On October 25th, 2015, a standard van pulls up to the front entrance of the Manhattan Detention Complex, a municipal jail in New York with a history of unconstitutional treatment of its some 900 inmates. Known colloquially as “The Tombs”, its Egyptian Revival architecture serves as an ominous figure among New York’s skyline.
The van abruptly stops, and out of the back comes a man in a standard-issue orange jumpsuit and handcuffs. He is caged in a mock prison cell, and holds a small piece of paper that states, “Hello my name is Lech Szporer. This is an art performance. Nothing against you but the system needs to change. I’m not talking without my attorney”.
The cell is placed in the middle of the street, obstructing busy traffic and causing a general nuisance for oncoming cars. A crowd gathers, not knowing what exactly is happening but eager to point fingers and talk. It only takes a few minutes for the police to arrive. After some discussion amongst themselves, they shuffle the makeshift cell to the sidewalk and wait. A metal cutter is passed around, and a cop begins to cut into the bars. The man is soon “freed” from his cell and placed into custody. The whole event is cleared away, which leaves bystanders halfheartedly clapping for a cause no one is quite sure of its contents. The street soon returns to normal, with no trace of what transpired remaining.
Lech Szporer is an interdisciplinary artist, musician, and organizer. His Polish grandfather was forced to work in a gulag, and his grandmother was sent to a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Prior to this art spectacle, Szporer has participated in protests and related art exhibits which resulted in multiple apprehensions, interrogations, and arrests.
His most recent work, appropriately titled “The Cage Project” has placed him directly under the nose of his most passionate issue: mass incarcerations. Szporer sees major problems plaguing the US judicial system, including mismanagement of mental issues, institutionalized poverty, classism, and a racial caste system. In an interview with Vice.com, he raises questions about coercive punishment vs rehabilitation, prisoner’s rights, and the evolving modernity of a punitive criminal system. He sees prisons as little more than human warehouses that store people society deems unsuited to be allowed in the normal world. His influences from his family’s history in war torn Europe guides the motives behind his artwork.
A main motivator of Szporer’s work is what he considers the warped ethics of the judicial system. As a whole, our criminal process seeks to put blame on others rather than fix the problem. We want to appear to come out strong against criminal activity. In doing so, we focus on the punitive and coercive side of justice rather than the rehabilitation and reintroduction into society.
While his cause is noble and certainly something I agree with, his method for trying to bring light to it was rudimentary at best. A successful project that sheds light on a particular aspect of society usually has some shock or discomfort value to it. His placement of the cell in the middle of an intersection only provided an annoyance factor to the table. A crowd did gather, but most were unsure of the purpose of the exhibit. There was an obvious connotation between the mock cell and the Manhattan Detention Complex, but there were no specifics about what exactly Szporer was bringing attention to until after the exhibition was cleaned up.
In order to add shock and discomfort to random passerbys, the picture painted should be graphic in nature. A nondescript white man of normal health does not exactly portray the issues he wanted to bring up: mental issues, racial classism, and institutionalized poverty. Even the way the police treated him went against his intended purpose. The cops who eventually released him from a self-imposed imprisonment were courteous as they broke his cell. No use of threats or weapons can be seen and Szporer cooperatively walked away from the ordeal unscathed. Aside from a booking at the nearest precinct, no harm became of him. Jail time was probably not even in the picture for him. In order to portray Szporer’s actual points, the ideal exhibition would have featured a mentally unstable (or at least an actor playing the role) wrongfully or unjustly imprisoned and treated inhumanely. Someone could also be representing the disproportionate amount of minorities imprisoned, showing the institutionalized classism present in the judicial system.
What could have resulted in a harrowing and gritty representation of the judicial system as a whole fizzled in the end as spectators could not distinguish the artist’s desires from his art.