Eastern State Penitentiary isn’t imprisoned in the past.
Visitors to the retired Philadelphia prison can check out new, thought provoking, site-specific works of art. For the 2018 season there are three new, and 10 returning, artist installations.
In Rachel Livedalen’s “Doris Jean,” the artist has applied removable vinyl lettering and images on the glass panes of Eastern State’s greenhouse. The vinyl imagery is comprised of newspaper stories and photographs from the high-profile case of heiress Doris Jean Ostreicher, whose illegal abortion and subsequent death led to the imprisonment of Milton Schwartz at Eastern State in the 1950s.
With “An Electric Kite” the artist collective Provisional Island has installed a handmade radio transmitter in one cell that will transmit to portable radios in the cell directly opposite of it. The broadcast will be comprised of fragments culled from radio programs, interviews and prison concerts, and will highlight the role of radio in subverting and transcending prison walls. Other clips are drawn from a pirate radio broadcast by activists outside a prison in the Midwest. The prison-issue radio receiving the broadcast is a common model sold in prison commissaries. Most electronics sold in prisons have clear casings so officers can detect tampering or objects hidden inside.
The artist collective behind “Photo Requests from Solitary” invites men and women held in long-term isolation in U.S. prisons to request a photograph of anything at all, real or imagined, and finds artists to create the images. The Eastern State exhibit will feature a range of new requests from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, inviting visitors to fulfill requests by uploading their photos to a new project website, which will then be sent to people in isolation, and displayed for the public to see. In one cell, a projector will display a rotating sequence of images of these photo requests, while framed copies of selected written requests will be installed in another cell.
These projects were chosen for their ability to address Eastern State’s primary themes — including perspectives on the contemporary American criminal justice system, and the penitentiary’s past — with a memorable approach.
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site has commissioned site-specific artist installations since 1995, and to date, more than 100 artists have created work for the site. The artist installations are made possible, in part, by revenue from Eastern State’s Halloween attraction, Terror Behind the Walls.
Returning installations you can also encounter are:
• “Cindy Stockton Moore: Other Absences:” These translucent portraits depict murder victims whose perpetrators served time at Eastern State in the 20th century.
•“Greg Cowper: Specimen:” A collection of insects trapped within the walls of the penitentiary are displayed in a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” assembled from old prison doors, hardware and cigar boxes (the traditional method for amateur collections).
•“William Cromar: GTMO:” A recreation of a cell from “Camp X-Ray,” the now-abandoned holding cells in the United States Federal Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
•“Michelle Handelman: Beware the Lily Law:” This video projection uses the 1969 Stonewall Riots as a starting point to address issues facing gay and transgender inmates.
•“Tyler Held: Identity Control:” A stripped car reflects on the idea that a man is “too easily reduced to an object” when institutionalized.
•“Jesse Krimes: Apokaluptein16389067:II:” The piece reflects the artist’s personal experience while incarcerated in federal prison, where he created a 39-panel surreal landscape on bed sheets and mailed each piece home.
•“Jared Scott Owens: Sepulture:” The artist pulls from his personal experience to create a symbolic burial of an individual once incarcerated. A life-size wooden coffin in the style of a formal Egyptian burial occupies a cell at Eastern State. The coffin is covered in hieroglyphs, and the inmate’s belongings, also rendered in wood, are meant to keep the inmate’s soul satisfied throughout his stay in the afterlife.
•“Jess Perlitz: Chorus:” The artist asked incarcerated men and women from throughout the U.S.: “If you could sing one song, and have that song heard, what would it be?” Her recordings are played inside a cell at Eastern State.
•“Piotr Szyhalski and Richard Shelton: Unconquerable Soul:” This installation combines an overhead drone video with poetic audio recorded by prisoners.
•“Erik Ruin and Gelsey Bell: Hakim’s Tale:” This video and audio installation features formerly incarcerated activist Hakim Ali.