‘Knowledge’, wrote Michel Foucault, ‘is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.’ ‘The Impossible Prison’ was as unapologetic about its head-on engagement with its subject as Foucault was with his. This exhibition was about the philosopher’s ideas on prisons, set in a prison. While much of the work in the show was explicitly about incarceration, some merely alluded to the themes of confinement, surveillance and social control that the philosopher drew on, most influentially in his book Discipline and Punish (1975) which proposes that archaic (and highly visible) forms of punishment such as public torture have been replaced in the modern age by a pernicious system of surveillance and social control that takes place not just in prisons but in schools, hospitals and even on the street. Not only did the art relate very closely to his work, but his books and videos of his lectures were also made available in the exhibition space. The show made use of a lucid, extensive and well-designed exhibition guide and ‘Foucault Reader’ (both free to visitors) to make accessible his complex thoughts on the subject.
Actually, to say it was located in a prison is not entirely accurate. The Galleries of Justice is a museum of crime and punishment, which, oddly, houses the Nottingham Contemporary offices until its gallery, currently under construction just next door, is finished. Within the museum is a former police station, abandoned in 1985, which appears to have been left more or less as it was when it was deserted. (I suspect that this impression has been helped by some careful stage-dressing: police hats sit on the desk, a whiteboard is strewn with coded notes of patrols and detainments, and crime posters promise that ‘Together we’ll crack it’.) It was alongside this evocative institutional detritus and within the network of cells to the rear of the station that curator Alex Farquharson installed ‘The Impossible Prison’.
The 16 artists included in the show fell into three identifiable groups. Vito Acconci, Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman all formed their key ideas at around the same time that Foucault was developing his – the late 1960s and early ’70s – and were represented here by video works that, in the case of Nauman and Acconci, were also made during this period. In each, the viewer is made aware of what Foucault termed the ‘unequal gaze’ of the camera lens, which bears down powerfully on the artists themselves or, in Graham’s video Pavilions (1999), on the visitors behind his semi-mirrored glass structures. These works, such as Nauman’s Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (1967–8), may already be familiar to many viewers, but in this exhibition they were shown under a very particular light. Of course, all these works are about more than just penance, restriction and surveillance, and while some may have found this contextual framing a little indelicate, even reductive, it seemed to me that their meanings were robust enough (or have been made robust enough by critical discourse) to recover from a little curatorial strong-arming.
The same was not, perhaps, so true of the second, younger group of artists, whose work touched more literally on the themes of the exhibition. Indeed a few cases – Artur Zmijewski’s Repetition (his film from 2005 in which he recreated the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which students took on the roles of prisoners and warders in a fake prison, with disturbing consequences), a video of Thomas Hirschhorn’s event 24 Hr Foucault (2004) and Chris Evans’ Rock and Judge, Bristol (2006) – might have been tailor-made for the brief. Other artists, such as Evan Holloway or Tatiana Trouvé, make work that, while understood as metaphorical of power structures (Holloway) or physical or social restraint (Trouvé), does not necessarily benefit from a confined reading. It was easy to forget, however, the exhibition’s context: a publicly funded institution with a remit to draw in a broad local audience; as such, the show’s tight steering of meaning felt not so much pushily didactic as carefully egalitarian.
With this in mind, the third strand of the exhibition seemed quite sensible: a group of activists, researchers and documentarians, some of whom wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves artists at all. These ranged from the photographer Elie Kagan, who in 1972 spent a day with the radical Group d’Information sur les Prisons (Prison Information Group), of which Foucault was a founding member, to Ashley Hunt, an activist and filmmaker whose Corrections Documentary Project (2001–ongoing) investigates the correlation between the privatized US prison system and its escalating population. Perhaps only narrowly falling into this category was Harun Farocki’s devastating I Thought I Was Seeing Convicts (2000), a film that, like ‘The Impossible Prison’, uses edited existing material (in this instance surveillance footage of prison fights) in order to reveal the institutionalized brutality of the penitentiary system.
What does it mean that this exhibition was allowed to take place at all? What conclusions would Foucault have drawn about the willingness of the ‘societies of control’ (Gilles Deleuze’s phrase) to absorb the critique of a government-funded arts institution? He might have pointed out that visitors to the exhibition played the role of the screws, the all-seeing eyes at the centre of the Panopticon, with the art safely confined to the role of the inmates.