Arts-generated knowledge can slide within the spaces of current rational logic to investigate areas of Othering[i] that Cartesian logic systems exclude. This paper examines my own arts practice that makes the lived experience of prison visible through practice-led research that explores issues of power and gender.
Research that records custodial sentences usually takes the form of data or interviews framed within academic parameters. These frameworks sustain a narrow and restrictive form of knowledge creation that excludes the subjects, who exist as Othered persons in society.[ii]
Even in the most humanistic study, the very statistical modeling that validates it within academia eradicates our visibility as subjects and continues to validate the penal gaze of the panopticon. Women are even less visible. The experience of criminality permanently incorporates us within a process of social erasure and dismissal. We become victims of a pervasive carceral logic that extends beyond the perimeter of the prison itself.
Prison becomes an extension of state and social apparatuses that have inscribed otherness and trauma upon our bodies. As female offenders, we are statistically drawn from histories of abuse, neglect, physical deprivation and mental and drug abuse issues.
Since my release I have felt the constant sense that another’s hands were on my body. I felt (I feel) surveilled, vulnerable, abused. The thread of the penal gaze has been effectively internalized in my subjective self, as Michel Foucault[iii] and Jeremy Bentham[iv] theorised.
I make prints that express the felt claustrophobia of custodies enterprises. The saturated blacks of the linocut medium allow me to articulate the dark recesses of the felt space of mental incarceration (Figure 1) and visualise the haptic sense of the state’s apparatus on my body. I have come to understand that this haptic knowledge is a reflection of an ongoing process of Othering. Custody has merely amplified it.
Figure 1: Carolyn Craig, Dante’s Descent 2013 etchings and Linocuts, 3 panels, each 195 x 105 cm.
A survey of current theorists such as Eileen Bowdry[v] provides an affirmation from researchers that ‘imprisonment comprises a discrete component of the structural social controls and inequalities experienced by imprisoned populations within the free community‘.[vi]
Prison accentuates the coercive systems that pervasively act upon the female body. Its systems and schemes are microcosms of the systems and schemes in broader society.
Prison articulates these regimes of control in their true brutality (and banality). This brutality does not always manifest as violence. Consider the erasure of subjective presence, and the permanent inscription of Otherness. Carceral regimes deny the integrity of the body, obfuscate basic physical needs and silence spirit and desire. The structural Othering, integral to its functioning, often mimics the abuse many of us suffered in our childhoods and domestic relationships, and corners us into regimented behaviours of inertia and dependence.
In my art practice I examine this panoptic gaze and attempt to reclaim control of my subjectivity through a daily ritual of self-portraiture. This daily drawing process mimics the counting of days in custody but attempts to subvert that same archiving of my flesh by erasing the inscriptive carceral processes and re-inscribing new subjective parameters with each mark and gestural act of the charcoal. The initial series of this work lasted two years and was drawn over sheets of the daily edition of the Australian Newspaper (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Carolyn Craig, Surveillance Drawings 2013, newspaper, charcoal, dimensions variable.
The newsprint represents the daily indexical nature of custody and the scarcity of materials available. It also reflects the normalizing gaze of mainstream media. The act and ritual of drawing is an attempt to sever the armature of the state from unfettered authorship over me.
Consideration of the gaze led me to research ideas of objectification theory. Objectification theory considers the female body as the observed body of the male gaze. When considering the nature of society as inherently patriarchal, the male gaze is not restricted to the biological watchfulness of a male but is in fact an instrumental feature of the coercive scaffolding of society.
Pivotal to my understanding of objectification is the article That Swimsuit Becomes You: Sex Difference in Self-Objectification, Restraint Eating and Math Performance.[vii] This study evaluated female gendered subjects’ performance whilst undertaking a series of mathematics questions—one whilst clothed, and then again whilst in swimwear. The female subjects performed consistently lower whilst wearing bathers. The male subjects expressed no negative bodily feedback as of result of wearing a swimsuit and did not record lower results. This indicates a socially inscribed discomfort in our own bodies.
This pervasive gaze led me to consider constructing defensive attire against the machinery of the state apparatus that would create a habitus free from invasive hands and desires.
