum Training week with Cardboard Citizens, a non-profit in London that creates Forum Theatre with the homeless.

Both of these experiences had something very small but significant in common: a sensitivity to the written word as it pertains to surveillance and information sharing.

The project theme at Doncaster focused on gangs.  While the final performance was largely devised from improvisational and physical theatre, my co-facilitator and I led a short writing exercise examining the men’s relationship to gang life. Several participants refused to write anything except “no comment”.  We never pushed writing as the primary means of developing story; it was clear the men were acutely aware of implicating themselves on paper.

At Cardboard Citizens, I acted as a supporting facilitator while remaining in the role of “student”.  I took notes during the workshop for my own benefit as a practitioner.  Several other participants also opted to take notes, but my lead facilitator quickly reminded the group that everything said within the workshop was confidential.  Later, she told me she made the announcement because a participant was writing down information about people’s personal lives instead of taking instructive notes.

In both cases, I was warned about how writing during the process would most likely be regarded by participants: with suspicion.  It interests me that such a “low-to-no-tech” method of recording is still held as a viable option for spying and reporting.  Has the advancement of technology, and the comfort level we have with it, made writing unfamiliar, and therefore warrant greater scrutiny?  Who carries around a pen and paper nowadays anyway?

The age range of both groups was, on average, 20 years and older.  I mention this fact because of a peculiar writing incident that occurred with adolescents during my time at Storycatchers Theatre.  Storycatchers is a writing based company, producing original musicals inspired by the personal stories of the participants.  The participants are 14-18 years old, and involved in our programs outside and inside of prison. During programming at a boys facility, a participant wrote a story that implicated him in a crime for which he had not been caught or charged.

Let me state a couple things, as the story is a veritable ethical landmine:

1) This situation had never happened in the history of the company (apparently, I got lucky). Normally, if participants chose to write stories about their crimes, they were already charged and serving time, or currently being investigated.

2) Storycatchers immediately brought this to the attention of the facility and internal information.  We shared the story, spoke to the participant and let the facility do its job. We had to protect the company, programming, ourselves, and ultimately, the participant. Fortunately or not, internal information never corroborated the story with any unsolved crimes, and as far as we know, dropped the issue entirely.

Admittedly, I had never thought to say, “Don’t write about a crime you haven’t been caught for.”  We always go over confidentiality expectations, state that we are mandated reporters (meaning if information given to us by the participant that puts the participant or someone else in danger, we must report it), and advise them to write the story they’re most comfortable sharing (though ultimately they do not have to share it with the group).

The experience taught me to be even clearer with young participants, and openly discuss the connection between writing and information sharing.  There seems to be a disconnect between youth and an awareness of the power of the written word.  Incarcerated/vulnerable adolescents have an unfamiliarity with writing, either due to poor education or exposure/over-exposure to technological alternatives, that causes them to take risks in writing that the comparable, older version of the population does not.  In my experience, adolescents are more willing to write their stories; apparently so willing that they run the risk of condemning themselves*.

But how much of the youth’s bravado was really the consequence of age and naivete?  The alarming part of my participant’s admission was how oblivious he was to the concept of surveillance and being “caught”; even in the midst of a prison, where every move is monitored.  Is the rapidly increasing comfort level with technology, and the ease with which we share information, creating generations of youth who are unafraid of surveillance? And when paired with imprisonment, are these youth not only unafraid, but accommodating?

*I must point out that if our society did not criminalize a large portion of the adolescent’s natural inclination to take risks, but rather supported and provided more healthy, positive avenues for risk-taking, perhaps we would not call a story told in honesty an ethical dilemma? That was for you, Performance Research group.

Surprise plus Surveillance

Inspired by my recent encounters with surveillance, both artistically and security oriented, I decided to go home to Chicago and surprise my mom, dad and best friend for Memorial Day weekend.  I made a short film called Surprise, Chicago documenting the adventure.

The project involved about 3 weeks of “soft” surveillance in which I spoke with other family members to plan the surprise, employing my aunt to arrange a Memorial Day bbq at my mom’s house.  I also planned to have my best friend come to the gathering with her family.  Meanwhile, I lay decoys, chatting with my “targets”, spreading lies about my inability to come home anytime soon, and lamenting about “how I wish I could be there too!”.

