IDEA Space Looks Inside the Criminal Justice System

By Laurie Laker ’12

Colorado College’s IDEA Space, the InterDisciplinary Experimental Arts Space, is currently hosting an exhibition titled “Incarceration Nation.”

“It addresses a crucial topic in the American landscape,” says Briget Heidmous, assistant curator of the IDEA Space.

“The mass incarceration of human beings is an epidemic in this country,” explained Heidmous. “Currently, there are 2.3 million people being held in a system that is broken, serving up mandatory minimums, often for profit.”

The exhibition, consisting of a series of showings and events across campus, and – as Heidmous says, “offers a visual art experience that serves as a platform to generate conversation surrounding issues of mass imprisonment, reform, and the human experience.”

The opening reception and panel discussion took place in late October, and was well-attended by students, faculty, staff, and local community members. The panel featured exhibited artists Michelle Handleman and Jessie Krimes, visiting performer Yannis Simonides, activist Jean Casella, CC faculty members Jane Murphy and Carol Neel, and CC student and researcher Madeleine Engel ’18.

Casella, the director of the solitary confinement watchdog project Solitary Watch, opened the panel by saying that “art is always about our common humanity, so fighting any form of injustice with it is brilliant.” It was a sentiment shared by all on the panel, including formerly incarcerated artist Jesse Krimes.

“Work, particularly my art, served as a way to keep my sanity, but also as an act of resistance,” says Krimes. Krimes’ featured work, a massive patchwork of print-adorned prison bedsheets, “allows the facilitation of dialogue, and the artwork makes the dialogue easier to have because it’s a focal point,” he says.

Michelle Handelman’s work, first begun in 2009, uses the medium of video to investigate and express the prison experiences of queer inmates. Her piece, screening in a replica solitary confinement cell in the IDEA Space, is hard to watch – but that’s why it’s important.

“Solitary is only a punishment,” she says. “You lose track of yourself as a person after a while, it’s heartbreaking.”

“It’s often spun as protective custody for queer inmates, but it’s really an excuse for the system to stop treating them like any inmate at the facility. It marks them out as different, which is incredibly damaging emotionally and mentally.”

Converse to much of the discussion of contemporary criminal justice and imprisonment, the work that Greek performer Yannis Simonides does reawakens the punishments of the past. His international touring one-man production of Plato’s “The Apology,” presents a speech of legal self-defense against charges of impiety and corruption in 399 BC.

“What I always try to do, with every performance, is bring the audience into their ‘I’ mindset,” Simonides explains. “What that means is that I try to have them feel as if they’re on trial, as if they’re being forced to defend themselves in court. It’s discomforting, but it starts a dialogue and that’s what all good art should do.”

“In ancient Greece, prisons were not the places we know now. They weren’t barbaric. Socrates, for example, was held in a room with no doors or windows – fresh air could circulate, he had visitors at all times, and was free to move as he pleased. It was humane, incredibly.”

Continuing until December 17, the next events in the series are two events on First Monday, November 28, with a presentation and reception with photographer and activist Richard Ross, whose work deals with the placement and treatment of American youth in the penal system. On December 6, there’s a film screening and performance by Carolina Rubio MacWright, whose work explores the theft of freedom due to kidnapping, incarceration, or the denial of a safe and peaceful homeland.

Please contact the IDEA Space  for any further information on these, or other exhibits and events.

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