Prison talk

A puff of a cigarette, a scratch in a table top – resistance manifests itself in simple gestures in Liv Bugge’s project in the prisons of Ullersmo and Eidsberg.

Liv Bugge, To accept theirs, to make it mine, to wish it for myself, 2018, film still. Photo: Marte Vold.

The only artwork at Ullersmo prison that hasn’t been subjected to vandalism is a colourful mural done by an inmate several years ago. It would appear that the well-meaning attempts made by outside artists to decorate the barren prison architecture are perceived as provocations. When creating her KORO/Public Art Norway-funded project To accept theirs, to make it mine, to wish it for myself for the two high-security prisons Ullersmo and Eidsberg, Liv Bugge took steps to counteract such responses by using hard-wearing materials and ensuring that the works are anchored in the inmates themselves. Placed in various locations around the prison buildings, the works includes a series of small bronze casts of scratches, marks and inscriptions made on the prison’s walls and furniture – traces of former inmates that the artist has now embedded in the concrete walls. Bugge worked with inmates of the two prisons over the course of a two-year period, conducting a range of workshops and involving them in the production of the works.

Besides the casts, the work comprises three other components: a book offering an overview of the casts, describing their location and where the original marks were found; two approximately 6 m² concrete walls placed in the exercise yards, equipped with built-in sensors and heat cables that keep their surface at 34 degrees Celsius, mimicking the heat of another person’s skin; and finally a twenty-minute film featuring a group of inmates performing a choregraphed sequence of everyday aspects of prison life. The project inscribes itself into a long series of site-specific art commissions where “users” are included in the planning and production of art works, but To accept theirs is unique in terms of its scope and in terms of its close ties to Bugge’s overall practice. The prison project is part of her research fellowship project at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts and will presumably come to constitute a key work within her overall oeuvre.

Liv Bugge, To accept theirs, to make it mine, to wish it for myself, Eidsberg prison, 2018. Photo: Istvan Virag.

In her own artistic practice and as part of the artist group FRANK, Bugge has been interested in the norms and balances of power found in society’s institutions and in the production of knowledge. On previous occasions, she has investigated institutions such as courtrooms and churches as places that purge society and its individuals of deviant behaviour, and in the sound and slide-based installation Instructions to Make Use of an Already Present Itch (2017) she juxtaposes archival photographs of geologists doing fieldwork with a monologue offering up an empathic address to a fossil that is millions of years old. The new project builds directly on Bugge’s earlier pieces, making us extra aware of the power dynamics involved in the production of the works. Even though the project is done with great sensitivity and a keen sense of responsibility, it cannot entirely evade a number of ethical issues.

Bugge created the 76 casts in collaboration with a group of inmates. Most of the marks were taken from the cells; some are the results of ordinary wear and tear or outright vandalism; others mark out the days or spell out individual words such as “fuck” and “smurf”. They constitute a kind of archaeological account of prison life and its material culture, testaments to anonymous former inhabitants and the different traces they left behind. Paying attention to the marginalised and overlooked, Bugge’s project adheres to a familiar programme for modern art. For example, close-ups of such marks and traces constitute a genre in its own right within artistic documentary photography. However, Bugge’s project stands out by letting the casts become part of the building again. The bronze casts are subtle, yet eye-catching, inviting touch: future inmates will run their fingers along the walls, gradually polishing the small bronze plaques over time.

Liv Bugge, To accept theirs, to make it mine, to wish it for myself, Eidsberg prison, 2018. Photo: Istvan Virag.

Such reflections on time constitute the main strength of the project. Time takes on tangible form through the wear and tear of prison walls and the scratches marking out time on cell furnishings, but in an everyday life governed by routine time also embeds itself in the bodies of the inmates. For the film, which marks the high point of the project, the inmates worked with a choreographer to identify a number of everyday gestures and acts. A small group of men sit in the prison gym, arranged as if on stage. In a silent pantomime, they perform a series of simple, slow, carefully executed actions: arms are stretched out in the anticipation of frisking, hands are washed, invisible cigarettes are smoked and chess pieces are moved.

The title of Bugge’s project comes from a section of the French writer and prison inmate Jean Genet’s 1949 novel Journal du voleur (The Thief’s Journal). Genet idealised the outsider position held by homosexuals and criminals, and his only film, Un chant d’amour (A Song of Love), from 1950, is an orgy of dancing, masturbating men ecstatically rubbing up against the walls of their cells. While Bugge’s film is nowhere near as erotic, it is nevertheless surprisingly sensual. The slow movements of the camera, dwelling on the inmates’ bodies, are reflected by sequences in which a powerful, tattooed arm runs its hand along the walls, feeling the traces left behind on its surface. The heated walls also allude to Genet’s film: the wall requires you to put your body up against it to feel the heat – meaning that you caress and are caressed by the ‘prison body’.

This wall, heated to body temperature, can also be regarded as a metaphor for how artworks in these situations are something that brings warmth, care and comfort, yet are also part of the prison architecture. Bugge’s project cannot entirely evade this ambiguity, no matter how humble its approach. In her opening speech at Ullersmo, Bugge said that her initial concern was to show how the inmates’ bodies resist the invisibility and routines imposed on them by society. She did not want to foist some kind of educational art upon her audience, preferring instead to show that “art is already in the prison”.

Liv Bugge, To accept theirs, to make it mine, to wish it for myself, Eidsberg prison, 2018. Photo: Istvan Virag.

In many ways, social projects such as Bugge’s are perfectly adapted to the Norwegian penal system. Even though the overall trend veers towards a focus on punishment to the detriment of rehabilitation now that the Progress Party have taken over the Ministry of Justice, the principle of a progression towards rehabilitation remains one of the mainstays of the Norwegian prison system. A hundred years ago, inmates were isolated so that they could sit in their cells, pondering their own foolishness and their sins. The present-day system rewards socialisation and activation. This entails a kind of voluntary coercion: no-one forces the inmates to take part in activities, but asocial behaviour will prolong your sentence. By contrast, taking part in an art workshop with Bugge might be one of several steps along the way to obtaining privileges such as leave and, ultimately, parole.

“We wanted the art to take the inmates’ everyday lives into account, minimising the sense of power being wielded or abused, without instrumentalising art”, say the curators of the project, Elin Maria Olaussen and Karen Christine Tandberg, in the preface of the book. But within the correctional system, art cannot avoid being instrumentalised. Art is educational no matter how much it focuses on tiny gestures of defiance. This is not to say that there is anything suspect about this project – quite the contrary; it has been done with exceptional care and sensitivity. Still, it is unavoidably tangled up in the very same power dynamics it seeks to evade.

Liv Bugge, To accept theirs, to make it mine, to wish it for myself, 2018, film still. Photo: Marte Vold.