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How I Tried to Turn Prison into a Colorful Experience

An artist's proposal for a painting installation that creates a different perspective from the inside a prison tunnel.

I was asked several years ago to propose a concept for the visitors’ tunnel at a soon-to-be built prison in Duesseldorf. Germany has a budget for public art in or connected to government buildings, which made the project possible. The Justizvollzugsanstalt (prison) was built within the guidelines of humane prisons in Europe. It is a so-called model institution because the building itself was not designed by an outside architecture firm, but rather by a team of people with experience in prison life and routines.

As a visual artist, my task was to come up with an idea to turn the tunnel—more than 40 meters long—into something other than a depressing walking experience. Family, relatives, lawyers, social workers, parole officers, priests and police all had to use the tunnel to reach the visitors’ area located in another building inside the prison compound. Access to the tunnel requires a security funnel, more intense than any pre-flight security.

Thinking about the ideal role of prisons in our society, they have to provide protection from the people that failed it. So that means keeping people/criminal human beings away from everybody else in a safe but also humane way. If it’s a prison with rehabilitation in mind, it should also provide help and support for inmates while they prepare to leave prison and enter outside life again.

So I proposed a concept for a painting installation that creates a perspective inside the visitors’ tunnel on the way into, but also on the way out of prison. This would be achieved by the installation of two bundles of colorful stripes, which would change width and color constantly throughout the length of the tunnel.

The proposal was accepted and I was able to paint on site, with my adult son Julius as my assistant. While we were working on the painting, the prison construction entered its last stage, and the final parts of the double wall/fence were erected and closed while we were working. While of course not the same, this gave us an idea of what it might feel like to be locked in. We also toured the rest of the facility, including the high security cells and the observation cells. These cells provide a space for an inmate that is at high risk for self abuse and/or to calm inmates that have breakdowns while imprisoned; a totally empty concrete room with nothing inside but a bed-like dent in the concrete floor with magnet hand cuffs. On the ceiling are large windows so the staff can easily observe the person. Work and sport facilities were a little more cheerful to visit. Library and regulated internet access were available as well. Some of the construction workers called the site “LUXUS KNAST”, meaning “luxury slammer”. Even still, with high fences and limited ability to move, it's not comforting.

The two bundles of stripes I painted in the tunnel created a two way perspective. While entering, one walks on colored epoxy resin. As you continue into the tunnel, the stripes jump up the walls and grow in width. They all keep changing colors, sometimes suddenly, sometimes subtly through the course of the 40+ meters. On the floor, color blobs and other proof of the painting process remain. This evidence of the process—obviously done by the human hand—creates a connection back to human life. The constant change experienced by walking the tunnel both ways from door to door with open eyes can be read as an image of life itself. Transformation and constant change are all that we can rely on.

A common experience when working on sites like this is skepticism about what art brings to the project. Often there is a hidden or even outspoken suspicion that money is being wasted. Working on-site, it feels like one has to earn respect and overcome the existing preoccupations against art and artists. The decision about whether art will be added to the project is made elsewhere in an abstract environment. But after finishing the tunnel project, I could feel the mood change. People working in the prison started to accept it as an addition that made sense in that context.

Visiting a prison can be a dreadful experience and not walking through an ominous concrete piece of architecture makes a real difference. I had a long phone call with the prison director after finishing the work and the prison had been operating for almost a year. They were amazed about all the printed and online feedback that the work had received. Mostly he was happy about the difference the color made for everybody experiencing it.

Even if a first-time visitor is too distracted to grasp the whole concept, the surprise of being surrounded by all that bright color must have an uplifting physical impact. The tunnel painting has become a distinguishing part of the prison.

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