The Price of Good Intentions
Went on a location scout to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia (for background elements for the scene in Here Lies Love with Aquino in the old Philippine prison at Ft. Bonifacio.) Eastern State was a prison until fairly recently but was built in the early 1800s and was the largest building in the U.S., second only to the Capitol for many years. It is massive, a giant walled castle. Viewed as a marvel of enlightened policy, it was on the must-see list of Charles Dickens, ranked alongside Niagara Falls.
Now it’s designated a “historical ruin” so there is simultaneously an effort to stabilize its crumbling walls and ceilings and to use it as a site-specific art installation joint. (Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have a piece installed in which machines tap on walls and fixtures that is disturbingly similar to my Playing The Building piece.)
Here’s a typical room — though typical rooms don’t have barber’s chairs.
This is like some dystopic nightmare image. Room 101 from 1984? Or something from a NIN music video?
Anyway, back to the enlightened policy. The prison was an expression of Quaker philosophy — that humans are innately good and that it is outside influences that make people lose their way and do bad things. Society, family, bad friends, drugs and drink, movies and cheap novels, comic books…whatever, if you could separate the divine essence from the evil earthly stink and tarnish, the good — being a human’s default mode in this view — would eventually overpower the bad, and voilà! The poor sod has been rehabilitated, with no coercion, torture or even reasoning necessary!
In order to achieve this remarkable effect one had simply to remove the tarnished soul from all — and we mean all — outside influence, and the shine would magically return. All prisoners were therefore in solitary confinement, always. Sorry, no family visits, no friends and no hanging with other prisoners. Rare trips outside the cells necessitated hooded head coverings, like the U.S. does now. Wow. Sounds bad, huh? Yes, the insanity and suicide rate was pretty high. (That sounds like Gitmo, too.)
Well, there was an upside. Part of the enlightened policy demanded that all prisoners be provided with good decent meals, water, toilet facilities, hygiene, heated rooms (this when central heat did not exist) and even fresh air — every cell had a teeny walled-in yard, with walls high enough to prevent views of anything but the sky. Most other prisons were Dickensian cesspools — large rooms, unclean (you can imagine) with every offender thrown in together.
So, on balance, how many, what percentage, actually did better due to the heat, meals and hygiene and how many went bonkers?
Funny how what we now judge to be partially enlightened ideas can now seem almost as wrongheaded and harmful as that which they proposed to replace. How could anyone not see that the human is a social animal, that separated from other people the human is not a whole creature — we are completed by our families, friends, co-workers. Without interaction we are like routers with nothing coming in our out — we are just potential.
The hermit or monk on the mountaintop is therefore no longer human — which could be a source of insight for some, but mostly an insight into transcendent shit, not into our lives and loves.
Also amazing how a building is a physical expression and manifestation of a philosophy. Super clearly in the case of this structure — the walls, the rows of cells along spokes radiating from a central axis. (It is NOT a panoptical — the circular form of other prisons in which every cell can be seen from a central tower — the Bush/Cheney surveillance and monitoring networks are the information equivalent of that.) I wonder if all buildings are in some ways manifestations of the prevailing mindset. Of course they are. They’re practical, too, keeping us warm and dry…but beyond that they are thoughts and presumptions from neural impulses to brick and steel and glass.
There is an “outsider” artist, Achilles Rizzoli, who draws massive “portraits” of people rendered as massive edifices. Huge elaborate fantasy buildings, the drawings have titles like “A Portrait of Mrs. Dolores Clairbourne” or something similar. From Wikipedia: “The drawings include ‘portraits’ of his mother (whom he lived with until her death) and neighborhood children ‘symbolically sketched’ in the form of fanciful neo-baroque buildings. Some of the buildings commemorated events in Rizzoli's life, including his first glimpse of a vagina at age forty.”
Juana’s audience seems to be growing — more people have heard of her than when she was opening for me on my tour a year and a half ago. Of course there were quite a few Argentines in the audience too, which helped fill the room.
I went to the dressing room to say hi and pass on a copy of Arboretum, my soon to be distributed (McSweeney's) book of tree diagrams. Juana was sporting a sort of unibrow made out of a brown pipe cleaner. I remember on tour her wearing Birkenstocks, the ultimate in uncool, yet with her it didn’t matter. Tonight she wore an extremely modest velvet no-fashion dress, like something one’s aunt might have worn in the 50s. High neckline and slightly puffy sleeves. She’s slightly peculiar and extremely intelligent. She’s performing solo, but with a sizable keyboard rig that she plays and creates loops and loops on top of loops using a free hand and pedals. There’s a tangle of cables coming out the back — how she can keep it all straight is beyond me. At one point she was having some problem with her monitor and she didn’t stop the song but began singing to the monitor engineer the instructions of what she wanted.
The audience seemed a peculiar mixture of young and slightly older hipsters — many of the women dressed nicely, as if for a summer evening out. As if they were heading to the theater or something.