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Andrea Fraser on art museums and prisons


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


I have thought a lot about this interesting project. I feel it is not finished. Andrea brought sounds down the river but nothing returned up river. It would have been great if in appreciation to the prisoners for what they did for her and for the Whitney Museum, she had discussed the project with them and given then something in return from the Museum itself. Why not bring the Museum to the prison, in the form of pictures or discussions.

Perhaps Andrea could have spent the time that her project was on view at the Whitney in Sing Sing working with the prisoners and learning about their lives. I am sure they are just as capable of thinking about issues of art and of power as any of the customers at the Whitney Museum. In fact they might be more interested. This way she could have explained what she was doing and asked their permission in person to record their voices rather than simply edit out intelligible speech.

When a filmmaker makes a documentary about about disadvantaged people, they have to by necessity spend time with those people and get their consent. The people can also see the film that was made about them. In this case, the prisoners have no agency at all, they are nameless and faceless. It is sad.