I LOVE surprises: the planning, the execution, the attention to detail, the lying…maybe I shouldn’t admit to the last one. BUT, if you think about it (i.e. hastily rationalize), surprises are a very positive way of lying to the people you love.  In fact, I think people should plan more surprises in order to channel our innate desire to tell the infamous little white lie.  Wouldn’t that make the world a better place? Then all our lying could contribute to positive outcomes that are about making people feel loved and important.

There is a guilty thrill in lying and I felt the same adrenaline rush in the purposeful surveillance of my family.  As I rounded the corner of my house, armed with my camera, scouting the whereabouts of my mom and dad, my heart raced. I felt nervous and giddy. I think I even sweated a bit.  All the lying and watching and planning was about to burst out into the open.  And when I finally ambushed everyone, the effect was much more meaningful than I had expected.

I didn’t necessarily plan to make a short film out of the footage; I just felt a strong urge to capture everything about the process, most importantly the outcome.  Seeing people react to something unexpected has always been a draw for humans, but with the advent of technology, the recording and replaying of these events is the pièce de résistance.  We can revisit the entire experience and relive all the pleasurable sensations over and over, much of which include a great helping of schadenfreuden.  While pranks have always existed, my little film is born out of grand television mainstays such as Candid Camera which has evolved into popular shows such as Ashton Kutcher’s Punk’d. We watch and reveal, and in that combination, there is an innocence about surveillance.  It becomes harmless because ultimately the intention was not malicious. Surprise plus Surveillance equals funny, moving, touching, thrilling, laughter and tears of joy.

And really, can we ever get sick of fart jokes? I think not:

Art Under Surveillance

So I’ve been in prison all week.

Doing a theatre project, people.

I’m working at a local prison in Doncaster prison which is, as a professor of mine claims, “the most depressing town ever”.  As far as I can tell, Doncaster is comprised of a huge shopping mall called Frenchgate which is conveniently attached to the main rail station. So from my perspective, Doncaster offers its residents the balm of consumerism after a long visit to their incarcerated loved ones- perhaps a tad melancholy, yes.

My classmate and I shack up at a hotel outside the town because there’s a rule that staff can’t live in the same town as the prison-  since it’s a local facility, the chances of bribery, smuggling and other breechings of security are high.  One of the correctional officers asked where we were staying, and then kind of scoffed when we reiterated the rule we’d heard. His reaction led me to believe the precaution was a “safety lie” for students like us.

This is not my first time working in a prison.  I’ve created theatre in prisons for the past 8 years in the States, first through the Prison Creative Arts Project, and then with Storycatchers Theatre.  It is, however, my first time working in a private prison.  This particular facility is owned by a gigantic corporation called Serco.  I’ve perused the Serco website  several times and I keep coming away with the same feeling I have when I try to explain my dad’s job to other people…I still can’t really tell you what my dad does (marketing things, right?).  The Guardian called Serco “the biggest company you’ve never heard of” in a very interesting article interviewing the Chief Exec, Christopher Hyman. As far as I can tell, they own and manage, or are planning to own and manage, everything.

I won’t get into the ethics about private prisons, examine them against the morals of Hyman, comment on things like modern-day slavery in the prison industrial complex, or talk about the commerce of souls.  I’ll keep it clean for now.  In that spirit, when I go into a prison, I think: surveillance!  Even though Doncaster prison feels less “rigid” in comparison to other facilities I’ve worked in, we still walk through gates, check-in with biometrics, and are watched from 5 different angles at any moment within and around the facility.

My brain is fried from the week, but I still wanted to offer some questions:

What is it to create art under blatant surveillance?  Even if the art is invited (Doncaster has it’s own Arts and Media Department), is the art still subversive in some sense? Or is it only serving the purposes of the surveyor?  If so, what purpose is that?  Can one rationalize the privatization of prisons and  the money made off of thousands of people when that entity visibly and proudly supports the making of art in several different avenues?

I can't stop watching art being created.