Nicole Fleetwood (Rutgers), “Carceral Aesthetics: Art and Visuality in the Era of Mass Incarceration”
Talk three of Mentoring Future Faculty of Color Project. Popular entertainment, journalistic exposes, and documentary sobriety produce countless images of “life behind bars.” These images fascinate, horrify and titillate; and yet prison is a site that the majority of the public will never enter as inmate, guest, worker, or researcher. It is a site that we know almost exclusively through the lens of others; and yet we know it so well. As Angela Davis argues, prison is such a foundational feature of our contemporary environment and polity that it has taken on a quality of familiarity and common sense. The popularity of visual representations of prison life underscores the significance of visuality in establishing and maintaining the modern carceral system—particularly in the United States. And yet, the visual world of prison has received little sustained analysis in scholarship and public discourse.
In this talk I examine carceral aesthetics to refer to how visual lenses operate and artistic practices emerge in relationship to the modern prison industrial complex. The talk examines late twentieth century documentary studies and artistic projects by incarcerated and non-incarcerated subjects. These works are composed and staged in ways that speak to, work through, or incorporate the ever-looming and multiple lenses of carceral optics. The works of Deborah Luster, Dread Scott, Duron Jackson, and others will be considered.