A professor, a lawyer, a preacher, a graduate student from Yale Divinity School and a non-profit representative sit on the stage at the front of the room. Two are formerly incarcerated citizens. Accompanied by the audience, four of them watch the fifth intently as he speaks. “Here I am at Yale Divinity School wearing a nice suit with cuff links. However, I still don’t feel like I belong. And that’s happened over years of a process of dehumanization to where I’m no longer George Chochos, I’m 01A012 Convict. And that stays with you internally.”
In his introduction, George Chochos had shared the history of his record, time in jail, and the work he has done since then. He shared his story openly and freely, braving judgment in an effort to subvert stigmas. Many others had done the same throughout the day, and more would before the day was over.
Hosted by Artspace, the Arresting Patterns conference brought artists, policymakers, scholars, and activists to New Haven last weekend to address an urgent question: What is the impact of racial bias and mass incarceration on community and the individual? While welcoming the crowd on Sat., Sept. 12, Helen Kauder, the executive director of Artspace, said, “We are at a moment, in this country, of widespread consciousness raising around the injustices, and the collateral consequences, of an excessively harsh and all-too-often racially biased criminal justice system. Joining forces with Titus Kaphar, an artist of tremendous force and conviction, we hope to move the needle on reforms, and also find new connections amongst us.” Although no consensus or solutions could be reached in two days, the hope was that those who were participating and attending would carry the discussion home with them.
There’s a role to be played by contemporary art in challenging peoples’ perceptions, by making people think. The issue is, not everybody is going to look at it,” Leland Moore, an attorney and the researcher for the project, said at the reception after the conference. “I think this conference, its strength is really to provoke people to be uncomfortable.”
Artspace’s goal is to make people start considering art as a medium for social change. Located in downtown New Haven’s Ninth Square District, Artspace is the city’s leading contemporary arts non-profit. The conference is the culmination of a summer-long project. It began in July with a Summer Apprenticeship Program that hosted 16 New Haven public high school students for three weeks of working with artists Titus Kaphar, Aaron Jafferis, and Dexter Singleton. Their work was shown in an exhibition entitled The Jerome Project, alongside the companion exhibition to the conference, and its namesake, Arresting Patterns.
“I think the art and the activism have to go together. I don’t believe that I can put a painting on the wall and it’s going to change the world,” Kaphar said while introducing the “Family Matters” panel on Sunday. His activism, which began largely with The Jerome Project, led him to become one of the driving forces behind Arresting Patterns as well.
At the conference, Kaphar shared the story of reconnecting with his father. After seeing him for the first time in fifteen years, Kaphar had gone home and googled his father’s name to see what exactly he had been up to. His search produced the records of 99 men, including his father, with exactly the same traditionally African American first name, Jerome, and last name, not disclosed.
In processing his discovery, Kaphar said, “I started writing some of these folks, trying to find out what their narrative was, and see how they were similar or different from my father. I started making paintings of these mugshots, because I didn’t know what else to do. I made these very small, devotional style paintings to folks who I don’t think as a society are very much devoted to.” These paintings grew into a body of work called The Jerome Project, which has been shown around the country and most recently lent its name to the Summer Apprenticeship Program’s show.
Kaphar was only one of many artists who spoke. A different artist provided a creative angle on each panel as an introduction to the upcoming conversation. They all approach the discussion differently, but in their own ways, each echoes Kaphar’s sentiment—activism and art must go hand in hand.
Dread Scott, an artist whose video installation “Stop” was on view at the Arresting Patterns show, opened the conference on Sunday with a rousing speech. “The reason I get up in the morning is I want humanity to get to a radically different and far better era,” he said. His work aims to do so through inciting revolution. Scott represents one end of a spectrum of view represented at the conference: he believes that no basic change to the American criminal justice system can make it work for the better, and that it has to be overthrown.
Maria Gaspar, whose work is also featured in Arresting Patterns, discussed her organization, 96 Acres, which focuses on the impact of the Cooke County Jail 96 acre presence in Chicago’s West Side. “What does it mean to have the largest architecture of one’s community be a jail?” she queried. The organizations projects answer that question, power-washing phrases like “What’s your role?” and “Today is your day” onto the sidewalk, and inviting 100 color-coded cars to create a data visualization of the racial make-up of the jail in a project called Park. Their site-responsive projects bring people together in acts of creation that discuss the neighborhood’s experience as a cohesive whole.
The voices on the panels offered different angles on the history and impact of mass incarceration. Speakers included Glenn E. Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA; Scott Semple, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Correction; Vesla Weaver, professor at Yale and author of Arresting Citizenship; and Sabir Abdussabur, founder and president of Youth Day Projects. The last is perhaps better known for wearing a mask and blasting a boombox while biking through New Haven. Despite the diversity of backgrounds, the general consensus ran that prison system had to change, and the social system that drove it as well.
Clint Smith, a teacher, poet, and doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, performed the keynote address. “Silence is the residue of fear,” he said, “It is feeling your flaws gut-wrench-guillotine your tongue. It is the air, retreating from your chest because it doesn’t feel safe in your lungs.” The beat of his words echoed the urging of others to voice and acknowledge the narratives of those most directly impacted by this system.
At the wine and cheese table at the reception in Artspace after the conference, I asked Helen Kauder how it felt to be finished. “Good. But now everyone’s asking what we all do next, and I’m not sure that anybody has an answer.”