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Confronting the Fears Detained Immigrants Face in the US

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Damon Locks and Roger Bonair-Agard read “Letters From the Future,” letters written by prisoners at Stateville Correctional Center (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — On a grassy island surrounded by several roads at the center of Chicago’s Logan Square temporarily sits Jenny Polak’s “Mobile Speakers’ Podium for Citizens and Non-Citizens,” a creamy-white structure that at first glance looks like a miniature club house. Upon closer inspection, one side of the structure is constructed from chain-link fence, while the other resembles half of a suburban home. This visual duality alludes to the injustices Polak hopes to provoke a conversation about: the abundant detention and incarceration of immigrants occurring on the fringes of communities across the United States.

The structure is used as a podium, an idea that came to Polak while a resident at Northwestern University’s Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities in 2012. The plans for the work were inspired by citizens of Crete, Illinois who were able to prevent a for-profit prison company from constructing a new detention center in their village, effectively blocking the building of an immigrant prison. The plans for the podium remained purely aspirational until the piece was fabricated this year for Weinberg/Newton gallery’s group exhibition Soul Asylum, an exhibition that highlighted the immigrant justice movement. On Sunday, I observed the podium during its second iteration of public events, co-curated by Weinberg/Newton Exhibitions and Programming Director Meg Noe, that aim to activate the mobile work through lectures and performances, each addressing an aspect of our country’s incarceration system.

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Jenny Polak, “Mobile Speakers’ Podium for Citizens and Non-Citizens” (2016) at the Comfort Station in Logan Square

Artist, musician, and educator Damon Locks was the first to perform during Sunday’s hour-and-a-half long set. Along with poet Roger Bonair-Agard, Locks read aloud pieces from Letters From the Future, a science fiction-based project he assigned to an art class he teaches with the Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project (PNAP) at Stateville Correctional Center. The two performers took turns reading the inmates’ letters which traveled to a time when the authors were no longer incarcerated. While performing the speculative stories, Locks improvised a soundtrack for each, using a synth and delay pedal and creating a meandering electronic backdrop. Against twangy distortions, the letters outlined futures overtaken by GMOs, robots, and cannibals, as hope was lost and found in futuristic societies that dealt with humanity’s destruction rather than the writer’s own. One letter from the group explained how in the future history would be rewritten to reveal previously hidden truths and Mount Rushmore would be re-chiseled to match the diverse population of our country rather than its leadership. Another letter read during the performance warned its audience, “Beware of the future … you will be there soon.”

Next, activist and historian Samuel A. Love stepped onto the podium’s fenced left side to deliver an improvisational lecture about his community’s role in stopping a GEO Group, Inc. for-profit prison in Gary, Indiana, expressing a message of hope and accomplishment from the present rather than future. While speaking to the small crowd surrounding him, several interested parties wandered onto the grassy patch from the street to kneel and listen to Love’s message. One driver in a passing white Prius honked and pumped her fists in enthusiastic solidarity for a message most likely unknown to the supporter, yet understood through the aesthetics of protest demonstrated by the megaphones affixed to the sculpture, the amplifiers positioned towards the road, and the cluster of participants gathered around the platform.

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Jenny Polak introduces the afternoon’s performances that take place around her work “Mobile Speakers’ Podium for Citizens and Non-Citizens” in Chicago’s Logan Square

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor at Northwestern, was the last to activate the podium for the afternoon. Stevens, who runs the Deportation Research Clinic at the university, spoke about her own research in immigrant incarceration and deportation, educating the audience about dehumanizing dollar-per-day wages paid to immigrants in custody, and insisting that if we want to see change in these programs we should feel empowered to actively protest by voting for those we hope to make change or running for office ourselves.

Throughout Love’s speech and into Steven’s I reconsidered what my role as an audience member was as I felt that I was no longer just an observer, but active participant — or at least had the appearance of one to those who observed the performance from the sidewalk or their cars. To passersby, the podium could have merely appeared as a podium, a platform for which someone with a message can speak. However, there lies a deeper symbolism in the work’s appearance, one that insists that we imagine the fear that immigrants face, a constantly nagging threat that they might be suddenly moved from home to behind a prison fence.

In a country that locks up 2 million people, the experience of the imprisoned or those in danger of imprisonment permeates everything and cannot be walked away from by those supposedly free,” said Polak to Hyperallergic in an email after Sunday’s performance. “I feel everyone needs to get aware about the scourge of incarceration here, and not just assume it’s an issue only for people who are directly prison and detention-impacted, even though they are brilliant at organizing and standing up to their oppression. The very elementary architectural image of conjoined prison and home urges a realization about that.”

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Jacqueline Stevens, professor at Northwestern University, addresses the crowd from Jenny Polak’s “Mobile Speakers’ Podium for Citizens and Non-Citizens”

The podium’s new public location further highlights its purpose as a symbol of social outcry. Although Polak explained that the podium was not intended to be especially functional as a speakers’ podium, but rather as a way to conceptually link and encourage ideas about speaking out, when placed in a public location the divided podium comes to life, calling further attention to the voices that use it as a platform.

Jenny Polak’s “Mobile Speakers’ Podium for Citizens and Non-Citizens” continues in front of the Comfort Station (2579 N Milwaukee Ave, Logan Square, Chicago) through July 31. The installation will then travel to Gary, Indiana and other communities in the Midwest that have been targeted by for-profit prisons.

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