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On July 3, 2020, two fleets of planes emitted a series of messages across the sky. They flew from Bakersfield to Los Angeles to San Diego and, in the days that followed, traveled along the U.S.-Mexico border and up the east coast to New York City. Skytyped messages such as CHINGA TU MIGRA, NOT FORGOTTEN, and ABOLITION NOW were drafted by more than 80 artists and activists from In Plain Sight, a national coalition dedicated to tackling the systems of incarceration and immigrant detention that imprison millions in the country.
In their latest endeavor, WE LIVE! Memories of Resistance, the coalition has moved out of the skies and into the gallery at Occidental College to produce a small yet powerful exhibition. Curated by Paulina Lara and Kyle Stephan, the project features 14 artists from the coalition, who each draw upon personal and historical narratives to elucidate tensions with carceral systems and false American promises of freedom and equality for all. While In Plain Sight’s skytyping action was dramatic and highly visible, their messages were also fleeting, dissipating mere minutes after their creation. This exhibition and its robust accompanying virtual event series have allowed the group to parlay their national, site-specific activist effort into an expanded discourse around topics of incarceration and immigrant detention by honing in on the stories and perspectives of the individual artists included.
At the gallery’s entrance, the original In Plain Sight sky-messaging campaign is foregrounded: a half-wall is covered in colorful wheat- pasted posters and a mounted monitor plays video documentation of the skytyped messages, as if to preface the unified output of the skytyping before departing into the various styles, themes, and concerns of each artist. The gallery’s accompanying walls present a cogent grouping of artworks that reveal how the artists’ individual and familial experiences with the carceral state serve as personal motives for their membership in the coalition. Alberto Lule’s mixed-media collage Alien vs. Prisoner (2018) powerfully links the artist’s experience of being incarcerated with the “alien” status of his Mexican immigrant father. The artwork depicts tiled images of Lule’s inmate ID and his father’s U.S. Permanent Resident Card, portions of the cards scratched out in red and black ink, openly addressing Lule’s feelings of resentment and animosity toward the carceral state, as well as the parallel oppressive structures that have pervaded his family across two generations. On a nearby wall, Devon Tsuno’s twin paintings 90210 Labor (Azalea 6) and 90210 Labor (Azalea 5) (both works 2020) present a handful of fluorescent flowers based on images of the last remaining azaleas planted by Tsuno’s grandfather as a gardener in Beverly Hills—layered on top of desert plants native to Topaz, Utah, where the artist’s relatives were forcibly relocated and incarcerated during World War II. The works, while personal to the artist, represent the generational shared histories of the criminalization of Japanese American communities, as well as how the trauma of such criminalization continues to haunt the present landscape.
In a second, larger pitch black gallery space, artists grapple with collective and historical memory concerning incarceration and racial injustices in the United States. These include Sky Hopinka’s monumental, two-channel video projection, Cloudless Blue Egress of Summer (2019), which reconstructs the 19th-century imprisonment of Native Americans at Fort Marion, Florida, through interwoven archival images, sound, and text; as well as Sonya Clark’s deconstructed Confederate flag, Unraveled (2015), arranged in neatly- gathered piles of thread divided by color. Remnants of a performance, these threads reflect on the divisive national emblem and the arduous labor required to unravel the legacies of American slavery and racism that the flag has come to represent. Other works extend the exhibition toward more divergent directions, such as considerations of land sovereignty and the speculative futures, ultimately commenting on how violence, erasure, and restrictions to collective imagination across the Americas find commonality in both colonial legacies and present-day systems of hegemonic power.
While viewing the exhibition, I was continually moved by the willingness of each artist exhibited to publicly share and examine their relationship to carceral systems—experiences that aren’t often accompanied by generative or communal discourse. In his book Doing Time on the Outside (2009), legal scholar Donald Braman attributes this lack of discourse to a societal stigma, revealing how it can prevent formerly incarcerated (or detained) people and their families from talking about, or healing from, their experiences—a “social silence,” which, as Braman writes,“mak[es] it di cult for families to seek political remedies for the problems they encounter.”1 Braman describes this difficulty as a “collective failure” of society to acknowledge and understand the traumas that institutions have imposed on impacted communities. This disjuncture, he asserts, “continues to prevent us from doing the justice we intend.”2 Braman’s book presents a series of interrelated problems that In Plain Sight seems to answer, albeit indirectly. If the skytyping actions were an urgent appeal to abolish the corrupt carceral systems that pervade our country, WE LIVE! offers more intimate pathways toward collective healing.
Joseph Daniel Valencia is a contemporary art curator and writer based in Los Angeles and Orange County, California. In addition to Carla, he has contributed to KCET Artbound, OC Register, and the U.S. Latinx Art Forum, among others.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 22.