“Are intolerable: High courts, cops, hospitals, asylums, school, military service, press, TV, the State and primarily prisons.“
Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons
In my last article about Antonin Artaud and Vincent Van Gogh, I was evoking the issue of psychiatry being society’s mean of “suiciding” some of its undesired components. Today, I want to evoke an issue that is similar to some extents. I recently read that France has currently 65 000 of its citizen who live in prison which represents almost exactly 0.1% of the population. Of course it does not reach USA’s sad record of 2.5 millions detainees (0.8% of the population), but this amount is definitely frightening.
Prisons are zones of exclusions included within the space of society. They are micro-totalitarian societies that can difficultly be thought without architectural apparatuses. The cell fully expresses the supremacy of the wall on the body and the prison subtly negotiates between hyper-seclusion and hyper-visibility. Spaces of punishment, in their essence, have been created in a peculiar revanchist way of thinking. Indeed, they have been programmed to suspend the application of the law for people who have been suspending the law for themselves. It is then important for the society that hosts those territories of punishment that the exceptions they represent do not appear in any way as enviable. Their design is therefore intentionally and considerably aggressive to the human body.
In 1971, in France, Michel Foucault, Jean-Marie Domenach & Pierre Vidal-Naquet decided to make the hermetic border between the societal space and the zones of exclusions that prisons embodies, more porous. They thus created a collective entitled Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons (Prison Information Group). In fact, this group was trying to extract information from within those zones to put society in front of its responsibilities, but it also attempted to bring information the other way around, from the milieu depending on law to the milieu in which law is suspended. Members of the collective would therefore make pressure (and actually succeed) to bring the radio and newspaper within prisons, or stand outside and scream information in megaphones.
This group also published four journals entitled Intolerable about the following topics:
- Intolerable #1: Investigation of twenty prisons
- Intolerable #2: Investigation of a “model prison”: Fleury-Mérogis (near Paris)
- Intolerable #3: The Assassination of George Jackson
- Intolerable #4: Suicides in prison
The GIP is often considered as one Foucault’s failure as it did not last too long but for a short while, the interface between the inside and the outside has been established showing the way to other potential movements in the future. The GIP’s action is also interesting to observe as a beginning of an answer to the question architects are often confronted to: “if I was to design a prison, would I categorically refuse based on my principles or would I attempt to throw all my energy in making one little thing better in people who would have to live in it? ” One might say that not so many architects are often in the position to ask themselves this question but I would strongly argue that the question is the same for a school, a shop, an office building etc.
In this regard, I would like to publish here, the abstract that Ed Keller was kind enough to send me after he taught a studio at Columbia University in 2000 about this very same issue (maybe some day, I’ll get to publish some of this studio’s projects):
Studio Critic: Ed Keller DA and assistant critic: Douglas Diaz /// GSAPP 2000
It has been noted that architecture can function as a prison house, as does language, and that the arrests of personal freedom which architecture and language produce on the bodies and souls of subjects can be inflexible and cruel. It has also been suggested that we cannot understand the constitution of ‘body’ or ‘soul’ without identifying the forces which engender the subject. However, we might yet hope that there are alternative techniques of the self, that actually encourage freedom.
‘Is it possible to conceive of an architecture that would not inspire, as in Bataille, social good behavior, or would not produce, as in Foucault’s disciplinary factory, madness or criminality in individuals?…. Why would [architectural devices] not work in reverse, leading against the grain to some space before the constitution of the subject, before the institutionalization of subjectivity? An architecture that, instead of localizing madness, would open up a space anterior to the division between madness and reason…an architecture that would not allow space for the time needed to become a subject.’ Denis Hollier , Against Architecture
Freedom arises through the ability of a ‘body’ to realize two things: the exercise of power along one’s full spectrum of possibilities, both physical and virtual; and secondly but more importantly an evolving awareness in this exercise of power, such that intelligent and self regulating structures form in the ‘consciousness’ of individuals and groups able to achieve such a state.
‘Imagination takes power’
This studio is concerned with such freedoms. There is a binding relationship between the practice of everyday affairs, and the disciplinary organs which have insinuated themselves into our lives through architecture, language, technology, and grand cultural narratives.
Informed by this general theme of the distribution of power through social structures, the studio will investigate and redesign a particular architectural and economic ensemble manifesting current carceral practice: the for-profit prison.
In the United States a variety of companies exist which provide an economic and political umbrella for networks of prisons. The Corrections Corporation of America and its affiliation with Sodexho Marriot are but one example. These prisons integrate themselves within the economic system that frames our lives in a manner that reinforces the pathways that power follows under its external and internal aspects: from credit records and video camera archives, to the ways one deals with neighbors, family and friends, and the way one thinks about oneself.
I propose that there is a temporal structure inherent in these movements of power which encourages rigid strata to form that bound the imaginative freedoms we might normally consider our ‘unalienable right.’ These temporal structures have found ways to cascade through new channels economically and legally, forming hybrid bodies with the architectural assemblages that frame the organic and machinic bodies of prisoners, guards, staff, service, infrastructure, bars, bricks and mortar.
Uncovering the architectural, social, legal, and economic avenues that such a temporal structure might avail itself of will be one of the key design tasks of the studio. The body of each prisoner is the site across which complex and monolithic time wage their battles. Challenging the destinies that monolithic time produces, by adding a complex temporality to the mix, will become a possible agenda of each design project.
Paradoxically there may be a line of flight from the seeming impasse the for-profit prison presents, in that any disciplinary engine may be in practice ‘misused’ to produce temporal complexity and freedom. A subversion or productive inversion of the ‘authority’ associated with the legal and penal system, and alternative business models informed by emergent economies and technologies may participate in this. The for-profit prison is a useful model as it requires an architecture conceived as a matrix for an extended body or field condition reaching beyond the scale and milieu of the building.
The mechanisms of self surveillance and the microphysics of power captured by Foucault in his study Discipline and Punish are the precursors of the hybrid which smoothly blends our current political economies and technology with the disciplinary apparatus. The legal system is an engine we call into existence by believing in it. Staged on a wildly uneven legal playing field, the ethnic and class imbalances in the penal system and in everyday life should lend a clarity to our analysis and our challenge of this system.