The Art of Abolition

Art can envision a future beyond incarceration.

In conjunction with Coby Kennedy’s Summer 2021 exhibition Kalief Browder: The Box, Pioneer Works, For Freedoms, and Negative Space presented Beyond The Box, a four-part program series that considered the realities of mass incarceration through the lens of art and activism. Over the course of four weeks, Broadcast is releasing Beyond The Box’s accompanying video series, each paired with a newly commissioned text that further elaborates on the thematic pillars charted by For Freedoms: Awakening, Listening, Healing, and Justice. Below, for Justice, For Freedoms writer and curator Anisa Tavangar reflects on the series and builds a case for art’s potential to address society’s most pressing challenges.

When Coby Kennedy first shared the design for Kalief Browder: The Box, the sculpture's luminosity captured my attention. At once glimmering and grotesque, the work encapsulates the aspiration of an ideal justice and the reality of corruption that overrules this system.

Reflecting on Kalief Browder's story as a group—those of us at For Freedoms, Sam Giarratani of Negative Space, and our counterparts at Pioneer Works—we broke down the elements of this youth's life that resonated most deeply: the urgency of community care and alternatives to incarceration; the nuance of individual stories and the way language manipulates how society treats incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated individuals; the outsized impact of mass incarceration on children and young people, from the system-involved to the system-impacted; the growing rate of incarceration that necessitates qualifying it as "mass," and the responsibility we collectively hold to halt this growth and move towards abolition. These themes became the guide to our shared project.

Kalief's story inspired so much because it is extreme, but it is not unique. As I watch missiles rain down on Ukraine on social media, confronted with the quick destruction of explosions and fire, I cannot help but reflect on the slow destruction—the pernicious poisoning of individuals and whole communities—by mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is an act of extreme violence. The carceral system is one that erodes our collective potential by vilifying, hiding away, and torturing so many of our neighbors, like it did to Kalief Browder. All of these examples of violence, occupation, and oppression abase our true collective capacity.

But in the midst of so much pain, is there room for art? To construct Beyond the Box, the four-part program series in conversation with Kennedy's sculpture, we turned to those who might have an answer: formerly incarcerated artists and poets, community organizers and legal advocates providing support for children and trans individuals in the criminal legal system, and individuals with lived experiences that propel them towards transformation. All of our panelists, whether or not they are traditional art-makers, are creative practitioners. Their work is profoundly creative; they dream and realize approaches that have never before existed, while pushing against the aggressive preoccupation with punishment that overrules society. A painting will not save us, but it could give us the vision of our aspiration. A poem will not shift engrained structures, but it has the capacity to give language to their overhaul.

This notion is what Grace Lee Boggs termed "visionary organizing," that artists and envisioners can create a guide to transformation. Beyond the Box attempted to employ this strategy, pairing artists with activists and experts, constructing layers of creativity, data, and experience. Mass incarceration encapsulates our most pressing societal challenges—unspeakable racial prejudice, widening extremes of wealth and poverty, rampant misogyny, persistent transphobia, inaccessible education and community resources, and a demoralizing lack of opportunity. It responds to all of these by exacerbating them. Visionary organizing rallies the values of abolition, of community care and collective well-being, to address each of these issues with a greater vision for the future.

Art can also offer itself as a backdrop to this work. Art spaces and organizations can acknowledge their privileged position and create space, physical and ideological, to shift conversations in favor of abolition. At the conclusion of the series, Mikelina Belaineh, a panelist in the final event, reflected on the power of holding this conversation in a space as beautiful as Pioneer Works. Their observation, of the high ceilings, of light streaming through the windows, of the adjoining courtyard, highlights that art doesn't always have to speak; sometimes art is best when allowing others to lead the discussion. Bringing heavy topics like confinement into airy environments gives the ideas room to breathe; the spirit of the physical space fuses with the consequence of astute discourse.

Even as questions were being answered, this was not a space of resolution; it was one of process. Beyond the Box expanded conversations surrounding Kalief Browder: The Box to activate the sculpture while engaging with living discourses. In that sense, the series itself was an act of art-making, of generation, or creative envisioning.

Devon Simmons, 2019 Soros Justice Fellow, co-founder of the Paralegal Pathways Initiative at Columbia Law School, and our perceptive and inviting moderator, made sure that art was explicitly part of every conversation:

I asked every panelist how they interacted with the installation. Every response was different.
One of the panelists spoke about how they didn’t want it in the community, which I found to be interesting. When I asked why, the person said, “it feels too heavy to be here. There’s already enough pain and suffering in our community.” I remember being baffled by the comment because I was looking at the installation in a totally different way that day. On this hot summer day, the sun illuminated the installation, which made me feel that Kalief’s presence was shining down on us. I felt happy that his story had actually had an impact on the larger society. Kalief’s case demonstrates the failure of our criminal legal system on every level: the cops who arrested him, the district attorneys who failed to do their due diligence in regards to the facts/particulars, the multiple judges who disregarded the presumption of innocence, and the department of corrections.

At For Freedoms, we have dedicated the last year of programs and projects to justice, investigating what it means to create another justice. This justice is one that falls beyond the bounds of what we already know and invites more participants to engage with what justice could be. This strategy acknowledges that justice, like these programs, is not a product but a process, always evolving to accommodate new findings and bring in new voices. Justice requires all of us. It's in constant effort that we can achieve perfect justice, not as a result of particular work but as a consequence of our commitment to improvement. ♦

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