Where the silence is: an interview with artist Noah Miska about the Pelican Bay hunger strike

by Adrienne Skye Roberts

Today, July 8, 2013, thousands of incarcerated people throughout California held in Security Housing Units (SHU), or solitary confinement, will begin a hunger strike, one of the only forms of resistance available to them.

In a prison system built on punishment and isolation, solitary confinement is the belly of the beast. People forced to live in the SHU are held in their cells for at least 23 hours a day and suffer conditions that can only accurately be described as torture: an absence of physical and mental health care, sunlight, adequate food, rehabilitative programming, and physical or social contact. Often the only contact people living in the SHU have is with prison guards, the very people who enforce their confinement.

Hunger-strike-support-pen-pal-recruitment-empty-plates-art-installation-UC-Santa-Cruz-0613-by-Noah-Miska-web, Where the silence is: an interview with artist Noah Miska about the Pelican Bay hunger strike, Culture Currents It is from this place – a place intentionally kept invisible and silent by the state – that the hunger strike emerged, beginning first in 2011 as an unprecedented act of leadership among SHU prisoners. And it is this place and these people that Noah Miska’s recent multimedia installation brings into visibility.

Upon entering Noah’s piece, viewers are surrounded by hundreds of found plates resting on wooden shelves, their undersides turned outward. Transcribed by hand on each plate is the name, address and biography of a prisoner in search of a pen pal. Viewers are invited through signage to take a plate with them and, by doing so, commit to writing to the person. In order to further facilitate this connection, the installation includes a writing desk with guidelines for writing people in prison and background information about the hunger strike, all handwritten and available for viewers to take.

There is a silence to Noah’s work; the silencing of certain people, the warehousing of these people. This silence depends upon the removal of people from our communities, especially poor people and people of color, and is an instrument of a system that says some lives are more valuable than others. While the installation references people, the only human being who is actually visible is in the video that plays on loop at the top right of the back gallery wall. The video shows a middle-aged man exercising in the “yard” of the SHU at Pelican Bay Prison – a short concrete hallway with frosted plexiglass-covered ceilings where SHU prisoners are brought with no regularity.

The piece feels almost sterile. The plates – a clear reference to the sacrifice and resistance of the hunger strikers – break their uniformity only subtly. They sit on the edge of the shelves, on the brink of shattering and disrupting the tenuous silence. While the number of them references a multitude of people, the plates represent only a small fraction of the estimated 2.3 million people currently imprisoned in the United States. By transcribing all the text by hand, Noah points to conditions that people in prison know all too well: the passing of time, the limited resources, and the necessity and difficulties in finding ways to communicate beyond the prison walls.

As more people put their lives on the line today to fight for the hunger strikers’ five core demands – still unmet by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation – the need for this kind of artwork feels critical. Noah succeeds in creating visually impactful and beautiful work that also activates audiences to learn about human rights abuses and to get involved.

Without building political power, the cycle of mass incarceration and the silence that it relies upon will continue. Unless one is involved in prisoner-rights organizing, has a family member or loved one in prison, or has survived the system oneself, prisons and those locked up inside them are disappeared. It is the responsibility of people in the free world to carry these stories to places thought to be far removed from the reach of prisons. Places like universities, like art galleries, like this site.

And so, it is with that intention that I am happy to post this interview with Noah Miska about his emerging art practice, his prisoner-rights organizing and the incredible inspiration of the hunger strikers, many of whom have endured these conditions for 30 years and counting.

Adrienne Skye Roberts: Can you describe your project and the inspiration for your project?

Empty-plates-art-installation-detail-UC-Santa-Cruz-0613-by-Noah-Miska-web, Where the silence is: an interview with artist Noah Miska about the Pelican Bay hunger strike, Culture Currents Noah Miska: For this project I spent eight weeks looking through websites like prisoninmates.org, blackandpink.org and prisonpenpals.org, collecting the names, addresses and autobiographies of prisoners who were looking for pen pals. Over the same period of time, I gathered hundreds of old dishes from thrift stores. I transcribed all of the text I’d compiled onto the dishes: one prisoner’s name, mailing address and autobiography on each plate. Finally, I installed the plates on shelves covering every wall of the gallery. Next to the plates I put a writing desk with envelopes, paper, pens, stamps and tips for initiating a pen pal correspondence. Also on the walls were a poster explaining the goals of the hunger strike and a TV monitor with looping footage of the “exercise yard” at Pelican Bay State Prison.

