CLEVELAND — An introduction to past and present of racism in the US is now on view at SPACES gallery. Three concurrent installations — Philadelphia-based Imani Roach’s Havens, Cleveland-based Anthony Warnick’s Except As A Punishment for Crime, and NYC-based Australian collective Soda_Jerk’s Astro Black — explore the social, political, and economic contexts of racial prejudice across different periods of time. The shows are the first in SPACES’ new gallery and a welcome contribution to the cultural scene in one of the most segregated cities in the country, where racism is not dealt with nearly enough.
Astro Black consists of four roughly six-minute films exploring the origins and politics of Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist mythology. “Race for Space” (2010), “We are the Robots” (2010), “Destination Planet Rock” (2007), and “Armageddon in Effect” (2008) use familiar samples from over 20 different popular films, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, and The Matrix, and clips starring such prominent musicians as Grandmaster Flash, George Clinton, Afrika Bambaataa, and Kraftwerk. Soda_Jerk remixes these iconic images with surprising but flawlessly crafted splices, diving deep into the cultural politics and possibilities of outer space. For instance, “Armageddon in Effect” takes the viewer from Ancient Egypt to New York City, where we witness a giant alien mothership hijacking President Ronald Reagan’s TV broadcast to emphasize Sun Ra’s mantra “it’s after the end of the world,” while Public Enemy insists we’re already living in Armageddon. The films are a mix of documentary and speculative fiction; they use historical narrative as a basis for exploring a future psychological and physical refuge for African Americans who must endure the stresses of racism.
Soda_Jerk, excerpt from “Astro Black: Armageddon in Effect” (2008)
This work sets the stage for Warnick’s Except As A Punishment for Crime, which impresses upon the viewer that slavery is still legal in the US, thanks to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Warnick and others — most notably Ava DuVernay in her recent documentary 13th — argue that this exception, combined with privatized, for-profit prisons that capitalize on free labor, creates an incentive for continued mass incarceration. In his show, Warnick attempts to offer a baseline exposition of the prison-industrial complex and show how contemporary slavery plays out through mass incarceration.
The most visually engaging pieces are two works made from American flags — which were themselves created by US prisoners. Warnick and SPACES set up an account as a nonprofit with Ohio Penal Industries (OPI), so that the artist could order the flags through OPI’s catalogue system. Once he received the flags, he then disassembled them to make “Untitled (White),” an oversize set of white prison chains, and “What To The Prisoner is The Fourth Of July,” a giant red wall hanging with the piece’s title embroidered in barely visible red thread. A small archival pigment print on the wall nearby, “For Profit,” pictures a crew of African American men performing hard manual labor in what appears to be a rock mine. Warnick’s work makes unabashedly clear that prison labor is no longer relegated to the rock mine (though that’s still included); it’s also sited on sewing machines and printers, as exploited prisoners manufacture everyday items (even works of art) that are sold by top corporate companies and consumed by the American population. Three thick, knee-high stacks of offset prints which have also been produced by prisoners — including one titled “This Was Produced With Forced Labor” — drive the message home, as the viewer is encouraged to take copies of the prints as a sort of free giveaway.
Warnick’s use of prisoner labor in the process of drawing attention to the practice raises a host of ethical questions — namely, is he exploiting the same people he theoretically wants to help? The artist is aware of this quandary, writing in the catalogue: “The aim of the work is to not produce ethical objects, but aesthetic objects complicated by the ethical systems they must pass through in order to be realized.” He goes on to say that “through contending with these objects I point the viewer along a path to re-configure their place within these systems.” Yet it’s unclear how he’s proposing we, as viewers, reconfigure our place within systems that many of us know little about. His installation does not work to educate us about them; it doesn’t even fully disclose the process of how the artworks were made — aside from a small acknowledgement in the catalogue of “those who labor while incarcerated in the state of Ohio” — or his role in their production. Warnick implicates us and himself, but fails to point us down a new path. In doing so, he maintains the status quo and ends up benefiting from the system as a white man — echoing the white, male private prison directors whose faces he displays in three images overlooking the gallery. The archival prints are composite portraits of the boards of directors of three for-profit prison companies. The fuzzy, slightly distorted images show three similar-looking white men. Warnick’s titles for the pieces reference Francis Galton, a pioneer of eugenics, and here he’s keenly flipped the racist theory on its head by suggesting that white supremacy could be something that’s not just learned but hereditary.
As you look at Warnick’s work, you can hear the haunting audio from Roach’s Havens, which is tucked into SPACES’ back corner in a way that suggest these havens have been overlooked or disregarded. The installation draws on The Green Book (1936–66), a crowd-sourced, Jim Crow–era “travel guide for the negro motorist” that functioned as a directory of safe places that black drivers and road-trippers could patronize. Roach spent time identifying these historical sites in Cleveland, but only in the catalogue is it revealed that, although the city was “once a major hub in a larger national network of black ideas,” all but one of the Green Book venues have been demolished.
Havens includes reclaimed doors propped up against the walls, some with warm, seemingly candid portraits drawn on them. The installation is spare — an appropriate, though at times underwhelming, choice that offers minimal visual repose. Playing simultaneously from three speakers are archival recordings specific to Cleveland, including a performance by jazz pianist and singer Rose Murphy and comedian Dusty Fletcher, both of whom played Cleveland’s black clubs regularly during the late 1940s and early ’50s, as well as highlights from an interview with Kingsbury Tower residents about the history of race and mobility in the city. The installation conjures a ghostly and uneasy feeling that prompts the viewer to ask: what is lost when historically safe places for communities of color are destroyed, while the preservation of white spaces is prioritized?
Walking out of the gallery, taking the ghosts of Havens and a few prisoner-produced prints with me, I found that a futuristic vision of moving to the moon in order to create a pro-black, anti-racist, art-filled world made a whole lot of sense.
Soda_Jerk’s Astro Black and Anthony Warnick’s Except As A Punishment for Crime continue at SPACES (2900 Detroit Avenue, Hingetown, Cleveland) through March 24; Imani Roach’s Havens continues through March 25.
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