Inside the Public Art Project Raising Awareness About Prison Reform

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'Bring Down the Walls' is a both an album and an exhibit

According to British artist Phil Collins -- no, not that Phil Collins, the other Phil Collins-- the United States prison system represents a staggering 25 percent of the global prison population.

“And just in my life time it has grown from 220,000 in the early ‘70s to 2.2 million people today,” he explains, all while “devastating whole communities and disproportionately punishing people of color and the poor.” About seven years ago, with those harrowing statistics in mind, Collins started thinking about a way to use music to bring awareness to the injustices of the criminal justice system. Now, in partnership with the public-art nonprofit Creative Time, his idea is taking shape in the form of Bring Down the Walls, an album that features the talents of former inmates and also comes to life as an exhibition in downtown New York City every weekend for the rest of the month.

Collins has a history of out-of-the-box interdisciplinary projects: His 2005 video series, “the world won’t listen,” featured footage of Turkish, Indonesian and Colombian teenagers performing karaoke of Smiths songs, for example. He’s also long been involved in the intersection of art and activism regarding the criminal justice system. “For a few years we had the opportunity to work with a group of men in Sing Sing,” Collins says, referring to the maximum-security prison located in upstate New York. “We started developing their original compositions, making tapes, recording sessions, sharing music and talking about their views on life, freedom and democracy, and the tidal wave of police killings of young black men.”

He took particular interest in the house songs they sang during breaks between sessions. “As it turned out, which should have been no surprise, many of us had been to the same clubs in New York City in the '90s and most of us have been raised on the same canon of dance floor anthems,” he says. “Hearing people sing and remember house music in buildings where nobody dances, and where the choreography of movement is to stand in lines and lock the body up, literally stopped me in my tracks. It reminded me of the remarkable origins and under sung emancipatory potential of house music.”

From there, Collins came up with the idea of of releasing an eventual album of re-recorded house hits. He brought the idea to Creative Time, a New York City-based organization behind projects like the 9/11 tribute lights that beam up from the former Twin Towers site every September 11th and the still-orbiting satellite that has broadcasted pictures from space since its 2012 launch.

“We give artists opportunities to grow, experiment and expand all while weighing in on the big issues,” says acting director Alyssa Nitchun. Emphasis on big: “They’re projects that transcend the space of a gallery,” Nitchun adds. “We’re very intersectional and are about following artistic visions and giving artists opportunities to do their wild dream projects. When we sign onto a vision, we’re a one stop shop in that we’ll help curate, produce, and market it.”

And Collins’ vision was one Nitchun jumped at the chance to see through: “Phil is known for mixing pop and politics and bringing people together, most of the time having to with music,” she says. “He is an artist we deeply admired and really wanted to work with.”

To carry out Collins’ idea, Creative Time brought on Fortune Society, an organization that provides reentry services, to launch an open call for auditions for formerly incarcerated talent. “We ended up selecting 8 vocalists who’ve had varying degrees of performing experience,” Nitchun says.

Collins and Creative Time then paired the vocalists with electronic musicians ranging from TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone, Larry, Heard, Empress Of, and others for an album available on Bandcamp through a pay-what-you-wish purchase model. (Proceeds will go to Critical Resistance, an organization working internationally to end the prison industrial complex.) The physical exhibition space, located in a former firehouse, operates as a space for educational programming and classes by day and as a dance club by night.

“Usually the space is what drives the project, but the firehouse was the last thing to come together for us,” Nitchun says of the building, which was decommissioned as a working firehouse the 1970s when modernized firetrucks couldn’t fit through its doors. “We had over three-dozen conversation with spaces and developers all over the five boroughs but none were quite right. But this space was sold by the city to artists who still own it and are starting to open it up to the project.” The building’s physical location turned out to be surprisingly on theme. Says Nitchun, “It’s in the shadow of the pillars of the Manhattan criminal justice system, with detention centers and bail bonds all close by.”

Collins wants visitors and listeners to walk away with an understanding of the gravity of the situation: “I hope that guests and participants will have taken with them a real sense of the damage and waste of lives perpetuated by a system which is designed to punish and cage millions, in place of structural change and supporting the communities which urgently need it.”

And Nitchun hopes the project is a testament to the power of these ambitious, interdisciplinary collaborations: “If you follow an artist’s vision and and you trust that process, at the end of the day you’re going to get something beyond what you’re even creating.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this piece incorrectly included references to Phil Collins, the musician, not Phil Collins, the artist.


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