In its April issue, the Brooklyn Rail has a conversation between Andrea Fraser and Thyrza Nichols Goodeve in which the artists discuss psychoanalysis, prisons, and Down the River, Fraser’s sound installation the was recently at the Whitney. The installation uses audio recordings from Sing Sing prison to reflect on the role that everyday people play in perpetuating the prison-industrial complex in the US. Read an excerpt from the interview below, or the full text here.
Fraser: This project forces another kind of reflection on ambivalence and anxiety. It also has to be recognized that this kind of focus on individual subjective experience, even in relation to social structures, my capacity and my disposition to individualize, and my being interviewed here as an individual artist with a unique position, are forms of racial privilege. Down the River aims to link art museums and prisons in the age of mass incarceration. Art institutions, including both museums and art discourse, individualize and privilege individual expression. Prisons de-individualize and severely limit individual expression, while mass incarceration works not only to confine bodies in cages but also to confine individualities in racially-profiled groups, forcing a vilified group identity onto poor people and especially people of color. In this context, individual subjective experience becomes an entitlement of whiteness as a socially neutralized group identity that allows certain people to see and be seen as individuals rather than as members of a particular group. But, of course, such generalizations are themselves a product of these racial structures.
Rail: Tell us the back-story of Down the River.
Fraser: Scott Rothkopf invited me to do something in the Whitney’s fifth floor, an 18,200-square-foot space that was built to be column-free. The museum decided to clear out the walls and give the space to five artists for a series of short-term installations called “Open Plan.” I got to go first. My project developed as a response to this huge open space and the kind of spectacle it presents and demands and to the museum’s new location on the Hudson River. There’s no way I was going to fill that space with stuff, or a spectacle of projected images or bodies in performance. No, the challenge is to generate a critical reflection on that space and what it represents, where it is, and who we are in it. The title Down the River refers both to “being sold down the river”—betrayed, which originally referred to slaves being sold down the Mississippi river—and to “being sent up the river,” to prison, which originally referred to Sing Sing Prison, which is thirty-two miles up the Hudson River from the Whitney Museum. The installation consists of audio recorded in one of Sing Sing’s massive cell blocks.
Image of Andrea Fraser via markescribano.com.