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.

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