I designed a shift dress shape that would recall the derogative institutional attire of hospitals, prisons and the home, but constructed it with metal to symbolize defensive armature (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Carolyn Craig, Your Hands On Me 2013, etched aluminum, paper, wax, thread, hand riveted, dimensions variable
I inscribed it (using etching techniques) with images of the invasive hands that I felt, and the words used to define, confine and Other my actions and subjective self.
I added text pieces onto mirrors that would sit under these suspended armour pieces (Figure 4). These mirrors look up the skirts of the gendered female in homage to a wing ramp. During this ramp mirrors were placed under us as we were ordered to squat in order that officers could inspect our vaginas for contraband.
Figure 4: Carolyn Craig, Your Hands on Me (mirror element) 2013, Mirror, screen-printed text, 60 x 60cm
I have never reconciled or forgotten that absurd and degrading moment. It served little purpose in finding contraband, but was a powerful instrument of coercion and an active reminder of the dominant visual gaze used as a mechanism of control by the state.
Earlier this year I started to investigate the judicial gaze, which I define as the full instrumentality of governance and legalistic devices sustained by the state and other institutions and validated by individuals who endorse its entrenched stereotypes and privileges. These stereotypes constrain our narratives into silhouettes of moral decay, where the binaries of good and evil, black and white, privileged and lazy justify the judicial gaze of judgment.
Within the Christian moral framework of our legal systems the female offender is still associated with sinfulness. Male offenders are often associated with the ‘naughty boy’ phrase whilst female offenders are labeled as the ‘deviant woman ‘ or ‘filthy girl’. It is within these linguistically entrenched metaphors that we are perceived as betraying the gender roles our patriarchal society projects upon us. We are forever cast as fallen women.
Artistic research around this idea has led me to use the metonymic device of the book to consider the rules and regulations that coercively dominate and judge as Tomes of Authority. This judicial gaze extends to our everyday performance of self, an idea I explore in a series of etchings that examines the definitions of normalcy that exclude and sustain privileging regimes (Figure 5). In these, I query the socially constructed systems of language and body comportment that regulate our everyday selves. The broader examination of the body in society expresses the underlying coercive frameworks to which gendered females are subject. As a female offender, forms of social ostracism are amplified as we are subjected to constant exclusion and Othering post-release in employment, housing, education and ongoing surveillance.
Figure 5: Carolyn Craig, Posture 1: Woman as Deviant 2104, photopolymer etching, 20 x 12cm
This Othering circulates over the female body and becomes a continuation and accentuation of the broader gender prejudices in society that treat the female body as an object. When in custody, our bodies truly became an object — warehoused by the state and subjected to psychological programming, social engineering and audited as bodies without inhabitants. Our bodies become an indexical trace without authorship.
Prison represents the dirty void that society endorses for the discarded bodies of those deemed unfit for the privileges of defined normalcy. As such, those of us that understand its mechanisms and trauma should make visible our narratives of truth.
[i] Homi Bhaba, ‘The Other Question: Difference, Discrimination and the Disourse of Colonialism.’ In Out There: Marginalisation and Contemporary Cultures (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1990),71-89
[ii] Janet Davidson, Female Offenders and Risk Assessment:Hidden in Plain Sight (El Paso, Texas, USA, LFB Scholarly Publishing 2009)
[iii] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. (New York; Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1979)
[iv] Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon or the Inspection House. (London: T Payne. 1791)
[vi] Eileen Baldry, ‘Prisons, Institutions and Patriarchy’ in Australian and New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference Proceedings ( Monash University, Melbourne 2009) 18-30.
[vii] Bree Carlton and Marie Segrave 2011 ‘Women’s Survival Post-Imprisonment :Connecting Imprisonment with Pains Past and Present’, Punishment and Society 13(5): 551-570. Sage Publications accessed March 2014 doi 10.1177/1462474511422174
[viii] Barbara Fredrickson et al 1998 ‘ That Swimsuit that Becomes You:Sex Differences in Self-Objectification , Restrained Eating, and Math Performance’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75 , Vol 1(American Psychological Assoiciation, Washington, USA, 1998) 269-284.
Carolyn Craig works as a fulltime artist and educator and is a current postgraduate student and staff member at the Queensland College of Art, Brisbane....