I was trying to do two things with this project: foster communication between people on both sides of prison walls and build support for the hunger strikers. I wanted to make it easy for gallery-goers to begin a mail correspondence with someone inside, because I think receiving mail from someone on the other side of the wall can elicit a strong emotional response and forces you to think about the humanity of the person you wrote. The video was intended to provide a small glimpse of the conditions inside solitary confinement, and the empty dishes represent the efforts of people inside to resist those conditions.

ASR: How did you first become politicized around prisoner-rights issues and the prison industrial complex (PIC)?

NM: I was arrested at a political demonstration at the capitol in 2011 and had to spend the night in Sacramento County Jail. It was a short stay but long enough to see the unchecked violence of incarceration. I’d been protesting to restore funding for education in California, and after getting locked up for that, it became impossible to buy into the myth that police, prisons and jails exist to keep me safe.

After a few hours locked in a small room with 40 other people, it became clear that the guards presented more of a threat to my safety than did any of the other prisoners. They exercised brute force at their discretion, manhandling anyone who didn’t move fast enough, and they barked out orders peppered with racist and misogynist slurs.

I’m a tall white guy, so I wasn’t on the receiving end of a lot of it, but I could still see that it was terribly wrong and was standard operating procedure for the guards. After that experience, I started paying closer attention to stories about police violence and started to see the patterns of racism, sexism and homophobia that shape our criminal “justice” system.

ASR: It’s clear that the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike made a huge impact on you. What about this particular protest and form of resistance moved you?

NM: There’s something very moving about the fact that the only means of resistance available to these prisoners is self-inflicted starvation. To me, the hunger strikers are saying, “I would rather die than live under these conditions.” That’s a powerful statement. And when you start to look closely at the conditions they’re fighting against, it’s hard to disagree with them.

Being locked in a small, cold, concrete cage for 23 hours a day, subjected to abuse by guards, receiving shitty food and inadequate medical “care,” arbitrary group punishment, and the list goes on. It doesn’t matter what crimes a person has – or has not – committed; no one should have to live like that. It’s torture.

Empty-plates-art-installation-close-up-of-plate-UC-Santa-Cruz-0613-by-Noah-Miska-web, Where the silence is: an interview with artist Noah Miska about the Pelican Bay hunger strike, Culture Currents I’m also intrigued by how the hunger strike complicates this violence/nonviolence dichotomy that we’re so used to. Someone on hunger strike poses no physical threat to anyone else, so in that way it’s a nonviolent protest, but at the same time they’re committing tremendous violence to their own body. And when someone is willing to do that or thousands of people are willing to do that, you have to ask: Why?

There’s also the fact that participation in the hunger strike bridged historic racial divides within the prison population. Latino, white, Black, prisoners of all backgrounds agreed to set aside hostilities for the sake of organizing the hunger strike. That really flies in the face of what we’re told about race dynamics in prison.

ASR: Can you talk about some of the aesthetic choices you made in your installation and, specifically, how they coincide with the content or emotional quality of your work? For example, I’m thinking of the hand-drawn sign and instructions and the handwritten descriptions on the desk.

NM: I wanted everything to be handwritten so it would reflect the actual media that prisoners are able to produce. Only some prisoners have very limited access to computers or typewriters, so it’s rare to receive typed letters. I think handwriting all the text helped convey a sense of time. It takes much longer to handwrite something than to tap it out on a keyboard, and if there’s one thing that prisoners do have, it’s time. People who’ve never been incarcerated don’t know how slowly time passes behind bars, but hopefully the sheer volume of handwritten text in the piece gave them some sense of it.

The dishes were all different shapes and sizes to reflect the unique individuality and humanity of people behind bars. Those qualities are often forgotten when we think about prisoners. And despite the variety of the dishes themselves, they were all arranged neatly in rows, suggesting the conformity that is enforced within prisons.

The rough wooden shelves were a nod to the physical labor that prisoners are forced to perform. It was a subtle reference and probably didn’t register on a conscious level for most of the audience, but it’s something I was thinking about when I made the piece. A lot of manufacturing happens in prisons, from furniture to license plates to military gear, which is something that a lot of people don’t know.

The overall aesthetic of the piece was very Spartan. It was not a comfortable place to be, with fluorescent lighting, the sounds of the exercise yard coming through the TV, and rows upon rows of plates surrounding the viewer, each one a stark reminder of a caged human. I was trying to make the space as oppressive as possible without discouraging people from spending enough time there to read the writing on the plates.

ASR: What is your hope for the participants and viewers of your piece?

NM: My hope was for anyone who saw the piece to be able to experience it fully only by engaging in some way with the movement to end solitary confinement. At the very least, I wanted people to walk away with an awareness that the hunger strike was happening. I was also hoping for an emotional response: a sense of the psychological impact of incarceration and of the scale of the prison system itself.

Ideally, viewers would be inspired to take an active role in the efforts to end state-sanctioned torture in California. A lot of gallery-goers did write letters to hunger strike participants, which I think is important in terms of reminding them that they have outside support. I’ll consider the piece a success if lasting relationships develop through the mail correspondence.

Empty-plates-art-installation-GÇÿWhy-write-to-someone-in-prisonGÇÖ-UC-Santa-Cruz-0613-by-Noah-Miska-web, Where the silence is: an interview with artist Noah Miska about the Pelican Bay hunger strike, Culture Currents It’s important to note that any prisoner who receives a letter from someone who saw the installation is also a participant in the piece, as is anyone involved in the hunger strike. My hope is that prisoners who receive letters will be reminded that they’re not forgotten – that there are people outside who care about them. My hope for the hunger strikers is that they win their demands.

ASR: What do you believe is the power in making politicized artwork? Why is it important? How does it give us a different entry point into these issues?

NM: Generally speaking, I’m not sure what exactly the power is in making politicized artwork because there are so many different kinds of politicized artwork. Like other types of art and other means of political action, some of it is effective and some of it isn’t. I think you have to look closely at what your specific goals are and do whatever is necessary to accomplish them.

That said, I think art can be a very effective tool for starting conversations about controversial or unpleasant subjects. When you label something as art, people begin operating under the assumption, “Oh, this isn’t real life – it’s just art. So it’s okay to talk about it.” Calling something art sort of removes it from reality, just enough for more people to feel comfortable thinking about it.

With my work as an example, most people usually don’t want to spend time thinking about something as depressing as the prison system. But because watching the SHU video and writing a letter are part of the art piece, those activities somehow become less odious. Granted, I’m making a lot of generalizations here, and some people aren’t willing to engage with certain ideas no matter what, but “art” can help facilitate that engagement in some cases.

ASR: Do you feel like there is support for making this kind of work?

NM: I had more support than I imagined I would, possibly for the reasons I just described. Without even being asked, friends and classmates offered to help me transcribe the messages onto the plates. No one I talked to about it seemed outright opposed to anything I was doing, and if they felt that way then they kept it to themselves.

Organizers really liked the piece because it was based so centrally on audience participation and couldn’t be written off as art for the sake of art. In every decision I made regarding the piece, I considered the way it would interact with real-life struggles.

Adrienne Skye Roberts, a curator and writer and a member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, can be reached at adrienneskye@gmail.com. This story originally appeared on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art blog. About this interview, she writes: “In this miniseries, I interview three young artists and recent graduates of UC Santa Cruz whose work addresses policing, state violence and creative forms of resistance to the prison industrial complex. The first of these interviews is with Noah Miska, whose untitled multimedia installation educates viewers about the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike and invites them to get involved in supporting people in prison. It was created for the 2013 Irwin Scholars Award Show, a group show recognizing 12 emerging artists and graduating seniors at UC Santa Cruz’s Sesnon Gallery. This series is cross-posted on Organizing Upgrade.”